As war clouds gathered over the vast Pacific Ocean in the late 1930s, the United States belatedly began to think of protecting the nation’s possessions of far-flung islands and atolls. Civilian contractors were hired to build runways, port facilities, barracks, fuel dumps, water towers, and fortifications in the Philippines, Guam, Midway, Wake, and especially Hawaii, the new home of the Pacific Fleet. The civilian workers relished the high-paying jobs especially after the lean early years of the Depression.
Military planners knew that they would be vulnerable if war broke out. By the “rules of war,” armed civilians could be considered guerrilla fighters and “legally” executed by the enemy. In the small circles of the military establishment in Washington, consideration was given to creating a construction corps within the Navy similar to the Army Corps of Engineers. Before December 1941, however, little was done.
Meanwhile, in the Atlantic in July 1941, the United States assumed responsibility for protecting Iceland to relieve the hard-pressed British. The call went out for civilian construction workers to beef up the island’s defenses and port facilities. Many experienced construction workers declined for fear of the deadly U-boats, the inhospitably cold climate, and the less than cordial population.
The Navy called on Admiral Ben Moreell, commander of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (BuDocks), to find service personnel to fill the void; five companies of 99 men each were authorized. By December 7, 1941, about 200 experienced construction engineers and workers, many of them veterans of World War I, had signed up for the construction brigades. But they never got to Iceland.
When war came suddenly, the civilian construction workers fared badly. After Wake Island fell, more than 1,000 surrendering civilian workers were herded below decks in cramped Japanese prisoner ships to spend the rest of the war toiling in feverish labor camps under deteriorating conditions; 100 more were kept behind on Wake to perform construction work for their new masters. Sadly, in 1943, with Wake cut off from Japan and little food left on the island, they were all summarily executed.
Civilian workers also suffered on Guam and in the Philippines. It was clear that construction workers needed to be able to defend themselves and their construction projects.