A BIT OF HISTORY: "...Stephen Decatur School was started in Malta in 1958. At that time, the Navy shared an airfield with the Royal Navy at Hal-Far. The USN parent unit was FASRON (SP) 201 and they supported visiting VP squadrons and whoever else dropped in. There was no base as such, mostly just a collection of Quonset huts. There was no commissary and the Exchange was in a room about 50x50. Everyone lived on the "economy". The Navy families lived mostly on the east end on the island. Prior to the opening of Stephen Decatur, dependents had the choice of attending the school run by the Royal Navy for their dependents or a local parochial school..." http://www.silverlink.net/~leeman/sig/History.html [19MAR99]
A BIT OF HISTORY: "...Because there was no more room for expansion at Malta, the Navy got NATO backing to use Sicily. Land for Sigonella was therefore made available to the Navy on a temporary basis under the terms of an agreement with the Italian government June 25, 1957. Six days later, equipment began arriving at Sigonella from the Malta base via landing ship tank (LSTs). The fleet Aircraft Service Squadron FASRON (Special) 201 at Halfar was disestablished July 1..." http://www.sicily.navy.mil/history.htm [05OCT2001]
A BIT OF HISTORY: "...FASRON 201 History..." Contributed by Bill Gusky email@example.com [20NOV99]
I was an AT3 of FASRON (Fleet Air Service Squadron) 9 stationed at NAS Cecil Field, Florida when I received orders to Malta. The official name of my new duty squadron was FASRON (SP) 201, 'cause it was "special". The Navy thoughtfully provided me a typed summary of what I could expect to find on Malta in terms of facilities, weather, schools, etc. I still have it.
I finally arrived on Malta on April 22, 1957, having crossed the Atlantic as far as Gibraltar on the Iowa-class battleship USS Wisconsin out of Norfolk, VA. What a fantastic ship! I was assigned to Navigation division while aboard, and had nothing to do except stay out of the way. Those of us who left the ship at Gib boarded R5D aircraft of VR-24 (the "Biggest Little Airline In The World", they called themselves), and we flew to NAS Port Lyautey, French Morocco. A couple of weeks later we flew on to Malta, where I reported in.
TOPOGRAPHY AND ARCHITECTURE
It's just a big rock! There are low hills. There are bushes and cacti, but virtually no trees. The island is rock, covered with a thin layer of soil, some of which has been - so help me - imported. Rocks taken from the fields have been used to build walls between the fields. In the spring, fields of beautiful red poppies can be seen.
Virtually all buildings on the island are constructed with soft buttery yellow limestone cut from quarries. After a building has been up for a year or so, the stone hardens. Doors are left open for ventilation, but wrought iron gates prevent the goats from entering.
I was the newbie scum in the electronics shop, so about May 1, 1957 I was sent with an R5D-load of guys on temporary duty to the NATO base at Suda Bay, Crete. I helped support VP squadron ops there for almost two weeks. An LST, the USS Alameda County, put her bow on the beach down in the bay a few miles away, and provided us trucks, a mobile control tower and radios, fuel, chow, and additional personnel. The sky was wonderfully transparent on Crete, and quite by accident I discovered the comet Arend-Roland hanging there like a jewel one black star-filled night. Snow-covered mountains, olive groves, clear turquoise water, fields of red poppies... what a beautiful place Crete was!
THE COLONIAL COUSINS GUEST BASE AT HAL FAR, MALTA
The US base was located at the Hal Far, Malta air field. The Brit Royal Navy actually owned the whole base, and called it HMS Falcon. They owned the control tower, several hangars, some Nissen huts for support services, some relatively modern brick barracks, and a pretty snazzy NAAFI canteen. We got on well with the Brit sailors, and we even took one of them on liberty with us a time or two.
By contrast with the Brits, the US Navy had upper and lower camps, most of which were Nissen hut shells filled out with Maltese yellow limestone ends. Lower camp, located east of the single runway, consisted of a chow hall, chapel, movie theater, heads, and barracks huts. Nine enlisted lived in each small hut. The ranking enlisted in each was "hut mother", and was responsible for discipline. Upper camp was to the west of the runway, and consisted of our one maintenance hangar plus numerous Nissen huts for administration and services. Counting trips to noon chow, while traveling between lower and upper camp we had to cross the runway four times each day on foot. Sometimes we got the green light from tower immediately, and sometimes they were asleep up there, and we had to wait a long time. If it was dark and we saw no airplanes coming, we didn't wait for a green light.
For us, security didn't exist. Lower camp was surrounded by a low stone wall typical of those which cover Malta. Anyone could have walked into the area and into our huts. In fact, local small children frequently came by herding their grungy-looking goats, and wandered amongst the huts. We all knew the "Goat Girl", a very young and dirty waif whom we thought might steal anything left out.
Summers were unbearably hot. Naturally there was neither air conditioning nor fans in the huts. If you worked a night shift and had to sleep during the day, you could watch the little lizards crawling across the ceiling. Flies were active, too. At certain times of the year we got the Xirok, the hot dusty wind up from Africa. Grit covered everything. While it never froze nor snowed, it got REALLY cold and wet in the winter. The huts were heated with kerosene stoves, but fuel was limited.
Because we hadn't much in the way of a Naval Exchange on Malta, there were frequent shopping flights to NAS Naples and Wheelus AFB in Tripoli, Libya. We flew in the squadron aircraft, a tail-dragger Navy R4D we called "The Chicken-legged Bomber". The plane was primitive, but a pretty nice aircraft nonetheless. It got us there and back, and it hauled the goods.
We had this contingent of Seabees on the base. They maintained the buildings and systems, and used tanker trucks to keep the water tanks on the roof of the heads fairly full - most of the time. When they slipped up and didn't, the heads wouldn't flush. And that was really gross.
Also gross was the base laundry, which was run by the Maltese. You HAD to take your laundry to their shop in lower camp, because there were no other laundry facilities. And water was on short supply on Malta - it all comes from rainwater, which is held in huge underground cisterns. When the reservoir got low, seawater began intruding, and the water got salty. Our uniforms never seemed to be washed thoroughly, and even a freshly "laundered" set of uniform dungarees could smell pretty rank on a hot summer day.
There was a Nissen hut made into a modest barber shop manned byMaltese barbers. I think haircuts cost 50 cents.
The Navy cooks did a good job with chow. Besides nutritious and reasonably tasty hot meals on weekdays, we had a long brunch every Sunday with eggs to order, pancakes, bacon, sausage, and all the other traditional stuff. Sometime during the week of each sailor's birthday, he got a steak dinner and shared a birthday cake with the other birthday guys. (By the way, there were no female sailors on Malta, though we'd gone through electronics A-school in Memphis, TN with female sailors and marines. I can't say why they were absent - we would have welcomed them.) The only really bad thing I remember from the mess hall was a peculiar fibrous drink they made from unjelled Jello. People claimed to hate the SOS, of which there was two kinds - creamed chipped beef on toast and a chili-like ground beef on toast. Actually, they were both quite good.
One of our favorite cooks was this black guy. He was always laughing and saying, "Bear 'round now, bear 'round!". I think his name was Robby. Unfortunately, he had a heart attack and died one day, the only Navy death I know of on Malta. They laid him out in the base chapel before they flew him home.
Later the Seabees built a pretty nice Naval Exchange and commissary in lower camp, and you could buy cookies or cameras or chili, which I heated in the electronics shop coffee pot when I had Duty Tech, and had to sleep over there. It tasted pretty good as chili, but I doubt it did much for the coffee.
They also fitted out a Nissen hut as a base library, and it wasn't bad, considering. It was run by a Maltese girl named Susie. I spent a lot of time there, and I checked out a lot of books.
Seabees also fitted out a Nissen hut as a hobby shop and photo lab. I spent quite a bit of time there developing film and making prints, most of which were of Maltese cats found everywhere, Maltese kids kicking soccer balls, nuns kicking soccer balls, Grand Harbor, etc.
The Brits ran a church bus down the hill to Kalafrana every Sunday morning, and on the way it would stop at our gate and we'd board. The RN bus was a beautiful thing, all polished and dark blue with a stick shift and a real suspension. But it always smelled like smoked kippers and tobacco. Later, the Maltese priest Father Grech came aboard our base to celebrate Mass in the small chapel. The Catholic RN guys - most of whom were Maltese sailors - would come aboard our part of the base then.
Sometime in '57 or '58 we were visited by Cardinal Spellman (if memory serves), in whose diocese we were considered to be. He held Mass in our outdoor movie theater. Unless it rained or was cold, that outdoor theater with its hard wooden bench seats worked pretty well until they built the indoor one.
We took correspondence courses, completed our practical factors, and took our competitive advancement exams just like everyone else in the fleet. I made AT2 on May 16, 1957. I made AT1 on May 16, 1958. I was one of the few "slick-sleeve" first class PO's anyone around there had seen, and I'd like to say I got it through personal excellence. Truth is, it was more likely the Navy's urgent need for electronics techs that got me the promotion.
Petty officers frequently had to stand Shore Patrol. We'd put on our dress blues and arm brassards, and drive a Bedford van down to the capital city of Valetta, where we'd check in with the Maltese police department. Then we'd spend most of the night on foot patrol in the Gut, which is what everyone called Strait Street. The Gut parallels the main shopping street of Kingsway, one block away. The Gut, which was probably known at the time by every real sailor in the world, consisted of one sleazy bar after another, and each was wide open to the cold weather in winter. The Gut was narrow and dark, and smelled of strange, unpleasant foods and cooking fuel. There were normally more British sailors in the Gut than Americans, except when a large US ship put into Grand Harbor for liberty. Fortunately we didn't have to worry about the Brit sailors - they had their own SP's.
On duty nights when we didn't stand shore patrol, we were typically sent to upper camp to meet, unload, and load aircraft from VR-24. Many times the planes would be late, and we'd have to wait there until the wee hours. When the bird finally taxied in, off would come diplomatic couriers and personnel reporting for duty or just passing through. Then we'd have to unload spare R3350 engines for the P2V's, radar consoles, tires, and all other kinds of cargo. I still don't understand how we humped those engines on and off those aircraft through their small side doors, and I don't know how those R4D's took off with those heavy loads.
On other duty days, we might receive a partial shipload of Naval Exchange products, and we'd have to unload trucks sent up from the harbor and load the heavy stuff into storage Nissen huts. Cases of Clorox, canned goods, and suchlike... those were some long tiring hours.
SUPPORTING THE SQUADRONS
Up to some point, we of FASRON 201 supported only P2V Neptune squadrons. Then we got a squadron of about three or four WV Constellations, with their big guppy belly radar domes. These planes flew anti-sub missions in the Med, but they also flew booze runs to Wheelus AFB in Tripoli, Libya. I know for sure, 'cause I got myself onto one of those flights, and that's where I bought my Rolleiflex 3.5G camera. Geez, what a post exchange those Air Force guys had!
What did we FASRON guys do to support the squadrons? We owned themaintenance shops and the spares. For example, in the electronics shop, we had test benches all set up for each piece of electronic equipment on the P2V Neptune. For example, if a radar sychronizer unit went out on a P2V, the flight crew would bring it into our shop and put it on our test bench. They could fire up our FASRON radar right there in the shop with their faulty synchronizer on line, and they had good access to its guts and all our test equipment and tech manuals to fix it. If they lacked the skill, we'd help them, though they seldom asked. And if they gave up entirely, they'd trade in their faulty gear for our new stuff, and then WE got to fix what they'd given up on.
While the US Navy was flying P2V Neptunes, WV Constellations, our squadron R4D, and the odd SNB, the Brits at Hal Far flew Hawker Sea Hawks, Armstrong Whitworth Meteors, deHavilland Sea Venoms, Fairey Gannets, and the odd deHavilland Dove or Westland Wyvern. RAF Avro Lincolns and Lancasters would constantly fly over on approach to Luqa air field nearby, making it look like WWII all over again.
Our electronics shop was also responsible for showing the movies and maintaining the projectors. That meant we had a spare projector. So when we had the duty in the shop and couldn't go to the movies in lower camp, we just borrowed a few reels of film and perhaps the Cinemascope lens and showed our own - even made popcorn in the coffee pot. Sometimes the duty officer would come over and watch with us, unless it was this one particular newbie officer who told us we couldn't show movies - but he wouldn't say why. It didn't make sense, so we waited until he went away and then showed them anyway.
RECREATION AND LIBERTY
On weekends, the Navy ran a bus down the hill to Octopus Creek, a small bay suitable for swimming. The water was beautifully blue and clear, and you could see small fish among the rocks. The long walk back to the base took us right past the WREN's quarters, but that didn't seem to do us any good.
With time on their hands, some of the guys got involved with good works - Maltese orphans under the care of Catholic nuns. We'd pile into an ancient open Willys Knight (vintage 1929, I think it was) owned by one of the sailors, and we'd drive to St. Paul's Bay or to an orphanage. There we'd meet a bunch of kids, perhaps take them some candy or balloons, perhaps do a swim party, and generally entertain them.
Actually, Malta was quite interesting. The Rock was 17 miles long and 9 miles wide, so you were never that far from where you wanted to go. You could hop a Maltese bus right outside the gate. Busses were color coded according to the town from which their runs originated, and all the runs converged on the capital city, Valletta. Buses were also gaudily decorated with chrome horns and bumpers, colorful icons and saints pictures, hand striping, and suchlike. The rigidly sprung bus would rattle off over the rough road, with you sitting on a hard unpadded wooden seat. A conductor would collect something like sixpence from you for the trip. It was common practice to stand to give an older woman a seat, and one time a Maltese girl about 16 years old stood and insisted I take her seat - it embarrassed me to death.
When you got to Valletta, you might visit Grand Harbor to see the ships and the dockyard, or if you were starved for the sight of green, you might visit some of the parks or gardens. But usually you headed for Kingsway, the main drag. It was lined with shops, many of which sold hand-crafted lace or gold and silver filigree jewelry. There were one or two places to buy photographic stuff, and we generally hit those. We might stop in a bar for a cold Coke. We seldom ate out - it was usually too weird... carrots boiled until they were transparent, for example - nothing left but the cellulose.
On Saturday night they closed off Kingsway to auto traffic, and people got all dressed up, came from all over Malta, and promenaded. The street was absolutely full of people.
Almost every night there was a church saints day festival in some town on Malta. Those were always fun places to go, 'cause you could watch fireworks, you could tour the church with all of its treasured scarlet and gold tapestries hung, and the gold and silver candelabras set out and the crystal chandeliers hung. People only donated pennies to their churches, but after hundreds of years the pennies add up. There was lots to photograph.
Approximately July 1, 1958 - the Lebanon Crisis. Swarms of R4Q Flying Boxcars full of marines began arriving at all hours. A plane would land, taxi to the parking area where we waited for it, and we'd stand with our mouths hanging open as squads of deadly-serious marines swarmed from the plane to deploy their machine guns about 50 yards out - practicing, I guess. Then they'd take a bus down to lower camp for chow, come back, and fly off to Lebanon. We wished them well.
A TASTE OF HOME
Sometime in 1958 they built a snack bar in the upper camp Nissen hut we grandly called the air terminal building. We couldn't believe it - you could get an American hamburger! And they had an ice cream machine - you could get a milk shake or a huge cup of strawberry ice cream! We thought we'd died and gone to heaven.
One night sometime in 1958 we were on shore patrol and were standing in front of the police station, which was located in the middle of a stone bridge which crossed over Kingsway. We looked down onto Kingsway and saw this large crowd of apparently angry Maltese coming with what appeared to be torches. There was great civil unrest at the time, and we figured they were going to storm the police station. It just wasn't appropriate business for the US Navy, so we bugged out. A few days later our squadron skipper, Captain Hillis (if I have it right) had to escort some of the married folks and their dependents to their homes off-base, because the Maltese had set up road blocks. This was about the time Dom Mintoff and the Labor party came to power.
In late October of 1958, I ordered a red MGA coupe from the factory in Oxford, England for $2,150. A buddy of mine ordered a Porsche from the factory in Stuttgart for about $3,000 and a VW from Wolfsburg for about $1,050. Another buddy and I flew to London and picked up the MG, while the other guy and a buddy of his flew to Germany to get the Porsche. We met by prearrangement in Paris, toured a bit, and drove down through the Alps to Cannes, Nice, Monte Carlo, Genoa, Pisa, Rome, and Naples, where we turned the MGA and the Porsche over to the Navy. The Navy's MSTS shipped them back to the States for us... thanks, guys! (I have no idea how the VW got back.)
About December 5, 1958 I was detached from FASRON (SP) 201, and boarded a VR-24 R5D for Norfolk and discharge. Finally, headed for CONUS - I felt liberated!
DEATH OF THE CHICKEN LEGGED BOMBER
Just a few months later, FASRON's R4D aircraft lost an engine on takeoff from Naples or Catania, and crashed. The aircraft was destroyed, but what was much more important, we lost our squadron commanding officer and his CPO co-pilot. Dependents aboard survived, I heard, and that's good. But the plane allegedly struck and killed a local donkey cart driver and his donkey.
BACK TO MALTA?
My wife and I have taken a few recreational cruises, and would like to cruise the Med. I'd like to go back to Malta, but I know everything to do with the Navy would be gone. It would seem empty and sad, like museum ships and museum aircraft, or some other old duty stations I've visited. So I probably won't go.
Ships have reunions. Some squadrons have reunions. FASRONS don't. I wonder why.
"FASRON-201 Summary Page"