Someone must remember to close the Donkey Gate

Published 9:01 am Friday, January 17, 2020

By John Nelson

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After the U.S. missile strike that took out General Qasem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, I have been closely following events in the Middle East.

Soon after the strike, a news report stated that six B-52 bombers had been deployed to Diego Garcia as part of our military preparations to counter any Iranian retaliation.

As always, any mention of that little atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean brings back fond memories of the time I spent there.

And the mention of those old planes also brings back memories – some not so fond.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War tend to remember strategic bombers as symbols of potential nuclear destruction. For instance, who can forget that scene from “Dr. Strangelove” when Slim Pickens rode a hydrogen bomb out the bomb bay door of a B-52?

B-52’s have been around for most of my life, and in fact, some military strategists consider them expensive relics from the Cold War that should be retired from the American arsenal.

While there is some truth to this position, the extreme range and payload of the old bombers keep them on the active list.

It was years after Diego Garcia became a military base before the island could support B-52 operations.  The first airstrip was 3,500 feet long and was used for airlifting personnel and supplies.  Some years later it was extended to 8,000 feet and then to 12,000.

It took a major Air Force investment in the early 1980’s to make the airstrip capable of supporting B-52’s.  A heavier parallel taxiway with an extended parking apron was constructed to handle the big bombers.

At first, Diego Garcia was meant to be a refueling stop for B-52’s based on Guam, but in 1991, during the First Gulf War, the island itself became a base for bombers used in operations to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait and to limit his capabilities for waging future wars.

Though much less impressive than B-52’s, the donkeys have been on Diego Garcia much longer.  They have been around at least since the 1840’s when an artist depiction of cocoanut plantation life shows one of them turning a mill to extract oil from copra in much the same way as mules once powered sorghum mills here at home.

After the mills were mechanized in the late 1930’s, the donkeys still served as the motive power for small railcars on the narrow gauge tramways that  moved cocoanuts from the groves to the processing sheds and casks of oil to the pier for loading on ships.

In October of 1971, when the plantation workers were removed from the island, a decision had to be made about the fate of domestic animals left behind.  Donkeys got the death sentence, and though those still working on the plantation were put down, enough had already escaped into the wild to ensure their continued presence on the island.

The donkeys proved to be nuisance enough on the roads, but on the new airstrip, they posed a real problem.  After the expansion of air operations and a couple of near misses, it was obvious that something had to be done, and by that time, there was no appetite for exterminating them.

In 1973, a chain link fence was constructed about halfway down the western side of the horseshoe-shaped island.  The fence extends from the lagoon side to the ocean side and keeps the donkeys south of the airfield.

There is a humorous account about the day of the big roundup when a handful of naval personnel serving as wranglers drove the donkeys south of the fence and into what became their domain on Diego Garcia.

Since DG1, the island’s major road, ran through the center of the fence, a gap of steel pipes commonly used to stop hoofed animals was constructed across the road.  It was hoped that this barrier would stop the donkeys while allowing vehicles to pass right through, but it didn’t work.  The sure-footed animals mastered the obstacle, and the gate that exists today was installed.

It’s always important to keep donkeys off the runway, but with B-52’s back on island, it’s even more crucial.  Things will be fine as long as the donkeys stay on their side of the fence, and that means that personnel passing through the Donkey Gate must remember to close it.

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