Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE:
an Informal History
Robert H. Stoner, GMCM (SW) (Ret.)
Version with more illustrations in Acrobat Format.
United States Navy's traditional role in American history has been one of a
"blue water" force. It has been organized and equipped to control the
open seas and coastal areas. However, during the Civil War (1862 to 1865) the
role of the fleet expanded to the inland waterways of the United States.
Decisive land battles were often influenced by the Navy's success or failure to
control these vital transportation and communication resources.
One hundred years later, the Navy was faced with
similar situations while defending the Republic of Viet Nam. Conventional naval
presence was off shore in the form of the Seventh Fleet with its aircraft
carriers, cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious units. In 1964 the inshore
warfare role was expanded by the establishment of a base for fast patrol boats (PTF)
at Da Nang, RVN. The PTF's were assigned to Mobile Support Team ONE (the
deployed name for Boat Support Unit ONE assets). From 1964 through 1972, the
PTF's conducted a secret and deadly war with North Vietnamese forces on and
above the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
the lead “Nasty”-class boat for the US Navy, shows off the speed that
was the hallmark of the PTF in this 1964 photo. PTF-3 survived eight hard
years of war and is now being restored by Boy Scout Troop 544, Orange
City, FL. (Photo: Mark Tondel)
the Navy's coastal patrol and interdiction resources grew, gas turbine powered
gunboats (PG’s) and later hydrofoils [USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) and USS TUCUMCARI
(PGH-2)] from BSU 1 joined the effort. The PGH-1 and PGH-2 operated out of the
Da Nang base. The complex nature of the PGH and lack of logistics support saw
them phased-out of the coastal interdiction role after a six month trial. Both
PGH-1 and PGH-2 were returned stateside in early 1970. USS FLAGSTAFF remained at
Coronado, CA while USS TUCUMCARI transferred to Little Creek, VA. In 1971, the
Boat Support Units ONE and TWO were re-designated Coastal River Squadrons ONE
the end of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War in 1972, the PTF’s
and PG’s, were reassigned. Some of the boats went to the Pacific Fleet
Amphibious Base at Coronado, CA; some went to the Atlantic Fleet Amphibious Base
at Little Creek, VA.
The USS CANON (PG-90) shows why they called it the Brown Water Navy in Viet Nam.
(Photo: US Navy)
The USS FLAGSTAFF (PGH-1) as she was in her Viet Nam service. (Photo: US
The USS TUCUMCARI (PGH-2) as she appeared in her Viet Nam service. (Photo: US
Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE.
In the July - August 1972 time frame, Naval Reservists in the Midwest Were told
about the formation of two new units: Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE at Great
Lakes, IL and Coastal River Division 22 at New Orleans, LA. These units were
initially scheduled to operate fast patrol boats (PTF). The Coastal River
Divisions in the Midwest were under the operational control of Coastal River
Squadron TWO, Little Creek, VA. In the case of CRD 21, as constituted, it had
billets for 47 active duty officers and enlisted and SEALs, and 105 selected
reservists. The billet structure of CRD 21 was heavily weighted towards LTjg and
LT slots for the officers and petty officers PO1 through PO3 for the enlisted.
There were virtually no non-rated enlisted members, a few PO3's, a majority of
PO2's and PO1's, and no chief petty officer billets. [This lack of CPO slots
would become a problem later on for senior PO1's.] The CRD was special in that
it required 60 drills per year, as opposed to the normal 48, plus the annual two
week's AcDuTra. The mission statement of CRD 21 was this:
River Division TWENTY ONE was commissioned to perform the following missions: to
maintain craft to support coastal surveillance operations; develop small boat
tactics; train personnel in the operation and maintenance of coastal craft in
cold weather; conduct and support special and naval inshore warfare operations;
conduct and support special psychological and tactical cover and deception
operations; and train the selected reserve component to support these tasks in
the event of mobilization."
||Insignia of coastal river
division TWENTY ONE: a PTF superimposed over the background of the five
Great Lakes of the Midwest.
I arranged with the personnel office at my local
unit, NRSD 9-17(M), to do an interview for prospective members at Great Lakes as
my September drill. With my past experience on PTF-13 while attached to Boat
Support Unit ONE in Coronado, I was easily accepted and joined the interview
team. By October 1972, CRD 21's billets were being filled, and in November 1972
we began our scheduled drills. Drills were held at the boat house, Building 13
at the Naval Base, Great Lakes, IL.
As organized, CRD 21 operated on two weekends out
of a given month for training when we received our first PTF’s (PTF-17 and
PTF-19) in the spring of 1973 to get the maximum training time for the
reservists. The members riding the boats were split into BLUE and GOLD boat
crews and BLUE and GOLD maintenance staff. One drilled the first or second
weekend of the month and the other drilled the third or fourth weekends. The
boat crews ran the boats and the maintenance staff made sure the boats could
operate. As luck would have it, CRD 21 was heavily staffed with Vietnam
combat-savvy Reservists. Not only did the combat-savvy Reservists outnumber
their active duty counterparts, but they had more operations expertise --
although most of it was on "Swift" boats or river patrol boats (PBR).
PTF-17 of CRD 21 gets underway on a chilly Fall
morning at Great Lakes in 1974. (Photo: Bill Van Ooyen)
PTF-17 of CRD 21 ready to head out of Great
Lakes harbor on a chilly Fall morning in 1974. (Photo: Bill Van Ooyen)
Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE was officially
commissioned on 16 June 1973. Its first commanding officer was LCDR James E.
Roper, of Golconda, IL. Previous to his appointment as the CO of CRD 21,
Commander Roper had served as the CO of River Divisions 514 and 572 in Vietnam
and as Training Support Officer, Service School Command at Great Lakes, IL.
Commander Roper had served duty tours aboard USS BAYFIELD (APA-33), USS COWELL
(DD-547), USS ARIKARA (ATF-98), the Naval Ordnance Lab at Solomons, MD and was a
graduate of the Anti-submarine Warfare School at San Diego, CA. The Chief of
Staff for CRD 21 was LCDR Edward Grace.
LCDR James E. Roper, first commanding officer
of Coastal River Division 21. (Photo: US Navy).
One of the early problems faced by CRD 21 was
gunnery exercises. During World War 2 the Navy had established a gunnery range
in the middle of Lake Michigan. This area was well-known to the mariners who
plied the lakes because the Navy had a presence on the Great Lakes in those days
that it maintained after the war was over. During the mid-1950s and all of the
1960s, the Navy's "Corn Belt Fleet" was instrumental in educating lots
of would-be sailors on the details of running a ship. These ships were the USS
DANIEL A. JOY (DE-585), USS PARLE (DE-708), USS PORTAGE (PCE-902), USS HAVRE
(PCE-877), and USS AMHERST (PCE(R)-853). However, by 1 May 1970 the last of the
"Corn Belt Fleet" -- the USS PARLE -- was retired and though the
gunnery range remained on the charts, it became dormant until CRD 21 was
CRD 21 reopened the gunnery range for its use and
the appropriate Notices to Mariners (NOM) were published. The crews of the
freighters and ore boats that sailed the lakes had forgotten about the gunnery
range. Although the NOM specifically warned them about its use by the boats of
CRD 21, there always seemed that someone never got the word.
One day, PTF-17 and PTF-19 went out to use the
range. The exercise was a local surface shoot with their 40mm guns on a
improvised target of oil drums and pallets painted international orange. A
thousand foot freighter, obviously under auto pilot, sailed through the middle
of the impact area and resisted all attempts to contact her to warn of the
danger. A "cease fire" was given until the freighter cleared the
In the first year of operation, CRD 21 ran its
boats until December 5, 1973. On that day, PTF-17 and PTF-19 made the transit to
Chicago, IL. Once through the locks at Chicago, the boats proceeded by the
Chicago River to a civilian shipyard at Lemont, IL. At Lemont, the boats were
taken out of the water on their cradles and put ashore for maintenance.
The yard period at Lemont, IL was a hard one for
the active duty members and Reservists of CRD 21. Every work day, they had to
commute forth and back to the yard by a large Navy bus (it was a haze
gray-painted school bus). It was at least an hour and a half down and a hour and
a half back under the best of circumstances. The winter of 1972 to 1973 was cold
and snowy. The heater on the bus was not very reliable and it was a miserable
trip when it decided to "sort of" work. When the Reserves came for
training, we got to ride to Lemont on the same bus to work on the boats. The
yard at Lemont turned out to be short of every kind of service except excuses.
As soon as the ice was off the Chicago River, the boats were back in the water
and they made their way back to Great Lakes in March. Later that month, PTF-18
made the long trip from Little Creek, VA to Great Lakes, IL and now we had three
PTF’s to operate.
As received, PTF -17 and PTF-19 came with their
Vietnam-era weapons suites intact; that is, a Bofors M3 40mm/L60 gun aft of the
bridge, a pair of World War 2-vintage Oerlikon Mk 4 20mm guns on either side of
the bridge, and the Mk 2 Mod 1 81mm mortar/.50 Browning machine gun forward.
When the boats came out of the yards, the Mk 4 guns had been replaced by the
newer Mk 16 Mod 5 20mm machine guns. These guns were also fitted to PTF-18 at
Little Creek, VA before she was sent to join CRD 21.
PTF-17 gets to host an open house on July 3, 1973. The Oerlikon 20mm guns were
used on PTF-17 and PTF-19 when they arrived at Great Lakes. The Oerlikons were
replaced by the 20mm gun Mk 16 Mod 5 in 1974. (Photo: Bill Smallshaw)
The Mk 16 Mod 5 20mm machine gun was a descendent of the World War 2 Hispano-Suiza
404 20mm gun. The British had purchased the gun from Switzerland to arm their
Hurricanes and Spitfires because the four 20mm guns had more punch than the
eight .303 caliber Browning machine guns when it came to shooting down German
aircraft. Under Lend-Lease contracts the HS404 made its way across the Atlantic.
Once in America it became the AN-M1 and AN-M2 20mm aircraft gun. However, the
lion's share of airborne armament during World War 2 was the AN-M2 (aircraft)
.50 BMG. Problems with the wartime 20mm M1 and M2 guns resulted in a redesign
called the AN-M3 and a variation called the Mk24. Like the Mk 4 guns they
replaced, the Mk 16 Mod 5 guns shared the need for lubricated ammunition except
that the lubricant changed from grease to semi-fluid lubricating oil (LSA).
Good photos of the Mk 16 are rare. Attached are pages from the actual Ordnance
Pamphlets 3990 and 4410 that show the Mk 16 Mod 4 and 5 and its Mk 67 Mod 0
mount. The difference between the Mod 4 gun and the Mod 5 gun was its trigger.
The Mod 4 used an electric trigger and the Mod 5 used a manually released sear
as its trigger. (The electric trigger also had a manual release in case the
power failed.) All PTF’s used the Mk 16 Mod 5 gun and the Mk 67 Mod 0
The gun itself was fired from a trigger lever on the right grip; the safety was
located on the end of the right grip. The actual firing of the gun was by a
flexible steel cable that attached to the trigger lever and connected to the
sear on the gun. When the trigger lever was squeezed, the cable pulled the sear
down and allowed the bolt to close and fire the weapon. The weapon would
continue to fire as long as the trigger lever was squeezed or there ammunition
Figure 2-1 shows the 20mm machine gun on its mount
Figures 6-1 and 6-2 show the installation and limits of the gun and mount
Figures 2-1 through 2-3 describe the 20mm gun and its component
The arrival of our third PTF meant a restructuring of the BLUE and GOLD boat
crews. By April, there wasn't a day that went by when one of the boats wasn't
out for training of some kind. The operational tempo picked up speed.
On April 27, 1974, Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE had its first (and last)
change of command. Commander Roper turned over control to LCDR Lowell T. (Tim)
Johnston, of St. Petersburg, FL. Previous to his appointment as the CO of CRD
21, Commander Johnston had served as a senior advisory to Vietnamese Navy
Coastal Group 14 while attached to the U.S. Naval Advisory Group, Saigon.
Commander Johnston also served duty tours aboard USS AUCILLA (AD-56), USS
MISSISSINEWA (AO-144), USS CROMWELL (DE-1014), USS SPRINGFIELD (CLG-7), the
Naval Manpower and Material Analysis Center Atlantic (NMMACLANT) and the Naval
Air Technical Training Center (NATTC) at Glynco, GA. By a curious coincidence,
the CSO was LCDR James Johnston.
Lowell T. (Tim) Johnston, the second and last commanding officer of CRD
21. (Photo: US Navy).
At our change of command, the official word was
CRD 21 was going to get three ASHEVILLE-class PG’s and three new Mk 3
"Sea Specter" Patrol Boats (PB). The PBs never arrived but the PG’s
came in the autumn of 1974.
Meanwhile, there would be no repeat of the Lemont
shipyard problem. A brand new synchrolift was built for the PTF’s on the right
side of the inner harbor at Great Lakes. The shoreline maintenance facility for
the PTF’s consisted of the synchrolift and a rail system that allowed the
boats (with their cradles) to be winched off the lift and then parked ashore.
The rail system also allowed the boats (and cradles) to be moved so that two
boats could be set side-by-side with the third astern of the first two.
Then a personnel problem raised its ugly head. As
first constituted, CRD 21 had no CPO billets. This was a problem because we had
a lot of senior 1st Class Petty Officers. If you were selected for Chief, then
the "up and out" was applied to you. On 16 October 1974 I was the
first victim of the policy; I made Chief Gunner's Mate (Guns). The unit could
not keep me and I was officially transferred to NSRD 9-59(M) at the Great Lakes
Naval Reserve Center. When I arrived at my new unit I found that I had been well
and truly spoiled by CRD 21. They had real assets to train on while the NRC had,
well, a "shipboard simulator" and little else. Then I came up with an
idea. I asked my new CO if I could be detached on Temporary Additional Duty
(TAD) orders to CRD 21 indefinitely. He said it was OK with him if it was OK
with the CO of CRD 21. It was and so I went TAD to CRD 21 for all intents and
purposes including my enlisted evaluations. The only down side was that while I
continued to get credit for 60 drills in retirement points, I only got paid for
48. I decided I could live with the pay cut because I loved what I was
The arrival of the PG’s at Great Lakes in the
autumn of 1974 did not help the CPO billeting problem. Although the PG’s had
CPO's on aboard and a limited number of CPO slots were created at CRD 21, these
slots were for Chief Master-at-Arms and in supply; none were made available for
the active duty or Reservists on the PTF's.
As 1974 drew to a close, the question of what to
do with the PG’s became important. It was decided that the PG’s would
"winter-over" at the Chicago Naval Reserve Center pier where there was
adequate heat and power. By the end of November 1974 the PG’s were in Chicago
and the PTF’s were ashore for the winter maintenance period. The Reservists
assigned to the PG crews did their drills at NRC Chicago and the PTF crews
continued to drill at Great Lakes.
The year 1975 was the greatest year for CRD 21. We
were fully manned and Great Lakes had its own Navy of three PG’s and three PTF’s.
As soon as the ice was off Lake Michigan, the PG’s returned to Great Lakes
from Chicago and operations commenced. Although I was TAD to CRD 21, I was still
required to do my active duty for training (AcDuTra) with NRSD 9-59(M). However,
since they did not have a ship or station assigned to them, I could determine
where I took my training. I decided to go to the Fleet Combat Training Center
Atlantic (FCTCL) at Dam Neck, VA. I got one week of a 3"/50 RF gun
maintenance and a week on the Mk 16 Mod 5 20mm machine gun.
The installation of the Mk 16 Mod 5 was not a good
choice for the PTF’s. The gun had several quirks that I learned about at the
maintenance course. Unfortunately, while I was learning about the quirks, a CRD
21 gunner had so screwed-up two of the guns that they had to be sent back to the
naval air station overhaul facility, NAS Alameda. The problem was two fold: (1)
the specific maintenance requirements of the Mk 16 gun and (2) the idiot that
worked on it. This particular GMG2 was one of the active duty members. Whenever
he was around a gun and tools he became dangerous. The gun usually came out the
loser, but he didn't hurt anyone. He was also completely oblivious to any advice
by those who knew what they were doing. Two cases came about in rather short
Case 1: One of the PTF’s that had gone
out to shoot their new 20mm guns. (It had taken some time to return the old 20mm
Oerlikon ammo to the depot and draw 20mm ammo for the Mk 16. The Mk 16 ammo was
not the same and it was linked, where as the older 20mm was not.) The firing
came off without a hitch and everyone liked the convenience of the belted
ammunition. However, the problem came when the gun was cleaned. Since the Mk
16's ancestry was for aircraft, it had lots of lockwire (to keep parts from
loosening-up and falling off) as well as special tab washers in places where the
lockwire could not be used. The Mk 16 was unique in that the gun moved in recoil
and counter recoil within a stationary cradle. The ammunition feeder was
attached to the gun and a linkage attached it to the stationary cradle. The
forth and back motion worked the feeder to bring rounds to the gun.
the gun had to run in a straight line. There were guides for the receiver and
there was a barrel collar around the barrel to guide it. The barrel collar's
trunnions (two cylindrical pins) were shimmed relative to the stationary
trunnion blocks to make sure the barrel ran true. If the shims were lost or
reversed, the gun would not work or worked until it was damaged from the
out-of-line recoil. The first thing GMG2 Idiot did was throw the shims away! The
next time the gun was fired, it was damaged and had to go back to NAS Alameda.
All this had happened while I was in Mk 16 20mm maintenance school. I was
furious when I found out what had happened after I returned to the unit. We had
a special 20mm training course that very weekend for the active duty and
2: The problem with the AN-M2 Heavy Barrel (HB) caliber .50 Browning machine
gun attached to the 81mm mortar was that it could not fire blanks. There was no
blank adapter for the AN-M2HB but there was for the AN-M2 (Aircraft). The CRD 21
armory had been issued three AN-M2 (Aircraft) guns for the blank firing mission.
As set-up, the gun had a blank adapter that screwed into the barrel jacket and a
feedway filler piece that prevented live rounds from being fired by the gun when
blanks were used. GMG2 Idiot was in-charge when they mounted the AN-M2
(Aircraft) to fire blanks. GMG2 Idiot did not make sure the two cap screws which
held the blank firing adapter (BFA) to the barrel jacket were lockwired. The PTF
got underway and began shooting blanks. No one noticed that the screws
loosened-up and fell off. Firing continued and the BFA started to unscrew from
the barrel jacket. Again no one noticed; what they focused on was that the gun
was jamming. Firing resumed and then the BFA was blown off (lost overboard).
This had happened just before I came in for drill. I heard about the problem and
went to the shop where our .50 was.
Idiot was attempting to remove the barrel jacket from the gun. I told him that
he would damage the jacket (and the gun) the way he was doing it. I told him
there was a specific order things had to be done in order to remove the jacket
without damage. One had to pull the spring-loaded trunnion adapter pin back;
unscrew the trunninon adapter and remove it; remove the trunnion adapter shim;
and remove the barrel jacket set screw (which was underneath the trunnion
adapter) before the barrel jacket would come off. We fussed with the trunnion
adapter -- it was tight -- and then I was called away to a meeting. When I got
back I found that GMG2 Idiot had gotten the jacket off. He'd put the gun's
receiver in a vise and used a 6-foot steel bar to crank off the barrel jacket.
The trunnion adapter and shim were still in place; he'd sprung the receiver,
stripped the barrel jacket set screw, and bent the barrel jacket. I went a
pitched a bitch to the Chief-of-Staff. GMG2 Idiot was transferred back to Little
Creek. The aircraft .50 became a source of spare parts.
M-213 flexible helicopter .50 aircraft gun is very similar to the AN-M2
(aircraft) .50 machine guns we used to fire blanks. Our guns were the same
except they had a trunnion adapter instead of the recoil damper (the
can-shaped object at the end of the barrel jacket) and the blank adapter
where the muzzle brake screws into the end of the barrel jacket on this
gun. (Photo: US Army)
1975 was also the year CRD 21 experimented with camouflage on the PTF’s. All
three PTF’s were painted "Marine 123" which was a lusterless forest
green. Each boat was camouflaged with the addition of combinations of gray and
black. PTF-17 received a "disruptive" pattern of green, gray, and
black scheme. PTF-18 received a "wave-mirror" pattern green, gray, and
received a "splinter" pattern of green, gray, and black. PTF-17
in her new war paint. (Photo: Tim Sammons via Jim Gray)
in her new war paint leaves the harbor at Great Lakes. (Photo: Tim Sammons
via Jim Gray)
year 1976 was the 200 year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The
personnel of CRD 21 looked forward to the anniversary only to have joy turn to
sorrow. No matter what the accomplishments of the unit and no matter what the
quality of the training they accomplished for the Naval Reserve, the Navy
decided the Coastal River Division 21 was too expensive (read: they wanted the
money for other pet programs and we weren't of high enough visibility). The word
came down that CRD 21 would be decommissioned effective 30 June 1976. On or
about 1 June 1976 the PG’s left for Little Creek. On 16 June the PTF’s
followed the PG’s lead.
decommissioning of Coastal River Division TWENTY ONE was the saddest event in my
military career. There were the usual speeches and the reading of orders. The
ceremonies were traditional, but all of us felt numb. We knew nothing could or
would replace CRD 21. We were correct.
River Division TWENTY ONE has faded into history. Most of the people who made it
go have either retired or will retire soon. The boat house, Building 13 is still
there at Great Lakes. It serves as the headquarters for Assault Craft Unit ONE
Detachment 1613. The ACU is a Reserve unit similar to CRD 21. Instead of PG’s
or PTF’s they have three LCM-8 landing craft, mechanized. The LCM’s were
brought to Great Lakes through the efforts of former CRD 21 members. The
synchrolift that used to lift the PTF’s out of the water for maintenance is
now used by the LCM’s. Training goes on, but no matter how good it can never
approach the adrenaline rush of a 75-ton boat hurtling over the water at 40
knots propelled by two 3,100 horsepower diesels or a 242-ton ship charging
through the water at 38 knots propelled by a 15,500 horsepower marine gas
of a 75-ton LCM-8 (US Navy).
its sister unit, Coastal River Division TWENTY TWO lived on, although its PTF’s
(PTF-23 and PTF-25) were retired. On 1 March 1979, it became Special Boat Unit
TWENTY TWO (along with the creation of two additional units – SBU 20 and SBU
24). Their equipment has changed, but they continue in the special operations
role to this day.
a personal note, I and the other Naval Reservists of CRD 21
received a career enhancement from our years on the PTF’s.
We were some of the first reservists to qualify for the
coveted (and at that time, new) Surface Warfare badge and
allowed to add the (SW) to our official rate or rank. Members
also received the designator of 9534, Fast Patrol Boat
crewman. In 1992, the Navy created the new badge, Special
Warfare Combatant-Craft Crew (SWCC). Members that qualify for
the SWCC badge get the designator 9533 to identify them as
small craft specialists in the special warfare mission.
Members that are SWCC-qualified add (CC) to their rate or