22 December 1986
Memorandum For: Commander, 324th Support Group
Subject: Incident Involving 1097th Watercraft
On 19 December 1986, I conducted a personal investigation into the events leading up to, during and after the incident in which LCM 8504 from the 1097th Medium Boat Company did, at approximately 1745 hours on 18 December 1986, come along side a Soviet vessel making hull to hull contact. On questioning SGT Burkhart, a boat commander (Coxswain) of LCM 8504, he stated that he noticed a group of Soviet seamen waving and gesturing to bring his boat along side theirs. SGT Burkhart, on deciding to do so, proceeded to bring his boat within three to four feet of the Soviet vessel’s port quarter. At this time both vessels were traveling at a "dead slow" speed, which is a speed just near "stop" (approximately 1 knot). SGT Burkhart’s intention was to swap MREs for Soviet cigarettes. During the short distance of transiting together the vessels made contact. A damage assessment was made and upon being unable to determine that any damage did occur, SGT Burkhart began to distance his boat from the Soviet vessel and proceeded to his original destination where he would berth his boat awaiting lockage. Upon questioning the crews of LCM 8504 and LCM 8501, (LCM 8501 had proceeded past the Soviet vessel approximately ten minutes prior to that of LCM 8504), I am certain in my mind that the preceding events occurred as noted and that no damage occurred to either craft. I am also certain that no derogatory gestures were made and that no exchange of MREs for cigarettes occurred.
My investigation did reveal that this is not the first incident of this nature. Although not a common occurrence, each soldier questioned, to include the NCOs, had participated in or had heard about instances in which LCMs from the 1097th had, at the request of foreign vessels, come along side these vessels to exchange cigarettes and other common items. Although they are common knowledge within the junior ranks, these incidents seem to have gone totally unnoticed by the senior leaders.
My investigation also revealed a serious gap in communications within the Chain Of Command. This flaw may be attributed to the immaturity and inexperience of many of the junior officers and NCOs. However, for whatever reason, this problem does exist and will be corrected with the assistance, direction and guidance from this Battalion.
A more serious problem found involves soldiers not knowing their job (nautical rules and regulations) and not performing that job in a professional manner. Although several soldiers questioned indicated that they would not have taken their boat up to the Soviet vessel, not one soldier or NCO thought that SGT Burkhart had done anything wrong. To combat this general indifference to proper LCM operational procedures, the 1097th, with my direction and guidance, will initiate a program to reeducate our soldiers and NCOs to conduct themselves in a professional manner and to operate our watercraft according to nautical rules, regulations and mission orders.
It is my intention to redirect the efforts of CPT Timberlake so that he will gain total command and control of his unit. Actions will include but will not be limited to a rigorous training program for boat crews outlining their responsibilities while underway and a program for junior leaders stressing their responsibilities as leaders to take corrective action when they observe or learn about infractions and to always keep the Chain Of Command informed. We will stress safe boat operation during safety briefings to insure boat commanders refrain from coming too close to another vessel, and we will develop and publish a standing operating procedure for proper boat operations and provide these to each and every crewmember, NCO and officer.
In conclusion, it is my opinion that the unit leaders did not have control of their soldiers. Communication was poor and training was sorely lacking in several areas. It is also my opinion that SGT Burkhart exercised extremely poor judgement and requires counseling.
It is my recommendation that SGT Burkhart receive disciplinary action as determined by his company commander and that the 1097th, with the direction of the 193rd Support Battalion, institute the programs mentioned above. I will personally conduct an OPD/NCOPD class outlining leader responsibilities and the need for exercising good judgement when confronted with changing situations. It is my intention to set and maintain high standards of discipline in the 1097th while building a high state of morale. My goal is to motivate this unit to accomplish excellence.
Walter S. Anderson
Crew of LCM 8504:
Coxswain – SGT James A. Burkhart
Helmsman – SP4 Stephen D. Studor
Seaman – PFC Rodney A. Procter
Engineer – PFC Edward F. Carpenter
Sequence of events: (All times are approximate)
1700hrs–LCM 8501 departs Fort Sherman enroute to Fort Davis.
1710hrs–LCM 8504 departs Fort Sherman enroute to Fort Davis.
1730hrs–LCM 8501 observed Soviet vessel with crewmen waving and gesturing for the LCM to come alongside
1740hrs–LCM 8504 entered the Panama Canal channel ¾ nautical miles astern of Soviet vessel and proceeded toward Gatun Locks at a speed of nine knots. As the distance between the two vessels decreased, the LCM crew observed personnel onboard the Soviet vessel waving and taking photographs of LCM 8504.
1745hrs–At a distance of 25 meters LCM 8504 changed course to enter the approach to building 61.
1750-1755hrs–LCM 8504 came to dead slow ahead at a distance of approximately 25 meters to observe the Soviet vessel and to exchange waves. The vessel Coxswain (SGT Burkhart) received a radio message from LCM 8501 concerning the apparent close distance between the Soviet vessel and the LCM 8504. LCM 8504 acknowledged the radio message. The LCM 8504 crew observed a Soviet crewmember making motions, which were interpreted to mean, "come alongside". The LCM 8504 helmsman (SP4 Studor) asked the vessel Coxswain for permission to move closer to the Soviet vessel in an attempt to exchange MREs (3 meals on deck) for Russian cigarettes.
The vessel Coxswain allowed a course change to bring the LCM 8504 within 3 to 4 feet of the Soviet vessels port quarter. The speed of the LCM was adjusted to match the speed of the Soviet vessel. While at this distance the personnel aboard the Soviet vessel continued to wave, smile and take photographs. An attempt was made to exchange MREs for cigarettes. One individual on the Soviet vessel was observed going down a hatch and was presumed to be going for cigarettes. While waiting for this crew member to return LCM 8504 made hull to hull contact with the Soviet vessel while at dead slow ahead. The crew of LCM 8504 did not hear or feel the contact. After waiting one or two minutes for the return of the crewmember who went below, the Coxswain told the helmsman to maneuver away from the Soviet vessel and continue to building 61. As the LCM 8504 departed the vicinity of the Soviet vessel the Soviet personnel continued to wave and smile.
1805–LCM 8504 beached at building 61