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The Journal News (White Plains, NY)

Why Did The Navy Close Roosevelt Roads?n Brooklyn

By Herb Geller

March 4, 2004
Copyright ©2004 The Journal News. All rights reserved.

Most people in northern Westchester know little about the U.S. naval base in Ceiba, Puerto Rico. For more than 60 years it was the main U.S. naval base south of Florida covering the entire Caribbean area to Panama and the coast of South America. The base, which once included more than 15,000 naval and civilian personnel, was closed Feb. 15 by order of the Defense Department.

The base was closed after the Bush administration agreed last year to stop using U.S. government property on the neighboring island of Vieques for naval bombardments and amphibious landing exercises. The abandonment of this once important base was not publicized and I have not heard that the Defense Department made any official announcement or gave any reasons for the action. Puerto Rico's Gov. Sila Calderon was said to be furious about the closing because of the loss of so many Puerto Rican jobs.

Some believe that the major reason for maintaining Roosevelt Roads was the training exercises on Vieques, which recently constituted 80 percent of the base's activities. The naval bombardment that accidentally killed a security guard excited a tremendous amount of protests in Puerto Rico and in the United States. I think the Defense Department gave in because it felt that there was no need for intensive coast training in the war against terror we are waging in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no beaches to be stormed in those desert countries.

Roosevelt Roads has always been important to people like myself and Gloria who vacation every winter in the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, which faces the Virgin Islands and junction of the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Our apartment in Luquillo is about 15 miles from Roosevelt Roads and Vieques is an hour and a half trip by boat from the neighboring town of Fajardo.

We visited Roosevelt Roads several times, and 20 years ago, while the Cold War was going on, I interviewed the commanding officer of Roosevelt Roads.

It was especially important to retired military personnel and members of the Navy League who live or vacation in this area. They were able to use facilities such as the golf course, the Post Exchange, the library, the Caribbean beach and even the officers' club. I'm just a veteran so I was not eligible. Everything was closed on Feb. 15; the once-important airfield is now covered with grass, the extensive docking facilities for ships are abandoned and the entire base is a scene of desolation.

There are grandiose plans to create an industrial zone in the base, use the airfield for corporate aircraft and create a merchant ship seaport but these are all in the planning stages and no one knows where the financing can be obtained.

Roosevelt Roads was named after then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt. He ordered the base to be established in 1942 soon after the U.S. entered World War II. It was an invaluable base for the detection and destruction of Nazi submarines that were sinking ships all over the Caribbean at that time. During the Cold War many naval maneuvers involving American, Canadian and NATO ships and planes from England, France and Germany were held there.

Roosevelt Roads was still just as important in anti-submarine warfare when I interviewed the commander of the base in 1984. The Puerto Rican Deep, one of the deepest parts of the Atlantic, is not far from the north coast of the island. Many Soviet submarines based in Cuba were detected in that area, he said. "Roosevelt Roads is the only U.S. naval base that would protect both the Panama Canal and Florida and Gulf Coast from enemy attack in time of war," he said.

I interviewed the commandant while Gloria and I were vacationing in the area with our daughter Nisa and her girlfriend Betsy Caruso. Al Bennett, the city editor of the Bridgeport Post who visited us at our apartment that winter, made arrangements for the interview and accompanied us. I did the writing but Al and Gloria asked many of the questions. After the interview they treated all of us to lunch at the officers' club.

A major part of our interview concerned the bombardment of Vieques. The captain explained that only 6 percent of the island was used for any of the training exercises and that these took place only twice a year for a few days. He showed us papers prepared by a Puerto Rican commission headed by a federal judge from the island that stated that the activities did not harm the people on the island.

"We have to have some area to train our troops in the event of war and this seemed to be the most suitable," he said.

We could only take a two-week vacation then and when I came back to my job on the Bridgeport Post I wrote the story, which Al edited and used for the lead story in the newspaper. I heard nothing more about it until a few days later when I was working on a Saturday morning helping to put out that week's edition of the Bridgeport Sunday Post.

We heard cars honking downstairs and we thought it was a wedding procession. I looked out of the third-floor windows and there was a bunch of people downstairs yelling "U.S. Navy get out of Vieques, Bridgeport Post, get out of Bridgeport."

A delegation from the group came in to see Lenny Gilbert, the managing editor, to demand a retraction of my story. I met the delegation and told them that the managing editor was not in but they could leave a letter that would be published in the paper. I made no apology for my story. The newspaper was willing to print an opposing view of the issue, but it was never provided.

This was my experience with Roosevelt Roads. I thought the base was important then to the security of the United States, and that it is important now in our continuing involvement in a global war. I can understand why the naval exercises on Vieques were stopped but I believe some effort should have been made to keep part of the base open to secure our national defense in the Caribbean area. At the very least the Bush administration should have discussed this decision with the public and this was not done.

Herbert F. Geller, a North Salem resident, is a World War II veteran and a former editor of The Patent Trader.

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