THE BIG SAILOR: “WE’LL FIGHT TO THE DEATH FIRST!”
My contact, Chief Allen, a big sailor, picked me up in an even bigger OD green truck. We headed for Little Creek Naval Base, where we met another chief named Flannagan, who was just as big as Allen. We began loading a couple dozen well used flotation vests. Flannagan’s woodland camo sleeves were rolled up, and even though it was still dark, I could see that his arm looked like an advertisement for a tattoo parlor. I heard Chief Allen telling Flannagan that something was B.S. We began the two-hour drive to Fort A. P. Hill.
“What were you and Flannagan talking about?” I asked. “Oh, they wanted to have one of the missions deal with rescuing a Riverine who got captured,” he said. “It’d never happen. No way. We’d fight to the death first!” Whether or not that training scenario would have had any value, Allen’s response pretty much summed up what he was made of. It would be reinforced throughout the next five days. I’d gone to Virginia to spend a week with the U.S. Navy’s sailors of Riverine Squadron One (RIVRON 1), one of three RIVRON squadrons assigned to America’s brown water navy. The brown water navy and the blue water navy are both part of the U.S. Navy, but the blue water navy has always gotten all the press.
The brown water navy gets its name from the color of the water in the shallow rivers it patrols, and its tradition stems from the Navy’s “fast boats” first used during the Vietnam War, where the Riverines took on the affectionate moniker of “River Rats.” A lot has changed since then, not the least of which is that the fast boats are even faster (as I’d soon find out). But today’s Riverines are every bit the sons of those who went before them.
RIVERINE SQUADRON ONE
My invitation to “train” with RIVRON 1 began with my invite to sail on the USS Vicksburg (CG 69), a guided-missile cruiser, in 2005. The Vicksburg’s skipper, Captain C.A. “Chip” Swicker, had adopted my 1* (one-ass-to-risk) logo years before. Captain Swicker invited me to meet the ship in Rhode Island on its rotation back from Iraq, and sail with him down to their home port in Jacksonville. Captain Swicker’s executive officer was Lieutenant Commander (LCD) Gary Leigh, whose home is just up the road a bit from me. After spending a year at the Pentagon, Leigh was promoted and given command of Riverine Squadron One.
CDR Leigh contacted me to inform me of his new assignment and (get this) to ask my permission to paint my 1* logo on his boats. I laughed and told him I’d buy the paint. CDR Leigh told me his squadron would be training in Virginia until the fall of 2008, when it would re-deploy to patrol the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Iraq in support of the Marines. He told me that they would be doing some serious training missions late summer. Naturally, I jumped at the chance.
Chief Allen and I arrived at Fort A.P. Hill just in time for the first of many briefings during the week conducted by LT Robert Arias, a friendly, but intense man whom I’d describe as the “ramrod” of the squadron. Other lieutenants were also present, along with Master Chief Reagan who, with a long Navy career, could be described as the heart and soul of the squadron.
Just as intense as LT Arias, Master Chief Reagan smiled a lot but I never saw him laugh. (Except for CDR Leigh and a few others, for security purposes, I’ve changed the names of some of the men mentioned here, or used only their first names.)
During the briefing, LT Arias raced over maps projected on the wall and the assignments of the various elements and used what seemed like a thousand abbreviations and acronyms peculiar to the U.S. Navy. I perked up when he said we would be doing 16 missions that day, half of them in daylight and the rest at night. Because it was the first day, and they had to wait for the boats to arrive from Little Creek, we would work until about 04:00 hours.
TRAINING ON THE RAPPAHAMMOCK RIVER
At the time of my visit, RIVRON 1 had three detachments of 50 sailors each plus a headquarters element. Many of these sailors have rotated into the squadron from the blue water navy by request, while others have been taken directly out of boot camp. When RIVRON 1 deploys, it will have additional Riverines. Except for the officers, Master Chief Reagan and Chief Allen, a different detachment arrived to train each day. The training changes continually with the squadron often traveling to different locations around the country. This week RIVRON 1 would be training on the Rappahammock River not far from Fort A.P. Hill, but no live fire training is possible there, just blanks. The following week the squadron would go to Camp Lejeune for live fire training, taking their
boats with them.
For the week, RIVRON 1 drew 80,000 rounds of blanks in 5.56mm NATO, 7.62mm NATO and .50 caliber
BMG. The weapons included lots of M4 carbines, MK 43 (M60E3) LMGs, M240 LMGs, GAU-17 miniguns and M2 HB .50 caliber heavy machine guns. All of these weapons used blank firing adapters (BFAs) except the GAU-17s, which are electrically fired at the rate of 3,500 rounds per minute. Many of the M4s had SureFire Weapon Lights, most were equipped with KMC RAS Rails, GripPods, and all of them had Trijicon 4x32mm ACOG sights.
The 16 missions of the first day included simulated improvised explosive devices (IEDs), ambush and suicide bomber scenarios involving the convoy along the 10-mile heavily wooded trip to the river, all with sailors playing the parts of terrorists. The scenarios were reality based, with the officers and chiefs taking notes and grading the reactions for the critique that would follow.
During the convoy toward the Rappahammock, while I was riding in one of the vans, the guy in front of me began doing a comedy bit that was really funny. Then he mentioned something about when he did “stand-up.” I said, “Wait a minute. You’re a Riverine and you do standup comedy too?”
This Riverine—we’ll call him “Sharf” here—IS an accomplished stand-up comedian when he’s on leave or when he entertains the Riverines “impromptu.” He’s also a neighbor of mine a mountain or two away, and a true “gun guy.”
THE BOATS OF THE RIVERINES
The Riverines have two types of boats, the 39-foot River Patrol Boat (RPB) and a new 28-foot boat called the River Assault Boat (RAB). A new, larger command boat is also scheduled for service. Both the RPB and RAB are powered by two 440-hp supercharged diesel engines, but neither has a propeller (screw) or a rudder. Instead, the system takes in water through vents in the hull and forces it out port and starboard venturis below the stern. When the helm is turned right or left, the venturis point in those directions to jettison water. If the wheel is turned to the right, the venturis direct their water to the right, pushing the stern to the left so the boat goes to the right. If the throttle is at full thrust, the RPB turns on a quarter while the RAB can literally turn on a dime. At about 40 knots and 45 knots for the RPB and RAB respectively, the Riverines (and I) quickly learn how to hold on.
To go backward, massive devices called buckets rotate down to block the streams of water and redirect it forward under the hull. To illustrate the system’s efficiency, if the buckets are lowered when the RPB is at flank speed ahead (about 40 miles per hour), the boat will stop in about 15 feet. When this happens the bow will actually submerge about a foot, with walls of water shooting some 12 feet high on either side and about six feet high over the bow when it shoots back up. Since the boat is all but unsinkable, this poses no danger as long as everyone is holding on for dear life. This maneuver could actually allow the boat to avoid being hit by an RPG rocket. Equally exciting is crossing the wake of a boat you are chasing at 40 mph. In fact, it amounts to a nautical chiropractor where two hands simply aren’t enough.
The method of propulsion was first used by the U.S. Navy’s Riverines during the Vietnam War. The system has undergone continuous evolutionary improvement, and as the most efficient method of boat power going, you can expect to soon see it used on large U.S. Navy ships.
By the time we reached the river it was twilight. LT Arias assigned me to the RAB with three RPBs also being put in. The drill was that one of the RPBs, commanded by Chief Allen, would be the attack boat with a crew of six well seasoned Riverines, while the other three boats would each have maximum crews. Additional Riverines had driven to areas along the river to set up shoreline ambushes against us.
It was so dark when the RAB came around to the dock that I had to use one of my Surefire lights in order to make my way to where I was advised to stand. Assessing the immediate area, I saw that I wouldn’t be able to move; so what photos I could take would be from where I was. It just so happened that I was right next to ”Sharf.”
“SHARF,” IN FULL BATTLE GEAR, PLAYED FOR KEEPS
Sharf was on his M240 with only the area around his eye brightly visible from the pale green glow of his night vision scope. Since I had permission to take flash photos for SOF, I took a few, but I didn’t push it.
The Riverines were dressed in full battle gear and I guessed that a couple of them were new to the squadron. They looked tired – maybe even a little bored – as the boats slowly moved downstream toward the ambushes waiting them, but not “Sharf.”
Peering through his night vision sight, “Sharf” was solidly behind his M240 constantly searching the heavily-wooded shoreline that was full of tiny inlets where the “enemy” RPB could hide. He knew the drill and he was playing the game for keeps. It was just by chance that I was watching “Sharf” when he jerked onto point like a retriever and yelled that he had a boat. At that instant a white light came on and the “enemy” RPB took off at full speed, overtaking us with its guns blazing about 75 yards off our port side. All hell broke loose. “Sharf” began firing his M240 the instant he was fired upon and he continued a steady stream of what seemed like at least 50 rounds along with 500 more from the M4s and .50 M2s on board until Chief Allen’s boat was out of sight. The fun had begun!
This cat and mouse game went on for hours with head-on assaults, ambushes and a couple of simulated IEDs that had been planted on bridge abutments by Chief Allen’s crew. When our scenarios were completed we headed back and loaded the boats onto their trucks. No white light was permitted and a half-dozen Riverines took prone positions with their M240s and MK 43s in case of an attack just as they would in-country, but also because their own Riverine “insurgents” would be happy to take them by surprise to teach them by example.
ONE OF THE RIDES OF MY LIFE
When we got back to A.P. Hill we spent at least another half-hour in debrief going over what went wrong, with pass or fail grades for each mission. Only a few of the scenarios were graded as unsatisfactory, with details for correcting them clearly spelled out.
At the briefing the next morning, a lot of the faces were different. A new group of Riverines had arrived the previous afternoon. The RAB had been taken out of service with a mechanical problem, so Chief Allen suggested I go with his crew of insurgents for better photo ops and more excitement. Having played a bad guy in a hundred SWAT training scenarios, I gladly went along as an observer for what would be one of the rides of my life. Master Chief
Reagan went along too, probably to make sure I survived.
Our RPB was put in first so we could get a head start to choose locations from which to ambush the other three boats. Loaded with Riverines, those RPBs had neither the fast starts nor the top speed of our boat, even though it was the oldest one in the group. Chief Allen wanted to check one inlet to see if it was deep enough for us to stage an ambush from, and we also set a simulated IED under the high Hwy. 360 bridge about 20 miles downriver for the others to find and have their EOD officer take care of.
THE MOSQUITOES DRINK INSECT REPELLENT STRAIGHT
The Rappahammock River begins about 16 miles east of Fredericksburg, VA and runs about 100 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. The river is about 300 feet wide where we put in and gradually widens up to three miles or so. The maximum depth we sailed in was about 20 feet and usually much less. Although we didn’t run into any on this trip, water moccasins are very common in the area, in addition to lots of other poisonous critters, some with eight legs, not to mention the ticks that carry Lyme disease. Then there are the mosquitoes that come four to a pound and drink insect repellent straight! The only time you’re safe from them is when you’re moving on the water; but at 40 knots, if you don’t keep your mouth closed, you’ll eat something you’d normally swat.
One member of our six-man crew, Zak, looked like a young John Wayne. The day was hot and Zak took off his long sleeve woodland camo shirt, wearing just his navy T-shirt. On his arm, below the right sleeve, I could see a partial tattoo of a gun muzzle.
“I LOVE MY TWO-FORTY”
“What’s that on your arm?” I asked. “That’s my two-forty,” said Zak, proudly pulling up his sleeve to show me a perfect tattoo of an M240 machine gun. As the rest of the crew jeered, Zak posed for a photo with his M240 tattoo. Zak, too, would soon demonstrate his ability with this great weapon.
The blanks would provide excellent training for malfunction drills, especially in the .50 caliber guns, but also in the M240s. M2 .50 caliber firing blanks are usually problematic, but not so with the M240, at least when using the traditional 7.62mm NATO “bottle nose” blanks. However, some genius designed a new 7.62mm NATO practice blank with a false bullet front just under .30 caliber with a crimped nose. The nose expands, and when the gun is dirty the round sticks in the chamber, causing extraction problems.
About an hour and a half passed before the three RPBs approached us some 1,500 yards away. We headed right for them flying our 4X6 Jolly Roger flag and opened up with our two M240s on the bow when we were about 600 yards away. The three RPBs opened up with the same plus two GAU-17 mini-guns. At a closing speed of about 65 knots, we passed each other in a flash.
In real life, gunners would have to aim behind their target rather than in front of it, especially if the target was standing still. Since we were passing a moving boat about 30 to 50 yards away, we would begin firing about 10 feet off the bow and continue the burst for almost the length of the other boat. With two of the other boats having GAU-17 mini-guns, we would have been killed a dozen times had they been firing live ammo. So after going about 500 yards past the boats, Chief Allen would stop our boat, arm a smoke grenade and drop it in a .50 caliber ammo can half-full of water to simulate that we were on fire. Then he would quickly make up the drill as to who was dead, who was wounded and so forth.
During the first scenario everyone played dead, so it was a simple matter of searching, securing and radioing that they were scuttling the boat. Still, the Riverines that came aboard were very guarded, with our boat totally covered by the boarding boat and a second boat, while the third boat stood off and provided general security from the shore. LT Arias was aboard the third RPB Once we were cleared, the three RPBs pulled away. Our insurgents came back to life and we sped downstream about 1,000 yards, reloaded the guns, and turned around for another assault. As we drew near we opened fire, but this time Chief Allen steered our boat between the other boats with our guns blazing from both sides, forcing the others into a cross-fire with their GAU-17s blazing with thousands of 7.62mm blanks aimed at us. Being on the receiving end of a GAU-17 40 yards away is something a terrorist would never see in real life. Well, he might see it for a fraction of a second just before he went to meet Allah.
A “DEAD” MAN’S SURPRISE
With another smoke grenade in a .50 caliber can of water, we waited upstream for them. But this time only one of our insurgents was simulating a dead guy near the stern, and he was lying on a live (but unarmed) smoke grenade to simulate a booby trap. Every one of our crew spoke some Arabic and they had donned some Middle Eastern adornment to make it even more realistic, as they yelled words I didn’t understand with their hands in the air. Chief
Allen told me to make sure I stayed in the cabin this time, as when they came aboard they were going to be given a rough time. While Master Chief Reagan and I watched from inside, our crew continued to give the Riverines verbal trouble. When one of the Riverines ordered Chief Allen to keep his hands up and come toward him, Allen did so, but when he was not ordered to stop, he walked right into his captor, almost knocking him over the bow. This pissed off the Riverines, who promptly took Allen down and tied his hands with flex cuffs.
Perhaps due to the commotion on the bow, our dead man was never searched. With our boats only a few feet apart, he came to life, held up his smoke grenade and, with a big smile yelled, “Hey, you didn’t find the IED I was laying on.”
Chief Allen gave the helm to one of his men and retrieved a M16A1 artillery simulator (flash-bang). As he walked to the stern, he told the sailor at the wheel to get ready to head out at full speed. Allen then pulled the pin in the simulator and threw it about five yards off the stern of the RPB that was just pulling away. “OK, GO,” he yelled, and our boat accelerated up-river. When we were about 50 yards away, the device exploded just under the surface, sending gallons of water high into the air, as the other RPB tried to speed away. The competition had risen to a new level.
During the dozen or so scenarios that followed, Chief Allen attacked the Riverines relentlessly. But since this was the first daylight action of the week, as well as my first time on the attack RPB, I would soon learn that it was nothing new. While the insurgents and I were having the most fun, we were also traveling twice as fast, and hanging on as we turned and dodged.
Zak and the other sailor each manned an M240 on each side of the bow. I’ve shot many thousands of rounds through a great variety of machine guns and I’ve watched plenty of G.I. shooters on machine guns over the years, but none of them have impressed me like these Riverines. Looking into the face of a GAU-17 firing at the rate of 3,500 rpm was nothing to Zak and his partner, because they were going to kill everyone on those other boats and win! It was the same with the guy on the .50 caliber on the stern. Even when Zak ran totally dry at the end of the last daylight scenario, he pretended like he was still firing, making the “BOP, BOP, BOP” sounds with his mouth while keeping
his 240 trained on the other boats.
CHASING THE RPBs WITH A VENGEANCE
The next day we had another new crew.
CDR Leigh, just in from D.C., radioed for us to pick him up at a dock adjacent to the Hwy. 360 bridge. Chief Allen
drove the bow of the boat right up to the dock and CDR Leigh jumped in. Chief Allen was scouting some places for a shore ambush before the other boats caught up with us, and the fighting began. I don’t know whether it was because CDR Leigh was aboard, but Chief Allen seemed even more aggressive than before (if that was possible). He went after the other three RPBs with a vengeance, and so did a new guy Nick and his M240 bow gun partner, James. James was a tall, slender kid who was quiet but friendly – that is until he got behind that M240 on the attack. On one occasion, after doing a tight-as-possible U-turn at flank speed, Chief Allen yelled for everybody to hold on. I grabbed the rail with all I had as Allen went flank speed across the wakes of all three RPBs head on in order to cut them off for another run.
We turned to open fire on the other boats again.
On the way back to our pier, I was standing in front of the helm when Chief Allen yelled to me, asking if I wanted to get wet. I handed him my camera bag and shouted, “Go for it.” Allen pushed both throttles forward until we reached maximum speed and screamed for everybody to hold on just before he lowered the buckets to instantly divert the water jets forward. The boat came to almost an immediate stop with the bow going under the surface, shooting a wall of water eight feet high on either side and then coming up to throw a sheet of water off the nose and back onto the three of us on the forward section.
GETTING BEHIND THE WHEEL IS A DIFFERENT MATTER
After that, Chief Allen told me to get behind the wheel, because I was going to drive the boat. I had watched him and others at the helm, but I wasn’t sure I was “up to speed” for a U.S. Navy boat with its crew. However, after a 15-second crash course, I was steadily accelerating down river when he told me to turn it around and go back up river, and to give it all she had.
Riding the RPB at full speed was one thing, but driving it was something else. It handled much like any other boat I’ve driven, but with better response as I guided it around bends between depth markers almost like flying. Then
Chief Allen told me to shut it down and to put both feet on the rest in front of me and just do what he told me to do when he told me. All I know is that I was going in one direction one second and the opposite way the next. Then he told me to take’er in. By that he meant dock’er.
“I ain’t docking’er!” I said. “Yeah, yeah, you just aim at that corner and I’ll work the jets.” I thought, I wonder how much this friggin’ boat costs, but I massaged the wheel at about one foot per second speed while Allen did the same with the water jets until we were alongside the dock. “See? Nuthin’ to it,” he said. “Yeah, right.”
When Master Chief Reagan and I got back to the boat, Chief Allen and the crew were busy preparing the guns with hundreds of rounds of 7.62mm and .50 caliber blanks linked together to form 200-round belts.
Nick had found some fishing line that had been snagged by the dock and suggested that they set up an IED right there. Chief Allen gave him the go-ahead and he and one of the crew rigged two smoke grenades, a red and a yellow, at the base of two large trees that grew on either side of the main gravel path to the dock. The fishing line was tied to the ring of each pull-pin with the pins pinched and partially pulled. I covered the grenades with leaves and the line was invisible. We left a bag with empty pop cans and food wrappers at the other end of the dock as a decoy, and sped off down river just as the Riverines arrived.
Chief Allen took the boat about 600 yards down river and pulled it into shore, so we could watch and listen with our radio turned up full blast. This unusual move caused much suspicion on the part of the Riverines and the EOD officer attached to them. He took the bait with the bag of empty pop cans and finished the rest of his check before announcing that it was clear. A minute later the EOD officer tripped the fishing line, causing the red smoke grenade to ignite with a big red smoke cloud. With this, Chief Allen put our RPB in reverse and we took off down river as fast as we could, laughing until we hurt. The EOD officer was clearly pissed over the radio, which made it even funnier.
We set our usual IED at the Hwy. 360 bridge and went another mile down river and waited. The other three RPBs showed up just after dark and the war was on again, as fast and furious as ever with water and smoke filling the air. Through the night, much of the battle raged just east of the bridge, as hundreds of cars and trucks crossed during the night. Many of the cars on the bridge slowed down to see the spectacle, as the muzzle flashes from the GAU-17s lit up the boats.
THE NAVY AND THE WAR ON TERROR
The next morning I gave Master Chief Reagan a GripPod for his MK18 and he and I left for Little Creek with hardly any time to say goodbye to all but a few of the fabulous kids I sailed with who are the Riverines of today’s U.S. Navy.
At Little Creek, CDR Leigh gave me the grand tour of his headquarters including their armory. He also presented me with some RIVRON 1 memorabilia and a beautiful autographed framed picture of a RPB on patrol. At dinner, he showed me the fabulous 1* G-10 grips for the M-9 Beretta 92, which Craig Sword of Mil-Tac had sent him at my request, and he also gave a set to Master Chief Reagan. You can be certain that in the Global War on Terror, America’s brown water navy is in it for the long haul!