I was born near the ocean. And spent a goodly bit of time either on it or in it while growing up. Swimming and bobbing around in the water were just part of my youth.*
In spite of my love of the ocean, I joined the Army, not the Navy. And after training, I was very pleased to be posted to Hawaii, near, you may imagine, a very nice stretch of ocean. Unlike the Navy and the Marine Corps, there is no requirement to be able to swim in the Army. But safety concerns for certain operations did require that soldiers be able, if not to swim, at least capable of not drowning. Not surprisingly, this training is known as drownproofing. Like most training evolutions, this one was conducted periodically, on roughly an annual basis. So early in my tour in Hawaii, it was off to the post swimming pool with the rest of my company.
At the post pool, the testing was pretty basic. In uniform, with helmet, load bearing equipment, and rifle, you had to hop into the pool, swim 10 meters, and then you could grab the side of the pool.
The second test was a lot more fun. From the three meter platform, you were blindfolded, walked to the end of the ended of the platform, and then, on order, stepped off the platform. Once you hit the water, you had to ditch your harness, rifle, and helmet, then swim to the side. That was pretty fun.
The last part of the testing consisted of learning how to use BDU pants as expedient flotation devices. Tie off the ends of the legs, use a scooping motion to fill air into them, and they’d actually work pretty well.
All in all, other than getting a uniform thoroughly soaked, it was a pretty pleasant way to spend a morning of training. Especially if the option was a 12 mile road march with a full pack.
Despite the plentitude of beautiful beaches in Hawaii, the interior is surprisingly dry, and the likelihood of drowning paled in comparison to the risk of choking to death on red dust from the pineapple fields, or choking on a guava fruit.
But as we ramped up the training cycle to prepare for deployment to Exercise Team Spirit ‘87, word came down from on high that the Wolfhounds would, among other training evolutions, enact an assault crossing of the Han river in the neighborhood of Seoul.
Assault river crossings by light infantry are conducted using the RB-15. In the complex world of military designation systems, RB-15 is refreshingly simple- Rubber Boat, 15 man. Theoretically, 15 men (about 8 of which paddle, the rest as passengers) can fit in each.
Now, you’d think that paddling a rubber boat would be a simple exercise. But as it turns out, before we could hop into the Han river, we had to qualify on the RB-15. So before we ever deployed to Korea, we took a week to visit Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay. While MCAS Kaneohe Bay is indeed an air station, and home to a fair number of Marine Aviation squadrons, it was also home to some Marine Infantry. And Kaneohe Bay itself, where we would be doing our actual training.
While K-Bay is a lovely installation, with spacious, airy barracks and the full range of amenities for both Marines and their families, our stay there was a little more… spartan. The Marines, in the full spirit of interservice cooperation graciously granted us use of an open field. Our quarters were pup-tents (that is, the tent, shelter half, cotton duck, virtually unchanged the original WWI version). I think I’d set up a pup-tent maybe once in the previous year and half. And I was hardly alone in being relatively incompetent in that. But since it was important that we Army guys look good in front of the Marines, much effort went into ensuring our pup-tents were taught and tidy, and absolutely perfectly aligned, to the extent of using a compass to align along a cardinal direction, and string to be sure the tents were all tickety-boo. In spite of K-Bay having great mess halls, those were off limits to us. We ate as if we were actually in the field. In fact, pretty much all of the main post was off limits to us. It struck me as more than slightly ridiculous to be camping out in a field 30 minutes from our home station.
RB-15 training was actually fairly fun, and somewhat involved. Just paddling the boat around was more challenging than you’d first think. Then learning to load the boat added to the challenge. All rucksacks and other equipment had to be lashed to the boat so it wouldn’t be lost overboard. And then there were the flips.
It’s possible that an RB-15 might flip over in rough water. So it was important to learn how to flip the boat back upright. Which meant first you had to learn to flip the boat over. It’s harder than you’d imagine. But the water in the bay was relatively warm, and flipping a boat over a few times was still better than a 12 mile road march.
I’ll save the story of the combination live fire range/bird sanctuary for another time. Let’s just say that wasn’t the finest hour of interservice cooperation.
One other task was to build two man poncho rafts. After lugging an extremely heavy ALICE pack on my back, I was a tad astonished to learn that they could be made to float. Lay a poncho flat. Place your rucksack and your buddy’s rucksack on it. Fold the poncho nice and snug around them. Wrap that package in your buddy’s poncho. With a little judicious use of paracord, a very serviceable raft ensued in just a few minutes. Not really enough to keep the two of you afloat, but more than enough to keep your rucksacks afloat. And surprisingly, the rucksacks came out almost pristine. Now, I don’t really care if my rucksack gets wet, but my spare socks staying dry was a pearl beyond price.
Eventually, the deployment to Team Spirit came to pass. Korea was different and interesting. Our training mostly took place well south of Seoul, and often in areas that rarely saw the US Army. The locals welcomed us into their homes, and were kind. While Seoul was a bustling, modern metropolis, much of the countryside was still extremely primitive, barely removed from the Neolithic age. The incredible boom in the Korean economy was still just over the horizon.
One thing I think I and my fellow soldiers failed to grasp was that Team Spirit was as much a public relations exercise as it was a tactical training event. South Korea used publicity from the exercises both to show a domestic audience how strong the support from the US was, and to send a message to the North Koreans. Our crossing of the Han river was a case in point. Doctrinally, such a crossing would almost certainly be made at night, and with as much artillery support and other fire support as possible. In the event, the actual crossing took place in broad daylight, with film crews from Armed Forces Network Korea and several Korean news agencies recording it for posterity. In fact, rather than assaulting through after the crossing, we milled around a bit, loaded up on trucks, and crossed back over the river via a highway bridge, moving on to continue the exercise elsewhere.
And the river? It was absolutely dead calm. Not one of us had to flip a boat back over or use our BDU pants to keep from drowning.
*Oddly, as fat as I am, I don’t float worth a damn. From earliest days at summer camp, to the present day, if I try to float on my back, my legs sink. As long as my lungs are full of air, my torso will float, but if I exhale for only the briefest moment, my whole body will sink, legs first.