Being confined mostly to a motorized wheelchair has not stopped former U.S. Navy Seabee David Spears from giving back to the battalion in which he once proudly served nearly five decades ago, or remaining active in everyday life.
Spears was seen out on a lawnmower cutting the grass around the Seabees Museum and Memorial Park in Davisville May 24, keeping the area properly trimmed and in solid condition for when members of the public visit. The week prior, he helped fellow Seabees prepare a new helipad on the property, on which a new museum artifact will be placed in the near future.
Spears had been involved in extremely tense situations in his two tours of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s with the Seabees and fully understands challenging battles. He saw them frequently during his time in the military overseas, along with helping construct military bases with his battalion.
However, the now retired Seabee, currently fighting two other serious ailments, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – known commonly as Lou Gehrig’s disease – in 2014. The news devastated the normally strong Spears, and his wife.
“I was a wreck for three weeks,” he said in an interview May 24.
The disease has slowly started to impact Spears’ walking ability, and he must hold onto a wall or other means of support in order to maintain his balance while upright. But after that three-week period coming to grips with his new reality, Spears turned his mind, and his faith, to a higher power. That, he said, allowed him the strength to go about his daily routine and not let the disease defeat him both physically and mentally.
Spears dons customized leg braces, with the American flag emblazoned on them, that he received just before Christmas to help him stand. He is driven to remain part of the Seabees, as he was on the first day he enlisted to serve in the 1960s.
“I’ve always done things here when I could walk and everything,” he said. “I’m pretty strong up above [the waist] right now. But I’m getting along and hanging on.”
Spears’ spirit to keep moving, and his devotion to the Seabees Museum, offers a small glimpse into what the Seabees are and how much their “Can Do” spirit remains strong in Davisville, 75 years after the battalion was formed there.
In the early 1940s, the Navy’s use of civilian labor to construct military bases became impractical and dangerous due to rapid advancements by the Imperial Japanese Army. Plus, civilians lacked manpower and military training, creating a potentially deadly situation if they were captured by enemy forces. International law also prohibits civilians from bearing arms.
But with the Navy gearing up to build and supply a powerful battle fleet by providing it with many overseas shore facilities to increase its cruising range, there was a significant need for a naval construction force.
Rear Adm. Ben Moreell, then chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks, requested authority on Dec. 28, 1941, to recruit Naval Construction Battalions, according to data provided by Seabees Museum curator Jack F. Sprengel – the last Seabee who served at Davisville. Moreell received the authority Jan. 5, 1942, and the original battalions were created at the new Navy base in Davisville. Two weeks later, the 296 men of the First Construction Detachment were deployed from Davisville and arrived at Bora Bora a month later.
In early March 1942, the Construction Battalions were given the official “Seabees” name, derived from the initials “CB.” From there, the Navy recruited skilled craftsmen, such as carpenters, plumbers and electricians, among others, to increase the Seabees’ force, which engaged in both construction and combat. Morrell gave them a motto – “Construmus Batumius,” or “We Build, We Fight,” according to the Seabee Museum website.
The Seabees became an integral part of the Navy in combat operations over multiple conflicts, from World War II to Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. They built many bases around the world, including innovative Quonset huts and American bases in Antarctica.
Don Reingardt said he joined the Navy in 1947 and served for 20 years. He had some brief stints with the Seabees along the way, serving as a mechanic fixing an array of military equipment.
“Cranes, bulldozers, trucks,” he said, listing the equipment he worked on at the time. “I went to Vietnam twice and ran the heavy equipment shop both times.”
Frederick Allison said he joined the Seabees in 1962 in Davisville and moved on to California. He had tours in Alaska and two stops in Antarctica during his time in the military.
“I went down there [to Antarctica] because I knew it would be different and tried to get more experience working on heavy equipment,” he said. “I’d figure I would see stuff down there that they wouldn’t see any other place. It was very interesting.”
Former Seabee Board President Richard Caito first became interested in joining the Seabees at 12 years old. His next-door neighbor served with the Seabees at the time and was stationed in Okinawa. The neighbor, he said, wrote his mother at home letters detailing his experiences, which she read to a young Caito at the time.
Listening to those stories shaped Caito’s military future.
“When I grow up, I want to be a Seabee,” he recalled saying. He enlisted in 1951, when he was 18, and served during the Korean War as a dynamiter.
During his stint with the Seabees, Caito, who was overseas for 42 months, recalled helping make an airfield in Subic Bay in the Philippines, which subsequently became the U.S. Naval Air Station. As a dynamiter, he had to blast old Japanese military equipment out of the way in order to clear space for the new airfield.
“Anything that had to be blasted, that was my job,” said Caito, who also worked in a quarry along the bay blasting stones to help with the construction.
Spears said his battalion helped build 8,000 structures in Hoy Yen, Vietnam. Later on, his battalion constructed bunkers along the Mekong Delta to prevent the Viet Cong from attacking the area.
But the Agent Orange used by the military to clear the foliage from the area had severe long-term health consequences, which Spears subsequently experienced. He ended up being diagnosed with a pituitary tumor and prostate cancer as a result.
Spears was not the only Vietnam veteran impacted by Agent Orange. Retired Seabee Jack Swenson, who first joined in 1963 as a student at Warwick Veterans Memorial High School, said he received 100 percent disability from the Veterans Administration because he was sprayed with Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam.
Swenson said the military used the chemical to kill off vegetation within a day’s time so the enemy would not have a place to hide.
“The enemy used to hide in the jungle,” he said.
However, nobody asked Swenson or other Seabees a pivotal question – what was Agent Orange doing to them? After nearly four decades of research, the military acknowledged in 2003 that Agent Orange did have harmful effects on former soldiers.
Swenson said he developed Type 2 diabetes 10 years after the Vietnam War. His disease was later determined to have been caused from his exposure to Agent Orange. He also subsequently experienced other health complications – lost toes, a heart attack and poorly functioning kidneys – due to Agent Orange.
While the Seabees were not always on the front lines, combat situations did come up. The soldiers there experienced extremes.
Spears recalled one tour in Vietnam in 1967 in which his group was under fire “almost every night,” with rockets and mortars sounding off all around the area.
“It was pretty rough,” he said.
On the other side of the spectrum, Swenson recalled instances of being caught off guard during his time in Vietnam because there were extended periods during which “nothing went on.”
The now former Navy base at Quonset has undergone significant changes since the government decommissioned it nearly a quarter century ago. With the exception of the Rhode Island Air National Guard still calling Quonset home and General Dynamics Electric Boat manufacturing submarines, all of the military activity has been replaced by many manufacturing companies and a prominent automobile port, among other businesses, within Quonset Business Park.
“It was a big change,” Caito said. “When the Seabee base closed at Quonset Point, everyone thought Quonset was done. But it’s now a thriving municipality.”
But business park officials and the Seabees made sure the group, and its importance, were never forgotten. In 1998, Seabee veterans signed a lease agreement with the state Port Authority for a parcel of land near Post Road to help establish the Seabees Museum and Memorial Park. The famed Seabee logo statue – the bee holding a machine gun and an array of tools while flying through the air, built in 1971 – was moved to the leased land, where it stands alongside the “Can Do” bulldozer plow.
Then, in 2011, Seabees and volunteers began many weeks and months of raising funds and coming up with plans for a museum building. Five years and $150,000 later, along with many hours overseeing its construction, the 60-by-120-foot Seabee Museum building – naturally, a Quonset hut – was dedicated alongside seven smaller, older Quonset huts to house military paraphernalia.
Uniforms, gear, weapons, patches, flags, a written history of the former Naval base, blueprints of Quonset hut designs, a 2.5-ton cargo truck used by troops for supply and ammunition during World War II, a 1944 gas-operated Caterpillar R4 bulldozer and plaques bearing the names of former Seabees are all on display inside the grand hut.
“[Visitors] are amazed,” Caito said, adding that the Seabees offer tours of the memorial park.
Additionally, history classes from North Kingstown High School visit the museum, with the students having “terrific” reactions to the memorabilia and history, Caito said. He was also impressed with some students’ military knowledge – in once instance, even briefly stumping the Seabee.
“I was mentioning all of the islands the Marines and Seabees would invade, and I can’t believe I forgot Okinawa,” he said. “The kid put his hand up and said, ‘What about Okinawa?’ But they are so great.”
The Seabees will also be getting another military artifact to display – a helicopter from the now closed Quonset Air Museum near Quonset State Airport. Volunteers are currently constructing a helipad for the helicopter at the memorial park. Plus, Quonset Development Corp. will provide funds to replace the roof on the Chapel in the Pines, first built between 1960-63, to make the chapel useful again.
Even Seabees can be amazed gazing upon military items from yesteryear. While a group of Seabees chatted inside Quonset Hut No. 1 May 18, a young man donning a fatigue jacket walked into the hut bearing gifts.
Jacinto “Jay” Perez, an artist from Brooklyn, New York – accompanied by former Providence Journal reporter Martha Smith inside the hut May 18 – regularly bids on unopen trunks at various auctions, interested in the surprise treasures contained in the elaborate boxes. After acquiring a trunk at a recent auction, Perez found numerous fabric creations bearing military emblems and symbols, as well as hand-stitched poems servicemen bought as souvenirs while on duty to send home to their loved ones.
The fabrics caught Perez’s eye and were close to his heart. Three of his uncles and two first cousins served their country in the military. One of his uncles, Henry C. Jordan, died in Vietnam and was awarded both the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Messages paying homage to the U.S. Marine Corps and a flying school, and a long runner showing the bird of paradise plant under colorful tropical artwork, were among the fabrics Perez and Smith brought to the Seabees May 18.
One fabric Perez unveiled, though, really caught the Seabees’ attention. The young artist presented a square purple fabric trimmed with rope yarn that had the words “U.S. Navy Seabees” etched around the Seabee insignia – designed by former Seabee Frank J. Iafrate – in the middle.
Smith recalled taking one quick look at the fabrics and immediately knowing where they should go.
“This [Seabees Museum] was my first thought,” she said, with the former Seabees responding with applause and “wows.”
“Not all treasures are shiny or silver or weigh a lot,” Perez said. “We were fortunate enough to retrieve this in the condition it’s in.”
Perez then formally donated the fabrics to the Seabees Museum in honor of David Payne Sr., the former Quonset Air Museum president and Seabees Museum Board of Directors member who died March 6, giving the memorabilia back to a place it “can be appreciated.”
Earlier this year, the Seabees were honored at the Statehouse. State Rep. Julie Casimiro (D-Dist. 31, North Kingstown, Exeter) submitted a resolution recognizing the Seabees’ 75th anniversary and lauding them for serving the nation “with valor during times of peace and war.”
While many Seabee veterans are advanced in age and feeling ill effects from their time on the battlefield, they all look back at their time in the military, wearing the Seabees’ logo on their uniforms, with fondness.
Caito, now 85, breathes through an oxygen tank because his lungs were compromised during his military tenure. He is still proud to have served with the Seabees, and of the fact the Seabees remain active in Mississippi and California.
Reingardt said he misses being part of the Seabees, 50 years after his last year with the military. He misses it so much, he wishes he could re-enlist.
“I told my wife if they want me to go to Afghanistan or Iraq, I’m going,” he said. “I loved it. We met a lot of people. I had a good crew and had a lot of good people.”
Swenson said he considers himself “blessed” for “getting a lot of good breaks along the way.” Swenson raised a son and had a 30-year career with Pepsi until 2011, and was financially cared for by the military.
“I go to church every Sunday and I thank God for all the blessings and I consider myself lucky,” he said. “Sometimes I get emotional about things, but I wouldn’t change a thing.”