With the United States thrown into all-out combat and fighting for its life early in World War II, the Navy moved quickly to adapt the mostly agricultural and petroleum industry deep-water port south of Oxnard, California, to hustle fighters and supplies to the Pacific Theater, and to expand Naval Air Station Point Mugu, 7 miles south.
Port Hueneme at first was considered a temporary depot and pre-deployment staging area for training and supplying the newest naval unit, the Naval Construction Battalion, made up of construction crews who could fight. Their mission: Build everything from airstrips to ports to buildings to roads to support the Navy and Marines, and build them fast.
The first electricians, plumbers and masons — ultimately, experts in about 60 skilled trades — arrived in spring 1942 at Port Hueneme, which began operations as Advance Base Depot on May 18, 1942; in 1945, the depot’s name changed to Naval Construction Battalion Center (NCBC) Port Hueneme. The battling builders’ name changed too, on March 5, 1942, to “Seabees,” from the first letters of “Construction Battalion.” They also picked up a motto, “Construmus Batumius,” or “we build, we fight,” and a logo, a worker bee wielding a wrench, a hammer and a Thompson submachine gun.
Seabee history records about 175,000 Seabees sluicing through NCBC Port Hueneme as fast as they could be equipped and trained on their way to Bora Bora, Guadalcanal, hops up the Solomon chain of islands to Tawara Atoll and, eventually, to Iwo Jima, and construction of the airfield on Tinian Island, where the B-29 bomber Enola Gay took off for Hiroshima and ended the war.
Since the Korean War, Seabees have been part of almost every U.S. military operation but also are widely recognized for their humanitarian work during disasters around the world.
Naval Air Station Point Mugu became a center for anti-aircraft training during World War II; it was the Seabees who laid the Marston mat runway there that served as the station’s first airstrip. After the war, Point Mugu tested ordnance and served as the Navy’s major missile development and test site from the late 1940s through the 1960s. During the Korean War, planes from Point Mugu provided airlift support for NCBC Port Hueneme’s river of supplies and manpower flowing westward to battle.
In 1962, on the sand spit between Mugu Lagoon and the Pacific Ocean, the Navy Marine Mammal Program began researching how animals such as dolphins and sea lions could contribute to national security. Five years later the program, its personnel and its marine mammals were moved to San Diego’s Point Loma under control of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center San Diego. Protected by its sand spit, Mugu Lagoon remains the largest coastal wetland left in Southern California and is an important stopover for migratory birds on the Pacific Flyway.
President Ronald Reagan’s beloved ranch retreat, Rancho del Cielo, or “Heaven’s Ranch,” lies west of Santa Barbara, and he came and went through NAS Point Mugu during his presidency (1981-1989). At his death in 2004, his body was flown from Point Mugu to Washington, D.C., to lie in state in the Capitol Rotunda, then returned to Point Mugu two days later on the presidential aircraft for interment at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.
By then, NAS Point Mugu and NCBC Port Hueneme had consolidated (Oct. 11, 2000) into a joint operation called Naval Base Ventura County (NBVC). San Nicolas Island was transferred four years later, on Oct. 1, 2004, to NBVC by its former command, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division.
San Nicolas Island, part of the Pacific Missile Range, lies west of Los Angeles in the Santa Barbara Channel but is part of Ventura County. Its 13,370 acres include a 10,000-foot-long runway with missile-tracking and testing facilities, though most will be familiar with it as the setting for the book and subsequent movie, “The Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Two hundred years ago and more, San Nicolas was the home of the Nicoleno Native people. In 1811 fur seal-hunting Aleuts from Russian Alaska stormed San Nicolas and killed almost all the Nicoleno; by 1835, only about seven Nicoleno were left, and the Spanish padres on the coast, hearing of this, sent a rescue ship. One, known to history as Juana Maria, missed the boat and remained alone on the island until 1853, when another rescue vessel located her. All other members of the tribe had died, and Juana Maria herself, taken initially to Mission Santa Barbara, succumbed to dysentery within seven weeks.
More recently, San Nicolas Island gained global attention as the largest island in the world to rid itself of non-native feral cats without poison or harm to the cats, which were decimating the island’s wildlife. It took six agencies, $3 million and 18 months, according to the Los Angeles Times, plus a retired bobcat hunter and 250 custom-built padded-cuff traps that alerted researchers via computer when the cuffs activated. The Humane Society in Ramona, California, took in 59 adult cats and 10 kittens, and, once neutered and tutored, placed them for adoption as “sociable, well-adapted and ready to go to a good home.”