I trained with these bad boys when thay first stood up at Camp Lejeune back in 1993.Look what they're doing now.
Posted on Tue, Oct. 05, 2004
In Iraq, riverboats prove a handy tool for confronting rebels
BY RICK JERVIS
ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq - (KRT) - The Riverine Assault Craft had knifed less than a mile down the Euphrates River when it came upon its first potential target of the day: a man in grimy clothes standing on the riverbank.
Nine gun barrels, including those of a 50-caliber machine gun and a 40 mm grenade launcher, swung around and trained on him.
The man waved.
"Hey, our first wave," said Marine Staff Sgt. James Cascio, the boat's captain. "I guess I would, too, if I had nine guns pointing at me."
The crew, culled from the Small Craft Company of the Marine Corps' Headquarters Battalion, 2nd Marine Division and other infantry units, was understandably cautious. It was the third day of patrol down this stretch of river in a hostile country, and the crew was making its combat debut.
A little-known unit not used in combat since the Vietnam War, the crews of the Riverine Assault Crafts have been dispatched to cruise along a 40-mile stretch of the Euphrates south of Baghdad in heavily armed, three-boat patrols looking for weapons caches, dropping Force Recon teams - reconnaissance Marines that take on special operations - and conducting board-and-search operations.
As coalition forces multiply their checkpoints and step up patrol of Iraq's highways and towns, military officials speculated that insurgents are increasingly turning to the country's riverbanks for refuge.
The RAC patrols are already paying off. In April, a crew discovered 107 rockets on a river islet near Al Asad, from where it is believe that rockets have been fired targeting U.S. troops. In June, another patrol found 13 82-mm mortar shells and 5 rocket-propelled grenade rounds on another island near Fallujah. The crews are also seeing early signs of water-borne bombs. An unmanned boat carrying explosives drifted under a pontoon bridge and blew it up recently, killing a U.S. soldier, a Marine official said.
Using specialized training, radar systems and heavy firepower, RAC officials said their crews could combat river insurgency.
"We're an odd little animal off to the side of most people's thinking," said Capt. Paul Stubbs, a company commander. "But we're effective."
The company comprises two platoons with about 40 Marines and sailors in each one. The 35-foot boats are armor-plated and stacked with weaponry: a Browning M2 .50-caliber machine gun on the bow, an MK 19 grenade launcher on the stern and 240 Gulf medium machine guns firing .762 mm rounds on either side.
Twin 300-horsepower jet diesel engines move the boats up to 45 mph. Crews hope that combination of speed and power will help them catch insurgents.
On a recent run, Sgt. Anthony "Ski" Czerwinski, the boat's pilot, steered the craft south down the Euphrates toward Musayyib. The six-man crew, along with three Marines holding M-16 assault rifles, continuously scanned the riverbanks as the boat passed fields of tall grass, mud-brick homes and a black panther sunning itself on a grassy swell by the river. Occasionally, a sheepherder would stop and gawk as the boat zipped by.
"They don't know what to think of us yet," said Gunnery Sgt. Brian Vianciguerra, manning one of the machine guns. "Once they figure out what we are, it's game on."
The Army and Navy deployed similar boats on similar missions down the deltas and rivers of Vietnam during the war there, often working the waterways in tangent. That strategy became familiar to many with the release of Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." More recently, the Navy's swift boats, similar to but slower than the Marines' RACs, regained attention as the vessels captained by presidential candidate John Kerry in Vietnam.
But after Vietnam, the Army discontinued its Riverine unit, Stubbs said. The river assault boats have not been used since, mostly because the United States has not fought in locations with rivers, he said.
In 1991, the Marine Corps instituted its RAC unit and began training Marines, Stubbs said. RAC crews train at the Marine base in Camp Lejeune, N.C., where they learn how to fire machine guns from moving boats, read radar and global positioning systems and take 100-mile navigational journeys up North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, said Czerwinski, who helps train candidates.
"We teach them everything, from how to drive the boat at night to how to fix the engines," he said.
Marine RAC crews have been used to train government soldiers in Colombia, Argentina and Paraguay, a military official said. But the unit remained largely unused, and word among commanders was that the Pentagon planned to phase out the river assault unit, until the rivers of Iraq created a need for them, the official said.
"We don't have any control over what the Joint Chiefs of Staff decide," said Capt. Dan Wittnam, a company commander. "What happens in Iraq will largely decide what happens to this unit."
The platoons arrived in Iraq in April and began patrolling the inlets and cuts around a hydro-electric dam on the Euphrates near Al Asad, which supplies Baghdad and surrounding cities with much of their power, said Capt. Art Decotiis, 27, a platoon commander. They patrolled the waters around Ramadi and near Fallujah, sometimes using bomb-sniffing dogs and occasionally drawing small-arms fire from land, Decotiis said. Soon after, they started finding the ammunition stashes, he said.
"Seemed like every area we looked, we found something," Decotiis said. "We're unknown. No one's really gotten a chance to get used to us."
But the unit, which moved down to Iskandariyah last week to be attached to the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, is not problem-free. The boats are 10 years old, and parts sometimes fail. Leaves and river gunk often clog the jets, and crew members have to rake them out as the boat floats dangerously exposed in the river.
On another recent outing, the crews' fourth near Iskandariyah, the launch was delayed an hour while a pump on one of the boat's engines was replaced. Darkness was creeping in as the three boats pushed off, giving the crew their first night run.
"The night is our friend," Vianciguerra said, strapping night-vision goggles to his helmet. "In 30 minutes, no one will see us."
Soon the trio of boats were gliding north up the river, one of four that in the Bible ran through the Garden of Eden. The boats cruised past silhouettes of date palm groves, stands of tall grass and the occasional straw hut, landscapes similar to those found in the Florida Everglades. Or Vietnam.
As dusk bled to night and blackened the banks of the river, the crew snapped down their night-vision goggles or peered through night-vision scopes mounted on assault rifles, scanning shrubs they now saw in bright lime green.
Czerwinski, the pilot, kept his night-vision goggles up on his helmet, steering the boat along a ribbon of moonlight on the river. He said he realized the RACs' days may be numbered, but there's always a chance to reverse that.
"No one thought you'd use boats in the desert," he said, smiling. "But here we are."
There used to be a time when the Navy would step up and do its damned job. But we've been too Blue Water focused for too long.
Well, maybe John (assclown) Kerry CAN win this war for us.
They make the Coast Guard look like sissies!
They are still going to be phased out.
The Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicle will largely take over their job, and it doesn't have to abandon pursuit at the waters edge...
Nothing like having a MK-19 ruining your beach party.