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Halloween Day, 1992, Deep in the Bolivian Jungle
The mission was simple enough. Locate and destroy a clandestine cocaine lab somewhere in the Bolivian jungle. The team had progressed five hundred meters toward the location of a suspected lab. Five hundred meters might not seem like a lot if you're walking down the street, but every inch is earned when you're hacking through dense bush. Covered with sweat and what can only be described as a swarm of mosquitoes, the team finally made it to the encampment. It was then that the jungle exploded all around the insertion team. Bits of wood, dirt, leaves, and whatever else was unfortunate enough to be in the path of poorly aimed automatic weaponry fire was violently launched through the air and rained upon the insertion team. The onslaught of bullets came from five heavily armed narcotraffickers, accompanied by one semi-innocent, unarmed cook. The team acted quickly, taking up defensive positions and returning fire with their M-16s. One member fired a precisely aimed MK-79 grenade round, which exploded just behind the lab. The firefight lasted only minutes. At the end of the skirmish, four offive gunmen were wounded, while the insertion team remained unscathed. Randy, who had only moments before been directing fire on the narcotraffickers, had a new fight on his hands. Randy and his team now had to fight to save the lives of the men who just tried to kill them.
Upon reading this story, one might infer that Randy was a member of one of the Department of Defense's (DOD's) Special Operations Forces (SOF). Perhaps he was a U.S. Navy (USN) SEAL, a member of the Army Special Forces, or even a Marine Recon fighter. One could even surmise that he was a private security contractor, a mercenary, brought in to fight Bolivian narcotraffickers under one of the many Department of State (DOS) initiatives to quell cocaine production in South America. The possibilities go on and on. After all, dozens governmental agencies and private security contractors were involved in the ground battle of the War on Drugs in South America during the late 1980s and early 1990s ... not the least of which was the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).
While the Coast Guard's many battles at sea in the War on Drugs are widely known, its participation in the ground offensive is not. Indeed, the Guard didn't just send its cutters to interdict narcotics-laden vessels attempting to bring their illicit cargo into Uncle Sam's territorial waters, it sent ground troops to foreign lands to train their forces and, when necessary, directly engage the enemy. Randy, point of fact, was not a DOD Special Forces operator or a security contractor. Rather, he was a member of an elite and virtually unheard-of U.S. Coast Guard Special Operations Force, which was conceived, trained, and deployed to bring the War on Drugs to the front door of the narcotraffickers. His was, by no means, a standard Coast Guard mission, just as the team that he belonged to was not your standard Coast Guard unit. In fact, it was about as far from the standard as you could get.
While the Coast Guard has worn many hats throughout its over-200-year history, it has never enjoyed a level of prominence within the realm of Special Forces operations. To be sure, the very idea of a Coast Guard Special Forces is a foreign concept to most people, counterintuitive to some, and outright offensive to the remainder. Regardless of ignorance or perceptions, however, it was a reality. Coast Guardsmen have had not one well-defined incessant organizational duty, but an expansive array of fluid, ever-changing missions. They have, to a great degree, been whatever their country needed them to be. When America needed soldiers, Coast Guardsmen went to war. They have fought and died in every major war in the last two centuries. Similarly, when it needed Special Forces operators, the likes of which the armed forces of the DOD could not supply, Coast Guardsmen again provided. During World War II, the Coast Guard teamed up with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) to create the Operational Swimmer Group and Maritime Unit. The Coast Guardsmen of the Operational Swimmer Group, recruited for their swimming and diving skills, earned the nickname "Frogmen," and later became the foundation for the U.S. Navy SEALs.
Fast-forward forty years to the late 1980s, the War on Drugs, and Coast Guardsmen would again be asked to venture into the world of Special Forces operations. America was deeply entrenched in the war against the cocaine manufacturers and traffickers of several South American countries, the main fronts being fought in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Panama. The Department of State, executing a presidential initiative, deployed vast military and civilian forces to crush the cocaine trade at its source. The military forces, which encompassed all of the DOD, were on the ground strictly for training and support purposes, as they were legislatively forbidden to participate in anything resembling combat operations. The civilian forces, on the other hand-primarily from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), although some private security contractors were used-were authorized to embed and deploy with their allied host, conducting joint offensive operations aimed at dismantling, or at least diminishing, the narcotics trade. But a problem existed ... geography.
A ground war in any of the aforementioned countries could not be waged without due regard for the extensive and complex river systems. Fighting the narcotraffickers in South America could not be done solely by air or by land. If you patrol the skies and blockade the roads, illicit product can still flow over the rivers. In a land that was already accustomed to transportation over the water, moving narcotics in the maritime environment wasn't difficult. But the DEA had no expertise in riverine operations, and the Navy was forbidden to do anything more than train partner nation forces. They needed someone with maritime expertise, specifically experience in small boat riverine operations, who could take up arms, embed and deploy with the host nation forces, and bring the fight to the enemy. They needed the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard, though, had not fought in a war since Vietnam. An entire generation of Coast Guardsmen had come and gone since it had last managed combat troops of any variety; war was no longer a part of the organizational identity; it was no longer standard. One did not join the Coast Guard in the 1980s expecting to be pulled off the ship, trained as a sniper or demolitions expert, and then sent to fight in a remote South American jungle virtually autonomously. For the Guard, a venture back into the world of Special Forces meant recreating something that was completely foreign to nearly everyone in the organization; that is, nearly everyone except the epic figure leading the charge. But if Special Forces was what their country needed, then Special Forces was what the Coast Guard would give them.
To create the type of force needed was no small task and would not be without tribulation, both from within and outside the organization. Make no mistake; this is not a happy story. The road traveled to complete the mission was laden with obstacles. Point of fact, it was about as rough as one could have imagined it. This is not a story about the Coast Guard you know, or think you know. Rather, this is a story about the other side, the side that history nearly forgot; not the standard, but the antithesis of standard. It is a story that will undoubtedly make even the most seasoned Coast Guardsmen question their understanding of the organization to which they belong. If you fear having your perception of the Coast Guard change, put this book down and walk away now. To be sure, "This is not your father's Coast Guard."
From every war, a list is prepared; a list containing the names of military officers who possess not only the requisite skill, but the bravery and fortitude to lead the U.S. Armed Forces in future wars, against future enemies. Having proven themselves superior leaders under the horrors of combat, these officers would now be slated to take the helm of the greatest armed force in history. During the Vietnam War, Rear Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam and Chief of the Naval Advisory Group, had prepared one such list.
It had long been suspected that arms were being smuggled into South Vietnam by sea. Even before the ground war began on March 8, 1965, with the deployment of 3,500 Marines, Naval forces had been searching for proof of the suspected smuggling activity. The proof they sought had come on February 16, 1965; a Vietnamese fishing trawler, laden with arms and ammunition, was seized before it could unload its cargo at Vung Ro Bay in northern Khanh Hoa Province. The Vung Ro Bay Incident, as it became know, was the tangible proof needed to pull the trigger on Operation Market Time.
The operation's principal objective was to stop the flow of arms into South Vietnam via the sea. To accomplish this mission, the U.S.-Navy led Operation Market Time commanded a fleet of Navy destroyers, minesweepers, Swift Boats, and U.S. Coast Guard cutters (USCGCs) and eighty-two-foot patrol boats (PBs). The Coast Guard vessels attached to the operation made up one fourth of the total; a fourth of the assets belonged to the Coast Guard, and a fourth of the command rested with Coast Guard officers as well.
"Commander, you know, we've never sent anybody to Vietnam that hasn't been a volunteer," Commander Paul A. Yost, Jr.'s detailer stated in an early-morning call from Coast Guard Headquarters in Washington, D.C., 1968. The commander was approaching the end of his two-year tour on board the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Resolute and was being considered for duty in the Vietnam War, now three years old.
"Well, I understand that," Paul replied.
The detailer went on, "We need somebody to take over the combat command billet we have there in the Market Time operation. You're a graduate of the War College. You've had two commands. You're perfect for it."
Initially skeptical, Paul retorted, "Yes, but you just said that you've never sent anybody that didn't volunteer."
"Yeah, that's why I'm calling you. I want you to volunteer."
"You know, I've got a wife and five kids, and the oldest one is a teenager, and the others aren't that far behind. I can't do it. You want me to go to Vietnam, you send me a set of orders," Paul shot back, throwing down the gauntlet.
"Okay. I don't know what we'll do." And the conversation was over.
The next morning, Paul woke up to the sound of his radioman knocking on his door and calling, "Captain, Captain, you got a set of dispatch orders." Commander Paul Yost had become the Coast Guard's first nonvolunteer deployed to Vietnam.
Paul A. Yost, Jr. was born in 1929 in Philadelphia. Although born in Philadelphia, he spent most of his childhood in Indiana. His first experience with the USCG was during World War II, while working with a commercial fishing fleet. As his ship went out to sea, they would have to report to an old eighty-three-foot wooden cutter anchored at the mouth of the harbor. The cutter was tracking fishing vessel movements in the Gulf of Mexico, as the fleet feared losing ships to German submarines. After returning exhausted and covered in slime from days of fishing, Paul would see the cutter's chief standing on the brow in starched khakis. Seeing this, he asked himself, "Is there something wrong with this picture? How do I get to stand there in khakis? Let somebody else do this fishing work."
Although he had been accepted to Navy ROTC, Paul chose the Coast Guard; that chief and his khakis had made a lasting impression. In June 1947, he took a train from Louisville to the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Connecticut. His life would never be the same.
After graduating from "the factory," now-Ensign Yost was sent to Hawaii to become the assistant gunnery officer on board the USCGC Iroquois, colloquially referred to as "255 feet of sudden death." Ensign Yost was already familiar with the ship's weaponry thanks to his education. The factory, in the years after World War II, included training on the USCG's standard shipboard weapons, the rapid-fire five-inch dual-purpose surface-to-air weapon and the quad 40s.
After making lieutenant junior grade (LTJG), Paul transferred from Hawaii to Guam, where he served as a rescue controller at the Rescue Coordination Center (RCC). From the RCC, he went back to the fleet on the USCGC Ironwood, a 180-foot buoy tender. He would remain in the fleet for most of his early career, including completing two command tours before that fateful phone call in 1968.
After pushing through six weeks of language training at the Naval Postgraduate School at Monterey and getting beat up during two-week escape and evasion training in California, Paul boarded a plane out of Travis Air Force Base (AFB). It was just after Christmas, 1968.
He landed at Tan Son Nhut, the U.S. Air Force base in Saigon, for in-processing and was quickly invited to meet Captain Chick Rauch, naval advisor working for Admiral Zumwalt. Paul was being given command of Task Group 115.4, Market Time commander for the Fourth Coastal Zone. As such, he was also the senior Coast Guard advisor in the region.
Upon arriving in Phu Quoc, he met with the commander he was to relieve: Coast Guard Commander Adrian Lonsdale. Adrian had reportedly done an excellent job with his command. Morale was high, and more importantly, they had stopped all the arms coming into the Fourth Coastal Zone. A four-tier security shield had been established around Vietnam: Swift Boats near shore, eighty-two-foot PBs four to five nautical miles offshore, a destroyer or large Coast Guard cutter beyond that, and finally long-range patrol aircraft on the outer tier. Navigating through this armada without detection was nearly impossible. In fact, by the time Paul arrived, Market Time was so successful that Admiral Zumwalt had decided to send missions into the rivers. By early 1969, the fleet was boring holes in the water and rarely engaged the enemy or intercepted smuggled arms. Thus, Paul's predecessor, Commander Lonsdale, had begun planning and executing missions into the inlets and rivers of the Ca Mau, the peninsula at the southern tip of Vietnam.
While the tactical progress of his predecessor suited him, the military environment of his new command did not. In his view, many of the commands in Vietnam had "gone native," to include his in Phu Quoc. No hats, no salutes. The predominant attitude was that they had a war to fight and didn't have time to fool around with military customs and courtesies. Paul felt differently. He saw the failure to employ general military customs and courtesies as a breakdown in the command structure, a lack of respect up and down the chain of command. He immediately ordered, "Get your hats on and start saluting."
Even though he found his unit's military discipline wanting, he was Struck by how well two services worked together. Coasties and squids (U.S. Navy personnel) rarely play nice together. This unit was an exception. The entire unit had an aggressive can-do attitude and was more focused on the mission than petty interservice rivalries. Paul's executive officer and all of the Swift Boat skippers were Navy, and all of them took the orders of a Coast Guard commander without question or animosity.
In addition to the lack of engagement in the coastal waters, there was another reason for taking the missions inland. Paul's fleet of Swift Boats, with their lightweight aluminum hulls, were far better suited for the calm inland rivers than the turbulent coastal seas of South Vietnam, especially during monsoon season. Skippered by ensigns or lieutenant junior grades, his boats' predominant missions were to set ambushes and make patrols. However, these patrols were nothing like what Paul had experienced during USCG operations Stateside; they had a much different purpose.
Excerpted from Not Your Father's Coast Guard by Matthew Mitchell Copyright © 2009 by Matthew Mitchell. Excerpted by permission.
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