Kagnew Station's Final Days
Hi, there. My name is Lawrence (Larry) Young, and Rick asked me to share my recollections of my time in Asmara, particularly the time frame after the Navy pullout in summer of 1974 through my departure in late July 1975. It was the time of my young life, and it certainly got very interesting and exciting the last six months or so. I would like to start with a brief recall of my start there, then on to the later days.
I arrived in Asmara mid- January 1973, after a mind-numbing, seemingly forever trip from Oklahoma City - JFK - Athens - Asmara, at about 0700. Did everybody arrive at that time? Guess so. Fresh out of RM A school in Bainbridge, Md., and being an 18 year-old in a foreign country alone for the first time, and Ethiopia of all places, was a trip, to say the least. You can imagine the appreciation I had for my sponsor that was waiting for me to give me a ride and introduction to the Navy life at Navcommsta Asmara and Kagnew Station. I was just about to start out on what turned out to be the best two and a half years of my life, and I suppose that there are many others who may share that feeling.
I was thrown into the watch mix right away, being assigned to the Message Center at Tract F, working the 2-2-2-80 strings. Made many great friends there, and the 80 hours off was always a blast. Was on watch when LBJ died and we got the message. Bit of history there. Got to know my way around the station and town quite well (didnt we all?) and was befriended by a few of the families there, particularly the Caudell (Air Force) and Clabaugh (Stonehouse) clans. Had many good times with them. Participated in the usual activities, both on base and in town with my buds. Made several trips to Massaua, etc. Played on a few of the Navy sports teams, and tried to fit in.
When the Air Force and Army pulled out pretty quick in summer 73, things changed, but remained the same. Deja vu all over again? Remember being on championship teams in sports that year - the Navy won them all. Imagine that! Take that, all you Army MP jocks! Also remember the final Navy Ball, the great Streak of the Officers softball game, of which I was a participant. Never realized how fast one could run across the infield, through the outfield gate, wearing only a watch cap and sneakers. Remember most everybody laughing their butts off, although a few of the Os made a feeble attempt to apprehend us. We got away with that one. Also, the Yom Kippur war. I have never, before or since, seen as much message traffic and pink tape as during that time frame. Thought we were going to drown in paper. Man, were we swamped, but there was some really good reading of the developing situation not too far from where we were. I became an honorary member of the Buckman/Robinson household (Stonehouse), and they provided many a good time for myself and others.
It seemed no time at all passed before the Navy was packing up and moving out. We had received orders, me to USS Shenandoah in Norfolk, Va. Around April or May we were asked if we wanted to volunteer to man a Communit in Kagnew for at least another year, to complement the Stonehouse gang and support Comideastfor. That was a no-brainer, and the thought of civilian clothes and little military decorum was icing on the cake. We (all twelve of us) went on leave for a month, returning around mid-June 74 to help the final pullout and set up- our business at Tract B. And that brings me to the time when not too many Americans remained there.
Beside the twelve of us Navy dudes, Stonehouse kept a sizeable group of operators, along with a number of families. Among the Navy people, as best as I can recall, were Jim Tiley (La), Kim Speelman (Oh), RMC Naegle, Ltjg J.O. Hyatt, our OIC (a real country boy from somewhere), Rich Gobble (maybe), a strapping kid from Texas we called Rusty, a black sailor (cannot remember his name) with a local wife and family. Also remember one replacement, Dave Herceg, who took the place of Speelman who had to go home for medical reasons around Oct/Nov 74, and the Army Colonel who headed up the whole operation. Collins (Cisco) ran the technical side of things, and there were a number of their employees around also.
All the civilians obtained/retained off base housing, while we had that option available. We (Navy) were all given two-room residences at what I believe was the guest/nurse quarters across from the Officers Club and the Dispensary/Hospital. Our compound was maybe one-tenth of the station, on the end bordered by the Cemetery, around to the R.R. gate to the big fuel tank on the side facing towards Tract B. We were fenced off from the main base that was occupied by the Ethiopian Army, and had a small gate next to the O club. I never really got back to see the old base after that. However, despite all the packing and shipping out we did to clear everybody out, the good old USA left lots of material, especially furnishings, and other equipment behind for the comfort of the Ethie government and Army. . All of the cars and motorcycles, except for a few that we used, were impounded and under control of the consulate and the Army Colonel.
We had a typical routine going on at our end - usually 2-2-2-80 that worked out pretty well. For the rest of the year, things went well. We could hit the town about any time we wanted, and about the only real difference was the lack of Americans that used to be there. All the old stomping grounds were still active, as well as the market and Nyala Hotel. Pretty decent food in the restaurants, too.Had some fun trips to Massaua, Thanksgiving and Christmas at the Buckman/Robinsons, Marine Ball at the O club, along with New Years.
In Sep/Oct 74, things changed a bit, along with the political/military climate. With the deposing of Haile Selassie and his family, we could feel a difference, and a somewhat uneasy atmosphere, but life went on fairly normally. We had heard that the Lion of Judah had been executed along with about 40 of his family members, but apparently Haile at least was placed under house arrest and died the next year. Lots of rumors flying around about that. The new year started out well, but differed greatly at the end of January. On the evening of Jan 31, things got really exciting.
That evening, a bunch of us were playing poker at the club, as usual. I hear what sounded like thunder, and it not being the rainy season, got up to look out the front door, and what we saw was a regular firefight going on up and down the street between the cemetery and the fence dividing the Ethie compound from us, which was about 75 feet from where we stood. It only took one near miss for us to duck back inside, and then we eventually made it back across the street to our rooms. There was no relieving the eve watch that night, so they stayed at Tract B until we could get out there the next morning. In the meantime, the Consulate brought most of the civilians and us onto their compound for the next night. The Consulates marine security detail were in their glory, and were dressed to rumble. Great guys, those guys. The next day, the rest of the Communit went to a warehouse, loaded up racks and lockers, and we moved into Tract B in the communication building. We stayed there for about a month until things calmed down.
In the meantime, while we were stuck at Tract B, around the 3rd of February, we learned that all the dependents and non essential civilians were given about 8 hours to pack up and leave on the first flight out the next day. I missed seeing off a great bunch of people, and many good friends. Firefights, some pretty ferocious, continued to take place, always at night, so it was a good thing to stay inside. We were getting shot at at Tract B also. One night several of us were returning from the power plant there, which had the only shower we had access to. While walking the 50 yards back to the building, we suddenly had bullets whizzing past our heads, complete with TRACERS! We made ourselves real small and low real quick, and scrambled back in toe relative safety of our fortress. And once we realized what was going on, we made sure that all the crypto gear and safes were well covered with the thermite packs for destruction, and that they were wired properly. We did what we could, but with no weapons, we depended entirely on the Ethie Army for our protection. I guess they did a decent job, in hindsight.
We had a pretty good observation point for watching the fireworks. On Tract B, next to our Comm building, there was a large warehouse, and on top of the roof, about 40 feet up, there was a sandbagged bunker with a roof. We would put on helmets, climb the interior staircase to the bunker, and watch the show. Could see quite a distance, and could observe action going at Tract E and town, along with whatever was going on at Tract F. And the best part about the warehouse was that right next to the staircase was a fenced in room just FULL of cases of liquor. However, the top was open, and we just climbed in and passed out what we desired at that time. We did not really know where the booze was destined for, but wherever that was, a lot of it never got there. I guess you could call that the spoils of war.....Was especially interested in the Pepe Lopez tequila, which we all called Sneaky Pete. Hope I never taste that stuff again.
Things calmed down enough towards the end of February that we could move back to the compound. However a very strict curfew was in place, and the Ethies had brought in some crack troops that you did not want to mess with, so we complied willingly. Asmara was never the same from there on out. We could still go into town during the day, but the curfew just destroyed the local economy, as if it was not already pretty bad It was nearly impossible to leave the town except for the replacement shifts at the transmitter sites and Tract B. Life got back to a relatively normal pace, with sporadic firefights, always at night.
Around early May, all of us were offered transfers out, with us being offered just about anywhere we wanted to go. I had been in Asmara just about 2 ½ years, advancing from an RMSA to RM2 (E-5), and only had a year left, so I asked for, and received assignment to any ship Westpac. Was assigned to USS Worden CG-18, where I finally got some blue water beneath my land-lubbing feet. I missed then, and still do, all my buds from Asmara, and especially my two Collins friends who were killed by the land mine in the planned ambush while they were heading out to the transmitter site to relieve the watch. A very sad time for all the remaining personnel still there. I was already in Japan at the time, but I heard about it pretty quickly, and it hit pretty hard. Dick Brown and Bill - best regards, my friends. Sorry you had to depart far too soon. Hope to see you in the here-after.
If anybody would care to correct me, or add to any names or dates, feel free. Would like to hear from any of my shipmates during my time in Asmara from Jan 73 - Jul 75, or anyone who would like to respond. All who were there will never forget the place called The island in the sky along with the Navy moniker NKA - A mile high, a mile ahead.Larry Young