Voices of Veterans: James Rothermel

By: Andy Conner Email
By: Andy Conner Email

Fair to say World War II could not have been fought, much less won, had it not been for those who built the runways, the huts, the medical units, the bridges... in the Pacific Campaign, that was the job of the Naval Construction Battalions...The Seabees!

That's right, if it needed to be built, theSeabees built it. James Rothermel of Brenham was a Painter First Class, assigned to the 14th Seabees Battalion. His unit's first deployment in the Pacific? One of the war's hotspots. Guadalcanal.

Jim Rothermel worked as a painter on the Naval Air Station at Corpus Christi after high school, so when he enlisted in the Navy during World War II, he had a first-hand knowledge of the day-to-day operations of the military.

"When I worked there, I saw how the navy operated and that was better than having to be an army guy crawling in the mud, so I'd have a place to sleep every night, so when I went to Houston to enlist, I didn't know anything about the seabees at that point, and I was told about them, and asked to go into the seabees, because the fact that I had this experience, and so they gave me a 1st class petty officer at the beginning so from my experience, so it was a good start."

Upon enlisting, he signed up for the Seabees - a branch of the military whose soldiers double as construction crews, building anything necessary for wartime operations.

"We built roads, we had about 35 miles of roads that we built. We built several bridges, one bridges over the Nalanu river that was bout 240 feet long and about 20 feet wide, built out of solid mahogany..."

His assignment - the Pacific - where there was a great need for new construction on some desolate islands where the U.S. set up a presence in the fight against Japan.

"We arrived there on November 4 of 1942 and we landed in a place called Aeola Bay in Guadalcanal, and we found that the terrain was not suitable for an airfield, it was very marshy and so we had to move up 25 miles to what's called Coley point and then from that point, we started our airfield.

"We were fixing the airfields so we could push on further toward Japan, to do some island hopping, which the war did. So, consequently, it was quite an aid to the navy and the army and marines, as they went on up, we had means that we could bomb too, ya know, and strafe and whatever we had to do, on those advanced islands that we were going to.

As you can imagine, bad weather can make things hard on construction crews, especially in tropical climates. Rothermel and the Seabees endured rain at least 3 times a week, but he says the biggest enemy of the seabees was not the opposing forces or the wet conditions.

But despite all the hardships, the Seabees made things happen. They built stuff. Jim Rothermel is confident that their initiative helped fuel the United States' victory in the Pacific Theater of the War.

"I would say that they were primarily the instigators of keeping the forward moving, moving it toward Japan. Because they had the knowledge, know-how and the skills to accomplish those things. The army engineers, well they, I'm not putting them down. They did a great job themselves, they were very similar to what the seabees, but there were just so few of those, So they organized the seabees to take this on and I think the seabees had about as great a part in winning the war as any of the other units that were recognized."

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