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Boat Support Unit - Two

 

BSU-2 History and Boats

Our thanks to: Glen Bertholf
196 Spring Valley Avenue
Hackensack, NJ 07601
201-488-4305
TheBertholfs@verizon.net

The early history of BSU-2 in Little Creek, VA

BOAT SUPPORT UNIT TWO - THE EARLY YEARS

I have some memorabilia from my three-year tour at Boat Support Unit Two of the US Navy that I would like to contribute to some organization that would be able to display it in a suitable setting. Before I just send it off somewhere only to have it wind up in some closet, I thought that I would post pictures of that memorabilia here along with a description of my three years in BSU2 in Little Creek so interested parties might preview it to determine whether it really is something that they would properly display.
 

THE MEMORABILIA AND THE STORY BEHIND IT

Iíve searched the web for information about Boat Support Unit Two (BSU2) in Little Creek Virginia, but have found nothing. I have found several sites that mention BSU1 on the west coast and from the descriptions thereof I assume that our east coast experiences were quite dissimilar, at least for the first three years when I was there. BSU1 seemed to have its act together while BSU2 was fumbling around, as youíll read.

In August of 1964, I was given orders to report to Boat Support Unit 2 in Little Creek, VA. I had just graduated from Electronics Technician "A" School at Great Lakes, Illinois. Upon arrival, I discovered that BSU2 was just being formed; I was only the third person to arrive. Over the course of the next several weeks other members of my class arrived along with other personnel of the engineman, electricianís mate, and bosonís mate ratings. As I remember it, we had one first class boson and no officer.  We were part of Commander Naval Operations Support Group Atlantic (COMNAVSUPGRPLANT).

We were told that BSU2 was being formed to run and maintain high speed boats for the UDT and Seal teams at Little Creek so that they might concentrate on their UDT skills. Initially, we had two boats designated as LCSRs - Landing Craft Swimmer Recovery if I remember correctly. There were four more boats in the naval yards at Portsmouth which we would retrieve over the next several months. They bore hull numbers 1311, 1312, 1313, 5843, 5844, 5845.

These boats were fifty feet long constructed of fiberglass with two Solar 1000 horsepower gas turbine engines. Top speed on a cold, humid day was over 35 knots, but a fair amount less on a hot day. They could be armed with two 50 caliber machine guns. Their electronics consisted of a UHF radio, an HF radio, an infrared signaling lamp, a depth finder, and a short range radar. As the Electronics Technician, I was responsible for operating and maintaining all the electronics.

Below decks at the bow was a head with a small commode behind a water-tight door. It pumped the raw waste directly out of the boat. Next was a compartment with two stacked bunks on each side. Then there was a small area with the radios on a shelf on one side. The stairway ascended to the main deck from that area. Since the boat used a great volume of air for the turbine engines, the boat was constructed in such a manner as to try to prevent water-laden air from being sucked into the engines. To do this, the air intakes were located between the front windshield and the steering wheel. i.e., inside the cockpit. Since the cockpit was open at the rear, the air was sucked from behind the cockswain down through the intake into the berthing compartment where it made a u-turn up over the bulkhead into the engine room. In the winter, when we went out into Chesapeake Bay or further out into the Atlantic. This air being drawn past us as we stood in the cockpit was extremely wet and we invariably returned to base with our backs soaked and our fronts dry. It was cold!
The rear cabin was entered via steps at the rear of the cockpit. The cabin had a bench seat running around the outside and a central bench. There was a door at the rear of the cabin out to the rear deck of the boat. This rear deck was about four inches above the water line. There was a door in the floor which could be raised or lowered depending on what we were doing. Normally it was up to keep our wake from swamping the rear, especially during quick stops. When we were doing casting and retrieval operation as described later, the door was down.

The primary purpose of the boat, and therefore of our unit, was to deliver UDT/SEAL units to a position where they would enter the water, then come back later and retrieve them. The intent was for this to occur at a much higher speed and distance than was possible by employing the then current system of LCPLs with the side-mounted rubber raft and large hoop to retrieve the swimmers. We would find both the boats and the proposed casting/recovery operation to be quite a challenge.

First, there was the challenge of the boats themselves. During the three years when I was stationed at Little Creek, BSU2 was frequently called upon to assist the UDT/SEAL teams with demonstrations for dignitaries. These demonstrations took place in a narrow, short stretch of water that connected the main harbor at Little Creek with the bay on the east side of the harbor where the landing boat school harbored its boats along with the team boats. 

Our participation was supposed to consist of us running through this narrow channel from the harbor into the bay at high speed shooting our fifty caliber machine guns (blanks, of course) as we flew past the grandstands on the shore, then quickly stop in the bay without hitting anything. That was the plan! Then there came reality. We quickly discovered, over the course of several demonstrations, that there were some problems with the boats. Luckily we werenít in real combat situations.

The first problem that we discovered was the radios. When it was our time to make our pass, we would be advised by radio to start our run. We would then key our radio to acknowledge receipt of the message. As soon as we keyed the radio, the engines quit. There was a safety circuit on the engine which had a relay in it that apparently was energized by the radio transmission. Now turbine engines are not quickly restarted. They must first run down to stop which took 25-30 seconds, then the start sequence could be initiated which took 25-30 seconds before there was enough hydraulic pressure to engage the clutches so we could start our run. We finally realized what was happening by the third demonstration and told the people ashore that we would not be acknowledging their message to start our run.

On our first few demos we didnít have any guns mounted, so we just passed the grandstands and made our quick stop in the small bay. After a few demonstrations, it was decided that it would be more impressive if we fired the fifties as we passed, so we obtained blanks and assumed our position in the main harbor when it was time for the next demo. When the message came to start our run, we started through the channel. Naturally, we didnít acknowledge the message on the radio. We always came up the channel at a slight angle toward the grandstands (starboard) side, then turned away into the bay. Well, just as we reached the grandstands, we fired the starboard fifty caliber - and the starboard engine shut down. Remember, this is a twin engine boat, and the engine on the outside of the turn we need to make has just shut down while the other is still screaming ahead. The coxswain turned full to port and just managed to miss running up on the shore. We later found that the starboard propeller blades were curled from hitting the rocks. So at that point we had also discovered that firing our defensive weapons, if we really were in combat, would shut down our engines. Was this really what we wanted to take to war? It was suggested that a "battle switch" be installed to bypass the safety circuit in case we were ever in a combat situation. But that never took place during my tour.

In 1966, UDT-22 was scheduled to go to the "Sub Base" in St. Thomas for a 2-1/2 month training tour. Then in mid March, UDT-21 would come down for 2-1/2 months and exchange places with UDT-22 which would travel back to Little Creek. Along with UDT22, BSU2 deployed one LCSR along with a five man crew for the first tour. Prior to the mid-March exchange, the members of the boat crew were asked if anyone wanted to stay for the second tour. I was the only one to elect to stay. What was to dislike about duty in St. Thomas in mid winter. I didnít make any friends with my fellow ETs who wanted to be selected as my replacement. So I stayed the entire 5 months. 

It was off St. Thomas that we first had the opportunity to try the casting and retrieving of swimmers from our boat. It was quite a learning experience. The casting part was supposed to be simple. Each swimmer would simply jump off the stern of the boat with their gear on. We quickly discovered that upon contacting the water, the swimmers were pretty well stripped of their fins, mask, etc., so they tried again with their gear held in their arms folded across their chests. If we slowed down considerably, we could manage to get most of the swimmers into the water with their gear still in their possession.
It was off St. Thomas that we first had the opportunity to try the casting and retrieving of swimmers from our boat. It was quite a learning experience. The casting part was supposed to be simple. Each swimmer would simply jump off the stern of the boat with their gear on. We quickly discovered that upon contacting the water, the swimmers were pretty well stripped of their fins, mask, etc., so they tried again with their gear held in their arms folded across their chests. If we slowed down considerably, we could manage to get most of the swimmers into the water with their gear still in their possession.

The swimmers were then to go about their job and return to an area for pickup. Iíll have to describe this process as well as I can since I donít have any pictures of the boat outfitted for this operation. Mounted above the rear cabin was a rail structure which held two fiberglass boats. They were similar to rowboats, but without the rear end - they were open at the rear. There were two rails that ran from this mounting above the cabin down to the end of the stern walkways (you can see the rails in the picture of the swimmer jumping off the boat). These two fiberglass boats could be slid down these rails and launched into the water. There was a nylon line between the bows of the two boats with a buoy at the center of the line. When it was time for the swimmers to be recovered, they would swim to two locations approximately two hundred yards apart, approximately the length of the line. We would make a high speed run passing near them from one group to the other. As we passed the first group, we would shove the first boat off the skids, then shove the second boat off as we passed the second group. The idea was that this would result in there being a boat near each group with a 200 yard line connecting the two boats. Each group would then swim into a boat. This turned out to require VERY precise timing. 

It was very hard to predict how fast the first boat would slide down the rails, the result being that the boat was usually a considerable distance from the swimmers - we were too early or too late with the launch. But the second boat was the real challenge and danger to those doing the launching. Once the first boat hit the water, it became, in essence, an anchor. It was important to be sure to stay clear of the then rapidly uncoiling nylon line. But even more important was to launch the second boat before the line ran out. We learned that lesson on one of the early launches when we were late launching the second boat and the line yanked it off the mounts spinning through the air. For safety reasons, we quickly decided to reduce our speed during this phase. So far the easy part.
Picture now two fiberglass boats 200 yards apart floating just about even with the surface and connected at their bows by the nylon line. When we were rigged for casting and retrieval, there was a long probe which ran from the middle of our forward deck down beneath the water surface ahead of us. As the swimmers swam into the boats, four each, we would make a big sweeping 270 degree turn which would line us up headed for the buoy marking the center of the line. The plan was that we would run that probe under the middle of the line. The line would then ride up the probe and drop into a slot on a winch on our foredeck. The boats would then be pulled along behind us and the winch would be activated to bring them up to our rear as shown in this picture


Again, that was the plan. The first time we tried it, we managed to retrieve two EMPTY boats. When we hit the line and it came up into the winch, the nylon line started stretching since the boats were acting as anchors. When the line finally stretched to its limit, it started to act like a slingshot and just yanked the boats right out from under the swimmers, despite handholds in the boats. Again, the remedy was to slow down during the recovery. So eventually we got two boats up alongside the boat. Affixed to the stern was a sheet of canvas stiffened with wood slats such that it ran on our wake. It was called the "magic carpet," but it belonged in a funhouse. Imagine jumping from a boat which is being buffeted by our wake onto this magic carpet which is bouncing on the waves, then jumping into the boat. Imagining is about all that most of the swimmers could do - very few accomplished the task. Never did work out the kinks as far as I knew.

That same year, we were working with a submarine (SSN-315 Sealion) in a bay off the coast of St. Thomas where the swimmers were exiting the submarine underwater and sitting on benches mounted on what had been the gundeck of the sub. They would then plug their breathing apparatus into pipes along the rail so they wouldnít be using their tanks. It was after dark and we were there as a safety boat The sub radioed that their operations would take quite a while and that we could shut down our engines and just maintain radio watch. I checked the radar and we were about a mile offshore. A couple hours later, we suddenly noticed a flashing yellow reflection off the underside of our cabin canopy. We quickly looked around to see where the light was coming from and discovered a flashing yellow gumball light (like a police car) coming straight at us broadside. The sub had just such a light on its snorkel which it turned on when operating at night at periscope depth. We quickly hit the start switch for the engines, but remember, turbines take a while to come up to speed, and that light was headed right for us.  The hydraulics finally kicked in and we were able to back up just enough to have that snorkel miss our bow. I was standing on the bow and I could have jumped onto the snorkel. The main body of the sub went under us. When we told them about it later, they said that they saw us and we had nothing to worry about. I also checked the radar and found that we had drifted over five miles further offshore in that several hours.

So much for St. Thomas. In 1967, some type of political wrangling forced the teams to move their training to Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico. It wasnít anything like being in St. Thomas. I went, but only stayed one tour, six weeks that year.

In 1968, I was involved in something new, new for me and new for the Navy. The Vietnam war was still going on and the Navy was using "Mike" boats to move combatants and materials up the rivers. Problem was that the Mike boats were slow and offered little protection to the crew and passengers. In some cases, the river tides were too fast for the Mike boats to go upstream when the tide was running ebbing. So the Navy decided that it needed something new and gave a contract to Seward Seacraft in Bayou Vista, Louisiana, to develop a new boat. But the Navy also decided to do things differently this time, or so we were told. Instead of the Navy buying hundreds of prototypes and putting them into actual service in order to determine their effectiveness, the navy decided to have just two boats built, then send two crews to the factory to test the boats.

So two five man crews, one from BSU2 and one from BSU1, were sent to bayou Vista along with an officer to run tests on the boats. And test them we did by running them constantly up and down the bayous and out into Flat Lake. It wound up being a good decision by the navy. First let me describe the boat, then Iíll tell why the decision was good.
There were two basic configurations for the boat, the CCM version and one other that I vaguely remember being assigned the designation ATC. Both versions were fifty feet long and were powered by two 1000HP gas turbine engines. They had an armor-plated cabin at the rear and a well deck forward with a drop-down ramp, like the Mike boats. But that well deck was also fully armor-plated top, bottom and sides. There were two 50 caliber turrets on the boats, one port side rear and one starboard side forward. The crew cockpit housed two FM radios and a radar unit. 

On the starboard side walkway, there was a 7 million candlepower searchlight which could be used in visible light mode or ultraviolet mode. The boat, although flat bottomed and broad abeam, could really move. Since Seward Seacraft also made the Swift boats, we would sometimes go out on trials runs accompanied by a swift boat which was undergoing its trials. On calm water days out on the lake, the new boat could give the swift boat a run for its money. Those were the good points. As we tested the boat, we began to discover its shortcomings

The most significant shortcoming was handling and maneuverability. One reason was that the gas turbine propulsion system suffered from the same problem as the LCSR turbines, slow acceleration and extended deceleration of the engines combined with hydraulic clutches. This was most noticeable when running at high speed and a fast stop or even reversal was necessary. When the throttles were yanked back, the engines would coast down to idle speed, a process of about 10-15 seconds. Only then could the throttles be shifted into neutral and then slowly into reverse. Finally, the throttles could be moved to rev the engines up in reverse. This process could take nearly 30 seconds at times. Even when trying to maneuver into a docking space, the transition times at idle speed were long enough to cause problems - we once wound up sideways in a lock on the bayou.

Of equal concern was the fact that when the CCM/ATC was underway at high speed, the coxswain could not see out the window of the cockpit and over the bow to see where he was going. To alleviate this problem, two mirrors were installed, one in front of the window at a forty-five degree up angle facing to the rear, and one atop the cockpit at a forty-five down angle facing forward. The coxswain was supposed to be able to see his way down the bayous using this periscope arrangement. Even in daylight hours it was difficult to get a feel for where the boat was headed; at night it was impossible. We frequently found ourselves drifting against the bank of the bayou while looking down the center of the bayou. The result was that we usually sat on the roof of the cabin with our feet dangling down through a hatch just above the helm steering with our feet.
The two fifty caliber turret mounts would have been helpful for protecting the crew except that in order to get to them the crew member had to exit the armored cabin and run around the deck to the turret. Once there, a hatch on top of the turret had to be opened and the crew member had to climb up on top of the turret and, in a nearly vertical position, lower himself into the turret. Heaven forbid that this had to be done while under attack

The difference between the CCM and the ATC was the well deck, or the contents thereof. The ATC was intended to carry troops or vehicles. When used to carry troops, it was outfitted with stool-like seats with seat belts - the boat would bounce violently in rough water or when crossing the wake of another boat. The troops were in the fully armor-plated well deck and would exit when the boat ran up on a beach and dropped its ramp. When outfitted to carry a vehicle, the armor-plated cover for the well deck had to be removed, no easy task since it weighed quite a bit. A vehicle could then be backed up the ramp into the well deck. Both of these operations had their faults. One problem was that the boat had a very broad, flat bottom. Whenever the boat was beached, it stuck to the beach and had to be rocked from side to side with the engines to break it loose. The problem with the slow response of the throttles and shifting from forward to reverse made the problem even worse. We also discovered that when an armored personnel carrier was backed into the well deck, it sheared the ladder off the side of the well deck The ATC was manned by the BSU1 crew.

The CCM version (shown in the picture) was outfitted with a command module which was lowered into the well deck, then covered with the armored cover. This CCM module contained three HF radios, five FM radios, a gyrocompass, 4 bunks, a small cooking area, and a sink. It was accessible from the pilot house and had a door out the front just behind the ramp. The intent was that a commanding officer, along with some number of radio operators, would control a small flotilla of ATCs from within this command module. 

We found that the FM radios worked OK, but the HF radios required that the antennae be mounted a minimum of fifty feet from each other, an impossibility for three antennae on a fifty-foot boat. Actually they were all mounted in a line about six feet long on the port side. Tuning one radio threw the others out of alignment and we could not align all three to work. The gyro compass served no discernible purpose. The commander had no access to the radar, since that was in the pilot house, nor did he have any way of seeing outside except to go up into the pilot house or out to the bow and look over the sides. The BSU2 crew ran the CCM boat. Oh, the CCM module was air-conditioned.  So we could stay cool, fix snacks, and take a nap when running endless laps up and down the lake.

Speaking of the lake, we started receiving complaints from the local fishermen that we were running through their nets. They strung long lines of net between two end markers with an occasional buoy (bleach bottle) holding up the middle. We could rarely spot these buoys in time to avoid a net.

There was no nearby military installation, so we lived in a rooming house. It was a two-story apartment type building with two apartments on the first floor and individual rooms on the second floor. Each room had two beds and two rooms shared a bath. There was a central lounge with a TV. It was nicely kept. Since we had to pay for the rooms and our food, we were given $17 per day to live on. But then the room cost $2 per night and food at the local cafť was inexpensive also. I didnít draw my pay for the three months I was there.

As for the cafť, we had a momentary problem when we first arrived. We went for lunch, all eleven of us, to the cafť across the street from Seward Seacraft - one officer, nine white enlisted and one black enlisted. The owner of the cafť came over and told us that our black member would have to come to the back door. I had never experienced any such situation before. Luckily, I didnít have to deal with it. Our officer immediately told the owner that if our black member was refused service, that he (our officer) would be on the phone immediately and that federal officers would close the place before dinner. We were all served from then on with no problems. In fact, by time we finished our three-month assignment, we pretty much got up and got our own sodas, ice cream etc., as we wanted, then just told the waitress what we had taken in addition to our meal. It was, after all, about the only place around and we ate three meals a day there, seven days a week.

It was a good three months and it certainly worked to the advantage of the Navy. To my knowledge, that boat never made it into service. Despite being able to have changes made to the boat as  problems were discovered, certain basic design issues could not be overcome. Imagine if some large number had been delivered to Vietnam forces with the intent of making changes over there as the need became apparent. Impossible.

OUR UNIT EMBLEM

Sometime during our first three years, someone developed a plaque for the unit. It was a plaster casting which mounted on a wooden base. Each unit member could, if he chose to do so, make a casting and paint it for his own keeping. I made one and still have it. It seems that it would be fitting for it to be on a wall somewhere in a museum or in the halls of the unit which is our successor and I would donate it to any such cause if I could be assured that it wouldnít wind up in a box or dumpster or someoneís private collection. I also have the pictures included in this article plus others which I could have reproduced, but only for some official type of a site noting the BSU2 heritage for some modern day unit.


Anyone having interest can contact me at
TheBertholfs@verizon.net.

Iíd also be interested in hearing from anyone else who was assigned to BSU2. Iíve also had Classmates.com add an entry for BSU2 under Military/Virginia/Little Creek/BSU2 where other unit members could register.
 

Glen Bertholf
196 Spring Valley Avenue
Hackensack, NJ 07601
201-488-4305

 

 

 

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