Argentia 1955-57, as Recalled and
Revisited 40 Years Later
Argentina?! Must be a typo by some careless yeoman, I assumed, upon seeing the posted list of duty assignments and finding “NAVSTA Argentia” opposite my name. I had never heard of a place called Argentia, but on the other hand, neither had I heard of any U.S. bases being located in Argentina.
This was at Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI,
and the occasion was my completion of the Reserve Officer Candidate (ROC)
training that led to commission as an Ensign in August of 1955. Initial
pleasure at the prospect of going to South America and learning the tango
was short-lived however, as I soon learned that there really was such a
place as Argentia and that the Navy did indeed have a base there.
It was also suggested that the only worse assignment I could have
drawn was Adak, Alaska.
|I had requested overseas shore duty but did so with thoughts of Europe or the Far East in mind as a young bachelor from the sheltered Midwest eager to get out and see the world. Why not a ship? Well, as a CT3 with four years NAVSECGRU Reserve time behind me, I had assumed that a 1615 designator would be forthcoming, which implied a shore station, since to my knowledge NAVSECGRU personnel were not embarked on ships at that time. As it happened, the Navy in 1955 apparently had a greater need for unrestricted line officers, and so I found myself at the end of August a newly minted 1105 Ensign with orders to report to a place I had never heard of in a remote province of Canada precariously close to what I envisioned as “the frozen North”.|
|As I came to learn, Argentia was the first of a series of bases acquired by the U.S. in exchange for fifty WWI destroyers transferred to Britain in 1940, and it served as an essential staging area for protection of North Atlantic convoys during the Second World War. In August 1941 a secret rendezvous of Roosevelt and Churchill just offshore from Argentia produced the Atlantic Charter, an eight-point statement of common principles to guide the allies during the war and beyond. With the advent of the cold war the base assumed new responsibilities for tracking Soviet submarines and maintaining lines of early warning against potential air and missile attacks.|
|Being advised of the remoteness of Argentia from the marginally more cosmopolitan parts of Newfoundland (i.e., the capital city of St. John’s), it was recommended that I take a car up with me. It was also pointed out that the climate where I was going would probably render tropical uniform items and perhaps even dress whites quite unnecessary – good thing as it turned out, since on the night of our commissioning, celebratory excesses at The Munchinger King, The Moorings on Thames Street, and other Newport watering holes had left my whites in questionable condition for further use.|
|With the delay granted in my orders, I had time to go home to Grand Rapids and buy a car, the first I had ever owned. A used 1948 black 4-door Plymouth sedan, it was not a car that would turn girls’ heads on the street corner, but where I was going that was not to be a concern anyway. Driving the car to my new duty station was not practicable, certainly not in the few days remaining before I was due to report. However, a couple of aging MSTS ships, the Valdez and the Kelly, shuttled cargo and personnel to Newfoundland from Bayonne NJ on a regular schedule, and that’s where I was directed to deliver my car.|
|Having done so, I proceeded to NAS Quonset Point RI for somewhat faster transport to Argentia aboard what served as the only other regularly scheduled link between Argentia and the outside world. This was the FASRON 106 R5D, a lumbering four-engine prop plane whose seating consisted of canvas benches facing each other on either side of the interior. While waiting in the terminal for the late afternoon departure, I noticed a bulletin soliciting volunteers for assignment to Antarctica in conjunction with the International Geophysical Year. Suddenly Argentia didn’t seem quite as remote and isolated.|
|Arriving around 2200, the setting for NAVSTA Argentia was shrouded in darkness, but the immediate view of the base itself was bleak enough to confirm my preconceived image of the place. After checking in with the OOD and getting transportation to the BOQ, I settled in to what would be home for the next two years. The building was a wood-frame two-story affair that actually proved quite comfortable. A recreation room on the second deck included a pool table and Ping-Pong table with a small bar adjacent. The closed mess was off the first-deck lobby, which also contained a one-chair barber shop. And in the basement there was a six-lane bowling alley with bar. Rooms were laid out in pairs with shared bath between. Permanent residents got private rooms, but short-timers (TD, transients, etc.) were generally doubled up.|
|The previous occupant of my room had thoughtfully installed what served as a refrigerator by nailing a steel ammunition box to the jamb outside the window with the open side of the box facing the glass, a bit of creativity that I appreciated very much and kept stocked with beer for the next two years.|
|The morning after my arrival, I reported to the Admin Building and learned that I was to be a Communications Watch Officer. Comms in those days were pretty primitive by today's standards, requiring a world-wide network of relay stations to transmit messages to all parts of the Naval establishment. Argentia was a primary relay station with the call sign NWP, as I recall. The heart of the system was NSS on Nebraska Avenue in Washington.|
|A major technological advance at the time was some MUX (multiplex) gear installed shortly after my arrival to replace the single sideband system then in use. MUX, as I recall, enabled us to communicate simultaneously over four separate channels on the same frequency. Input and output occurred on loudly clattering teletype machines fed by punched paper tape. We stood watches on a twelve-day cycle – three eves, three mids, and three days, followed by three days off; it seemed I was always out of synch with the rest of the world.|
|In late September Newfoundland was not yet the frozen North I had envisioned, but I didn’t have to wait long for a taste of severe weather. Hurricane Ione came through about a week after my arrival, and I remember watching pieces of roof and other debris fly by the Admin Building windows while pedestrians outside leaned at a 45º angle trying to cross the road. Although we experienced no more hurricanes during my tour, weather throughout the year was always a matter of concern.|
| The base
itself, lying on a flat windswept peninsula that jutted into Placentia
Bay, was subjected to horizontal snowstorms in the winter and shrouded in
fog during the summer, not an ideal environment for a place whose
principal activity was air operations.
A portable GCA unit performed heroically to bring flights in safely
when visibility was zero, but there were losses.
I recall one day, from the top deck of the Air Ops building,
watching a WV2 burn to a charred shell after a faulty landing and being
told I was watching a six million dollar fire – which was a lot of money
in those days.
|In good weather, Newfoundland could be spectacularly beautiful. A clear winter day on the base might be bitterly cold but provide unlimited visibility. In summer, clear weather typically could be found only by going off base, when leaving the fog about fifty yards outside the main gate was like driving through a curtain into brilliant sunshine. And in such weather the Newfoundland landscape of green hills and forests, stark rocks, peat bogs, and sparkling water – interspersed with unforgettably picturesque fishing villages – was a sight to remember.|
But to a young bachelor, Argentia seemed like the end of the earth and the rest of the world a very far-off place. This was painfully accentuated by the clarity with which late-night radio from New York (American Airlines' "Music 'til Dawn") tantalizingly came in on my car radio while making the nightly rounds of the outlying Comm spaces (Teletype Repair, Receivers, Transmitters). Whenever I hear That’s All, Ken Ackerman’s theme music from the program, it brings back memories of those cold late nights. I learned to cope with the mid-watch schedule by hitting the sack right after dinner for a snooze until about 2330, which got me to the Comm Center by midnight reasonably wide awake. But it was still tough staying awake at times. The coffee that had been sitting on the hot plate for hours tasted awful but was some help. At my desk back in the crypto vault I occasionally typed letters and could do some reading when traffic was slow. The worst was when my collateral duty assignment on the Station Audit & Inventory Board required another three or four hours right after coming off the mid.
|On-base diversions were limited, although it’s true there were movies every night at the theater, the gymnasium offered basketball and squash courts, the hobby shop was well-equipped for wood-working projects, and a visit to the Navy Exchange occasionally uncovered something of interest among its extremely limited stock of goods. For many of the officers and American civilians though, the two principal attractions seemed to be the O-Club and the BOQ bowling alley. Both served very inexpensive booze, but from a physical well-being point of view, the latter had an advantage over the O-Club because one tended to drink a little less while bowling.||
||For those of us who were watch standers, the odd hours had some benefits. On my three days off I frequently got out to explore the surrounding countryside insofar as the local road system would permit. The big attraction was St. John's, which I and my bachelor colleagues from the BOQ headed for as often as possible. It was a brutal drive over 90 miles of unpaved road that was very hard on cars. One of the images of Argentia that I retain is that of mail-order mufflers and tail pipes stacked up in the post office for those whose cars had suffered the rigors of that drive.|
|In St. John's we checked into the Pepperell AFB BOQ,
where something like $1 got us a bunk in a large dormitory room.
The Pepperell O-Club seemed far superior to what we had at
Argentia. Its eye-catching
lobby boasted a memorable cluster of large "Nelson Bubble" light
fixtures of various shapes, and the rathskeller bar in the basement was a
favorite hangout. Of course
we were also looking for female companionship in St. John's, and somehow
we did make connections – I guess
one of the guys always knew some girl who could come up with a friend or
Not that there were no girls in Argentia, but it was slim
pickings. There were about a half
dozen Navy nurses (more about that below) and a fairly large contingent of local
Newfoundland girls who had jobs on the base and many of whom were housed in a
dormitory across the road from the BOQ. The
latter probably sounds like a great arrangement, but sadly there were very few
whose charms were such as to attract the attention of the BOQ residents.
Some flames were kindled and matches made, however; one young LTJG at the
end of his tour married a beauty from the local village of Placentia and took
her home to Sandgap, Kentucky. It’s
doubtful that anyone in either town had ever heard of the other place, and if
she thought she had found the ticket to a cosmopolitan life in the U.S., some
disappointment may have ensued.
||He got on the phone to the Catholic chaplain in his room upstairs with orders to bring down all the altar candles he had to line the alleys so the match could continue. He did, and the match resumed. On another occasion when one of the frequent VIP flights that refueled at Argentia brought BUMED and his party aboard, McElroy, while hosting them at the VIP quarters, turned to BUMED and said in his inimitable Alabama drawl, "Adm'l, ah got a bone to pick wi' you. How come you nevah send us any good lookin' nuhses? Mah boys get hahnney as hell up here, and you jes send us a buncha crap!" He was a colorful character.||
In the 1950s transatlantic flights originating in CONUS
required refueling enroute, as the R6Ds used in those pre-jet years could not
fly to Europe non-stop. Commercial
airlines used Gander in north central Newfoundland and MATS flights made their
stop at Harmon AFB on the west side of the island. But for VIPs Argentia was the favorite refueling place.
During a typical one-hour stop members of the party would disembark to
stretch their legs and be driven to the VIP quarters for
refreshment from the Captain's private bar.
East-bound folks would also visit the adjacent package store to load up
on booze and lobsters to haul back home. Everything
in the package store was $3.00 a bottle, whether it was cheap blended whisky or
the most expensive scotch – and these were 40-ounce imperial quarts!
Beer was $3.00 a case.
Because of the frequency of these VIP flights at
unpredictable hours, CAPT McElroy got tired of being called in the middle of the
night on short notice to go down to the AirOps terminal, so he designated a
junior Ensign, me, as "Protocol Officer" to take the calls instead.
I had a lot of sleep interrupted, but it was interesting duty.
VIPs were coded 1 through 5, with 5 through 2 representing O-6 through
O-9 officers or equivalent civilians and code-1 representing anything higher.
John Foster Dulles came through frequently, but he never got off the
One east-bound flight in late 1956 did not carry VIPs in
the normal sense, but its passenger complement received at least as much
attention. These were Hungarian
refugees fleeing the turmoil of their ongoing revolution.
The exhaustion and despair displayed on each face spoke of the ordeal
they had been through, most having had no rest since leaving their homes 24 to
48 hours before and having come away with little more than the clothes on
their backs. It was a profoundly
moving experience for those of us on duty that night, hurriedly scrounging up
what refreshments we could to offer a bit of comfort during their brief
After a year of watch-standing in the Comm Center, I got a day job as the NAVSTA Personnel Officer, and following six months of that, finished my tour as Special Services Officer. This last assignment was probably the most fun, with responsibility for the gym, hobby shop, AFRS radio station, Navy band, theater, and an off-base R&R facility consisting of overnight cabins and picnic grounds on waterfront property in Dunville a few miles outside the main gate. We pioneered some new activities that summer of 1957, putting on a July 4th celebration with band concert and fireworks, taking a track & field team to the Newfoundland AAU meet on Bell Island, and chartering a local ship for an overnight trip to the French island colony of St. Pierre et Miquellon.
Tenant activities that looked to the Naval Station for support were many. On a more or less permanent basis, we had the Coast Guard Air Detachment (flying WWII B-17s), Fleet Weather Central, US Army Harbor Craft & Maintenance Detachment, FASRON 106 (R5D shuttle to CONUS), and the ARD-18, the latter being a floating drydock that had been tied up at the pier for so long that she was reputed to be aground in her own coffee grounds. Other tenants, who came and went, included VP-8 from NAS Quonset Point and VP-10 from NAS Brunswick (flying P2Vs), VWs 11, 13, & 15 from NAS Pautuxent River (flying WV2s), COMAEWWINGSLANT, and the Commander International Ice Patrol. The latter, commanded by USCG CAPT White, came up from Boston every summer; we called them the Boston Berg Watchers
FASRON 106 R5D and Beechcraft
The Army detachment, commanded by Major Jim Allen of the Transportation Corps, was an interesting operation. Their principal function was support of the annual resupply of Thule AB on the northern end of Greenland. Because Thule was icebound except for a couple weeks in the summer and had no port facilities, resupply was accomplished by lightering material ashore from an LST. The VP squadrons patrolled an arc from Iceland to Baffin Island, reporting on ice conditions and shipping. They sometimes had detachments at Keflavik, Narsarsuaq, Sondrestrom, and Frobisher Bay. The AEW squadrons provided a seaward extension of the early warning barrier by flying non-stop round trips between Argentia and the Azores – grueling duty, to be sure.
As host for all these tenants, the CO of the Naval Station naturally felt he ought to be top dog at Argentia. This was never a problem until the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) operation was inaugurated, the command of which was set up as a RADM billet, although filled initially by CAPTs John Byng and Joe Cliffton. Byng was a gentleman and seemed to avoid any friction. "Jumpin' Joe" Clifton was not so retiring. He was a loud, sometimes pretty obnoxious, RADM-select with a big ego. At his prior command as CO NAS Memphis, he had insisted on personally playing on the station football team. Our CAPT MacIntosh somehow managed to coexist with him, but I'm sure it was not easy. Had Johnny McElroy still been CO of the Naval Station, the sparks might have flown in earnest.
left Argentia in August of 1957, but the base continued in existence until its
decommissioning finally in 1993. During
my tour, two years in Argentia seemed like an eternity of exile from the
pleasures and opportunities of what I thought of as the real world, but as years
went by I found myself many times thinking back nostalgically on adventures and
misadventures experienced there – funny how the passage of years can make a
former purgatory mellow into fond memory when viewed in hindsight. I guess
occasional reminiscences must have made it sound somewhat interesting to my
family as well, because forty years later my two sons talked me into a return
visit to the place about which they had heard so many stories.
To round out the party for such an excursion we included my 10-year-old
grandson, and the four of us took flight from California for St. John’s toward
the end of June 1997.
|During a one-week stay we saw almost everything there was to see on the Avalon Peninsula, that southeastern corner of the island on which both St. John’s and Argentia are situated. Forty years earlier it would not have been possible to see the entire Avalon Peninsula in seven days from a base in St. John’s, but many things have changed in the interim. They now have roads where none existed previously, and they’re paved. This was the most impressive change for me – the roads. Anyone who was there in the 1950s will recall what we used to go through to reach our “liberty port” of St. John’s from Argentia over 90 miles of unpaved potholes.|
The second most impressive change, I quickly learned, was
the near total demise of the fishing industry that had so dominated
Newfoundlanders’ lives forty years ago. In
the 1950’s fishing and the pulp wood industry were the principal means of
eking out a living. The meager
income that could be earned by those activities was augmented once a year by the
keenly anticipated seal hunt, but that too is now a thing of the past.
Hopes now all seem to ride on the development of offshore oil deposits
on the Grand Banks; such hopes may not be ill-placed – the potential there is
|On our first venture from St. John’s, we set out to
find the old road that I remembered traveling between Argentia and St.
John’s forty years before, and with some difficulty it was possible to
pick it out on the current highway map.
We retraced that path (by no means the shortest route anymore) –
along the south coast of Conception Bay to Holyrood, thence south to
Salmonier and west through Colinet to the east end of Northeast Arm and
Dunville. A few miles beyond
Colinet some ten miles was still unpaved, and the prior day’s clear skies
having given way to more typical Newfoundland weather, the road there
looked uncannily the same as I remembered it from the 1950s.
|Approaching Dunville, we again emerged on paved road at the east end of Northeast Arm, where the Navy’s R&R camp still stands. As of 1997 at least, the status of this property was in limbo; having been developed with non-appropriated funds by the Special Services Department, it could not be disposed of along with the rest of the Navy’s assets when base decommissioning occurred. As explained to us by the lone caretaker occupying the premises, the property is to be sold but – either for lack of a buyer or for reasons of bureaucratic inertia – no sale was pending.|
A few miles farther, after passing through Dunville and
Freshwater, we arrived at the main gate of the former Naval Station.
The guard house looked the same as I remembered, minus the Marine
sentries. Driving on into what we
used to call the South Side, the ten-story “new” BOQ (completed in 1957)
loomed on our right, and a little farther on we passed the buildings that used
to house the Public Works Department. The road terminated at Ship Repair, a derelict shop building
that formerly housed an important tenant activity.
The old USS ARD-18 that had been moored alongside for many years was no
longer present, having no doubt been towed off for scrap.
The New BOQ
At the isthmus that separated North Side from South
Side we encountered a guard post barring our further approach, but since it was
a Sunday with little activity in progress, we persuaded the guard to let us
drive on for a brief nostalgic look at the terrain where I had chafed away the
time during my two-year exile as a young man.
|Most striking was the barrenness of the landscape. Nearly all the buildings had been demolished, and weeds and grass encroached on the deteriorated roads, walks, runways, and parking ramps. The power plant and adjacent seaplane hangar still stood, as did the concrete Supply building. The emergency operations center, that had stood next to the Admin Building, was in the process of being demolished – a major task because of its massive bomb-proof construction. At the far north end of the base, the gymnasium, where I had worked as Special Services Officer, was a sad sight. The frame of the building was more or less intact with some of the roof remaining, but most of the walls were gone, and the wind, the rain, and the gulls passed freely through the sagging skeleton.|
|The site of the old BOQ, where I had lived for two years, was identifiable only by the remaining concrete foundation, as was the spot across the road where the Officers’ Club once stood. Adjacent to the Club, the location of the VIP Quarters was similarly marked, and on the cracked and weed-strewn asphalt in front faded yellow paint still labeled the parking spaces reserved for “VIP”… – ah yes, sic transit gloria mundi.|
Front steps of the old O-Club
Remnants of porte cochere entrance at VIP Qtrs
With most of the afternoon still before us, I wanted to visit one more local
spot of which I had special memories. On
a Sunday in 1957 three friends from the BOQ and I set out for Ship Harbor, an
outport fishing village north of Argentia accessible then only by water.
We drove to Fox Harbor, the end of the road, before heading into the
scrub on foot – and unable to find any sort of trail but guided by a topo map,
we fought our way through peat bog, up creek beds, and across talus slopes
before finally emerging at the upper end of a grassy path, closely nibbled by
sheep, that served as a main thoroughfare leading down to the port.
Houses on either side fronted by neat picket fences faced each other
across the path, which was about eight feet wide, fence to fence.
It was a memorable scene that stayed with me over the years.
|But as I discovered over and over during my return visit, many things have changed. A paved road now extends all the way to Ship Harbor, and the village itself looked not at all like I remembered – much larger, and stretched out along the west shore of the harbor, whereas the habitation that we visited forty years ago must have been on the east side. It was just offshore from Ship Harbor that Roosevelt and Churchill had their historic shipboard meeting in 1940 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter. Some seven miles beyond the town of Ship Harbor, at the end of a very bumpy gravel road, a monument commemorating the signing of the Charter has been constructed on a bluff overlooking the location of that famous anchorage. We drove out to see it, and I’m glad we did, but came away convinced that it has to be one of the most inaccessible and least frequented monuments anywhere in the world.|
|After covering virtually all the sights on the Avalon peninsula, my son and I topped the week off with a couple pints of bitter at the Crow’s Nest in St. John’s, one place that had not changed much in 40 years. The Crow’s Nest is a private club established in the early years of WWII as a gathering place for officers of the allied forces and still functioning in essentially the same mode. We signed the guest book on a page adjacent to one signed by Prince Philip the night before, the Royals having been in town for a week of events commemorating the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s landing in Newfoundland. Much shorter than Newfoundland’s history, that of NAVSTA Argentia spanned only some 53 years, but for many U.S. personnel who passed through during its tenure, the base and its cultural and geographic setting have left a most indelible impression.|