SALISBURY — It’s only fitting that the first monument placed in the Salisbury National Cemetery next to the Hefner VA Medical Center honors the Navy Seabees.
Seabees always were — and are — the men and women paving the way for things to come.
The Navy Seabee Veterans of America (NSVA), Department of North Carolina, dedicated the knee-high monument in a brief ceremony Sunday.
While the older (and closed to new graves) Salisbury National Cemetery off Railroad Street has several huge monuments as part of its landscape, the modest Navy Seabees monument is the first at the active burial National Cemetery next to the medical center.
J.C. Hampton, state treasurer and the N.C. National Executive Committeeman for NSVA, approached Salisbury National Cemetery Director John Spruyt three years ago about the possibility of the Navy Seabees monument.
Spruyt said the monument’s dedication is a fitting way to end his assignment in Salisbury. He will be leaving Nov. 22 for his next director’s assignment in Cape Cod, Mass.
Hampton, who lives in Apex, said Salisbury’s monument is the 25th placed by the NSVA in the country. The veterans group has a goal of placing at least one Navy Seabees monument in the 45 states with national cemeteries.
North Carolina now has two, when you include one at the state cemetery in Spring Lake, Hampton said.
ABF Freight, based in Arkansas, provides free transport and delivery of the monuments from where they are made in Cleveland, Ohio, to the national cemeteries, Hampton added.
Navy Seabees follow the motto, “We build, we fight.”
These construction forces of the Navy have built entire bases, bulldozed and paved thousands of miles or roads and airstrips and accomplished all kinds of other projects in wars and conflicts since World War II.
Navy Rear Admiral Douglas Morton, a Salisbury native, served as guest speaker for Sunday’s dedication, and he gave three examples of Seabees in action through the years.
In 1942, Jerry Smith was a 29-year-old clerk at a building supply company in Kinston. With his boss’ counsel, he decided to enlist with the Navy and become part of the Seabees, given his background in construction.
Smith was one of more than 325,000 men who served with the Seabees in World War II. Seabees were fighting and building on six different continents and more than 300 islands during the war.
The average age of Seabees during the early years of World War II was 37, because then the emphasis was on experience and skill in construction over normal physical standards.
Smith, who is 100 today and living in Durham, served in the South-Western Pacific. He was among the forces, for example, who built the airbase from which American forces bombed Guadalcanal.
Smith attended Sunday’s ceremony.
Morton also told the story of a 17-year-old woman who joined the Navy in 1995 and was soon deployed to the Balkans in South Central Europe.
During the harshest of winters, she was living in tents and trying to keep warm with gear left over from World War II and Korea.
As part of helping the Army set up a peace-keeping force, the woman and her fellow Seabees built a 2-mile wooden-plate sidewalk.
Meanwhile, she was allowed only a three-minute call home per month. “That’s a Seabee,” Morton said.
In 2006, a Navy Reserve unit from Jacksonville, Fla., was deployed to Iraq. The men and women were only on the ground in Iraq about a week when they were on the road delivering materials to a work site.
The citizen soldiers were attacked twice in their journey, and two members of the convoy died.
A couple of days later, their station was attacked by mortar rounds from enemy insurgents, and five more of the Seabee Reservists were killed.
Morton said every Seabee has a story “longer than my arm to tell.” The monument in Salisbury allows people to ask what a Seabee is and affords Seabees a chance to tell what they did for the country, Morton said.
“Seabees are proud, but they’re not very cocky.” Morton said.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.