Bahrain is an island country, half way up the Persian Gulf. It shines like a white pearl in the shimmering blue water, almost in sight of the Arabian coast. Before the discovery of oil, pearl- diving was its main industry, and pearls still figure prominently in its culture.
With the black gold came the Europeans. In the 20th Century, the British established a naval base, HMS Jufair, on the island. It served as the centre of their considerable naval presence in the area. As the British withdrew (remaining on good terms with the ruling al-Khalifa family), the Americans came. In 1949, the Middle East Force was established, mainly to ensure the safe flow of oil from the region. It consisted of five or six destroyers, which rotated in on deployment from the Sixth Fleet through the Suez Canal, and a white flagship (the “Great White Ghost”) homeported in Bahrain. The Force was tied up at HMS Jufair when not making good-will port visits throughout the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Indeed, those good-will swings were a major role of the little squadron. The Commander, US Middle East Force (COMIDEASTFOR), a one-star commodore or lower-half rear admiral, was the senior American official in a vast part of the globe where there was no US State Department presence. Consider that at the end of World War II there was not a single US Embassy from Suez to Singapore; every country was a European colony. One of COMIDEASTFOR’s many titles was US Diplomatic Representative, Pacific Command.
Even after independence (and diplomatic relations) came to the countries of the area, the title remained, and for good reason. Through the back-and-forth power plays of the Cold War, and the love-hate relationship of Arab and Muslim elites with the US, COMIDEASTFOR was one American official that most of the former generals, dictators, and theocrats of the region trusted. As one leader told COMIDEASTFOR one day, “Diplomats are expected to lie for their country; you, sir, are an military officer, a man of honour. We understand each other.”
Many of the political climbers in the Navy thought that COMIDEASTFOR was a place to keep dead-end rear admirals out of trouble until they could quietly retire. But in fact, the job required considerable savvy and intelligence, and exceptional diplomatic skills. As the Americans jockeyed with the Soviets in the area for forty years, the fortunes of that conflict often rested on a personal relationship between a lonely naval officer who came by every six months or so and the former general who ruled the country. That not all the men serving as COMIDEASTFOR measured up to the challenge is probably why the job was given such a bad rap.
When I arrived in 1982, it was a very different world. The Soviets were bogged down in Afghanistan. The Iran-Iraq war was bogged down in the marshes and desert north of Basra, and the Ayatollah Khomeini had established the Islamic Republic of Iran, ruthlessly destroying as much Western influence as he could. The Middle East Force watched from the Persian Gulf as Iranian Air Force jet pilots (trained by the US Navy in Pensacola) defected across to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, sometimes with their families in the navigator’s seat.
The US Air Force, flying AWACS surveillance aircraft from the Saudi capital in Riyadh, watched also. It was a tense time, because we never knew if the jets suddenly appearing over the ridge in Iran were defecting or coming in for an air strike. We needed to be ready at an instant to shoot the F-4 Phantom out of the sky, but not kill a friendly officer and whoever was in the back seat.
I reported aboard just a few weeks after the new COMIDEASTFOR had assumed command. Rear Admiral Charles E. Gurney III (Hi) was the first Surface Warfare Officer to take command in many years, if not decades. That more pilots and submariners fell into political disfavour than “real sailors” (ship-drivers) should not be surprising. They rose to the top in greater numbers than surface sailors during the Cold War.
Hi Gurney had asked for the job, and he was a remarkable man in many ways. For one, he had a Master’s degree in International Relations. For another, he was the senior officer left from the experiments of the 1970’s, when Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, Chief of Naval Operations during Vietnam, liberalized Navy tradition so far that it never swung back again completely. Almost single-handedly, Zumwalt brought women and blacks into the mainstream, including the Naval Academy and the line officer ranks. He tested all sorts of new ideas, determined to shake up the hidebound leadership of the Service. In 1974, Hi Gurney, then only a Commander, became the Commander of Destroyer Squadron 26, known as the “Mod Squad” (after the action TV show by that name). Every ship in the Mod Squad was manned by officers one rank junior than normal.
As so it went. When the pendulum swung back the other way, the officers of the Mod Squad were stuck in a career tesseract. Too junior for the next logical assignment; too senior to be recycled in the same job.
Hi Gurney did not let that bother him. He went looking for interesting jobs, and as far as I could tell, thoroughly enjoyed the rest of his career. A man after my own heart, when he retired, he did not buy a condo or a home by a golf course and spend his days on the links with his cronies. He and his wife bought a recreational vehicle (RV) and lived in it, cruising all over North America. He deliberately set out to see the country that he had not seen while defending it, and only parked the RV in Alabama when he found the place he called “the vestibule of Heaven.” I can relate to that.
But I get ahead of myself.
Admiral Gurney looked at the challenges of his new command with a different perspective than his predecessors. I remember clearly our exchange at my entry interview, in January 1982. The month before, the Navy had stopped issuing Combat Action Ribbons to personnel stationed in MIDEASTFOR, because the Iran-Iraq War was bogged down, and we were not considered in danger anymore. I heard a fair amount of complaining. Military men love their medals and ribbons, and the tax breaks that go with them.
“Well, Mr. Hine,” the Admiral asked me. “What are your personal objectives for this tour?”
I thought about that, then pointed to the ribbons on my chest.
“Sir, if by the time I leave here a year from now, we have not earned a Combat Action Ribbon, I think we will have done our job.”
He grinned broadly, and gave me a friendly slap on the arm.
“You and I are going to get along just fine.”
Indeed, we did. And we kept the peace. Area leaders who still would not let the US Ambassador present his credentials welcomed Admiral Gurney to the palace. We showed the flag throughout the region, communicating between the American leadership and different leaderships active in the area. We kept the oil flowing, the ships sailing, and the aircraft flying safely.
We did not earn the Combat Action Ribbon that year or for the rest of the decade. Only a few of my sea stories from that year have been declassified, but I saw the positive impact of our work for many years after I left, on TV, in the press, and later on the Internet. It was not by accident or coincidence that you never saw an oil spill like Deep Horizon from a burning VLCC (very large crude carrier) in the Persian Gulf, or that nothing blew up in the Strait of Hormuz. I cannot say that everything else went well in the region, but the waters of the Gulf have stayed relatively peaceful to this day. Admiral Gurney’s staff left lasting instructions on “how to do it right” at the deck-plate level, and I am proud of my part in writing those.
(c) 2021, JT Hine