Admiral Ben Moreell:
Founder of the Seabees
by Seymour “Sy” Brody
Admiral Ben Moreell was the chief of United States Navy’s Bureau of Yards and Docks and of the Civil Engineer Corps. He was the founder of the U.S. Navy Seabees.
He was born on September 14, 1892, in Salt lake City, Utah, but he grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He graduated from Washington University with an engineering degree.
After a brief stint in a local engineering firm, he enlisted in the Navy in World War I. He was commissioned as a Lieutenant Junior Grade (Lt. jg) in the Civil Engineer Corps.
He was stationed in the Azores in World War I and his talent was soon recognized. Moreell was sent to the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees, in France, to study the European military techniques of engineering.
Moreell returned to the United States in 1933 and was promoted a number of times and achieved the rank of Commander. On December 1, 1937, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt advanced him to Rear Admiral, instead of Captain, and appointed him as Chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks of the Civil Engineer Corps.
He immediately made a thorough inspection of the Navy’s facilities on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and American territories. He then planned the construction of two large graving docks at Pearl Harbor. He also devised the sectional dry dock, which would be used in all advance bases.
Prior to World War II, Moreell was given permission to form a Naval Construction Battalion, which was later nicknamed the Seabees. He was able to convince the labor unions that these men would be used overseas and trained in their own facilities. He also told them that civilian workers would not be protected by the Geneva Convention in war, whereas, construction workers in the Navy would be protected.
He received the Distinguished Service Medal, in 1945, and the citation stated that “the fleet received support in degree and kind unprecedented in the history of naval warfare.”
On June 11, 1946, he was promoted to a full Admiral. He was the first staff corps officer to achieve this position.
Moreell retired from the Navy in September 1946 and went to work in private industry. He was President of Turner Construction Co. and President, CEO and Chairman of Jones and Laughlin Steel Corporation, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
On September 21, 1980, the Naval Academy honored Admiral Ben Moreell by dedicating a memorial in his name. His other honors were 12 doctoral degrees, election to the National Academy of Engineering and naming him as one of ten men contributing most to the advancement of construction methods in the United Sates.
He died on July 30, 1978, and he is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
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