Flight from Santo Domingo (1984)

by John Miles

After four exhaustive months playing in the Atlantic Fleet Band during the 1980 Unitas cruise in South America and the Caribbean, the band members were exhilarated to be returning home to the United States. A rigorous schedule combined with the numerous pressures of continuous performances with no breaks had certainly made the bandsmen irritable. The day to return home had finally come.

Originally from Norfolk, Virginia, the band had been assigned temporary duty aboard the USS Radford, a destroyer. Commencing in early July, the band flew to various cities and ports through the Latin American and Caribbean region, accompanying a small fleet of ships, a submarine, as well as an AWACS surveillance plane on a mission to show the US flag abroad. Lodging mostly in resort hotels, the band also stayed on board the destroyer whenever they played in a seaport whenever available.

The first sign of trouble was not immediately evident. The band had been preparing for the transfer for the transfer of musical equipment and personal effects from the destroyer to a military transport plane ten miles distant. In other places on-board and around the ship, crewmen were at their diverse duties preparing for the ship’s departure from Santo Domingo in the Domincan Republic.

Unnoticeable at first, an eerie sense of tension soon descended upon the band members, until it was soon quite obvious that something was wrong. When the UDT/SEAL team went on duty in combat fatigues and armed with shotguns, grenade-launchers and M-16 submachine guns, most of the non-essential bystanding crew members had found a reasonably secure shelter below deck.

Being in a non-combative situation, the band was normally dressed in tropical white dress uniforms, which always made them an easy target for communist terrorists, who at the time were seeking to make spectacular political statements against the United States by creating bloody spectacles. Treaties between the US and the Dominican Republic prohibited US forces from carrying arms in order to protect Americans inside the country. Whenever terrorists threatened groups such as the Navy Band, which was usually all the time, the normative practice was for the host country to provide protection for the band in the form of a few servicemen armed with burp guns who would accompany the band during their official travels to and from concerts. Demonstrations by pro-leftist and Communist groups, onstage verbal abuse as well as the occasional bomb threat were quite commonplace in the daily routine of a Navy musician, and over the time these occurrences became mere inconveniences.

The official word finally came from the admiral as to why all the extra security precautions were being taken. An anonymous phone caller had contacted the American embassy and warned of an attack against the ship; if that attempt failed, the terrorists were going to blow up the plane destined to fly the admiral and his staff (including the band) back to Norfolk, VA. The Dominican Republic government agreed to provide a small handful of marines to protect all American servicemen being transported from the ship to the airfield, a distance of several miles. The band was responsible for transporting all of their gear, including all conceivable instruments and electric hardware associated with playing in a rock and roll band, from the ship to a truck on the pier, which would then be driven to the airport along with the admiral’s staff. However, there were additional considerations the band members had not been aware of, for soon the truck was not only loaded with band gear, but also with the personal effects of a few dozen staff members. Now the truck was carrying twice as much cargo, and it would take twice as long to get everything transferred from the truck to the plane.

Inevitably, everything was eventually loaded onto the truck and all military personnel were on board the busses, which were then driven to the airfield, and accompanied by the foreign soldiers. The drive from the pier to the plane, although probably brief, was one that seemed to be much longer because of the anxiety everyone was now experiencing. Ambush, attack, or bloodshed was now definitely a possibility.

Upon arrival at the airport, everyone swiftly assumed his assigned duties, attempting to do their tasks in the smooth, cool, and professional manner that they were used to. It was my job, assisted with the help of a man named Fletcher, to unload the truck containing all of the gear that was piled several feet high, and to pass everything to a human chain of other band members that were on the ground or inside the plane. Although we were quickly getting the job done in an efficient manner, the admiral’s chief-of-staff, a commander of flag rank, came by to shriek at us to complete the transfer of equipment by the appointed take-off time, which was in three minutes! He informed us that we would be left behind if we failed in our duties. Meanwhile, encircling the aircraft, facing the jungle and prepared for siege were the foreign soldiers. From our vantage point on top of the band gear and staff luggage, Fletcher and I would be able to see beyond the soldiers into the jungle in case of an attack from terrorists.

We didn’t unload the gear in three minutes. Nevertheless, the aircraft did land in Norfolk a few hours later without any further incidents. The musicians, who resented the extra pressure from the high brass, especially had a significantly relaxed atmosphere prevailing amongst them. With many adventures behind them to divulge to their awaiting friends and loved ones, another cruise had ended. The musicians, deprived of sleep for months, could now rest... at least until the next tour!