Lewis Barton Combs


By Professor Mark Jordan


In celebrating the long life of our colleague Lewis Barton Combs, the Rensselaer faculty recognizes an individual who left his mark in two disparate careers – the military and academia.


Lewie Combs began and ended his life in our area, but in the interim he ranged far and wide across the globe.  He was born in 1895 in Manchester, Vermont, and liked to recall that in his youth he had caddied for Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of President Abraham Lincoln.  His family later moved to the city of Rensselaer, and from there he came to our campus as a student.  Graduate in civil engineering in 1916, he joined the Navy as a lieutenant (junior grade) of the Civil Engineer Corps shortly after this country entered World War I; this became his first career.  One of his unusual assignments between the wars was to serve in the National public works department of the Republic of Haiti.


In 1937, at the relatively young age of 42, the then Commander Combs became assistant chief of the entire Navy civil engineering organization, known at that time as the Bureau of Yards and Docks.  From a small group of 120 officers and about 300 civilian engineers, the Civil Engineer Corps mushroomed in short order to a wartime peak of over 10,000 officers, 325,000 enlisted men, and a large force of civilian personnel under civil service or in the employ of construction contractors.  In his position as second in command, Lewie Combs presided over this expansion.  He held the job for an unprecedented eight years, twice the normal term for that position.


In addition to overseeing the vast expansion of Naval shore bases necessary to support the “two ocean Navy”, Combs directed the creation of a branch of the service previously unknown and unthought of, the Navy’s construction battalions.  Known today as the Seabees, these units became the construction arm of the Navy and Marine fighting forces, and accompanied them in every campaign from 1942 to 1996.  Along with his chief, Admiral Ben Moreel, Lewie Combs gets the credit for founding this unique organization.  Although based in Washington, he traveled to far flung bases in directing the work for the Corps (as I can attest, recalling a visit from him in New Caledonia in 1944).


Having reached the rank of rear admiral, the highest level normally open to a Navy civil engineer officer, Combs retired after thirty years of service.  In 1948 he returned to Rensselaer as head of the civil engineering department and professor of civil engineering.  Many leaders of today’s civil engineering profession and construction industry received their R.P.I. degrees under his tutelage during a fourteen-year tenure.


In the ‘50’s, while Combs was on our faculty, Rensselaer began its shift toward becoming a major research university.  Although Lewie Combs undoubtedly would have classified himself as a practitioner rather than a researcher, he recognized the importance of this change to the Institute.  He encouraged younger faculty members whose educations had stopped at the master’s degree to take leave in order to complete their doctorates and then return to our campus.


After retiring, and even after moving fro Troy to Red Hook, Uncle Lewie, as he was and is known to many of his younger associates (including myself), maintained his lifelong interest in Rensselaer.  He continued vigorous well into his nineties, as those among us can testify who had the opportunity to hear his periodic talks to the Naval ROTC.  Despite handicaps in hearing and vision in his last year’s, his mind continued amazingly alert; his physical vigor is attested to by his surviving a partial leg amputation not long after his hundredth birthday!


In noting his passing at the age of 101, the Rensselaer faculty salutes and honors a notable and memorable colleague.