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PBR 721: Restored Vietnam-era Navy river patrol boat moves to Currituck

Reprinted with permission from:
www.dailyadvance.com/features/pbr-721-restored-vietnam-era-navy-river-patrol-boat-moves-currituck-927325
advance.cookepublishing.net/features/pbr-721-restored-vietnam-era-navy-river-patrol-boat-moves-currituck-927325
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By Robert Kelly-Goss
The Daily Advance

Saturday, February 18, 2012

CURRITUCK — Dennis Ambruso and his friend Pat Doyle stand aloft the PBR 721, a restored Vietnam-era river patrol boat. The two men point to various instruments, guns, the engines and the like, admiring the work that Ambruso says took him nearly 10 years to complete.

“There was nothing on the boat but this frame,” says Ambruso, pointing to the frame that holds up a canvas canopy. “No wires, no gauges, no engine, no nothing.”

When he found the old Navy patrol boat, it was simply a stripped down hull with a frame. But Ambruso, 64, was no stranger to restoring military surplus machinery, so he knew that eventually this boat would be back in prime condition, a showpiece that recalls a different time.

Ambruso was living in Bridgeport, Conn. He had served in the Navy during Vietnam, and had worked as a marine technician in the civilian world for most of his career.

His passion, however, has been military history. He had been a re-enactor for Revolutionary War events, Civil War events and World War II events. Ambruso had also restored seven tanks, a number of other vintage military vehicles and was a co-founder of the Military Museum of Southern New England in Danbury, Conn.

Ambruso was immersed in the world of military history, surplus and memorabilia.

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Dennis Ambruso (right) and Pat Doyle stand near the front gunner’s rig of Ambruso’s fully restored PBR 721 boat he brought down from Connecticut in his move to Currituck. The boat includes replica .50 caliber machine guns, a grenade launcher and an M-60 machine gun.
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But it was back in 1990 when a river patrol boat from the Vietnam era would come into his life.

This 31 ft. boat was the first one built in 1972, thus the number, 721. It was a training boat for the Navy and never actually saw combat in Vietnam. It is also the same type of boat seen in scenes from the Francis Ford Coppola classic, “Apocalypse Now.”

Ambruso had been dealing in military surplus items when he came across it. In a brochure, a company was selling four PBRs in Mississippi. Along with a friend, Ambruso put a bid in for all four boats at $2,300 each.

The pair took the boats and in the end Ambruso was left with his hull and frame. He hauled the shell back to New England where it sat for nearly nine years while Ambruso searched for parts.

The plan was to find all of the surplus parts he could and restore the boat to its original glory.

Ambruso had an indirect history with the boats, serving on a battleship in Vietnam as a gunner assigned to supply cover fire to the patrol boats. So for the Navy veteran, this job would be a labor of love. But what Ambruso wouldn’t know until the end, was that love could be a whole lot of work.

“This is the cutting edge of restoration hobby,” Ambruso said. “This is my biggest achievement.”

First Ambruso went to Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek in Virginia Beach, Va. There he was able to visit with Special Boat crews while they were stripping down old PBRs.

The PBRs are still being used by foreign navies so when these guys at Little Creek stripped an old boat, the parts would go to those countries.

That would be, Ambruso would soon discover, a small problem for him. But first, he would learn as much as he could from the guys at Little Creek about his boat before moving on to Pennsylvania where he would search for the parts.

The company in Pennsylvania, however, told him that he couldn’t purchase those parts. They were contracted to go to the foreign navies who had purchased the old boats.

But Ambruso wouldn’t let that get him down. As a marine technician, he’s also a trained draftsman. He was able to take measurements and create drafts of the parts.

Ambruso would machine his own parts in order to restore his boat.

In the process of restoring the boat, he also had to restore the hull. The hull is fiberglass so Ambruso gathered up 150 gallons of resin and many bolts of fiberglass cloth and got to work.

Next he made the decks. Then the parts such as the engine, the wiring, communications and all of that little stuff that go together to make up a 440 horsepower patrol boat capable of a top speed of 27 knots (about 30 mph) had to be put in, including gun mounts and replica guns — an M-60, a grenade launcher and .50 caliber guns.

“It took about three and half years to put it together,” says Ambruso.

And when he says it, you can see a combination of pride and a hint of exhaustion in his expression.

This was a big restoration job, and yet it wasn’t entirely complete. As the restoration job neared completion, he was left with only two choices.

The only thing left was to install the propulsion system. The PBR boats were originally propelled through the water by two Jacuzzi jet propulsion systems. Ambruso quickly discovered that one system would cost him $18,000 alone and it would likely last two years in the water, he says. And that would mean replacing the jets at $36,000 every two years.

Ambruso had sold the last restored tank he owned for $40,000. He used that money to complete the restoration of the boat. He couldn’t envision spending $36,000 on jets, so he turned to propellers.

He had the props specially made for the boat. They are designed like paddle wheels, giving him more force, he says.

The PBR river patrol boats were used in the Mekong Delta, patrolling the waters of Vietnam during 12-to-14 hour shifts. The sailors on these boats manned the machine guns, engaged the enemy and relied on the swiftness of that vessel.

With the flip of a switch and a skilled pilot at the helm, Ambruso and his friend Doyle say that boat could do a 180 degree turn right smack in the middle of the river while traveling at full speed.

This machine was a highly useful tool of war during the Vietnam conflict.

“This is beautiful,” Doyle declared as he admired Ambruso’s boat.

Doyle had been a part of Operation Game Warden, the Navy’s designation for the group that patrolled the river ways of Vietnam. He had ridden in the boats during the war, but his primary job was shore gunner.

“My job was to protect them,” says Doyle of the boats and the men that operated them.

Doyle is a part of the Mid-Atlantic Game Wardens Association, the group of Vietnam vets that served on and around the Mekong Delta for the Navy. It is for groups like this that Ambruso has created this boat.

The boat was completed and put in the water in 2002. Ambruso says he has used it for memorial services and burials at sea.

He moved it to Currituck County last month, and with the help of his friends like Doyle, he plans to make it available here for veterans, memorials and the like.

The boat is currently on a trailer, but it will soon be moored at Lamb’s Marina in Camden County, Ambruso says.

For more information about PBR 721, go to Ambruso’s website, www.pbr721.com.

From Dane Hoyle SMC USN Ret. – 12 Aug 2010

Letters and Memories From The Chief

From: Dane Hoyle
To: Dennis Ambruso

I was one of the Boat Captains of the first “Cadillac” PBR: 721 “back in the day.” At least it was back in the day for me. I had worked my way up from crewman. She was a hardtop back then and the first of that configuration and the first PBR built in 1972. The Unit had two hardtops: 31RP721 & 31RP722. Both were later converted to rag-tops.

721 and I had a connection from the start. I learned every nut and bolt, wire, fitting, this, that, and the other thing. I went to sin city, West Sac, and bought an injector timing gauge and injector wrenches. I bought injector jumpers and exhaust valve bridges for “just in case” and various other items as I saw the need. Of course I bought a deep socket for the bowl bearing with a one inch drive because when the lipseal on the sandcap fails or the setscrew decides to go on holiday it’ll get it “righty loosey mosty skoshi.”

I fawned over 721 and she returned the affection. She was fast. She was quiet. She was dependable. She never let me down. She never broke down. She never caught fire.

We communicated… not just by sound and feel but by something else… and it was the same with the crew. All I had to do was look at a crewman. He, also, had already heard it or sensed it and understood the look to mean “go check out the port tiller arm; it’s working its way loose” or “stick the starboard tank” or whatever as the case may have been.

She never left me high and dry or stuck in the mud. Often we were accused of having tank tracks on the bottom of the hull. There is even photographic evidence of 721’s trail in the mud snaking its way around one and then another PBR aground in the mud of Cutoff as viewed from Suisun Slough.

On one occasion we were assigned to insert an Army squad at an asininely inaccessible location. There was no water and the Army guys sunk to their armpits in the mud when they attempted to traverse unloaded the two hundred or so yards to shore. We were up on the mud healed over to port with muddy shivering Army pukes and their huge ungodly heavy rucks on the bow. I figured, this time for sure, we were parked for the night and waiting for high tide… but what the hell? We checked the simplex strainers. They were good. I paralleled and hit starboard; paralleled and hit port; slammed the Morse controls forward and quickly helmed over starboard, back to port, back to starboard, back to port. She rocked. She shimmied. She shook. She ground her fantail down like she was giving a lap dance and enjoying the hell out of it. Then she spun to port and wiggled her way to deep water like a gator with its tail on fire. We were nose down and flying — seemingly skittering across the water like a crazed out-of-control skipping-stone. This was the first time that evening we were at full-tilt-boogie in thin water. It felt wonderful. I eye-balled the temp gauges… in shallow water, they can peg in a heartbeat. She was running cool and stretching her legs. She was loving it!

The Army guys were saucer-eyed and pressed up against the deckhouse hanging on for dear life. A few looked back at me accusingly — sure that at any moment the bow would dig-in, be buried in the mud, and we would nose-over and go end-over-end to our deaths. For them it must have been like going over the top on a rollercoaster, the wind tearing at them, stinging them; the mud and an ever increasing load of super-hydrated bugs weighing them down. An impending muddy doom in the blackness of a moonless night would surely be their hapless fate. They didn’t understand the dynamics of the boat. It sort of defies a lubber’s reason and logic. If the bow had dug-in, only the aft gunner was endanger of conducting impromptu flight-ops and he was safely wedged between the midship splinter-shields. Army was in the safest place on the boat.

When our wake finally creeped aft of the beam and we had escaped to a couple of feet of water, I idled her down; checked my posit; extinguished my hair; wiped the bug crunchies off my teeth; the snot off my face; and unstuck my eyelids. I shutdown port, had the strainer cleaned, relit; shutdown starboard, had the strainer cleaned, relit; and checked overboard. Then I had the crew go forward to get the Army guys pealed off the deckhouse, reassured, and treated for shock and hypothermia with a thermos of Joe.

From the coxswain flat, I instructed our guests that we would make for their alternate and they should stay absolutely quiet, as low as possible, hang on, and most especially do not to move as we would be navigating as much by mystic forces as by dead reckoning. That’s judging the depth of the water and the difference in the depth to port and starboard by sound and where on the hull the wake would break while we were “on step” (traveling at full speed and planing). It feels like ice skating but it is, in reality, more like riding a bike. Remember when you were a kid and immortal… coasting down hill and going so fast the playing cards in your spokes sounded like menacingly angry radio static… riding the curb between soggy wet grass and parked cars? We had to make best speed to hit the insert window. That meant running the shallows way outside the channel. We would be trying to keep about eight to eighteen inches of water under our keel and would be going hell bent for leather. We had to “judge” the charts, read the water, and most of all feel the boat. Only she could tell how deep the water was, the composition of the bottom, the undulations and depressions in the bottom, where the thin water was, where the seagulls were walking, all sorts of dangers, and communicate that information to us. We were connected to her… and, she was connected and communicating with us.

She did her job – no sweat GI. We safely made the transit and the secondary insert without further incident. Then she brought us home as she always did.

721 was a nimble, responsive, elegant, magnificent dance partner with great legs and a sassy little vixen when surfing. I miss the metallic varnish smell of her paint… her perfume of diesel and burnt gunpowder. I miss sleeping on her and more often than not staying awake the whole night through to appreciate the beauty of another sunrise in her embrace… just so long as the birds and bugs were noisy as hell. But then, WTF, a little rock & roll and smoking LSA in the morning is as good as pears & pound cake and a pack of ‘bros to set you right: kick-start your brain-pan big-time.

Dane Hoyle SMC USN Ret.