© Copyright Michael Dan Kellum 2010
U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
"I can see only one color and there can be only one color (racially-speaking)
in the Marine Corps…GREEN."
1stLt. Talbot Watson
United States Naval Base
Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, 1969
MCB Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, February 5, 1969
After graduating from TBS, I drove on down to Jacksonville, North Carolina, to the huge East
Coast Marine Corps Base (MCB) Camp Lejeune. I was temporarily assigned to Charlie Co.,
1/6, 2ndMarDiv, which was training to be part of the Marine float battalion in the Mediterranean
Sea. A USMC battalion is always available as a rapid deployment force in those hostile waters
far from home. Marines also train with other friendly countries’ military units in the Med for
possible future cooperation in case of an emergency.
I trained 1/6 troops from February until April 1st when I was chosen to fill a billet for an officer
in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And if I had gone on that Med Cruise I most likely would have
missed going to Vietnam altogether. I later thanked God for giving me time to mature and
become a better officer before taking on the awesome responsibility of combat troops in
U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, April Fool’s Day, 1969
I had to laugh to be sent to Cuba on April Fool’s Day. We flew out of Marine Corps Air
Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, North Carolina on the once a week flight to Gitmo, Cuba.
The landing on Leeward Point Field (Guantanamo Bay separates the leeward and windward
sides of the naval base) was a stomach-churning sharp starboard turn and an extreme descent
to the 2,400 meter long runway that had my head spinning. And once on the ground, the radical
reversing of engines and braking made us strain at our seat harnesses on the large C-130.
I found out later that the west end of the runway was only 1,400 meters from the wire
separating us from Communist Cuba! The C-130 pilot was banking sharply to avoid their air
space and had very little room in which to maneuver.
At the east end of the runway was an unforgiving cliff drop-off into the ocean. Those cliffs
claimed at least one F-4E Phantom jet on a failed "touch and go" before I rotated home. I never
got to fly one but I at least got to see a broken one up close.
History of how Gitmo came to be began when the USS Maine blew up February 15, 1898 in
Havana harbor. (Spain was blamed for the sabotage in 1898 but in later years reassessments
of the explosion showed it originated from inside the ship and could very well have been due to
unsafe combustible conditions in the gunpowder magazine room---MDK). In the Spanish-
American War, declared after the sinking, Marines landed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, June 10,
1898 and engaged Spanish troops that night. By the end of the ground campaign around Gitmo
August 5, 1898, the Marines had soundly defeated the Spanish troops garrisoned on the
eastern end of Cuba.
On December 10, 1903 after pressure was applied on the new Cuban government, the
United States began leasing Gitmo for 2,000 pesos in gold ($4,085 at today’s values) per year
in perpetuity. When Fidel Castro came to power as a Communist in 1959, he refused to cash
the rent checks for the 45-square-mile base saying, “That base is in their possession against
the will of our people…it is a dagger thrust into the heart of Cuba’s land…”
The naval installation was in a tenuous position on the frontlines in the 1962 Missile Crisis
with Russia. A vast minefield covering 735 acres was begun at that time on the leeward and
windward sides to protect the base from ground attack. Eventually 70,000 anti-personnel and
anti-tank mines were strewn throughout making it the densest minefield in the world. It was not
uncommon for Cuban Nationals jumping the fence, wild animals, a hard rain, ground-shaking
thunder or even a gust of wind to set off an explosion in the minefield. Many years later the
minefield would be dismantled.
In the mid-1990s the base housed thousands of Cuban and Haitian refugees and by the end
of the 1990s Kosovo Albanians who fled former Yugoslavia sought refuge there.
The base hit the national news in January 2002 as it became the detention center for
detainees from the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Operation Iraqi
Freedom POWs would also be incarcerated at Gitmo creating an uproar over their legal status.
In 2009 the newly elected Pres. Barack Obama began procedures to remove the detainees
from Cuba as part of his campaign promise.
The naval installation was just a sleepy little outpost stuck out on the end of a seriously
Communist island that April 1969 as I came aboard. When the naval personnel and their
dependents laid their heads down on their pillows at night, they could rest assured there was
always an alert Marine on fence line watch to guarantee their peaceful slumber.
Marine Units in Cuba, 1969
2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment (2/8), 2ndMarDiv had two line companies, Golf and, I
think the other was Hotel, in Cuba to guard the 17.4 mile perimeter surrounded by a 6-foot high
chain-link fence topped by barbed wire that separated Gitmo from Castro’s Communist Cuba.
Besides protecting the Navy base, we also provided asylum to Cuban fence jumpers.
A Marine artillery battery, tank company and fixed wing aircraft (rotating basis) were at Gitmo
in support of the two infantry companies. There was also an H&S Co. providing administration
and a Motor Transport unit. While Golf Co. pulled guard line duty on the leeward side, Hotel Co.
held field training exercises on the windward side. Each month the companies traded places.
Upon my arrival, the colonel had me do scud work inventorying every item in the battalion
and checking all weapons’ serial numbers. He was intent on finding a particular missing pistol.
The .45 turned up on my inventory list, which pleased the colonel to no end. After that, I
became Golf Co. XO under 1stLt. Talbot Watson of Lake Charles, Louisiana, the CO and a Nam
A briefing at battalion told of the vast array of Cuban military hardware, personnel and Mig
airbases on the other side of the fence. Overwhelming forces faced our small Marine presence.
So-called "intelligence experts" gave us little chance of repelling a determined attack by the
Cubans. Oh ye of little faith. Consolation was that stateside military forces could retake Gitmo
several days after our being overrun which gave us little comfort in the trench lines.
Golf Co.’s jeep driver casually pointed out a potter’s cemetery near the end of the Leeward
Point Field "guarded" by 5-foot-long prehistoric-looking lizards sunning themselves on the
rocks. I didn’t find out until much later that they were Cuban rock iguanas, an endangered
species in the rest of the country.
The cemetery contained the bodies of Cuban Nationals who died from wounds received from
Cuban fence guards, succumbed to illness or tripped mines along the fence line. Castro refused
to allow their repatriated burial on Communist Cuban soil.
My thought on that was that if I were Cuban it couldn’t get any better than to know I was
being buried on "free" Cuban soil in deference to the situation in Communist Cuba.
(All Photos below by Michael Dan Kellum, April 1-September 28, 1969)
Golf Co., 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Leeward side barracks in Guantanamo
Bay, Cuba. The company's Mighty Mite jeep is parked in front. It was said the Cuban
Commando School across the fence line liked to send its graduates over to steal the lug
nuts off our jeep as a part of their passage into the ranks...perhaps. Each morning the
two artillery shells in front were given a high shine with Brasso. Golf Co. had 180 Marines
on its rolls in 1969.
This photo was taken at the Windward side park shortly before a "donnybrook" occurred at our
Field Day competition covered in Chapter 8. 1stLt. Talbot Watson of Lake Charles, LA., Golf
Co., 2/8 CO, at right, stares at the camera behind his shades. Next to him is 1stLt. Bob
Jacome, Motor Transport officer. In between the two men in the distance is Lt.Col. McCormick,
2/8's battalion commander, and he's talking to Maj. Seay with his back to camera. At left in t-
shirt, is 1stLt. Mike "Gator" Davis. Note the rolling hills in the distance that were typical of the
terrain on the Windward side of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Just so happens Golf Co. won the
Field Day competition that involved competition with the M-14 rifle tear down and reassemble
relay (even though the M-16 rifle had been in use in Vietnam since 1967, we were still training
troops with the outdated M-14); 3-mile forced march requiring us to bring all our Marines
across the finish line in formation; an egg toss for fun; and other Marine-related events.
I regret this is the only photo I was able to get of the Bear Pit event. The object of this "Fun Event"
was for the two Golf Co. Marines inside the circle to throw the two Hotel Co. Marines out of the
circle. The "shirts and skins" clasping hands around them were Hotel and Golf Marines who either
wanted to prevent their man from being thrown out or tried to make a hole for their man to throw
the opposition out. After drinking beer off and on over the course of a typically very hot Cuban day
after they had participated in various Field Meet events, it didn't take much to change the "Fun
Event" into a brawl...or as the U.S. Navy news correspondent put it in the Gitmo newspaper, "a
donnybrook." Maj. "The Virginian" Seay attempted to stop 16 or more Marines from fighting and
caught a right cross thrown blindly by a Marine that connected with the major's jaw. Lt. Watson
and I had warned the major we had better let them wear down before stepping in, else...well, you
know, what happened. The major flew out of the fight on his derriere and skidded to a stop at our
feet. He did stop the fight as all the fighters quit brawling to rubberneck at the major rubbing his
jaw on the ground. Never did find out who cold cocked the major. The Bear Pit was dropped for
the next Field Meet competition.
Sgt. Mulranko, Golf Co. platoon sergeant, in foreground and others along the deck reinforces the
point that a Marine can manage to sack out anywhere, anytime, no matter the conditions. This is
Golf Co. Marines returning from the successful Field Meet on the Windward side. The ferry is
taking us back to the Leeward side totally exhausted after all the competition topped by the
"donnybrook" that lasted most the day. Crossing Guantanamo Bay was always an intriguing trip
as Marines would toss food over the side to watch the sharks gather and follow along in our
wake. You always wondered how fast the sharks would react to a Marine falling overboard in lieu
of food. Not a good thought.
1stLt. Chuck Sweeny leans against a jeep as Golf Co. Marines relax in various positions all over
the ferry on the way back from the Field Meet. I imagine the Marines aft are looking for the trailing
sharks. I seem to recall that Sweeny ran a distance event in the Pan American Games before
joining the Marines. The Windward side is in the distance. Most the dependents and structures in
Gitmo were on the Windward side as was a civilian-like McCalla Airport. The Leeward side was
more Spartan structure-wise with a short runway at the Leeward Point Field where F-4 Phantoms
typically flew "touch and goes" for our entertainment sitting on the veranda of the Officer
Bachelor's Quarters. One Phantom neglected to "go" one day and rolled off the cliff at the end of
the runway and "broke."
Lt.Col. McCormick's stretch jeep after a terrible accident around May 1969. Trying to catch the
ferry back to the Leeward side after a party at the BOQ at Camp Bulkeley on the Windward side,
1stLt. "Mac" McCombs lost control of the jeep in an "S" curve and flipped it in the dark. Lt.
McCombs was thrown clear, up against a roadside embankment and suffered a concussion; Lt.
Watson was sitting behind McCombs and he was thrown out sliding down the road on his rear; a
Capt. "Blades," helicopter pilot air liaison, was hung up in the canvas strap from the jeep's roof
and suffered numerous breaks in his jaw, his ear was practically torn off and he had glass
embedded against his spinal cord...is what I seem to recall; and I was behind the captain and hit
my head on the roadside gravel embedding gravel in the side of my head, spit out broken teeth,
required stitches under my jaw where my knee hit me and split my scalp about 6 inches. Odd
thing is I asked the captain if he was all right and he mumbled that he was so I went on to check
on McCombs. Watson checked him and said he was in bad shape. Mac stayed in the hospital
overnight; the captain was medevacked stateside the next afternoon; I had gravel picked out of
my head and got stitches to close the wound on my head; and Watson had his butt treated. The
jeep did not do well either as you can see. I would go on to have more bad luck with jeeps in
TOP, watch tower on the edge of the cliffs at Gitmo. The fence line separating us from
Cuba is just 20 or 30 feet away. BELOW, road and fence line separates Gitmo from Cuba.
TOP, looking from high ground at the salt flats that are sometimes flooded by rains or high tides. A 6-by
approaches changing the bunker guard. BELOW, this was the typical fence the Cuban Nationals had
to scale to earn a one-way airline ticket to Miami in 1969. Note the numerous strands of barbed wire.
An African-American Golf Co. Marine at gunpoint made his two white Marine post mates
leave late one night and threatened to shoot anyone who approached "his" post. Kind of
made it hard to check posts as Officer-of-the-Day. Not knowing the particulars of the
brouhaha, my driver and I pulled up to the post with the headlights on bright aimed at the
watch tower and I got out and called for him to come down. It took him awhile but he did
and I relieved all three Marines from fighting on post. Next day before I could sit down to
have my breakfast, the gun-toting Marine split one of the white Marine's scalp with a
whack from a rifle rod. The troublesome Marine ended up in the Gitmo Navy Brig and
eventually the Lejeune Brig back stateside. Never a dull moment in Cuba.
Windward side in Cuba was mostly rocky shores and cliffs except for Windmill Beach in the
distance. I found this view very picturesque with the cactus in the foreground and the beauty
of the Caribbean in the distance. Before the sun came up Monday-Friday, 1stLt. Talbot
Watson and I would lead calisthenics in the dark at Camp Bulkeley then head off for our
morning run that sometimes went down the road to Windmill Beach. The sun would rise off to
our left in the east appearing to sizzle out of the ocean as we ran down to the beach. It was
invigorating in the cool morning air. We were Marines...Teufelhunden...Devil Dogs. We were
in the best shape of our young lives and our enemies in combat feared us with good reason.
We would yell cadence at the top of our lungs and it gave you chills to hear 180 young men
in unison, totally in step, yelling back the cadence. On the Leeward side we got complaints
from the Navy dependents' quarters we were making too much noise in the morning running
past their domiciles. The base commander, an admiral, pulled rank and told our colonel to
have us run quietly. Imagine that? Lt. Watson explained the situation and how we were going
to abide by the admiral's order yet circumvent it. While running, he would stomp one foot
harder on the ground than the other in lieu of cadence and 180 Marines and a few Navy
guys who ran with us would answer his stomp with a stomp in unison of their own. You could
literally see the plants on the dependents' front porches swaying in the shock wave we
produced, i.e. a mini-earthquake. What could the dependents' say, "Those damn Marines are
running too loud? Too heavy? Too, something...shook the dishes in my cabinet and pictures
fell off the walls? My cat still won't come out from under the bed." Civilians just didn't
understand...we were doing what Marines do and we are in a constant state of training and
preparedness. Semper Fi.
(AUTHOR'S NOTE: What follows is the opening pages of Book I, American
Heroes: Grunts Pilots & "Docs" Chapter 8 telling of my experiences in Gitmo,
Cuba. It was an amazing duty station to end up at rather than Vietnam like so
many of my other fellow TBS officers graduating from Quantico. I trained
Marines and guarded the fence line around Gitmo from April 1 - September
28, 1969. I gained confidence in my new role as a Marine officer as I faced
numerous situations requiring on the spot decisions. It helped me to hit the
ground running sure of myself when I finally did arrive in Vietnam the next
year. Below is a pictorial review of my time in balmy Gitmo).