Diego Garcia Jan – Mar 74

Op WESTWARD

M ONE (S Troop)- TSC500 Channelling Equipment

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This was not a full TSC500 deployment. We only took the Comms/MUX cabin, the Airlock cabin, and, I think, 2 x 50KVA generators. The Dish Assembly and the Control cabin remained in Worcester.

The American satcom site was being refurbed/upgraded and they just wanted to borrow the use of our modems etc. while theirs were being swapped out.

The only personnel I can remember are Ssgt Alan Osborne (S Tp Ssgt) as OC Detachment, myself and Colin Bowler (Sgt Techs), Stan Adams (Sgt ED), and, from the JNCO’s, Ian Plenderlieth and Brian Corcoran.

I can’t remember where we took off from but it was probably Mildenhall or Lakenheath. There we were, sat facing backwards in the cargo bay of a C141 Starlifter, trundling down the runway when, all of a sudden, they slammed the brakes on, the Flight Engineer jumped down from the flight deck and started kicking seven bells out of the exit hatch, and we were told to get the hell out as quickly as possible! I remember two things about that moment. The look on Ian Plenderlieth’s face as he frantically looked for the canvas bag holding classified documents that he had been entrusted with, and the cloud of smoke billowing out of the flight deck! (The flight deck was the equivalent of the first floor up in the air to us on the ‘ground floor’ and the Engineer didn’t even touch the ladder as he came down!).

We all assembled at the side of the runway and were picked up and whisked off in a couple of staff cars to some anonymous shed where we spent about an hour and a half just waiting. Then they put us back in the same plane to resume the journey!!

We broke the journey and overnighted in Tehran. (It was still called Persia and the Shah was still in situ.) We came across another anomaly in American military transit requirements there. Whoever had organised the trip had got the flight and the hotel reservations sorted but hadn’t realised that you had to specify every little detail, such as the transport from the airbase to the hotel! Alan Osborne had to do a lot of convincing with the American MAC guys (Military Airlift Command) that British Forces expected a door-to-door service from their movers and local transport was obligatory (and free).

They eventually found a bus for us and dumped us at this rather plush hotel in downtown Tehran. Very nice it was, too! I remember Brian Corcoran introducing me to Turkish coffee that night in the restaurant. Never had it before, got a whole mouthful of coffee grounds at the end. How he laughed!

There was an ex S Troop Tech Sgt living just outside the city. Mick Staples (?). He was tall, slim, dark hair. When he was in Worcester (69 -71 ??) he drove a lime green sports car, maybe a Sunbeam Alpine. Anyway, we wanted to pop in for a quick visit, but when Brian phoned him up we were advised not to leave the hotel after dark and definitely not to take a taxi out of the city into the countryside! Fair enough! So we just stayed where we were and examined the contents of the hotel bar.

Next morning, as we were waiting for the transport back to the airport, we were presented with the hotel bill. When I say we were presented with the bill, what I mean is that the hotel staff tried to give it to someone and were passed down the order of seniority. I didn’t duck in time! While I was explaining that the Americans would be paying for everything, the bus arrived, so in the confusion I just wrote ‘Chargeable to MAC’ across it and signed in a very flourishing style ‘D. Duck’. Then it was a quick zip out to the bus and away!

The arrival at Diego Garcia was amazing. Blue skies, blue sea, blinding white coral sand, a horseshoe shaped island covered with palm trees. Of course, there were problems getting through the US forces customs and baggage checks! Apparently, the Americans had never heard of the UK’s favourite pink antiseptic cream, Germolene. Took a lot of convincing that it wasn’t actually for stuffing up my nose.

On the island at that time were about 500 US Navy personnel from United States Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 4 (Seabees of John Wayne fame) and 30 British sailors manning the Comcen. Oh, and one United States Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt, who was the Battalion’s Weapon Training Officer. (Absolutely no women!)

We were made very welcome by the Yanks and the Sgts amongst us were even ‘promoted’ half a rank so we would be the equivalent of Chief Petty Officers and eligible to use the CPO’s Mess facilities, otherwise we would have had to bunk with the Petty Officers and JNCOs and eat in the cookhouse. Apparently the Island Commander, a Royal Navy Lt Commander, had insisted on this ‘upgrade’ so as not to affect morale!

The accommodation was in wooden, palm-roofed huts, right on the beach of the central lagoon. Amazing. The only fly in the ointment regarding this accommodation was that initially myself, Allan Osborne and Stan Adams were in a hut that was used by transit aircrew and they would be coming and going at all hours of the day or night. After a week or so Allan and I wangled bunks in other huts with regular occupants. Much better sleep after that. Stan Adams was quite happy to stay there for some reason!

One quirk of the Ablutions block was an open plan shower area and no doors on the toilet cubicles. The showers weren’t a problem but trying to evacuate your bowels while someone was having a shave straight in front of you or someone would wander past or stop and pass the time of day took some getting used to!

Comms-wise, everything went fairly well, apart from a few initial niggles. S Troop FoS, Mike Pankhurst and, I think, the Sqn OC, Maj Grundy, came out for a brief flying visit about 10 days in. After that, everything settled down to a casual routine of working in the mornings, free time for the rest of the day. The lads maintained a sleeping shift out at the Comms site and everything was fairly laid back.

For some reason the Island Commander didn’t think we were ‘blending in’ enough. Our ‘Jungle Greens’ and DMS were apparently too different to the rest of the uniforms on the island! Rolled down socks on top of DMS were too strange! Apart from getting issued a full complement of US Navy fatigues there was not a lot we could do about the clothing, but Alan Osborne got two pairs of USN Combat boots and 4 pairs of padded ‘combat’ socks for everybody. And very nice kit they were! The socks were brilliant in German winters and I didn’t have to finally dispose of the second pair of boots until 1998. Quality!

Fishing was the our main off duty relaxation, whether from ships anchored out in the lagoon, trolling from the back of landing craft ploughing up and down the lagoon, or beach fishing down the island where the main lagoon decanted into an inner lagoon. That was a great spot because there was a wall of coral across the neck between the two lagoons and when the tide came up the water rose in the outer lagoon and poured over the wall into the inner lagoon and all the fish in the inner lagoon congregated by the wall to grab anything that got swept over. The reverse happened when the tide went out and all the water in the inner lagoon poured back over the wall into the outer lagoon.

On one of the trolling trips Colin Bowler caught a huge tuna and ‘donated’ it to the Mess, so we had a ‘beer and barbeque do’ out on the patio that night. Many Brit bonus points earned that day!

The US Marine Gunnery Sergeant on the island (known as Gunny or The Gunny) was quite a character as well. Seen action in Vietnam etc etc, he was also in charge of the sports store and gave me a terrific fibreglass boat rod when Colin borrowed and broke the split cane rod I had brought with me. I have still got it to this day and it has caught some pretty good fish over the intervening years!

But the Gunny had a hatred, or fear, of sharks for some reason. One day, down at ‘The Neck’ between the two lagoons he caught a 4ft one and proceeded to flatten its head with a hammer until he was sure it was dead. We carried on fishing for an hour or so and the tide was rising up over the shelf we were standing on until we were actually standing in about 6” of water. There was a sudden splashing noise behind us and the ‘dead’ shark was trying to get back into the lagoon. Trouble was, Gunny was in its way. Sharky wasn’t going to stop. Last seen, Gunny had thrown his rod in the air and was high-stepping it up the beach. Never saw anybody else move that fast all the time we were there!

Another time, we got permission to visit the abandoned settlement on the other side of the atoll. That was quite a depressing visit, seeing the derelict homes of people who had been forced off an island paradise to make way for a strategic base occupied by people from the other side of the planet. That area was normally off limits to all personnel and treated as a nature reserve, but it is probably now under ten feet of concrete.

On that visit, we also came across the wreck of a Catalina flying boat, abandoned at the water’s edge. Don’t know the story of it, how old it was, when or why it crashed.

Speaking of nature reserves, the wildlife on the island was quite interesting. Apart from the rats, there were herds of donkeys roaming wild, descended from the animals the locals had to abandon. These also figure on the island plaques. Walking from the accommodation through the coconut palm groves, you could always see huge land crabs, or ‘Coconut Crabs’ up the trees, glowering at you as you went passed. They could reach over 12” long in the body and the Yanks used to pickle them in Avgas for a couple of weeks, then dry them out, lacquer them, and take them home as souvenirs. Also nesting in the trees were Frigate birds. I had seen them on the telly before but never appreciated exactly how big they were! They were quite aggressive and would dive-bomb anyone walking under their trees. I never actually got hit myself but there were tales of people having to go to the med centre to get stitched up after a particularly persistent attack.

The only casualty I can remember from the trip was Stan Adams. We were in the mess one afternoon and the barman was delivering another round. He threw a can of beer over the bar but Stan wasn’t really paying attention and, thinking it was an empty can, he tried to head it back. It was a proper tin can, not a modern lightweight aluminium one, and the rim at the top carved a nice, deep gouge in Stan’s head. Oops! I carted him off to the Med Centre to get him sewn up and then we went back to the mess and carried on the motion! Unfortunately, an accident report was filed with the Island Commander and Alan Osborne had to try and calm the waters and convince him it was a genuine accident and not the result of some drunken escapade!

One other memorable character for me was SCPO Roger Smiley. Also a Vietnam vet, he worked on the rock factory that produced the crushed coral for the road and airfield construction. They would blow the coral up at low tide, (Yes, I know. Not very eco-friendly) drag it up into huge mills, grind it up and make huge hills of the stuff for the construction crews to haul it away. One night, after a few beers, Roger decided to show me around his domain and we ended up on an extremely large bulldozer ‘straightening up’ one of these huge piles. I had never been on a bulldozer, or any other sort of tracked vehicle, before and certainly never been at an angle in excess of 45 degrees going round the side of a mountain. It was a good job I went to the loo before we set off!

The senior rank in the Mess was Master Chief Petty Officer Santana, a short, no-nonsense guy of Mexican or Puerto Rican ancestry. A nice bloke, but you knew he was in charge! When we left, it was him that presented us with commemorative plaques. In fact, with only one exception, every American I met there was friendly, welcoming and a pleasure to know. (I have friends and family in America these days and I think I can say the same about them. Individually, Americans can be terrific people. It is only when they get together as a nation that it all falls apart. IMHO)

While we were there, the Brit sailors were always moaning that they didn’t have their own club, so Alan Osborne found an unused hut, got power laid on and organised us in our time off to get it sorted out for them. We cleaned it out, and installed lighting and power sockets. Alan also scrounged up a couple of big chest freezers and some tables and chairs from some deeply secret warehouse. The Yank CPA equivalent came and gave it the once over for a safety inspection, got us to change some of the wiring to bring it ‘up to code’ and we were good to go. We had the opening night about a week before we left and it was a big success, even if there was only American beer on hand.

On the return journey, again in C141 Starlifter, we stopped over at the huge American base at Incirlik, Turkey. If memory serves, we were in transit accommodation and there were no recreational facilities within reasonable distance, so we ended up having to break into our duty-free supplies and play cards for entertainment.

That was about it. No details of the remainder of the journey remain in RAM, though I feel that most of the pads were exceedingly glad to get home!

Chris Webb

TE Tech Sgt
WORCESTER 1971 – 1976

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