In December 1987, after an arduous, but militarily successful deployment to the Arabian Sea and patrols in the Straits of Hormuz, the USS MIDWAY (CV-41) and her Carrier Group were relieved by the USS ENTERPRISE (CV-65). The cruise started off tragically, with the loss of AW2 Joseph Pfleghaar in a helicopter crash near the South China Sea. Then only a few weeks later, we lost an AE-6 Prowler with all four aircrew aboard. Once on station, though, things turned around and the Air Wing carried out its responsibilities against the Iranian navy with lethal results. Now it was time for some R&R.
Rumors abounded about our first port of call en route to our home port of Yokosuka, Japan. There was talk of Eilat, Israel and Karachi, Pakistan. But after Bob Hope’s USO Christmas Show, we learned we would ring in the New Year in Mombasa, Kenya. It had been several years since the U.S. Navy had visited Mombasa; no one knew what to expect.
The MIDWAY was too large for Mombasa’ port, so she dropped anchor off the coast and a Kenyan transport took sailors back and forth from the boat to the port. If first impressions mattered, most of us would have stayed on the MIDWAY. The transports were rust buckets that surprised us by staying afloat for the 20-minute jaunt. Then we boarded even rustier buses for our hotel. Ports are usually rough environments, but what we saw on our way to our lodging had us praying that we did not suffer a breakdown on those roads!
Thirty minutes later we turned onto a long private drive and seemingly in about 500 yards went from third-world poverty to four-star luxury. As we disembarked from the bus complaisant, smiling, and helpful hotel staff took our bags and answered cheerily with “Hakuna Matata,” our every question or request.
After a night of some local beers, a luxuriant sleep in soft beds and a shower, many of my squadron mates opted for a safari tour offered through the hotel’s concierge. I had had enough of bus rides, close quarters and people in general, so I instead signed up for a SCUBA excursion. The water was warm and crystal clear. We explored a wreck and swam straight into a school of barracudas. Thankfully, they must have already eaten, and simply darted away. The SCUBA boat was operated by an expat couple from Germany. Onboard were a Brit, two Danes and myself. I realized Mombasa is a tourist destination for Europeans. Not exactly a spot a kid from Naperville would ever pick for his Spring Break!
The next day I decided to go for a run on the beach. I ran along the sand and felt the warm breeze and could see nothing but endless horizon on one side, and palm trees and sand on the other. I was in heaven. Then I heard footsteps behind me, and a huffing/puffing sound with each footfall. I picked up my pace, but the steps kept getting closer. I turned my head just a bit, and saw three, very tall Maasai Warriors, running with spears and decked out in traditional garb at what had to be at least a six minute mile pace. They were easily a foot, or more, taller than me and didn’t even acknowledge me as they raced by. It was beautiful, exhilarating and terrifying all at once. I stopped in my tracks and watched the three of them disappear up the beach. I turned and beelined it back to the hotel!
I jumped into the hotel pool, ordered several cocktails with little umbrellas and thought how the Navy had not disappointed in its slogan, “Sign up and see the world.” Later that evening the pool deck was packed, and just about every language imaginable could be heard, as the guests and my squadron mates rang in the New Year.
We didn’t know what 1988 would hold for us, but we were young and Naval Aviators, without a care in the world. Hakuna Matata, Swahili for “No Worries,” became my mantra. I even bought a t-shirt espousing the phrase. It would be about seven years later that Disney, with its Lion King movie, would introduce the phrase to the world.
So, Hakuna Matata my friends, and I’ll see you in 2024.