Taking a break from winter weather is something that was foreign to my upbringing. A vacation was something that happened in the summer and usually involved a low-cost drive to my grandma’s farm near Foley and hanging out with nearby cousins or maybe a drive to Brainerd or up to Duluth and the north shore for a couple of days. Flying somewhere was well beyond our reach or my folks’ interest.
Still, there were always those stories about my dad’s time in the U.S. Army, in north Africa, Italy and southern France during World War II. Although he never said so, you could tell that he would have loved to revisit Casablanca in Morocco, Naples and Rome in Italy and Nice in France. Of course, doing that never bubbled to the top of the list and he never returned.
Other veterans who were overseas have also talked about returning to where they were once stationed. Going back to where you were as a young soldier or sailor, even if it was during a terrible war, is a calling for many of them. Some do make that journey but many of them aren’t able to and never do.
My father-in-law, Marv Nordang, spent nearly four years in the U.S. Navy in the early 1950s and had the good fortune of spending much of that time not in Korea but instead in the far southern Caribbean Sea, in what was then the British colony of Trinidad. Returning there someday was on his mind from time to time but like most of those other veterans, he never made that return trip. Seeing where our dads were once stationed and maybe being able to walk on pathways from their past seemed like a worthwhile idea and, without a lot of thought, we talked about doing that someday.
Someday, however, can have a way of never coming around unless you lean into it and make it happen. So, we did just that. A winter trip to the southern reaches of the Caribbean seemed like an inviting idea early last December and we decided that would make a good Christmas gift to each other. Most of us have heard of Trinidad but we knew very little about it, except what we learned from Marv’s stories about being there.
I recall reading in grade school in 1962, that Trinidad, and its much smaller sister-island, Tobago, had become the world’s newest nation and wondered about it. We had heard of calypso music and the sound of steel drums that had been creatively hammered out of discarded oil barrels, but little else. Scratching around for info about the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago and the history of the British and U.S. Navy was a fun way to spend more than a few hours this winter. Finding a lot of info was hit and miss, however. The U.S. Navy’s presence in Trinidad dates back to World War II when the U.S. leased British-built bases and expanded them to accommodate the deep-water port needs of the Navy’s aircraft carriers as well as landing fields and hangers needed by the Naval Air Corps.
Those bases provided the U.S. with a strategic presence in the region and served to protect the vast oil and gas reserves in Trinidad and nearby Venezuela, which is less than seven miles away. It’s said that the U.S. Navy may be the largest user of oil in the world and protecting those nearby sources was obviously in the country’s interest. The aircraft carrier Marv was assigned to, the U.S.S. Leyte, had spent time in the Pacific at the end of World War II and then in the Mediterranean before returning to its home port in Rhode Island. It then moved south to Norfolk and points south including Key West but spent much of the time during the Korean War assigned to the Naval port at Chaguaramas, a few miles west of Trinidad’s capitol city of Port-of-Spain.
Another U.S. airfield southeast of the capitol, and inland several miles, named Carlson Air Base, was apparently operated by the Army Air Force, as it was called at that time, so it seemed that Chaguaramas, with both a port and an airfield, was the likely spot where he was stationed. Information was scarce, other than the closing of the base took place in the 1960s. By that time the U.S. military presence was not particularly welcome, and the base area was turned over to the Trinidad government. Getting to Trinidad would be a bit of a challenge with no direct flights from the Twin Cities. We would have to fly to Miami, which took just under four hours. There would be a tight, 55-minute layover before the connecting flight to Port-of-Spain, during which we would have to clear customs and security again.
The flight to Port-of-Spain is four and half hours and would have put us there near midnight, which is certainly not ideal. This clearly required some expertise, so we worked with Kristi Flaten at Bursch travel. She suggested that we spend the first night in Miami and take a morning flight to Port-of-Spain. That made for a much better connection and a much nicer early-afternoon arrival last week. Port-of-Spain is a bustling port town and full of activity. Not only is it the capitol but it’s also the banking and financial center of the southern Caribbean. Getting around was easy and catching a cab ride 10 miles out to Chaguaramas, where Marv was stationed, was no problem.
There isn’t a lot of evidence of the Naval station there except a couple of large former hanger buildings, a few government-looking offices that are used by the small Trinidad military for training and the port itself, which is used by local shipping firms, a bauxite shipping facility and several private watercraft. The base area has largely been turned into a recreation park and features an amusement park and a nice boardwalk along the beach, the nearest one to Port-of-Spain.
There’s also a small military museum there but that didn’t provide us with much information. Never-the-less, we figured we were walking where Marv had been 67 years ago. The small sandy beach in Chaguaramas was where we spread a small amount of his ashes in the water and after all those years, he was back in Trinidad. It was a special and tender moment. There’s a fair amount more to visit about this trip so looking ahead, we’ll warm up the chilly late winter with some more about the adventure.