Remembering Gitmo

Posted on June 4, 2012


By now it seems everyone in America has heard of “Gitmo,” slang for the U. S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

We need to listen to a few bars of the iconic song Guantanamera which every Cuban can hum and sing. The lyrics were composed from poems by Jose Martí, the nineteenth century hero who gave his life in the fight for Cuban independence, and the song, haunting and lilting, is pure Cuba.

Try guantanamera and listen to it as you read below.

It is not only a paean to liberty, but a love story about a man and a girl, from Guantanamo, hence guantanamera. It is about Martí’s love of his island and desire for her freedom, but also about tropical nights and guitars and dancing and embraces.

It is a song that resonates with Cubans and those who love the island and its people.

And reading about Gitmo in the news, now rocking to the trials of Islamic terrorists accused of masterminding the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, I remembered my first visit to the island.

I was a Lieutenant (j.g.), the Weapons Officer on the USS Donner (LSD 20) on a short cruise in the Caribbean for refresher training at Gitmo after three months in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyards.

We were a rusty crew who needed intense work to get us up to fighting trim, and so it was off to Gitmo where clear skies and deep waters offered perfect conditions for working day in and day out.

Philly in the summertime was fun for Navy types, lots of girls, cool bars in south Philadelphia with cold beer.

Gitmo was hot and sweaty. We were up before dawn and didn’t return to the wide deep harbor until after dark. I actually don’t remember meeting a single Cuban while there, but we were not there to court guantanameras.

We spent every day in some form of General Quarters, shooting drones and slow moving targets pulled by seemingly even slower moving aircraft, defending ourselves against real and phantom submarines, launching landing craft, recovering landing craft, launching helicopters, recovering helicopters, and then up again at 4 in the morning to be underway before dawn for another round of General Quarters to do it all over again.

I began to hate the tweet of the boatswain’s pipe calling us to battle stations. By the end of three weeks, we could do this crap in our sleep. And that was the point of refresher training.

From Cuba we steamed to Port au Prince, Haiti for a port of call that left me astonished.

“The whole of Haiti,” I wrote in my journal in October of 1965, “excluding a minuscule segment, is poverty-stricken beyond belief. We brought some people-to-people stuff in [humanitarian assistance in today’s jargon] but the dent it made was nil at best.”

Papa Doc Duvalier had been ruling Haiti with an iron fist since 1957 and the U. S. had been trying to isolate and weaken his hold on this impoverished land. One could hardly call it a “nation” as we understand that word, then or today. If anything, I suspect political scientists and nation watchers would call it a “failed state.”

I knew very little about Haiti other than Voodoo was big on the island, the Tonton Macoute were Papa Doc’s bullies and thugs, and this was a place like no other I’d seen.

When we neared Port au Prince the night before we reached port, steaming along the dark coast, I remembered leaning on the rail late at night, and hearing the distant beating of drums from the dark mountains.

My imagination went into overtime. Some occult ceremony was being celebrated, perhaps an animal sacrificed by the light of a fire somewhere in those dark mountains, the blood drained and the devil was at play.

The next morning we slowly steamed into the harbor and tied up at a pier of this tropical capital.

“From our clean decks and spotless living quarters,” I continued, through binoculars, “we could see the men and women and children wander out of their thatched straw and clapboard hovels, to urinate and defecate with their animals in the yards, porches or whatever the squalid open spaces around their shelters can be called.”

I was stunned, probably as much by the contrast of life aboard a modern American warship and what I was seeing, as by the squalor itself. Could people really live like this?

When we went on shore leave we were instructed to wear our summer whites. Normally officers went on “shore leave” in civilian attire, while the enlisted men went on “liberty” in uniform.

For some reason, perhaps to call attention to our presence as the first U. S. Navy ship to visit Haiti in years, perhaps to distinguish us as naval officers, perhaps to afford us some protection of sorts, we went into town and into the surrounding neighborhoods of Port-Au-Prince in summer whites.
They were very white, comfortable, good looking uniforms, open necked shirts, short sleeves, heavily starched trousers, and some discrete insignia to identify you as an officer and a member of the U. S. Navy. Our caps were regulation white as well, with the gold and silver naval officer’s seal across the front. You couldn’t miss us in uniform.

We went ashore and toured a “rum” factory, tasted the local cuisine, rode in taxis through the tropical night air, listening to and smelling the intoxicating sounds and aromas of this port city, so exotic to our seemingly sterile existence, so close to the earth, given to rhythms and drumbeats and lights and shadows foreign to a warship.

I had read a little about Voodoo, a transplanted African religion practiced in Haiti, but aside from some James Bond films, and the eerie sense that drumbeats in the night somehow meant Voodoo rituals in practice, I didn’t know a lot more.

Part of our visit was to cultivate good diplomatic relations, so when we went ashore, starched, white and golden in our uniforms, “we were entertained royally by the small American establishment” at the U. S. Embassy, always a little piece of home and Americana in all the foreign capitals of the world, except of course those we had broken relations with, such as Cuba, North Korea, etc.

I never returned to Haiti or Gitmo in person.. Over the years I have visited other parts of Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola, with Haiti.

In fact, my first visit to the Dominican Republic was earlier in the spring of that same year, when we were steaming offshore with a UDT team en route to a U. S. invasion of that country. But that’s a story for another day.

Sometimes one has to leave home, to travel, to get out of your comfort zone to see your own world better. Gitmo, but especially Port au Prince, knocked on my comfortable world with a loud rap on my consciousness.

Posted in: History