Written by Jim McStay

Aerial view of Diego Garcia island

An aerial view of Diego Garcia island, 2013 (USN)

In 1973, Navy SeaBees on the tiny island of Diego Garcia faced a crisis. They were hot, dry, and thirsty. One Navy P-3 Orion pilot, Jim McStay, came to their rescue.

In 1973, I was a Navy pilot who flew occasionally to Diego Garcia, a speck of an atoll over a thousand miles south of the tip of India just below the Equator. Before the SeaBees got to work on it two years earlier, the island was home to a coconut plantation and several hundred residents.

Today, Diego Garcia is a well built-up military outpost, but when I was there, it was still in development. Construction of a naval communication station and a runway had been completed, inaugurated by Bob Hope’s 1972 USO Troupe on Christmas Day.

There were no paved roads. Everyone living on the island–hundreds of SeaBees, dozens of other American sailors, and a handful of British staff–lived in “hooches,” raised wooden platforms with corrugated roofs and roll up canvas side. Other buildings included a couple of Quonset huts serving as chow halls and warehouses.

Barracks buildings on Diego Garcia

“Upgraded” barracks buildings with added plywood sides on Diego Garcia.

The SeaBees worked on docking facilities for ships in the lagoon, permanent buildings, roads and basic infrastructure–long hours in the hot tropical sun manning bulldozers and other heavy equipment.

The runway, while long enough to handle transports like Air Force C-141 Starlifters, didn’t yet have lights. More important, they didn’t have a backup system of lights, which was required for nighttime operations. So, we were all grounded at night. Daytime flights missions only.

The Air Force found this restriction convenient, for it meant they didn’t layover on the island. Diego Garcia’s transient quarters were inadequate, by Air Force standards. So their crews never left the flight line. They flew straight in, unloaded, and flew straight back out.

Scale model of the P-3 Orion

A scale model of the P-3 Orion flown by Jim McStay to Diego Garcia

But we Naval aviators flying P-3 Orions had no problem with the day-flights only out of Diego Garcia. In fact, we considered ourselves lucky to fly and stay there overnight. Once we landed, we got a whole day off before we had to fly again.

Our missions began at U’Tapao, a nominally Royal Thai Navy Base on the Gulf of Thailand, best known as a B-52 base during the Vietnam War. We flew 12-plus hours at a time monitoring shipping between the Strait of Malacca in Singapore and the Persian Gulf. For crew rest, we landed on Diego Garcia.

We’d generally arrive on the island, as required, about thirty minutes before sundown. Then, we had a full day and night off before departing at first light the second day. One short tropical night simply wasn’t enough rest.

Given our day of liberty, we played volleyball on the beach, had picnics, fished, roamed around and drank beer.

Jim McStay, in 1973, on Diego Garcia

Jim McStay in the “uniform of the day” for days off on Diego Garcia: gym shorts and t-shirt. “Note my Zumwalt era sideburns,” says Jim.

Hardworking SeaBees were disgruntled with our hours of leisure on the island. It was a classic ant-versus-grasshopper situation. The tension never rose to a boil, but it was palpable.

One morning at U’tapao, I was busily checking off my pre-flight duties in the pre-dawn darkness when I noticed our Officer in Charge (OIC) approaching. This was unusual, given the hour. The OIC asked if I had heard the news about Diego Garcia.

“Their supply ship has some mechanical difficulty and is delayed,” he told me. “So the Air Force is stepping up their airlifts to the island to deliver milk, vegetables, and other perishables.”

Ok, I wondered, what does this have to do with me? The OIC continued.

“The Air Force is refusing to bring beer, wine or whiskey. The SeaBees are unhappy. They’re hot, dry, and thirsty.”

I immediately volunteered to help, as the OIC knew I would. In fact, he’d already taken the liberty of loading up my airplane with the necessary goods.

When I got out to the flightline, I was staggered to see my plane filled with hundreds of cases of booze of all descriptions, all haphazardly tied down with cargo netting.

Clearly this had to be illegal, performance-wise. On the other hand, this was U’tapao, with its long 12,000-foot runway at sea level and a cool air temperature, cool for Thailand, anyway.

Plus, the P-3 Orion is famously overpowered. And our SeaBees were thirsty.

My flight engineer agreed, and we took a very cautious approach to calculating performance, even if the weights were a complete WAG (Wild Assed Guess).

If we crashed on takeoff and weren’t killed on impact, we’d drown in an ocean of Jack Daniels, Boones Farm and San Miguel.

Just prior to departure, our OIC came on board with some paperwork and one final demand. We were not to unload anything until we had the Supply Officer at Diego Garcia sign for it.  Our OIC had to personally guarantee the transaction.

On takeoff, we used a lot of runway, as planned, and flew our mission as normally as possible, given that movement through the “tube” (fuselage) was severely restricted and necessitated crawling over and around cases of beer.

A hundred miles out of Diego Garcia, we called the tower to announce our arrival and added a special request: we needed a Supply Officer and a forklift.

The tower Controller, who spoke more slowly than any controller I’ve heard before or since (which was probably why he was on an island with only two flights a day), responded, “Say again.”

I repeated my request.

The Controller dutifully repeated it back to me, and then asked why I needed a forklift.

“For all the beer we’re bringing,” I said.

When we landed, there was the Supply Officer, the forklift, and working party of several hundred off-duty sailors and SeaBees. They cheered as we taxied to a stop.

Any friction that may have existed between the SeaBees and the Navy flight crews vanished that day.

The Air Force avoided any repercussions, and our sailors’ thirsts were quenched.

I’ve heard that for years afterwards, Navy P-3 Orion crews found it difficult to pay for drinks on Diego Garcia.

Jim and other men in a Navy SeaBee truck

Jim and others getting a lift in a SeaBee truck. “Ignore the rude gestures,” he says.