The History of the 1097th Transportation Company
The 1097th has been earmarked for success since itís activation, and the promotion of one of itís first Commanderís William "Gus" Pagonis to Lieutenant General in recognition of his outstanding achievements as Chief Logistician during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Several key turning points for the unit will be outlined here for posterity. They include, the units involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the 1097thís involvement in the Vietnam War in 1967, the unitís move to Panama in 1976, the unitís accomplishments in 1986, the unitís involvement in Operation Just Cause in 1989, the unitís restructuring in 1991 to a composite boat company, the winning of the National Defense Transportation Association (NDTA) Unit of the Year award in 1994 and 1997, the unitís involvement with Operation Safe Haven in 1994 and 1995, and the initiation of the company downsizing in accordance with the PC-TIP in 1996.
Cuban Missile Crisis
Not much is documented on this period, except for a mention in a command speech by Captain Ashworth in 1983. In his speech, he states, "During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the 1097th was moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where it trained and remained on alert."
The 1097th earned the majority of its campaign streamers and awards during the Vietnam Campaign. During this period, the company supported the 45th Engineer Group at Vang Ro Bay in the effort to help build a deep water port there. That port was constructed and was the second largest in Vietnam. Under the Command of Captain Pagonis, the company had a strength of 19 LCM-8s, 1 LCM-6 command and control vessel and up to 180 men. The LCMs used at this time were more than 25 years old, but Captain Pagonis assigned one LCM-8 as the Damage Control Vessel (DCV) to perform maintenance when required. The DCV and maintenance team at the time kept spirits high with its motto, "Never deadline a vessel." Apparently it worked as reportedly the unit kept a 90% operational status of its boats.
The Mission in July 1967 on the Mekong Delta was to support the 3rd Battalion, 34th Artillery, a part of the 9th Divisionís 2nd Brigade. The Artillery consisted of six 105mm Howitzers mounted on floating barges. The 1097th mission was to maneuver these Howitzers into firing positions along the deltas. This allowed infantrymen of the 9th to have enough fire support to land at various areas conducting waterborne assaults in the deltas. The company remained flexible throughout its tour which is one staple of itís outstanding success. This is witnessed in articles highlighting how the company was able to create waterborne landing platforms for Hueys, move six howitzer barges, and two mortar barges. Due to the need to develop a doctrine for this new and unique mission of supporting riverine operations, the 1097th spearheaded how LCMs would be used for the future of riverine operations. The 1097th during this tour became completely waterborne, as did the Artillery unit it supported, thanks to the ingenuity and creativity of the 1097th soldiers. By the end of the tour the 1097th modifications created living quarters, fire direction centers, command posts, landing pads for medevacs, ammo depots, and maintenance facilities all completely waterborne. What made the unit so successful in Vietnam also brought great credit to the unit. Captain Pagonis was awarded the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with "V" device and the Legion of Merit for his actions as company commander. Other awards included four Bronze Stars for valor, and 24 Army Commendation Medals with "V" device. During this era over 100 heroism awards and six unit medals were presented to the company.
After Captain Pagonis left for the Advanced Course in early 1968, Captain Gary D. Wilde assumed responsibility for command. Under his command the company grew in strength to 27 LCM-8s and 181 men, but continued the Artillery support mission on the deltas with consistent success.
One notable incident which occurred in the Vietnam era was the tragic death of a young platoon leader which occurred on 26 September 1967. Second Lieutenant William Yongue died from drowning. He was attempting to cut loose a piece of rope that was caught in the propeller to get one of the vessels underway for a mission. As he attempted to cut loose the rope, he hit the bridge of his nose on the bottom of the vessel and did not return to the surface. Lieutenant Yongue had been one of the 24 men that had received the Army Commendation Medal as noted before. Apparently Lieutenant Yongue was respected by his men and his community at home. His funeral service was filled to the point of standing room only from his friends and family from all over the state. He was promoted posthumously to First Lieutenant, and the company named the maintenance barge USAV Yongue.
The last company nickname, River Raiders, came from the original nickname given during the Vietnam Era of River Rats.
Move To Panama In 1976
This period of transition from Fort Eustis, Virginia to the Panama Canal Zone proved to be a very difficult time for the 1097th, who left the home of the Transportation Corps and found itself imbedded in the heart of the infantry. A lot of tension arose between the infantry and team waterborne as is evidenced by historical fact and documented tales of fights and unwillingness to comply to the infantry way of life. After the move and the subsequent friction encountered, all five of the transportation officers in the company and the company first sergeant were replaced by infantry officers and an infantry first sergeant. The unit history during this period of transition is provided in this publication for posterity, but be warned, it was written by a First Lieutenant Crenshaw, who apparently was on his last leg and about to shipped back to Fort Eustis. It is a bitter account of how awful the situation seemed to him, but in spite of itís tone, it is probably a fairly accurate account of the events that took place.
As of June 1976, the unit was part of the 10th Transportation Battalion stationed at Fort Eustis, Virginia. In late July 1976, the company sent a recon team to Panama to assess the situation in preparation for the upcoming move. Second Lieutenant Crenshaw, at this time, and First Sergeant Carol Ekern were the team that went on the ten-day recon. Captain John G Cartwright was the commander for the move. Since July, the company had been anticipating the move, and finally on 29 September 1976 a ten-person advance party was sent to Panama. The main body arrived 19 days later on 18 October 1976. The rear party arrived on 15 November 1976. By December the company began to function as normal.
In Panama 1977, the 1097th was a different and unique organization which nobody had access to previously. The unit attracted a lot of attention and everyone wanted operational control. The unit participated in an Army Training Evaluation Program (ARTEP) that year and numerous other training events with the Jungle Operations Training Center (JOTC) at Fort Sherman. However in July 1977, an Inspector General (IG) inspection of the company took place, which resulted in an unsatisfactory rating. Subsequently, soon after the inspection the First Sergeant was relieved, and within a week after the inspection, the commander, Captain Cartwright, was also relieved. As a replacement, the Battalion provided Captain Raymond Fehrenbach, an Infantry officer. The unit was upset at this act and rebelled in retaliation. Within six months, the remaining four lieutenants were moved out of the company.
The River Raider seal seems to have been in use before the companyís arrival to Panama, because it is mentioned that it shocked the infantry to see it displayed on the black hats, which were unusual, and against the uniform of the standard fatigue baseball cap.
Nineteen eighty-six was an important year in the 1097th history for several reasons. First of all, the unit entered the National Defense Transportation Unit of the year competition and placed runner up. Recognition at this level is achieved only by the best, hardest working and most dedicated units. The award covers the calendar year from January to December. During that time, the company had two separate commanders. From January to November, Major Karl Berge served as the commander. Major Berge is the only field grade officer in the history of the company to serve as commander. According to accounts from one warrant officer who was in the company during this period, Major Berge entered the company as a Captain, and was promoted very soon thereafter. He was afforded the ability to give field grade article 15 punishment at the company level. From November on, Captain Beau Timberlake served as company commander, and it was under his command that the unit entered the application for the award, but the period covering the award belonged to Major Berge. In addition to the National Defense Transportation Association Award, Captain Timberlake also submitted the unit for the Unit Maintenance Excellence Award and the company was entered as USARSOís nomination. Captain Timberlake eventually received a Red Chip Award from the Garrison Commander of the Atlantic Side for being selected as the person who had most significantly assisted the Garrison in the completion of itís mission.
In 1986, the company was comprised of 15 Landing Craft Mechanized, LCMs or Mike Boats, and 126 personnel. It was organized into three platoons, two boat platoons of seven Mike Boats each and one headquarters/maintenance platoon with one Mike Boat. As is in the case in Panama, the company performed its wartime mission on a daily basis, with a readiness attitude of a moments notice. Training qualification statistics were very high, like the Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT) in which 98% of the company was qualified, the Soldier Qualification Test (SQT) in which 95% of the company was qualified. The company supported two tactical exercises and three medical assistance missions. The unit conducted over 200 waterborne missions logging over 6,500 underway hours. The unit also conducted numerous DVP briefings, gave tours, and participated in official ceremonies like the Memorial Day Wreath Laying Ceremony. During the 193rd Infantry Brigade tactical exercise "Kindle Liberty," the unit provided a waterborne asset along the Atlantic shore, giving access to villages only accessible by sea. During this exercise, National Guard equipment was transported to these remote areas via the LCMs. During Nation Building Exercise "Road Dawg," two 1097th boats deployed over 280 nautical miles and maintained sustained operations in a remote region of Panama for over two months. During this period of heightened operations, the company got its first taste of "Compositeness," as Fort Eustis agreed to augment the unit with four Landing Craft Utility (LCU) boats from the 329th Transportation Company.
This year of outstanding success was also shadowed with one notable blemish, which must have caused quite a stir in Panama due to the overwhelming amount of historical content left in the historical file. This event, referred to now as the Russian Vessel Incident of 18 December 1986 caused the Battalion Commander at the time to conduct a personal investigation.
The incident can simply be described as the following: the LCM 8504 came along side a Russian vessel in the Panama Canal. The intent of the crew aboard was to exchange Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) for Russian cigarettes. The exchange never occurred, no damage was done to either vessel, and no one was hurt. Somehow, the higher echelons of command got word of the occurrence and created what is now referred to as an incident. The incident occurred on the Atlantic side of the Panama Canal at the entrance to the Gatun Locks. The Battalion Commanders report on this incident was very thorough.
Operation Just Cause
A lot of documentation is provided on what the 1097th actually did to provide support during the invasion of Panama in 1989 in an attempt to overthrow the oppressive dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. Logbooks are on file which kept an accurate account of who exactly went on raids in the Panama Canal, and what firefights actually took place involving the 1097th LCMs.
At the time of the invasion, tensions in Panama were very high, and the Commander was Captain Phillip D. Senechal. The soldiers of the unit were asked to stay on post as much as possible in accordance with Personnel Movement Limitations (PML), and the unit was alerted to the diminishing situation with the Panamanian Defense Force (PDF), now disbanded. The unit was still at Fort Davis, Dock 45 as it had been since the move in í76, but now had 15 LCMs, which were readily called to support the invasion. In the Canal and along the Chagres River, the LCMs proved to be an effective tool in supporting the infantry via waterborne beach and jungle insertions, as well as to the Military Police, in transporting prisoners through the Canal. Action was primarily focused in Gatun Lake and inside the breaker wall on the Atlantic Side where sporadic sniper fire occurred in the Cristobal Area.
An accurate account of all vessel missions and an in depth After Action Review (AAR) of the operation is provided in the publication. In this review, Captain Senechal describes the firefights that occurred and the movement of troops throughout the Canal. It also describes the close working relationship the unit had with the Navy Special Boat Unit and Navy SEALS from Rodnam Naval Station. During the third day of the operation, while Navy SEALS were aboard, the LCM 8509 drew Sniper fire. The SEALS returned fire and three PDF personnel were seen to have fallen.
Throughout the entire operation, the 1097th transported over 1,800 troops and over 980 tons of cargo throughout the Canal. This was apparently due to the restrictions placed on movement on over the Trans-Isthmian Highway which runs parallel to the Canal. Fear of ambushes along this highway meant that the LCMs of the 1097th got a lot of use. In addition to troops and cargo, the Mike boats also moved an incredible 848 enemy Prisoners Of War, to the final collection point on the Pacific side
The Armyís First and Only Composite Boat Company
Few people realize it, but the Army has more boats than the Navy and more aircraft than the airforce. Since the arrival of the 1097th to Panama, the boat presence of the Army has been a shining example of the quality soldier sailors the Army has. Although the Army has so many boats, its separate units are individually designed to serve a specific need. Army boats range from small and large tug boats to amphibious landing craft, to beach landing craft like the LCMs of the 1097th, as well as larger vessels which can transport large amounts of equipment through blue water ocean. In Panama, the need for Army boats to perform a myriad of missions allowed the Transportation Corps to establish a Composite Boat Company. Landing Craft Utility (LCU) class vessels were given to the 1097th in the form of three LCU 1600s and two LCU 2000s (the third LCU 1600 arrived in 1993). What this meant to USARSO and SOUTHCOM was that we could continue to support the Jungle Operations Training Battalion (JOTB) and infantry focused training in Panama with the LCMs and now use LCUs to provide long haul transportation support.
The arrival of the LCU 2017, El Caney, and LCU 2018, Five Forks, in 1991 gave USARSO and SOUTHCOM this desperately needed this long haul capability. In addition to the LCUs now in the company, one of the young ambitious lieutenants, specifically Second Lieutenant Robert Villalobos decided that the company needed a J-boat, as a command and control vessel. Lieutenant Villalobos, a recent graduate of Merchant Marine Academy at Kingís Point, earns his place in the history of the company for his intense commitment in acquiring this vessel. Lieutenant Villalobos had to fly to California and accompany the boat to the East Coast, where it was delivered to Panama. When it was all said and done, somehow the 1097th acquired its new prize at no cost. To this day, the reserve unit in Stockton, California is still fuming about how it happened. But, as it turned out, the boat was more a nightmare than it was worth (see my notes at end of document). It took months to overhaul, and when it was finished it had only sailed for 66 nautical miles and then some poor unit at Fort Eustis ended up with it. It was designed to be a command and control boat for the commander, but it was small and required lots of attention. One particularly interesting story about the J-boat involved a .50 caliber waterborne range conducted by the Medium Boat Platoon at the Balboa West Range Complex near Gamboa. With the Battalion Commander Executive Officer and Command Sergeant Major aboard, Staff Sergeant Ronald Watkins piloted the boat from Gamboa to the range for the command to view the range. After the range was complete, and the LCMs which had fired were leaving, Staff Sergeant Watkins also leaving the site, backed into one of the LCMs. This rocked the smaller J-boat furiously and scared all on board who feared that the boat would be seriously damaged. Staff Sergeant Watkins began to swear at the LCM Coxswain and threatened to have him relieved, the Command Sergeant Major simply said, "Iím not a boatie, but it seemed to me that you were the one not looking while you were backing up." Since that particular mission, the J-boat hardly seemed acceptable as a command and control vessel and was retrograded as soon as possible as part of the Treaty Implementation Plan.
National Defense Transportation Association
Unit of the Year
This prestigious award was so nearly missed in 1986 as the unit was recognized as the runner up. In 1994, the company proved its abilities and set itís sights on winning the NDTA award. The company received the award in early 1995 under the command of Captain Marshall Gutierrez. This award recognizes the best Transportation Unit (Battalion or smaller) in the active Army Transportation Corps. In 1994, the company sailed more nautical miles and completed more missions than ever before and more than any boat unit elsewhere could come close to. The unit missions provided to the 1097th in Panama meant that it was able to perform its wartime mission on a daily basis. The 1097thís accomplishments during 1994 dictate to the Army boat field exactly what the capabilities of these boats were. The unit began to use the word optempo more and more frequently describing how many operations we were conducting in a certain period of time. The high optempo the unit created another challenge in the maintenance arena, where the 1097th was able to shine well. Watercraft operating in salt water generally have a lot of problems with rust and corrosive elements, tending to deadline equipment more frequently and requiring more intensive maintenance. Probable the number one reason the company was so successful during 1994 was itís ability to have a fully mission capable status of itís boats and continue to run them to support the Army needs. The unit developed a customer orientated, mission focused attitude, spearheaded under Captain Gutierrez. Soldiers that served under regard him with respect. He worked them harder that they had been worked before and challenged them to excel as witnessed by the recognition received in winning the NDTA award.
Operation Safe Haven
The unit supported Operation Safe Haven with personnel who were detached to assist at the various camps in the Empire Range complex. In late December 1994 immediately following the revolt in the camps, dubbed as "The Cuban Rock Concert," Captain Gutierrez immediately began preparing to retrofit several LCMs with cages to transport prisoners. From this point most of the company began working 16 to 20 hour days to accomplish this task. With three days of this task the LCM 8501 and the LCM 8504 had cages surrounding the well decks ready for use. The unit was put on hold until a later date that they might be needed. One month later the cages were removed with never having being used for their intended purpose.
The Panama Canal Treaty Implementation Plan
Closing Fort Davis and Dock 45
In early February 1995 the unit sent an advance party to the Pacific side to prepare for the units move to the Pacific side. This was to prove to be a very complex task as the company would be making move after move util the unit was inactivated in June 1999. At Fort Davis, all of the unitís assets were within a 3 mile radius. The barracks were going to be on Fort Clayton, until the permanent barracks on Fort Kobbe were renovated, the supply section was also to be on Fort Clayton, the headquarters section, orderly room, maintenance section, and motor pool were all going to be located on Rodman Naval Station, and the medium boat platoon was going to be split with half on Rodman and the other half on Fort Sherman. By April 1995 the main group began moving one by one over to the Pacific Side, the vast majority of personnel left on Fort Davis were from the medium boat platoon who were, while supporting JOTB, preparing for the turnover of all of the companyís assets at Fort Davis and at Dock 45. The married soldiers were able to live on Fort Clayton, Curundu, Corozal, Fort Kobbe or Cocoli, was dependent upon where housing was available.
In mid April 1995, Sergeant Gordon "Lovo Frio" Folk and Sergeant Sean "El Pirata" Kelly were tasked with finding either a barracks or a suitable tent site to live in while supporting JOTB. It took them about thirty minutes, driving time included, to find the condemned section of building 30 above the Fire Department. As the unit was turning in the furniture from the barracks at Fort Davis they noticed that some of it was coming up missing, were they expecting for us to sleep on the floor, but not enough to arise any suspicion. The move continued any by June the entire company had made the move over to the Pacific side. Those who were supporting JOTB had already moved their things over to the Pacific side
Medium Boat Platoon in Support of JOTB
1995 - 1999
When Ft Davis and Dock 45 were nearing closure around April 95 SGT Folk and SGT Kelly were sent to JOTB to find barracks space for the LCM crews that were supporting JOTB and could no longer stay at Ft Davis. They acquired Bldg 30 at Ft Sherman. At first the platoon was divided into two parts, one at Rodman with four LCMs and crews and the second at Ft Sherman with two LCMs and crews. These crews and LCMs were rotated out after every cycle. In December 95 Two LCMs were put on admin deadline awaiting turn-in. The remaining four LCMs were stationed at Ft Sherman. The reasoning behind this was that the LCMs didnít have a mission on the at Rodman and the crews ended up being put on details. Another reason was that two LCMs were needed to support an operation in Bocas Del Toro LCM 8501/8582 while two LCMs were still needed to support JOTB LCM 8504/8519. After the two LCMs returned from Bocas Del Toro two LCMs were returned to Rodman, LCM 5804/8582. The remaining two LCMs 8501/8519 were left at Ft Sherman to support JOTB. Upon return to Rodman the LCM 8582 was put on admin deadline awaiting turn-in. The crew of the LCM 8504 was used as filler personnel aboard LCU 2000s and as detail personnel. In July 96 the LCM 8501/8519 were broached on the beach near the Chagres river causing the entire platoon to head over to Ft Sherman and assist the stranded LCMs.
In August 96 LT Magee and SFC Martinez moved the entire platoon along with the LCM 8504 to Bldg 30 at Ft Sherman. Since August 96 Ft Sherman has become the normal place of duty for Medium Boat Platoon. Normally, unless the platoon had missions on the weekends, Monday through Friday the platoon lived at Bldg 30 Ft Sherman. First formation was held Monday at Ft Sherman for PT and the platoon worked until Friday afternoon when the platoon could return to the Pacific side. Most of the single soldiers and geographical bachelors would desire not to leave and spent their time in Colon or on the Atlantic side with their friends at places they knew the most and wanted to be. Around mid 97 part of this changed. Monday formations were now held for the platoon on the Pacific side and after PT and personal hygiene the platoon would depart in either POVs or GOVs for Ft Sherman, normally POVs. On Fridays it was still optional as to whether to go to the Pacific side, however first formation Monday was held on the Pacific side and the platoon was expected to be there.
In October 97 the platoon moved from Bldg 30 to Bldg 210 to become part of the Forward Logistics Element (FLE). During the first few cycles nothing changed aside from the barracks move. First thing to change was the lock in for all FLE personnel during cycle. In early 98 a member of the FLE was involved in and accident with a POV near Margarita. Shortly after this the use of POVs during cycle was prohibited. Next came a sober FLE soldier in the NCO Club a female friend and a drunk rotational soldier harassed the female and the sober FLE soldier broke the drunk rotational soldiers jaw. Immediately thereafter drinking was prohibited. Several rotational soldiers looking for a convient place to have sex with a prostitute chose Bldg 210. The rotational soldiers were caught and the soldiers in the FLE lost their visitation privileges, the visitation privileges were reinstated in the following weeks.
Toward the end of 1998 the platoon began to become more of a skeleton crew. The platoon now consisted of 1 Platoon Leader, 1 Platoon Sergeant/Coxswain, 2 Coxswains, 3 Engineers and 3 Seamen. The optempo began to slow as JOTB was also preparing for the move out of Panama, the last scheduled rotation ended in March 1999. Around mid march 1999 the Platoon returned to the Pacific Side for the eekend and the following week as well. When the Platoon finally returned it was discovered that all 3 LCMs had been sold and were no longer at Fort Sherman. I know others lost a few personal items as well but I personally lost 4 sets of coveralls, 3 pairs of boots and a ton of stuff I had acquired over the 6 years I had been in Panama that I was planning on taking back to the states. The Platoon cleared out all of the remaining maintenance parts in Building 30 to be moved to the Pacific side as well as everything in Building 210. At long last, the 1097th said Adios to Fort Sherman. My last visit to Sherman was after it had officially closed in late April 1999 and it looked like a Ghost Town.
Bocas Del Toro
In late 1995 the medium boat platoon moved completely to Fort Sherman pending a mission that was going to happen in Bocas Del Toro starting in January 1996 and ending around June 1996. The platoon was going to have half of itís assets and personnel at Fort Sherman and the other half was going to be in Bocas Del Toro. The platoon under the Second Lieutenant William Burke and Staff Sergeant Ronald Watkins was preparing by moving the required provisions, repair parts, petroleum products, and whatever else that may be needed to support this operation for such an extended period of time. The LCM 8501 and LCM 8582 were chosen as the vessels that would be deployed to Bocas Del Toro for the entire mission. The personnel were to be rotated out every month via an LCU 2000 making trips from Fort Sherman to Bocas Del Toro several times per month.
On the afternoon of 2 January 1996 the LCMs and crews got underway for Bocas Del Toro arriving shortly after sunrise the following day. Lieutenant Burke and Staff Sergeant Mike Diaz were going to be in charge of the medium boat element in Bocas Del Toro. The platoon set up their base camp next to the pier where the LCMs were moored in Almirante, which was about 25 miles from the base camp of the reserve unit that they were supporting. Initially the days were spent on site surveys of the surrounding areas for suitable landing zones (LZs) to prepare to move the reservistís equipment.
After these site surveys were made the platoon found out that the missions that they had been tasked to support were being supported by a reserve LCU 2000. Instead of returning back to Sherman the platoon began to take liberty in the bar right next to their base camp, 24 hours a day. The deployment came to total failure when Lieutenant Burke decided to start firing his personal 9mm pistol in the bushes and he ended up getting thrown in jail.
The entire element was returned to Fort Sherman and then back to the Pacific Side pending a court-martial of Lieutenant Burke and Staff Sergeant Diaz. Staff Sergeant Watkins was in the clear until he told specifically what everyone needed to write on their sworn statements regarding the incident. Now he too was pending a court-martial for his part of obstructing justice. Of all the personnel who were involved in this incident, only two are still in the Army. Burke, Diaz, and Watkins were convicted in the court-martial. Both Burke and Diaz were out of the Army before the end of the year and Watkins received a "Letter Of Reprimand" and is still in the Army.
The Panama Canal Treaty Implementation Plan
President Jimmy Carter and General Omar Torrijos signed the Treaty in 1977, only a year after the arrival of the 1097th to Panama the plan called for a slow and deliberate downsizing of the military force in Panama to be completed 22 years later at noon on 31 December 1999 at which time all United States Military presence would be non-existent in Panama. In the 1097th, the downsizing was initiated in 1996 under the command of Captain Frederick Stroker.
As stated in the prelude, the company began its massive downsizing to reduce its force from 147 personnel to 61 personnel and from six LCMs, one J-boat and five LCUs to two LCUs and three LCMs. This downsizing also reduced the company in other areas. The welding shop was the first area to go, then the motor pool, and finally a large chunk of the maintenance shop. Prescribed Load List (PLL) was turned in, the warehouse was emptied, and more than 80 personnel were moved out of the company. Most went back to Ft Eustis, where all boaties end up eventually but some, like the cooks and medics, went to other companies within the 245th Support Battalion.
Almost unbelievably, the company set records during this downsizing period by transporting more equipment than ever before and completing more missions than thought possible. One other mission to be highlighted was a trip to Golfito, Costa Rica. The trip included one LCU 2000 and one LCU 1600. The mission was to deliver engineering equipment for a nation building exercise to a team of reservists known as Task Force Surenos. This was to be the last LCU 1600 mission in the 1097th. Afterwards, the LCU the LCUs would be transferred to Kwajalien Missile Command Center in the Marshall Islands. The LCU 2018 and the LCU 1667 arrived in Costa Rica three days after leaving Rodman to discover that it would be difficult for the much larger LCU 200 to find an acceptable ramp to offload its rolling stock. The team agreed that they could try a bridge causeway through the smaller LCU 1600 to the shore. The LCU 1600 has a rhino horn on the stern of the vessel and a stern ramp making if possible to roll the equipment off the ramp of the LCU 2000 onto the stern of the LCU 1600 and finally onto the beach. Attempting this procedure once before in Panama proved unsuccessful as is seemed too difficult a task to maneuver the vessels into just the right positions. This time in Costa Rica, however, the procedure was successful. This was the first time this procedure had been successfully completed and the nation building exercise could now go on as scheduled, thanks to the 1097th and the versatility of its vessels.
The company downsizing put a large strain on the entire company, but positive attitudes continued to prevail, especially after the announcement that the unit had received runner-up for the NDTA award for its 1995 submission. In retrograding the LCMs, the company was able to use its own LCUs. The first two of three LCMs went back on two separate missions in LCU well decks. The final retrograde mission included the J-boat and the last LCM together. The LCM was loaded into the welldeck of the LCU and the J-boat was loaded into the well deck of the LCM. This mission was categorized and is referred to as the "boat in a boat in a boat" mission. The company continued to receive praise from the newspapers and the command.
The Pina Beach Incident
Early one morning on 27 July 1996 Sergeants Folk and Kelly in the LCM 8501 and LCM 8519, got underway from Fort Sherman to take some infantry passengers from Sherman to Pina Beach near the mouth of the Rio Chagres. At 0600 both vessels had reached Pina Beach, Folk beached first, the seas were 5 Ė 7 feet. Upon the 8501, under Folk, hitting the beach the 8519, under Kelly, made his approach as the 8519 was navigating the surfzone the 8501 was broached to the beach. The 8519 continued the approach, being committed to beach at this point. As soon as the 8519 offloaded the passengers it began to retract and was also broached. After two hours of being stuck on the breach, and continuous attempts Kelly was able to free the 8519 using an unorthodox maneuver that he learned from his mentor, Folk, of putting the LCM stern to the beach and heading out to open water.
Once free from the beach the 8519 anchored and had one of the crew swim to shore with a pilot line to take to the 8501 to be followed by a towing line. The 8519 tried unsuccessfully until the engines began to die from low fuel and Kelly moved to the pier at the mouth of the Chagres. From here he made the 6-mile hike back to the main part of Sherman to make the call for help.
Relief elements did not arrive until the evening, after it had gotten dark. An emergency fuel tanker was called to fill the empty tanks on the 8519. Just after midnight the 8519, under the light of a full moon, got underway with command elements on board to get an assessment of the situation and make an attempt is possible. The 8501 was nearly out of the water completely and it was decided that at first light. When first light rolled around the 8519 got underway to make another attempt to pull the 8501 off the beach.
As they had done the previous day they anchored offshore and sent a swimmer to shore with a pilot line. Once the towing line was secured aboard the 8501 the command insisted on securing the other end on the 8519 to the side for safety reasons if the line parted. Kelly said that he would be able to control the operation better if the line was secured to the center, he was overridden. As predicted, once there was a strain put on the towing line the 8519 only began to pendulum to the left. The towing line was slacked for another attempt but the line was caught in the port screw of the 8519 trying everything possible with no avail the 8519 was once again broached to the beach. Armed with only a knife, the crew spent the entire day cutting the line off of the screw in the pounding surf. Shortly after dark the 8519 was freed and the command ordered a commercial tug to pull the 8501 free.
The tug arrived on site the following morning and it was decided to use a johnboat to take the pilot line from the tug to the 8501. With Staff Sergeant Bill Deck operating and Sergeant First Class John Shaddock assisting the johnboat left the tug and headed toward shore. As soon as the johnboat entered the surfzone it capsized and nearly fractured Shaddockís leg. He was carried down the beach in running relays to the waiting 8519 for the short trip across the Chagres to the waiting ambulance. The attempt was finished for the day.
On the morning of Tuesday, 30 July 1996, the 8519 was sent out to the tug to pickup the towing hawser and cable and bring them to the range of a line throwing gun of the beach allowing the personnel on the beach to haul them to shore and attach them to the 8501. It took the 8519 over an hour to get in range for the line-throwing gun to be fired. When they were finally in range the line throwing gun was fired and the personnel on the beach were able to attach the towing hawser to the 8501, which by now was completely out of the water by 20 feet. The 8519 beached to pick up the personnel on the beach while the tug began to pull the 8501. The 8501 was freed easily and towed to Limon bay where the 8519 towed it the rest of the way back to Fort Sherman.
The command outlawed beaching at Pina after this incident. This, like the Russian Vessel Incident, was a classic example of the command overreacting to a common occurrence. Broaching LCMs was a part of any beaching operation. The Chain of Command believed that this was the first time an LCM had ever been broached in history.
The Last Days of the 1097th
1997 - 1999
In the remaining 2 years followed the company continued the JOTB support and missions worldwide. One of the LCUís was sent to the shipyard and nearly remained there until the 1998. The personnel assigned to the unit were starting to come down on orders for the return to the states while others volunteered to stay until the very end. By the time Fort Sherman shut down the Company had dwindled down to around 30 personnel assigned. The unitís official Inactivation date was scheduled to be on 24 May 1999 and the vast majority of the Unit leaving around this time and the Final people to leave was scheduled to be in July 1999, long after the Unit Inactivated. By the time I left on 2 May 1999 I was only one of 19 people remaining in the greatest Transportation Unit of all time.
The 1097th is now gone but will never be forgotten. The people that served the nearly 50 years of service will never forget the accomplishments of the unit. There will always be a special place in our hearts having been part of it. I know there was nothing better in my Army career that the 1097th and she will always live on forever.
Vaya Con Dios 1097th.
Sean "Pirata" Kelly
21 July 2001