Three Wars, 23 Years of Service
Local veteran traveled the world as a Seabee, building anything troops needed
By Craig Reed
Larry Fairbairn was involved in three major wars. He’s the first to admit he is fortunate to have survived each without much more than a scratch.
After being drafted in 1942, Larry joined the U.S. Navy Seabees and became a heavy equipment operator. He was involved in combat construction in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
Larry, 94, had a 23-year career in the Navy, retiring in 1966. He lives a quiet life in the McKenzie Bridge area with his wife, Sam, of 37 years.
“I thank God every night that I’m still alive,” he says. “I’m very lucky. The good Lord was looking after me.”
Larry was not on the front lines in any of the three wars, but while operating equipment on construction projects, he was within range of long artillery and on many occasions there were explosions around him. The Seabees were skilled workers capable of any type of construction, anywhere needed, under any conditions or circumstances. They were also trained to drop their tools and equipment if necessary and take up weapons at a moment’s notice to defend themselves.
In 1944, Larry was in Guam, working to expand the airstrip to accommodate B-29 heavy bombers when a ground explosion resulted in shrapnel injuring his left leg. A field doctor said, “We’ll put a Band-Aid on it,” and Larry was quickly back at the construction site.
Larry’s only other major health issue while in the service also occurred in Guam. He came down with dengue fever—a mosquito-borne tropical disease. He was bedridden in a hospital for most of a week before getting his strength back and being released.
“I saw people lying on the ground dead, but I was fortunate,” he says.
After the war ended in 1945, Larry was sent to Tinian in the Mariana group of islands to help rebuild airstrips. He returned to the U.S. in 1946, was discharged and attended Oregon State University for one year on the GI Bill. He then took a job with the Army Corps of Engineers.
He didn’t feel quite right, however, and soon checked into a program “for those who suffered shellshock,” he says. He spent three months in the program and then decided to re-enlist in the Navy.
“I felt that is where I belonged, in with other military people,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed the training, what the possibilities of advancement were and the opportunity to learn marketable skills.”
Larry eventually taught equipment operation and surveying at a Seabee school at Port Hueneme near Oxnard, California. When an operation for testing equipment in cold weather came up, he volunteered and spent six months at Point Barrow, Alaska. He helped build an ice base and airstrip there.
When Larry’s time on that project ended, his next stops were back in Southern California and then to Adak, an island town in southwestern Alaska.
The Korean War began in 1950. Larry was eventually deployed to the South Korean town of P’ohang-dong, spending six months with the 8th Army. That war ended in 1953.
Larry spent several years at numerous sites, either working in construction, training, instructing or being a teacher to military personnel, helping them reach a high school equivalency in their education. He also taught classes for local children.
On a project in Antarctica, he helped build another ice base and a road system. While there, he volunteered to join a Russian expedition that was using “huge snowmobiles” to travel around the region.
“I joined that group to learn about their snowmobiles,” he said. “Sometimes it was so cold there, you couldn’t go outside.”
Larry’s next stop was Auckland, New Zealand, for a 30-day leave. Then he spent a year in Da Nang during the Vietnam War.
While in Vietnam, Larry came up for reassignment. He was a chief petty officer and was offered a commission but turned it down because he would have had to commit to seven more years in the service before considering retirement. Instead, he finished his military career at a recruiting office in Ukiah, California.
While working in Ukiah, Larry met a U.S. Forest Service engineer. After hearing about Larry’s construction experience, the engineer told him there would be a forest service job available for him when he retired.
Larry retired from the Navy in 1966 and went to work for the forest service that year. He was both a district engineer and a project manager in his 18 years with that agency.
He worked out of Ukiah, San Bernadino and Ojai offices in California, working on campground construction, logging roads, trail construction, building quarters for forest service personnel and managing facilities. He worked on building 20 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs from the border in Southern California to the northern border in Washington.
Larry says that Veterans Day on November 11 is special for him. He participated in a Veterans Day event a year ago in Eugene and has been a special guest in past Veterans Day parades.
Other than limited hearing, he is in good health for his age and hopes to participate in future Veterans Day events.
“I think he’s had a great life—a wonderful life,” Sam says of her husband. “He’s gotten to see so much of the world. He’s gotten to meet so many good people.”
“I’m very patriotic,” Larry says. “Other than being shot at, I can’t find anything wrong with my career in the Seabees. I was happy to serve.