Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
T’labo….three kilometers right there!” the aggravated Singaporean trained Malaysian Navy Captain told me.
“No! T’labo right there.” He said emphatically snapping his elbow as he re-extended his finger out the window of the bridge.
I calmly exited as the Team Sergeant looked at me. “What’s the word?”
“We’re in for a long night.” I said half smirking, both of us internalizing that this just upped the ante on the difficulty of our infiltration. We both knew we were in the wrong place.
We later determined in a talk with our Company Commander that the Malaysian Officers and staff liked to “challenge” their men in these exercises by basically giving them impossible odds. He had gleaned this in conversations with them and made a mental note. I am not entirely opposed to this but you need to build success before throwing that down and an international exercise of mostly good will, Malaysia was at war with no one, isn’t the place. One of our maxims is “No plan ever survives first contact.” Plans change themselves adding difficulty without promoting it (see below for details). Looking back, that is what I suspect happened. The chances of this boat captain not knowing his own coastline are pretty slim.
We radioed the safety craft required to be present in open water operations during exercise. We were on a small ship.
“Can you see even us?”
“Uh, negative…can you shoot up a flare?”
We shot up a flare. Silence then…
“Uhhhh, it’s going to be a while….”
We had spent the last two days planning for this. Using modified Mission Decision Making Process (MDMP) along with Troop Leading Procedures, and the ever-popular Ranger Handbook to come up with a plan. Our mission was a combined (U.S / Malaysian) raid of a small enemy compound manned by approximately 20 personnel. It was a two-team operation. My team would infiltrate with one-plus squads of Malaysian Commandos. We’d kayak in after being dropped off by a mother craft to a point pronounced T’laboh during the hours of darkness. We’d R-O-N (rest overnight) meaning we’d hide in the jungle during the day and the next night the other team would helocast in and navigate to T’laboh where we would receive them. There were exercise constraints consisting of restricted terrain, time, and logistics. I’d never go into the same place another team just did but that is what we planned. Once in we’d recon the target, confirm what we knew, finalize the plan and make the hit early on day four. Once complete we’d move for the exfiltration point and exfiltrate via HH-53 back to base. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
We did some dockside training practicing lowering the kayaks over the side of the ship into the water. We’d offset the kayak from the cargo net then the first team could climb down. We’d then pull the kayak over the center mass of the cargo net allowing the first team to get in. After the first team was in they’d help with the process from the water and so on until all were in.
We returned late afternoon and were finalizing our planning in the early evening – we were going in that night. Our Company Commander arrived and asked all the officers to come with him. I glanced around at my team, shrugged, and joined the officers in a walk over to the Malaysian headquarters. We arrived and were ushered into Malaysian version of an Officer’s Club. The entire Malaysian staff was there and there were a dozen beers on the counter. “What the…” Uncomfortably we all looked around and took a beer and sat down wondering how we can manage this. Some gracious words were spoken by the commanders (about how great we all are…) thanking each other for each other’s generosity, training…the standard fare. Then the Karaoke machine emerged, seriously. Now Karaoke is a significant endeavor in SE Asia and not to be taken lightly. There was no way I was going to sit here, get liquored up, and belt out a few diddies as my team did the hard work of finishing up for the mission. Not to mention we were going in that night (drunk infiltrations are the best). There was only one thing to do. I swilled about half of my beer and grabbed the mic. Take Me Home Country Roads, a Karaoke classic, was teed up and I belted it out like Lady Gaga (Caca?) at Joey B’s Inauguration, not that I watched that debacle but I can read. Then I finished my beer, promptly and politely excused myself, promising to come back and buy the first round after the exercise. I returned to my team, steeled myself, and took the barbs of disbelief I knew were coming. “You were drinkin’ beer???” You can be sure I had to live with this for some time. Each time something important was happening, someone on the team would bust my huevos with statements like “You going for a beer…now’s a good time to split and crack a cold one…”
We relooked everything then moved dockside unloaded our gear, rucksacks, weapons, kayaks, paddles, ropes, etc. When the ship arrived we reloaded our gear as practiced dockside earlier in the day and got underway. It was a nice night and I was watching the shoreline, the map, and my compass roughly navigating where we were. It was planned for a couple of hours trip. We watched T’laboh come and go nary a knot slowed. Roughly two miles farther north the ship began to slow. Some consternation started creeping in. I checked my map along with other team members, discussed landmarks, and speed, distance, time estimations. We were all sure we’d passed our point some time back. I had the unenviable job of asking the Captain and you know how that went. Now we had much longer movement on the water, the contingencies had begun. We planned on roughly a two-hour movement with an hour for embarking on the kayaks. Now we were looking at a four-hour movement. Paddling a kayak for four straight hours registers as a zero on the fun meter in good conditions. It was 0100.
The safety boats had a major movement and did not arrive until after 0200. We initiated the kayak embarking shortly thereafter. We sent our most agile kayakers down first entering their kayak without incident. Then it began. There seemed to be a fear factor now that we were no longer tethered to the dock and it was night. Many commandos were overly cautious, stiff, non-relaxed movements resulting in tippy kayaks. Apparently, cargo nets during the day are different at night. Per SOP all our gear was secured to our person or our kayaks. A practice we enforced on our counterparts. Good thing too or we’d lost all kinds of stuff. Several commandos went in (nothing better than starting a mission wet..) and had to perform the “Kuala Maneuver” with the assistance of my team. Again as with swimming the “fend for yourself” attitude prevailed amongst the Malaysians (mind-boggling). After two hours we were finally underway. It was 0430.
I was in the front navigating with the formation of kayaks linearly behind me. Basically, we were beelining for T’laboh. I set a steady, strong pace as time was now an issue. The sea state was great (sea state is a description of the turbulence at sea, generally measured on a scale of 0 to 9 according to average wave height). However, the tide was coming out pushing directly against our line of travel. This was particularly hard on the Commandos with little emphasis on upper body strength. Most Special Forces soldiers are vastly more fit than our counterparts, particularly in SE Asia, however, break out a soccer ball and SHAZAM! Most could literally run for hours. For the record on all my trips to SE Asia we inevitably were issued the cursory soccer beat down on sports day. American football was never on the docket. But this was most definitely not soccer.
We paddled for close to two hours until BMNT (Begin Morning Nautical Twilight) conditions or as any normal person would say “dawn.” My Team Sergeant radioed from the back that we needed to stop. He was irritated, to say the least, having been in the back and watching the Commandos kayak by kayak start holding onto the safety boat due to the intensity of the paddle. Four of the eight Malaysian Kayaks were now holding onto the safety boat and getting dragged along with us in a chain-like fashion. This landed somewhere between outrage and hysterically funny for me. We rafted up as a team and started to discuss the situation. The sun was coming up.
“What do you want to do?” I asked him
“Call for extraction and re-insert in 24 hours….” He said grinning. In my day this was doctrine. It would NEVER happen in an exercise due to all the constraints and he knew that.
I grinned back. “Thanks. Now, what are we really going to do?”
“These guys aren’t going to make it if we push for T’laboh” he stated as a fact.
We did a quick map recon. There was a small inlet into mangroves dead ahead of us roughly one kilometer. I suggested we go in there paddle upstream into the jungle, ditch our kayaks, RON during the daylight hours then move that night to T’laboh to receive the team that would be helocasting in. We quickly assessed this was feasible. I passed the info to the safety boat who by this time was completely entertained by the whole thing.
We discussed this with the Malaysian Lieutenant and all were in agreement. We turned slightly east and headed for the inlet. Approximately 500 meters from the inlet the sun came up. I swear it was like walking into a sauna, the temperature went from the mid-80s to close to 100. We could feel the sun burning our faces, literally. In case you are wondering, there were no moms present to call a timeout to put on sunscreen (“I’ll have an order of chapped lips with a side of dehydration please…”). And now the tide was really coming out, challenging all of us. All but one of the Commando kayaks were doing the chain gang.
Arriving at the mouth of the inlet the safety boat departed. All of us paddled hard upstream. A hundred meters into the inlet we had monkeys jumping all over the mangrove including over the inlet and our heads. We looked for a place to beach on the right/south side river and end this. By this point, safety boat gone, several kayaks of Malaysians had gotten out of their boat and were pulling the kayaks up the river. All I could think of is caimans…
We finally found a place that looked manageable roughly 500 meters in. We had to drag the Kayaks up a steep, six-foot soft mud bank. We had thick, foul-smelling mud all over ourselves by the time it was over. This iced the proverbial cake and we were just getting started. We collected our gear, lined up our kayaks, and made sure everyone was OK. Other than we all had baboon butt due to the time sitting in the saltwater (google baboon butt and the first picture you see pretty much sums it up) but everyone was
good physically unharmed.
I radioed the safety team and let them know our grids so they could pick up the kayaks and we moved into the jungle to RON and prepare for the next phase.Published in