Gitmo and the Bermuda Triangle

Published 10:05 am Wednesday, May 15, 2013

by James D. Howell

We’re headed to Cuba. US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to be exact (Called Gitmo by most folks). We’ll deploy there and work with the ocean traffic detection stations in the Bahamas and Cuba. It’s about 950 miles to our south, roughly eight hours total.

Cuba has a new leader and many aspects of life at Gitmo are decidedly different from my first visit two years ago. Fidel Castro has defeated all that needed defeating and is now Prime Minister of Cuba and Commander in Chief of Cuba’s armed forces. When I first visited, he was still leading rebel forces from a stronghold in the eastern mountain region. Today, most personnel traffic between Cuba and the large American base is through well guarded entry gates. Cuban soldiers as well as US marines keep a watchful eye on everyone; fence lines are closely guarded. Unease is the order of the day.

Our flight is routine; we round the east point of Cuba, parallel the coast for a few miles, turn into the harbor between McCalla Field and Leeward Point and land. The harbor is well populated by US Navy vessels of all descriptions, fighting ships, supply and support vessels, and harbor craft. Both land based airports are fully staffed and busy.

We land, go through the beaching process, and find our way to quarters. We will operate patrols from this base for the next week. Gitmo has no resident patrol aircraft; the duty is shared by patrol squadrons from Bermuda and mainland bases. Support equipment and ground staff know their jobs well and the transitions from arriving, patrolling, and departing usually go without hitches.

One day, an aircraft (not my squadron) experiences an engine failure while on patrol well north of Cuba. A decision is made to land in the water (we are, after all, a seaplane operation). Some calculations are made as to where to go. Their home port, with heavy maintenance facilities, is Norfolk, Virginia. It seems that it’s about 800 nautical miles to Norfolk and just a little less to Gitmo. The decision is to taxi the aircraft to their home port.

With an observer standing watch from a hatch in the top of the aircraft and pilots taking turns at the controls, the aircraft does, in fact, set sail for Norfolk, Virginia. It takes three days to make the voyage. On board navigation is not of concern and food and water is replenished en route. It’s probably the longest water taxi in history. One of the pilots is a friend from training and we laugh about it when I see him in Norfolk.

Patrols from Gitmo always begin and end with rounding the east point of Cuba. All the oceanographic listening devices are north of Cuba and our tracks usually triangulate around the open ocean area northeast of the islands that extend east of the Great Bahama Bank. Many mornings our flights cross the Bahama Bank just after sunrise. Morning light refracts and reflects in the crystal blue waters; colors vary from a deep purple through blue to dark green then light green in the shallows south of the many islands. Each morning is a little different depending on the time and the area of shallow water close by the islands. The view never grows old or gets boring. Pleasure boats and fishing craft, sail and powered, ply the waters in great numbers, appearing to be less numbered because of the vastness of ocean area.

We are frequent visitors to the “Bermuda Triangle.” No landmass stands between the Caribbean islands and Africa. From Turks and Caicos to the Azores is about 2800 miles; it’s about 725 to Bermuda. That huge triangle is generally the area known as the “Bermuda Triangle.” Somewhere out in the middle is an area called the Sargasso Sea.

The sea is well north of the usual tropical shipping lanes and east of the US mainland east coast shipping lanes. It contains huge patches of seaweed and is, for days on end, devoid of winds. The sea surface is flat and glassy; the sun reflects off that mirrored flatness causing us to squint and reach for sun glasses.

Many early sailing ship logs reported “becoming becalmed” for days in the vastness. A summer rain squall was a welcome sight for those sailors.

For us there’s no mystery; it is our normal operating area and we become familiar with transiting without problems.

The short deployment ends and we say no farewells. We will be back in good time on another turn at patrolling for submarines and shipping.

I will return to Gitmo in a couple of years. Then I will be at the land base, in a different aircraft during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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