Daytime, Vietnam. A Navy PBR (Patrol Boat, River) motors its way up the brown waters of Nung River. On board, a young Army Captain thumbs through classified documents from the CIA.
A Crewman fiddles with the dial of a hand-held radio, sweat shining on his bald forehead, and the opening chords of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” erupt from the speakers.
Though this is a scene from the film Apocalypse Now, it has basis in reality. Patrol Boats of the kind depicted in the film trawled the rivers and coastal waters of Vietnam, searching for clandestine weapons shipments meant for the Viet Cong. The 250 boats in this "Brown-Water Navy" were just a small fraction of the U.S. Navy forces employed in the Vietnam War.
From the time U.S. Navy “advisers” first arrived in the Vietnam Peninsula in 1950 to the Air Force-Navy “Linebacker” campaign in 1972—when the U.S. Seventh Air Force and the U.S. Navy Task Force 77 undertook a continuous bombing offensive against the North Vietnamese forces—over 1.8 million U.S. Navy personnel served in the Vietnam War, with 2600 deaths and over 10,000 casualties.
By 1970, this bloody and lengthy conflict (which had spanned from 1955 to 1975) proved unpopular back home, with violent riots and protests erupting throughout the United States. In reaction to the protests, President Nixon began withdrawing troops from Vietnam (particularly the coastal areas where the U.S. Navy operated). In a televised announcement in 1970, Nixon stated:
“I am tonight announcing plans for the withdrawal of an additional 150,000 American troops to be completed during the spring of next year. This will bring a total reduction of 265,500 men in our armed forces in Vietnam below the level that existed when we took office 15 months ago.”
1970 also saw the introduction of perhaps the rarest and most elusive Fifty Fathoms—the “Barracuda.”
The Fifty Fathoms is without question one of the most important dive watch designs in history. Indeed, it's often credited with being the first purpose-built timepiece with sub-aquatic usage in mind. Despite its publicized use by the father of SCUBA himself, Jacques Cousteau, the Fifty Fathoms was in fact designed by a French nagueur de combat (or combat swimmer), Captain Bob Maloubier, who sketched it with a pen and paper.
Navies of France, Germany, and the United States (thanks to the influence of Allen Tornek) soon adopted the Fifty Fathoms for their divers. Divers released in the U.S. bore the moniker "Tornek-Rayville" or "Blancpain Tornek.” The case backs of these military-issue divers bore the ominous inscription: "DANGER. IF FOUND RETURN TO NEAREST MILITARY FACILITY."
Between the model's debut and the 1970s, Blancpain produced over 20 different versions. The Barracuda is distinguished by its two-tone indices, unique to this model. It was issued to the navies of the United States and Germany (Bundesmarine), with some making its way to the armed forces of Poland.
This particular “Barracuda” bears the cushion case that typifies 1970s diver designs. A true survivor, this Barracuda shows the scars from a lifetime of use and wear—including the hand-engraved “MW” which denotes use by the Polish military. Since only 100 to 150 of these divers are known to have ever been produced, the Barracuda is an extremely rare and desirable iteration of an attractive (and historic) dive watch.
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