Harbor Patrol Unit
Combat Craft Division
Naval Station Panama Canal
By QMI (SW/CC) Howard H. Nash, USN, (Ret)
Around 1975-78, the expansion of
Communism in Latin America was underway. The
existence of Fidel Castro and his government in
Cuba, the election of Salvadore Allende, a Marxist
in Chile, the rise of Daniel and the Sandinistas in
Nicaragua, and the Civil War in El Salvador, was of
great concern to the US government.
A small reaction to this, and in some
ways, the US Navy’s unofficial “Best Kept Secret”
was the formation of Harbor Patrol Unit (HPU), Naval
Station Panama Canal. The secret wasn’t exactly a
secret. It’s just that no one ever heard of the
little unit of six patrol boats. I, myself, didn’t
know about HPU until the ship I was stationed on,
USS Vreeland (FF-1068), stopped at Rodman Naval
Station during Operation Jittery Prop in January,
The first thing I did, after my ship’s
return to Mayport, Florida, was to call my detailer
to get there. The Unit started evolving a year
before I was to report aboard.
From 1978 to 1982, the primary mission
for HPU was High Value Transits (HVT’s). Simply put,
escorting vessels of sensitive nature through the
restricted maneuverability of the Panama Canal.
HVT’s were taken seriously by HPU personnel, the
Naval Station Commander, and US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM),
if not, by the vessels being escorted. Ballistic
Missile submarines would frequently have a cookout
on the missile deck for the crew, unless it rained.
In 1982, GMCS (SW/DV) Raymond E. Stewart
reported aboard as HPU’s Leading Chief Petty Officer
and Naval Station Weapons Officer. There was a
transformation of HPU, in what would be considered
today, as an Inshore Boat Unit (IBU) into a Special
Boat Unit. When Ray Stewart Reported aboard,
everything would change.
Along with other Vietnam Era patrol boat
veterans, such as ENC Tony Laconte and EN1 Robert
Curtis, both former Riverine Division (RIVDIV)
veterans and BMC Tom Sliker, a Patrol Gunboat (PG)
man, Stewart, a “Nasty” Class PTF Boat Captain and
USS Tucumcari, the second hydrofoil in the US NAVY,
veteran, started changing HPU painfully at times but
With this core team, Stewart and his cadre
trained the newcomers to standards that would allow
additional mission tasking. He proceeded to turn HPU
form an Inshore Boat Unit into more of a Riverine
Division of the Vietnam type and he had in ENC Tony
Laconte and EN1 Bob Curtis, the guys to do it. Tony
had been to the fleet before. Bob had been with
patrol boats his entire career, coming to HPU from
SBU-13 in addition to his Vietnam experience. BMC
Tom Slicker was the glue that held it together. He
was a Fleet sailor that could bring the sensibility
to the junior sailors around to something bigger
than themselves which was to compliment Stewart’s
drive. The relationship between Stewart and the two
Enginemen was as respectful as anyone would be.
Stewart, for unknown reasons, didn’t have any use
for Boatswain’s Mates but, with Slicker it was
different as it was later with BM1 Kelly Webb. In
fairness to Slicker and Webb, their leadership was a
cult of personality. They just happened to be BM’s.
With Stewart’s drive and cockiness, there
were some that thought he was rocking the boat. The
inevitable clash of personalities did occur and
there was some collateral damage. I myself, was one
of those, however my rebound was speedy. It was Bob
Curtis and Tom Slicker that got me into Stewart’s
camp though talk of making the Unit do bigger and
better things and Stewart was a man’s man. Tough,
Confident and Bulletproof.
Stewart skippered PCF-6, a MKII, Laconte
was his right hand man on the boat, EN1 Wyatt “Grit”
Hart, was Engineer and I, in November 1983, became
the forward gunner. Stewart taught me everything
about weapons. Looking back, I believe Laconte was
on the boat for buy-in to Stewart’s plan for HPU.
Bob Curtis arrived in early ’84, an EN2 with Broken
service, he was soon frocked to First Class. He left
HPU a Chief. Grit Hart qualified as PBR Boat Captain
and took over PBR-1, Step one to Stewart’s Plan.
Curtis took his place on PCF-6. He gave Stewart
immediate buy-in. Then mine. Slicker had PBR-3, and
then took Stewart’s spot on PCF-6. Stewart started
working his magic as soon as he was free of the
EN2 Ray Ashcraft Took over Slicker’s
PBR-3 After being engineer of PCF-5. At 22 years
old, I took over PBR-3 from Ashcraft after serving
as his engineer for about 3 days. Ashcraft took over
PCF-5 from BMC Bill Pressler who was retiring.
With all the players in place, the
training began in earnest. After months of night
patrol, due to Urgent Fury, We leaned
Insertion/Extraction, Waterborne Guard post, and
basically everything in the Riverine Naval Warfare
Publication. Laconte and Slicker took over most of
this training task, while Stewart and Curtis formed
what would be the Patrol Boat, Light (PBL)
The first were ridiculous, homemade
masterpieces of simplicity. Two old-style Boston
Whaler hulls with 115 HP Mercury engines. Aluminum
I-beam Bolted inside and through the hull, sealed
with RTV. On the beam where bolted 2 mounts for
M-60’s. The spotlights had shades on the bottom that
extended out a foot to keep from blinding the
gunner. These two boats along with their decrepit
trailers were the Grand Daddy’s of the Special
Operations Craft- Riverine or SOC-R. While we were
putting them together, Curtiss was telling me how
nice the Boston Whaler Outrages were that he rode at
SBU-13. He said they didn’t have guns so they were
useless as far as he was concerned. We took off for
Operation Big Pine II in Honduras. The trailers were
so bad I had to continually hang over the tailgate
while Stewart drove at 60 MPH to tighten the ball on
the hitch. Curtis rode in the bed of the other truck
and the trailer broke on the way back to the
airfield after the Op.
In 1985, HPU added Combat Craft Division
to its moniker. That was also when the allowed the
re-issue of the Small Craft insignia. Suddenly,
everyone wanted to be a Boat Captain….Good Luck! It
was also the year we received the Ramo Raiders.
Basically, they were 22 Ft Boston Whaler Outrages
that had been modified with a gun ring/rail system
that continuously wrapped around the boat. There
were two .50 Cal mounts and one for an M-60. The
mounts rolled on the rail and were locked by a hand
brake. They were powered by two Johnson 140hp’s.
Truthfully, the Ramo gun system sucked and loading
troops on it was a massive exercise, but, it was a
The Beginning of the End
Towards the end of 1985, the Operations
Officer and Commanding Officer of the Station came
down the pier with a SEAL Captain. They looked
around and Stewart explained this and that, what HPU
used to do and what we could now do.
Stewart wasn’t happy for 3 or 4 days after
that. I asked Curtis what was up and he said that
Special Warfare was pissed because we started doing
Deployments For Training (DFT’s) and that was
NavSpecWar’s territory. I asked what would happen.
Bob said something about SEALS taking over and
Stewart didn’t want that to happen because we would
lose autonomy and ability to answer directly to
Stewart’s Last Hoorah
In 1986, the Unit Received 3 MKIV
Seaspectre Patrol Boats (PB’s). Though, in
appearance and hull design, they were the same as
the MKIII’s, the similarity stopped there. They came
in on a ship and craned off. 68 ft of deck gray
beauty. I would be the Weapons, Navigation and Comm
guy and later LPO, Stewart the Boat Captain, Curtis
the LPO/Chief Engineer, two junior engineers, Slim
and Steve and BM2 Terry Brinkley.
The significance of these boats, not only
to HPU, but to the Fleet is the introduction and
operational test of the M242 Bushmaster, 25MM Chain
gun. The weapon had been tested on PB 759 in Little
Creek, VA by the SBU’s20 and 24. The problem was the
Weapon was designed initially for the M3 Bradley
Fighting Vehicle. It is powered by electricity that
runs gears, which spins a chain….you get the idea.
Anyway, the prime tester at SBU a GMG1, can't
remember his name but everyone including us called
him the Lizard, didn’t like the gun. Said it
couldn’t take the salt water environment. Stewart
rallied to let us give it a shot.
As soon as the chain gun arrived, Stewart
brought some manuals down to the boat and said
they’re your guns, you better be an expert by next
week because you’ll be the only one the navy has. Of
course this wasn’t true. We learned the gun together
then taught the others.
I remember we had GMGC Rickertts transfer
in. Probably a month before Stewart transferred to
USS Missouri as a Master Chief. Rickertts asked him
who he should learn the weapons from. Stewart said
go down to my boat, and ask for Howie. Rickerts did
and found out I was a QM1. It didn’t sit well with
him. He told Stewart this. Ray then educated him the
way that only he could. Rickerts and I worked well
together and I learned a lot from him. When I
transferred, we parted friends.
BM1 Kelly Webb Though a First Class was a
CPO Selectee when I left. Even Though there were two
BMCS’s When Stewart left. He was the driving factor
and continued as such with SBU-26, In fact, when I
returned in ’91 Kelly and I worked together again.
Bob Curtis transferred to La
Union, El Salvador. He helped start the SWCC School
with Kelly Webb. Met up with Bob Again in ‘92 when I
was PBL Det Delta and Riverine LPO.
Tony Laconte Transferred to
Charleston and was on USS AVENGER PCU. I met him
again there as I served on the old sweeps across the
Tom Sliker went on to become
Bob, Tony and Kelly are retired
and live in Florida.
Ray Stewart and what really
happened to him are a mystery.