FEB. 3, 2018 / JORDAN VINSON
If you have recently ridden your bike around the Small Boat Marina during the night, you’ve likely seen long tails of fiery sparks arcing into the air at the back lot of the Marine Department. There, a team of 12 expat contractors and local employees work around the clock, torching, grinding and welding sheet metal on one of the most important vehicles at U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and the Reagan Test Site: Landing Craft Mechanized 8605.
LCM for short, the vessel is one of the garrison’s and test range’s beasts of burden. Able to haul up to 60 tons of cargo, from aggregate to generators to mission support equipment, USAG-KA’s LCMs are the big rigs of the lagoon, says Welder Chris Rice-McClure. He has spent the last four months on LCM 8605, working with a large team to rehabilitate the boat and put her back to work for the test range and garrison.
“We need to have it back in the water by the 13th of February,” he says before handing me a hard hat and escorting me across a worksite showered in ruddy phosphorous light. Up the LCM’s thick steel plated bow doors we walk, stopping before a two-man crew grinding and torching dilapidated steel deck plating weathered by the harsh equatorial Pacific elements.
A Gold colored welder’s mask protecting his face, Rice-McClure leans into the gunwale aboard the deck of the boat and unleashes the light of a small sun, pushing molten carbon steel into the nooks of a two-feet-long hull stiffener he’s been attaching to the boat. It’s but one of many jobs going on around him. To his right, Peter Davis, another welder, pulls out rods of carbon steel, sticks them into his welder, slaps down his welder’s mask and lays down a small puddle of metal along the seam of a small entryway into the hull. Amid the whirr of air movers supplying fresh air to workers downstairs, banging, scraping and cutting occurs up and down the deck as a half-dozen coworkers dig into the boat like ants to a dead beetle. It’s a ballet of sorts to accomplish so many tasks aboard a 71-feet-long LCM with a little over two weeks left in the project, Rice-McClure says.
For a long time, it was just five of us working on the welding side of it,” he says. “Right now we’ve got about a dozen people working on it. Again on the welding, metal working side of it. There’s also other people working the day shift, from the paint shop, blasting and repainting.”
The main objective for the project being to replace the cargo deck of the LCM, the torchers and welders work through the night seven days per week to cut and burn off the old steel platform and then cut, emplace and weld together huge sheets of brand-new plate steel to form the new deck. A day shift crew then comes in after the night crew clocks out freshly laid metal. Working in tandem like this allows for as quick a work rate as possible.
“That’s the gist of it. There’s also the engine shop,” Rice-McClure says. “They just put in the replacement engines back in, and the electrical shop wired everything together behind us. And the carpentry shop does all sorts of odds and ends too” like building consoles for instruments, interior work, benches and signs.
A welder with about four years of one-the-job experience, Rice-McClure takes a great deal of satisfaction from the type of work he does—though he admits the hours are often grueling. He was one of several welders who tackled the Space Fence sensor project build, installing the shielding around the radar. His job there finished, he joined Chugach last September to help the Marine Department get boats rehabilitated and back into the water. While the Space Fence facility is important to the Air Force’s mission to identify and track debris and satellites in the Earth’s orbit, vessels like the LCMs are just as important to the missions of the garrison and the test range.
“With Space Fence, we started with nothing and turned it into Space Fence,” he says. “With something like this, we start with a boat that’s got a lot of rot on it, and when it’s done we should have a pretty good unit ready to go back in the water, back into service for several more years.”