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Seabees learn quickly to fight fire with fire

CAMP FALLUJAH, Iraq—It could've been Guadalcanal or Iwo Jima or any of a dozen landing areas in the Pacific in World War II: Brave Navy Seabees fighting off a determined enemy as their bulldozers rolled out to build airstrips and roads. This is a new war, with a new enemy, but the Seabees are still doing the same hard, dangerous jobs.

The troops of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74, a Seabee unit dubbed "Fearless," were sent out on a routine job recently: Build a long sand barrier on either side of a U.S. Marine roadblock near the cordoned-off city of Fallujah. The barrier would keep vehicles from driving around the roadblock.

As the Seabee bulldozers began their work, they came under heavy fire from insurgents with rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 rifles.

A grenade bounced off the sand berm that Petty Officer Jeff Atchison, 30, was constructing with his dozer. It exploded, dangerously close.

"It happened so quick you didn't have time to think," Atchison said. "I got more angry than anything at the people that were trying to kill me."

Engineering Aide 3rd Class Robert Wetzel, 24, said a number of the grenades fired at the Seabees were duds. "We had one by the back, one by the side and one by the front," Wetzel said. "All of them were inert, and we had to mark them as unexploded ordnance."

The closest call of all may have been the bullet that bounced off the helmet of Equipment Operator 3rd Class Steven Mangrum, 26. Mangrum was driving a Humvee and firing back with his rifle. "One came through the door and hit me in the head. I'm glad to be back," Mangrum said.

The Marines who're being supported by the Gulfport, Miss., Seabees of MCB-74 have been teaching the construction troops how to defend themselves, and the lessons obviously were taken to heart.

Constructionman Christopher Roberts, a 21-year-old nicknamed "Cupcake," got behind the newly built sand barrier with his machine gun and fired 780 rounds at insurgents fighting from positions in the city.

"Every time the dozer moved forward, we moved forward with them," Roberts said. "We're defensive in nature. We went out there and did the thing we're worst at (and) now we're good at it."

The building and the fighting lasted nearly six hours, and the "Fearless" Seabees made it back to camp without losing a single man. The work party got a rousing welcome.

"It's like a homecoming," Wetzel said. "Everyone got home safe. That's the best part."

Their commanding officer, Cmdr. Cliff Maurer, told Knight Ridder, "We got it all done. This is what Seabees did in the Pacific during World War II."

And the Marines got their extended roadblocks, so they can tighten their grip on a city wracked by war and killing.

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+seabees

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