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Captain John Foster - Special Boat Squadron - 2


SBS-2

10-05-06 John Foster       I relieved Commander Rad Nelson as Commander Special Boat Squadron Two on 20 August, 1979. CDR Nelson was short-toured to make him available to command the new diver training command created in Panama City, Florida. He was an outstanding individual who preferred his salvage diver credentials to his Seal quals. He earned a Navy Cross in Vietnam.  (see Nelson citation here.)

At that time. Special Boat Squadron Two had just been created out of Coastal River Division Two, was going through a “period of adjustment” with regard to craft assignments, operational responsibilities, and internal chains of command. At one time, all assigned craft belonged to the Squadron, except for those at Great Lakes (COSRIVDIV 26) and New Orleans (COSRIVDIV 22). After several steps of reorganization, Special Boat Squadron Two was composed of Special Boat Unit Twenty, Special Boat Unit Twenty-Two, and Special Boat Unit Twenty-Four. I have discussed SBU 22 separately.

Special Boat Unit Twenty was an all-active duty  unit composed of boat crews, maintenance personnel, and Seals. It was commanded by Paul Plumb, a Seal (later Commanding Officer of Seal Team One). As I recall, SBU Twenty was outfitted and oriented towards coastal operations; special warfare support and patrol/interdiction. The unit had 7 Mark III PBs (65 footers) and 3 PCFs (acquired from SBU 22).

SPECBOATRON Two Staff - 1979

There were still three PTFs on paper, but only one was afloat. It was in the process of being approved for conversion to a single version of the LM-1500 gas turbine. We were even assigned an officer in charge of the project before it died away. 

Special Boat Unit Twenty-four was similar to Special Boat Unit Twenty-Two in that it had a cadre of active duty personnel and a large reserve contingent. The unit was riverine in mission and equipment, with a Mark I 65-foot Patrol Boat, 13 PBRs, six Mini-ATCs, an assortment of outboards, and an LCM for logistics support. There was also an LCPL that had been rigged out as a “Commodore’s Gig” which I had them re-convert to a working  boat. (It embarrassed me). Twenty-Four was in the unique position of being the only active Atlantic Fleet unit under the command of an inactive reserve officer. CDR Wayne Clarke was an exceptional officer who took his position seriously. Commanding Officer is a full-time responsibility, and it takes quite a magician to get the job done on a part-time basis. His number two was LT Mike Gorman, an active duty officer. The fact that the two of them could work as harmoniously and effectively as they did still amazes me. They got the job done. As soon as I could, I convinced the navy world that I needed an active duty commander. They agreed, and basically asked which of my officers I wanted to use, because they weren’t sending any for a while. My chief staff officer was Bill Griffis. Besides being a superb administrator, he was as good a boat handler as I’ve seen. He agreed to take over SBU 24. By then, he knew everything I thought about boat crews, boat units, known problems, and J.C. Foster quirks, so it’s no surprise that I was bowled over by his effectiveness as Commanding Officer. Unfortunately, Bill retired after about a year. LCDR Tom Truxell had finally been ordered into the Chief Staff Officer billet, and I was sufficiently impressed by his performance and the respect which he enjoyed in the Seal community to ask him to take over 24, which he did (even though it required him to shave off his beard. At the change of command, I didn’t recognize him). 

Two PGs, the Tacoma and Welch, were administratively assigned to the squadron, but were under the operational control of COMNAVSURFLANT. I had the pleasure of being responsible for them and writing Fitreps, but banned from the fun part. I saw enough of them that when I became Chief of the Naval Mission to Colombia, both were acquired by the Colombian navy. 

For reasons well above my pay grade, the boat squadron was not held in the high esteem to which I was accustomed by either Cinclant, Surflant, or the Specwar Group. I was met with a letter on my desk forbidding underway operations without specific permission. I determined to give the boat crews every opportunity to demonstrate their professionalism and earn back their reputation. I made a hell of a lot of trips to the admiral, and the boat crews responded magnificently. 

We took delivery of a MKIII PB with an odd glass cupola on top of the pilot house which no one could explain. I called the builders and learned that this PB was supposed to have been fitted with experimental stabilized EX-84 CHAIN guns. The mount was ready, and the boat was ready, but money was not available to deliver and install the gun. Seemed to me General Electric would be as anxious to show off their gun as we were to shoot it, so I called GE. The gun was in Burlington, Vermont and they would install it if we would come get it. I put LT Harry Marks of Boat Unit Twenty in charge of the project. Although it involved dropping masts and antennae for some bridges, our PB could go up the Hudson and get the gun. After presentations to the Commodore (Captain Stormin Norman Olson) and the Admiral, permission was obtained and we got the gun. It worked great, by the way, but we never saw another one (Yes, I went out and made them let me shoot it). 

The Norwegian government was trying to sell the Penguin missile to our navy, and we were the cheapest, easiest to spare platform available, so Specboatron Two was tasked with evaluating the missile on a Mark III PB. I put LT John Farris of Boat Unit Twenty in charge.  He and his crew took the boat through conversion, testing, and firing the missile with excellent results. They were in Florida for about a month (real hardship duty) and performed beautifully. 

MKIII with Penguin Missiles

About this time, some splinter guerilla group in Puerto Rico blew up some Air National Guard jets and shot up a navy busload of sailors. Among other responses, NAVSTA Roosevelt Roads wanted waterborne security. We immediately deployed some Mini-ATCs by C-5 and started arrangements to get PBs down there. These boats are lift-able, as they have built-in lifting eyes, but the lifting bridle is a several-ton rectangular contraption that results in a load lift-able only by cranes bigger than any reasonably available at the Caribbean end.  After considerable muddling, I had a PB lifted into its cradle on the pier, where it was strapped securely to the cradle. PB and cradle were then lifted into the water. The PB, with cradle attached, then drove into the well deck of an LSD. Voila! It worked. At GITMO, the PB & cradle were floated out, lifted to the pier, unfastened, and re-floated. The biggest hurdle in this evolution was getting permission for the PB transit from GITMO to Roosevelt Roads. That took a long tap-dance in front of the admiral, but permission was granted. LT Eric Anderson of SBU Twenty commanded the expedition. This created a detachment at Roosevelt Roads that was still there when I left the squadron. Personnel were rotated down from all three boat units and included a few squadron staff folks. 

Two PBs were deployed in support of an exercise focused on Inshore Undersea Warfare Group’s capabilities to effectively detect and engage seaborne threats. The PBs operated on both sides of the scenario and gained valuable operational information about their own and IUWG’s capabilities.

Somewhere in this time frame Fidel Castro released another wave of refugees. The squadron was directed to send two PBs to Key West. I flew down with Paul Plumb to see exactly what their role would be. An arrival conference included reps from the VP squadron, Coast Guard, us, and local law enforcement. I asked what our role would be, and the head honcho said, “Reduce the flow of refugees”. I asked if we could shoot them or sink their boats. When they got over their apoplexy, they said “No” and started looking at us funny. I explained that no Cuban who had transited ninety miles in a small boat (or raft) was going to shrug and go home just because we told him to. Mission unchanged. The boats wound up rescuing bunches of Cubans, towing in bunches of boats, and getting good training working coordinated ops with VP and Coast Guard assets. Again, we rotated folks down from Twenty-two and Twenty-four for relief and for the experience. 

By now, permission was becoming easier to get, as the crews were demonstrating their reliability and proficiency. We deployed a pair of PBs to Pensacola for a major exercise. I got a frantic call during their transit down under Paul Plum wanting to know where the boats were “right then”. They were at Thunderbolt Marina in Georgia, which I knew because they stopped to unwind someone’s line in a prop. “Are they armed?” was the next question. This one woke me up. “Of course” I said, and was told to stand by. No chance of getting back to sleep, so I “stood by”. Next call said OK, forget it. I found out later a Russian trawler was laying a sonar array outside Kings Bay, which was about to become operational. I guess they came up with a better solution than the “Attack PBs”. 

I know this just hits the high spots, and it never hits the horror stories, but my time with the boats and the boat guys was a peak in my career. They got more done with less recognition or reward than most any I’ve known.

 


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