A book detailing life at the US Naval base in Derry in the mid-1970s is now ready for the publishers, its author has told the ‘Journal’.
Tentatively titled ‘Londonderry Farewell’, the new book is penned by Captain Thomas McKeown who 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 on the verge of publishing the book focusing on his eventful time in Derry.
He told the ‘Journal’ 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.
Co-written with John Fraim, the book is, says Capt McKeown, a “historical novel.”
It’s believed the retired Navy commander is talking to publishers on both sides of the Atlantic.
The book is, he says, “created from my memories of running the naval base in the last year before it was closed down.”
“It was a difficult and dangerous period in Derry and the book recounts much of this as it relates to many Irish citizens who worked on the base at the time.
“The base had a long and close relationship with Derry and many American servicemen married women from Derry and established families.”
Capt 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.
It was at the age of forty-one that 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.
Over the next year at the Derry base, Captain McKeown learned something special 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.
His new book tells the story of his “amazing, magical year” as commander of the Derry Naval base - from his arrival in June 1976 to his departure in September 1977.
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 said: “We want to create something extraordinary because this period of time in Derry demands something extraordinary be remembered about it.”
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.
John Fraim is 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.