Base hit

Author Grearson produces absorbing account of a key chapter in Bermuda's history

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In his first hardback appearance, Bermudian Don Grearson has written an extraordinarily detailed account of an absorbing chapter in Bermuda history.

Mr. Grearson has taken as his subject the US base at Kindley Field and told its story from its construction in 1941 to the present day. The author was present at many of the more recent events he describes. When he was not, one wishes he had been, since his accounts would have been more succinct than the body of evidence he accumulates. First-hand reports have been obtained from just about all the major participants still alive.

The book will forever be the standard reference work on the subject, and not just because no one has ever written on the base in such detail before. No one will ever do better on this subject.


In his first hardback appearance, Bermudian Don Grearson has written an extraordinarily detailed account of an absorbing chapter in Bermuda history.

Mr. Grearson has taken as his subject the US base at Kindley Field and told its story from its construction in 1941 to the present day. The author was present at many of the more recent events he describes. When he was not, one wishes he had been, since his accounts would have been more succinct than the body of evidence he accumulates. First-hand reports have been obtained from just about all the major participants still alive.

The book will forever be the standard reference work on the subject, and not just because no one has ever written on the base in such detail before. No one will ever do better on this subject.

Cliff Notes: Fort Bell was built by the Americans in the early 1940s and became the Kindley Field naval base. When the Cold War ended, the lack of military activity corrupted US Navy officers, who turned the base into "Club Fed", a mid-Atlantic resort community for high-ranking Americans and their friends and families.

Exposed by TV reporter Sam Donaldson, of the weird eyebrows, the base, and in short order the other bases on the Island, closed, thereby threatening Bermuda's economy.

The BLDC, a quango, took over management of the baselands. As it began to develop properties at Southside, its powers were reclaimed at the start of the 21st century by the Bermuda Government, which had been fighting a long battle, under the UBP and then the PLP, for the US to make good the environmental damage it did to the base during its rent-free tenure.

A mean-spirited effort by the Americans to shrug off their responsibilities was finally turned, by the intervention of the British, into an $11 million compromise in favour of Bermuda, and the life and afterlife of the base was thus ended.

It's an odd subject to have chosen, but we are told to write whereof we know. Mr. Grearson was employed at the BLDC and has subsequently worked for the UBP, and so was present or privy to the details when much of the story he relates went down.

At times, the reader wonders whether the subject is large enough to withstand the scrutiny the author brings to it, but cumulatively, the tale provides windows on Bermuda in the period under review and, by extension, today. One is often struck by how little has changed in the seven decades the author chronicles.

Mr. Grearson was this newspaper's chief reporter and is a friend. I was expecting his professional style, but not the absolute mastery of so arcane a subject or the ability to make it so interesting. The portraits he paints of the people involved, from the highest to the low, flesh out his story. He is expertly able to turn down the static that often accompanies and can befog political statements, and to distil their essence.

Which politicians emerge in a good light or bad? Not to spoil your enjoyment of a good read, Dr. Grant Gibbons does best. He was handed the base project when it first threatened to blow a hole in Bermuda's economy and is painted as a skilled general and a man of considerable patience.

The American authorities are the villains of the piece, of course. They built the base and then failed to keep it up while polluting the daylights out of it. On leaving, they refused to pay one cent to remediate the damage they had done to the land, demanding instead that Bermuda pay for "improvements" being "abandoned". Their behaviour, the author recounts, amounted to inconsistent and self-serving bullying.

That part of the story creates another of those moments when one realises the continuing relevance of Mr. Grearson's subject. With overextended governments in her major trading partners ganging up on Bermuda at present, it is chilling to read a comment made as the base debate dragged on. Mr. Grearson writes: "One Washington lobbyist familiar with Bermuda was particularly blunt about the Island's limitations: 'Bermuda is really, from the US standpoint, a dinky little place somewhere off North Carolina. Who cares if it lives or dies?' "

No review of the book would be complete without mention of the photographs. They appear first, in advance of the text, rather than taking their traditional place inside the story. It's a rookie mistake, curiously at odds with the enormous attention to detail that Don Grearson has otherwise put into producing a gripping text.

'USS Bermuda: The Rise and Fall of an American Base' (Bermuda, 2009, Great Dog Publishing, 456 pages plus illustrations) by Don Grearson.

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