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, 1983.
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 inevitably.
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 boat.
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) Detachment.
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 start.
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 SOUTHCOM.
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 pier.
Tom Sliker went on to become and LDO.
Bob, Tony and Kelly are retired and live in Florida.
Ray Stewart and what really happened to him are a mystery.