Kagnew Station Eritrea, Ethiopia - The Main Gate, in the 60s. Image Credit: Tom McCandless Kagnew Station Eritrea, Ethiopia - The Main Gate, in the 60s. Image Credit: Tom McCandless

Kagnew Station Eritrea, Ethiopia: Big Joe Peep & the Incident of the Broken Lawn Mower

This is the second part of a series of articles written by Skip Dahlgren about his time at the U.S. military base Kagnew Station in Asmara, Eritrea and Ethiopia during the 50s and 60s. The first part was published during Christmas 2014 titled “A tree at Kagnew Station Asmara in 1968 – my time in Eritrea and Ethiopia”.

During the Vietnam conflict, there was a strict hierarchy for supplying military bases that weren’t located in Nam or directly supporting the troops stationed there.

Although I was posted to Kagnew Station, a high-security communications base that probably was considered essential to the national security of the U.S., we were at the far end of a long supply chain in the highlands of Eritrea, which at that time was considered to be the coastal province of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, so when our supplies ran out, at a time before computers, Internet, or otherwise automated resupply systems, it sometimes took weeks for replacements to arrive.

One of the greatest calamities to confront the personnel at Kagnew was when the P.X. ran out of peanut butter. Even more cataclysmic was the time they ran out of toilet paper.

Of course, both of these catastrophes were rendered more disastrous by the xenophobia of so many of the troops, dependents, and civilians stationed there. Both items, and most others that might be needed in the household, could easily be purchased in the stores or the open market in downtown Asmara.

Despite the economic troubles caused by the closing of the Suez Canal in 1967, the Eritrean capital was a well-to-do multicultural city, partly constructed in the style of a northern Italian town, and largely built in a more traditional African pattern, with thriving commerce throughout.

Indeed, thanks to Mussolini’s artistic bent, Asmara had become his showplace, and to this day is renowned for the finest assortment of Art Deco architectural masterpieces in the world. Google it if you don’t believe me!

Sadly, a large percentage of Kagnew residents proudly asserted that they had never gone off-base, and never would, except to their work sites, when the time came to return Stateside, or perhaps during leave, when they might fly to destinations in Europe or perhaps on safari in Kenya or South Africa. Such people would rather go without peanut butter, and tear up phone books for toilet paper, rather than shop off-base in Asmara, so for them it was an exciting day when a cargo plane landed at the U.S. military airfield, adjacent to the Ethiopian international airport on the outskirts of town, with the long-missing peanut butter or bathroom tissue in the cargo manifest.

The operations station where I worked, known as Tract C, was a highly secure site, a windowless concrete block structure surrounded by a double 13 foot high security fence reinforced at the top, which was bent back at a sharp angle, with sharp barbed wire. The only entrance was at the main gate, guarded at all times by well-trained MPs who had high security clearances.

The work performed inside was classified, some at the very highest level, and only people who had top secret clearances and above could enter, except under special circumstances, such as when the local nationals who performed some of the maintenance work on the base had to be brought in, closely escorted. At such times, flashing red ceiling lights and blaring klaxons left no doubt that uncleared personnel were in the secure sections of Tract C. Doors were kept shut, and in this day before computers or networks, any work product that had to be moved between rooms was enclosed in the same brown paper bags that usually were employed as burn bags to destroy any classified paperwork that was no longer needed.

Despite the forbidding nature of the site, the greatest effort was made to ensure that the yard within the double fence had a lawn which was kept green and well trimmed, even during the dry season, when the land surrounding Tract C was dry and dusty, and the villagers living in the region looked enviously at the grass while their cattle, sheep, and goats struggled to graze on the meager vegetation in the surrounding countryside.

Tract C Eritrea
Tract C at Kagnew Asmara was a top secret secure operations site on the base.

Only when the drought that in the following decade grew to such a disaster began drastically reducing the amount of available water did the powers that be stop watering the grass at this and the other operations sites.

Of course, watered grass grows, and has to be kept trim on a regular schedule to continue to meet military standards. A rotary mower was kept at the site, and it was someone’s duty to be sure that the grass was kept mowed at all times.

Unfortunately, machines break, even military issue rotary mowers, and a time came when the Tract C mower gave out. More unfortunate was the fact that the parts needed to repair it, at least those within the military supply chain, were not stocked this side of the North American continent. It was unthinkable that the grass be allowed to grow untended during the weeks it would take for the parts to arrive, but there was no obvious solution to the problem. For some reason, borrowing mowers from other operations sites either wasn’t considered, or was dismissed as impractical.

At this time I worked in a room at the back of the building, dutifully listening to short wave side band radio, recording transmissions that might be useful, and then transcribing the recordings, or in special circumstances the live signal, using large office-style manual typewriters with sprocketed platens that drew multi-colored 6-ply carboned paper through as we typed.

The resulting multi-ply product then went to another room where the plies were separated and distributed for translation or decoding, and from there to those who would analyze the final work product, both locally and Stateside at the top security Agency headquarters, along with the recorded tapes which were sent there regularly, with which the whole process was duplicated.

A lot of people were kept busy by this massive duplication of effort, much of which revealed little of any possible use, at least as far as we could tell at our end.

Our little room was supervised by a sergeant I’ll call Joe Hill, who had been passed over for promotion to 1st Sergeant, and had therefore decided not to re-up. His short-timer attitude made him a more welcome supervising non-com than many who had passed through our area.

We were mostly college graduates, trained in Arabic or other esoteric languages by the Army and in some cases with other advanced training as well before being deployed to Kagnew, while the non-coms were old school career R.A. Regular Army in those days usually meant someone who had been drafted and decided that the Army made a better career opportunity than many Stateside alternatives, but many of them were not even high school graduates, so despite their higher ranks and longevity, they found us to be mildly intimidating, and disparagingly labeled us “the ragheads”.

We in turn were usually so fed up with the monotonous sameness of our duties that, much like the surgeons in M*A*S*H, we sought any possible source of entertainment or distraction from the drudgery. Butter pats from the mess hall might be catapulted from butter knives onto the ceiling, and wagers were made on how long they would hang there before gravity took hold. Sometimes thereafter the butter knives were tossed so they would lodge in the acoustic tiles on the wall or ceiling. These were but a few of the imaginative whimsies that kept us sane during hours of ennui.

When the Tract C lawn mower broke, sergeant Joe, who was at least as bored as we were, got the inspired idea to investigate whether some of the villagers who lived nearest the site would be willing to let us bring some of their livestock inside the security fences on a daily basis until the mower could be repaired. This, he reasoned, would be beneficial to all concerned. The grass would be kept looking STRAC. The animals would be fed far better than they could be on the surrounding dry fields. And it would provide a welcome diversion for some of us from our usual duties.

After clearing the project with the base commandant and the site commander, he asked me if I would go with him to some villages to try to arrange the exchange. My Arabic was good, and I was learning the related local language, Tigrinya, and he could see that I was spending far more time off base than most of the others, so he considered me to be the best choice for the task. Of course, I eagerly accepted.

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The next day, we drove to the nearest village, and after some negotiation with an elder, arranged for some of the children who spent their days herding their family animals to lead them to the Tract C gate, where we would bring them inside the fences and turn them loose on the grass, and then at the end of the day we would drive them back out so the boys could take them home.

Understandably, these little lads were considered to be serious security risks. They could not be permitted to enter the site under any circumstances, and had to remain outside the double fence, where all they could do was watch while their cattle, sheep, and goats eagerly feed on the lush grass. In order to keep them from becoming overly nervous at the enforced separation from their families’ wealth, we would buy hamburgers and franks at the little snack shop and slip them through the outer fence to mollify the young herders.

That was the plan. Of course, no plan is ever as simple in reality. The biggest problem right from the start was that none of us ragheads had any practical experience with livestock, and of course the calves, sheep, and goats had no idea who we were and why they were expected to go inside that fence with us, away from their familiar herders.

Of course, once we managed to lead, pull, or otherwise cajole them inside the compound and they saw the wonderful green grass, they decided that Tract C was a pretty good place after all. In fact, they were so happy that at the end of the day, they weren’t about to let us strangers in olive drab herd them back out, away from the best meal they’d had in months.

Between leading us a merry chase around the compound and slipping into the security space between the fences, they made it quite clear that they didn’t want to leave; and of course the boys, who could have gotten them to behave, weren’t allowed inside to help, but had to wait beyond the gate, laughing at our awkward attempts.

The boys had spent the whole day keeping their eyes on their charges, clearly fearful that we would steal some of the animals, perhaps even cheat them out of the whole herd. We did what we could to reassure them, but they weren’t really satisfied until they saw our sad attempts to guide the animals back through the fence, although through the day their concern was held in check with an abundance of burgers and franks.

The following days went far more smoothly, and appeared to be a total success. The animals were delighted to be able to take another crack at their task of trimming the lawn, and the boys were happy to get another chance to relax for the day while being bribed with handouts through the fence.

They would arrive bright and early each day, eager to go on with the Great Experiment. Their families and the village elders were pleased with the opportunity to feed their animals so well during an otherwise dry season. After tentatively sending a small number of animals the first day, more villagers joined the cavalcade each successive day, which of course meant that there were more boys, and a few girls, hanging around outside the fence all day with huge appetites for American fast food, loudly proclaiming the urgency of their famished state, while their animals quietly but eagerly grazed.

Most everyone who worked at Tract C was enjoying this diversion from the usual sameness of work at the site. Our sergeant became something of a folk hero for coming up with the idea, and we took to calling him “Big Joe Peep.”

No good deed goes unpunished, and no good idea succeeds without a hitch. We knew that once the lawn mower was repaired, we wouldn’t be able to continue turning Tract C into a feed lot. But someone should have foreseen the possibility of the actual sudden termination of the project. After all, this was the Army. But we went on, unsuspecting, until the day came when the base commandant paid a visit. Whether it was for an inspection, a meeting with the site commander, or just to see at firsthand how the lawn trimming project was coming along, is unimportant. Whether the calamity that spelled the project’s demise occurred as the commandant was entering the site, touring the grounds, or departing, is immaterial.

The origin of the fateful substance isn’t remembered, and ultimately doesn’t matter. All that matters is that in the effort to keep the appearance of the site up to military standards, Big Joe Peep and the rest of us neglected one unavoidable secondary factor which inevitably doomed the enterprise. On that fateful day, as the commandant walked through the grounds, he inadvertently came upon something that had been left in the grass by one of the feeding animals and stepped in it.

The livestock were immediately returned to the village herders outside the fence, and no more animals were allowed in the compound. The repair of the lawn mower was expedited, and arrangements were made to have one delivered on loan from another operations site in the interim. And the grounds were scrupulously scrutinized, raked, and otherwise rendered totally and permanently free of manure.

By Skip Dahlgren

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