John Foster CRD-22 History

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John Foster - SPECBOATU - 22


SBU-22 History

10-05-06 John Foster     I relieved Bob Cushing as Commander, Coastal River Division Twenty-Two on 5 November, 1977. He had commanded the unit since August of 1974. At that time, the division had two Mark 3 patrol boats (65 footers), three PCF (Swift Boats),  seven PBRs, five Mini-ATCs (armored troop carriers), and an assortment of outboard craft.

CDR Foster on PBR at Hurlbert Field, FL

They had just gone through a drastic reduction in manning and were left with a roster of two officers and 24 enlisted. Obviously the division could only operate and maintain its boats by close coordination and cooperation between the active cadre and the reserve component of 23 officers and 149 men. 

We reorganized the unit to accommodate this revised manning. The top priority was assigning permanent boat crews to specific boats and getting them trained. Remember, this was the period between intensive crew training prior to deployment to Vietnam, and the SWCCM program in effect today. Both of these programs ensured that boats and their crews were trained and ready for any assigned mission. Between the close-out of Vietnam and the run-up of SWCCM, men were assigned to Coastal River Squadrons and Special Boat Units with no requirement for prior training or experience. We got them, then trained them. It became clear to me on my first weekend in command that the navy didn’t plan to “hold everything” while we adjusted. We were called out in the middle of the night for a plane crash into Lake Pontchartrain. We spent the night picking up pieces of people and locating the plane on the bottom. 

Almost all of the actual combat craft experience was on the reserve side. Crews were assigned with an effort to give each boat at least one active duty crewmember and one with combat experience. The emphasis then became “Get the boats underway!”. There is no better way for crews to become intimately familiar with their boat and each other. Every Friday and every reserve weekend, all bnoats were underway unless being worked on for reasons that made it impossible to get underway. By the time the my first summer rolled around, we were ready for "“raduation" .  The PCFs were put under command of LT Rick Jacobs and ordered to proceed to Houston, Texas. The PBs, under the command of LT Eric Houin, were ordered to proceed to the Atlantic Ocean. Both groups developed plans, spare/repair parts, provisions, communications, etc. and shoved off. Both groups had problems, which they solved, and both groups accomplished their missions. The PBs elected to lock through Lake Okechobee rather than circumnavigate Florida. These men came back as cohesive, competent and knowledgeable boat crews. Just for the hell of it, I sent the PBs up the Mississippi to see how far we could get. It was decided to fork off into the Missouri, and Coastal River Division 22 became the first U.S. navy vessel to visit Omaha. I still have a card signed by the governor making me an admiral in the navy of Nebraska. Diudn’t affect my pay, though. 

The riverine craft, PBRs and Mini-ATCs) deployed to Bay St. Louis, where a base camp was established for operations on the Pearl River. We extended invitations to SEAL Teams one and two to provide opposition, but only SEAL Team One was able to respond with a squad. We laid out a scenario that involved inserting the SEALs west of the river with the mission of transiting the swamp and crossing the river with enough simulated explosives to destro the locks at Bay St. Louis. Our task was to patrol the river, prevent their crossing undetected. HAL 4 provided helicopter assets on our side. Good training on both sides. The SEALs got through, but admitted we made it difficult. 

Our other two-week reserve training session was at the National Guard site in Mississippi. This gave us a chance to familiarize all hands with our weaponry, from M-16s, M-60s, and .50 cal through Mk 19s and mortars. We even mounted a PBR forward gun mount on a truck and trained gunners in shooting from a moving, bumping gun mount. This was also our only chance for night-time live firing practice; a valuable experience.

Between these major evolutions that necessarily came when the reserves were on their two weeks annual training, the boat unit was called on about quarterly to provide support for special warfare exercises, usually in the Pensacola area. These operations and the necessary transits brought boat crews to a high level of proficiency. We could usually count on a few reservists’ being available, but for the most part these operations were handled by the short-handed active duty men running with two or three men per boat., Not ideal, but “can do”. I remember one night we were tasked with a “downed pilot” scenario on short notice when only me and a chief hull tech were left in camp. He and I drove a PB to the rendezvous and got the job done.  

The Maintenance crew, almost entirely reservist, did an outstanding job the whole time I was there, LT Billie Richardson was my active duty engineer officer, and he was a wizard both at assembling and organizing talent, and at creative funding. We had gradually accumulated enough engines and propulsion pumps that we had a spare for every one installed in the riverine craft. Additionally, he somehow established as an identified repair part the PBR hull. This meant we could requisition a bare hull and have the crew, with assistance from maintenance, move everything from their PBR to the new hull, creating a “new” PBR. The final step was cutting the hull number off the stern and putting it on the new hull. This gave us improved boats and exceptionally knowledgeable crews. Similarly, we worked out a program with Detroit Diesel over in Fort Walton Beach where, when we sent them an engine for rebuilding, we would send an engineman to help do the work and learn the engine. 

In the midst of all this, it was decided that Coastal River Squadron/Division as a title did not accurately reflect our mission or identify us as a part of Naval Special Warfare. We were renamed Special Boat Squadrons and Special Boat Units. The emphasis on our role had already shifted almost exclusively to Special Warfare Support. That was all we were called on to do in the major exercises, and our coastal assets had been targeted for transfer. This did have a major advantage. When a unit is created in the navy, its allowances must be written. Allowances for weapons, ammunition, charts, organizational clothing and equipment, and required training had to be created for Special Boat Unit Twenty-Two, and funding for all of this came from somewhere up in the navy! I had a great time creating all of this on somebody else’s dime. The only item that didn’t get rubber-stamped by the chain of command was an allowance of Stinger missiles. Justification—Airlant said if some aircraft inadvertantly fired on us, we might shoot back. (No shit!) Probably a wise decision on their part, but I perceived helicopters as one of our main threats then. 

The Squadron commander, CDR Marv Ball, decided to shuffle boat assets. This meant he was to send us six PBRs and we were to turn our PCF and PBR craft over to him. This involved a trip from New Orleans to Norfolk, which we made right after an exercise at Hurlburt which cut out transit distance a little. Our only major difficulties were a PCF breakdown which resulted in my towing one Swift behind the sixty-five footer; and a hellacious storm between Hatteras and Cape Henry. We had just finished mooning Hatteras and giving it the finger as we went by on glassy swells when the storm hit. 

I got a chance to move up and relieve the squadron commander, and I did, even though I had another year on my tour. I spent many a night at Little Creek envying Rob Hampe, who relieved me in New Orleans. I did twenty-four years on a wide variety of ships and stations,  and served with a lot of outstanding sailors. I never had a group that was as capable, enthusiastic, and “can do” as my active and reserve river rats at New Orleans. We got the job done, and boy, did we have fun. 

 

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