Air-Ports of Call 

NAS Bermuda
By
Derek Squire

 Naval Air Station Bermuda officially marked the end of more than a half a century of American military presence on the island with a closing down ceremony in June of 1995. US Navy personnel turned over all air operations to the Government of Bermuda including weather forecasting, air traffic control, electronic maintenance and fire fighting. American military personnel had operated and maintained the island's only airfield since 1941. Prior to American entry into the Second World War, an agreement had been arranged between the Governments of Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and President Roosevelt for the loan of a number of obsolete ex-US Naval destroyers to the Royal Navy and the Royal Canadian Navy. In exchange the USA was granted 99-year base rights in a number of British West Indian territories.

 Although not part of this exchange, Churchill also gave the US similar base rights in Bermuda and Newfoundland. This came as rather a surprise to the Colonial Government, when US engineers arrived in 1941 to begin surveying the colony for the construction of an airfield that was envisioned as taking over most of the West End of the Island. The US Army would build an airfield at the North of Castle Harbour. The terms of the agreement were that the US-built airfield, on British territory, would be a joint US Army/Royal Air Force base. When the airfield became operational in 1943, RAF relocated to it, taking over the West end of the base in Castle Harbour.

 

The entire base measured 260 acres. It was not long enough to allow a useful runway, but did have extensive tarmac and hangar areas. Large Martin flying boats could be pulled ashore for hangarage, and servicing. The base continued to be used for this purpose until the 1960s, when the last flying boats were withdrawn from service. US Navy P-2 Neptune landplanes, based at the USAF base, Kindley Field, then took over the maritime patrol role. Kindley Air Force Base was a United States Air Force base in Bermuda from 1948–1970. The USAF continued to operate the base primarily as a refuelling station for trans-Atlantic flights. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the base was also used to operate reconnaissance flights by aeroplanes tracking Soviet shipping in the Atlantic. By the 1960s, with the increase in the range of transport aircraft, Kindley Field's usefulness to the USAF had rapidly diminished. Whereas the Second World War air patrols had protected merchant shipping in the Atlantic, the Cold War patrols aimed to guard US cities from Soviet submarines armed with ballistic nuclear missile. The US Navy took over Kindley Field entirely, in 1970, and renamed it NAS Bermuda. The base continued to operate anti-submarine patrols, first with Neptunes, then with P-3 Orions, until 1995. By that time, the range of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) had so increased that Soviet submarines no longer found it necessary to come within range of Bermuda-based aircraft in order to strike their targets in the USA. Reflecting this, the US Naval air detachment at Bermuda had been steadily reduced from a full squadron to two aeroplanes. Except for the NASA tracking station on Coopers Island (at the Eastern End of NAS Bermuda), all US facilities in Bermuda were closed in 1995, even though the US still had many years remaining on the original 99 year lease. The lease was subsequently let to lapse by the USN. The Bermudian government took over operation of the field in 1995, being obliged to spend a great deal of money making it conform to international civil aviation standards. This involved changes to lighting systems, fencing, and razing any objects over a certain height, within a certain distance of the runway (which included both the former base commander's residence and the hillock on which it stood).

 

Basking in the Atlantic, 508 mi due east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, restrained, polite Bermuda is a departure from other sunny, beach-strewn isles. You won't find laid-back locals wandering around barefoot proffering piña coladas. Bermuda is somewhat formal, and despite the gorgeous weather, women wearing stockings and heels or, for men jackets, ties, Bermuda shorts, and knee socks are a common sight, whether on the street by day or in restaurants at night. On Bermuda's 21 square miles of coral sands, pastel cottages, quaint shops, and manicured gardens telegraph a staid, suburban way of life. Most of the island is residential; the speed limit is 20 mi per hour (although many drivers go faster). Golf and tennis are popular pastimes, with most visitors being over 40 years old.

A few Bermudians still speak the Queen's English, but the majority have their own unique accent, which reflects the country's diverse English, American, West Indian, and African influences. The population of just over 60,000 is 63% black, 33% white, and 4% Asian and other. A self-governing British territory since 1968, with a parliament that dates from 1620, Bermuda loves pomp and ceremony.

 Canadian maritime patrol aircraft were regularly detached to Bermuda to exercise with our own and allied navies. The generally good flying weather and fine water conditions, so close to the Canadian east coast bases (799 miles from Greenwood),  were perfect for training in anti-submarine operations. The springtime “Trainex” would attrack not only Argus / Aurora, but T-33, Hercules, Seaking, Tracker, and various fighter aircraft to the Canadian ramp area at the south west corner of the airfield.

 

During the Cold War, the Canadians established their own permanent presence, mostly in anti-submarine warfare and electronic surveillance, at Daniel's Head, in Sandys Parish. The former Canadian Forces Station at Daniel's Head had 17 acres. Before leaving, the Canadians cleaned up the pollution they once had created. A new and unusual hotel, Daniel's Head Village, opened in August 2000, but has since closed as uneconomic.

 

The Swizzle Inn, in Baileys Bay, is Bermuda's oldest and certainly most famous pub. Established in 1932 in a 17th century roadhouse, the "Swizzle" as locals call it, is home to Bermuda's national drink the Rum Swizzle. This potent rum and fruit juice cocktail is legendary.  However, one thing that has never changed has been the unique pub area with its graffiti and business cards as well as the rustic furniture and fixtures. The visitor books date back to 1942 and are full of funny anecdotes about people's visit to the Swizzle Inn. Many a Canadian military member on detachment, has pulled their rented scooter into that famous parking lot immediately after coming across Longbird Bridge from the base.

 

Kindley Field (TXKF) is now Hamilton Bermuda International Airport (BDA). The position is 32 degrees 22 minutes North, and 64 degrees 41 minutes West. The elevation of the runway is 6 feet above MSL. One runway ( 12/30 at 9,711 feet) only is available, but can handle aircraft up to the size of a B777. Regular arrivals come from Gatwick, Chicago, Halifax, Miami, Boston, New York, Toronto, Munich, and Newark. An interesting point is that there are no regularly scheduled direct flights between Bermuda and Caribbean island destinations. Going by the USA or Canada are the only method of getting to these objectives.

With the Soviet Union gone and NATO restructured, Bermuda's importance as a military base ended. US Military personnel once stationed in Bermuda should note that there have been so many changes in this former base that some places are no longer recognizable or accessible, or were demolished after 1995. The US movie house built in July of 1942 is now for civilian movies. A new nightclub, Club Azure, is in the same building. Carter House, a historical cottage on the base, which was saved from destruction in 1942, is now in the hands of the St. David's Historical Society. The base military Macdonald's is now a local restaurant.  The former commissary has been a  White & Sons supermarket since 2003.  Kindley AFB/USNAS hospital has been abandoned and heavily vandalized since the base closed in 1995. 

Eventually, it is hoped the former base will include a PGA championship 18 hole golf course; a community village; cottage colony (a cottage community health spa, with 200 rooms); private housing, to involve a range of medium and high-priced homes; and a marina. The work will include coastal protection works; an environmental cleanup; installation of electricity, water, telecommunications and sewage treatment facilities and public parks. The whole area has reverted to its original pre World War 2 name of Southside and is owned by the Bermuda Government's Bermuda Land Development Company (BLDC). The entrance to Kindley is now an ice-cream parlour and deli, the Double Dip Express.  The former military bowl is now a privately leased and operated civilian Southside Family Bowl. The BLDC has refurbished 26 former officers’ homes at Southside on long-term leases to locals, in an area now known as Ferguson Park.  A further 12 dwelling units will become available. Some have been demolished. Channel House, a three-floor former military barracks building, is rented as offices for companies. Certain land areas are now public recreation. Some beaches on the former St. David's Island base, once available only to the military, are now prime attractions.

All three US Naval bases in Bermuda that were slated for closure, have been closed except for the NASA tracking station on Coopers Island (at the Eastern End of the old NAS Bermuda). The defence of Bermuda remains the responsibility of the British Government, rather than of the Bermudian Government, which is effectively a local authority. Despite this, the Bermuda Government was historically responsible for maintaining Militia for the defence of the Colony. The only military unit remaining in Bermuda today is the Bermuda Regiment, an amalgam of the voluntary units formed in the 19th Century. The Regiment is in a period of transition now, having lost a company due to the decreasing number of available 18 year olds. Conscription may be phased out, and its role may be revised to a more maritime one.

 For those of us who have had the opportunity to be detached to Bermuda, we will undoubtedly remember the Rum Swizzles, the white sand at Horseshoe Beach, the friendly local populace, the afternoons at the White Horse Pub in St. Georges feeding the fish small pieces of breads crumbs from the terrace, the rental scooters, shopping in downtown Hamilton, Fort St. Catherine tours, the late afternoon thunderstorms in the middle of an “A Check”, and the dreaded “Bermuda Road Rash”. Certainly it was better duty than Thule in February.