Building Cubi Point, Subic Bay
For MCB 2, CBMU 1/101, CBD 1802, CBD 1804, CBMU 553 and CBMU 577
Cubi Point, Subic Bay Naval Air Station
Seabees at Cubi Point, Philippine Islands
From The Seabees in War and Peace – Volume 2
By Kimon Skordilies
An ideal location for a base, Cubi Point is protected by a wall of mountains which form a natural barrier against the frequent tropical hurricanes (typhoons) that rip through Central Luzon. In order to construct the base, roads had to be cut through the mountains, a fishing village had to be relocated, the jungle had to be cleared, and the swamps drained and covered with earth. Cubi Point seemed the last place in the world for an airstrip. The rock rolling terrain covered by wild jungle and swamp presented a staggering problem. It meant cutting out the mountains, leveling them off and filling in the swamp, continually moving the earth seaward, and filling out the airstrip and its approaches to the 45-foot level above the sea. The task would require moving an estimated twenty million cubic yards of dry fill, plus an additional fifteen million cubic yards of hydraulic fill. It was also estimated that more than one million sacks of cement would be used for the completion of the project.
The construction problem was basically one of creating land where there was none and leveling off the rugged foot of a mountain. From the ocean floor, hydraulic fill had to be taken out directly by special type machines which grind into coral and rock bed of the ocean and pile up the material close to the beach to form a foundation of the strip. This fill stacked to 7 feet above mean sea level and then covered with dry fill to form a smooth and usable land area. Private contractors interested in the project visited the area, took one look and then decided against undertaking the job. “It can’t be done,” they said.
Who could build a 10,000-foot strip with main and secondary runways, taxiways for the heaviest naval airplanes, and other supporting facilities for fuel and ammunition storage, repair shops, etc., in that wild area? Who else but the Seabees – those magnificent Navy men who make the impossible possible. Thus, after surveys by Seabee officers in early January 1950, the Cubi Point project got underway the summer of that same year. While the war in Korea was still going on, the Seabees were getting ready for the biggest project to be undertaken by the Naval Construction Forces since World War II and the largest earth-moving job ever attempted up to that time.
The story starts in the summer of 1951 when Construction Battalion Detachment (CBD) 1802 under Lt. Randall completed the survey. The various problems that the Seabees faced at Cubi Point, particularly in the quarry operation, were outlined in the July 1952 issue of the Civil Engineer Corps Bulletin, in which Lt. John P. Bellinger of Mobile Construction Battalion (MCB) 5 described the difficulties:
“One of the major construction problems was to extend the strip at both ends into the bay. A dredge was to fill the area in the bay to a safe distance above high tide levels, and earth fill was to be added to bring the strip to the desired grade. As a barrier to wave and tide action against the fill, plans called for a rock blanket on the slopes of the fill or a rock levee. Additional rock would go into the surfacing and drainage of the strip.
Sufficient rock deposits were lacking in the immediate vicinity of the point. However, unlimited amounts were located on the west shore of the bay. As this was a completely undeveloped area with no means of land communication, all transportation operations would be by water. The general plan was to set up a camp at the location, start the quarrying, set up a crusher, build the necessary roads, and build a wharf for loading the barges that were to move the rock across the bay.
In a general division of job responsibilities, MCB 5 was in charge of all quarry operations. Assigned the job of setting up this operation, known as West Camp, was CHCARP A.F. Goss who immediately began planning the layout. In visits to the site, CWO Goss enlisted the aid of Chief O.T. Sams, and those men were largely responsible for the rapid development of the quarry in the coming months.
Chief Sams entered wholeheartedly into the project and was one of the main reasons for the swift development of the camp. He delighted in trying to outdo the younger men in many of the hard jobs of constructing the camp. They entered into the spirit of competition and soon found that if they could install pipe or erect tents as swiftly as their chief, they had really put in a full day’s work.
Simultaneously, work was started on the quarry, roads, and camp facilities. The site chosen for the camp, a valley between two steep ridges extending to the shore of the bay, offered the best combination of accessibility, ease of construction, and conditions for the comfort and health of the men. The floor of the valley was considered undesirable because of the heat, humidity and probable onslaught of mosquitoes. A high and dry slope of the north ridge avoided many of these difficulties, and offered a continuous breeze off the bay. A secondary ridge extending from the side of the larger ridge was flattened by bulldozers to an area of about two acres, and a self-supporting hundred-man camp was constructed. Seventy feet above the bay, the camp commanded a view of the entire site. Water, vital to the camp, was pumped from a natural pool in the valey into tanks on the ridge above the camp. However, as the dry season advanced, this pool began to fail and was replaced by a pit dug into the bed of the stream running through the valley.
Landing of men and supplies at West Camp was greatly hampered in the early days by the lack of any docking facilities. The Navy landing craft were fast wearing out from the continued beaching, so the Seabees set about finding some sort of dock. An old LST (Landing Ship Tank), a casualty of WW II, lay partially sunken on the beach with her bow on the shore. The Seabees found the parking deck serviceable and decided that, with a little dozed work, an approach could be made to the ramp. The rusty cables were cut, dropping the ramp to the beach, and the approach was made. On the port side toward the stern, a section was cut from the side of the ship, opening and approach from the parking deck to open water. This improvised dock solved all landing problems and eliminated most of the need for beaching. The LST, having several compartments that were livable, also became the quarters for the coxswains and mechanics of the boat pool.
Quarry operations were begun and an area cleared for the crusher. The quarrying was started in the toe of the north ridge on the shore of the bay adjacent to the proposed dock site. Later investigation of the valley revealed stream beds containing a large supply of rock of all kinds, ranging from fines to boulders larger than a bulldozer. This source of rock could be exploited to much more advantage than the quarry as it eliminated the problems of blasting. However, access to the rock called for a much more extensive road system. The first plan was for the equipment to work in the stream bed but it was later anticipated that the stream, now dry, would become a swelling torrent with the arrival of the rainy season. So, a roadway was run from the wharf area to connect with the first major deposits of rock and follow the bank of the stream as excavations progressed.
The road network finally consisted of major connections from the wharf to the camp, wharf to the crusher area, and from the crusher to the source of rock in the stream bed. Two small bridges were constructed of untreated timber, each of three bents. Extensive ditching was done and several culverts of discarded oil drums were laid. The rainy season would soon show where drainage was insufficient and would be coped with at that time.
Rock blasted from the quarry was dumped into a fill for the wharf and extended into the bay far enough to give a minimum depth of water of ten feet at low tide. At the end of the rock fill, three timber ramps were devised. Each served the hold of one of the three well-barges. As these ramps had to support the weight of a fully loaded 10-yard Euclid truck, 12x14 caps and 6x14 stringers on 18-inch centers were used. The rock fill was made with enough to allow storage space for large boulders to be loaded by tong-equipped cranes. While crushed rock and aggregate could be dumped directly into the barges, it was feared that the barges would not long withstand the shock of boulders dropped into the wells.”
The Seabees had problems at Cubi other than the project itself. There was the lack of transportation facilities. No railroads and no roads could be used by heavy trucks. Everything, including cement, steel, heavy equipment, personnel and supplies, had to be brought by ship or plane to Cubi Point. More than 700 pieces of heavy equipment were shipped from the United States. Then there was the need of keeping on hand spare parts. The Seabees had to construct a warehouse comparable in size, according to one estimate, to a 6-story retail store that houses 75,000 items.
Another problem was water supply. Originally, the Seabees used a small spring but, when this dried up, they had to build a dam over a nearby river and create their own reservoir. Finally, in order that planes might glide in for a landing, 85 feet had to be removed from the top of rocky Mount Maritan on the northeast approach to the airstrip.
There were other less serious problems peculiar to the climate and location. Before building quarters or actual construction of the airstrip began, the Seabees had to fight off pythons, monkeys, wild boar, and wild carabaos.
In September 1951, Commander James Douglas, Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), USN, stepped ashore at Cubi Point as Commanding Officer of the Philippine Construction Regiment (later re-designated Thirtieth Naval Construction Regiment) to carry out that first order to move a mountain and build an airstrip. Less than a month later he was joined by Commander E.I. Mosher and the men of MCB 3. These were the pioneers. Due for arrival at Cubi Point from Port Hueneme during the ensuing year were MCBs 2, 3, 5, and 9; Detachment Able; and CBDs 1802 and 1803. Together, these units were to initiate one of the largest earthmoving projects in the world.
The first order of business involved the movement of an entire native fishing village and nearby cemetery to another area of the Naval Reservation five miles distant. Soon after the men of MCB 3 began to clear roads, build a 600-man camp on top of a hill overlooking the proposed airstrip, and carve out a reservoir and dam to assure water supply for men and machines.
Within a month after MCB 3 disembarked, Commander H.W. Whitney and the men of MCB 5 arrived. Thereafter, the Seabees of both battalions worked side-by-side constructing the airstrip, although MCB 3 had been assigned the overall supervision of airstrip construction. Meanwhile, completion of the tent camp allowed all of the men to move ashore from an APL (floating barracks) where they had been temporarily berthed. This move was soon followed by assembly of a rock crusher and the beginning of quarry operations at Mancha Blanca Bluff by MCB 5. In the months to follow, the rock crusher and quarry were to produce over a million cubic yards of crushed stone and riprap, basic materials for the huge construction program.
Through the sunny months of 1952, work went on at top speed to enlarge the camp facilities and to see the disposition of the thousands of cubic yards of coral spewed forth by the dredge Norfolk for the base course of hydraulic fill and miscellaneous projects. By May 10, 1952 enough of the strip had been constructed and graded to enable the first small airplane to land on the subgrade.
In the heavy heat of June 1952, MCB 2 arrived from Port Hueneme to pitch in. This battalion immediately took over the Mt. Maritan project, a job requiring removal of about 85 feet, totaling 212,000 cubic yards of rock from the top of the mountain, which was an obstruction in the glide path approach to the airstrip. Next on the list of assignments for the newcomers was the dry fill of a swamp and the erection of a temporary petroleum tank farm on the fill including the necessary pipelines, pumps, filters and pier. Construction of the pier itself was undertaken by MCB 5. This pier and other piers, sheetpile wharfs, bridges, and riprap work earned MCB5 the title of “Waterfront Gang” of Cubi Point. The temporary petroleum tank farm was completed in time and was turned over to the Naval Station, Subic Bay for operation.
When the project was a year old, the airstrip was a red scar across the three fingers of land where once green jungle stood undisturbed. At this point, the population jumped another 600 as MCB 9 and the second construction or dry season arrived simultaneously. After building their own tent area, these newcomers were assigned projects which included the permanent water supply system for the Naval Station, Subic Bay and the construction of the first three permanent Cubi Point buildings, teo enlisted men’s barracks and a subsistence building. In addition, the men of MCB 9 completed erection of a concrete block plant and a portion of the project thereof was utilized by an MCB9 and MCB 2 detachment to build dependent housing at the Naval Station, Sangley Point, 80 miles away.
MCB3 completed the erection of an asphaltic concrete mixing plant in January 1953. Within the next month, the paving of the airstrip began with the hot mix from this plant. Aggregate and fines used in the making of the asphalt were from the MCB 5 project at West Quarry, a source of the best quality sand and aggregate located at a point westerly across Subic Bay from Cubi Point. A separate camp was erected at West Quarry and frequent mail, supply, and liberty boats utilized to keep that camp in touch with Cubi Point, the Naval Station, Subic Bay and the liberty town of Olongapo.
On April 22, 1953, Admiral Radford landed on the strip and thus earned the distinction of being a passenger in the first airplane to land on the paved airstrip and one of the largest planes to land, an R4D. His expression as he looked down the wide, straight swath and his avid photographing of the project revealed how impressed he was with the work that the Seabees had accomplished.
But still another phase of the Cubi Point project was started by MCB 2 during the first part of 1953, the erection of the Ammunition Area at Camayan Point. Another group of Seabees, Detachment ABLE, MCB 2 came to Cubi Point from Midway in January 1953 to supplement the personnel of MCB 2 and this group was assigned supervisory responsibility. CBD 1802, MCB 2, and Detachment ABLE, and the 10th Naval Construction Brigade Detachment ABLE all contributed to the surveys of this ten square miles of rough terrain, heavily overgrown with jungle. Meanwhile, a group of MCB 5s waterfront gang moved out to the Camayan Point tent camp and began construction of the Ammunition Pier.
During the rainy season of 1953, MCB 9 continued the more urgent projects as well as continuing work on the three concrete buildings while the other battalions were deployed to Port Hueneme for the period of the rainy season.
In October 1953, Captain Madison Nichols, CEC, USN, took over as Regimental Commander and MCBs 2, 3 & 5 all arrived at Cubi Point while MCB 9 went back to the states. During the ensuing construction season, MCB 2 roughed in a super highway through the jungle from Cubi Point to Camayan Point, completed about one-fifth of the water line for the Naval Station water supply and started construction of the permanent Cubi Point water reservoirs.
MCB 11 continued work on the permanent barracks and subsistence building, started work on a steam plant and two Public Works buildings. MCB 3, the largest battalion aboard, carried on with the largest project, airport construction. Briefly, this included grading, paving and drainage of runways, taxiways, and plane parking areas and the overhaul of all heavy construction equipment.
MCB 5 started work on another important project, the carrier wharf. Still the waterfront gang, this battalion also engaged in the construction of the Camayan Point Ammunition Pier, riprap placement around the airstrip proper, and construction of the seaplane ramp.
Captain Neil E. Kingsley, CEC, USN, assumed command of the Regiment in September 1954 relieving Captain Stanley P. Zola, CEC, USN, who had succeeded Captain Nichols the previous June. Plans have been laid for the fourth construction season, MCB 2 returned in October, relieving MCB 5. Shortly thereafter, MCB 3 relieved MCB 11. MCB 2 took over 5’s work on the carrier wharf and reported it ready for use in January.
MCB 3 continued as the earthmoving battalion while MCB 5 and MCB 9, the latter having had a year’s duty tour in Adak, Alaska, returned simultaneously in January for the fourth construction season at Cubi Point. MCB 5 continued work on the sheetpile bulkhead and on the seaplane ramp. MCB 9 completed the permanent barracks and subsistence building as well as building magazines at Camayan Point. MCB 2 and MCB 3 returned to Port Hueneme in June 1955 then returned to Subic Bay in September, working on jobs needing completion while MCB 9 completed the earthwork around the airstrip. MCB 2 and MCB 3 again returned to Port Hueneme in June 1956.
On July 25, 1956 the Cubi Point installation was dedicated in the presence of Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay and a host of other dignitaries. At the commissioning ceremonies, Admiral Arthur W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, addressed the gathering, emphasizing that the project at Cubi Point had been part of the common defense effort by the U.S. and the Philippines, as well as the rest of the free world.
After five years of hard work, estimated at twenty million man hours, the project was completed. Lester Walker, Command Historian at Port Hueneme, California had this to say about the Seabees’ accomplishment:
“At Cubi, Seabees cut a mountain in half to make way for a nearly two-mile long runway. They blasted coral to fill a section of Subic Bay, filled swampland, removed trees as much as a hundred and fifty feet tall and six to eight feet in diameter, and even relocated a native fishing village. The result was an air station and an adjacent pier that was capable of docking the Navy’s largest carriers (over 40,000 tons). Undoubtedly as important as the finished project however, was the indispensible leadership and construction experience gained by the postwar generation of Seabees. The construction of Cubi Point Naval Air Station was a mammoth learning experience as well as a superb job well done.”
MCB 2 was decommissioned on August 10, 1956 and 529 men of MCB 2 were transferred into MCB 3. Cdr. C.F. Gould, CEC, USNR, Commanding Officer MCB 2, signed the decommissioning papers. MCB 3 returned to Subic Bay in September 1956 to complete jobs necessary for the permanent utilization of the Naval Air Station.
MCB 2 has never been recommisioned.