Chapter 7: Diego Garcia and a Change of Plans
While entering into the lagoon through the toes of the “Footprint of Freedom” I recalled my other visit with pleasure. I had been there as the Weapons Officer of the USS Okinawa (LPH 3) in 1982. Sitting seven degrees south of the equator, the atoll measures just over eleven square miles. From the air, the land mass around the lagoon looks much like a footprint, which where its nickname originated among sailors.
The weather is best described as muggy. Although there is considerable wind, I never felt it as a problem. The oppressiveness of mid-70 lows and mid-80 highs throughout the year is mollified somewhat by the ocean breezes. Although the annual rainfall was just over eleven inches, the humidity and the dew points produce categories of “muggy,” “oppressive,” and “miserable,” nothing else all year long. In spite of the small amount of rain, the humidity produces jungle thick vegetation if not held in check. I found it livable, even bearable in the shade and thought if I ever were marooned on an island I would want it to be like Diego Garcia.
But it wasn’t deserted. The base had a gym, complete with racquetball and basketball courts, weight rooms with spas and saunas in the dressing rooms. There were enlisted, chief, and officer clubs, as well as a “seaman’s club” for the merchant marine. The Navy exchange was small but adequate. The exchange had pith helmets like the ones worn by the “Ramar of the Jungle” cast in the television series that ran for two years in the early 1950’s. In my first visit, I bought two pith helmets. I kept one and sent the other to my brother in Vermont. A number of the officers and crew of Yosemite purchased pith helmets as momentoes.
Diego Garcia is the largest and only inhabited island in the Chagos Atoll chain, which consists of approximately sixty islands. It has been a British Indian Ocean Territory. (BIOT) since 1965 when it was detached from being a part of the British colony of Mauritius. The local population, consisting largely of former slaves on the coconut plantation on the eastern side of the island, were forcefully deported to the Seychelles and Mauritius for the British to focus on the island being a forward military operating station for the Indian Ocean.
The British military maintained a presence with a unit of about thirty personnel as the United States Navy became the dominant presence on the island. A significant number of deployed USNS cargo ships were anchored there to provide immediate equipment and supplies to U.S. forces in any surprise conflict in the Mideast or other Indian Ocean areas, particularly in the Persian Gulf. The Navy also commissioned a “Naval Air Facility,” used primarily by the Air Force for long range bombing capability throughout the Indian Ocean.
Once Yosemite anchored in the middle of Diego Garcia’s lagoon, base personnel brought out a large barge to serve as our departure point from the accommodation ladder to the waiting liberty boats to take our crew and officers to the island.
I was a bit anxious again. It seemed I spent quite a bit of time being anxious. Liberty on Diego Garcia would be different than Rota or Majorca. To begin with, there were some Navy female personnel assigned to the Naval Station there, but very few. Our sailors would be going on liberty with just themselves, male and female. And there were no orphanages to attend to, no tours to occupy liberty time. The possibilities concerned me.
We were expecting to be there for almost three weeks, transit to Perth, Australia for liberty, then back to the atoll before a transit and short period anchored off Masirah, Oman.
* * *
Maureen was never off of my mind. One of the principals at Parron-Hall Office Interiors, Bob Long, where she was an account executive was also an excellent photographer. For a wedding/going away present, Maureen gave me some beautiful photos of her. One large one framed, which I hung on the after bulkhead of my office so I could look at it anytime I glanced up from my desk. It was the photo, Dina Weaver, the ship’s ombudsmen noticed Maureen looked like Susan Lucci, the long term star of “All My Children.”
I looked at that photo a lot. After all of my work had been put to bed, I would write her a letter, perhaps adding every night. Sometimes I would write just for me. Here is a poem I wrote and sent to her between Yosemite clearing the Suez and Diego Garcia:
To Maureen, the Beginning of an Epic Poem
Indian Ocean phosphorescence,
glowing wave in the night
awes me not,
i have seen this glow in other oceans,
while young sailors shout in delight
at their sighting the sparkling waves;
i, unamused, return to my stateroom
with better things to do
like dream visions that are real.
there should have been a diaphanous mist,
flowing about her
when she walked toward me
the first time
(mind, do not play tricks on me:
i desire to remember the moment
exactly as it was,
her dress a gossamer gown,
softly caressing the elegance of her body;
her hair curled and falling to her shoulders gracefully,
framing her delicate, fine yet soft features;
eyes, oh eyes that drew me in, took my breath,
suggested more than my mind could comprehend,
grasped my soul
told Scherazade’s thousand tales,
drawing me into a bottomless pit of emotion
before i knew emotion could have no end,
allowing me to float suspended in her beauty.
i was afraid to speak,
afraid i might fall from suspension,
might break the image before me;
then we got down to business;
what in god’s name did i think, i think;
perhaps suspicious of her beauty,
i made a joke.
did she notice i was nervous?
oh, little boy,
if you are merely making a furniture deal;
walk away happy with the thought
you will see her at least one more time.
i am deep into the Indian Ocean night;
i have learned to gauge the depth of the night
by the strength of the coffee;
now, the coffee is knock your socks off strong,
burnt grounds black;
the work seems endless;
the sea is infinite;
yet i smile
when i dream of her.
* * *
Before we had arrived in Diego Garcia, I decided to let Maureen know our schedule.
I hedged on rules about confidential material in a quick note to Maureen. I felt guilty in that I would be screaming mad, or at least fake being screaming mad if a junior officer or sailor had divulged such information to a spouse, but I also knew from experience, ship’s schedules, although confidential information, were quickly available to just about everybody. I overcame my guilt when I thought our schedule was set. I sent it to Maureen with trepidation:
Around the world seems to be a lost hope. Here’s the schedule as we know it:
14-24 Oct: Diego Garcia
25 Oct– 2 Nov: Transit to Perth
3-7 Nov – Perth, Australia
8-16 Nov – Transit to Diego Garcia
17 Nov – 7 Dec: Diego Garcia
7-12 Dec – Transit to Masirah, Oman
13-25 Dec – Masirah, Oman (anchorage, no liberty)
26-31 Dec – Transit to Diego Garcia
1-10 Jan – Transit to Mombasa, Kenya
11-17 Jan – Mombassa, Kenya
18-23 Jan – En route to North Arabian Sea
29 Jan-9 Feb – Ops North Arabian Sea (i’m guessing we’ll be at anchorage in Karachi, Pakistan with some liberty)
10 Feb-21 Mar – En route Mayport (Best bet is one stop in the Western Mediterranean: we plan to ask for Malaga, Spain. If we could stop in the eastern Med, it would most likely be Athens or Korfu, Greece.
* * *
The first morning after arriving, we had our “turnover” with the USS Cape Cod (AD 43). It was very short. The tender we were relieving had not had one period of maintenance for a Navy ship. We were appalled. The thought of sitting at anchor in the lagoon with nothing to do was not a comforting thought. Captain Boyle thought of a way to make us more effective and was determined to make it happen. He forwarded his proposal to Admiral Butcher, our immediate operating superior and the Commander, Task Force 76, and Admiral Hogg, Commander 7th Fleet, the senior Navy officer for operations in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean
Captain Boyle recommended Yosemite, rather than remaining in Diego Garcia except for one December week off of Oman and the liberty trip to Perth Australia, sail immediately to anchorage off Masirah, Oman and provide maintenance and repair services to ships of Battle Group Alfa, the USS Ranger (CV 61) carrier group for the bulk of our time in the Indian Ocean.
The chain of command realized Captain Boyle’s idea had merit and ordered Yosemite to get underway and head to an anchorage off the island of Masirah, Oman much earlier than scheduled.
The problem the captain had identified was distance. Nearly all, if not all U.S. combatants were operating in the North Arabian Sea or in the Persian Gulf, a distance of over 2,000 miles from Diego Garcia. For a ship to receive maintenance and repair services, she had to transit that distance twice to get to and from Diego Garcia, over 4,000 miles. That’s over ten days. Adding the repair availability, normally two weeks back in the states, would make a ship unavailable to meet operational requirements for over three weeks.
Going to anchorage off the island and staying there until Christmas made good sense. Compared to Diego Garcia, Masirah is much closer to the primary operation areas of U.S. forces. A ship could reach Yosemite within a day of being on station, sometimes less. Since Yosemite would be at anchor, essentially at sea, with no liberty, time for services to be completed could be compressed into much shorter periods. Such a move would allow Yosemite to be much more effective in accomplishing her mission, i.e. providing support services to combatants in a forward deployed area.