After the disastrous results of Hurricane Harvey that drenched the Houston area with a year’s worth of rain in just a few days and the huge Hurricane Irma that is bearing down on Florida and scheduled to hit this weekend, I see the military is actively involved. As it should be, we wrote here last week how the Special Operations Forces are a perfect disaster relief force and our SOFREP writer Alex, has another piece out that details how the military is gearing up to help our southern states during Hurricane Season.
But whenever these events happen, I harken back to a different time, back in the late 1980s in Honduras when a Hurricane off the coast meant it was time to break out the rubber assault boats and when the 7th SFG nearly drowned a US Navy admiral.
At that time, A Company, 7th SFG had two teams based with the 4th Infantry Battalion in La Ceiba. I was assigned to one of them, A-712 (in the era before four number ODAs) which was a mountain team. The other, a scuba team from our company (A-715) was there as well. We were teaching a light infantry course before moving up into the mountains with the Airborne Bn to do pack animal training and jumping before taking a mule/horse train across the mountains.
The 4th Bn cuartel, located in La Ceiba was one of the better ones for the Honduran army at that time. The buildings were in decent shape, they had an Olympic sized swimming pool on base which we had use of and was located on the coast, where some really nice beaches were literally minutes away. The Honduran troops were a conscript army with the NCOs having little in the way of training. Our goal was to develop the NCO base to help with the training of their soldiers which overall was poor. You could train up a group of their soldiers where they were beginning to function well but months later, half or more would be at the end of their enlistments and few re-enlisted.
Our team leader was Captain Danny Castillo, a hard-charging young guy who just graduated from the Chilean Mountain Course and was a great guy. We’re still friends to this day. After we’d been there a few weeks, a major hurricane was passing by the Honduran coast. It was going to miss us and veer away but we’d get the torrential rain and they expected huge waves and some beach erosion along the coast.
During the few days where the rain was pouring, early one morning we got alerted for a different sort of mission. It seemed that a Navy guided missile cruiser (Yorktown CG-48) had stopped in La Ceiba harbor and the Admiral onboard had gone to some meeting with the Ambassador and Honduran officials. Then the storm picked up and the Navy’s normal boats that they’d shuttle sailors to and from shore was unable to make it in because of the surf. The winds were too high to fly a helicopter, so the admiral was stuck and the ship needed to set sail. When all else fails call the SF guys.
The embassy thru channels got ahold of our Company commander, Dave Kinder who tried to get our scuba team to go out. But they were in the jungle as part of their training and couldn’t make it back in time. But…they said, there was an RB-15 still at the base which if 712 wanted to use, have at it. Kinder asked Castillo and he immediately agreed. We had just finished breakfast and were preparing for some range time when Danny broke the news to us. Of course, we all wanted to go as well
So with the help of some of our Honduran troops, we secured a deuce and a half (2 ½ ton truck) loaded the RB-15 into it complete with an outboard motor and dashed for the beach. As soon as we arrived at the beach, Kinder’s words to Castillo began to ring in my ear. “Danny, if it looks like it is too dangerous, don’t launch. They’ll figure something else out but we don’t need anyone getting killed out there.” There weren’t big waves crashing on the beach, these were the type from those Gidget surfing movies from the 60s. They were huge, some as high as 15-20 feet. The Yorktown was only about a ¾ mile from shore barely moving in the swells.
I looked over at our Senior Radio Operator Bob Billeaud who later became a Captain down the road. “We’re gonna f**king die,” I said. Bob laughed. “Oh yeah, definitely,” he said. Castillo was looking for our Navy guys on the beach as we hauled the boat onto the sand. His eyes even got big. “What do you guys think?” he asked. “Let’s do it!” was the obvious answer although we used more colorful language. At last the Admiral and his aide appeared. In their ice cream whites no less and came down the sand.
We carried the boat as close to the shore as we could and waited for our Navy passengers. I quick discussion and it was learned that Chris our 1st Ranger Bn. augmentee for this deployment had the most time driving an RB-15 and hence would be the coxswain. Chris was one of two augmentees for this mission in the mountains. The other, Bruce was from the 2nd Ranger Bn. Chris being a Sergeant just happened to be the lowest ranking guy on the boat. No matter. The sound of the truck brought the Honduran civilian populace to the sand. It wasn’t long before there were at least 750-1000 of them jockeying around, trying to get a peek at the rubber boat and pointing at the Yorktown. “They’re taking odds how long it will take us to drown,” Billeaud said.
The Admiral looked shocked at what SF called a boat. As we explained how this was going to work, a huge wave crashed on the sand and the water rushed up under the boat. The Admiral stepped back as to not get wet. Chris laughed and said, “um yeah, sir, don’t worry about that so much. We’re all going to get soaked because we have to carry the boat into the water where it is deep enough to put the engine down….and you have to help.” The Admirals mouth momentarily made a perfect “O”. He was about to ask who the hell this Buck sergeant was when Castillo interrupted him. “He’s the coxswain.”
The look on the Admiral’s face at this point was a mixture of looking like he wanted to dust-off the old Navy tradition of keel-hauling the lot of us smart-ass snake eaters and the other was wishing he never agreed to this stupidity. His aide was biting his lip trying NOT to smile. The aide was closest to me and asked who we were, they were told there were Navy SEALs taking them out. “Nope, Army SF sir,” I said. His smile got bigger. “The old man is gonna have a f**king cow.” Indeed. Little did he know how true those words were to become.
The Admiral, we have to say, was a good troop. He did pick up the boat with the rest of us and we had to wait for a wave to crash into the sand and then we had a few seconds to dash into the surf to get enough depth to deploy the outboard motor. The Honduran civilians rushed along the shore with us shouting encouragement and I’m sure thinking this would be the last time they saw those loco gringos alive.
We got in the boat and got the motor started and immediately were nearly capsized ass over teakettle by a huge wave. Castillo ordered Billeaud, the lightest of the “crew” to man the bow, “Don’t let it tip over” Bob missed his calling. He should have been a bull-rider. He leaned over the bow every time a wave crashed over us and the rest of held on for dear life. Chris had the outboard motor going hard but we barely made any headway.
Every time a wave would lift us up and many times we were perfectly perpendicular to the ocean, we’d all scream like Indians around the maypole. It was a glorious way to die in front of thousands of people from La Ceiba.
The Admiral had enough. He screamed at Castillo. “Captain, tell these idiots to shut the f**k up and maintain their composure and concentration.” All of our heads snapped to the center of the boat. Danny ( I love you brother) gave the perfect retort. “They are sir, they’re just screaming and carrying on like it is a party because they’re just as scared as YOU are.” Castillo got the strangest look, “Why?”, the Admiral asked, “you guys do this for a living, being a SCUBA team?” Castillo gave another zinger. “No…we’re not a SCUBA team, we’re a Mountain team, sir,” he said. Billeaud whipped his head around. “We’re a freakin’ pack animal team, we don’t do boats. The SCUBA guys gave us their boat, said it was suicide!” With that, another wave hit and Billeaud whooped and hollered again.
We got the same “I want to keel haul you all” look again as the Admiral shook his head and looked over at his aide. “What the f**k,” he said. We passed a few moments in silence. The aide punched me in the back of the leg…. “I want to party with you guys!” he said laughing.
We finally reached the Yorktown. One second we were staring straight up at the sailors on deck, the next we were staring them straight in the eye as the rubber boat bobbed in the swells. Once we bobbed high enough, the Admiral was able to grab hold of the ladder attached to the ship, he was back in command and zipped up there probably happy to see the last of us. But he was cool again and as we bobbed back up, he offered Danny for us to tie up alongside the ship and offered us hot food for taking them back out. Danny politely refused stating the other guys on the beach would be looking for us to return. With that, the Admiral saluted, smiled and shaking his head at the smiling SF asshats, turned and stalked off.
The trip back was much quicker. Chris handled the assault boat like a champ. We were now running with the swells and he had us ride them right at the crest and in less than five minutes we were safely back on shore to the cheers of the good people of La Ceiba.
One old fella, that looked like a grandad with two lovely grand daughters in two insisted that we go to his house for hot coffee, his house he pointed was less than 100 feet away. Who could turn down that offer? We piled into his small place and grandad was laughing and carrying on and had us tell the story again and again. He used to be a sailor, he said and thought we were all goners. His grand daughters brought all a blanket and big mugs of steaming sweet coffee that warmed us right up. I think grandad was looking for husbands to those two… sigh. Alas, it was not to be. When we came out, we still had a couple of hundred kids still camped around the truck with the boat in the back. We handed out a few MREs that kids everywhere just seem to love. And headed back.
Our commander Dave Kinder and our team Warrant Officer Rick Bruhn were waiting for us. Rick and two guys did the training for the morning while we were being the Green Beret Navy. Of course, they wanted to hear all about it. Rick was one of the most tactically and technically superior warrants I ever served with and was a Vietnam vet. But he was quiet and had a great poker face. But as we told the story over and over, he had tears rolling down his cheeks. Kinder loved it. It was…. A typical SF operation.
However, the story, unfortunately, didn’t have a happy ending. This would be Danny Castillo’s last deployment. In a freak accident just weeks later, he broke his neck becoming a quadriplegic. Our Captain who was an outstanding SF officer would never get another chance to deploy. One of other A-teams was teaching rappelling in the mountains and had two companies of Honduran infantry rappelling off of a cliff for an entire day. At the end of the day, as the last two SF instructors were preparing to bring down the ropes and rappel down, the entire cliff face gave way. One of the guys had half of the sole of his foot torn off, narrowly escaping death. Just a few weeks later, we lost another outstanding SF team leader. Captain Schlommer from B Company was killed in Honduras by a soldier who panicked during training and thought people were actually trying to kill him.It was a rough few weeks, but a reminder that even during that time of supposed “peace” we were still having some guys pay the price.
Danny Castillo today is probably more active than many of us. He went skiing last winter in Vail and went sky diving this summer. You can’t keep a good man down.
Photos: US Army, author