Master Chief Arthur Ortner saw world as Navy Seabee in WW II, Korea, and Vietnam

On Aug. 19, 1966 Master Chief Arthur Ortner retired from the Seabees. By then he had constructed buildings of all shapes and sizes all over the world for the Navy during his 20 years of service.

“They piped me over the side and I was retired at 37,” the 89-year-old Sarasota world-traveler recalled.

His first big construction job in civilian life after he got out of the Seabees was to go to work for United Engineers and Construction out of Philadelphia. They were the third largest construction outfitin the country.

“I was in the power division. I started off building a nuclear power plant for Westinghouse on the Hudson River. There was already one there and we built two more. I became the manager of the nuclear construction project,” Ortner explained.

For Arthur, Terry, Barry, Scott, and Glenn, his five sons, their father wrote a 16-page spiral-backed story of his life’s work while in the Navy. He called it: ‘Can Do, Have Done, Did Travel.’

Here’s what he did in the Seabees: “My father took me down and signed me into the Seabees. I went to Bainbridge, MD in 1946. The Navy was looking for replacement Seabees and I ended up in Port Hueneme, Calif. headquarters for the Seabees on the West Coast. I went to construction school there.

“When I graduated at the top of my class, I was assigned to the 124th Construction Battalion in Adak, Alaska,” he said. “Adak was part of the Aleutian Island Chain off the coast of Alaska. “There was nothing there—no grass, no trees, no women.

“I started out in the carpenter shop, but soon was part of an outside crew putting up metal Quonset huts. I left Adak in April during my second year there and was sent back to the States and given 60 days leave.

“When I returned to the Seabee base at Port Hueneme I was reassigned to the 103rd Construction Battalion stationed on Guam in the Pacific. Guam was unspoiled and beautiful when I arrived. It was just like the natives had left it in 1949 when I got there.

“Our construction crew worked on an officers’ club being built on one of the highest hills on the island,” Ortner said. “It took us about a year to build that club.

“Then I helped put up an ‘Elephant Hut,’ they were 10 times the size of ‘Quonset Huts.’ They turned it into a commissary for dependents.

After that we built ammunition storage buildings for the Navy. Then we built automobile garages for the Navy Communication Section.”

He turned 20 while still on Guam. He was a 2nd Class Petty Officer by then.

“I was transferred to Construction Battalion 102 in Japan. In those days, 1949, we were part of the occupation force after World War II. I went to Iwakunia, Japan. There were American, English, and Australian air force units there. During the war it had been a major Japanese air base.

“By then the Korean War had broken out. By June 1950 when the war started they were flying bombing raids out of Iwakunia. It only took 15 minutes to fly over Korea from there. The British were very short of personnel and were looking for spotters. I volunteered.

“I became a spotter in the back seat of a British plane. I was looking for enemy trains, truck convoys and artillery emplacements. I had an outstanding British pilot and during my first flight over Korea I spotted some smoke coming out of a tunnel.

“My pilot took the plane and got between the sun and the people on the ground. Moments later people came out of the tunnel looking for enemy airplanes, but couldn’t spot us because we were flying into the sun. Then the train slowly emerged from the tunnel.

“My pilot said, ‘Hold onto your seat!’

“Then he fired a bunch of rockets at the train. The train must have been full of ammunition—it exploded into a huge fireball that came up toward us. The concussion from the explosion pushed us further up into the air.

“He circled over the burning train a second time. There was nothing left.

“We headed back to base. As we approached the runway all of a sudden the earth started turning. My pilot was doing barrel rolls over the runway as we came into land to celebrate his train victory,” Otner said. “I threw up all over myself and the cockpit. When we landed they gave me a bucket and a couple of sponges and I cleaned it up.

“After that plane ride I decided to scratch myself off the British Air Force’s volunteer list and went back to doing construction. It was at this point I made Petty Officer 1st Class. I had spent 14 months in Japan and they were sending me back to shore duty at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

“They were just getting started building a jet training base along side the original base. I was put in charge of the concrete and asphalt labatories for the new base that was under construction,” he said.

“After making Chief Petty Officer I was reassigned to SB-1 at Danville, R.I., the Seabee headquarters on the East Coast. When I arrived I learned I was going to be sent to the South Pole to construct quarters for scientists who would be sent there to check things out.

“I was there part of ’56 and all of 1957. While there I got to meet Adm. Byrd. He was an old, old man. Byrd had discovered the North Pole during his 1929 expedition. The government had brought him back to take part in the opening ceremony for the scientists’ living quarters we had just built. I got to shake his hand.

“We built a base at Cape Adair. Problem was it was a penguin rookery before it was a base for our scientists. We had to figure out how to get the penguins away from the construction site before we started building. We had no fencing to keep the penguins out. So some officer came up with the idea of using the oil drums we had aboard our ships to block the penguins.

“For a moment the oil-drum fence worked. Then a single penguin jumped up on a single oil drum and squelched. Within seconds thousands of penguins jumped our oil drum fence that had taken us two weeks to build and another week to get them all out of the construction area without injuring them.

“We had to leave the penguins where they were and construct the buildings without injuring them. It was a pain.”

After the South Pole expedition he worked on the ‘Dew-Line,’ America’s RADAR system used to protect the U.S.from Russian bombers attacking us from the North Pole. There he built barracks and other facilities at various facilities.

Cuba was Ortner’s next stop. It was just before Fidel Castro, and the Communists, took over the island nation.

Arthur holds a picture of him with his wife shortly after they were married 66 years ago this November 2. Sun photo by Mary Auen

“I worked on water problems at our base at Guantanamo.

“I worked for Adm. Buckley who was in charge of the base. In World War II he was skipper of the P.T. boat that took Gen. Mac Arthur and his family off Coragador. Castro had cut off the water to the fort and the admiral invited some of the magazine reports from ‘Life,’ and ‘Colliers’ down to Getmo to see what was happening with our water.”

While they were at the fort he dug up the pipeline and cut it so they could see there was water coming into the fort from the Cuban-held part of the island. Eventually water was restored to the fort.

“I went on to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and worked with U.D.T. (Underwear Demolition Teams). I built barracks for them to live in. Every morning the UDT team would pick up this huge telephone pole and walk off with it on their shoulders.

“A short while later I became a Master Chief, and E-9, the ‘Queen of the May’ in enlisted ranks. Then I was sent on a top secret assignment to Europe. I went there to help build an atomic sub base in Spain. It was 1960 and the height of the ‘Cold War.’

“By early 1960 I got involved in training people who were going to be sent to Vietnam with equipment. I taught Naval Academy graduates how to handle the equipment that was being sent there and how it should be disbursed.

Six years later he had another job involving Vietnam. Ortner was working for the commodore in charge of the Seabees and based in Dainesville, RI. It was my job to determine how we were going to get four Seabee construction battalions to Vietnam.

“By then I had 20 years in the Seabees and had five boys in college. I thought it was about time for me to quit the Navy,’” he said. “I put in for retirement and waited for the Navy to tell me when.“

Ortner retired from the Seabees Aug. 19, 1966. A few months later he went to work for a Philadelphia firm that built nuclear reactors. Eighteen years later he retired from his civilian job for good in 1984 and moved to the Sarasota area with his wife, Barbara.

“I found that most engineers were good at what they knew, but they didn’t know how to handle people. The Navy taught me how to handle people.”

Ortner and his wife, Barbara, look at a “from scratch” replica he built to enter in a Mariners’ Museum contest that won “Third Place.” It’s a replica of the 36-gun U.S. Frigate “Confederacy” captured by the British during the Revolutionary War. Sun photo by Mary Auenson

In recent decades the only thing he has constructed are “scratch built” sailing ships of the Revolutionary War-era and others. One of his intricate models recently received a Third Place award from the Mariners Museum in Norfolk, Va. He has also produced scratch scale models for Karl Kirkman, designer of yachts that raced for the America’s Cup, for 22 years.

Name:  Arthur Ortner
D.O.B: 25 June 1929
Hometown: Jersey City, N.J.
Currently:  Sarasota, FL
Entered Service: 1 Sept. 1946
Discharged: 19 Aug. 1966
Rank:  Master Chief–Seabees
Commendations: Anartiac Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Oct. 29. 2018 and is republished with permission.

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  1. Hi Today I was looking in my family history. I never knew we had a Ortner who was in World War 2. I am so happy to know that some one help to keep our nation free.

  2. I was so happy to come across this article. Art was my boss at my very first full time job at United Engineers in 1977. His mentorship was the foundation of my own 40+ year career. I last saw him in 1984 when I took him to lunch to celebrate his retirement. I have so much respect and admiration for Art and am grateful to have known him.

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