NAVAL AIR STATION - WAR YEARS
The need for a naval air station at Guantanamo Bay had been recognized by the Hepburn Board which visited the area in 1938 and recognized the advantages of the locale for aviation. A letter dated 18 June 1940 to the Secretary of the Navy from RADM J. H. Towers, USN, then Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, submitted the basic plan which culminated in the building of the air station as part of the general development of the Naval Operating Base.
In order to construct the air station in the best locality, it was necessary to move the Marine Corps facilities located on Fisherman's Point. To do this work a contract was awarded to the Frederick Snare Corporation of New York City for the construction of a new Marine area and the building of three asphalt runways, taxiways, warming up platforms, storage facilities, landplane hangar, utility building, administration and operations buildings, magazines, officers' and non-commissioned officers' quarters, barracks, mess hall, roads, walks, services and essential landscaping; and at the seaplane base, a concrete parking area, two seaplane ramps, and a field hangar.
Unfortunately, the topography of the area and previous construction for the Naval Station did not permit the layout of an orderly and well-planned air station. As construction of new facilities for the Naval Station proceed (which construction was added to the original contract with the Frederick Snare Corporation), the Naval Air Station inherited several old Naval Station facilities-the boat house, enlisted men's barracks, mess hall, bake shop, and the old "grass shack" beer garden on Corinaso Point. These were all in a dilapidated condition and required extensive repairs but could be used and helped the Naval Air Station to meet the needs of the emergency. The contracted projects, together with an endless number of projects accomplished by the Pubic Works Department in patching up and converting old buildings, enabled the Naval Air Station to struggle through the peak of its wartime activity. Improvising was necessary in every line of activity; as an example, storage space throughout the Base was at a premium and an old corral south of McCalla Hill was turned into a lumber storage yards there was a great need for barracks to house native employees of the Naval Air Station, contractor's barracks used during the construction of McCalla Hill Field were moved from their location at the "Rancho Chico" at the south end of McCalla Hill and installed in the valley between the laundry building and the torpedo work shop.
The Naval Air Station was officially established on 1 February 1941, and became a command activity of the Naval Operating Base when the Base was established on 1 April 1941. It is interesting to note that on the date of establishment the only naval personnel actually attached to the Naval Air Station were the Commanding Officer, CDR George Leo Campo, USN; and LT John T. Workman, USN. Also, at the time the construction of the Naval Air Station had in some respects hardly more than begun, and it was not until the first of July that the Air Station received its first airplane, a JRF-5.
The following account, written by CDR Compo, will serve to illustrate the trials and tribulations encountered by the people concerned with such early life aboard the station:
"We were in Corpus Christi, Texas, when the news came that I was to be transferred to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as Commanding Officer of the Naval Air Station there�We packed hurriedly and drove to Miami�From Miami we sailed to Havana and drove through Cuba, arriving at Santiago at nine one morning. There the road ended. We managed to get passage for the car on a "Beer Boat" that went to the Naval Station, and loaded it down with all manner of baggage that we stuck in the car at the last moment. We got aboard a little Cuban train with various and sundry people, fruit and odd chickens. We must have looked as queer to the Cubans as they did to us.
"It took all day to go forty miles, and we changed trains three times. Finally, our last train arrived at Boqueron where LT Workman met us. We asked eagerly about the quarters, as we were under the impression that the house was all ready for us. LT Workman looked rather strange, and said that our house was not quite ready (a slight under-statement, for we didn't move in until May) but he assured us we would have a place to live-the first house to be finished on the Air Station.
"Well, it was No.13-a very nice house, eventually, but it had just been painted that very day, and there was no sink in the kitchen-or ice box or stove. We had four single beds (there were five of us), three wicker chairs and a small settee, a dining room table, and six chairs. We had no bureaus, no hooks, no hangers of any kind. The house had no windows, only jalousies. We borrowed dishes and a few cooking utensils�
"Naturally we had been prepared for the tropics and had brought very few coats or other warm clothing. That night we went to the officers' club for dinner, and almost froze- most unusual weather, of course�Thus was started our life at Naval Air Station, Guantanamo.
Eventually the cold spell let up and we were more comfortable, but those first days at Guantanamo required moments of rare initiative and invention. From the commissary we bought many canned things, but a can opener was unobtainable. We tried a primitive method of using a nail and hammer, but with little success. At length we succeeded in borrowing a can opener from the chaplain, and we went running back and forth whenever we needed to open anything. We managed to get some orange crates from the commissary, and they made very good bedside tables. We kept our clothes in suit-cases in the closets, we had no bureaus. We hung or draped our other clothes over the clothes pole in the closets. There were no stores-nowhere to buy anything in stock at that time. I remember that on our first trip to the commissary, the commissary steward told us with great triumph that they had lettuce for the first time in four months and lamb for the first time in six months. We were not as impressed as we learned to be afterwards.
New Quarters Built
"Quarters on the Air Station were being built quite rapidly. The Cuban workmen started at six thirty, and ... this made late sleeping rather a problem.... All you had to do was to try to change your clothes and several workmen would have to work on the shower, or perform some other immediate inside work.
"It was really quite a lot of fun when we got used to it. The scarcity of furniture simplified the cleaning problem. This was fortunate, since the houses had no grass around them, and a fine brown dust. settled continuously over everything. . . .
"After three months we moved into our house. By that time our things had arrived, and we were living quite respectably. For a while we had a mysterious set of red leather furniture in the living room, but finally some frantic officer discovered it-it belonged to a radio station and they had been searching for it for months . . . After they had graded the grounds and put many a load of dirt around (most of which came into the house), the grass and landscaping were started. As soon as the grass was growing nicely and the road in back of the house finished, they decided to drill and put in an underground conduit for the lights. Cutting through the hard coral was quite a task, and the noise was unbelievable. At last, however, everything was finished.
"Life was idyllic in the days before the war. At first there was a little confusion because no one seemed to realize that this was a genuine Naval Air Station. . . . However that was soon adjusted amicably. There were always people coming in on planes and ships. We kept an emergency food shelf with canned ham, etc., because we never knew whether we would have five extra for dinner, luncheon, or breakfast, or a last minute cocktail party. It was fun, however, and we saw many of our friends and made many new ones. The climate proved to be perfect. We owned several horses and there were marvelous bridle paths all over the station. There was a nice tennis court in back of the quarters. Of course, the shopping was limited for the women, but perhaps that was just as well. There was great excitement when anything came in at the Ship's Service Store, and the women usually bought it, whether they needed it or not. It was amazing to realize the importance of a spool of thread or some other simple thing that we take for granted in the States.
"A vegetable garden was started and flowers were blooming when the war came. After the 7th, we had total black-out for about two weeks. That was rather trying but a few close neighbors used to gather at our quarters, and we would sit in the dark and sing, or sit outside and look at the stars. We were very glad, however, when the black-out was relaxed enough to permit movies again.
"When the decision was made to evacuate the families, it was a sad group of women and children who left the station. But they carried with them memories of interesting living, on a station where pleasures were relatively simple, perhaps, but where life as a whole was ideal."
According to the records, a goodly portion of the correspondence emanating from the Naval Air Station during the spring of 1941 was requests for personnel needed to organize and man the station to perform its mission-that of service to the Fleet. On 24 March 1941 the first draft of seven enlisted personnel reported for duty. From that date on, officers and men were gradually added to the complement until they reached a peak of 47 officers and 486 men in July 1944.
The outbreak of war found the Naval Air Station still in the formative stage and quite unprepared to perform the many duties then placed on it. From March until December 1941 German submarines had been stationed mainly in the north and central Atlantic Ocean. Immediately following the United States' entry into the war, the U-boats were concentrated along the east coast of the United States and in the Caribbean where throughout the first six months of 1942 they preyed on Allied shipping with nearly disastrous results. It was then that the urgency of establishing air bases in the Caribbean became nakedly apparent, although at first these bases were sadly lacking in airplanes, equipment and personnel needed to combat the submarine menace. However, the Naval Air Station at Guantanamo Bay had been established and, although not ideally supplied, had some facilities to offer for anti-submarine warfare.
Air Stations Patrols
The Air Station furnished continuous sweep flights, patrolled the harbor entrance and approaches, escorted surface vessels and located survivors of torpedoed ships. For this work the Air Station had one JRF-5 and one N3N-2, both unarmed, and two J2F planes which could be fitted with depth bombs and one free machine gun each. One Army F-2 photographic plane was also based here.
Initial construction of the Air Station was practically completed in the summer of 1942, at which time the activities of the Air Station and the Fleet Air Detachment based thereon began to increase rapidly. As more and more personnel came to the Station, the housing and messing problem became acute and all sorts of innovations were necessary. The dilapidated enlisted men's barracks (inherited from the Naval Station) were reconditioned; the old Marine laundry building at the foot of McCalla Hill was converted into a barracks. Other old buildings, augmented by Homoja huts, were used to provide living space whereever possible on Corinaso Point. The Air Station was also given use of some of the Naval Station welfare houses for additional quarters for enlisted men. The problem of accommodating personnel was further aggravated by crews on transient aircraft and transports remaining overnight. Frequently more than fifty transient officers had to be accommodated, with a peak load of seventy-six officers one night.
In October 1943 the Naval Air Station, Banana River, Florida, commenced operating a daily PBM seaplane training flight to Guantanamo, the plane remaining overnight and returning the following day. In December 1943 the Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, Florida, also commenced sending training flights of six to eight PBY's to this Station about twice weekly, these planes also remaining overnight. Transient, N.A.T.S., and training flights coupled with the operations of the Fleet Air Detachment, made the Station a busy one.
Other Air Stations
The Naval Air Stations at Little Goat Island, Jamaica, and at Great Exuma, Bahamas, should be mentioned in connection with the Air Station at Guantanamo Bay, although they were at first under the command of Commander, Guantanamo Sector, Caribbean Sea Frontier (the Commandant of the Naval Operating Base).
Little Goat Island, Portland Bight, Jamaica, BWI, was the first of the bases leased by the United States from Great Britain, and on 4 April 1941 a group of U. S. Marines took possession in the name of our government. The air station there was constructed by the Frederick Snare Corporation under Contract Number NOy-4162. By February 1942 the construction was completed and Little Goat Island was established as a Naval Air field, effective 1 March 1942. The mission of the Air Field (redesignated as an Air Station in August 1942) was to maintain and operate a base for naval aircraft units, providing housing, messing, berthing, operation, supply, and utility repairs. These missions it fulfilled until its duties began to diminish in late 1943. Due to lack of use the Naval Air Station on Little Goat Island was redesignated a Naval Auxiliary Air Facility on 1 January. 1944 and placed under the cognizance of the Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay. The air field was finally disestablished on 1 September 1944.
Naval Air Station, Great Exuma, Bahamas, was another of the naval activities constructed on British territory to provide a base for the operation of aircraft. It was constructed also under contract NOy-4162 by the Frederick Snare Corporation and was completed in the summer of 1942. Operation began in September 1942 and both defensive and offensive missions were carried out against submarines in the area.
This Air Station was very active until the submarine menace declined; then the station was designated a Naval Auxiliary Air Facility under the command of the Naval Air Station, Guantanamo Bay, on 25 September 1944.
The Air Station's utility aircraft conducted a wide variety of operations, one of the principal being an aerial photographic survey covering a large portion of eastern Cuba for the Metals Reserve Corporation. This was carried out during 1942 and 1943. Daily flights were made to nearby Cuban cities and ports and, at less frequent intervals, to Kingston and Port-au-Prince. In the fall of 1943 the air Station received a PBM seaplane which was converted to a transport plane and served a very useful purpose in carrying passengers on leave or on orders between Guantanamo Bay and Miami. When the Anti-Aircraft Training Center was established at this Base in July 1941 the Air Station's utility planes provided all the aerial target towing, both day and night, until this service was taken over by a detachment from Utility Squadron Four.
The crowded condition of Guantanamo Bay in the early days of the war often made seaplane landings and takeoffs during daytime somewhat hazardous, and impossible to conduct at night with any degree of safety. A seaplane operating area was established early in 1943 by abolishing the row of anchorages on the southwest side of the bay and installing a seaplane range along the center line of anchorages. This seaplane operating areas when later established for use when required under different conditions.
Leeward Point Field must necessarily be considered in the history of the Air Station. Although it can be considered as one of the "onagain-off-again" facilities, nevertheless it afforded an excellent landplane operating area under better all-around wind conditions than are encountered at McCalla Hill Field. The Bureau of Aeronautics in 1939 decided to construct limited facilities at Leeward Point which would afford additional operating conditions for carrier aircraft, although no provisions were made for housing or subsisting personnel ashore.
Improvements At Leeward
Additional projects at Leeward Point Field under contract provided for the lengthening of the East-West runway to 6,000 feet and the construction of a 300-man galley and mess hall. Owing to the lack of housing, the field was practically useless except for handling transient aircraft when wind conditions at McCalla Hill Field were unfavorable. The need for officer and enlisted housing and additional facilities at Leeward Point Field to provide for the operation of a carrier group at the field was presented to the Bureau of Aeronautics in the fall of 1941, but with no result. Early in 1943 twenty victory huts were received and erected in groups of five, each group with its own toilet facilities, thus providing housing for enlisted personnel of a small aircraft unit. In anticipation of CVE or CVL Air Groups being suddenly ordered to Leeward Point Field, for training a barracks and mess hall building was converted into bachelor officers' quarters to accommodate 80 officers, and several boat slips were constructed alongside the dock. In 1943 the Chief of Naval Operations disapproved recommendations for further construction at this field stating that it was not at the time the policy to introduce additional aircraft or facilities into the Caribbean area.
In connection with the probable use of Leeward Point Field for carrier air group training, the need for outlying fields was recognized. Two sites, Los Canos and La Verdad, about twelve miles north of the Naval Air Station, were selected by the first Commanding Officer and in October 1942 the construction of these fields was authorized and the sum of $410,500 was appropriated. Plans called for construction of three paved runways 150' wide by 4,500' long at Los Canos and two of the same dimensions at La Verdad. Work on the Los Canos runways was commenced in 1942 but had not progressed very far when it was found that the soil at both fields would require a much more elaborate and costly foundation then had been originally planned. Since the probable use of these fields did not warrant expenditures of any additional funds, the La Verdad field was abandoned and all funds devoted to one runway at Los Canos. This was completed in November 1942, together with an additional project for fencing and erection of seven quonset huts. The field had very little use; repairs to the runway were continually required and on 1 September 1943 it was abandoned.
Wartime activities at the Air Station reached their peak during the Summer of 1943 and continued approximately at that level until the spring of 1944. In June 1944, a board from the Inspector General's Office, headed by Captain Foster, USNR, was sent to the Caribbean for the purpose of recommending reductions incident to the changed military situation. As a result, this station underwent drastic reductions during the summer of 1944 and was also involved in the decommissioning of the Naval Auxiliary Air Facility, Little Goat Island, Jamaica. During the fall of 1944 the supply, disbursing, commissary, and public works departments of the Air Station were consolidated with similar departments from other Base activities and organized as separate units under the Naval Operating Base. This caused a reduction in personnel and departments under the control of the Air Station. This was followed by turning over the station's aircraft maintenance and servicing facilities to Headquarters Squadron Eleven Detachment, and at the close of 1944 the Naval Air Station proper consisted of only housing, police and operational functions. The Air Station, as a consequence, was greatly reduced in personnel and instead of the hectic rush of former days in an endeavor to get things done by whatever means were available, the routine became similar to peacetime conditions.
Considering wartime operations this station had a very good record insofar as aircraft accidents are concerned, but was called upon to salvage a number of Fleet Air Detachment and training aircraft at considerable distances from the Base.
It can be said with truth and pride that the Naval Air Station met, in a highly creditable manner, every wartime contingency with which it was confronted.
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