Beyond the Gate
By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kilho Park
JTF Guantanamo Public Affairs
From a historical military perspective, when you think about gates or borders the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas or the Berlin Wall’s Brandenburg gate come to mind.
Here in Guantanamo Bay we too have a border, still scattered with mines from a bygone era and a gate (though not as grandiose as Brandenburg).
The North East Gate is the northern entry point separating Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NAVSTA GTMO) from the rest of Cuba. Closely guarded by the Marine Corps Security Forces Company (MCSFCO) with a heavily fortified fence line and strategically placed observation towers, the gate has seen its fair share of history which makes NAVSTA GTMO what it is today.
Access to the North East Gate is rare and strictly prohibited unless personnel are escorted by a member of MCSFCO. Tours are offered for all those stationed and working on island, every third Thursday of every month at 11 a.m. Sign up at the MCSFCO headquarters building during regular business hours.
When the United States leased the land that is NAVSTA GTMO from the Cuban government in 1903, the North East Gate was established as the checkpoint for up to 3,000 Cuban commuters who would move in and out of the base on a daily basis. In 1958, when vehicle traffic was prohibited, the number of commuters dropped to 300. Of those 300, only two continue the trek today.
In 1964, Commander in Chief of Cuba’s military and Prime Minister, Fidel Castro cut off the fresh water supply to the base to protest the U.S. arresting 17 Cuban fishermen for violating territorial waters off the Florida coast. When Castro accused the Americans of stealing water, then-Base Commander Rear Adm. John D. Bulkeley invited media to watch as the cast iron water pipe was cut at the North East Gate as proof to the contrary. The cut pipe is prominently displayed today by the gate’s main observation tower.
The competition of national pride between the Cubans and American Marines grew at the North East Gate after Castro took control over Cuba.
At the barracks on top of the hill where Marines would sleep during off hours, Cuban personnel would throw rocks on the tin roofs to keep them awake. So the Marines built a 40-foot high fence to prevent the rocks from making it over.
Then the Cubans used to climb the fence and hang metal objects from hangers to make noise in the wind. So the Marines fortified the fence line with barbed wire.
Cubans used a spotlight on the barracks to keep the Marines awake at night for a month. Bulkeley erected a tent on the hill where the barracks was located and had laborers work on a “secret project.”
At the end of the month, when the Cubans used the spotlight on the barracks once more, the tent came down and the spotlight would hit a hill-sized globe, eagle and anchor, the insignia of the United States Marine Corps. The spotlighting stopped immediately.
North East Gate tour guide Marine Staff Sgt. Jonathan Whatley honors and respects the rich history of his beloved Marine Corps and their history here in Guantanamo Bay.
“Here we are stationed in a communist country in the oldest naval station outside the U.S.,” said Whatley. “It’s an awesome amount of pride knowing that Marines were here since 1898 during the Spanish-American War and the work we’ve done since.”
For others, getting access to such a restricted area of the base and receiving some historical perspective was enough to warrant time for a look-see and to take the tour.
“I wanted to see what the gate was all about,” said Chief Petty Officer Edwin Schulze, of the Coast Guard’s Maritime Safety and Security Team San Diego. “Seeing the entrance and getting a glimpse of the history of Guantanamo Bay is very cool.”
For Marine Capt. Kristy Milton, it was her last day on island and her one and only chance to tour the Northeast Gate and see it up close.
“The Northeast Gate tour was very informative, giving us the background and history of this place and of Cuba as well,” she said. “When you think of Guantanamo, you don’t just think about the JTF (Joint Task Force) side, you think of the Marines guarding the fence line, the towers, and movies like “A Few Good Men.” You see it up close, it’s something everyone who comes to Guantanamo Bay should come and see.”