Lampedusa Living

By Don Opedal



I first heard of Lampedusa in 1971. Lampedusa is a small Italian island, about  120 miles southwest of Sicily, 70 miles north of Tunisia (Africa) and 93 miles west of Malta in the Mediterranean with a total area of about 12 square miles. I don’t know the details but the loran station at Matratin, Libya had been abandoned and Loran Station Lampedusa was being established to replace it. The Coast Guard was looking for volunteers; I was an ET3 instructor at ETA School and volunteered but was not accepted.

Fast-forward about 11 years. I am now a LT in CCGD9(eee). I get a call one Friday from the detailer saying he wanted to transfer me to Lampedusa as the CO. He told me a little bit about it, the locals called the CO “Commandante”, I would go to three weeks of Italian training, and go to Activities Europe in London on the way to Italy. 

I was having a good time in CCGD9!  I was involved with the new Standard Terminals (computers), had a girl friend who also worked for the Coast Guard, I owned a condominium, etc. As I discussed the situation with folks my girlfriend cried and the Chief of Engineering, CAPT Morgan, offered to try to get the orders changed if I wanted. I did.

I thought about it over the weekend. I liked adventure and the thought of learning Italian, going to London, living in Italy, and being a CO sounded better and better. Monday I checked with Personnel and nothing had happened to get me out of the orders so I told CAPT Morgan I wanted to go. I arranged for Italian lessons at Berlitz right there in Cleveland and did the other things we all did when getting transferred (e.g., talk to people who had been there, looked for information about the place, etc).

I also talked to detailer into sending me to the Loran Operations course at Governors Island. The three-day class is normally for ETs just getting into the loran program so they were a little surprised to have a LT sitting in the class.

My girlfriend and I decided to travel Europe on the way. She was going to live in my condominium while I was gone and pay rent. Her father bought my car.

The guy I was to relieve in Lampedusa wanted to have the Change of Command ceremony in full-dress whites to I traveled with all of my uniforms, sword, civilian clothes, etc. I had a LARGE suitcase, garment bag, and briefcase. My girlfriend had a couple suitcases. We were not traveling around Europe “light”. We pretty much filled the car on the train and I got adept at carrying four suitcases at one time!

Soon we ended our travels in London. She departed and I reported to Activities Europe for indoctrination. Activities Europe was located in the US Embassy and everyone wore civilian clothes so that added to the “intrigue”

A few days later I was on my way to Lampedusa. I stayed overnight in Palermo and caught the daily (DC-9) flight to the Island of Lampedusa. A few of the crew met me at the airport and we were on our way over six miles of badly paved road to the station. At times the driver would go on the shoulder, as it was smoother than the road.

The last couple hundred yards was better, actually paved. We zoomed up the hill towards buildings with paint peeling and looking very drab. Activities Europe had a pending project to paint the buildings but it never happened when I was there.

Loran Station, Lampedusa was established from Air Transportable Loran Station (ATLS) shelters. Originally, the entire station (equipment, generators, barracks, offices, etc.) was contained in portable huts about the size of a moving van trailer (hence “air transportable.”) Over the years an engineering building, fuel tanks, and two other buildings for barracks and offices had been established. We had a swimming pool and tennis court. We pumped and processed out own water from a well and generated our own electricity. We did have a telephone and teletype line to connect us to the outside world as well as the radios with the other electronics. The actual loran equipment was still housed in the ATLS shelters and referred to as “Atlas”. Everyone had there own room with most sharing a head. A few senior people had their own head, including the CO (yeah!). In fact, my bedroom opened into my office; the shortest commute I ever had!

The loran station was considered to be a tourist attraction and garnered different attention based on the whims of the tenants. I considered it to be the home of the crew and, except for guests, generally off-limits to the public. Previous COs had allowed visitors to use the tennis courts, swim in the pool, visit the exchange, etc. I know I wasn’t as popular for my views. The local carabinieri  (military police) would visit carrying their machine guns. They would bring visitors to meet the CO. One time one of them wanted to buy something in the exchange I refused. He argued, machine gun in hand, that we were military and he was military. At one point he raised his arms and I thought he was going to attack me but he was just gesturing.

The Change of Command ceremony was well attended as my predecessor had been popular and was followed by a party that night. The party was VERY well attended and I quit drinking early in order to watch and monitor what went on. It turned out many of the “guests” were unknown to anybody and had just crashed the party. Nick, one of the seamen, followed me around all night. He has been an Army ranger and wanted to get back into the action in Lebanon. He kept begging me to help him get transferred back to the Army. It never happened.

My predecessor had arranged for the Navy at NAF Sigonella on Sicily to provide the normal logistics flight by helicopter to a site near the station and then fly him and his wife out. The CO of Activities Europe, CAPT Biller, and I were waiting for the helicopter to land and wondered why we were all alone. When the helicopter landed we were sandblasted and THEN the rest of the crew came out.

Unfortunately I found the year fairly difficult. Many of the crew did not get along. There were a few MEDEVACs, a couple alcohol cases, one administrative discharge, and more Captain’s Mast then I would have imagined. I did regret a couple of them; should have dismissed them right off the bat.

Another regret is spending most of my time at the station. Again, my predecessors had spent a lot of time in town and had been popular. I felt my duty was at the station. In fact, the main reason I had been selected was my immediate predecessor had a number of problems and ACTEUR wanted someone with a bit more maturity. The story I heard is they had requested and older, ex-ET who was a full lieutenant. When the detailer saw my “dream sheet” requesting any loran station he smiled.  During my indoctrination in London two different people called me aside to warn me about previous problems and discuss matters of “responsibility”.

Our isolated status provided a number of challenges. Here are a few examples:

One day the pump, which pumped all of our fresh water from a well, failed. The first challenge was to get at it, at the bottom of a couple hundred feet of pipe down a narrow tube. Turned someone had thought of that and one of the civilians produced the tools. A collar was fastened to the pipe and the forklift was used to lift it. Another collar was fastened at the based to hold the pipe while the forklift was lowered to repeat the process. Eventually the pump was reached but it would be a few weeks until a replacement could be obtained. Remember, the well was our sole source of fresh water! The water was pumped into a settling basin, then processed and stored in tanks. The first thing we did was to pump the swimming pool into the settling basin. Saying we drank our swimming pool sounds worse than it was as the water was filtered and processed. Secondly, we had fresh water delivered by truck a couple times and pumped into the settling basin. So, being conservative and watching the water levels daily got us by.

We got mail daily (seven days a week!) from the daily commercial flights to the island. Generally wasn’t hard to get someone to volunteer to meet the plane, especially in the summer when they could check out the young ladies. Large items, fresh food, etc. were delivered by plane from Sigonella. It usually took a message requesting a logistics flight to get them over. There were various codes for the request. I felt we rated above “humanitarian” and the next level was “in support of combat operations” so that is what I used. Well, in a way we were!  Generally didn’t have a problem getting a flight.

Unloading the flight generally meant driving the forklift to the airport on six miles of bad road. One time our forklift was broken and as we went to the airport to was trying to think of a way to say “forklift” in Italian so I could ask to borrow the one there. Finally came up with “forcheta alta” (high fork) and tried that. The guy looked at me and said in English, “Do you mean forklift?”  Another time the operator had to drive all the way back to the station in reverse carrying a new soda machine.

The support from Sigonella was generally very good. Most of the people understood our situation and bent over backwards to help us. One time one of the medical people declined to provide some help because after the last time we had asked him we had sent a message out asking for a second opinion. A call to his boss fixed that!  

As with most Coast Guard units, and especially small units like loran stations, everyone one performed many duties. The corpsman worked the office and ran the post office. One time we was trying to get help from the Navy and was told our postal clerk should be able to help him. He replied he WAS the postal clerk. Even in medical matters he had difficulty because the Navy did not recognize the combined HM (Hospitalman) and DT (Dental Technician) ratings of HS (Hospital Service Technician).

I got over to Sigonella twice. Again, my predecessor had apparently been over many times and was quite popular. The first time was in September. They flew a plane over to pick me up and to get the shrimp they wanted for the party. Rather than going through the paperwork of orders I just took leave. I arranged for a normal logistics flight for my return. However, when I checked in at MAC terminal with my leave papers they charged me $10 for the flight. Darn! The next time I asked the crew to get me on the flight by bypassing the terminal.

As I said, most of the people at Sigonella understood our situation. Some didn’t. Someone asked me how many people we had, “2000?”  I replied, “No, 23.”  He said, “Oh, 2300!”  I said “No, 23.”  Someone else commented that Sigonella exchange was small. I said ours was smaller and he was surprised. Our exchange got everything from Sigonella and was the size of a bedroom. A group of wives at Sigonella offered to copy movies on videotape to send to us. Videotape movies as well as the normal reel-to-reel movies were great entertainment! The pilot of the flight bringing them removed one “X” rated one and sent a note admonishing me that he had previously said he would not transport such things. I apologized saying we had only asked for movies. Of course, nobody on the station would watch such a thing!

On occasion we would get a call from Sigonella asking us to arrange for a couple cases of fresh shrimp or fish to be available when they flew in. This generally worked out OK but once or twice the buyer declined which irritated the fisherman because he could have sold the case to a hotel. One time the caller specifically asked for ‘Jumbo shrimp, no substitutions!” as if we were a supplier.

One time the Sigonella CO came to visit. Of course I met him at the airport, transported him and his entourage (including an armed Seabee and a young lady) to the station for a tour. Turned out what they really wanted was to go to the beach.

At Christmas time we were honored to have a USO show visit us. That was a welcomed entertainment especially since the winters on Lampedusa were chilly with little to do. I visited the Sigonella XO a couple months later and he commented that some of the spouses of the crew who had flown the USO show over to us complained because their spouses got home late on Christmas Eve. I declined to explain to him that my crew would not see their families at all for a year.

We had tanks to store our diesel fuel that filled by driving out tank truck to town and transporting the fuel back. Each trip was accompanied by a carrabinieri to ensure we weren’t selling the fuel anywhere else. The invoice was signed and sealed by a stamp like those used by notaries. Those seals carried more weight then a signature and ours was kept in the safe.

Speaking of the safe, I was gigged on an inspection because our safe was on wheels. As if someone was going to wheel it anywhere!

As is common in Europe, many ladies went topless at the beach. My predecessor had a rule that ladies at the station pool must wear their tops. Shortly after my arrival the guys bringing the mail back were transporting some girls back to swim and they were busily finding their tops. The guys came to me and asked about the rule. No, it was fine with me if they went topless!

Sometime prior to my arrival a reporter had written an article about the station insinuating there was more going on than a simple radio transmitter. He cited secrecy such as prohibiting visitors from various parts of the station and eluded to the remote location and nearby cliffs. We generally gave visitors a tour of the entire station except the barracks area. My thinking was the barracks were home to the guys and they should be able to enjoy their home without strangers wondering through. I also required visitors to be gone after taps at night. I got back late one night and noted apparent visitors after taps in library. I knocked on the door and when they guy opened it and saw me he said, “Oh shit!”

The support from Activities Europe (ACTEUR) was outstanding!  Those guys understood our position and sought to support us. Some examples:

Prior to my arrival loran stations had been sending a portion of their exchange profits to ACTEUR to support ACTEUR’s morale fund. Some realized it didn’t make sense for isolated duty units to be contributing to the morale of someone in London and we kept all of our profits. (We also got a subsidy for any purchases made through the Army-Air Force Exchange Service catalog.)

In 1982-1983 the dollar was quite strong in Europe. Since many of ACTEUR’s contracts and expenses were in the local currency, ACTEUR was making money on the exchange rate. The loran stations were invited to provide a “wish list” for spending the excess money and a lot of it was funded. As I recall we nearly doubled our normal budget getting things like a new pool table. The old one was donated to the local fire station which made us even more popular, foosball, soda machine, movies, new mess deck furniture, etc.  We moved the exchange to a new room off the mess deck and added a patio/garden area near the pool.

WE paid for all of our phone calls out of the station budget. Of course, if ACTEUR called us THEY paid for the call so it was a game to get transferred from person to person when they had made the call. The staff usually accommodated us by willingly making the transfer. Another trick was to call and ask for someone or the other until you found someone who wasn’t available and then have him or her call you back.

ACTEUR provided full support for my administrative problems including MEDEVACs, an administrative discharge, and a court martial.

A common practice among ACTEUR personnel visiting was to hand-carry items back and forth to avoid postal costs, delays, and possible loss. Again, they did this willingly. I heard a story that someone was visiting from Headquarters and was asked to transport something and he replied, “I not a messenger.” Go figure!

During my indoctrination in London I was given the opportunity to reveal all of the service records of the crew. ACTEUR maintained the records and sent us copies of anything we needed locally.  Earlier in his career one guy had gotten drunk in France, stole a boat and had been arrested. I hoped he had matured. He had and was a solid performer, making Chief at a young age. Another had an apparent history of medical problems. I wondered what he was doing on isolated duty and in fact he got a medical discharge.

I’ve always been amazed at personalities and how different groups can take on different personalities. As I mentioned before, there were some personality conflicts among the crew. But over the year as people rotated out and new personalities came in, that changed. Someone came to me one time to complain about the performance of one of the crew and I asked what he expected me to do, order him to work better?  He acknowledged my problem. I’m sure some of the crew never appreciated me but I received letters from a couple of them after they left thanking me. I still maintain contact with a couple others, now 20 years later.

It was an experience!


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