Combatant Craft Crewman
The following remarks were give to the graduates of Special Warfare Combat Craft Crewman Course 26 by LCDR Jack Spratt on 20 November 1998. This was printed in the Navy Special Warfare publication THE BLAST in early 1999.
Twenty-nine years ago this month, I was finishing up a course of instruction in Mare Island, California, at the Naval Inshore Operations Training Center (NIOTC), learning how to become a crewman on a Fast Patrol Craft, or SWIFT Boat. It was our training prior to going to Viet Nam.
I remember very early on in our training, the subject of graduation came up. We were told that our graduation ceremony wouldnt come at the end of the school, but a year later, when we stepped off the plane on our return home. Sadly, there were a few who didnt graduate. You may have seen their names on the brass plaque on the quarterdeck. I will tell you that one of the names on that plaque was a classmate of mine.
The training you have received is not all that unlike the training at NIOTC 29 years ago. We PTd, [conducted Physical Training] we learned Seamanship, we PTd, we learned Tactics, we PTd, we learned weaponry, we PTd, we learned teamwork, and when we werent learning . . . we PTd some more! I dont guess that has changed much, has it? There is one big difference between that school and this one, though. We only learned one craft, and we learned EVERYTHING there was to know about it. We were cross-trained to the point that we could do every job onboard. In fact, one of the boat crews I was assigned to in Nam had 3 Radarmen and 2 BMs for the crew. I was the gunners mate . . . another Radarman was the Snipe. This cross training is vital in a combat environment . . . you never know when a member of your team will go down, and you may have to rise to the occasion to fill his shoes.
Although you have graduated school, you have just begun your training, and from here on out, your learning curve will go almost vertical. You will be learning every day. But remember, the more you know the easier your job will be. Get GOOD at your job; it can save your life. Training is not to be taken lightly. Theres an old saying: "The more you sweat during training, the less you bleed in combat."
And make no mistake, Gentlemen; combat is what you are training for. You may do "Dog and Pony" shows, you may think exercises are a pain in the ass, you may think the Hooyah is overdone, but I will tell you this: you cannot know when you will be called to deploy to a combat situation. Get ready, and stay ready.
In 1990, when I was stationed at SBU-12, my HSB crews and myself were participating in a terrific exercise in the Long Beach-Catalina Island area. We were having the time of our lives, operating with the Coast Guard, and Auxiliary, when we got a phone call from the CO . . . pack it up, and come home NOW. Cant tell you why, just do it.
Forty-eight very hectic hours later we were packed up into a C-5 and winging our way to Saudi Arabia. We were very well trained! Oh, yeah, thats what we thought. But there is no training available that can prepare you for what we faced the moment we stepped off the plane. The temperature was over 120 degrees.
Once we got settled in, got the boats near the water, we discovered some obstacles we hadnt thought of . . . for example, there are no adequate navigation charts for the area. Then, working with the SEALs! The HSB concept was fairly new on this coast [LCDR Spratt was referring to the West Coast], and we had not done very much work with the SEALs up to that point. So, that vertical learning curve kicked in. Fortunately, Saddam gave us time to train, and train we did. We were underway almost every day, either patrolling the Saudi Arabia coastline, or working with the SEALs, perfecting our onload/offload techniques, our navigation, and maintaining our general seamanship skills.
Our training was made much easier, however, because we had trained hard here in San Diego before we left. You cant be over-trained. You need to be at the point where you dont have to think during emergencies, you just act. And, the only way to accomplish this is TRAINING, TRAINING, and TRAINING.
I believe the fact that the guys were well trained was the most significant reason that we had absolutely no personnel casualties. Obviously no wounded or killed, but no broken bones, severe lacerations, or lost time injuries. Being safe during training ensures you "think SAFE" in combat.
I guess this mindset towards training was part of the reason that CAPT John Wright, then Commodore of Squadron ONE, browbeat my detailer to transfer me to Squadron ONE as Training Officer right after I returned from Desert Storm. Most of your instructors here have had the "benefit" of some of my training exercises.
When I first arrived at SBU-12, in 1988, there was no schoolhouse; it was all done by OJT [on-the-job training]. You would get assigned to a det, you got your boat, and you trainedquite often the crews literally trained themselves. Sailors who got orders to a SBU did a 3 or 4 year tour (just long enough to learn the job), then they went back to the fleet in whatever rating they were. It was not a volunteer program, so those who just wanted to slide through their tour did. If they earned a boat pin, that was good -- many did not. Aside from a uniform Doodad, the pin wasnt really a big deal.
Fortunately, some people in the leadership positions of Special Boats saw this as a problem, and set about fixing it. It was a long process, with some setbacks, but the change in the Special Boat Community over the last 10 years is pretty spectacular. From SEAFOXs and PBs, to MK 5s and 11-meter RIBs . . . from fleet sailors playing boat guy to closed-loop detailing (and pro pay) . . . from OJT to SWCC [Special Warfare Combatant Craft] school. The Special Boat community has earned its place in Special Warfare, and is proving to be a very valuable asset as well as enhancing the capabilities of the Special Warriors.
Your training was tough, and you all passed. You are now qualified to begin your qualifications. You will soon be joining some pretty impressive company in the word of Boat Guys . . . lets see if I can think of a few.
Admiral John Bulkley Medal of Honor for getting McArthur out of the Philippines; John F. Kennedy PT boat skipper, PT 109, Navy & Marine Corps Medal; BM1 James E. Williams Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Navy & Marine Corps Medal; BMC Quincy Truett Navy Cross, Viet Nam. Oh yeah, and one guy I want to tell you about, but I dont want to use his name. It happened during Desert Storm.
As the boats would get ready to go on patrols, I noticed one Sailor who was always the last one to get on the boat . . . always fidgeting with his gear, just sort of stalling. Finally, one evening, I asked him to take a walk. I told him what I had noticed, and asked if anything was wrong. He told me, "Sir, Im scared. Scared to death! I have a beautiful wife, and a brand new baby, and Im afraid we will hit a mine out there, and I will leave them alone and never see them again." I told him that I understood, and if he wanted, I would take him off the boat, put him in the maintenance det, and nobody would ever know of this conversation. His answer surprised me.
He said, "LT, I would like that more than anything. But . . . I cant. Im a member of this crew. I have trained with them, and I cant let them down. Just bear with me; let me get through it in my own way. I wont ever cause us to be late, and I wont let down out there. I just need to get through this." And he did. He was a stellar performer, and I made sure he got a Navy Commendation Medal with [Combat] V. He was one of the bravest men I ever met. People conquer their fears in different ways, and I watched him conquer his.
Thats one of a great many examples I could give you about what makes "Boat Guys" special to me. Having worked with them, played with them, and gone to war with them, I am convinced that you are joining the ranks of the finest Sailors in the world.
You have no way of knowing what the future will bring you . . . but rest assured it will be challenging. I wish you all well in your future assignments and I leave you with this thought: Admiral Arleigh Burke once said, "This ship is built to fight. You had better know how." His advice applies to boats as well.
Hit the decks running, and never look back. Good luck to you all.
Jack Spratt, LCDR, USN