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Fast Times on Diego Garcia
Isolation Breeds Strange Behavior on Remote Military Atoll

Weinberg audio Listen as Scott Simon talks to retired Air Force Maj. Ted Morris.

Oct. 13, 2001 -- The military newspaper Stars and Stripes called the tiny island of Diego Garcia, "Gilligan's Island with guns." Retired Air Force Maj. Ted Morris, who spent time there in the 1980s, doesn't entirely disagree.

Diego Garcia
U.S. Military personnel relax in the ocean off Diego Garcia in 1988.
Photo: Ted Morris

"No phones, no lights, no motor cars" on Diego Garcia, says Morris, whom Scott Simon talked to this week for Weekend Edition Saturday. But, thanks to the fact that the usually unarmed British military essentially runs the place, there aren't many guns, either. There is, however, lots of drinking, nudity, and cross-dressing.

The U.S. military is using the 17-square-mile atoll in the southern Indian Ocean as a base for air strikes on Afghanistan. Diego Garcia's strategic location is what made it attractive as a military base when it was established as such in the 1970s.

The atoll is part of the Chagos archipelago, and is a British Indian Ocean Territory.

In 1962, Britain established its military base on Diego Garcia and set up a telecommunications center. In 1975, with Soviet ships increasing their numbers in the Indian Ocean, the United States leased Diego Garcia from Britain for 50 years and built it up into a powerful military center.

At that time, about 2,000 inhabitants of the Chagos were expelled and relocated on the island of Mauritius, about 1,250 miles to the southwest, to make room for the U.S. military. Now, about 4,000 military personnel and outside contractors live and work on the island.

Much of the activity there is kept secret. Families aren't allowed on the island, which adds to the sense of isolation.

Large Brit Cooking
The British presence on Diego Garcia gives the island much of its character.
Photo: Ted Morris
The military isn't saying much about how the atoll is being used for the air attacks on Afghanistan, but both B-2 Stealth and B-52 bombers are using Diego Garcia. Stealth bombers can fly all the way from the United States to their targets in Afghanistan, but landing them on Diego Garcia eliminates more than 4,000 miles and about nine hours of flying time.

In less exciting times, Diego Garcia is, well, less exciting. When they're not working -- which they do, a lot -- military personnel do have options, says Morris: "Fishing and swimming and snorkeling. Or fishing and swimming and snorkeling."

And, for a fair portion of the atoll's denizens, drinking. Lots and lots of drinking. The "extreme isolation" of Diego Garcia, combined with the rigorous work schedule, the ready availability of booze, and the number of places to imbibe makes conspicuous hooch consumption almost inevitable, Morris says.

The best-known imbibery is the Brit Club. What goes on there? "I've seen a lot of strange things," says Morris. "It's not unusual to see a lot of extreme drunkenness and full frontal nudity." Sometimes the British military men like to dress in women's clothing for impromptu, late-night "performances."

If all this sounds a bit silly, consider what else Morris has to say about Diego Garcia: "It's one of those life-changing places. Everyone can remember a time in their lives when everything came into focus for them, and they cast aside old things and kind of got their act together. I think Diego Garcia is that way for a lot of people."


Other Resources

Ted Morris maintains an extensive Web site that chronicles life on Diego Garcia, and features many more pictures.

The Brit Club has its own Web site, too, with scads of photos.