Christmas Island, 1966

Bob Thomas

I spent 6 months on Christmas Island in 1966 while in the U.S. Air Force. We were there to monitor the French Nuclear testing being done "down South" of us I believe. I was an enlisted communications specialist, so I had no knowledge of the 'big' picture!

I recall only two villages, London and Paris, at the time. Also, there were only about 180 natives on the island. Two of them worked for the Air Force in the Mess hall. The "airport" was a big leaning sheet metal structure. Much like a "lean-to" about 40 feet tall! There were no buildings at the airport. The beach front was lined with structures from previous military ventures. There were a lot of bars and churches as I recall. There were also several huge warehouses filled with a multitude of 'things'. One held coffins! We also found several abandoned airplanes, 100,000 watt Marconi transmitters, jeeps, land cruisers, phone systems, tennis courts and hundreds of tennis balls, cases of pool cues and several pool tables that we re-furbished and used extensively! Our water came from a seepage pit that we bull-dozed in the middle of the island. We moved several water tanks/towers to our installation and built a water truck. It was a flat bed trailer with a water tower tank on it! One guy spent the entire 6 months driving back and forth hauling water and pumping it into the water towers we had built. The installation we stayed at seemed to be about halfway between London and Paris. It was a cluster of military style buildings inside a chain link fence.

We would catch lobster at low tide and have lobster tails for dinner, lobster omelets for breakfast, lobster sandwiches for lunch etc.! None of us knew anything about fishing, but we fished constantly! Usually throwing the catch back in. When we left, we pushed our vehicles into the ocean and set them on fire because the "commissioner" on the island told us to. He didn't want the natives driving them all over the island after we left because none of them knew how to drive! At the time, he told us he was waiting for Japanese salvage ships to come pick up the salvageable material. (he had laid claim to it) and then he would be a "Millionaire"!

When we arrived, we had to unload a cargo ship that was anchored about 2 or 3 miles out. (at least it seemed that far!). We had two landing craft that were left there on the island when we departed. The native ladies all had to wear tee-shirts while we were around (they were topless usually) and the entire 5 or 6 days that we spent unloading the ships, they would raise their shirts and "flash us" every time we came into the dock in London! (Most of us were 18 to 24 years old at the time, and that was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to us)!

We all had to try the coconut milk and coconut fruit at the first opportunity. It was very good because we had been working hard for days.... we later regretted it! I caught my first shark on the island by dangling my flip-flop shoe in the water! He bit onto my shoe, and I kicked him ashore! (That also emptied out the 'swimming hole' at the time!)

We called the two natives that worked for us "Gumjoe" and "Mogum"... because they were always asking us for chewing gum... as in, Gum Joe? or More Gum? They didn't speak English so that was the extent of their conversation!

The most advanced technology on the island while I was there, aside from our communications and "spying" equipment, was the beer cooler. It was a 48 foot refrigerated trailer that held our "life's blood'! We refilled it 4 times in 6 months because it held "only" 3 or 4000 cans of beer! It's hard to imagine that the Air Force would allow an old C-124 cargo plane to fly 6 hours just to deliver beer and mail! That's where I discovered Australian Ales! The commissioner would trade us one Ale for three Budwisers. Then he sold the Bud's to the natives for $1.00 U.S.!

It seems like we (mankind) won't be happy until we've 'scarred' all of the surface of the earth! I don't know it for a fact but, we were told that the island was about several miles longer before the atomic testing was done years ago. Apparently the explosions allowed several miles of island to wash away after the testing.

Of course, we were also told that:

  1. The U.S. had to replant the entire island in coconut trees after the war.
  2. The island was the "laundry" of the Pacific during the war. All uniforms, tents, bedding etc. were sent there to be washed and re-cycled for the Pacific forces!
  3. The commissioner had caught a "Great White Shark" by using the grappling hook on the cable of his jeep when the shark foundered inside the reef at low tide!
  4. The Natives were cannibals on their home islands!
  5. We were an 'alternate site' for the French Nuke testing! ! !
  6. The "land crabs" would come after you in your sleep if you didn't block your door!
  7. If you walked through the bird nesting areas the birds would attack you!
  8. There were "hundreds" of Moray eels in the water! . . . and numerous other lies!
I guess the purpose was to keep us inside the compound in some cases! The rest of the stories were just 'good clean fun' for the story teller!

I loved my stay on Christmas Island and I hope to some day go back for a visit...

9/28/2004 - Since this story was posted (April 15, 1999), I've been contacted by several folks who have some interest, for what ever reason, in the island. I've supplied photos to a 75-year-old lady who was writing a story about her husband's stay on the island in the 50's, and have remained an email friend with her for several years now.
A scientist contacted me after reading the story to tell me that he had made an emergency landing there during the time period I was there. The weird thing is, I was the radio operator who was "screaming" at he pilot to NOT land because we didn't have enough runway length for him! Turns out, I was wrong! The scientist was one of 18 or 20 on the plane. They were waiting for the French to test their Nuke! They overnighted with us and a repair crew flew down the next day to fix their plane. I've been contacted by several British ex-soldiers who told me of their stay on the island. A couple of my former Air Force members picked up the phone to call me and reminisce about our time there.

Bob Thomas
1960 Mount Vernon Estates Dr.
Kinston, N.C. 28504