Rich Tower 1968

I was stationed on JI from January 1968 to January 1969.

I was a Captain in the USAF working as the Safety Officer on the Thor missile program. When I arrived, there was a ban on taking photographs on the island (a throwback to the days of high altitude nuclear testing that ended in 1964, with the test ban treaty). For me, it was the equivalent of going to Mars and not being able to send pictures back home! The Island Commander was able to end the prohibition of photos in October of 1968 and a bunch of cameras and film were sold in the BX.

As the 24th Support Squadron Safety Officer, I inherited the Squadron boat (a Boston Whaler with a 75 hp Evinrude). Since the boat was used mostly for diving and that required that the boat driver stand when operating the boat to avoid the reefs in the lagoon, I rebuilt the interior to that configuration. My friend, John Gruetzmacher, the Maintenance Officer got me some epoxy missile paint to repaint the hull and the boat looked pretty good for my time there. There was an old guy, I think his name was Dan, who ran the boathouse. He was pretty gruff but he really helped me a lot with my work on the boat and with the motor.

I did a lot of snorkeling but finally got NAUI certified for SCUBA in the fall of ’68. I wish I had done that sooner. The diving in the lagoon north of the island was fabulous. I was recertified by PADI last spring and have started diving again in Mexico after a 37-year hiatus. I still have my original certification card signed by Will Morris, and dated October 31, 1968.

I remember that Holmes and Narver provided the best institutional food I have ever eaten in a dining hall. They also served dinner in the Officers’ Club every Tuesday and Saturday: Prime rib on Tuesday and Steak on Saturday. To this day, I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a prime rib as much as those I ate on JI.

In the spring, around the equinox, the water level around the island dropped about 3 or 4 feet lower than normal and guys were able to walk the reef and collect the local lobsters. This low tide lasted about a week and then the water level returned to normal. The water level did not drop during the fall equinox; I have never figured out what caused the change in the water level that spring, but apparently that phenomenon occurs every spring.

That summer, there was an earthquake near Japan, and we prepared for the expected tidal wave, or tsunami, that was expected to hit JI some 8 or so hours later: Expected to be five hundred mile per hour and 50 feet high. There was considerable concern since the island was so small and with minimal elevation above sea level. I guess no one on the island realized then that a tsunami will form a wave only when it hits a continental shelf; we never saw a ripple.

I remember softball on Saturday and Sunday and free hotdogs on the grill and the little golf course with sand greens. Everyone had great hi fi equipment in his room, and we all bought tons of great stuff from the Pacific Exchange, or Pacex.

There was no air conditioning in the quarters but the climate was so perfect that it was not necessary. There was a saltwater aquarium in the lobby of the Squadron office building with all sorts of sea life in it until someone put a small moray eel in it and pretty soon he was the only living thing left. I used to swim 20 laps at lunchtime in the pool and jog around the island for exercise. We used to go to the outside theatre with ponchos, in case it rained; “Bonnie and Clyde” was one of the big movies there. I saw “2001, A Space Odyssey”, while on leave in Honolulu: a great movie that no one understood.

My first day on the island, a telecommunications guy was killed when the telephone pole he was working on fell over. They had regraded the area around the pole so that it was only sunk a few feet into the coral, but no one noted the change.

One night when I was the officer of the day, a young security policeman accidentally shot himself while playing with his sidearm. It was at night; he was seated in a chair outside with his feet propped up on a chain link fence. He had removed the cartridges from the gun, and then reloaded it. At that time the cops carried only five cartridges in a six-chamber cylinder and he pulled the trigger, thinking that the empty chamber was coming up. The bullet shattered his femur, traveled down his leg and hit his knee. He was sent to Tripler for treatment. I reported the accident the next day. Absurdly, our higher headquarters suggested that the wound was intentionally self-inflicted (therefore not an accident) so that their safety record would not be tarnished.

Guys used to catch sharks off the west end of the island for their eyes and their jaws. All of the vehicles on the island were severely rusted in spite of frequent washing and waxing because the salt air was so corrosive and unavoidable. In spite of the fact that spearfishing was discouraged on the island since it could attract sharks, some guys would spear moray eels. They’d stick a hose in their mouth to fill them with water to make them heavier and freeze them in a big freezer near the boathouse. The University of Hawaii was paying $0.50 a pound for the eels so they could study the effects on them of nuclear radiation still present from an accident that had occurred before I had gotten there.

I’m sure I had some tough times on the island, but all of my memories of my year there are good. I’d love to see the place again and dive in the lagoon.

Rich Tower