- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - Decades after patrolling the Mekong Delta, the Gamewardens are back on the river.

This time it’s the Willamette, where a group of veterans and their restored patrol boat are taking part in the Portland Rose Festival. Their mission includes welcoming U.S. Navy, Coast Guard and Royal Canadian navy ships as they arrive for Fleet Week.

Members of the Gamewardens Association were part of the “brown-water navy” during the Vietnam War. The fleet of PBRs (Patrol Boat River) cut Viet Cong supply lines in the Mekong Delta and disrupted enemy operations on the river. It was dubbed Operation Game Warden, which inspired the name of the association.

Several Vancouver-area “riverine” veterans are members of the Northwest association, including Larry Bissonnette, Bob Cook and John Lundy. Bissonnette is on the Gamewardens’ national board.

Bissonnette said he did 151 patrols in 1969 as commander of River Division 593.

“Some guys did 250 in a year,” Bissonnette said. “We had seven people killed in action, and lots of people wounded in action. I’m still very close to a lot of these people.”

Bissonnette and Puget Sound-area member Heinz Hickethier were instrumental in acquiring their boat through a Navy heritage center in 2005, said Bob Brower, president of the Northwest chapter.

“The boat was in San Diego at a Navy monument and had been neglected,” Brower said. “We’ve put about $40,000 of our own money into the boat. The boat is now fully operational. We’ve worked on it hard to get it ready for the Rose Festival.”

The Fleet Week activity has been a big goal, Brower said, because, “It’s an on-the-water operation.”

That gives PBR 750 the chance to be in its natural element, not just serve as a floating military display tied to a dock or as a trailer-borne parade float.

The story of the PBR 750 is similar to the other historic member of the Rose Festival Fleet, a restored PT boat. PT-658 still belongs to the Navy, but it’s on loan to a nonprofit group that includes several veterans and boat enthusiasts from Clark County.

Members of the group - Save the PT Boat Inc. - have been restoring the boat at Swan Island in Portland.

It is the last operational WWII-era PT boat in the world. Part of that is because so many PT boats literally went up in smoke. According to www.ptboats.org, the Navy burned 121 PT boats in the Philippines rather than having to maintain them or convert them to post-war use.

The Gamewardens’ boat was built in 1973 in Bellingham and never made it overseas. It was used as a training boat at Mare Island in California, Brower said.

The river patrol boats were 31 feet long and drew only 18 inches of water. A water-jet propulsion system (think Jet Ski) could move them along at 25 knots. Standard armament included four machine guns and a grenade launcher.

While the Gamewardens are preserving a chapter of naval heritage, their history lessons are surprisingly relevant today. Several Gamewarden members helped the Navy stand up its current riverine force, Brower said.

In 2006, the Navy formed a modern “brown-water” fleet to patrol the Euphrates River in Iraq.

“Several of our members wrote papers and attended a meeting at the Naval Academy” to share their hard-won expertise in river operations, Brower said.

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Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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