Larger view of Bermuda

Published 10:03 am Wednesday, March 13, 2013

by James D. “Archie” Howell

This is not a large base, yet it has all the assorted goods and services necessary for daily and long-term functioning. It is not a U.S. Naval Air Station; it is a U.S. Naval Operating Base. There are no runways. It covers about 260 acres of Bermuda soil. I learn that it was built as part of United States and England agreements during World War II.

Two islands on the southwest end of Bermuda were flattened and joined by a causeway. Two channels were dredged through the harbor to accommodate smaller ships, mostly support vessels and the occasional submarine. The east end of the base is paved and has a hangar and harbor access ramps built for seaplanes. That’s where I’m assigned. In spite of its relatively small size, the base is home for two seaplane squadrons, a Coast Guard detachment, a station aircraft (amphibious) and has room for the odd transient aircraft. That’s nineteen home-based aircraft. There’s a World War II type hangar large enough for all maintenance activities for the squadrons, the Coast Guard and the occasional use by transients.

In addition to the aircraft operations, the station maintains harbor support dockage and maintenance shops. A fairly large supply building houses auxiliary shop and warehouse space for all the rest

For personnel, there’s the usual assortment of facilities – a post exchange, commissary, medical dispensary, barracks, officer quarters, recreational facilities, water supply, and trash dump.

The island itself is a water recreational paradise. In season, water is very salty and very clear. Snorkeling is a favorite pastime for military and locals alike. In water visibility is limited only by clouds blocking the sun and the occasional storm. Beautiful pinkish coral beaches sweep grandly along shorelines and hide in small inlets and bays. Ocean breezes moderate summer temperature for the most part, but air conditioners are beginning to show up in house and office windows.

Relative humidity is always high and a light bulb is left on in most closets to counteract mold and mildew. Fingerprints on metal show signs of rust seemingly overnight.

The island is charming to the eye; pastel painted houses and buildings all have limestone-whitewashed roofs. Chimneys are topped with artistic baffles for the wind. Philodendron grows wild as a green foil for a riot of tropical color. Bright magentas, reds, yellows, and oranges flash from windows, doorways, and narrow walkways. Smaller beaches boast palm tree shorelines.

A barrier reef stretches almost completely around the Island. (It’s actually several islands connected.) Generally Bermuda is fishhook shaped with large, protected harbors at both ends. Hamilton Harbor is the larger, on the south end, and Saint George’s anchors the north end. Hamilton town is the largest, with large ocean liners showing up on a regular basis in season. A ferry operates on a regular schedule in and around Hamilton Harbor and looks strangely like the “African Queen” of movie fame; the name sticks and many times we can see the ocean liner Queen of Bermuda and the “African Queen” in the harbor simultaneously.

On the south shore, Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse is the tallest structure and is a welcome sight for aircraft returning from long distance patrols. Sea lanes for seaplane operation are laid out in Hamilton Bay (Great Sound), and approaches to the north lane are close by Gibb’s Hill. A favorite tourist attraction, the cast iron lighthouse boasts a thousand-watt electric bulb shining through a huge set of prismatic lenses, floating on a vat of mercury, for virtually frictionless movement. That once every minute flash of light in the dark is visible to our aircraft for a hundred miles to sea on normal flights.

One day, one of our planes returns with a burning engine; the image of Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse and a long plume of fire and smoke trailing that aircraft stays with me. All crewmen were rescued on the water, but the plane drifted and burned to the waterline.

Dockyards left over from World War II and several wars before, occupy the extreme western end of the island chain. Offshore here coral reefs extend far to sea, and are a favorite fishing and snorkeling attraction.

A single road twists and turns along Bermuda’s length, branching into smaller roads where island width permits. Each Sunday, we pile in our car and make the 20-mile drive (at 20 miles per hour maximum) up to the civilian air terminal and purchase a copy of The New York Times, delivered the same day by scheduled airline flights. It’s a Sunday ritual, a solid, reliable end of the week, a tether to the continent to our west, a reminder of home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at