Phil Garn SBS-1 History


SBS-1 History by Lt Phil Garn.

SBS-1 History

Sparks in the Wilderness
 Special Boat Units Between Vietnam and Desert Shield by Phil G. Garn

The period following the end of American involvement in Vietnam in the early 1970's and deployment to Desert Shield in 1990 was a  particularly challenging time for all of Naval Special Warfare and the Special Boat Units in particular. With an odd mix of active and
reserve, SEAL and Surface personnel, aging and ill-conceived craft; they struggled against the tide of Eurocentric Cold War during this bleak era in the wilderness. The sparks of tradition, experience, professionalism and enthusiasm bridged this sad gap delivering units
ready to deploy, fight. and win.

Following the same sad route as at the end of World War II, our Navy abandoned its light forces with the end of the war in Vietnam who had played a major role both on the coast and up the many rivers and tributaries of South East Asia. Fortunately, farsighted officers in Naval Special Warfare (Specwar) said they would gladly accept the missions of Riverine Warfare, Coastal Patrol and Interdiction as well as SEAL Support. For these battle hardened veterans, it was a no brainer. They wanted their own boats with their own guys who were totally on board with the missions and would stay on line during a high speed recovery under hostile shore fire or pull the squad off the bank in a hot extraction; they did not want to rely on borrowing the captain's gig or a Mike boat (landing craft) from a Gator
(landing ship like an LSD, LST or CVH) and take their chances with who ever was thrown into the landing party or had crewed the last liberty boat. However as the cold war wore on and the glamour of air operations gleamed, the Boat Units were relegated into more
administrative support missions: safety boats for rubber ducks (parachute drops of combat rubber raiding craft), ship attacks (swimmer delivered limpeteer attacks), sub ops (locking operators in and out of submarines while submerged) demo shots (explosive clearance of beach obstacles) and SDV (Swimmer Delivery Vehicle, miniature submarine) ops. The close bond between boat crews and Seals drifted apart despite deployments with ARGs (Amphibious ReadyGroups) and forward deployments to Philippines and Panama.
The draw down after Vietnam was particularly harmful, and what little new Naval resources were channeled into Nuclear Submarines and Anti Submarine Warfare (Trident ballistic missile submarines and Lockheed S-3's, anti-submarine jet aircraft). Production of .50 cal ammunition was suspended (In my seven years in the boat units, I never fired a .50 cal round that was not at least seven years older than I was, and I was born in 1960.) Even with the build up during the Reagan Years and the 600 ship Navy, the emphasis was on the "blue water" Navy and an anticipated Tom Clanceyesque confrontation with the Soviets. For a good portion of this time, Specwar did not even have a single admiral. Unlike today, an 0-6 (Captain) was in charge of both Coasts. (In 1984 due to miscommunication during a submarine operation between an ASDV and an attack submarine, a multi star Submarine
Admiral from SUBPAC wanted to cancel all of Naval Special Warfare, the Teams. the Boats and everything that went with them; thankfully, cooler heads prevailed.) Despite this Eurocentric stance, there was still enough hot brush fire off Beirut, in the Caribbean (Grenada), Central America and the Persian Gulf to keep the missions real for all the operators in Spec War. In fact more so, because they were pulling the triggers and on the receiving end of hostile fire in these so called sideshows.
The boat units were a strange bird for reporting Seals and Surface personnel alike. Despite three major wars experience of waterborne insertion/extraction to the contrary, the emphasis on air and submarine operations became the glamour ops for the generation of
Seals after Vietnam. High speed cast and recovery was something you did at BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal Training) and for demo (demonstration) day on the 4th of July. A hot extract(ion) off the beach or river bank was about as likely to happen in the European Theater as actually paddling to shore in an IBS (Inflatable Boat Small). If you did not have air (helicopter or C-130) or an SDV (Swimmer Delivery Vehicle), a CRRC (Combat Rubber Raiding Craft) or Z-bird (Zodiac manufactured Combat Rubber Raiding Craft) was going to get you to shore and back from a sub not some Vietnam-era left over or Sea Fox. Administratively, a SEAL officer now had to deal with a command almost completely consisting of surface officers and sailors who came from an entirely different culture, as well as much more complex equipment than a parachute, M-16, PRC-77, Drager re breather
or out board motor. Now faced with a variety of multi engined turbocharged diesels, lorans, Fruno radars, IFF black boxes, power operated gun mounts etc., it was a huge step. Then there were many issues with fleet sailors who were not as physically fit or cohesive as their own closed loop enlisted men who were used to independent
command and action.
Likewise for the surface sailor, SPECWAR was equally mystifying. Though the early morning Hoo-yah calisthenics and the runs were exactly what the Seals were famous for, and this is during a time when smoking cigarettes, black Navy Joe and hard steaming on shore
were the norm in the Fleet, Seals did not just tear off guns ablazing. There was a huge emphasis on breaking missions down: phase diagramming, rehearsing; briefing, Patrol Leader's Order (PLO); final rehearsals and preparations; then debriefing after action. And this mission planning was not the exclusive bailiwick of the officers and chiefs either, a Second or Third Class Petty Officer could easily be in charge of a single or multi boat mission, and it was up to him to plan and make it happen. No one individual could do all the planning and preparation alone, so the entire crew was completely involved. With crews as small as two or three, it was equally important for a Seaman Recruit or a Lieutenant Commander to be able to pilot a shot up boat back to base by himself with a load of killed and wounded, call in fire support or Medivac, work the IFF or get on a gun and return fire. Despite all of the planning and rehearsal, you still had to improvise, think on your feet as well as out side the box, and learn from your comrades, because the manuals did not spell out the detail and there was very little in the literature (You really had to read a lot to get those snippets of tactical or practical information from the many books on small boat operations from the American Civil War to Arab Israeli Wars). Specwar was and is very much a pass down culture and a significant transition from the regimentation of the fleet. There was no wardroom or chief's mess even on the big ASDV. Not everyone could adjust, and it was a big adjustment. You could easily have a Third Class Petty Officer or Ensign who could run rings around a salty Chief Boatswains mate pushing the boats way past their official limits; or a SWO (Surface Warfare Officer) qualified to drive a nuclear carrier who
could never get the hang of a PB (65 ft Patrol Boat) much less a Sea Fox (36 ft SWCL). However, after the initial shock, many made a very successful transition and a number who were not stars in the fleet excelled in the boats.
Sadly in those days before closed looping, good men were always rotated back to the fleet, even the truly exceptional, so there was a constant loss of experience on the active side. However on the reserve side, there were a number of combat veterans as well as men
who had at least a tour on the active side in one of the Boat Units.Also the longer you were in, the more often you would be able to participate in some of the more infrequent operations like a live fire hot extract or a submarine operation. This was where the real
experience lay, and a lot of cross-pollination occurred when active and reserve units would exercise together. The reserves also taught many insertion and extraction techniques to reserve and active counterparts in Marine Recon and Army Special Forces as well as Naval Specwar. Like any unit, there were folks who did not belong and caused a disproportionate amount of trouble, but most men not only wanted to be in the unit but wanted to operate. The best reserve officers, chiefs and enlisted men put in a lot of extra time ensuring the drill weekends and ACTDUTRAs (two week summer training periods) were action packed for the rest of the unit: organizing training with other units, qualifying as range safety officers for Pendleton and volunteering for Special Active Duties not to mention all the dreaded paperwork, administrative, pre and post operational. Though generally older than their active duty counterparts, the reserves tended to be much more mature and more enthusiastic about operating. It was not uncommon for some of the enlisted men to have highly successful carriers on the outside (CIVPAC or CIVLANT) even managing their own companies with scores of employees. Also many reservists had unique civilian jobs in diesel engine maintenance, law enforcement, ship building that directly enhanced the units' abilities as well as outside interests in sailing, kayaking, diving and quite a few reservists lived on their own boats.
As an aside: while SBU-13 and SBU-11 were considered shore duty, a time to reconnect with family and live at a slower pace with no six month plus deployments, for actives assigned to SBU-13 closer to commands in Coronado and Pendleton this was not the typical reserve assignment-spend the month fixing the boats for the next drill weekend, so the reserves could play. The high tempo of admin.ops-para drops, safety ops for ship attacks, SDV ops, demo shots, range safety at San Clemente, requal dives-training missions for BUD/S and Marine Recon from the Strand to Camp Pendleton and San Clemente Island necessitated the SBU-13 crews have their boats back on line pronto, and due to the clandestine nature of SPECWAR operate at night during the working week. As soon as the balloon went up for Desert Shield, the best actives in the Squadron (SBU-12, 13 and SBR-1) went straight to the Persian Gulf.
With the emphasis on the blue water Navy, replacement craft for SBU's were generally poor. Though the PBR's were rebuilt in phases, new engines then new hulls or vice versa, the Vietnam era craft wore out. The mighty PTF's troublesome Napier Deltic's were toast by 1984 and the big boats were gone by 1985; the PCF's (Patrol Coastal Fast, Swift Boats)-not one of the most brilliant designs to begin with-followed shortly afterwards. The mini-armored troop Carrier (Mini- ATC) a development of Medium Seal Support Craft was an actual improvement over the STAB (Strike, Assault Boat) and LSSC (Light Seal Support Craft); though a flat bottomed riverene craft, this was the best fighting craft in the stable. SBU-11's Monitor was a lovingly preserved relic, that served as a command and control platform well beyond her years. While technically a Patrol Boat, the 65 ft. "Sea Specter" MK-III always referred to simply as a "PB", was hardly an improvement over the PCF and never in same class as the PTF with regard to speed, firepower or sea keeping not to mention crew comfort.

Then there was the 36 ft SWCL (Special Warfare Craft Light) or"Sea Fox", usually referred to as a Sea Fox but sometimes derisively as a "Swickle", a stealthy air portable replacement for  the trusty LCPL (Landing Craft Personnel Light). The Sea Fox like the PB was designed by idiots with poor lay out, not particularly fast and very uncomfortable for all but the coxswain at speed in a rough sea.

The SWCL trailer was the most unusable piece of equipment next to the Special Warfare Craft Medium (SWCM) semi officially called the "the Sea Viking", the hull of Sea Brick exceeded the total design weight of the fitted out craft and one hull languished at the far end of 32nd street for a couple of years before being used as a target? The only bright lights were the introduction of the first ridged inflatables (RIBs) very seaworthy with diesel engines in about 1990. This design just began to come on line before the beginning of the Desert Shield. There were also a small number of exotics such as the captured Iranian Boghamer, IRGB (Iranian Gun
Boat) and the Fountain HSB's (High Speed Boats). The Boghammer and IRGB were not bad designs and the IRGB, essentially an outsized Boston Whaler type crew boat with a twin Soviet AA gun mount, the more serviceable of the two. The Fountains were hand me downs from SEAL Team-6, and though they could out run most pursuers they would beat you to death doing it. Guns were mounted wily nilly and unusable at over 40 knots or in almost any sea state above a ripple. If the Fountain HSBs beat the crews half to death, they were even worse for the SEAL operators who had no wheel to hang on to. The ASDV
was not a true fighting craft in the sense that the HSSC (Heavy Seal Support Craft) was in Vietnam, but a dive platform with a decompression chamber and a very flat bottom whose slow speed necessitated independent steaming. From time to time, the ASDV's were
used as command and control craft on exercises (I have a picture from 1990 with Fountains rafted alongside and .50 on the ASDV during a final battle problem). A few Boston Whalers and a variety of inflatables rounded out the stable but were not major types. The TOC and SOC (Tactical and Special Operations Crews) teams used a variety of indigenous craft from inflatable kayaks and dug out canoes to sail boats to civilian cabin cruisers none of which was on any official inventory.
Despite the severe limitations of the PB's and SWCL's; when handled well, they were surprisingly effective as many surface units took it in the shorts during OSA/KOMAR exercises (mock ship attacks with pop flares streaking across bows of frigates' to carriers' bridges at 50 to 100 yards). There is no way any of these surface units would have survived an Exocet or STYX missile delivered at such close range much less a torpedo. The author can only remember only one occasion, a canned exercise against the New Jersey Battle Group were SWCL's were ordered to make their attack from Pyramid Cove during a two hour window on a specific bearing, which was not successful. This is even more striking when you consider, these boats were not as fast or heavily armed as their Soviet - Warsaw counterparts. The SWCL's were always able to insert and extract their operators and were even able to elude HAL-5 (Helicopter Attack Squadron Light, the Sea Wolves, an
other highly effective left over from Vietnam which was merged with HC-9, but that is another story of how all Naval combat SAR was concentrated in a couple of reserve helo squadrons) in the well known operating areas around SCI and Southern California. Fortunately, we did not have to deal with the Sea Bats as the Boghamer found out to her dismay.
The shooting wars in the Caribbean, Central America, Mediterranean and Persian Gulf really heightened the units' experience, reinforcing best practices developing new techniques and highlighted weaknesses in training and equipment. The captured Iranian Gun Boat (IRGB) and Boghammer brought back from the Gulf not only instilled pride in the Squadron but underscored the price of failure for boat crews. Unfortunately, on the operational level as quickly as the boat units gained this experience; it rapidly dissipated as veteran crewmen were rotated back to the fleet. However, the reserves were able to retain a great deal of this hard won experience and pass it on to both the active and reserve sides. Higher command also began to recognize and correct the deficiencies of the aging craft and
 personnel polices, by bringing in the first RIBs (ridged inflatable boats) and close loop the enlisted ranks as the Seals had done decades ago.

In the face of apathy, neglect and scorn, the tradition and expertise was kept alive and expanded by the interim generation of operators on the active and reserve side of the Special Boat Units. Our successes in the First Gulf War were largely due to aggressiveness, innovation and seamanship of boat crews rather than superior craft.


Gary Hunt, Phil Garn, Jeff Hunter, Dave Hale

About the Author: Phil "The Commodore*" Garn served in SBU-12 and SBU-13 from 1984 until 1990. As an Ensign, he qualified as an Officer in Charge (OIC) for the 65' MK-III Patrol Bat and 36' Sea Fox (SWCL) and was the Division Officer for Combatant Crafts at SBU-12.

At SBU-13, he led a Tiger Team to get the unit's PBs back on line and was one of only two SWCL OICs during this Special Active Duty period (operational heaven), served as the Reserve Operations Officer and was the OIC of the unit's Tactical Operations Crew.

During operations, he at least got a ride on, if not drive or ran training missions on everything from PTF's to RIBs. He also participated in the re-write of NWP-12 and NWP-13 regarding Riverine, Coastal Warfare and Interdiction and Seal Support, which hardly anybody read. He also has an historical interest in small boat operations and craft.

*I have no doubt there were other nicknames, just not aware of them
 other than LT.


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