Captain – U.S. Navy
USS Salt Lake City and USS Wichita, World War II
Director of Seabee Division in Washington DC
Director of Operation Deep Freeze in the Antarctic
James Douglas, a resident of San Rafael, California, was born in Uvalde, Texas on October 1, 1914. He was the second of four sons and grew up in San Antonio, Texas. Douglas was an accomplished young man and graduated from high school at 16. He also played the french horn in the San Antonio symphony, rode a horse in the Calvary Regiment of the Texas Army National Guard, earned his Eagle Scout and later became both a Boy Scout and a Girl Scout Mariner Troop Leader.
Douglas attended the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and graduated in 1938 with distinction. He was commissioned in June 1938. His first career can be summarized with the motto of the Navy Seabees, “Can Do”. Douglas spent the first two years of his service at sea on board heavy cruisers; the USS Salt Lake City and the USS Wichita. Shortly before the attack on Pearl Harbor, he transferred to the Civil Engineer Corps. In 1941, while still serving in the Navy, Douglas continued his education at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; earning a Master of Civil Engineering in 1943.
Douglas served in various Navy Seabee assignments during World War II, beginning with duty in the 9th Regiment in Attu and the 6th regiment in Adak. According to Douglas, “we had a rough time up in the Aleutians, but it was great cold weather experience and it served me well later on.” Thereafter, Douglas served with the Commander Construction Troops, 10th Army, as part of the 87th Seabee Battalion, for the assault on Okinawa. He served with the Commander Construction Troops doing airfield reconnaissance and later as the Executive Officer and Officer in Charge of the 87th Seabee Battalion. Douglas was awarded the Bronze Star Medal with combat “V” for heroic service during the campaign on Okinawa during World War II.
After World War II, Douglas continued his service with the Navy. Assignments included faculty staff duty at the Civil Engineer Officers School in Rhode Island, Public Works Officer at the Naval Ammunition Depot in Oklahoma and Public Works Officer and Officer in Charge of Construction Battalion Depot 1518 at the Naval Base in Bermuda. Douglas also commanded Mobile Construction Battalion 3 for a seven month deployment to the Aleutians at the start of the Korean War.
His long naval career moved him around the globe with his family. In 1951, Douglas took command of the Philippine Naval Construction Regiment, later to become the 30th Naval Construction Regiment, in Subic Bay, Philippines. The construction of this naval air base was said to be the largest peacetime earth moving job since the Panama Canal. Douglas noted, “it took five battalions of Seabees over the course of five years to build the Subic Bay Naval Bases, including the Cubi Point airfield, and it was one of the greatest construction jobs, as well as the most beneficial training experiences the Seabees have ever accomplished.” Douglas further stated, “we worked hard 24 hours a day, six days a week and could see the results of our work.” “It was one helluva project”, exclaimed Douglas and upon completion, “involved 30 million cubic yards of unclassified excavation.”
After his work in Subic Bay, Douglas continued his advanced studies and graduated from the Armed Forces Staff College in 1954. Thereafter, he joined the Bureau of Yards and Docks in Washington DC where he served as Director of the Seabee Division. During this assignment, Douglas was in charge of the planning and construction of eight bases in the Antarctic from 1956-1959 for the International Geophysical year and Operation DEEP FREEZE. He also served as head of the facilities and equipment section of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance and as a faculty member of the Navy War College. Douglas retired as a Captain in August of 1961 and started a second career in academia at the age of 46 years.
According to Douglas, “I decided it would be nice if I could combine my considerable construction operations field experience with my academic experience in the construction field.” Douglas enrolled at Stanford University where he received a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering Construction in 1963. Douglas recalls that his decision to pursue his educational goals was a “tough one to make since I had to pay school expenses while supporting a family.” “My G.I. Bill stipend from the Veteran’s Administration did not come close to paying all of my expenses and it was a tough transition,” noted Douglas. After receipt of his Ph.D., Douglas accepted an appointment to the Stanford faculty where he was one of the original four faculty members of the Construction Engineering and Management graduate program.
He taught and conducted research on construction equipment economics at Stanford until he retired as an Emeritus Professor in 1980. While at Stanford, Douglas founded an executive education program for construction managers called “Stanford Sierra Construction College” where he served as Dean, authored several technical reports regarding equipment operations and equipment economics, and authored the text “Construction Equipment Policy” in 1975. Douglas was also one of the first in the field of construction engineering to apply computer technology to complex engineering problems.
Douglas was a Fellow of the American Society of Civil Engineering and was awarded the ASCE Thomas Fitch Rowland Prize in 1969 and the ASCE Construction Management Award in 1975.
In his retirement, Douglas established two Seabee Memorial Scholarships as “a good way to give something back to the Seabee family.” In addition, he served as a Board Member and President of Villa Marin Homeowners Association in San Rafael. He also loved to fly; received his light plane pilot’s license in 1959, then repaired and flew a Cessna 120 for fun. Douglas said, “I didn’t feel old until I was 95 years old”.
Upon reflection of his time in the Navy, Douglas stated, “I love the Seabees and the experiences I had with them around the world during my 23 year naval career. Fact is, I just felt closer to them than any other community in the Navy.” Life as a Seabee was a tremendous experience for James Douglas. He has no regrets about his service and if he had to do it over again, Douglas claimed proudly that he “would do the same thing all over again and love every minute of it.”
Interview by Jacob Wahbeh on June 21, 2012 and Narrative prepared by Nicholas Elsbree on August 1, 2012.