Shemya Air Base, Alaska
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
They were synonymous with purgatory: the assignments every young recruit dreaded.
They felt like a death sentence to anyone who joined the military to see the world.
When you met those who had returned, you plied them with questions.
“What was it like THERE?”
You got one of two types of answers: “It was the armpit of [the Earth, or some variation].”
Or, you got someone thoughtful, who talked about it as though it was taken from Homer’s Odyssey.
Here is a list of places our U.S. military can be assigned, in some of the remotest places on the planet.
Shemya Air Base, Alaska
Located on the second-to-last Aleutian Island, it combined the charm of Greenland weather with the spaciousness of Guam.
Closed to active-duty Air Force in 1994, it is now a refueling station operated by contract personnel.
“At the time I was there (1985) we had about 1,100 people on the island,” said retired Senior Master Sgt. Rodney Gleghorn. “Fifty were female. Everyone worked at part time jobs. I was a short-order cook in the BX snack bar.”
“We had very few clear days, just a handful. They were rare enough that we would take the afternoon off.
“On one of the clear days we saw a Russian Bear bomber flying over. Probably set up for photo recon.”
“It was tough being separated from the family, but yes, I liked the solitude and the idea of seeing someplace unique. I loved hiking on the island. My biggest regret was that on the rare clear day we could see Attu, but had no way of being there.
“I’m a battlefield nut. It was frustrating to be so close to the only U.S. soil that Japan invaded and not be able to see it.”
Jon Leeke, then an Army staff sergeant, also has memories of our former mortal enemies.
“Russian fishermen would come in and trade part of their catch for fuel,” Leeke said. “Best seafood I’ve ever eaten anywhere. That includes some pretty good restaurants from Maine to New Orleans.
“The thing I remember most is the total lack of ambient light. “When you went out at night, you couldn’t see anything. I mean nothing. I know what it means when someone says, ‘It was so dark I couldn't see my hand in front of my face.’ ”
According to Wikipedia, the population of Kwajalein Island is currently around 1,000 individuals, mostly Americans and a small number of Marshall Islanders and other nationals, all of whom need permission from the U.S. Army to live there.
The island is about 2.5 miles long and averages about 800 yards wide.
Gregg Walsh, a radar-installation contractor, had this to say:
“Waking up on the island is nearly like being on a tropical vacation, really. The moment you step off of the plane until you get back on, you go onto ‘island time.’
"This means that life as you know it stops and that laid-back, ‘we’ll get it done, when we get it done’ attitude takes over. You soon realize that how much you do not know (or remember) how to stop.
“Most folks snorkel, fish, swim, boat every day. When you join in with them (in this mind-set), you quickly understand just how healing and revitalizing this is.
“Single-speed bicycles are the main mode of transportation on the island (there are few gas/diesel-powered vehicles, several battery-powered golf carts).
“Americans first realize that they do not immediately fit into island time. It’s in this that you either love or hate this place. If you love the fast-paced, multimedia-filled lifestyle, do not even consider going here because you will experience claustrophobia.
“Near the runway is a huge grated vault. This vault captures the rain from the airfield, and is the primary means of water collection. It’s piped to the treatment facility, then piped into the potable water system. That water goes back to the facility and into a second system, which feeds the nonpotable system (showers, toilets, etc.).
Since it downpours 5-10 minutes every 2 hours, there’s not too much concern. They do take airfield cleanliness seriously, as you can imagine.
Royal Air Force Ascension Island
Located on the Tristan da Cunha archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, RAF Ascension Island is sometimes known as Wideawake Airfield, so named for a noisy colony of Sooty Terns nearby.
Ascension is 1,750 miles west of South Africa, and 2,090 miles east of South America. The U.S. Air Force has a small contingent there to help out NASA.
One of its Facebook pages is rife with Brits telling tales of drinking and debauchery while stationed there, but there are a number of people who clearly are drawn to the place:
“The beautiful old buildings in Georgetown were lovely,” said Evie Payne, a British contractor. “Sleeping on the beach after a barbecue was always fun and scuba diving around the island. If I wanted peace and quiet I used to drive up to the old American (NASA) base and wander around there or go to smugglers cove.
"It really is a beautiful island with a lot of history and the St Helenan and Ascension people are some of the friendliest you will ever meet.”
But it’s not all sunsets and scuba diving; Payne mentioned “klinka,” the singularly onomatopoeic Brit name for the volcanic rock found there. “It’s razor sharp and horrible if you fall on to it!!” she said.
“We medics had a wonderful time patching people up,” said John Jones.
McMurdo Station, Antarctica
If you have to get there by way of a plane with skis on it, it’s remote.
McMurdo Station is operated by the National Science Foundation and used by scientists, but has a full-time population of “townies,” who do various support jobs.
In addition to the scientists and support staff, however, are military members who get people in and out.
“Usually there are about 150 airmen on the ice at any one time, but they go on rotations and can spend anywhere from one month to 2.5 months deployed,” said 109th Airlift Wing spokeswoman Tech. Sgt. Catharine Schmidt. “The season runs from October through about March.
“The aircrews fly missions to remote locations supplying fuel and cargo to scientists with the National Science Foundation. There are 6-8 LC-130s deployed during the season. Along with aircrew, we have maintainers that deploy to take care of the aircraft, and also our Small Air Terminal, which handles the loading/unloading of the planes. There are also multiple support personnel who will deploy.”
Schmidt said airmen work 12-hour shifts, six days a week.
When they’re not working, there are, of course, spectacular vistas and much learning to be had, said Chief Master Sgt. Connie Hoffman.
“A round-trip hike to Castle Rock takes about 5 hours; the views of Mt. Erebus are incredible,” she said.
After the Sunday hikes, most looked forward to the special dinner — the staff “make an extra effort to prepare a fine (by polar standards) dinner,” Hoffman said — and the Sunday lectures.
Biologists, geologists and astrophysicists are among those imparting what they’re studying, discussing “groundbreaking research far in advance of being published in journals or magazines,” Hoffman said.
Capt. Eric Wood, an LC-130 pilot with the Air National Guard’s 109th Airlift Wing, based in Scotia, N.Y., has been down multiple times and said as aircrew they spend more of their time on the plane than actually at McMurdo.
“I think I can sum up life as an airman in Antarctica with this snapshot of my favorite moment at the end of a long week down there. It’s when I’m about 200 miles from landing back at McMurdo for the night; Mt Erebus is venting on the horizon straight ahead, no clouds between us and Erebus telling me it should be an uneventful landing back at McMurdo.
This is a relief to my crew and I because as it’s the end of a 14 hour work day, 7 hours in the airplane and our 6th day of work this week. This is about where we start reviewing our plan to descend and land, we’re all thankful we’re making it back “home” to McMurdo and not going to be sleeping in a tent at the camp we’ve just supplied.
We’re sure to have a hot meal saved for us at the chow hall (even if we didn’t get to pick the meal or the portions). We’re looking forward to unwinding as crew in true aviation tradition. We’ll laugh about the funny events of the day with other crews, pick on each other for our less than perfect moments (to ensure lessons were learned), and tell stories about home and our deeply missed families.”
Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean, almost 1,000 miles south-southwest of India.
It has been leased to the United States for more than 50 years, and is home to a number of U.S. military activities.
The U.S. Navy has a large naval ship and submarine support base; there’s an air base that supported some 200 B-52 bombing runs during the first Gulf War, and again in 2001 for Afghanistan; there is a communications and space-tracking facility; and an anchorage for pre-positioned military supplies for regional operations aboard Military Sealift Command ships in the lagoon.
Sean Lohr, a satellite operations contractor based at Thule, Greenland, lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, but “as soon as you step outside, and you see that water, it hits ya. You know you’re in a really neat place.”
Lohr was there when the U.S. was attacked on 9/11.
“I was walking in to work, and a co-worker said, ‘Did you hear what happened at the World Trade Center?’ After I got inside, the second one hit. Yeah. We were actually supposed to leave the following day to come up [to Thule] to do normal checks, but the FAA locked down the travel, so we had to wait a month.”
“There’s not much there. It’s hard on people, especially if you’re married. There’s no shopping, or anything. There’s the ship’s store; kinda like our BX here.”
“The coconut crabs are impressive. They are large!”
Lajes Field, on the small, Portuguese-owned Azores in the Atlantic some 1,000 miles west of Portugal, is an important refueling station for aircraft. About 11 miles long from north to south, Terceira island is not capable of supporting more than one airport, so the field is split between civilian operations and military operations.
There was a rudimentary Portuguese aifield there as World War II progressed, when the United States and Britain were given rights. Soon after, a permanent U.S. presence was established.
Terceira has a temperate climate all year round, with highs in the mid 70s during the summer and low 60s in winter. Although the winter months are often windy and stormy, the temperature rarely dips below 45.
“It’s the lost continent,” said Michelle Moore Wible, who was there as a dependent in the ’70s. “Serene and peaceful. The local islanders are the best! The would do anything for you and are kindhearted.”
“You just can't beat a street bullfight,” said Clinton Lindsay, “where the locals invite you onto the roofs of their homes. And while up there they will feed you beyond full and pour wine down your gullet until you are cross-eyed.”
Any advice to someone going there?
“I would say get out and explore what that island has to offer,” said Kas Schafer. “Most GI’s hang around base now and never get to or want to experience life outside of the NCO club.
“The bullfights which go on from May through September, the food, the Wine, the Cheese, the people, and the crashing waves against AWOL rock ...”
And ... I lost him to his memories.
Another tropical paradise. To some, anyway.
“Guam itself is a beautiful island,” said one airman who asked not to be identified for fear his career would be affected. “It’s also a Japanese tourist trap. It’s basically Japan; it’s small Japan. A lot of seedy bars, tattoo parlors and clubs; it wasn’t my scene.”
In 1950, Guam became a territory of the United States, granting its people U.S. citizenship, but since it’s not a state, they do not have the vote and their congressional representative is a nonvoting member.
U.S. military bases, which cover 29 percent of the island’s land area, include Andersen Air Force Base and U.S. Naval Base Guam.
“It’s 30 miles long, eight miles wide.
“If you know where to go in Guam, it’s beautiful,” said the airman, who was there from 2007-2009. “You just have to get out of the touristy area, where there’s garbage on the beach. Andersen, we had our own beach, and it was spotless. But you can only swim out so far before you get sucked out into the Pacific, and you die.
“You get island fever pretty quick. You drive two hours, and it’s ocean. You turn around and drive two hours, and it’s ocean. It takes six months for you to see everything on Guam. Everything. And after that, it’s repetition.”
Sean Lohr, a contractor now based at Thule, said he can understand how some might have a bad experience, but his was positive.
“The last time I was there, me and some co-workers stopped at a park, and people were cooking out. I wanted to get out of the sun, and I asked if I could stand inside a little hut they had. ‘Sure! They said. Do you want some food?’
“It was just like that. Some folks say the people aren’t friendly; that’s just not my experience.”
Thule Air Base, Greenland
Perhaps the gold standard of godforsaken-ness, in the minds of most military. Located near the northern tip of Greenland, the base has two seasons, according to the welcome packet: light and dark.
But hiking, the chance to live in a truly different place for 12 months, and the friendships you forge when you’re one of just 140-some Americans might make it worth it. It seemed that way during this reporter’s visit [see main story].
Honorable mentions, for weird places:
North Sentinel Island
Sounds like a great place for a military base, right? North Sentinel is one of the 572 islands making up the Andaman chain in the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal, some 400 miles southwest of Myanmar.
It’s surrounded by dangerous reefs, but North Sentinel is more intimidating because of its inhabitants. Believed to number anywhere from 50 to 400, the Sentinelese have lived in isolation on the island for 60,000 years, resisting attempts by authorities and anthropologists to study their culture and integrate them into the modern world.
Every attempt at contact is met with angry men throwing spears, and according to a 2006 story in British newspaper The Telegraph, the last two men to have the misfortune of having their boat drift near North Sentinel were grabbed and killed.
The most remote island in the world, approximately 1,400 miles south-southwest of the coast of South Africa and approximately 1,100 miles north of the Princess Astrid Coast of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica.
So, no more impotently placed than McMurdo or Thule; why wouldn’t we want a base there? It’s so remote and inhospitable, it wasn’t accurately mapped until 1985. It’s highest peak wasn’t summited until 2012. It is 93 percent covered in glaciers, and with its steep coasts and high seas, has no usable port.
Loring Air Force Base, Maine
A “remote” location on the East Coast of the United States? Believe it.
Loring Air Force Base, built in 1947 when the Cold War was getting under way, is in New England, which for Midwesterners feels like the size of a postage stamp. But Loring was as far from Boston as Boston is from Washington, D.C., with a lot of pine trees in the way. It was also brutally cold.