I was surfing around on the web recently and got off on some tangent while thinking back to my experiences in the US Navy (1981-1985). The time was the summer of 1982, and I had just been stationed at NAS Miramar, with VF-2. The squadron was deployed on WESPAC when I arrived at Miramar, so I had to just hang out on the base and wait for them (aboard the USS Ranger) to come into range of a place where I could be sent to join them. That place turned out to be Diego Garcia.
I was flown via commercial airline from San Diego, to Seattle, to Yokohama, to Manila and ended up at Cubi Point (Subic Bay) for two amazing weeks, while waiting for the ship to come off Gonzo Station. From Cubi, we (a group of about 20 of us) were bussed to Clark AFB and then flown to Diego Garcia via a MAC flight. All of this was an incredible journey for a surfer who had just been taken WAY out of the comfort of his stateside California element. Having never been farther out of southwest America than a quick trip to Baja, this was amazing. I had never even HEARD of a place in the middle of the Indian Ocean called Diego Garcia.
But, I was stoked when I found out about it in that summer’s issue of Surfer magazine. It was a special travel issue and had a section on remote, rarely surfed waves. There was a picture of the big gun (at Cannon Point) and another of a perfect breaking left. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was going to a place (courtesy of the US Navy) that hardly anybody could ever go to.
After landing, and then being debriefed by the Brits in their shorts (a uniform idea I wished the Navy would have adopted), I don’t remember a whole lot else. I DO remember laughing my ass of when the Brit customs guy was explaining the prohibited items. For some reason, the way he said “cocaine snorting tubes” stays in my brain to this day. I was there for only about 24 hours, to the best of my recollection. We arrived in the afternoon, and were checked into a large, single-level transit barracks.
I remember that it had screens all the way around, and these were all ripped and full of holes, with no air-conditioning. We were given the usual Navy pillow, pillowcase, two sheets and a blanket for the cots that were laid out (like boot camp). There were no other ammenities in the room at all.
I remember ending up at the outdoor theater and we must have had a few San Miguels there. The movie was “Chariots of Fire”, which I recall vividly. The next memory I have of the only night I spent on the island, was of getting EATEN ALIVE by the mosquitos while trying to sleep. It was, and remains to this day, the WORST night in my life. It was too hot to sleep under a blanket, and the mosquitos would bite through the sheets. The sound of mosquitos buzzing around my ears even today, reminds me of this awful night. The dawn couldn’t come soon enough.
The next day, I was determined to check out the surf, even though I didn’t have a board with me. We had been told that swimming on the “ocean side” was prohibited because of the danger of sharks. But, being young and stupid, I didn’t care. I made my way (walking) to some beach on the ocean side and found myself right there, next to the big ass gun, the VERY SAME place as was in the magazine. I took a camera with me, and found a way to take my own picture with it - standing next to the canon. (I wish now that I had taken WAY more pictures while I was there - as I later bacame an AVID photographer).
There were perfect, peeling waves breaking on the reef, a mere 60-80 feet from shore, and I couldn’t resist. I took off my shoes and jumped in. I swam out to the break and caught a few waves (body surfing) before I got paranoid. All those shark warnings started gaining priority in my brain. Once back on shore, I stuffed my socks with puka shells (and others) and made my way back to our transit barracks. I recall that there were a LOT of chickens and coconuts on the island.
My next memory is of being briefed in a hangar area for what to do if we go down in the open ocean (on our way out to the Ranger). This was the first time, since joining the Navy, that I was actually a little nervous, as we listened intently on how to remove the rubber molding for the helicopter windows to get out of a sinking chopper. Half of us got to fly out to the ship in a COD (C-2), and the other half went out on a CH-47 Chinook. I was with the latter group, missing out on a chance to “trap” on the carrier - a rare treat for an enlisted puke.
However, I must admit that we got a better view on the way in. I was awestruck when we got to the carrier, which was about 40 miles away. The amazing deep blue water was almost perfectly calm, and when we landed, there was a HUGE party going on on deck. I happened to come aboard as the ship was celebrating it’s 25th anninversary with a “steel picnic” - with steak and lobster !! This was my first impression of the US Navy at sea. I had no idea.
I also had no idea that everything would drastically change the next day, as we headed back out to Gonzo Station for 45 days of 12-hour days, 7-days a week.
We then headed down to Perth, Australia - which was unscheduled, and another stop on my world surfing tour. AHHHH, Rottnest Island!!
But, that is a surf story for another time.
Anyway, I thought that you might get a kick out of my DG memory.
Gordon Scott Ellwood
(at Diego Garcia in the summer of 1982)