Diego Garcia is a small isolated island located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Its slogan reads “The Footprint of Freedom” and its primary function is a base or post for the U.S. military. To give you an idea where this place is because you may not find it on a map; it is 1,909 miles off the eastern coast of Tanzania and 1,357 miles south of India. This piece of coral is British owned territory. (Diego Garcia, B.I.O.T.) Please read on to learn about my time shelling on the secretive island of Diego Garcia!
You may be curious why I am writing about this unique island and the fact it is a military base. My experience here is from my time serving in the U.S. Navy as I had a six month deployment here. I will be writing an article about my time on Diego Garcia and experience in the military at a later date. This will be my first time traveling internationally and an eye opening experience for me. For now, I hope to enlighten you about this beautiful small piece of historical paradise.
History of Diego Garcia Island
Diego Garcia and the surrounding area were discovered by Portuguese explorers around 1512. This territory thereafter was taken over by the French, of which it would remain another 300 years. As a result of The Treaty of Paris signed in 1814 that ended the Napoleonic Wars, Diego Garcia now became a British Colony.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s when the U.S. began utilizing this property. The Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia was launched in 1977 where construction battalions established base for military naval logistics and maritime positioning. My duty here entailed orders with a Patrol Squadron working in the legal and classified departments. The months I spent on Diego were full of water and beach activities (and lots of work days too). My days off I would spend walking along the shoreline searching for and collecting shells and ocean treasures.
Island of Diego Garcia Location
Diego Garcia is essentially a coral atoll encompassing seven miles at its widest point and about 15 miles long. When researching Diego, you will find various different measurements of the island. There are parts of the island which are off limits and require permission to visit. My fellow sailor mate and I went exploring to this part of the island on one of our afternoons off with approval of course. As we approach the area it appears very wild and untouched by man. We notice one small dilapidated structure. We roam around for a short while and suddenly saw a wild horse, which became slightly spooked and wandered off. We didn’t spend much time here, but found it to be very interesting piece of history.
Life On Diego Garcia
I learned as much as I could during my stint living on this spectacular island about who its early occupants were. According to some of my research, Diego Garcia has a connection with Mauritius. I remember there were Mauritians who resided here and ran some of the businesses on the island. These businesses included about three restaurants, a package store, photo development shop, and a few others that I knew of.
Side note: Package store: Supplies are difficult to get at this store and it mostly carries boxed and packaged goods. However, by the time a box of cereal arrived on the island, it was usually a little stale and not fresh. The high humid climate and the remoteness of Diego made it difficult to enjoy fresh foods. There is also no milk available on the island, I made powered milk for my morning breakfasts. On rare occasion, a supply of goat milk would arrive in from Australia. This was an absolute treat!
One of the hot spots on this island is the Brit Club. This was the hopping place to be on Friday and Saturday nights for dancing and enjoying wine and spirits. All the sailors and soldiers who loved to have a good time would be here on the weekend. I celebrated a few nights here, did a little dancing, but mostly I enjoyed my quiet time at my room in the barracks.
A known icon among the residents of Diego Garcia is the giant coconut crab! Yes, I said giant crabs! These guys are crawling everywhere around the island. The main roadway on Diego was filled with road kill as the crabs constantly attempt crossing to the other side. They also scramble along the beaches as well as climbing the coconut trees. These creatures feed on, but of course; coconuts and can be aggressive. They do not attack humans but can climb high in the coconut trees and go for birds. They can usually break the wings of the bird and drag it down from the tree.
Side note: The only vehicles on the island are shuttle buses and some government small pick up trucks.
Besides the giant crabs, there is the fish. We had an all day deep sea fishing excursion of which the base MWR (recreation dept) offered this activity. The Mauritians ran the boating and marine facility and were out on the boat fishing with us as well. They primarily used just a fishing string to do their fishing. In this photo, there are small baby sharks swimming, although it is difficult to see them here.
By the end of the day, we came back to the barracks with just one or two fish. There is said to be an urban legend that we all learned about which is that a large shark is always swimming in the inter coastal areas of the island. Hector the Hammerhead shark really was lurking in the midst of the waters all around Diego during the 1980s and earlier. He eventually was caught and removed from these waters.
Back to my deep sea fishing expedition; I have to share a funny story about this fish. My sailor comrade, Miss W. takes the large fish she caught in her hands while at the barracks room of a fellow mate; Miss S. While sleeping, Miss W. holds the fish close to Miss S.’s face to wake her up. She jumped sky high and screams loud; one couldn’t help but laugh so hard until tears ran! This is just one of the many fun memories of my fellow Navy veterans and I while overseas together.
I do have this on video some where in my files. We did not have smart phones with cameras and video capability as accessible as they are now. We had to rent a video recorder from the base and only had it for a limited time. I recorded practically our whole day deep sea fishing somewhere out in the Indian Ocean miles away from the island. On this adventure, we saw several other islands that comprise the chain of Diego Garcia or rather the Chagos Archipelago. Diego is one of 60 small islands that make up this chain of islands.
This secretive island is primarily a U.S. military base and has had many changes since I was stationed here in 1991-1992. In addition to the U.S. Navy units based here, the Air Force and Space Force have units based on the island as well. My first three months on the island were quite difficult for me as I try to combat isolation and dealing with difficult people in the squadron military chain of command. As I mentioned earlier, phones were not easily accessible to be in touch with home. It was not easy not having a loved one to console with during that deployment being so far away all the while the Gulf War is still a campaign and it was Christmas time.
At that time, the island base offered a phone communication link at a specific building and the cost entailed the following:
*7 Minutes = $35
*15 Minutes = $61
*20 Minutes= $75
My memory may not be accurate here, but I remember paying $60 some dollars to call my family at home on Christmas day. Although not very long to share voice time with your parents, the cost here was worth every penny.
As I worked to change my attitude and mental state of mind during my island residency, I was able to be outdoors and at the beach on my one day off a week. I used the base gym a lot too for exercise and fitness wellness.This gave me an opportunity for quiet time, solitude and relaxation. I walked for hours along the shore looking for shells, sea creatures, and wild sting rays. Many times, my special comrade Miss W would accompany me on my shell search and she was definitely the next best thing to loving family.
It took me many years to take time to reflect on my tour of duty here in Diego Garcia, and this is the first time I’ve written it down. Although my photos are blurry and full of unclear pixels in some of them; the memories are very clear and vivid in my mind. Diego, as we who once resided there call it, will always be a special place in my heart and the experiences shared by my fellow Navy veterans will forever be cherished.