<b><i>Last in a series</i></b>

ABOARD USAV PALO ALTO, Bering Sea - This 174-foot-long Army landing craft doesn't move without the soldiers working in the engine room.

Officially called watercraft engineers, the skilled members of <i>Palo Alto's</i> engine room makes sure the boat keeps going, even in rough seas or if something breaks.

Sgt. Bryan Hanlon of the 709th Transportation Company is one of them. A former combat medic who saw action in Iraq and Afghanistan with the 2nd Ranger Battalion, the 27-year-old nursing student has been with the 709th for three years.

"I was looking for something different when I got off active duty," Hanlon said. "I heard about the boat unit, went to check it out, and have been with it ever since."

<i>Palo Alto</i> is powered by two, sixteen-cylinder Cummins diesel engines, producing 1,250 horsepower apiece. If one engine were to break down for some reason, <i>Palo Alto</i> would still be able to make way, just slower.

"Some days can be boring down here," Hanlon shouted over the noise of the engines, "but it's really a great place to work."

<i>Palo Alto</i> has four engineers on board; each works a four-hour shift and has the next 12 off, giving the engine room 24-hour coverage.

"We troubleshoot malfunctioning equipment," Hanlon said. "We monitor the equipment, and fix it when it breaks."

Hearing protection has to be worn anytime one goes into the engine room; it's a clattering, hot, and noisy place. Thick earmuffs deaden the sound, but the smells of diesel fuel, oil, and hydraulic fluid fill the air.

There's an almost-soundproof, air-conditioned control room for the engineers when they're not out working on the engines or other pieces of equipment that fill the space.

"It's intimidating at first, but after a few weeks, you get used to it," Hanlon said.

Located below the waterline, the engine room is actually one of the most stable areas on the boat, Hanlon said.

"Up on the bridge, you feel the effects of the waves, since you're so high up," he said. "Down here, we don't get the rocking back and forth you do up there."

Every hour, the engineer on watch goes around the engine room, checking dials and gauges, monitoring the systems for signs of anything out of the ordinary. All the equipment has to operate within a narrow band of tolerance - Hanlon even checks temperatures inside the galley's refrigerators and freezers.

"In the Navy, there are separate jobs for each one of these things," Hanlon said. "But an Army watercraft engineer has to learn all the systems."

<i>Palo Alto</i> is equipped with everything it needs to be self-sufficient. Its two water evaporators can produce 75 gallons of fresh water an hour, and storage tanks hold up to 4,600 gallons. The boat's fuel bunkers hold almost 100,000 gallons of diesel. Two, 250-kilowatt generators and one emergency spare are capable of producing more electricity than the boat will ever need.

"We can even provide electrical power to shore," Hanlon said.

At the end of his watch, Hanlon was replaced by <i>Palo Alto's</i> assistant engineer, Sgt. 1st Class Arthur Benevente of the 481st Transportation Company, an Army Reserve unit located on Mare Island, Calif., near San Francisco. A longtime veteran of the boats, he had been in the Army longer than most of the other crew members had been alive.

"I joined the Regular Army in 1970," Benevente said. "At that time, you could enlist at 16A,A1/2. I turned 17 in basic training."

Benevente spent eight years on active duty as a cook and driver before entering the Army Reserve and the watercraft field in 1979. He's been there ever since. He had a long civil service career working on the boats, and even came back after retiring from that job.

"I can't understand why people get out after 20 years," he said. "It isn't about the money. It's about the training and having something to do."

Something as complex as working on Army watercraft demands constant training and updating of skills, Benevente said; it's not something that can remain stagnant.

Benevente's plan that day was to rebuild an oil pump that had been giving them trouble. Due to the number of redundant systems on the boat, going without the pump wouldn't be a problem, but he didn't want to give it the chance to become one.

"To be good, you have to continue to learn and do the job," he said. "This is one step below aviation as far as the number of technical manuals, bulletins, and regulations involved. Young men and women join, and they want to learn," Benevente said. "Civilian companies want their experience, and there's lots of opportunity here."

<i>Palo Alto</i> carried an extensive supply of parts in area forward of the engine room. According to the engineers, there were enough repair parts to fully rebuild one of the engines and one of the generators. Cross-referencing technical manuals and bulletins, Benevente got everything he needed to fix the malfunctioning pump.

Retreating to a corner of the engine room, he got to work, ensuring <i>Palo Alto</i> would be able to complete its mission.

"I'm gonna miss this job," Benevente said.

<i>Capt. Christopher Larsen is the public affairs officer for the 364th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, Seattle.</i>

Page last updated Fri July 22nd, 2011 at 12:16