US Navy captain recalls ‘love affair’ with Derry

Captain Thomas McKeown during his heyday in the US Navy.
Captain Thomas McKeown during his heyday in the US Navy.

Captain Thomas McKeown was commanding officer at the U.S. Naval Communications Station in Derry during the mid-1970s and was responsible for the final shut-down of the base in the summer of 1977.

Like many other US Navy personnel based in Derry, he came to love the city and, despite the passage of time, it still holds a place in his heart - so much so that the retired Navy man is currently writing a book focusing on his eventful year in Derry. He tells SEAN McLAUGHLIN that not only was Derry a “very special and magic place” but that, for hundreds of US sailors based here, their years in Derry were the best of their lives.

Captain Tom McKeown has had a distinguished career in both the US Navy and in civilian life.

Born in New Jersey, he graduated from Seton Hall and went into the Navy where he went on to command two ships and served as commanding officer on four Navy bases. After the Navy, he went into strategic planning, attended Harvard University and headed up marketing for a number of large corporations.

But of all the events in his long distinguished career, the one thing that stands out from all the rest is the time from 1976 to 1977 that he spent in Derry as commanding officer of the Derry Naval Station.

He had just been back in Washington DC for a few months, after commanding the Naval base in Cam Rahn Bay, Republic of Vietnam and then a guided missile destroyer, and was looking forward to some quality time with his family such as coaching Little League baseball and getting to know his wife and kids again.

One day, an Orderly walked into his office at the Pentagon and told him that the Admiral wanted to see him and not later but right now. Soon he was sitting around a table with some of the highest-ranking members of the U.S. Navy.

The Admiral informed him that President Gerald Ford was concerned about the safety of Americans on the U.S. Navy base in Derry and that he wanted to pull them out and close the base down. He wanted Captain McKeown to do this.

So, at the early age of forty-one, McKeown found himself on his way to Ireland with his family: his wife Mary and three of their five children. Being Irish himself, Tom knew a little about the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland. However, he knew little about the Navy base there.

It wasn’t long after arriving that he would find out that the base had a long, illustrious history. Started in the early 1940s during WWII, it was the first U.S. Naval base in Europe and served as a key strategic base for the U.S. Navy. Over the years the base became a key communications facility for Navy ships in the North Atlantic.

But over the next year at the Derry base, Captain McKeown learned something more about the base. Something that was not part of the base’s “official” military history.

He learned of an incredible relationship between the base personnel and the city of Derry. Not only did the Americans who served on the Derry base have a great fondness for Derry but many, many of them also married Irish girls.

Captain McKeown now lives in the southern California desert city of Rancho Mirage which is, incidentally, the former retirement home of U.S. President Gerald Ford who sent the young Captain McKeown to Ireland to close the Derry base.

Tom is an avid golfer and is a member of the Board of Directors of the Palm Springs Writers Guild.

The project that consumes him these days is writing a book about his “amazing, magical year” as commander of the Derry Naval base - from his arrival in June 1976 to his departure in September 1977.

He has hooked up with John Fraim, a fellow resident of the California desert and author of a number of books and articles including an award-winning biography of a legendary jazz musician.

Captain McKeown has already recorded some of his memories from 1976-1977 but the memories continue to come and are being collected in the book he and John Fraim are now writing about the base and Derry. After the book is published, the two plan to show it to “people” in Hollywood for a possible film.

A good indicator of the legacy of the Derry base is the Navcommsta Londonderry Alumni Association. It has hundreds of members and hosts well-attended annual meetings (this year in New Orleans). Its website is full of photographs taken by those who worked on the base. For those interested in having a look, it can be found at http://navcommsta-londonderry.freeservers.com/index.html.

Captain McKeown and his co-author John Fraim recently sent out an email to those based at the Derry station in 1976 and 1977. The results are coming in every day with most commenting somewhere in their emails that their years in Derry were the best in their lives. The project of collecting memories continues.

“We are not out to write just another history book,” says Captain McKeown. “Rather we want to create something extraordinary because this period of time in Derry demands something extraordinary be remembered about it.”

As McKeown tells his fellow Navy alumni in his emails, there are a few immediate purposes of the history.

Firstly, to tell the history of the U.S. Navy Base (later Naval Communications Station) and its critical operational duties for more than 30 years.

Secondly, to convey the challenges and troubles that he faced when ordered to close the base and turn it over to the British Army.

Third, to explain the long history of the love affair between the American sailors and the people of the city - before, during and after the Troubles.

Lastly, to encourage tourism to a “wonderful, friendly, musical city with places to vist and sites to see.”

Captain McKeown adds: “While memories of those that served on the base are important to the story, also very important are the memories of citizens of Derry during the years 1976 and 1977.”

Any help through photographs, stories, recollections would be greatly appreciated and can be sent to either Tom McKeown or John Fraim at the following email addresses.

Thomas McKeown

Email: tjmckeown@att.net

John Fraim

Email: johnfraim@mac.com