Oliver Semmes recalls his training tours at Guantánamo, and seeing the facilities on the base develop over time.
The first time I entered Guantánamo Bay was in or around the summer of 1949 on a Navy destroyer named the “Samuel B. Roberts.” Then in 1955, again in 1956, 1957, 1958, and 1967. Principally I was in aviator. In the squadron we had administrative duties. I believe I was ordinance officer at the time. But principally I was flying. We had to keep our qualifications up, so we were constantly under training. Of course, while we were in GTMO, on a typical day we were flying three hops. These were generally preceded by an hour long briefing and then a debriefing. For an hour flight, you probably had two hours of overhead time.
We were at Leward Point. The first trip I made to GTMO was in January 1955. It was pretty rudimentary. You had an 8,000 foot runway and buildings that had been built decades ago. We lived in huts, and it was not classy. But there was a good runway, and that was all we needed.
We would go over to McCalla Field, which was across the Bay, for recreation. Anything from bingo to just going to the old club. The next time I went they had pretty nice quarters. As time went on it just got more livable. But it was always a great operating environment. Of course that is what we were doing. And even in the hot of summer when we had no air conditions you could see that it had no extremes in comfort. It was always bearable.
That was when they has the Cactus Curtain, a ring of cacti that went around the base that the Cubans had planted for security to keep the Cubans out of the base.
It got progressively worse, the first time that I went there as an aviator there was pretty much a free flow in and out of Cuba. In fact the commanding officer took a couple of us up to a nearly town on the water and we had dinner. A very friendly atmosphere. There was never any fear of anything untoward. And you couldn’t do that now, of course. Mid-1958 is when things started getting really tough, when Castro was taking over. There was little hope for negotiation. Our security tightened.
There is kind of a saying among naval aviators that you can’t make a right hand turn, because your patterns are always left handed. Well when Castro took over we couldn’t be in any part of Cuba. So if we went to the East, if we made a left turn, you would be over Cuban territory. And they were just on the other side of the fence. So you had to come in and make a right hand turn, and it felt like having vertigo.
When we were flying we got as much time doing operations as we could. In a typical day you would get up, have breakfast. And you would catch a carry-on down to the flight line. And depending on what your jobs were, you would perform them, often a lot of administrative things to do. Of course the overriding thing was the flight schedule. We tried to get as much flight time in as we could so that by the time that the day was over you would go back up to the BOQ and have your dinner, sit outside, tell stories, and watch the air ops if there were any.
I enjoyed it. The weather was generally great. It was a good operational atmosphere. One thing I liked about my first tour, particularly, was the rudimentary, bare-bone facilities. The old wooden hangers even were attractive. Because you just enjoyed your surroundings. We stayed in the closet huts. I loved that, you’re laying right there next to nature.