By CDR Byron (Jug) Varner, U.S. Navy (RET)
During a return visit there in March 1996
The old saying, “you can hardly get there from here,” is true of Guantanamo Bay. First of all, one must obtain permission from the Navy Department. That requires time-consuming coordination and approval by various commands. Then, one must go to Norfolk Naval Air Station. “Gitmo,” as it is also known, is not a direct flight from most airline terminals.
In the 1960s, military aircraft carried passengers to Gitmo from Norfolk. Today, a chartered commercial airline flies twice a week from Norfolk to Jacksonville, Gitmo, Jamaica and return, and passengers pay commercial fare. Another new wrinkle at Norfolk is the Marines' guard dog that sniffs everyone's luggage before it is loaded on the plane. Drugs were not a problem 31 years ago.
Sleet fell as Roy and I boarded the plane for the early morning departure from Norfolk, but we knew the usual balmy sunshine awaited us at our destination.
The regulated military air approach to Gitmo, from 12 miles out, afforded a birds-eye-view of the entire 45 square mile military reservation. It lies about 9 miles in an east-west direction along the southern coastline and five miles into Cuba's Oriente Province, at the eastern end of the island. This part of the Caribbean Sea is known as the Windward Passage where ships carrying 55% of all U. S. crude oil imports pass through.
From altitude it is easy to distinguish the 19-mile three-sided fence line — dubbed the “Cactus Curtain” by some news writer in 1959, after Fidel Castro's Communist forces started building fortifications around the base perimeter. It was a miniature version of the Soviet's “Iron Curtain” concept.
As the aircraft made its approach to land, we could see the old lighthouse and the main base facilities.
Also plainly visible was the huge 2-1/2 mile-wide bay area with the “water gate” entry into Cuba at Buqueron, the nearby town of Caimanera, Guantanamo City in the distance, and Guantanamo River opening into the bay.
Journalist 3rd Class Mitchel Bone greeted us on arrival, helped with our luggage and drove us to the ferry landing for the ride across the bay to the main base. He was very capable and assisted us above and beyond the call of duty during our stay. We also appreciated the fine support of his boss, Chief Journalist Doug Coulter, the current public affairs officer. Surprisingly, his job no longer includes responsibility for radio and TV.
By the time we checked-in at Gitmo's Navy Lodge (something new to us) and checked out a rental car (also a new service), we had used nine modes of transportation — twelve if you count an elevator, escalator and foot-power. It included my personal car, a 727, Beechcraft 1900, taxi, van, 737, pickup, ferry boat and rental car. Before leaving, we would add a Humvee, helicopter and bus to this list.
Roy and I easily recognized old familiar landmarks, but we were amazed by all the new buildings and greatly expanded housing and school facilities. Most surprising, however, was seeing that popular American symbol of free enterprise — the “Golden Arches” — right there on the main thoroughfare, Sherman Avenue. In our absence McDonald's had established a restaurant in Gitmo! (I ate an egg McMuffin there every morning). A modern mall had replaced the old commissary and exchange buildings that once stood across the street. The outdoor lyceum still remains adjacent to those now vacant lots, however, and I remembered several talent shows, hootenannies and other productions I had coordinated on its stage.
The well-stocked shelves in the commissary were quite different from the old days when a United Fruit Company ship brought in fresh provisions every two weeks. The Navy wives bought the best of it within two or three days of its arrival. Despite its modern facade and bright interior, however, I knew I was in Gitmo when a bantam rooster crowed loudly as he strutted along the sidewalk near the main entrance.
Guantanamo Bay seemed strangely familiar yet vastly different — akin to going back to the old home town after many years absence and discover that everyone you knew had moved away. A brief nostalgic feeling came upon me because none of the people I served with were there to share it with me! Those friends and our mutual experiences were the reason the place always seemed so special. The Navy is not an institution, it is people — a lot of people who make it good and a few who have the opposite effect. At any rate, after 31 years absence I couldn't have expected any old shipmates to be there.
During our first day touring the base, we stopped at the Cuban Club Restaurant for lunch. My eyes hadn't quite adjusted from the bright sunshine to the dim interior when I was startled by a booming voice. “Hey Jug! What the hell are you doing here in Gitmo again?” It had to be someone I knew because only my Navy friends use my service nickname. Somehow “Jug” didn't seem dignified enough to carry into the business world when I retired from the Navy.
His voice was more familiar than his gray beard, but there sat Jack Neill at a table a few feet away from the food order counter. In 1963, he was the Chief Engineer to the Civilian Resident Officer in Charge of Construction (known as the ROICC in Navy jargon), and I could hardly believe he was still in Gitmo. Astonished and pleased to find a kindred soul, I immediately felt more at home.
THE MEMORY JOGGING
Seeing Jack again brought to mind the incident on 6 February 1964, when Fidel Castro cut off the base water supply from the Yateras River, five miles farther into Cuba. The act was retaliation against the United States for its seizure of Cuban boats illegally fishing in Florida coastal waters. The immediate result of Castro's action was strict base water rationing and the beginning of water tankers shuttling from Jamaica, Norfolk and Florida to replenish the limited supply of stored water. There were no water wells on the base.
Next, Castro claimed we were “stealing water” from Cuba, so the base commander, Rear Admiral John D. Bulkeley, ordered workmen to cut and lift from the ground a large section from the only two incoming Yateras water pipes near the Northeast Gate Command Post, proving them to be completely dry.
During that week, I had been escorting fourteen national media correspondents and TV film crews around the base, and they were on hand at the pipe-cutting to capture the story for international release.
After showing the world Castro was lying, Bulkeley had the ground pipes welded shut at both ends of the gap created by the removed pieces. He then ordered a large water gauge be erected down the hill facing the Cuban side, where Cuban militia could see it through their field glasses that were constantly trained on the American side. The needle, indicating zero, was a constant reminder of Castro's false claim.
Today, Gitmo honors Admiral Bulkeley with several landmarks. The Marines named their Northeast Gate command post Bulkeley Hill, the Naval Construction Battalion (Sea Bees) designated their headquarters near Kittery Beach as Camp Bulkeley, and the Base Headquarters building is now known as Bulkeley Hall. On display there are several artifacts of his illustrious naval career.
On 25 February, I called his home in Silver Springs, Md., to tell him about our Gitmo trip. Mrs. Bulkeley told me he had been ill for some time, but that I caught him on one of his better days. His voice was softer but he had lost none of his gung-ho spirit, and he seemed to enjoy my brief report on present day Gitmo. I was doubly glad I called, because I learned a few weeks later that his 85-year-old heart failed him and his life ebbed away on 6 April 1996. This unique American hero received Full Honor Interment in Arlington National Cemetery on 19 April 1996.
THE ROICC ENGINEER
He has been there through the years, overseeing a variety of projects including upgrading the water system to process an additional 2 million gallons per day. Since 1965, he has completed 640 projects costing $163 million — more than doubling the housing accommodations in the process.
Jack is a true-blue Texan with some worthy heritage to brag about. “Talk about a good set of orders,” he said with a laugh, “my great-great-grandfather, Col. Joseph C. Neill, commanded the Alamo before Col. William B. Travis relieved him to go join Gen. Sam Houston's forces. He escaped Travis's fate and helped win Texas independence from Mexico in the Battle of San Jacinto.”
In his office is a photo of a Texas flag flying from the flagpole at Northeast Gate. “How in the world did you manage that?” I asked. He replied in feigned seriousness, “Oh that was taken several years ago. A friend of mine was on guard duty there. He hoisted the flag one day when nobody was looking, and held it just long enough for me to snap the picture.”
He and wife Jo raised their family in Gitmo and seldom leave the base, even to visit their now grown children living in the states. The Neills love the area and say it reminds them of Texas. They especially like the climate and hope things will someday return to the way it was before Castro came to power. “I miss driving through the Northeast Gate, and flying over to Santiago once in a while,” Jack said wistfully. Pointing at a distant mountain we could see through the window, he added, “I'd dearly love to retire beyond that mountain over there.”
Jo remembered Roy's involvement in youth and school activities as well as the many community activities we all enjoyed together. “We don't seem to have as much community participation as we had then,” she commented. “Perhaps the fact that we now have Cable TV has made couch potatoes out of too many of us today!” That was a statement I heard several times.
Originally employed at the base from 1953-58, the Neills lived in nearby Guantanamo City, and Jack commuted to work everyday through Northeast Gate along with about 3,000 Cuban nationals. He has worked and lived on base continuously since 1963.
THE CUBAN COMMUTERS
Some of the Cuban employees were second and third generation families of workers who came to the base in the early 1900s, following the original lease agreement with Cuba. Castro never has recognized that lease nor does he cash the annual lease payment checks, his method of contending the document is illegal.
Castro closed the gates to all motor traffic after he took over in 1959. He allowed the Cuban workers to continue commuting, but publicly reviled them as gusanos (worms) and other forms of low life. He subjected them to rigid, degrading personal search procedures each morning before they walked across the line to awaiting Navy busses and again in late afternoon when they returned to Cuba.
He also required them to exchange 90% of their American dollars one-to-one for Cuban pesos when the normal exchange rate was one-to-fourteen up to seventeen. This amounted to millions for the new Communist regime, but left the commuters with little buying power at home. They endured these hardships because there was (and is today) little income opportunity in Cuba. It was the only way they could provide for their families. Many had vested American retirement plans at the base.
Things began to change during the water crisis, however. The Navy terminated 970 commuters during the month following the water cut-off. President Lyndon Johnson decreed the base should become self-sufficient, and ordered a reduction in force of all Cuban commuters, replacing them with Jamaican workers. A number of commuters exiled themselves on the base for political reasons, rather than go back to Cuba.
Arrangements were made to allow 300 male workers to continue commuting until they retired. Those 300 now number about 22 and most of them probably will be gone within a year or so. Cuban guards continue their degrading search practices.
Approximately seventy-six exiles remain on the base at this writing, either working or retired. Most say they will die in Gitmo and be buried in the base cemetery near Cuzco Beach. Typical of these are men like Edgar Lewis, Selvin Reid, Patrick Duffus, and Claude McPherson, all of whom were in Gitmo when I served there, as were many others we didn't have time to locate or interview. Talking with these four, however, gave Roy and me a renewed appreciation for their courage, self discipline, and the ingrained culture of their Cuban homeland. They are educated, thoughtful people, worthy of our respect.
To a man, they all love Cuba and still have family connections there, but thoroughly dislike and distrust Castro and his Communist regime. Having spent all these years in exile status, they are grateful and loyal to the United States for the work opportunity and safe haven. I was heartened to see the Navy has honored its obligation to them after their lifetime of service to Gitmo, by providing housing and pensions.
Mr. Lewis talked with us while we lunched at his place. I asked him if the sauce was hot and he smiled knowingly, suggesting “I'll give you a taste and you make up your own mind.” It tasted relatively mild so I ordered “Jerk Chicken” and poured on a liberal amount of sauce. Several bites later I realized the sauce had a delayed-action fuse. I gradually survived the heat detonation, but didn't opt for seconds.
In 1959-60, following several run-ins with Cuban police who falsely accused him of being a spy for the Batista regime and relaying information to the Navy, Edgar Lewis knew he must leave Cuba. He had been thrown in jail on one occasion and had his car impounded on another. He knew of others who were killed by exploding mines or Cuban gunfire while trying to escape in those early days, but he knew he must take that risk, one way or another.
Exiling in 1961, he worked as a clerk-typist at Base Headquarters and later as a translator and Cuban personnel director at Public Works, until his retirement in 1982 when he started his restaurant business.
He had applied for permission to take his wife and two children out of Cuba before he exiled but received no response. The approval came 13 years later in 1974. Meanwhile, he had married a woman who had exiled on the base and they had three children of their own. Nevertheless, he arranged and financed his first family's move to Boston and then relocated them to Los Angeles, set them up in housing and provided continued financial support. Then he returned to his wife and job in Gitmo. Their youngest daughter is attending school at Guantanamo Bay and their two adult children are in the States, well educated and with responsible jobs.
Lewis explained his plight. “My first wife never blamed me, she blamed Castro. She never remarried. I have done my best for her and those children, under the circumstances, and my conscience is clear. I've improved my life here and I owe a lot to Guantanamo.”
Mr. Reid's wife of 51 years, Mosa, was at work when we first talked with him in their comfortable home. Fortunately, Roy stopped by again to talk with her, because she gave us one of her famous pecan pies. M-m-m-m good! She loves to bake and everyone else in Gitmo must love it when she does because, as she phrased it, “Giving makes me feel good.” Although they were married in 1944, she remained in Cuba until 1965, when he arranged her exile on the base to work as a beautician.
Reid is recovering from prostate surgery but it doesn't dampen his spirit nor sense of humor. Mentally sharp, he talked of his life in Guantanamo, saying “There's no place I'd rather be! Where else can you leave your door wide open and know your neighbors will take care of you?”
I asked him if he ever knew Alberta Findley, the Cuban maid who lived in our maids quarters and worked for us when we lived in Gitmo? We wondered how we could contact her. “Oh, yes, we knew Berta very well. She left here in the 70s and went to Jamaica. Poor Berta was so unhappy and died shortly after she got there.”
Selvin was born in Jamaica when it was a British Colony and moved to Cuba at age 18, working as a chemist's assistant in a sugar factory. While discussing this experience he commented that Cuba's current sugar crop is one of the best in years.
During the beginning of a major construction program at the Base in 1939, he took work as a mason's helper and because he spoke English well eventually took a job in 1941 as the first civilian employee at the Naval Air Supply Depot, McCalla Field. He continued in that organization until his retirement in 1981 and then worked several years as an annuitant.
One of Mr. Reid's prized possessions is the 40-Year Service award he received from the Secretary of the Navy (he actually worked longer) and he appropriately displays it for all visitors to see. He also takes pride in his well-loved children and is especially delighted that his grandson, an NROTC graduate of the University of Vermont, is now a Navy Lieutenant serving as Admiral's Aide aboard the USS Washington. Their oldest son served during the Korean War.
“I would choose this life again, its humble,” Selvin Reid said in parting. “I'm not a front page kind of guy.”
PATRICK DUFFAS was busy issuing ID cards when I met him at his office at Base Security, so we conducted our interview intermittently when he found time to talk. He has worked in this same job since 1953, commuting through the NE Gate until 1960. At that time, the Cuban Militia began harassing him about his job on the base.
“They accused me of working for the CIA” he explained, “but I kept telling them that all I knew about the CIA was that it stood for Central Intelligence Agency, that I was merely a filing clerk in the base security section. That was my only job. They didn't believe me and took away my pass and threw me in jail, once for two weeks and another time for a month — no charges, no proof, no nothing. They just didn't want me over here. I knew some of the Militia men and convinced them I had American money stashed away here and needed to come get it. So they gave me a pass to come pick it up and I never went back!”
He managed to get his wife and 8-year-old daughter across the line in May 1963, with a 2,000 peso bribe of one of the Cuban guards at the Northeast Gate. The man was in love with a commuting worker's pretty daughter who convinced the guard to help. Discussing the danger of the situation, Duffus said, “In those days they hadn't developed their mine fields yet, just soldiers with orders to shoot at anything that moved. The day before my wife came they killed a lady trying to come over, put her body in a sugar bag and dumped it in a hole.”
His daughter is 41 now and lives in a house he owns in Clearwater, Fla., but her 12-year-old daughter lives with Mr. and Mrs. Duffus and attends school in Gitmo. He has a 73-year-old brother who is one of the remaining 22 commuters.
When asked when he planned to retire, he shook his head and said, “No way! I'm 70 now and could have retired some time ago, but I want to continue working and living here as long as I can. I have no plans to retire and just sit around playing dominoes, with no real purpose in life. We are treated very nice here, I love my job and we have no complaints whatsoever.”
When I told him my daughter Vickie and son Roy worked in summer jobs at the base Supply Depot in 1963-64, Duffus went to his extensive card file and found their original applications.
CLAUDE McPHERSON talked with me three times — first at the PAO office, then in his home and again during dinner at the Cuban Club. Of Jamaican descent and serious demeanor, he has a wry sense of humor and is highly respected by the exile community and the civilian and military personnel who know him.
When asked how he was enjoying his retirement, he responded dolefully, “Oh, man, I was doing very well before I retired, but then all the screws that held my body together rusted and fell apart!” At age 73, he stood erect and looked in excellent shape to me, however.
The first job McPherson had at Gitmo was with the Frederick Snare Corporation, contractor for the massive 1939-1943 construction project. The majority of the buildings and facilities existing at Guantanamo Bay when I first saw it in the 60s were built during that project, including our living quarters M-115 on Huntington Point.
Recalling those times McPherson said: “I came to Guantanamo Bay on my 19th birthday, June 28, 1941. There were 9,000 contractor and 4,000 government employees commuting by train from Guantanamo City to Caimanera and Buqueron, where we took boats to the base. All together we were a mixture of
Cuban, Spanish, Chinese, Indian, French, Haitian, Jamaican, Puerto Rican and Latin people involved in this undertaking and we worked in 12-hour shifts around the clock during the war. I worked for Public Works Transportation by then.
“The base was a staging area for convoys to Europe, anti-submarine patrols looking for German U-boats, and other such Navy missions, so there were ships everywhere, including the merchant ships that came to pick up sugar at Buqueron for transport to the States.
“Cuba committed its entire sugar crop to the United States for the duration of the war at a fixed rate well below the world market price. It was a major financial and resource contribution to the war effort. Cuban sugar and molasses were important ingredients in making alcohol, explosives, synthetics and other essential products.”
McPherson progressed through various jobs in Public Works and continued commuting from Guantanamo City until 1960, when he realized he must exile rather than live under Castro's oppression. One day he decided not to return with the other commuters and has remained an exile ever since. His wife and children stayed in Cuba. He brought his mother from Jamaica to live with him from 1974-1984, but he eventually had to take her back and put her in a nursing home there. I learned that his mother was a good friend of our maid Berta, who stayed in the McPherson home to recover from illness before leaving Guantanamo.
At the time of his retirement in 1993, 52 years and 5 months from the time he was first employed, Mr. McPherson held the position of Manager of Real Estate Facilities and worked closely with Jack Neill's department as well as others. The Navy provides him with a nice little house near Coronaso Point where he invited me to come accept some special mementos to take with me — two Cuban cigars, a 1958 series fifty peso Cuban banknote, a $20 Jamaican banknote, a copy of the 1903 U.S-Cuba lease agreement excerpt, a pamphlet he produced about Cuban geography and history and several other items.
“That is you? You published this?” he asked incredulously. Then we both burst into laughter. When he regained his composure, he said as if chastising himself, “All the time I thought I was really doing something wonderful for you.” I told him he had done something wonderful for me, more than he knew!
A trip back to Cuba via Jamaica was first on Claude's agenda after retirement. He visited with his wife and children, friends and relatives, all of whom were suffering from Castro's economy. He depleted his savings considerably giving money to his wife and children and “lending” to his old friends — knowing it was a gift because they could never repay the debt. Then he returned to his real home in Gitmo to be among his real friends.
WGBY RADIO & TELEVISION STATION
No doubt cable TV brings more immediacy to the news and Gitmoites can stay in touch with things back home a bit easier, but part of the joy of living there in the 60s was the community participation and feeling of oneness we experienced in our live TV broadcasts. Automation may be more efficient and cost effective, but WGBY has lost that “human touch” and that's a shame.
We had no cable TV, no computers, no copiers, laser printers or other electronic gadgets that are so much a part of our lives today. All of these make for improved journalistic endeavors, of course, and a more readable product. In our day we completely wore out two mimeograph machines each year publishing the daily Gitmo Gazette and daily Spanish Gazette in that same location. We also published a weekly Gitmo Review at the local government printing office.
Our source of news was from an AP and UPI teletype machine that clattered its stories onto a roll of newsprint 24-hours a day. We did have the luxury of four electric typewriters, at least one of which was being repaired, usually in make-do fashion. Supplies from the states came slowly if at all.
A bright and cheerful Chief Journalist Audrey Michaels, current officer-in-charge, gave us a guided tour of WGBY, telling us she will soon return to the states and retire from the Navy. With her great personality and journalistic talent, it was too bad she wasn't in Gitmo in the 60s when her attributes would have been better used.
MAKING NEW FRIENDS
On the first night, we went to the officer's club for dinner. Except for redecoration it seemed the same and its large patio overlooking the bay was as enticing as ever. The dining room brought memories of many social functions enjoyed there, including my “wetting-down” party when promoted to Commander. Today, however, it is known as the Bayview Club and is open to officer, enlisted and civilian alike, as are all service clubs on the base. The famous old structure that once was the Chief Petty Officer's Club now awaits demolition — the end result of providing too much termite food over the years. The Chiefs now meet in the basement of the Bayview Club.
Club manager Harry Sharpe, a Cuban exile who worked on the base during the 60s, stopped by our table to renew acquaintances. When he left, a lady at a nearby table introduced herself as Judy Davis, an instructor at Navy Campus. She overheard me tell Mr. Sharpe who we were and why we were here, so she invited us to join her table for dinner. We met her husband Dan, an associate professor with Troy State University, and their friend Ron Wilkinson, a civilian contractor's representative. Our conversation covered numerous subjects comparing then and now and gave Roy and me fresh ideas about people and places to include in our visit.
Judy and Dan are two of a number of locals involved in restoring the old lighthouse for a Guantanamo Bay Museum. I later met Commander Rick Wagner, the Public Works Officer who heads the restoration committee. He gave me a guided tour of the former Coast Guard residence at the lighthouse, where the artifacts will be displayed. Caught up in their enthusiasm for the project, I volunteered to send them a number of Gitmo mementos of the 1960s I had collected.
The Navy Campus where the Davises and others teach is a new concept to one who has been away from active service as long as I have. It is a great opportunity to advance one's education, whether for a GED high school diploma or on-campus credit hours toward an associate, bachelor's or master's degree — particularly for unaccompanied personnel stationed in Gitmo, where there is ample time to pursue those objectives without too much competition from other off-hour activities and distractions. Of course, family members and station personnel can also benefit.
Mary Ackerman, local administrator of this world-wide program told us more about it when we visited the campus. They conduct evening classes at the former high school facilities on Chapel Hill and have a current enrollment of 374 students, which is expected to increase later this year. Troy State University, City Colleges of Chicago, and Central Texas College are the current on-campus institutions, but special services are also provided by off-campus institutions for correspondence courses, SAT, GRE, certificate exams and other needs. All instructors have master's or doctor's degrees and work on a contract basis. Station personnel with master's degrees or better may serve as adjunct instructors as the need arises. Service personnel have enrollment priority but family members and non-U.S. employees may enter if space is available.
WILLIAM T. SAMPSON SCHOOL
The Navy has evacuated families three times in Gitmo's history — first during WWII, again during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and finally during the recent Haitian-Cuban refugee crisis. Some current residents, who experienced the last one, feel strongly that the evacuation was unnecessary, but military commanders dispute that assessment. Nonetheless, each evacuation was a hardship on the school system. Enrollment is expected to normalize this fall.
Timing of this trip provided an odd coincidence relative to my initial arrival in April 1963. Then, the evacuated families had begun their return the previous December as the base was returning to normal operations, and the bulk of the students arrived the following summer. Now, we learned that evacuated families began returning in December as the base gets back to normal, and school officials expect the greatest influx of students this summer. The past is prologue.
Named for Admiral William T. Sampson of Spanish-American war fame, the Gitmo school system is the oldest in DOD's world-wide network and the only one located on Communist soil.
When we left here in the 60s, all grade levels attended the old Chapel Hill school facility. Roy's graduating class numbered about twenty-three students and the totals gradually increased in later years along with the overall school population. Jack Neill and his forces constructed new buildings to accommodate them - an elementary school in 1975 and a high school ten years later. Familiar with only the old school, we were greatly impressed with the replacement buildings and fine athletic facilities.
In the 1960s, all sports were intramural. Now, the Gitmo school competes with other Caribbean area schools in sports and academic events.
Dr. Donna S. Warner is the new principal of both high school and elementary school. This veteran of the DOD school system came here from Panama in November to meet the tremendous challenge of rehabilitating facilities damaged by the Joint Task Force's use of the high school as headquarters during the refugee crisis. She retrieved student records sent to Washington, D. C., during evacuation, hired new faculty and practically reorganized the system from ground zero.
All teachers went to other locations when the families left in September 1994, so most new ones are here for the first time. One of the few “old-timers.” Home Economics teacher Nelda Williams, was back in Gitmo for the fourth time. I'd say she is one lady who knows the right place to be!
One of the two things Roy hoped to accomplish during this visit was fulfilled when Dr. Warner presented him with a surplus copy of his class yearbook she found in the library. He had lost his somewhere along the way. We had to depart before he could accomplish the other — locating the like-new yellow and black '53 Mercury coupe he purchased in his junior year from graduating senior Ed Thompson. He looked for it along the streets and at the junkyard for old rusting vehicles, but to no avail. It may have ended its life as a target at the Marine gunnery range.
Gitmo now has a modern recycling system for paper, cans, plastics, glass, etc., and a U. S. recovery company periodically takes it away by barge. What is not recycled or incinerated is placed in a local landfill in accordance with EPA requirements.
A lot of things change over time, but the Marines still have that esprit de corps that sets them apart from the other services. Everything is still spit and polish, and quality. Except for their vehicles, it seemed much the same as when I left Gitmo. Their mission to defend the base has not changed, they know their business and they do it well. It renewed my spirit to know that some service traditions live on and I was glad to be among them again.
Colonel Joseph Composto, Commanding Officer of the Marine Barracks, is one of the more impressive Marines I have met. His intellect is brilliant and his background experience notable, having served in JAG billets as well as various field and staff assignments. Despite being at this post for a relatively brief time, he seemed to know as much about the background and history of the base as anyone else we talked with.
Following an interesting and informative interview late one afternoon, we met the following morning and he personally escorted us on a tour to the Northeast Gate. From there we drove along the fence line to the Water Gate (not an actual gate, but an imaginary line), where international ships pass through the bay into Buqueron to off-load products and pick up sugar. We stopped at various outposts and returned through the gunnery range back to Camp X-ray - where refugee trouble-makers were kept until sent home to Haiti or Cuba.
The fence line looked somewhat different from the way I remembered, primarily due to growth of vegetation and a widened strip of “no-man's land” along the perimeter. Since our time, the Cuban Frontier Brigade moved back from their original line and continue to upgrade their emplacements to this day. The old Cuban Gate that faces the American Gate stands unoccupied about 100 feet away.
In an effort to defuse trouble before it starts, the two senior Cuban militia officials occasionally meet with the Marine Barracks Commander and the Naval Base Commander half-way between the two Gates. In brief conversation, each side alerts the other about any problem the other is causing that can be corrected, and of any unusual training activity planned that could be mistaken for overt action or threat.
With their high mountain lookout advantage, there is little on this side of the fence the Cuban militia cannot see, but the Marines vary their routine enough to keep them guessing. The Cubans also know that we have much better intelligence sources than they have. At one time, they operated a beer house on one of the mountains where the incentive was for customers to look down on the base through telescopes.
Gitmo may have the largest land mine field in the world, with more than 30,000 on the U. S. side and that many or more on the Cuban side. The major difference is that the Marine minefield maintenance personnel constantly rehabilitate their fields, but the Cubans never check or replace theirs. Locating and replacing mines is tedious and dangerous work for these Marines, but they receive extensive training here and in the States. The expected life of such mines are from eight to twelve years.
A profusion of wildlife exists and regulations prohibit hunting, capturing or harming Cuban rock iguana, brown pelican, owl, hawk, key deer, sea turtle, dolphin, porpoises, seal, whale, snook, manatee, starfish, black coral snake and other animals, some of which are on the endangered species list.
One of the most prominent animal habitats is in a tree adjacent to Base headquarters at Bulkeley Hall, where a large pack of banana rats nest. They look more like a marmot than a rat and are interesting to watch — but reek of foul odor. Like many protected species, these have become destructive pests.
Having made a number of helicopter trips around the base perimeter in my time, I scheduled other activities while Roy and Journalist Bone made their first such ride during a Marine inspection flight. It was a special experience for both of them, providing Roy another great photo opportunity which he loved. We came home with more than five hundred color slides.
THE JOINT TASK FORCE AND REFUGEES
About the same time, Fidel Castro announced that Cuban asylum seekers would not be impeded or opposed by the Cuban government and thousands of fleeing Cubans joined the Haitians in the mass exodus. Many of them also came by boats of all kinds and were referred to as “balseros”, or boat people.
What began as a trickle developed into a stream that became a sea of humanity inundating the base so rapidly in such overwhelming numbers that food, housing and sanitary facilities were totally inadequate. The normal Gitmo population of about 7,000 increased at one point to more than 50,000 by Cuban and Haitian refugees, critically endangering local water and electrical capabilities and hampering fleet training and other normal operations.
The Joint Task Force operation was separate and apart from the normal base operations, although it received considerable assistance from base activities. It was staffed by military and civilian personnel representing the Defense Department, State Department, CIA, Immigration Services, Justice Department, Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations whose interest and lines of authority converged. In addition to the Coast Guard efforts, more than 55 major Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine commands across the U. S. were involved in the operation.
Before its conclusion early in 1996, such diverse interests as the International Red Cross, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, World Relief Corporation and International Organization for Migration were also involved.
Sea Signal became a phased operation, its character constantly changing, hinging on U.S. policy changes, political and international dynamics and the internal decisions of the forces and organizations executing it.
The Marine Barracks' involvement in the Joint Task Force efforts during this time was only as external security guards around the migrant camps. Their real test came during the riots, when they manned roadblocks to protect base residents and quelled the uprising of some 2,000 migrants from several camps in September 1994. One group of agitators, at the height of emotions, charged the Marine guards and tried to grab their rifles.
The Marines showed great restraint by not firing at the crowd. Instead, they responded with bayonets, slightly nicking two or three leaders of the charge. At the sight of blood, things immediately changed, the crowd got quiet and the demonstrations stopped. The participants gradually wandered back to their camps and the situation returned to normal. This near-violent event justified the official decision concerning the evacuation of families.
The Cubans established their own camp governments, elected leaders and generally became good citizens. Some volunteered to assist in various jobs around the base. Given free reign within their own boundaries, many fished along the shore, improvised clever items to make their lives easier and even built small parks, religious art works and interesting memorials to their plight and to their U. S. benefactors in appreciation for the temporary housing, food and care.
Typically, the U. S. and international media coverage of this situation highlighted the sensational and sent incomplete, negative, and distorted sound-bites to viewers around the world. Those of us in the States saw or read little about the positive efforts of the refugees or the many Gitmo residents who volunteered their own time and effort to help make life a bit more normal and comfortable for these itinerants.
One total effort by NavBase personnel was the highly successful Operation Love The Children, founded and directed by Petty Officer Michael Dean Gold. Volunteers brought children of all ages out of the camp environment to visit in their homes and play with their children, expressing love and care to brighten their lives.
A plaque permanently mounted at the elementary school reads: “In memory of thousands of Cuban and Haitian children who laughed and played on these playgrounds during the Migration: Safe Haven, and the volunteers who cared enough to give them back their childhood for a while.”
Other volunteers demonstrated to those in the camps how to use educational tools such as play dough, how to play basketball and other games and provided education services.
In the midst of it all, the Fleet Training Command ended its 56-year tenancy at Gitmo and relocated at Mayport, Fla., near Jacksonville. Part of this was attributed to cost-cutting and part to the changing mission of the base. Several functions are continuing here, such as port services, air and supply operations and perimeter security, but some experts fear the loss of Guantanamo's incomparable sea training area could lessen the effectiveness of future fleet readiness.
The final phase-out of JTF-160 operation was the paperwork to “parole” of all migrants — 29,000 of whom went to the States under the policy announced by Attorney General Janet Reno in May 1995. The remainder returned to their homeland or went elsewhere.
This phase-out required dismantling and cleaning-up camp areas, shipping materials elsewhere and storing a portion of it at Gitmo, should future events require the need to reactivate the operation. One thing is for sure: the trial and error experience taught how it should be done properly if there is a next time.
Cost of this convoluted exercise has been estimated to be five billion dollars, or more. With the involvement of so many agencies, the actual amount may never be known. One wonders if the cost was worth it, or how our politicians can justify such expense in light of our national deficit, and the untended domestic needs in our own country.
From 1941 to 1975, Gitmo's Base Commander held the rank of Rear Admiral. Since then it has been a Captain's billet. Captain James R. Cannon, who reported here in mid-95, was away from the base during our visit so we missed the opportunity to meet him.
We talked at length with Commander Carl Albury, Chief of Staff, who enlisted in the submarine service in 1963 and came up through the ranks in a variety of surface and shore billets that has given him a broad Navy background. Along the way, he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in Business Administration and currently teaches at Navy Campus in his off-hours.
One of his hobbies is history. “We need to study history so we won't make the same mistakes over and over again,” he said. Astute in his observations, CDR Albury gave us his definition of the difference between the Haitians and Cubans: “The Cuban is looking to find a way to improve his life. The Haitian is just trying to survive.”
Sometime last year before the families returned, Navy Times and other news sources carried conflicting stories about the demise of Gitmo for lack of a real mission — since the Fleet Training Group had gone. Albury said he thought much of this was conjecture, based on misinformation, but he doubted that the base would be closed because it is too important to give up. Gitmo is one of the last American outposts in the Caribbean and the Navy's presence here is an indication of continued resolve in this region.
When Admiral William J. Flannagan, Jr., Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, announced the families' return, he also said: “Future plans for the base call for a gradual reduction in military manning, and a scaling-down of facilities to fit a revised mission.
“Traditionally, the primary focus of the Guantanamo mission was fleet training. Now, and for the foreseeable future, Guantanamo Bay will serve as a logistics facility, supporting air and sea operations in the Caribbean, and limited joint exercises.”
Time ran out before we were ready to leave and many stories were left untold. The trip was an enjoyable contrast of then and now for us.
If you have a favorite place you've wished to see again, go for it!
Byron D. Varner