The maritime conditions of Iraq and the Persian Gulf can greatly limit how large naval vessels and warships operate. Because of this as well as the U.S. Navy’s lack of in-shore patrol craft, a large part of the Navy’s request for Coast Guard assistance in Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) centered on the service’s shallow-draft patrol boats. The services 110-foot Island Class patrol boats would serve as a mainstay of shallow-water operations. The Coast Guard Cutter Adak deploying to the Persian Gulf to support OIF serves as a snapshot of patrol boat operations. This would be the first time that Coast Guard patrol boats would deploy for combat support since the Vietnam War. (Other Coast Guard assets served in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the 1990s.)
In early February 2003, the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command deployed four 110-foot patrol boats to the Persian Gulf: Cutters Adak, Aquidneck, Baranof, and Wrangell. The patrol boats arrived in Bahrain at the beginning of March having ridden on board the Motor Vessel Industrial Challenger for 35 days. On Wednesday, March 5, a heavy-lift crane off-loaded the patrol boats taking only six hours to set all four in the water. Lt. Mackenzie and the crew ran Adak through sea trials for two days and on Sunday, the 9th, Adak, and Aquidneck deployed to the Persian Gulf with Branof and Wrangell following on the 12th.
In the days leading up to combat operations, Adak focused on maritime interdiction operations. Coalition vessels had restricted local watercraft transiting out of the Khawr Abd Allah (KAA) Waterway, thinking these vessels might carry mines or escaping Iraqi officials. By mid-March, local watercraft had attempted several breakouts with fleets of dhows and small boats and, on March 17th, a large breakout consisting of 60 Iraqi watercraft attempted to evade Coalition units. With the vessels scattering in all directions, Adak, Wrangell, and their small boats, aided by other Coalition units, managed to corral all the Iraqi watercraft and board them. None of the vessels carried escaping Iraqi leaders or any illegal cargoes typical of small smuggling vessels. After boarding teams had thoroughly searched the dhows, Adak and the other patrol vessels allowed the watercraft to proceed along a specific route into the Persian Gulf.
In the early morning hours of Thursday, March 2o, Coalition forces initiated combat operations with air attacks against key military targets in Baghdad. In addition, Coalition forces had to secure Iraq’s Khor al-Amaya Oil Terminal and Mina al Bakr Oil Terminal to prevent environmental attack by the Iraqi regime. On the evening of the 20th, SEAL teams supported by Polish Special Forces personnel, stormed the oil facilities. During the operation, Mackenzie, and Adak, along with Baranof, maintained security around the terminals to prevent Iraqi military forces to reinforcement or escape. After the SEALs cleared the terminals of Iraqi personnel, weapons and explosives, Coast Guard personnel from Port Security Units 311 and 313 arrived to secure the facilities.
Next Mackenzie received orders to patrol the KAA Waterway, so by the early morning hours of Friday, the 21st, Adak had steamed up the KAA to serve as a guard ship. In fact, of the 146 Coalition naval units in the Persian Gulf, Adak served deepest in enemy territory and served as the “tip of the spear” for Coalition naval forces. During its early morning patrol, Adak and Navy patrol craft Chinook surprised and stopped two down-bound Iraqi tugboats, including one towing a barge, and ordered them to anchor. At first, the vessels seemed harmless since they ordinarily serviced tankers and other vessels that plied local waters. But the two patrol vessels continued guarding the tugs and a special boarding team composed of Australian and American explosives experts searched the tugs and barge and found concealed within them a total of 70 contact and acoustic mines. Had they been released; the mines could have sunk or heavily damaged dozens Coalition naval vessels. The team secured the tugs and Chinook transported the enemy crews back to a Coalition naval vessel for processing. The captain of one of the mine-laying tugs admitted that the sight of Mackenzie’s “white patrol boat” had prevented him from deploying his deadly cargo.
Throughout the 21st, Adak’s captain and crew experienced a great deal of excitement. At 6:00 a.m., Australian and British frigates began naval fire support operations in what became known as “Five-inch Friday.” The warships poured nearly 200 rounds of four-and-a-half and five-inch shells into the Iraqi defenses while Adak screened the vessels against unauthorized watercraft. During this time, Mackenzie and his men felt the buffeting of explosions of hundreds of bombs and shells lobbed on shore. British Royal Marines, supported by U.S. Navy and Royal navy hovercraft, commenced the amphibious assault on the Al Faw Peninsula--the largest amphibious operation carried out since the Korean War.
During the landings, an Iraqi PB-90 patrol boat had been cruising upstream on the KAA Waterway in a position where it could threaten low-flying Coalition helicopters and provide early warning reports to land-based Iraqi forces on the Al Faw Peninsula. To engage the PB-90, the Coalition command center vectored in an AC-130 gunship, which destroyed the enemy vessel. Afterward, a Coalition helicopter spotted three survivors floating down the KAA and notified Adak of their location. The patrol boat recovered the hypothermic Iraqis at 8:30 a.m., and transferred the prisoners to an Australian naval vessel for processing. Coalition experts later identified the men as warrant officers from Iraq’s Republican Guard.
After Coalition forces wrapped up the initial phase of combat operations, naval planners focused on opening the KAA Waterway to vessel traffic. Wrecks from the Iran-Iraq War and the First Gulf War still littered the KAA and its shores, but mines proved a greater concern. Some mines remained in the waterway from Operation Desert Storm. Minesweeping operations began on Saturday, March 22nd, with Navy Sea Dragon helicopters towing minesweeping sleds along the waterway. Mackenzie received orders for Adak to join Wrangell, and Navy patrol craft Chinook and Firebolt to escort Navy and Royal Navy minesweepers up the KAA. The process proved slow as the minesweepers proceeded at a rate of only three knots up the 40-mile channel to the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. The patrol boats had to stand off 1,000 yards from the minesweeping vessels often stationing themselves upriver from the minesweepers. On several occasions, the minesweepers located mines in waters the patrol boats had previously navigated and, on one occasion, Adak’s crew listened as the patrol boat contacted a mine that came to the surface but failed to detonate.
It took about a week to complete mine-clearing operations on the KAA and with Umm Qasr in Coalition hands, cargo vessels could begin steaming into the Iraqi port. Naval combat operations concluded near the end of March, but Mackenzie and Adak joined the other patrol board to continue their force protection role and serve as escorts while Navy salvage vessels Catawba and Grapple removed obstructions in the waterway. On March 28, Coalition forces sent the first shipload of humanitarian aid into Umm Qasr on board the shallow draft Royal Fleet Auxiliary Sir Galahad as Adak and Wrangell escorted along with a minesweeper and patrol craft Firebolt. Adak and its crew continued escort duties along the KAA into early April. On April 11, Adak escorted Iraq’s first commercial shipment on board Motor Vessel Manar, which carried 700 tons of Red Crescent Society aid of food, water, medical supplies, and transport vehicles.
On April 12th, Mackenzie received orders to return to base and Adak demobilized to Bahrain after completing a 35-day non-stop deployment to the Persian Gulf. On April 9th, organized resistance had ceased in Baghdad, followed in mid-April by a cessation of resistance in most other Iraqi cities. On May 1st, President George Bush announced the end of combat operations in Iraq and the Coalition’s offensive operations came to a close.
During OIF, Adak, and the other patrol boats and their crews brought many vital capabilities to the theater of operations. The patrol boats operated for many hours without maintenance in waters too shallow for most naval vessels, and served as the fleet’s workhorses in boarding, escort duty, force protection, and maritime interdiction operations. The patrol boats’ characteristic white hulls also provided a less antagonizing presence in a highly volatile region. As they had in previous Coast Guard combat missions, Coast Guard patrol boats and personnel exceeded all expectations in shallow-water and in-shore maritime operations. Shallow-draft Coast Guard units and their personnel have played an important role in the long blue line will remain a part in future naval operations wherever hostilities erupt in the world’s littoral regions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: After nearly 32 years of service in the Persian Gulf, Cutter Adak was decommissioned in Manama, Bahrian, June 15, 2021. All of the 110-foot patrol boats supporting Patrol Forces Southwest Asia have since been decommissioned and replaced with the new Fast Response Cutters.
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