Once a Seabee,
always a Seabee
Hollis Johnson pushed through
racial barriers as he became part
of U.S. military history
My second duty station with the U.S. Navy Seabees, back in 1961, was on Okinawa. At the construction job site where we worked we had what was called a lister bag, which contained water for us to drink when the water wagon was elsewhere or being filled. The lister bag had a cup attached. One time I walked over to use the cup, but before I could pick it up the chief petty officer came over and said, "Hang on, son, hang on."
" I have come to believe that an intense goal-oriented environment like that of the Seabees is one of the most effective antidotes to racism over the long term." --Hollis Johnson, One of the first black U.S. Navy Seabees
Then he called out, "Anybody want to use the cup?"
My buddies came over. "Yeah, chief, I'll use it," one replied. "Wait for me, chief," said another. And so on, one after another.
Only after they all used the cup did I get to take a drink. This was all done in a low-key, almost friendly way, as if it were the most normal thing in the world that the only black person in the crew was a second-class citizen.
Whatever happened to that cup, I don't know. I wonder if they buried it.
That's what it was like to be an African American in the Navy during those years. President Harry S. Truman had integrated the armed forces back in 1948, but attitudes were slow to change. I believe I may have been the first African-American Seabee; if not the first, I was certainly among the first, and I bore the brunt of the discriminatory attitudes that were ubiquitous in the armed forces of the United States in those years.
But I also was privileged to witness and be part of the momentous historic changes that transformed the U.S. Navy into a fighting force that is truly American, harnessing the energies, skills and patriotism of all her citizens regardless of their race.
It helped that I am an outgoing person. I like people, and my parents taught me not to be prejudiced. It also helped that I came to love being a Seabee, a member of the elite Navy Construction Battalions -- abbreviated to CBs, and thus Seabees. The Seabees were formed during the early years of World War II as support units for amphibious landings, and their achievements during that war are the stuff of Navy lore. Being able to say I was a Seabee for 23 years is one of the great satisfactions of my life. Moreover, I have come to believe that an intense goal-oriented environment like that of the Seabees is one of the most effective antidotes to racism over the long term. On the job, your skills are needed, your expertise is valued, your manual labor is as critical as the next guy's. Prejudice is more likely to take a back seat.
Nevertheless, my journey through this rewarding career was not easy. I never experienced the level of overt racist violence depicted in the movie "Men of Honor," about the life of the first black sailor to qualify as a Navy diver but I did encounter, daily and for years, the small acts of prejudice that can be just as defeating -- eating alone, finding racial slurs scribbled on my locker, being limited to menial tasks. I served on Midway island, in Okinawa and at Subic Bay in the Philippines. Eventually I was instructing others and supervising, but the negative attitudes among my white peers and seniors, coupled with the feeling that nothing was being done about it, wore me down.
Most critically, there was no upward mobility. I had risen to second-class petty officer, but I seldom saw a black at the first-class rank, and I never saw a black chief. In September 1963, I got out of the Navy.
Back in Philadelphia, I learned something: It was worse in the civilian world. Discrimination was common in the construction trades and there was no recourse. Moreover, I missed the teamwork of the Seabees. I missed the synergy of solving problems together.
In 1968, I re-enlisted. The Vietnam War was at its peak and, sure enough, I deployed to Vietnam in May 1969. Being back with the construction Seabees was greatly satisfying. Seabees accomplished astounding feats in Vietnam, as in World War II. In addition to the military infrastructure, Seabees built and repaired schools, dug water wells, provided medical supplies and treatment, built living quarters and provided food for the many needy civilians in war-torn villages.
I was the "water king" in Camp Adenir, a 32-acre Seabee base next to Danang Naval Hospital, a stone's throw from the Danang River. My crew of Seabees heated, processed, purified and pumped all the water and steam for the camp's galley, laundry and hooches. I had made E-5 and had seven guys under me. At any given time maybe two of those guys were black.
Racial tension in the ranks of the American foot soldier, often breaking into violence, was common during the Vietnam conflict. Anyone who wasn't there would be amazed at the extent of the racial strife that threatened military discipline and integrity. It all reflected what was happening back in the States. We had white people from the Deep South, urban blacks from the North and everything in between. Trying to get a group of people to get along and work together was tough. Certain people routinely called each other "nigger," "peckerwood," that kind of stuff. I had one black sailor lock and load an M-16 on a white guy in the galley. An ensign in our camp, renowned for being a bigot ("I don't want any niggers on this job," he would say. "Chief, you got any niggers? Leave 'em behind."), was the victim of a fragging incident -- a fragmentation grenade was thrown into his tent one night. He was only slightly injured, hurting his arm and losing his confrontational attitude in that incident.
We Seabees had our share of racial incidents, and as crew leader I had to deal with them to keep the camp functioning. Whenever issues came up, I would sit the parties down and talk. Often we did this at night, off duty, sometimes over a beer in the club. Long before the Navy made it official, I was holding sensitivity programs in Vietnam. I learned a lot about how to treat people, and about how people's feelings and perceptions affect their behavior. It got me into the challenge of race relations in a positive way.
In 1970, President Nixon appointed the late Admiral Elmo Zumwalt Chief of Naval Operations, the top-ranking position in the Navy. One of Zumwalt's goals was to encourage recruitment and retention by making Navy service more desirable and more equitable for the average sailor. His policies addressed general living and working conditions, but most memorable to me are his attempts to blunt the irritants that made Navy life difficult for blacks. For instance, it was hard for us to find barbers who knew how to cut our hair. Under Zumwalt, every base and station was required to employ one. We couldn't readily obtain grooming aids, hair-care products, reading materials, foods and many other items geared toward blacks. Thanks to Zumwalt, commissaries and ships' stores had to carry them. There was no grievance procedure specifically for discrimination complaints. Zumwalt mandated a collateral position on every base, station and ship to handle those cases (initially the Minority Affairs Assistant, later the Equal Opportunity Advisor, a position I later held at Guantanamo Bay).
You might call these changes cosmetic, and even today Zumwalt has his critics. But the reforms meant a lot to those of us they affected. The racial climate in the Navy improved dramatically -- although slowly -- in their wake, as I passed through duty stations around the world, including Taiwan; Brooklyn; Holy Loch, Scotland; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
By the early 1980s, thanks to the ongoing commitment to equal opportunity, one-third of the Seabees were black, an astounding level of improvement over just two decades. Subsequently I volunteered for duty with a program that sent senior minority personnel to join recruiting tours to high schools.
There was a lot of negativity to overcome. The American divisiveness about the Vietnam War was a contributor to the skepticism of young people, especially minorities. High school kids would ask me, "If the United States were to be involved in another war, are they going to send just black people out to fight it?" They were serious. They didn't know how ridiculous that sounded to me.
Gang influences and peer pressure were other barriers. Some kids would shy away from the presentation, then approach me privately because they didn't want their friends seeing they were interested. They'd ask me, if they went to the recruiter, could the recruiter keep a secret? They wanted to walk away from the neighborhood, but they weren't sure they had the power to do that.
When I think about the environment some of these kids face, I become passionate about what the military can offer them. I like to believe I helped a few of those kids make the decision to join the renowned ranks of the Seabees.
Looking back as a civilian, it's clear that the minority demographic -- including women as well as African Americans and other minorities -- in the military has come a long way. From what I understand from veteran Seabee acquaintances, the Seabees have an excellent representation in this positive trend. It was a privilege to be part of that.
Today I read about Seabees' role in the war in Iraq. They have built temporary camps with hot showers and fully equipped galleys, dismantled the sand berms on the Kuwaiti border, built and repaved roads for the push north, repaired bridges, erected POW camps and even built an airfield or two. I recognize with pride the "can do" spirit the new generation possesses, just as I did and my predecessors did. I recall we Seabees in Vietnam with pride as well, regardless of how troubled that chapter was in American history.
For me, it's clear: Once a Seabee, always a Seabee.
Hollis E. Johnson grew up in Chester, Penn., and served in the U.S. Navy Seabees from 1959-63 and 1968-87, rising to E-8 and subsequently serving in the naval reserves. His civilian career is in facility engineering; he is now chief engineer for PM Realty at City Financial Tower in Honolulu.