- Historic Sites
How We Got Guantanamo
The Cuban situation was confused, but the Marines were ready. They landed, and our first overseas base was soon well in hand
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
From a strategic point of view, the new acquisition was very useful. With the completion of the Panama Canal it became more so. For Guantanamo Bay flanks the Windward Passage, through which sails more than half the Atlantic traffic entering and leaving the Caribbean. Yet for all its potential, which would not be realized until World War II, Guantanamo Bay remained for years little more than “a pile of coal” at the old coaling station on Hospital Cay. Each winter, when the fleet came south for maneuvers, the somnolent station, manned only by some 300 officers and men, would come to life for a few weeks, and the bay, normally almost empty, would then be serried by lines of battleships and cruisers. If there was trouble in Cuba—and generally there was, with three major revolutions between 1906 and 1918—an expeditionary force of Marines might be held in readiness under canvas on Deer Point, Guantanamo’s springboard for West Indian and Caribbean interventions. Marines from the Deer Point camp went to Mexico in 1914, to Haiti in 1915, and to Santo Domingo in 1916; they were in and out of Cuba as governments rose and fell. Throughout World War I, a Marine brigade lay at “Gitmo,” the Navy’s nickname for the place, ready for action should the Germans seek to foment trouble at our back door.
In the lean years between world wars the base consisted of its dwindling coal pile (the last ship coaled at Guantanamo in 1937), a radio station, marine railways, and a cluster of tin-roofed green shops. As seen in 1926 by a correspondent of the American Mercury, life at Guantanamo had overtones of Kipling:
Here and there, a handful of officers, bleached as white as their uniforms under their wide pith helmets, plod doggedly along at their duties. If the day is not too hot, their wives are riding lazy ponies over the hill to call on the ladies of the Marine Corps at Deer Point. Chinese coolies methodically tend the boilers of the power plant or push tiny flat cars under the somnolent direction of a brown Cuban foreman … There is just enough tennis to keep in condition, just enough swimming to keep moderately cool, just enough bridge of an evening to exhaust the conversation …
But Guantanamo in those days contributed much, indirectly, to the morale of the U.S. Navy. It was the only place regularly visited by most of the Atlantic Fleet where a man could get a drink. To officers and men in the fell clutch of Prohibition, liberty runs up to Caimanera and Red Barn (just outside the station boundary) were a thirst-quenching treat.
Then, as the shadows began to fall over Europe, Guantanamo came to life. The Atlantic Fleet was strengthened. The Marines held landing exercises in the Caribbean almost every year from 1935 on. With stepped-up training and a larger Navy, and with worrisome speculations as to what Hitler’s submarines might do to merchant shipping in the Caribbean, Guantanamo loomed larger. After France fell in 1940, a $5,000,000 contract was let for development of the naval station (before World War II ended, $34,000,000 would be spent). A reinforced Marine garrison worked night and day to install coastal batteries and antiaircraft positions; a radar rig, one of our very first, topped Paul Jones Hill overlooking Cuzco Valley.
On the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Guantanamo had two airfields, a tank farm for fuel oil, a hospital, shops to support the fleet, and barracks for thousands of seamen and Marines. And the bay was never empty. After the German submarines struck (they were to sink 278 Allied ships in the Caribbean between December, 1941, and July, 1943), Guantanamo became a focal point in antisubmarine and convoy operations. As the Navy gradually won the submarine war, action slackened but training forged ahead. Before the war’s end, more than two hundred warships got final “shakedown” training at Guantanamo.
Although there was a momentary lag in Guantanamo’s pace after V-J Day, it picked up again under the demands of the cold war and the ceaseless training requirements of a thousand-ship Navy. In today’s intense search for effective defense against hostile submarines, the underwater environment and configurations of Guantanamo’s neighboring waters have proven ideal for training. In terms of modern strategic and logistic requirements (omitting its psychological importance), Guantanamo is a highly valuable staging and concentration point; and, for general war with a Communist enemy possessing perhaps 400 submarines, it could be the capstone of our defense of the Caribbean and the approaches to the Panama Canal.
Today, an airfield has leveled off most of McCalla Hill. Cuzco Valley is the site of a beach and recreation area. Farther up the valley, not far from the site of the Spanish comandancia which the Marines burned, lies a Navy cemetery. The mountain ridge that loomed behind Huntington’s camp has borne the name Stephen Crane Hill for more than half a century, and Cayo Toro, once garrisoned by the Spanish, is inhabited only by land crabs and scorpions. Generations of Cubans, some descended from Laborde, Tomas, and Garcia, have grown up beside the naval base, have worked there, and have shared the prosperity it brought to the region. United States Marines still guard the base their forebears captured, and American warships still use the great bay for “a harbor of rest.”