CDR Bill Ragsdale, USNR (Ret.)-’45:
93rd and 56th Seabees

Northwestern NROTC Unit alumni
Alumni Adventures and Anecdotes

Excerpts from his autobiography: 


At the beginning of the regular school year in September 1942, I registered for the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC).  I passed all of the written and physical exams, except for color blindness. I was told that color blindness was incurable and that I was just out of luck in getting into the Naval ROTC. The officials did say, however, that I could come back and take the test any time, if I thought I could pass it. So I found an eye doctor who thought he could help. After about six weeks of looking into a little box with flashing colored lights, he said I was ready to go back and take the color blindness test again. I did and passed!

The officers at the Naval ROTC were confounded, but kept their word and started the enlistment process. I actually enlisted as an Apprentice Seaman on November 30, 1942, five days after my 18th birthday.

The Navy hoped to make sailors out of us college kids, so we spent a few weeks each year aboard the USS Wilmette, a training ship, learning all about ships, on Lake Michigan.

A few months before graduation and commissioning (late in 1944), we were asked to state our preferences for duty assignments. My first choice was Patrol Torpedo (PT) Boats. My second choice was Diesel Engineering School. One of my best friends, Marbry Norton, and I had seen the movie "The Fighting Seabees" with John Wayne.

I was to be commissioned in the Civil Engineer Corps and to report to the Naval Construction Battalion Center (CampEndicott) at Davisville, Rhode Island. I was the only one in our Navy graduating class to be commissioned in any thing but the Line Navy or Marines.

My orders were to report to the Civil Engineer Corps Officers School (CECOS) at Camp Endicott, Davisville, Rhode Island. I received accelerated naval construction engineering and management training at the CECOS and combat training from a Marine Detachment in Sun Valley. Remember the Seabees' motto, "We Build, We Fight."

I learned a little more about life on the way to the west coast. I had been made Troop Train Commander, so I had to look after the welfare of all personnel on board, as well as the discipline. While talking with some of the men, I was leaning against one of the five-high bunks. I felt something move in the bunk - it was the middle of the day and everyone was supposed to be up. So I pulled back the covers to find a lovely young lady, naked. Oops! Later I found a few more. It seems these ladies made a business of riding the troop trains. Much to the disdain of the troops, I was obliged to remove these extra passengers at the next stop, about twelve hours later.

The rest of the trip to California was uneventful, even dull. At Camp Parks we reorganized into a Construction Battalion (Seabees) and bused to Treasure Island in San Francisco bay (I never got near a Patrol Boat). We loaded on board an AP (troop carrier) and headed for Pearl Harbor. This was in May 1945. The war was not quite over.

We arrived at Pearl Harbor safely and learned that our battalion had been formed only for the purpose of getting the troops to Pearl Harbor where everyone was split up and told to wait for further orders. During the eleven days I waited for orders I stayed on Mona Loa Ridge and enjoyed going over Pali Pass and swimming with the Portuguese Men-o-War at Kailua Beach on the north side of Oahu.

Finally my orders came through, sending me to Manila, Philippine Islands, "for further orders." The Navy happened to have a PB4Y Coronado amphibious plane going that way, so I got on board. There were no seats, you just had to find some comfortable cargo to snuggle into. Except for a walk on the dock at a fuel stop on Saipan, I had been on that plane for 42 hours when we landed at Cavite Point in Manila Bay. When we got ashore a local officer came out to advise us that our plane was not supposed to have been flown because it had far exceeded its usable life and had to be "surveyed." Glad we didn't know that before we left Pearl Harbor!

I was getting into the war a bit late for the hostilities, but as I was to learn later, the Japanese soldiers back in the mountains and jungles didn't get the word, and they kept on fighting.

93rd Seabees

After a few days wandering around the ruins of Manila and literally bumping into General Douglas McArthur in the corner of the Manila Hotel grounds, his headquarters, my "further orders" came through. I was assigned to the 93rd Naval Construction Battalion which was located near Guiuan, Samar, Philippine Islands.

At last, my first real active duty assignment! In the 93rd Seabees, I served briefly as the Assistant Personnel Officer and then was assigned as the Officer-in-Charge of the Electrical and Mechanical shops, replacing two Senior Lieutenants who were heading home. After a short period we received another Ensign, Keith Thompson, who would take over one of my shops. Keith was an Electrical Engineer and I was a Mechanical Engineer. So it was only logical (Navy style) to put me in charge of the Electrical Shop (power, telephones, etc.) and put Keith in charge of the Mechanical Shop (heavy equipment repair, machine shop, etc.). I think it had something to do with cross-training. Our living quarters were tents with wooden floors set up off the ground on palm tree stumps.

I had a crew of Seabees installing an underground electrical power system for some aviation repair and overhaul shops running parallel with the landing strip. We had checked the drawings for any previous underground installations. The drawings showed a telephone line running northward immediately alongside the landing strip to the end and then veering off to the northwest. We were clear to dig the trench running north about 80 feet east of the landing strip and nowhere near the end of the strip.

However, the drawings must have been a bit faulty, because as the ditch digger was chugging along, I heard a loud "chunk!"  The 101-pair main Naval Air Station telephone cable was now totally separated! Oops! I jumped into my jeep and rushed back to our camp, cutting across two landing strips, dodging one plane trying to land, and incurring the displeasure of two Shore Patrol teams who chased me all the way back to camp. They weren't too angry when they found out why. I got my Chief Petty Officer, a former Bell Telephone master technician, and within 24 hours we had all lines operational again.

One day as I was heading for the jetty where a small crew was unloading bombs from pontoon barges to trucks, I saw what I thought was our "Betty" flying along the coast. I realized it wasn't our "Betty" when it started dropping bombs, some of which hit the jetty and trucks. families in the States. Many of our bombs exploded and all members of the crew were killed. I arrived within minutes, but too late. This twenty year old officer learned how to write letters of condolence to families in the States.

The average age of the Seabees in our battalion at that time was thirty-four; many had wives and children. The Seabee battalions had been formed of seasoned construction men already working in the war areas, or those willing to volunteer for such hazardous duty. As their officer, I felt a bit uncomfortable, at age 20, being asked for advice by these experienced men. However, they, particularly the Chief Petty Officers, kept me in line and out of trouble.

56th Seabees

In November of 1945 I was ordered to join a Seabee battalion on Okinawa. On the way, I had my 21st birthday on the ship — nobody noticed. Before we reached Okinawa, the ship's orders were modified and we changed course for Guam. They needed help building the Glass Breakwater around Apra Harbor. We off-loaded on the east side of the island, where the Marines had originally landed, and bedded down in the remains of their old Marine camp until we got new orders. I was assigned to the 56th Naval Construction Battalion, near Agana, Guam.

My first assignment was as a field project engineer. I was put in charge of the construction of a fuel tank farm in the mountains and the necessary pipelines to the coast. I had a few Seabees, but the main crew was made up of Japanese POW's. There were still many Japanese on the island, hiding in the mountains, and occasionally attacking small work parties. But our POW's seemed to be very happy with their better quarters, food, and treatment than they had had.

Our Construction Battalion accomplished many projects all around the island. We had found that we really could use a power winch mounted on the back of a flatbed truck. But we didn't have such a winch. Somebody commented that he knew that LSTs had winches mounted on their decks for handling cargo. Someone else commented that we had a few LSTs down at the breakwater. So the challenge was before us. We figured that an LST had at least four such winches on its deck. And we had none. Just didn't seem fair.

A few days later, we sent an officer to one of the LSTs to discuss with the Captain the possibility of sharing one of his winches with the Seabees. After all, we built the facilities that support the ships. The Captain was quite un-gracious, telling our officer where he could go.

About a week later, three Seabee trucks arrived at different times in the vicinity of the inhospitable LST. Each truck carried a number of Seabees who got off the trucks and wandered around the breakwater, looking like they belonged there. Their wandering sort of led them aboard the LST. When they were all on board, and at a signal from a truck horn, some of the Seabees took offense at the way they were being treated by the ship's crew. Naturally, a fight ensued - perhaps more like a riot. Obviously, there was much chaos and confusion.

However, a handful of Seabees were not fighting. They were busy torch-cutting a winch from the deck. They used the shop's boom and another winch to lower the winch over the side and onto a waiting Seabee truck. When the winch truck was safely gone, another blast from a truck's horn signalled the fighting to stop and all the Seabees scrambled off the LST and into the waiting trucks. There was peace again on the ship, but also much confusion. They soon discovered they had a hole in their deck where they once had a winch.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (camp), our heavy equipment folks had moved one of the repair sheds, dug a deep hole, lined it with canvas, and waited. When the truck arrived with the winch, we lowered it into the hole with a mobile boom crane. The winch was wrapped with canvas and the hole quickly filled in. The repair shed was moved back into place, a partially disassembled piece of heavy equipment was moved in, and some grease and oil was spread around. All the returning Seabees went back to their regular assignments.

It took the Skipper of the LST at least a couple of hours to discover what had happened, deduce that the 56th Construction Battalion was responsible for the "crime," report same to the Provost Marshall, a Marine colonel, and altogether show up at our camp demanding that our Commanding Officer return the winch and court marshal the perpetrators.

Truthfully, our CO knew nothing about the escapade, but invited the Provost Marshall and the irate Captain to search our camp. They did, finding a lot of Seabees going about their respective tasks, but finding no trace of a winch. They just knew we couldn't posssibly hide a thing that big that quickly.  After the Captain left in disgust, the Provost Marshall came over to our CO and asked,  "Now Bob, what did you do with the winch?" It seems that the Provost Marshall and our CO were college buddies. I still wonder how the LST Captain explained the missing winch to his superiors. 

A main topic each evening at the officers' mess concerned who had a blaster they could spare or when will the pipefitters be free. Although we had great talent, effective and efficient utilization of that talent was lacking. After repeated complaining on my part, and suggesting better ways, the Commanding Officer pulled me out of the field, created the Labor Distribution Office, and put me in charge. That’s what you get if you complain!

I established a system of records and information flow which provided up-to-date knowledge of who and what skills were where and when. We could then far more accurately plan and schedule the use of our manpower. The Operations Officer wrote a letter of commendation, stating that my system alone had cut project completion time by "at least 25%."

Fleet Hospital #103

By the spring of 1946, the war had been officially over for some time. Our battalion was decommissioned and everyone went home, except me. It seems that Fleet Hospital #103 needed a Public Works Officer and I was "volunteered." Which meant I was also  "frozen." Even though I had enough points to return to the continental USA, I couldn't go home. The hospital was located next to the 56th Seabee camp, so I stayed in my tent quarters in the now-deserted camp and commuted to the hospital each day.

My primary “very important” tasks were: (1) to finish building and outfitting the new Officers Club with its 100 foot bar, all built by Japanese POW's, and (2) to construct living quarters for the career Navy personnel who would be bringing their families to Guam. I was somewhat less than thrilled with this opportunity.

One day a dispatch came through announcing that additional ships were available with space to take personnel home who were otherwise lacking enough points to go home at that time. It also stipulated that such personnel must use the ships in the harbor (meaning at least a 19 day trip to the States).

I had the points, but I was "frozen" to this assignment at the Fleet Hospital. However, I took a copy of the ship availability dispatch to Nimitz Hill and contacted the Civil Engineer Corps Detail Officer. He said he couldn't help me because I belonged to the Fleet Hospital. I persuaded him to write a set of orders anyway because, although illegal, I didn't think the Commanding Officer of the Hospital would know the difference.

 With unauthorized orders in hand, I presented them to the Hospital Commanding Officer, a medical officer. He said, “Well I'll be damned. It looks like you'll be leaving us.” I said something about being sorry to have to go. He had the Personnel Officer endorse the orders and I immediately headed for the Operations Officer at Agana Naval Air Station (whom I have mentioned earlier). I was aware that he was Regular Navy and planned to bring his family to Guam. With  my battalion de-commissioned and lots of equipment laying around, I suggested to the Operations Officer that he might need another jeep for his wife, and a gas stove and gas refrigerator. And, by the way, did he have any airplanes going back to the States?

Using my jeep, I towed his jeep, stove, and refrigerator to his new quarters and he suggested that I be on the flight line by 0800 the next morning. It just so happened that they had a plush R5D (C54) four-engine passenger plane headed for Pearl Harbor and the States. I got on board and played poker with the brass (Admirals and Generals).

We made a fuel stop at Kwajalein Island. I went into the terminal to look around. That's when I learned that I was being "bumped" for a USO troupe. Well, at least I wasn't on one of those slow ships! I called the local Seabee commander and told him my sad story. He drove to the airfield and took me back to his quarters for the night.

The next day he took me out to see  "Fatboy," one of the atomic bombs that was not used. It was under high security. He then arranged for me to get on the next flight (a DC-3) to Pearl Harbor. The accommodations weren't as nice as the first leg of the journey, but I was heading home!     

                Korean Conflict

I was in Haiti in 1951, supervising the construction of a sugar mill at Jeremie, about 120 miles west of Port au Prince. As  I was a reservist, subject to recall, I received a message from the Navy with orders to report for duty. I flew back to Miami and drove to Washington, DC. There I met with the CEC Detail Officer and pointed out that I understood that they were not recalling reservists who had four or more dependents. He pointed out that that rule applied only to enlisted personnel, and besides, he had eight dependants and was recalled. So much for my argument. But he did give me my choice of duty assignment. I chose the Naval Construction Battalion Center at Port Hueneme, California. I flew to Iowa where my wife and four kids had been staying with her parents while I was in Haiti. We all then drove to California.          

I drove through the gates of the Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC), Port Hueneme, California and to the Personnel Office. When I handed my orders to the Personnel Officer, the only comment was, "Damn, here's another one. What are we going do with this guy?" He really made me feel welcome and vital to the war effort.

My first assignment was as Assistant Provost Marshall. I found myself spending a lot of time investigating alleged crimes and gathering information and evidence for the Legal Department. They created the Criminal Investigation Department and I was put in charge. I spent some time working with the Los Angeles Police Department, learning how to conduct criminal investigations and to use the polygraph lie detector.

About the time I was getting the hang of being a criminal investigator (November 1951), I was sent to Treasure Island (San Francisco) for a Radiological Safety and Defense course. It was also known as the ABC school, (Atomic, Biological, and Chemical). However, when I returned to Port Hueneme, I got a new assignment. It seems that the Executive Officer was getting tired of interfacing with the local community who wanted a luncheon speaker, a parade, or whatever. He had heard of a new function in the military called public information. I was assigned to the newly created position of Public Information Officer (PIO). They had never had a PIO before and really didn't know what the duties were, nor did I.

I reported directly to the Commanding Officer, Captain John R. Perry. Not knowing the first thing about public relations, press releases, community affairs, Captain Perry sent me to the Armed Forces Information School (AFIS) at Fort Slocum, NY. I stayed at the AFIS for two months learning about newspaper reporting and writing, radio and TV script writing and production, community relations. and how to handle the press.

As the Construction Battalion Center (CBC) had never had a PIO, there was no personnel allowance nor office space available. I found some office space on the second floor of an out-of-the-way building and set about acquiring some personnel, despite their being no personnel allowance. I checked with each Department Head to see if he had anyone that he'd just as soon not have, like loafers, goof offs, trouble-makers, miss-fits, etc. It wasn't long before I had built a staff of 14, including two Chief Petty Officers. The staff presented me with a cake for my 28th birthday.

The staff included journalists, photographers, illustrators, typists, and a secretary. During my 18 months in this position, we produced: a semi-monthly, world-wide Seabee newspaper; two 15-minute radio shows per week recorded in our own studio and broadcast by a local station; one half-hour TV program per month with the help of Huntley and Brinkley in Los Angeles; and built and outfitted a 40-foot semi-trailer for display around the 11th Naval District.

I created the Joint Community Relations Council and persuaded officials and representatives from the base and the community to serve on the Council. I acted as coordinator and catalyst. Soon the people were communicating and discussing their mutual problems. The base opened a large portion of the harbor for use by the fishing boats, a basic economic factor for the city. A realtor donated a large old house. The local teenagers (mostly girls) and the Seabees pitched in and completely renovated the place. It became the local equivalent of the United Services Organization (USO).

Being the PIO meant that I also got to be in charge of all the drives. I got to meet and chat with Will Rogers, Jr. who was helping us with the Savings Bond Drive. We built a display mounted on a pickup truck for the March of Dimes, encouraging the Seabees to help their home states to contribute the most.

The Special Services Officer had proved inept (drunk) so I acquired the additional duties of arranging the entertainment for the Seabees at the Center. We brought in many big names such as Ina Rae Hutton and her All Girl Band and Bob Hope and Ava Gardner. Working closely with Red Skelton, we often sent busloads of Seabees to Los Angeles to provide live audiences for his filming of his TV shows.

We accomplished all of this while continuing the regular public relations activities such as press releases, including layman-oriented articles concerning the work of the Naval Research and Evaluation Laboratory (a tenant at the CBC), recorded interviews for broadcast in the Seabees' hometowns, coordinating and working with news media personnel, operation of the Joint Community Relations Council, and yes, providing luncheon speakers for local civic groups.

We lived in one half of a 20x48 Quonset hut. It had only one glass window (in the front door) all the other windows were plastic-covered-chicken-wire. Of course, they had to be closed if it rained, and a “Santa Anna” wind off the desert sent dust swirling into the quarters. Tenants found ingenious ways to hang draperies or curtains, as the walls and ceilings were a continuous half circle.

In 1953, my Commanding Officer, Captain Perry, was promoted to Admiral and assigned as Chief of the Bureau of Yards & Docks (BuDocks) and Chief of Civil Engineers, in Washington, D.C. Shortly thereafter Admiral Perry sent for me. I was assigned as Operating Services Officer on the staff of the Chief of the Bureau, Admiral Perry. This position consisted of coordinating the operations of three divisions: (1) Office Services (data processing, stenographic, reproduction, and supply; (2) Security (personnel and industrial); and (3) Information Services (public information and relations, and two monthly publications: CEC Bulletin and BuDocks Technical Digest).

As Technical Information Officer, I  represented the Bureau at the weekly meetings of the Navy's Chief of Information in the Pentagon. My impertinence showed when, at one of those weekly meetings, I asked the Chief of Information, an Admiral, why we were there. I was just a Lieutenant Senior Grade, the lowest ranking officer there. After the Admiral told a Commander, who was incensed at my question, to “shut up,” he said that it was a very relevant question and told everyone to come back the next week with their versions of an answer. But I didn't think I made any points for promotion!

I had Civil Service personnel who continued to produce the monthly publications. I helped develop planning for Seabee recruiting. At the Admiral's direction, I conducted a research study concerning the advantages and disadvantages of a career in the Civil Engineer Corps. The Admiral wanted to know why the attrition rate was so high and what could be done about it.

My lead Civil Service person (a GS13) had long resented my intrusion into his world of technical information and my coming between him and the Admiral. The Civil Servant had tried many ways to get me transferred or blackballed with no success. So he tried another approach. He noticed an ad in the Washington Post from Chrysler Missile Division that said “WANTED, AN ENGINEER WHO CAN WRITE!” He passed it on to me with a note suggesting that all my fine talents could be better used in the missile business.

Mostly on a lark, I answered the ad. Soon I was being interviewed in a Washington hotel. Not much later I had an attractive offer. Having just completed that study on military careers for engineers and being at the point in my military career when switching to the private sector appeared advisable, I considered taking my own advice and apply for release to inactive duty. Although I still had six months of obligated duty, Admiral Perry suggested that I give him my request for release from active duty.

The Admiral said that he wanted me to augment into the Regular Navy, but there was no augmentation program available. He was also displeased with the way Congress was treating Reservists, not knowing if they could stay on active duty or not. So he said, “Bill, if you have a half-way decent offer from the outside, I suggest you tell Uncle, 'here's my suit.'”

I did have that "decent offer" from Chrysler, so I gave the Admiral my written request for release to inactive duty on December 2, 1953. I was a civilian on the 16th. I had served on active duty for 2˝ years and never got to Korea. I felt only slightly guilty.  (7/04)

At the Chrysler Corporation, I served the Missile Branch as Supervisor of Technical Reports. Chrysler had the contract to accomplish the production development and manufacturing of the Redstone Missile.

In 1973, I got a call from Planning Research Corporation asking me to assist in writing a proposal to the Kennedy Space Center for facility design engineering support for the Space Shuttle. In April 1974, we learned that we had won the contract, which meant moving to Florida. I enjoyed my work preparing for future Shuttle flights. As Chief Engineer, I coordinated the design and construction of a number of Space Center facilities. By 1978, I recognized that the design and construction management of Space Shuttle facilities was coming to an end. I resigned from Planning Research Corporation and joined Rockwell International in April. I went into Site Activation, fine tuning the facilities to interface with the flight hardware.

In 1983, NASA (KSC) decided it wanted a single shuttle processing contractor, so I spent a year working on the Rockwell proposal for the Shuttle Processing Contractor. We lost to Lockheed. Lockheed offered to keep us, but we would lose too many benefits. So we transferred with Rockwell to the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant in Colorado in January 1984. We retired from Rockwell in 1988 and moved back to Florida. (3/02)