AllHands - SBU-22 Born on the Bayou


Born on the Bayou

"Extracted" from AllHands Magazine, March 2000
(Click here for the original article)


On the swamps and rivers of southern Mississippi, the “River Rats” of Special Boat Unit 22 are training to ensure that there's no hiding from the brown-water Navy


"I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast for I intend to go in harm's way."
Capt. John Paul Jones, in a letter to le Ray de Chaumont,
Nov. 16, 1778

In the pitch-black of night, a pair of small combat craft weave seductively in a tandem waltz down a murky, narrow corridor of water at break-neck speed. The words of the Navy's founding father seem to hang in the night as a buffeting cold rush of air force-feeds the scent of burning wood and the

lingering, sharp smell of gunpowder. Like a blind man navigating a familiar path with a heightened sixth sense, Quartermaster 1st Class (CC) Jonathan Bauer seems to feel his way through the darkness. Even the faint, blue moonlight filtering through the passing treetops fails to light the way.

As a Petty Officer in Charge (POIC) of a small force of riverine specialists at Special Boat Unit (SBU) 22, Bauer knows well the rush of danger and the smell of urgency that goes with working in the riverine environment.

"It's a difficult environment to work in because rivers are unpredictable. They're always changing, and full of debris, both on top of and below the water," he said. Not to mention the human threat that lurks along the corridors of remote shoreline they train to face. The legacy of riverine warfare has been handed down through almost every war in which the United States has fought, and today the primary threat seems to lie in the dense jungles and tangled matrix of South American rivers at the heart of the drug war. The need for readiness remains in peacetime, though the riverine operators are limited to training the military forces of our allies for internal defense. Thousands of miles of river wind through almost every geographic region on earth, and while most are peaceful waterways, each has the potential for being a strategic military stronghold.

Under a covering of camouflage face paint, EN1(CC) Dallas Hill blends into the background.

"The Special Operations Command (SOC) found that they needed a force that could operate in a riverine environment,” Bauer said. “Though other branches like the Marines have riverine operations, we specialize in insertions and extractions. We are now completely SOC forces where we perform missions inserting SEALS, A-teams or anyone else," he added.

When they train, they train for the worst. Like the teams they support, the crewmen embrace a philosophy of dominance through superior firepower. Back on the river, they are training to extract small units under fire. Rushing

onto the scene at up to 30 knots, the pair of small converted Boston Whalers deliver a hailstorm of protective fire from a trio of M-60 machine guns aft, and a thundering .50 caliber machine gun at the bow. Bauer wheels the combat craft on a dime, pointing the bow to the shore. Tracers randomly pierce the darkness as Interior Communications Electrician 3rd Class (CC) Marcus Rivchin Jr.. shreds the dense foliage with a barrage of covering fire.

Flares lit up the night sky
during the exercises

It's a hypnotizing symphony of destruction kept in time by a thumping, rhythmic .50 caliber drum beat accented by the chink-chink-chinking melody of spent rounds bouncing off the deck. As the platoon of SEALS climbs aboard, Rivchin directs them to their places along the gunwales while the second combat craft races around the periphery echoing the fusillade with its own weapons in a choreographed dance.

"You have to understand everyone else's job and how they work together," said M-60 gunner, QM3(CC) Ryan Rico. "You have to be able to fit together under stress. To be flexible mentally, and make sure that no one else is put in jeopardy," he said.

Bauer added, "You have two combat craft working with NVG's, so it's a very focused field of view. The wake could throw somebody's aim off and that's all it would take to have a catastrophe. That's why we train so hard to make sure they know how that wake hits."

IC3(CC) Marcus Rivchin fires
a .50 caliber machine gun at
a mock enemy.

In a typical “hot extraction,” the crewmen may fire as many as 300 rounds from any single weapon station. Still, hot extractions are rare and usually occur only when something's gone wrong. For a group so adept at making a lot of noise, their true skill is silence. Another primary duty is riverine surveillance. In wartime, rivers become major thoroughfares for personnel and supplies, and brown-water Sailors are the indispensable eyes and ears on-scene for military commanders. Under the cloak of darkness, they can slip into a cocoon of overhanging foliage. With the added cover of camouflage netting, and in total silence, they can lay in hiding for as long as a three-day stretch, gathering intelligence by watching the river's traffic.

"It's not the most pleasant experience," said Bauer. "It's hot and cramped, and you're constantly being harassed by mosquitoes and wasps. But it's amazing to sit in total silence and watch as fishermen cruise by just a few feet away and they don't know you're there," he said.

Backing up their surveillance capabilities are a variety of technological devices that can monitor activity on the rivers using infrared and acoustics. They can use the many sensors, including video and still cameras to expand their vision over a wide area.

Surface Warfare Combat
Craftsmen prepare for battle
during training on a small
Mississippi river.

Since so much time is spent on the combat craft, naturally it feels like a home away from home to some. And not a very big home either. At a mere 25 feet long, the light patrol boat (PBL-CD), is the heart of the River Rats capability. Though reminiscent of the fast, lightweight Boston Whaler it's made from, all similarity disappears north of the waterline. A center-mounted console maximizes deck space and provides the POIC an almost unobstructed view of the area around the craft when performing high-speed maneuvers. The reinforced deck supports mounts for the M-60 and .50 caliber machine guns, and if necessary, MK-19 grenade launchers. The entire arsenal is powered by a pair of low-profile outboard engines.

Still, the platform remains unperfected. From their training facility at the NASA Space Center on the bayous near Stennis, Miss., the unit continues to experiment with different configurations and will soon be operating from a combat craft designed from the hull up by the crewmen themselves.

The freedom to make important decisions about what kind of equipment to use and how to use it is one of the many reasons combatant crewmen are attracted to the world of special warfare.

"The challenges are endless," expressed ITC(CC) Mark A. Siewinski, Det. Foxtrot OIC. "But you get a lot of personal satisfaction from it. There's plenty of opportunity to learn about everything from weapons, to operations to engines," he said.

In the speed-hungry combat
craft, goggles cut the headwind and radio gear allows communication capabilities for IC3(CC) Marchus Rivchin when gunfire makes it too loud to hear a person a foot away.

Out on the river, with the wind whipping around him and the water rushing by, Rico leaned reassuringly on his M-60 and confirmed that while challenges and choice equipment are attractions, what really keeps Sailors in the riverine community satisfied is the excitement.

 "High speed and low drag. That's the pinnacle of how we work, and that's what makes it the best," he said. John Paul Jones may not have considered a brown-water Navy when he made his fateful demand for speed in the face of danger. But if he were alive today, he would without a doubt, be proud to ride with the River Rats.

Story by JO1 Rodney J. Furry, a San Diego-based journalist assigned to All Hands
Photos by JO1 Robert Benson, a photojournalist assigned to All Hands.