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Turks and Caicos Islands

 

PETER O’CONNOR

Staff Columnist

oconnor@lbknews.com

Recent front page news brings these islands to the attention of many.

Indeed this chain of “salt islands” is not found in your average lexicon.

Some of you, our readers, may have heard of them; some of you may even have visited one or more of them.  Long, long ago I was stationed on two of these in my first Seabee tour.  How things have changed.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are a British Overseas Territory consisting of the larger Caicos Islands and smaller Turks Islands, two groups of tropical islands in the Lucayan Archipelago, part of the larger Antilles island grouping. They are known primarily for tourism and as an offshore financial centre.The Turks and Caicos Islands lie southeast of Mayaguana in the Bahamas island chain and north of the island of Hispaniola. Cockburn Town, the capital since 1766, is situated on Grand Turk Island about 1,042 kilometres (647 mi) east-southeast of Miami, United States. The islands have a total land area of 430 square kilometres (170 sq mi).

The islands are geographically contiguous with the Bahamas, but are politically separate.

The total population is about 31,500 of whom approximately 27,000 live on Providenciales in the Caicos Islands.

In August 2009, the United Kingdom suspended the Turks and Caicos Islands’ self-government after allegations of ministerial corruption. The prerogatives of the ministerial government and the House of Assembly were vested in the islands’ governor, Gordon Wetherell, and his successor, Ric Todd, pending the report of a Commission of Inquiry and the drafting of a new Constitution of the Turks and Caicos Islands Home rule was restored in the islands after the November 2012 elections. (Wikipedia)

My memory of life in the Turks and Caicos Islands is far removed, both in time and in place, from the current description I quote above.  I lived and served  mostly on Grand Turk (the capital) and on South Caicos.  Believe me these there was no financial centre there in those days – late 1950s.  I vividly recall the request of many young native lads there, “PSST, Hey Seabee. Give me dime.”  And we did. That was our financial doings.

Cockburn Town was no boom town in those days.  I remember the large dug ponds which are the essence of the salt business.  These are flooded; the sun evaporates the sea water; the salt is left to be harvested.  This was all hand work back then.  Periodically a ship from the Morton Salt Company would arrive to carry salt away.  Fishing rounded out the economy for the islanders.  On Grand Turk there was a USAF facility contractor operated by Pan American Airways.  The Navy operated what was collectively called a Naval Facility.  This was a 100 or so man outfit which, shall we say, listened in the sea.  Listened for Russian submarines which might attempt to traverse the Caicos Trench to enter the Gulf of Mexico – thus reaching a potential firing point to target the American Heartland.  A USCG Loran Station was also on Grand Turk.  The American presence was a holdover rom the WWII “Destroyer Deal” which traded Naval Destroyers to Great Britain for basing rights on these British islands.  We Seabees were there to rebuild and expand the Naval Facility and relocate the Coast Guard Station to South Caicos.  Similar facilities were our worksite on San Salvador, further North in the Bahamas.  The Construction Battalion lived in tent camps.  I lived in a tent for more than a year.  This is not tourism.

I suppose that the Loran Stations are no longer operating.  These were”Loran C”, not needed in the satellite era.  Listening for Ruskies in Submarines is no longer needed.  They can hit us from their heartland now.  The fishing is more for sport these days, although I imagine they still freeze the longusta as “South African Lobster Tails” sold in NYC.  No kidding, they did that.

Tropical cyclones or hurricanes were interesting there as they are here on another island home.  We tracked the storms with interest, but no action.  There was no evacuation possible; you stayed in place and rode it out.  I recall an evening’s blow when the canvass of our tent blew away leaving the plywood floor and walls.  Nobody got up.  We rolled over in our neat white Navy blankets.  Cleanup could wait for morning.

You’ll note that these islands are north of Hispaniola, the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  Our Coast Guard friends flew us there in their R4D (DC3).  The Dominican Republic, then a dictatorship under Raphael Trujillo was a well run country under serious military control. The Seabees liked it there for occasional liberty.  We rode our support ship, a USCG buoy tender.  Her skipper was appalled at the lack of sea legs under Civil Engineer Corps Ensigns.  He remedied that fault.

Life on Turk and Caicos was not far removed in time and in detail from the WWII Seabees of John Wayne fame.  This was a long no kidding moment.

The news of late relates to the better developed of these islands, Providenciales.  They have jet service to several American cities from this tourist mecca.  They also have a better developed police and customs service, as recent news will attest.

We had weekly air service on BWIA (British West Indies Airways), daily USAF service from Patrick AFB near Melbourne, and an occasional Pan Am stop to service their navigational beacon.  We  were supported mainly by USCG aircraft from Miami and San Juan.  The Coast Guard Cutter helped out.  This is how boys became men.  A year on a sand spit in the Atlantic will do that for you.  Tents are grand too.  These were not the LL Bean variety.  I understand that there is actually a hotel on Grand Turk now, with running water!  We caught ours from the rains, and distilled the rest.  It was a grand introduction to the life of a Civil Engineer; pretty good training as an officer, a lifetime experience.  We, MCB  SEVEN, next deployed to Puerto Rico.  We had arrived.

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