Coastal River Division 21 / Ops


On 16 June, 1973, CRD21 was Commissioned at the Great Lakes Naval Base near Chicago as the US Navy began to turn its attention to NATO operations in Europe.  CRD21 was initially equipped with PTF-17, 18 and 19 as they redeployed from Vietnam in 1972.  A year or 2 later joined by Patrol Gunboats Asheville, Crockett and Marathon, PG-84, 88 and 89 as they redeployed in from West Pac.  We also had our own SEAL Team…

CRD21 was an element of Coastal River Squadron Two based at Little Creek VA.  They, in turn were an element of Naval Inshore Warfare Command Atlantic which also owned the SEAL’s, the Inshore Undersea Warfare Group and the Explosive Ordnance Disposal units of the Amphibious Forces, US Atlantic Fleet.

The Coastal River Divisions were eventually renamed Special Boat Units, then Special Boat Teams that morphed into today’s units still supporting Naval Special Warfare and the other services Special Operations units.  The boat crews were then dubbed Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen, with their own warfare designation, SWCC.

For some more detailed information on our PTF’s, some Vietnam history and absolutely true sea stories (!) take a look here:
PTF-17 and PTF Ops

CRD21 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 warfare and naval inshore warfare operations; conduct and support special psychological and tactical cover and deception operations; and train selected reserve component to support these tasks in the event of mobilization

Most of the reservists and active duty crews were Vietnam Vets themselves, many with combat craft experience so it provided for a ready-made, strong team.  That included LCDR James Roper and LCDR Tim Johnston, our only two commanding officers and Division Commodores.

Great Lakes was selected (among other reasons) as a base since it provided an excellent US cold weather training locale to prepare for NATO operations, one of our principal mission areas. It also had a large population of Navy veterans in the reserve. (and no, we didn’t train recruits from the Great Lakes boot camp).

Note: Readers are also directed to the excellent narratives of CRD21 written by LCDR Tim Johnston (CRD21 Commodore) and Master Chief Gunners Mate Bob Stoner.  Bob served with CRD21 during much  of the time I did and his carefully researched history can be found in Reference (10),  WWW.PTFNASTY.COM the excellent website by Dan Withers.

Bob covers  the history, personnel and some of the Navy’s politics in play during  that era.  He also specifically describes the PTF weapons systems as we  used them.    Commodore Johnston covered the command relationships, navy politics, unit history, overall viewpoints and The Big Picture that only the Division Commodore could have known. Bravo Zulu !

To add to that body of information, I will attempt to fill  in details on CRD21 and the PTF’s from an operational perspective here as well as in other Posts on this website.  I’ll get to training operations at Great Lakes and also describe the boats’ other specific systems in more detail.

There doesn’t seem to be much information on those boat-unique systems to be found on the Web since this all happened well before the Internet Generation was even born. So I will try to fill in what I remember from 38 + years ago.

Training Operations at CRD21:

Below:  A typical day at the Office.  PTF-17, probably above 40 knots.  Authors Photo:

PTF-17: A typical day at the office….

Some detail about the boats themselves here: Fast Patrol Torpedo Boats (PTF-17)

First, the Op Area. Lake Michigan was our primary Op area since the Naval Base was near the south end of the lake. For a lake, its pretty big – you could go 40 knots in a straight line for almost 7 hours without ever seeing land.

The deepest areas of Lake Michigan were over 900 feet deep; the bottom being about 400 feet BELOW sea level. We also made trips to the other Great Lakes (except Ontario) for port visits and recruiting support.

I had a good friend who was a Supply Officer at Navy Recruiting Command Region 5  and they would pay for our fuel if we would stop at various cities around the lakes and wave the flag.  We would meet the recruiters and take their prospects out for rides.  I swore-in many future sailors on these trips.

Interestingly, we were not the first US Navy PT boats on the Great Lakes. In October, 1945 seven Elco PT boats made their way from Newport Rhode Island to Detroit via the New York barge canals and the Welland Canal around Niagara Falls. They sailed across Lake Erie for a “show the flag” visit to Detroit at the end of World War II. (Reference 24)

Here’s a new recruit being sworn-in at Fairport Harbor Ohio in July 1974. Also a good shot of our new Mk 16 Belt-fed 20 mm automatic cannon. (Pay no attention to that wolf howling at the moon – he’s not looking at YOU).   Official US Navy Photograph

Fun Fact:  Somehow the Army had good Intel on our schedule (we sure didn’t!) .  At a few stops, ARMY recruiters were there ahead of the Navy guys to tell future Army recruits about the cool Green Boats that the ARMY had!  “Join the ARMY – See the World” !! Well, we are all on the same side…. Good for them!

Here’s a cool shot of PTF-19 idling during the annual Chicago Air and Water Show on the Chicago waterfront. We made several high speed runs past the reviewing stand and then stood out while the US Army Golden Knights parachute team flew by in their vintage C-47 with its snazzy paint job.    Apparently the National Anthem was being played at the time.   The US Navy Blue Angels also flew and we got to take their pilots for a PTF ride afterwards. Official US Navy Photograph

Fun fact: The USMC flew an early-version Harrier to the show, roaring in from the east and slowly stopping to hover over the lake in front of the grandstand on Lakeshore Drive. Jet blast downwash spray completely soaked a few thousand spectators – most of them probably loved it. Or not.

Below is a shot taken during our recruiting trip to Chicago. We were tied up forward of the USS Silversides SS-236, a famous WWII Fleet Submarine which was tied up at the Chicago Naval Pier. During her Pacific patrols, Silversides sank 23 enemy ships and damaged another 14 earning her the third highest total of any US submarine. The Silversides is now apparently moored at Muskegon, Michigan educating our citizens about the realities of WWII.

Most of our training, and all of our gunnery training was on Lake Michigan. I was told that the treaty that ended the War of 1812 stipulated the numbers and sizes of guns the US and Canada were permitted to arm vessels with on the Great Lakes.  Apparently the State Department had to work a deal with Canada to waive that treaty so we could operate and shoot on the lakes.

There were 2 gunnery training areas, one in the south-central part of the lake, maybe 20×40 miles and another further north which was bigger.  I understand that the Fox Island group at the north end of Lake Michigan had been used in WWII and later by the USS Parle reserve DE as gunnery targets.

We never shot that far north.  We were told that the “flower children” of the day were enraged that the Navy was ruining the vegetation on these islands with the gunnery.  Until someone noticed that the target islands were much more heavily vegetated than the others – nitrates in explosives make great fertilizer.
Some info on the PTF weapons suite and “shots” from training exercises here: PTF Gunnery Exercises, PTF-17

We did many beach reconnaissance exercises along the shores, notably across at Muskegon, Traverse City, and beaches in northern Illinois and Wisconsin and down to Gary Indiana (where we would be out-gunned by the civilian population found there….)
Some selected SEAL training ops we conducted here: SEAL Team training Ops aboard PTF’s

When I was a kid, I grew up watching the television series Navy Log about WWII in the Pacific.  One episode was  called “A Bucket of Sand” where a UDT team was sent ashore on some enemy controlled island in the Pacific to capture a canvas bucket of sand from the beach.  This was needed so the intel guys could assess the beaches’ suitability for amphibious landings and subsequent cross-beach vehicle ops.  Subtle, important stuff.

Seemed like a perfect Op for us, so one night we snuck up on Illinois Beach State Park and sent the SEALS ashore in their rubber IBS boat to capture a bucket of sand.  Standard UDT/SEAL mission as part of beach recon and surveys.  Fun, relevant. Little did I know…….

Speaking of Underwater Demolition Teams, I was honored to meet the founder of the Navy Combat Demolition Units and Navy Explosive Ordnance Disposal,  Rear Admiral Draper Kauffman. Admiral Kauffman had an outstanding career, basically bringing British expertise in Explosive Ordnance Disposal to the US after having served in the UK as a volunteer during the German Blitz.

He defuzed the first live bomb found at Pearl Harbor (actually a 500 pound enemy bomb at the Schofield Barracks that had just missed the ammunition dump) after the attack, earning the Navy Cross.  Later, as the leader of UDT-5, he led a daylight beach reconnaissance of Saipan while under heavy fire, earning his second Navy Cross. He again led the UDT teams in the Tinian, Iwo Jima and Okinawa assaults. If anyone in the world knew the true significance of a mere “Bucket of Sand”, it was him.

He went on the command destroyers, cruisers, the US Naval Academy and finally the Navy’s Ninth Naval District based at Great Lakes. It was there that I got to meet him as he took a ride aboard PTF-17. Below. Photo: Official US Navy Photograph.

Below is another Official US Navy Photograph as Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago opened up all the bridges across the Chicago River as a salute to the Navy. Apparently it snarled the early morning commute traffic so badly, it is still backed up. A third PTF is in the far right background, behind and to the right of the small boats. Photo: Official US Navy Photograph

Below is another shot of Admiral Kauffman, Mayor Daley and Commodore Roper, Chicago River. Fireboats A-Squirtin’. Photo: Official US Navy Photograph

Reserve Drill Weekends:  Since we had a large reserve crew at CRD21 and to best utilize the assets, we broke them up into a Blue and Gold crew. That meant that we were underway 2 weekends per month as they did their monthly training. We did a lot of gunnery training! Lots! We shot up a whole bunch of WWII vintage ammo and we were all impressed with its reliability. Hardly ever a hang fire. More to follow on that.

We generally followed “Fleet Exercise Publication” FXP-3, the Navy’s book of standard shipboard exercises. It contained canned exercise scenarios to work each department and system on the boat from engineering, deck seamanship, gunnery, operations, damage control, communications etc.

A pretty common one was Z-29-G, an exercise to engage a floating enemy mine with gunfire. Many 55 gallon drums were shredded as a result. Another was Z-10-CC, surface tracking of contacts by radar.

We did precision anchoring, towing a “disabled” boat, man overboard, engineering casualty drills, fire and flooding drills, medical response, navigation and piloting, and many others. Small boat, small, well-trained crew, good fun. Everyone knew everyone else’s job pretty thoroughly.

Below is a shot of PTF-17 “coming at ya”. Photo: Curt Froyen

Coastal River Division 21’s Patrol Gunboats:

USS Asheville, USS Crockett, USS Marathon Plaques

USS Asheville, USS Crockett, USS Marathon Plaques

As stated earlier, the Patrol Gunboats USS Asheville (PG-84), USS Crockett (PG-88) and USS Marathon (PG-89) joined CRD21 sometime well after we were commissioned. These guys had seen a lot in combat before they were redeployed elsewhere in WestPac.

They were assigned to CRD21 and for awhile, lived with us. They were tied up at our usual berths on the south side of the north quaywall as shown in the photo below.  (They were never moored on the other side of that quaywall as another blogger had posted – the water was very shallow there).

The PTF’s were moved to the south quaywall. The PG’s needed the steam lines for moored heating which we didn’t and the water was deeper there as well.  The south quaywall was not good for the PTF’s.  A strong storm surge often built up in the harbor right there and the PTF’s were sometimes damaged against the fenders and pier.

In the winter (1974-75 I recall) when we were pulled for overhaul, they tried to stay at Great Lakes but there was a problem. Since they remained afloat and the harbor would freeze hard-over, their hulls needed protection. So a system of weighted, perforated firehoses was installed by our SEALS on the bottom under their keels and filled with compressed air to generate a constant stream of bubbles.

This pulled warmer water (OK, it was cold, but still liquid!) up from the bottom, theoretically keeping the ice away from their hulls. They couldn’t turn over their engines/shafts periodically to keep things straight and loose and despite the fact that they had controllable-pitch screws there was fear they would churn up the hoses. (They could rotate at “zero pitch”, not causing thrust but rotating nonetheless.) Worked. Sorta.

But not really, so they were sent down to the Chicago Naval Pier for a similar system that was better supported. I understand that was a real problem between the City of Chicago and Navy Public Works at the naval facility down there, but somehow that’s where they remained.

These ships were real thoroughbreds and they needed a lot of TLC to remain operational. With their diesel engines for 0-15 knots and a marine gas turbine for above 15 knots, they were a hybrid design with many complexities.

I only remember operating with them one time before I left active duty in August 75 and that was some simple surface tracking and “Div Ops”, no gunnery. They seemed to be down for maintenance a lot and their active crews were reduced with the idea that the Reservists filled out the WQS Bill.

Fine in theory but all that maintenance had to be done when the Reservists were generally not aboard. I only have a few photo’s of them, here’s one of the USS Asheville nested-out from one of the others. Can anyone else add to this story? Authors Photo:

Fun “Fact”: The day Crockett and Asheville arrived, the Navy Band had mustered on the pier, everyone was there but there was a thick fog bank off the coast and visibility was about 100 feet. They had anchored-out for the night waiting for the fog to clear for their 0800 arrival.

One of the PTF’s got underway to “investigate”. Since we were supposed to be “competitive” with them for some reason, someone thought it be appropriate to greet them and show them how things worked around here.

The Sea Story goes that PTF-X made a radar-controlled close pass down their starboard sides at 30 knots, pulling a water skier decked out in an orange kapok life jacket and M1 Helmet – on a 200 foot rope.  Outta the fog – zoom by – disappeared into the fog. PT boat? What PT boat? Water Ski’s??