Desert One was a disaster. The photos of the burned-out helicopters lying in the lonely sands of the Iranian desert drove spears through the hearts of all Special Operations members, regardless of service. Desert One was before my time. I joined the Teams in the mid-eighties, five full years after the debacle. Regardless, my teammates and I would come to learn the significance of that event. It would become as real to us as it was for those who heard the news the day after the accident.
For many ranking officers in the military, Desert One highlighted the risky business of Special Operations. They wrung their hands, drooled over the Holloway Commission and voraciously read their manuals on risk aversion. For others, luckily it was the beginning of a new phase in SPEC Ops history. It was an opportunity to improve, to excel and become the force of the future. For those enlightened souls “integration,” “inter-operability” and “joint” became the buzz words. But integration, as nice as it sounds, was not always well received, regardless of the circumstances.
Integrating services and their operational elements ran up against a host of obstacles, real and imagined. On the ground level, at the SEAL Teams it was about mission.
“The Army doesn’t swim, do they?” someone asked the OIC.
“Well apparently they do,” someone else said.
“They are looking to us to get them into the beach, that’s it,” the OIC said.
“They’re probably here to figure out how we do things so they can start doing the mission themselves.”
“Oh that’s stupid. The last time I checked, the Army doesn’t have a fleet of subs.”
“Look, the SF has a SCUBA school, has had it for years. They are going to lock out of the DDS with us and we are going to take them into the beach. Times are changing, for the better I think, and this is part of that change. We have a capability that no one else has, and as part of the new effort to conduct joint operations we may be taking units like that ODA Team on boat rides more often than not,” Tommy Gun, the OIC, said.
“So we’re basically going to be taxi cab drives?” Someone asked.
“I guess you could say that,” Tommy Gun said.
“Shit, that sucks.”
“That’ll suck right up until we are part of a real mission, taking someone into a beachhead for a real op. We do that op then they’ll want us to do more. Next op we get a couple guys on the beach with them and so on. Then it wont suck so bad,” Tommy Gun said.
“So are we going to have to start wearing those stupid looking French hats?” someone asked.
“This is coming from a guy who wears a Dixie cup on his head, are you serious? Hell I’d take that beret any day,” someone else said.
Task Unit Alpha (TUA) was in Puerto Rico (PR) for a few months to dive the SDVs and work off the Dry Deck Shelter (DDS). The training was going to culminate with a series of full-blown exercises. One of them was to be an inter-operability with an Army SF team.
For a long time, the DDS was used solely to launch the SDV. Then someone came up with the bright idea of launching CRRCs (Combat Rubber Raiding Craft) from the DDS. The Army found out and wanted to try it out. The SDVs had developed a system to insert their own guys onto the beach to conduct the same op the Army was now going to do. There were a few at the Team who were not to happy about this mission possibly being stolen.
“I don’t like it,” Mad Max said.
“Don’t like what?” Ringer asked.
“The Army taking over our op,” Mad Max said.
“Relax man, its one op. You seen those Army dudes? They’re not in as good shape as I’d thought they would be. Plus every one of them smokes like a chimney, not one of them gonna last up there,” Ringer said.
“Ah, maybe you’re right, but I still don’t like it,” Mad Max said.
“Alright let’s load up,” Bubba said.
Everyone climbed the ladders up into the DDS. The DDS crew and S&R (Surveillance and Reconnaissance Team), whose op was being taken over by the Army, begrudgingly prepped to take the ODA Team into the target beach on an island south of PR. The DDS crew would go through their paces and get the CRRCs on the surface before the ODA Team would lock in and swim their way to the boats on the surface.
A little later on the surface.
“See, this is why you don’t let kids play in daddy’s work shop,” Big J said.
“What is taking them so long?” Mad Max asked.
“I don’t know, but this bobbing around up here is getting pretty fucking old,” Swamp Thing said.
“Hey look, the moon’s finally out,” Ringer said.
“Great, maybe it will stop raining for ten minutes,” Mad Max said.
“So you think one of them Army guys had a heart attack and they forgot about us up here,” Big J joked.
“So we going to be going with the waves to the east side of the island right?” Swamp Thing asked.
“Yeah, I think that was the plan,” Big J said.
“Well I can see the island from here and the waves are not looking too following seas-ish,” Swamp Thing said.
“Here we go,” Ringer said.
The first SF guy made it up the line and to the boats. It was nearly an hour passed launch time before Big J and I pulled him into the boat. It would be another forty five minutes before the boats were underway. TUA normally did the same activity from the DDS door opening to CRRCs away in twenty minutes. There was obviously going to be a learning curve.
“We are so far behind the timeline,” Mad Max said.
“I know, we planned on going a lot faster than this, if I remember correctly,” Ringer said.
“At this rate we will be lucky to make the drop point before sun up,” Big J said.
The boats were averaging on a few knots, not ideal.
“What you got on there Swamp Thing?” Ringer asked.
“Swim goggles,” Swamp Things said, “the spray was just killin’ my eyes. I couldn’t see shit. No problems now.”
“Man, that’s a great fucking idea,” Mad Max said.
The swells were twenty seconds apart and averaging about six to eight feet, with
an occasional ten to twelve footer. The wind was blowing about ten knots and gusting to twenty. White frothy foam blew directly over the bows of the four small rubber boats. The boats motored out of the trough and up the walls of water then plummeted down the back side.
Hours went by before the boats rounded the eastern tip of the island. The target beach was on the north side of the island, almost dead center. The decision had been made to circumnavigate the island, the idea being that during the infil the boats would travel with the wave action. The same would be true for exfil, after the tidal shift. The north side of the island would be placid as most of the wind comes out of the south. Mother nature had other ideas. The north side of the island was being pummeled by four to six foot surf.
TUA made its way into the beach and dropped the grateful ODA team, grateful to
be on land again. TUA gathered outside the surf zone in a boat pool and discussed the exfil, took inventory and had some snacks. It was then that Big J discovered our boat had sprung a small leak. Small enough that we could trade off working a foot pump to keep most of the boats pontoons ridged. Big enough that if we stopped pumping the tubes went flat, in minutes.
Big J was not fat, but he was a big man, though, big boned. Happy and jovial most of the time, he was less than on the return transit to the sub. Perfect time for someone to start picking on him.
“So J, you been swimmin’ lately. How’s that breast stroke comin’? You’re
gonna need it here pretty damn soon I think.”
“Fuck you jack ass. I’ll just scuttle this boat and take over yours,” Big J said.
“Yeah how you gonna do that,” Swamp Thing said. He gunned the throttle and moved quickly out of reach of Big J.
“Look it’s a faaaaat man in a leaky boooooat,” Mad Max sang. He kept repeating it. Other boat drivers and navigators started singing along, over and over until Big J sat stoic on his deflating boat tube wishing he could go faster or kill someone.
Hours passed again as the boats made their way to the western tip of the island. Big J and I switched out pumping the foot pump, desperately trying to stay afloat. The boat sprung further leaks. We were down to a max of a couple knots, any more and we would take on loads of water. The sun broke the eastern horizon like a police cars search lamp. The sky turned orangish-red as we rounded the west side of the island and headed directly south into the Caribbean.
Nearly fourteen hours after locking out of the DDS TUA rendezvoused with the sub, Tommy Gun and others were on the deck to greet us back and help pull the boats on up on deck.
“What the hell happened to your boat, J?” Tommy Gun asked.
“Faaaaaat man in a leaky booooooat,” we all sang out in unison. Big J sang too.
We never saw the Army guys again. I don’t know if they ever came back to try another lock-out boat ride or not. TUA felt triumphant, we knew the Army was unlikely to want to take the mission away from us. But, we would gladly take them on another boat rid anytime they wanted.
Maybe this integration-inter-operability-joint thing wasn’t so bad after all.
(Featured Image Courtesy: MilitaryPhotos.net)