Historical overview and significance
Diego Garcia is an island in the Chagos Archipelago. The archipelago extends over an area of almost 22,000 square miles, and is located in the heart of the Indian Ocean. Discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early 1500's, there is debate on the origin of the name. Some historians believe that two separate ship's captains laid claim to the discovery within one day in Portugal. Each of the two captains last names were used to name the island. Another school believes that Diego Garcia was the complete name of one ship's captain or navigator.
Portugal's claim lapsed and in the early 1700's the island was claimed by the French and governed from Mauritius. France retained control until after the Napoleonic Wars (circa 1814), when possession was ceded to the British after the capture of Mauritius Until 1971, Diego Garcia's main source of income was from the production of copra, or coconut, oil. This oil was used as fine machine lubricant and fuel to light lamps. During the 170 years of plantation life the average harvest was about four million nuts annually. Remains of the plantation are preserved for their historical significance today. In 1965, the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) was created to provide administrative control of the area. In December of 1966, the United Kingdom and the United States signed a bilateral agreement making the islands of the BIOT available for defense purposes to both governments.
On 23 January 1971, a nine man advance party from NMCB-40 landed on Diego Garcia to initiate a preliminary survey for beach landing areas. Fifty additional Seabees from Amphibious Construction Battalion Two landed on the island and marked underwater obstructions, installed temporary navigational aids and cleared beach areas for landing additional personnel and materials. On 20 March 1971, an additional party of 160 Seabees from NMCB-40 arrived. Construction for U.S. Naval Communication Facility Diego Garcia was started four days later by the Seabees from NMCB-1 and finished by NMCB-62. The Seabees also started construction of an interim runway - to support the Communication Facility!
In October and November of 1971, Detachment CHAGOS of NMCB 71 and the whole of NMCB 1 arrived, marking the beginning of large-scale construction. NMCB 1 built the transmitter and receiver buildings and placed the base course for the permanent runway and parking apron. In July 1972, NMCB 62 relieved NMCB-1 and took over the departing battalion's projects. On 25 December the first C-141J transport landed on the newly completed 6,000 foot runway with the Bob Hope Christmas Troupe!
During December 1972, a Pre-commissioning Detachment arrived to prepare the Naval Communication Station for operations. On 20 March, 1973 U.S. Naval Communication Station, Diego Garcia was commissioned. The setting was sparse, but communications have been "UP" ever since!
Work commenced on the second construction increment, a $6.1 million project which involved the construction of a ship channel and turning basin in the lagoon. This project, however, was contracted to a Taiwanese firm. Seabees continued to work on support and personnel facilities in the cantonment area at the northern tip of the atoll. The second major area of construction was the airfield and its supporting facilities. Revised requirements called for the extension of the original 8,000-foot runway to 12,000 feet and additions were made to the parking apron and taxiways. New hangars and other support facilities were also built. During 1973 and 1974, Seabee units worked on all these projects. Because the final mission of Diego Garcia was still evolving, it was clear that still more construction would take place in the years to come.
In 1975 and 1976, Congress authorized $28.6 million to expand the Diego Garcia facilities to provide minimal logistics support for U.S. task groups operating in the Indian Ocean. Additional projects were undertaken in 1978. World events in 1979 and 1980, however, forced a reevaluation of the U.S. defense posture in the Indian Ocean area which indicated the need for pre-positioned materials to support a rapid deployment force and a more active U.S. presence in the area. It was decided to further expand the facilities at Diego Garcia in order to provide support for several pre-positioned ships, loaded with critical supplies. By the end of 1980 the Naval Facilities Engineering Command had advertised a $100 million contract for initial dredging at Diego Garcia to expand the berthing facilities.
Thus, what began as simply a communication station on a remote atoll became a major fleet and U.S. armed forces support base by the 1980s. By 1983 the only Seabee unit remaining on Diego Garcia was a detachment of NMCB 62. The work the Seabees completed on Diego Garcia since 1971 represented the largest peacetime construction effort in their history. Diego Garcia was the major Seabee construction effort of the 1970s and they acquitted themselves well under the difficult and isolated conditions that exist here. When the Seabees arrived they lived in tent camps, when they departed they left a fully-developed, modern military facility, capable of supporting thousands of U.S. personnel.
Located at 7 00 S, 71 30 E in the southern hemisphere, the island stretches 34 miles from tip to tip with the harbor entrance opening to the north-northwest. Termed an atoll, the actual land mass encompasses 11 square miles. The highest point on the island is the swimming pool at about 13 feet.
The climate on Diego Garcia is decidedly tropical. Average yearly precipitation is 102 inches, with a rainy season from September to March each year. Temperatures average 81 degrees with a high of 91 and a low of 65.