"IRT my tour of duty in Asmara '75-'76" by Tony B. Carwile

When I arrived in July 75 most everyone had alrady been evacuated; Stonehouse had been shut down after the EPLF (Eritrean People's Liberation Front) rebels fired a rocket through its dish, and the only facilities manned by US personnel were tracts B, E, and F (the transmitter site).

The only military personnel remaining were about a dozen Navy radiomen and our OIC, with about 20 Rockwell Collins techs supporting the operations and 2 Pacific Architects and Engineers (PA&E) managers in charge of maintaining the facilities. We were tasked with keeping the HF and satcom links active, but probably one of our primary purposes was to keep the flag flying. Haile Selassie had recently been overthrown by Army officers (the Dirg), and we were in the unenviable position of having the Communist-led army troops defending us against the Communist-led guerillas.

Over half of Kagnew had been occupied by the Ethiopian army, with the US keeping the side with the Officer's Club. We were all berthed in the old Visiting Officer's Quarters in front of the club, and had an old fellow named Tekle as our houseboy. The base hospital was just across the fence from our quarters, and we could tell when there'd been an encounter between the Ethi army and the rebels by watching the ambulances haul in the wounded.

When I arrived the site was on port-and-starboard watches; because of the curfew on in town (the Ethi army shot anyone on the street after sundown), we worked 10 hour day shifts and 14 hour night shifts at Tract B. The first week I was there, two Collins employees were kidnapped from the transmitter site by the rebels, and shortly after that their two replacements were killed on the road to the site after running over a land mine. The Collins techs decided it was too dangerous to work out there after that, so we imported 4 Navy ETs from Nea Makri to work 2 at a time for a week at the site, and replenished the transmitter facility by "mule train" instead of by vehicle. That activity lasted about 2 weeks, when the rebels attacked the transmitter site, burned down the power plant, and kidnapped the 2 ETs there.

That pretty much terminated our activities at the transmitter site; we ended going out and removing all the transmitters, with some of them relocated to tract B.

We had another Collins contractor kidnapped from his house right outside the gate about December 75; all 5 of the kidnap victims were marched across the desert into Sudan, and were ultimately released in Khartoum after 1 - 1 1/2 years in captivity.

Things were pretty lively for the first 6 months I was there, with occasional firefights in and around Kagnew (the rebels were fond of infiltrating the cemetery along the perimeter, and firing into the compound). The Ethi Army had a 50 caliber machine gun mounted on top of the gas station -- perhaps not the best location -- and really caused a racket when they let that thing go off. The last 6 months of duty in Asmara were relatively quieter, but only a couple of firefights a month around Kagnew.

Tract B got its share of small arms sniping, but there wasn't any coordinated attack -- probably because there wasn't too many places to hide around that facility. We took our precautions, however: the ends of the corridors in the main building had covered gun ports installed, to allow us to fire on any intruders that might get inside from the other side of the cypher-locked doors. And we had plenty of practice igniting thermite bombs in case we really got into a serious situation.

Asmara itself didn't seem to be suffering too much damage from the rebel attacks; there were still a few Italians around weathering out the difficulties. Of course the people were extraordinarily friendly to us, because we represented the last connection to the good times -- the times when there was a large American contingent, with lots of money to spend.

I ended up transferring to Souda Bay, Crete, after my year-long tour was up, but several of the guys I was stationed with there decided to extend their duty in Asmara. We kept in occasional contact, but all the remaining folks were abruptly given orders to leave Asmara within 5 days by the Ethiopian government about 9 months after I left. I believe the Cubans moved in there after that; it was the time that the Soviets were shifting the alliance from Somalia to Ethiopia.

It was a unique, interesting, and hazardous situation when I was there, but I certainly enjoyed the situation despite the difficulties. I can only imagine how much more enjoyable it had been prior to all the problems. One day I'd like to return -- I've been told there's a once-a-week flight departing Frankfurt to Asmara, and that it's becoming a more placid and pleasant place to visit.


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©Copyright Rick Fortney 1998 All Rights Reserved