HPU patch used to signify different levels of qualification was authorized locally in lieu of the Small Craft/POIC pin. I think between 1973 until late 1984 the pin was not authorized for issue. So, an OD patch with a silver PCF and a black PBR superimposed on top of it was made locally for wear on the left, top pocket flap of the utilities/BDU’s. The stars were color coded originally as stated. Blue for Crewman, Red for Boat Captain, Silver for Patrol Officer. In early 1984, the star colors were changed by GMGCS (SW/DV) Ray Stewart to Blue for Crew, Silver for Boat Captain and Gold for Patrol Officer. Remember the times…. Stewart didn’t like the idea of his Boat Captains running around with red stars on their chests.
After the Pin was reauthorized, we continued to wear the local patch until HPU became SBU-26.
We started wearing Vietnam era cammies, and then switched to BDU’s. Until we got rid of all the ‘Nam era stuff and enough of the BDU’s it was not uncommon to see the two mixed and matched. I myself was issued the mixed variety when I checked aboard. I went to the Army Uniform shop to get sets of BDU’s that matched. The first few orders sent to HPU even had winter BDU’s in the mix. When the Marine exchange was out of hats, we had to wear army caps. You can see me with one on in the “HPU Rats Get Ready for Fun” pic that Scott Cruse submitted in his section here. I’m the guy sitting on the gunwale of the Ramo Raider with the M203. I was taking the new guys on an Escape and Evasion exercise.
This stuff was overlooked because we were an unknown unit in the far corner of the world that the supply chain didn’t know about. Getting simple things was sometimes difficult. No one was authorized to wear Tiger Stripes. Stewart would kill you if you did. Looking back they look rather silly anyway. The only truly, at the time, outlandish thing was Sam Green’s beret that was in the old WWII Marine Corps cammo pattern. But, that was Sam. Stewart was already gone then. Sam’s in one of the pics here talking on the radio inside the pilothouse of PCF-4.
BDU’s were the standard fare at 26. Modifications to them were acceptable for the “OP Cammies”. Remove the pockets on the blouse. Sew the bottom pockets on the chest and the smaller top pockets on the upper sleeves and tuck you shirt into the pants. This was good so you always had access to your knife scabbard/case and your holster. Some guys wore the low-rider holsters but they sagged and since you at least seemed to be in knee deep water at any given time, a pancake holster worked better for me and my boys in Det Delta.
For headgear well, that all depended. Most guys wore bush hats, some utility caps some black berets. My boys wore starter team ball caps when we were just cruising I’m a Redskin fan so I wore a Maroon cap. If I was hiding I’d wear an OD bush hat, which had better visibility than the wide brimmed BDU one. Most of the time though, no hat would stay on. You had to have one of the Doo-rags for a neckerchief that you get out of a first aid kit. If it rained that tropical downpour stuff I had some clear shooting glasses on with my doo-rag over my mouth and nose like a bandit to keep from drowning in those big drops of rain at 50mph. Well extravagance in some gear seemed to be better than getting your dick pierced. Everyone had the now dreaded fanny packs. Mine was kind of large. I had some freeze dried food, a purification suction tube for water, .45 mag (So, I’m a Purist, My logic later), Spare 5.56mm mag, pencil flares and my monkey….a spare can of Copenhagen. Don’t need the jitters on an E&E.
Lock lines. 150 ft mooring lines required by the PANCANAL Commission as well as a Boat Operator’s license, also required. See my Life in the Locks article for the fun that could be had locking through.
Don’t let anyone tell you a sea snake is only found in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas. They can lock through just like a boat.
The Gaillard or Culebra Cut is the place where most of the guys that built the canal that didn’t succumb to malaria, died. It runs north form the third Miraflores Lock. The builders blasted through the continental divide, not an impressive as you think. They didn’t cut through the Rockies but it was imposing in those days. Mostly because of the landslides. On the west side is Contractor’s Hill. It is set back from the waterway a couple of hundred yards. On the east side however, is Gold Hill. At times rocks can fall on your boat. Got dusted by a few pebbles once in my PBR days with HPU.
There is truly a traffic signal at the north end of the cut to tell southbound traffic if a ship is moving north in the cut. Two large vessels cannot pass there.
As I said in the HVT article, Gatun Lake is manmade. The boy line runs along the old Chagres River bed. The islands in the Lake are actually submerged Hills with their tops protruding above the surface. Frequently, outside of the buoy line are the tops of 70ft tall tropical hardwoods. A tough life for any boat. PBR’s did ok as long as they stayed out of the banana weeds. You know the ones you pay a fortune for at the pet store for your fish tank? Same ones. PCF’s, PBL’s and PB”s had a problem with the “stumps”. In the HPU days, we worked with the US Army Boat Company at Ft Davis. They would load something like a 2 ˝ ton or 5 ton truck and clear a path through the stumps. Twenty-Six had Jorge, BMCS (SEAL) George Angered, and yes he lived up to the anger (another story). We would go out with C4 Charges in an F470 and blow the stumps. I always thought that the LCM with the 5 ton worked more efficiently but it was a nice intro to Demo, 101.
Best part of the Lake….here comes a fish story...is, in fact, the fishing. More to the point, Peacock Bass fishing. Bless the heart of the man, who, when the Lake was initially filling up, brought back a couple of thousand bass fry from Venezuela and dumped them in. I swear and the guys will tell you, if you don’t catch 50, yes 50 fish in 4 hours, then Bob’s your Uncle. Between the Bass, Turtles and Caiman, one never starves on MRE’s.
An odd note of fact. Next to our training Base Camp just north and west of Gamboa, there is a creek named Quebrada Agua Cuello, Or for those that don’t habla, Butt Water Creek. Now is it coincidence that and entire SBU survival class came down with Leptosclorosis (Spell Check)? Seems when the dry season occurs from November through May, the water level in the Lake drops up to 7 ft. The streams and runoffs dry up. The beasties come out from deep in the jungle to get water at the Lake’s edge and of course, the piss and shit mostly just inland where they live seasonally. When the rains start in May, this old waste disburses just around the water’s edge, as not enough rain has fallen to dilute the nastiness over a wide area. It is, so to speak, concentrated where we play. Since a half mile swim is the first thing the students do in the morning, except to walk to the water and add their own piss to the brew, the entire class went on a free helo ride to Gorgas Army Hospital. Good thing we had an LZ that was cleared by none other than, you guessed it, George.
MMMM, Let’s Go Fishin’!
The Only Bridge
At the north end of the Canal, near Limon Bay, is Gatun Locks. The final three chambers before you’re in the Caribbean. If you transit though, no problem. If you trailer the PBL’s overland, which is much faster, then you have to cross “The Bridge”. The Bridge is on top of the last lock doors, on a northbound heading. To get to Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTB) at Ft Sherman, one must wait for the doors to close. You have until the ship in the chamber is ready to head into Limon Bay and ultimately, El Caribe. Many a good driver has gotten hung up on those pop-up rails that fold down when the doors open. Obviously not made for a boat trailer but, that kind of thing never stopped a Boat Dude, did it? Pissed off a Lockmaster or two though.