The base at Diego Garcia may be a feat of civil engineering, but the tiny island itself has an amazing history. “It was an untold story,” said retired United States Naval Commander Daniel W. Urish of the Civil Engineering Corps of Diego Garcia and his time there. “A lot of my comrades on the island knew it, but in the very early days of going out there, it was a classified mission. Few people were aware of it.”
This here-to-fore untold story was what Urish, also a former professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Rhode Island, wove in his book Coral, Copra, & Concrete.
The book, Urish called a memoir of the Diego Garcia atoll, illustrates a story of the island beginning with its natural history continuing through to the present time as a military base and includes incidents that had never before been reported from the Cold War.
The story is told with the help of paintings, sketches, maps and photos collected from across the island’s timeline including several from Urish and his naval colleagues.
He noted that the island itself was isolated through out much of its history. Before satellite communications, before the airstrip was built, any contact with the island took months to achieve. A number of stories told in the book highlight this through repeated friendly contact with an “enemy” before the news of war reached the islanders. This isolation also served to reduce the risks for tropical diseases found elsewhere, like malaria.
However, during the Cold War and on a classified mission, this meant that he and the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 40, the “Seabees,” were without support other than what they had brought with them. From construction materials to armament in case of possible attack, the battalion had to be self-sufficient. Part of the story he tells in the book details the difficulties in building on the island, acquiring vital materials like fresh water, construction aggregate and cement for building.
“No reporters, no outside people recording what was going on,” he said. “Both for myself and for others involved, the story needed to be written down before it was lost. I myself had a lot of the information between official records and diaries. I could put facts together.”
Coral, Copra, and Concrete is available from the author. Dan’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.