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The Champagne Marne, a 52-year-old Army tugboat, saw action in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Champagne Marne, a 52-year-old Army tugboat, saw action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
The Champagne Marne, a 52-year-old Army tugboat, saw action in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The Champagne Marne, a 52-year-old Army tugboat, saw action in Operation Iraqi Freedom. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Spc. Frederick A. Hull is the tug's cook.
Spc. Frederick A. Hull is the tug's cook. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)
Warrant Officer 1 Eric Hardcastle, navigational officer of the Champagne Marne, stands on the bridge.
Warrant Officer 1 Eric Hardcastle, navigational officer of the Champagne Marne, stands on the bridge. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

Warrant Officer Eric Hardcastle and the crew of the Army tugboat the Champagne Marne became the first Army boat to fight in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The tug helped coalition special forces capture Iraqi oil platforms in the Persian Gulf and cleared the way through a river choked with mines, abandoned ships and debris to allow humanitarian ships to reach the port in Umm Qasr.

The 12 crewmembers earned the Navy Commendation Medal for their heroism and achievement in the war and for charting and clearing fast-moving Khawr Abd Allah channel.

“There’s no buoys, no lights, nothing,” Hardcastle said. “You couldn’t even see down the channel because there were so many ships. So we just started moving stuff.”

The Army tugs came to the Persian Gulf in January to move cargo ships into Kuwait’s ports. Their mission shifted in March on the eve of the war to move troops onto oil platforms.

During April and May they started clearing the channel: They moved 89 pieces in 35 days, everything from fishing dhows to 200-foot freighters mired in mud.

The shifting channel, not dredged in a decade, also had to be recharted. The Champagne Marne made the trip using aerial maps and a chart that clearly warned “not to be used for navigation.”

“It’s been kind of learn as you go,” Hardcastle said. “By the seat of your pants.”

The ship often traveled ahead of minesweepers. Two weeks into the war the Navy arrived with the mammals.

“The what?” Hardcastle asked them.

The dolphins that check the channel for safety before boats can pass.

“We’d already been up there for two weeks. That was the deal, though. It wasn’t clear until the mammals came through.”

The Army’s navy, as its called, has about 300 watercraft of various classes. Its tugboats have served in wars since World War I.

The Champagne Marne, a 52-year-old tug preparing for the auction block, is part of the 7th Transportation Group, 73rd Transportation Company and 10th Transportation battalion from Fort Eustis, Va.

Sailing a tugboat is one of the most dangerous job in the maritime industry, Hardcastle said. It’s worse under fire.

“It was pretty weird up there because it was pretty active,” Hardcastle said.

In one particular mission, he had to cross the port of Umm Qasr while it was still partially under Iraqi Republican Guard control.

In 12 years with the Army’s navy, this was the first time he was fired upon.

“We took a couple of pot shots,” Hardcastle said. “It was pretty off the wall. I had my cook up here with an M-16.”

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