We Called it Gitmo

We Called it Gitmo

Leo Lawton

Of course, I had heard of a country called Cuba. Did I know anything about it? Not much! Then came the Missile Crisis of 1962 and all the world became aware of Cuba. I was attached to VF-174, the Hell Razors, a Navy Fighter Squadron located at Jacksonville, Florida at that time. The crisis had hardly came to an end when I got orders to VU-10 attached to some place called Guantanamo Bay, Cuba for a one year tour of duty. Where was that, and how did you get there?

On July 19, 1963 which was my twenty-fifth birthday, I left my wife Nora and Wayne our six months old first born at her parent’s dairy farm in Northern New York, and drove to Norfolk, Virginia for further transfer to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I had recently purchased a 1961 Chevrolet Biscayne, and I immediately arranged for its transportation to Cuba. I sold it and wouldn’t be surprised if it is still being driven there. After about three weeks attached to a transient barracks I was ordered aboard a flight to Cuba and arrived there later that same day, in early August.

After my arrival at Gitmo I immediately extended my tour of duty from one to two years to meet the requirement for my family to be allowed to follow me. Being an AM1, from my arrival date until November, I lived in an enlisted barracks. That November of 1963 with eight years in the Navy I was initiated as a Chief Petty Officer acting appointment. My rating was AMSCA. At that time all Chief Appointments were acting for one year. Within that year the acting appointments were abolished and I became an AMSC. I had lived in the Chief’s barracks about a week when I heard the news that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated. The following month my wife and son arrived for a joyous reunion at our newly assigned housing unit Granadillo Circle Unit 79 apartment B (GC 79 B).

In October 1963 we had a hurricane that was memorable. It came in from the east as they all do and we battened down the hatches, and were ready for it. After a reasonable length of time it went on by heading west and we started getting back to normal. About that time it turned 180º and swept back toward us so we went into storm watch again. It passed on by going east that time which was nearly unheard of previous to that. Once more we started preparing to get back to a normal status. Once more the hurricane turned 180º and headed back toward us, and sure enough it hit us for the third time before heading off west and staying that way.

Four months later in February 1964 the Cuban Government, under Fidel Castro, cut off the water supply to our Base. All dependent arrivals were suspended until further notice. Dependents already at Guantanamo were allowed to stay, but we lived under the constant shadow that soon our loved ones would be leaving while we remained. All water was being brought into the Base by tanker ships. All that summer I noted the dwindling number of dependents, and wondered how much longer would it be before all remaining dependents would be notified of their departure. In the meantime the desalinization plant was being built right before our eyes, but we were skeptical that it would be operational soon enough to make a difference, or whether it would even work when finished. As I remember there were three experimental plants to choose from and this one had been selected, but still it was experimental. At any rate my first six months of duty at Gitmo were certainly memorable.

As VU-10 was attached to Leeward Point, and as I was on the night shift, every afternoon I drove the car to the ferry dock and caught the 1500 ferry to Leeward Point. This was the first run of the day for the evening ferry crew. They continued making this hourly round trip until leaving Leeward Point at 2330, and arriving Mainside about midnight. At the time I was the only person that rode that 1500 ferry to Leeward each and every day on a regular basis. My first, self appointed task, each afternoon was to make the crew their first pot of coffee, and I got the first cup to drink on my trip across. At that time there were three ferries, each with their own crew. I believe they were on five day shifts. The first crew was days, the second was nights, and the third was off. At the end of the five day shift, the day crew went to nights, the night crew was off, and the off crew came on days.

Some days there was not room enough to get my car on the ferry as the people living on Leeward Point had boarding priority over Mainsiders. On those days I walked aboard and caught a ride to the hangar upon arriving at Leeward. I then bought a new Lambretta motor scooter and rode it back and forth as there was always room for them on the ferry. Often I was the only person riding the last ferry back to Mainside at night. If this were the case then the crew would head straight for their berth instead of the dock. Upon arriving there they would help me lift my scooter over the side onto the pier and we all got home a little faster.

Our Leap Year baby daughter Wanda was born at the Naval Hospital February 29, 1964. When my son had been born in Florida in December 1962 I wrote my parents that we had a little Wayne in Florida that day but we didn’t get very wet. When Wanda was born I wrote them that we had a baby daughter Wanda, but she couldn’t wanda far as there was a fence all around the place. My mother enjoyed my little play on words, and kept those letters until she passed away.

By May of 1964 I had gotten tired of riding the ferry on a daily basis and applied for housing on Leeward Point. This was granted on Jun 22, and my family moved across the Bay to LP 552 B. We were now officially Leeward Pointers. I still have a Special Identification Pass certifying that I was a bonafide resident of Leeward Point Field, Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and as such entitled to certain privileges commensurate with this remote location. On the back is listed Commissary “Head of The Line” privileges at the check-out counter to facilitate ferry connections, and also priority to load a privately owned vehicle aboard the Naval Air Station LCU for urgent trips to the Commissary, Hospital, or Dispensary. A Leeward Pointer’s vehicle could always be told by the little wheels under the back end to facilitate ferry boarding.

At this time the squadron consisted of several F8U Crusaders, several prop aircraft that I can’t remember the type, and some drones which I think were KD2R or something very close to that. Historians can give those facts. I was there mainly because of my Crusader experience. I had spent over 3 years in VF-174 which was the training squadron for all personnel going to all other F8 squadrons on the East Coast. When it was decided to attach F8’s to VU-10 I’m sure the Navy looked for people with Crusader experience and I had been due for orders. At some point VU-10 (Utility) had it’s designation changed to VC-10 (Composite) to better reflect the fact it had several types of aircraft.

During 1964 I took advantage of a cross-country hop to Plattsburgh, New York. Incredibly no one wanted to go and the seat would be empty. As it was somewhat near to my parent’s, and my wife’s parent’s homes I managed to see them. I think I was there parts of two days on a weekend.

In 1965 my wife and I decided to ask for another one year extension of duty at Gitmo. We then further decided to take leave to go show off our nearly two year old daughter that our parents had never met. We flew out of Cuba on a scheduled MATS flight to Norfolk, Virginia. From there we flew commercial to our parent’s homes in Northern New York. We remained there visiting for a month or so, and then it was time to return to Norfolk for a ride back to Gitmo. Upon our arrival in Norfolk we checked into a motel about five miles from the Base. The next morning I went to the MATS terminal to check on available transportation back to Gitmo. There was nothing available and I was told to check back the next day, which I did. This went on for several days while we were cooped up in a motel room eating in a restaurant within walking distance. Each day I caught a taxi to the MATS terminal to find there were no seats available. While there on one occasion I met a pilot I knew, and we struck up a conversation. He mentioned that he was flying a mail plane into Gitmo that afternoon. I asked if there were any way I could get my family on it, and he informed me there were no facilities for passengers on board. I told him that we were nearly desperate after many days of living in a motel, eating in restaurants, and using taxis. He relented and told me if my family was at a certain place at a certain time we could ride in the aircraft, and if he got to Cuba we would too. We agreed, we were there, and we sat on mail sacks back to Gitmo. We were awfully glad there was at least one understanding person in the Navy.

At that time the Navy Exchange system had vending machines scattered through the barracks and hangar areas. They advertised for someone to work part time servicing these machines. As I worked nights I often was searching for something to do to occupy my daylight hours so I took the job. There were beer and soda machines, as well as canned food dispensers. Also there were some shrimp bait dispensers at the fishing dock near where the ferry dock was. For several months I continued to fill these machines and remove the coins from them. Then I had to take them home where my wife counted and rolled them for turning in to the Navy Exchange system.

At the same time the Navy Exchange system was looking for someone to run a laundry pick-up and delivery room. I also took that job. About two afternoons a week I opened a little room in the Marine barracks. Here laundry was dropped off and picked up after it’s return from the base laundry Mainside. This was only for a couple of hours each time so was not very time consuming. This little laundry room was located off the side of a recreation room with pool tables. My son Wayne would often go there with me and play pool with the Marines. I suppose many of them had sons or little brothers back home as Wayne sure had lots of attention while there.

While servicing the bait dispensers at the fishing gear locker I sometimes noted people catching fish. This seemed rather interesting so I took up fishing too. I bought a rod and a Mitchell 300 reel and rigged up my scooter so I could carry it at all times. Often when I got done with my Navy duties near midnight, I would go down to the pier and fish until morning. I caught many red snapper and stripers off of that pier.

I bought a movie camera while there and sometimes went out on the cliffs near St Nicolas Point and filmed Iguanas. They always fascinated me. They seem to be from a different time and place like dinosaurs or dragons. Once in a while I could sneak up within just a few feet of one that was sunning himself on some ledge. I remember one old fellow that I estimated to be very close to four feet long.

Some time during 1964 I got tired of working nights and asked to be assigned to a daytime billet. I was brought to days and became the Line Chief. I can’t remember what time of the year it was now, but one day my wife called to inform me that huge spiders were crawling up and down the window screens and she was afraid one might get in and harm the baby in some manner. I was rather busy and asked her to describe them, but she was unable to do so. She didn’t want to look at them. Finally I told her I would come home for a few moments to deal with the situation. What she was seeing was an infestation of blue crabs which I suppose must come ashore on a yearly breeding cycle. I can remember them being on the streets by the thousands when I drove to the hangar.

I bought a 1958 International Travelall van type vehicle from a fellow Chief named Donald Downer and his wife Joan. I sold it before leaving Gitmo. Is it still there and in use? When I was there, there were lots of older model cars there dating back into the thirties and forties.

Another thing that is undoubtedly gone now is the trailer park. There were a very limited number of small livable trailers on the base. They were owned by individuals and bought and sold as such. It was the only way to beat the waiting list for housing that I knew of. If one came up for sale it could be bought, and your family could be approved for immediate entry, but they didn’t change hands very often.