Island in the Atlantic

In a previous post I gave a few details of my trip back on Christmas leave from the Azores.  It was while I was back home, at a party, that I met my future wife.  What I didn’t go into detail about was the first part of my tour there after leaving Pensacola following initial training.

For a young guy, and I had yet to turn twenty, arriving in a foreign country can be intimidating.  In my case, I was rather blasé about it.  I’d spent a lot of time out of the States – Germany, Alaska (not yet a state) and Canada – so the impact was not that bad.

I flew in from McGuire AFB in New Jersey via Bermuda to Lajes AB on the island of Terceira.  It was a blustery day and the smell of the sea was strong.  As I found out later, the smell of the sea is always strong.  Hey, it’s an island.  The town of Lajes is on the northeast side of the island and the air base is between it and the steep cliffs.  In fact, steep cliffs, except for rare areas, surround the entire island.

It is a volcanic island with one major mountain roughly in the middle surrounded by lesser hills.  My ultimate destination was the small town of Villa Nova, where the Security Group had it’s barracks.

NOTE:  For anyone interested, go to Google Maps and find Terceira Island, then Lajes.  Follow the coast road west until you get to Villa Nova.  I’m not absolutely sure, but there is a big, white building outside this village where our barracks may have been.  Our Operations Building still stands apparently as it is still visible.  Just west of town center, there is a road (3-2) that heads south.  Follow that road a short distance until you see a curious circular road off to the east.  There are buildings in the center of it.  This was Ops.  For a couple of buildings just the foundations exist now.

I arrived, checked into the Administrative building, turned in my orders, and got fingerprinted just to make sure who I was.  I mean, really; who else would travel to a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean prepared to spend eighteen months?  I was assigned to a watch section and given a room in the barracks.  This was new to me – an actual room I could call my own.  I was astounded.

Our watches were set up as I described before for the Philippines: 2-2-2-80.  My first watch was that night, the midwatch.  Bummer.  I cracked an eyelid at 2300, showered fast, dressed, and was ready for the little Metro Van shuttle to Ops.  The Operations building sat in the middle of a big antenna array and was connected by a little road to the Support Facility which housed generators and our “motor pool” (one carry-all and a four-door pickup).

While In Pensacola, since I graduated second in the class, I was given an extra four-week class in Direction Finding.  The Villa Nova operation was a DF site.  Given our location roughly one-third of the way across the Atlantic (from Spain) we were a crucial part of the DF network for the Atlantic area.  Stations on either side could give bearings that would show general east-west positions, but ours would act as the only north-south indicator.  Thus, should ships at sea or airplanes above get lost or lose navigation facilities we were invaluable in providing assistance.

One of my earliest rescue operations while on watch was one eve watch when we were alerted by Lajes Base Operations that a RB-47 (Reconnaissance) had lost pretty much their entire electrical and communications equipment.  All they had was a High Frequency radio which we could tune to with our gear.  We alerted the rest of the stations in the net and started a plot.  The plane would transmit a long, drawn-out number count and we all took bearings – lots of them.

Each time we plotted a position, we reported that to the tower and they passed it to the plane.  For two hours we guided that plane towards the Azores.  Halfway there, they developed engine troubles also and had to shut down three of them.  On a RB-47, that only left three; one on one side and two on the other.  Things were getting pretty hairy.  They finally got to within sight of the runway and as they turned on final approach the other three engines flamed out.  At the time, they were at less than a thousand feet and a half-mile from the runway.

No electricity, no hydraulics left, and no landing gear they elected to flop to the ground and slide down the runway.  The only injury was the navigator who got thrown loose from his seat by a broken belt.

This was not a typical scenario however.  Most of the time we did routine plotting and location exercises with Navy ships at sea and commercial ships wanting a cross-check on their navigation.  That was not our only mission though.  If I went into that, I’d be blogging from Portsmouth Prison because they didn’t know we were plotting them.  This was brought to the forefront of national conscience during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  We worked very hard during those tense hours.

Liberty on the island was great.  Weather would sometimes play a part by making the skies cloudy with rain, but on the whole it was nice and sunny during the summer months.  The populace was extremely friendly.  The Azores is a Portuguese possession and they, of course, speak Portuguese.  I did manage to learn a bit of it, but by and large the city-dwellers spoke passable English.  The two largest towns, Praia and Angra Do Heroismo were in fact fairly extensive.  They both had fine parks, Old World architecture and quaint shops.  It was a photographer’s paradise.

I took a lot of photos too.  Most every weekend every village would host some sort of festival or celebration.  Being a very Catholic country most of them were religious in nature.  That did not stop the making of a potent grape brew called ‘vinche’ (pronounced vin-chay).  This was primo stuff which had been aged sometimes as long as two days in huge clay pots and strained through old sweat socks.  Four or five glasses of this blood-red firewater was guaranteed to blow your mind.

The ‘beach’ at Villa Nova was down a long switchback road from the top of the cliff.  There were lots of fishing boats that plied the waters around the island.  Myself and several of my friends got to know a few of the captains and eventually were allowed to help crew for them.  It was exhaustive work hauling wet nets through the long rollers coming from Gibraltar and the Mediterranean with nothing to stop or slow them down.

When we got back into port, the skipper would usually give several fish to us to take back to our little mess (dining facility).  We had one of the best messes I’d every been associated with the whole time I was in the Navy.  Ours was privately funded by monthly assessments.  We bought our own food, hired our own cooks, and paid for them out of our fund.  It was great since we also had a nighttime cook for Midrats.

I took up the game of golf while I was there.  I started out at a driving range and graduated to the actual course.  The ones we played at (there were only four on the whole island) had a no-penalty rule if you lost a ball.  There are no water hazards on any course.  This is because there are huge cracks in the earth that go all the way down to the bottom (wherever that is).  Any loose water, like rainfall, would immediately drain away into the center of the island.  So, if you are watching your ball roll down the fairway and it suddenly disappeared, you would mark the spot by eye, call “hole”, and wait until you could go to that spot.  Usually there was a crack, down which your ball might be visible.  If it was, then you pulled your extensible grabber and fished it out.  Visible or not visible, you got a ‘drop’ free of charge.

For a short period of time I had a little motor scooter.  Not a bike, but a Vespa scooter.  I rode that thing all over the place.  On a good day, you could circumnavigate the entire island in about five hours.  If you stopped to take pictures it was a good day trip.  Pack a lunch, visit with local guys, and pass around a bottle of vinche; that’s the life.

A little about the women of the island.  They were mostly beautiful – and untouchable.  Raised strictly Catholic even a steady suitor of a year or so could only stand outside the rock wall surrounding her house and talk to her while she sat at a window.  Mother and other daughters (if any) would chaperone.  During festivals, the young, unmarried girls were kept in what amounted to a stockade.  A nice one, but still a stockade.  Men were strictly controlled around them.  As a result of this, the Navy deemed a tour on the island a ‘hardship’ tour and allowed two rest and recreation (R&R) trips to Europe (not the States though).  Popular destinations were Gibraltar and Spain.  I never went; however, because I was content to spend time just poking around the island.

Most of the time I hung around Praia at a very nice city park.  There was an open-air cantina sort of thing where one could get a beer or aperitif and watch people coming and going.  There was also an exceptional beach with real sand that extended along the whole length of town; marred only by long breakwaters extending into the bay.  Angra had a boat harbor where you could rent a small day sailer and cruise around the bay.  You never ventured out into the ocean though because of high winds.  Lose a mast or sail and you’d end up a month later in South America and really, really hungry.

Things sort of changed for me after I came back from the Christmas leave.  I spent a lot more time in my room or on watch rather than running around the countryside on my Vespa.  I sold it to another guy about a month after I got back.  The one time we really cut loose was a party in our little Quonset hut club.  After an evening of dining (take-out pizza from our kitchen), dancing (fourteen guys and five dependent girls), and drinking (oh, yeah;  Big time), five of us decided it would be cool to give the Air Force building across from our barracks an “E” for Efficiency.

This is strictly a Navy thing.  Whenever a ship gets an excellent rating on any of their fitness or engineering tests, they get to paint an “E” on the stack.  Various colors indicate which division got the “E”.  We debated about which color to use, but since all we could find was black, that’s what we used.  The building was three floors tall and had a heating chimney that stood another thirty feet up from the roof.  To this day, I have no recollection of exactly how we did it, but twenty feet up that stack was a rather well done “E” in black paint.  The Air Force officer in charge was not amused and reported it to our CO.  He, in turn, passed it down to his Exec with the orders to find the culprits.  He came over to the barracks and nosed around.  We all decided to fess up and received a Captain’s mast.  Our punishment: re-paint the entire stack.

Both the CO and the Exec were pretty good heads.  They privately (very privately) thought the whole thing was hilarious.  A couple of months later, I was headed back home with orders for an advanced class at Fort Meade (NSA).  This was to be a sort of ‘finishing school’ for me.  Most of the classwork was in the “burn before reading” classification.  I had re-enlisted for five years in order to get this class.  The deal offered came with a promotion from my current grade (E-4) to the next higher grade (E-5, or CTR-2); and also allowed my dependent (wife) to travel with me to my next duty station; the Philippines.