Swift, Silent, Deadly: The Context of Time in Amphibious Raids

In its 1996 concept document Operational Maneuver from the Sea, The United States Marine Corps defined the littorals as:

“Those areas characterized by great cities, well-populated coasts, and the intersection of trade routes where land and sea meet. While representing a relatively small portion of the world’s surface, littorals provide homes to over three-quarters of the world’s population, locations for over 80 percent of the world’s capital cities, and nearly all of the marketplaces for international trade. Because of this, littorals are also the place where most of the world’s important conflicts are likely to occur.”

When conflicts erupt in these littoral regions, the Marine Corps is ready to respond on short notice with special-purpose infantry and Reconnaissance Marines, trained to operate from small boats that maximize surprise and stealth.

By title, Marines are related to the sea and accustomed to getting soaking wet as they endure the misery of a long boat ride, bouncing over swells in the dark of night.  The same holds true for Navy SEALs, Army Special Forces, and other allied forces who use Zodiac Marine Commando F470 inflatable craft, commonly referred to as “Zodiacs”.

Whether they are conducting reconnaissance of a shoreline or a raid on a key objective, these small boat teams are often required to travel tens of nautical miles from assault ships, hovercraft, or helicopters to reach their objectives ashore. Careful navigation is essential to arriving at the right spot, on time, and undetected. 

Small boat raiders can employ a number of navigational aids (e.g. GPS) and methods to reach a beach landing site (BLS), but navigation by dead reckoning remains the basic method of following an intended course from a known position.  It utilizes speed, time, and distance data in concert with a compass, and that is where an accurate time measuring device becomes essential.

A small boat raiding party’s navigation team, by training doctrine, consists of five standard members, working under a navigator:

Navigator:  Guides the efforts of the team

Assistant Navigator: Assists the navigator (may also serve as the bearing taker and time keeper)

Bearing Taker: Takes bearings to navigational aids

Timekeeper: Tracks the passage of time with a stopwatch

Coxswain: Steers the boat and maintains the course prescribed by the navigator

During mission planning, the navigator plans the course(s) to the BLS and establishes the distances required for each segment of the dead reckoning plot (essentially a route, in nautical terms).  His team begins tracking speed and time data the moment the boats leave their insert point, as they are two of the five elements of dead reckoning navigation:

Known position: The location where the dead reckoning course began

Course: The magnetic azimuth maintained by the coxswain as he steers the boat on a compass heading

Speed: Measured in knots, it is managed by the coxswain

Time: Total time traveled

Distance: Distance traveled, measured to the nearest 10th of a nautical mile

Like every other branch of the military, the Corps loves to use mnemonics to ensure that Marines can recall critical information when fatigued, and uses the expression “D Street” (distance = speed x time) to express the various formulas required to solve distance, speed and time calculations.

Marine raiders are taught to employ a grease pencil and rudimentary plotting board—constructed of plexiglass holding a waterproofed nautical chart—to record data and positions.  They may also use modern commercially-purchased tools, like the Apex Global Navigation Board pictured here.  It consists of a compass secured to a slotted bracket that also allows the attachment of time-keeping and GPS devices.  The coxswain follows the course headings of the dead reckoning plot for the time required to cover the planned distances.  If he veers off course by several degrees, turns to a new course too soon, or follows a segment of the plot for too long, the raiders can find themselves off target by several miles.

Modern day raiders have moved past issued Benrus Type I and IIs, Tornek-Rayvilles and Tudors, or Seiko mechanicals purchased from post-exchanges.  They typically utilize a privately-purchased Casio G-Shock, Pathfinder, or Suunto digital watch these days, relying on them for their general ruggedness, ability to withstand shock, water resistance and multifunction capabilities.

They and their brothers-in-arms assemble for mission briefings just as their forefathers did during World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the following small wars, then adjust their watches at the time hack and gear up to slip into the often bone-chilling waters off hostile shores.  

Their mission and their lives depend on the ability to measure time, and we hope that this edition has helped to highlight why a military professional wears a watch when they go into action.

Photo by: Corporal David Gonzalez
Photo By: Sergeant Melissa Wenger
Photo By: Sergeant Melissa Wenger
Photo By: Sergeant Anthony Kirby
Photo By: Sergeant Anthony Kirby
Photo By: Sergeant Anthony Kirby
Photo By: Sergeant Melissa Wenger
Properly Wound: The Time Hack
Photo By: Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeanette Mullinax