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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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)