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SEAL Boat Operators Seek Their Own Independent History

Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen instructors prepare to dock two 11-me...

Credit: Defense of Department

Above: Special Warfare Combatant-craft Crewmen instructors prepare to dock two 11-meter rigid-hull inflatable boat at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, March 2011.

They deploy alongside the Navy SEALs, though their service has never made them famous.

As with the SEALs, their modern history dates back to the Vietnam War, where they built and piloted the boats used for clandestine missions into the rivers of North Vietnam. In 1964, Jack Burge received orders to report to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado. Their group deployed to Vietnam without knowing their mission.

“I was the only engineman in the group,” said Burge, a Navy veteran. “We had electricians. We had gunners mates. It was a mixture of all people from different areas and it just so happens we came together for that first team.”

Burge was recently in San Diego for the 55-year reunion of the Combatant Craft Crewman Association. The first boats were built and maintained for the South Vietnamese. After Burge’s initial tour, the boat operators were paired with the newly formed Navy SEALs. The boat operators have deployed alongside SEALs ever since, he said.

Reported by Steve Walsh , Video by Roland Lizarondo

Navy veteran Jack Spratt trained on the swift boat that is now at the San Diego Maritime Museum. That swift boat was originally kept in San Diego. The combat craft operators would quickly begin working with their own, specialized craft which were faster and more highly armed. In the late 1980s, Spratt was assigned to combat craft, where he helped build the next generation of small, fast boats.

“Desert Storm came along and the invasion of Kuwait,” Spratt said. “And Navy Special Warfare used that as an opportunity to send high-speed boats. And prove the concept in combat.”

The boat operators have been renamed several times. The Special Warfare Combatant Craft Crew remain a separate unit, typically linked with the SEALs. Training has become more specialized, though they have mainly kept out of the spotlight, said William Redman, who joined the boat crews after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon.

“We’re always mistaken to be SEALs,” Redman said. “Even though in all actuality, even though we fight along with them, we do our own missions without them and we don’t talk about it. We keep that private and within our own community.”

Their motto is the “Quiet Professionals.” Historians among the retired boat operators recently published “War Boats: 55 Years of Naval Special Warfare Combat Craft History” which pulls together the history of the unit.

“We want people to know about our history but we’re also quiet professionals, so there are a lot of things from the last 10 years that we can’t talk about,” said Phil Garn, the co-author of the book and a veteran boat operator.

The combat crews aren’t well known outside the special operator community, said Burge, who has been to several reunions. The lack of recognition doesn’t bother him, he said.

“We know what we’ve done,” he said.

Listen to this story by Steve Walsh.

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Steve Walsh
Military Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover military and veterans issues for KPBS and American Homefront, a partnership of public radio stations and NPR. I cover issues ranging from delpoying troops along the California border to efforts to lower suicide rates among veterans.

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