After combat duty in Vietnam and assignments across the globe, Captain Thomas J. McKeown of the US Navy thought conflict was behind him. His current post—a Pentagon desk job—offered a chance to spend time with his family. An urgent new assignment changed everything.
McKeown is sent to the oldest US naval base in Europe, in Londonderry, Northern Ireland. His public assignment is to close the base and turn it over to the Queen, who would determine its future. In truth, Londonderry’s fate is already decided.
McKeown’s orders are to transfer the base to the British Army—an act expected to enrage IRA members active in Londonderry. Public knowledge of the decision would put both military personnel and base property at risk of terrorist attack.
As McKeown moves his laborious assignment forward, he learns to love the people of Londonderry even as he rediscovers his own Irish Catholic heritage. At home, he must contend with a family tired of military life.
When word of the transfer leaks out, the IRA move to attack the base. How McKeown responds to this threat will determine the success of his mission—and the safety of those under his command.
_____________________ BACKGROUND __________________
Thomas McKeown is a highly decorated navy officer who has risen to the rank of Captain at a young age. His career has obligated him to travel around the world separating him from his family for long periods of time. Now, in the Spring of 1976, he has been called back to Washington DC for a desk job in the Pentagon and is looking forward to finally spending time with his growing family and working on a shaky marriage. He coaches his son’s baseball team and his wife begins planning vacations for the family and shows him a brochure of Hawaii she has always wanted to visit.
Captain Thomas McKeown (1976)
But not long after he has returned to Washington, he is called into the office of his commanding Admiral and given a new assignment of closing the oldest Navy base in Europe in Londonderry, Ireland. The base is precariously in the middle of the intense fighting between the Catholics and the Protestants and Washington is afraid of violence on the base will lead to an international incident.
His real mission is to close the base and turn it over to the British Army but his outward story is that the base will be turned over to the Queen. If learned of the real purpose of turning the base over to the British Army, it is very likely that violence from Catholic IRA forces will ensue.
He is worried about leaving his family again since his marriage is on shaky grounds and convinces his wife and family to go with him to the base. The family lands in Shannon and is taken north by a driver and a navy van. The country changes from the postcard Ireland most think about to the bleaker, industrial, war torn area of Northern Ireland.
The Londonderry Naval Base – Mid 1970s
His months on the base introduces him to an amazing community that has been part of the local economy since the early 40s playing an important part in the efforts of WWII. Much of the town economy is associated with the base and there are many long-term employees on the base. His best friend becomes a large old guy named George who has been a civilian employee on the base for many years and is Irish Catholic, like Captain McKeown.
One night, after the change of command ceremony, Captain McKeown has a meeting in his office with Captain Byrd, the outgoing commanding officer. In the meeting, they discuss the real purpose of turning the base over to the British Army. Their conversation is heard by an employee on the base whose husband is one of the leaders of the local IRA branch in Londonderry. The result is that a large explosion goes off next to the gym where the captain has called a meeting of all base employees. No one is injured but a warning has been clearly left: this is the kind of thing that will happen if the base is turned over to the British.
Captain McKeown sees his assignment in a new light and realizes the precariousness of his situation. At the same time, he comes to have a real love for the town of Londonderry and work of the base. He also begins to get in touch with his Irish Catholic roots and see things from the perspective of the Irish Catholics. He comes to believe that the base does not need to be closed down and travels to Washington to plead his case to the Admiral.
Units of the Derry Brigade March During The Troubles
However, the Admiral says he must continue with his mission of closing the base and turning it over to the British Army. The Admiral puts him in contact with the British General handling the turnover and they meet and set up a secret date the base will be turned over to them.
The IRA gets notice of this and collect their forces to move onto the base and blow everything up. But Captain McKeown’s friend George warns him of their plans. Not known to Captain McKeown, George is a member of the local IRA and knows about the plan.
Young Irish Boys In Londonderry Play Around Destroyed Piece of Military Equipment
The British move quickly to take over the base and prevent the IRA from blowing up the base. There are moments when it is unsure whether there will be many killed or not.
“A dark green van drove around Londonderry a day after the meeting of Captain McKeown and General Rafferty. Sean Kelly drove the van. Next to him in the front seat of the van were two other members of the IRA. The van made stops at various shops and flats around town loading boxes into it and then going on to another location. And another. After a few hours the back of the van was full of boxes with things like “Vinegar” and “Potatoes” written on the outside of them disguising the sticks of dynamite they were filled with. In the early evening, the green van stopped at the little pub in the bogside area of Londonderry that served as one of the meeting places for the IRA. The boxes were unloaded from the van and carried into a room in the rear of the pub where a large group of IRA members were assembled. They wore black outfits and had heavy belts of ammunition thrown over their shoulders. M16s and all sorts of pistols were everywhere.” (From Londonderry Farewell)
The City Was Bitterly Divided During the Troubles
With the help of Captain McKeown and his men, the British mission accomplished and Captain McKeown leaves for Scotland to join his family at the new naval base in Thurso. George sees him off at the ferry in Belfast and tells him he is a member of the IRA and the fact the Captain is Irish Catholic a very important thing to him.
Londonderry in the Middle 1970s
When he gets off the ferry in Thurso, his family is waiting for him. His wife gives him a telegram addressed to Captain McKeown that she has just received. Tom opens it and reads it to the family. It is a congratulatory telegram from Admiral Schmidt on a job well-done. The Admiral says that after a few months starting the Thurso base he is being transferred to run a navy base in Honolulu. His wife finally gets that trip to Hawaii she has wanted for so long.
_____________________ ABOUT THE AUTHORS __________________
Thomas McKeown, USN (Ret), CAPT – Captain McKeown has a BS in mathematics from Seton Hall University and an MS in telecommunications engineering from the US Naval Postgraduate School. He has also done graduate work at the Harvard Business School in corporate strategic planning and advanced marketing management. He has had a distinguished career in the military as well as civilian life. He is a highly decorated navy officer, whose career has included two Meritorious Service medals, one during combat duty as CO of the naval telecommunications base in Vietnam. His naval service included four telecommunications commands as well as command of two surface warfare ships. His civilian career has included work for a number of well-known corporations as well as for the government and educational institutions, including doing strategic planning for the US Treasury Department and for W. Paul Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University and acting as executive program director for Gartner Research Corporation. His most recent strategic planning project was for the city of Washington, DC. He lives in Palm Desert, California.
John Fraim – John has a BA from UCLA and a JD from Loyola Law School. He is president of GreatHouse Marketing Strategy, a marketing consulting firm, and GreatHouse Stories in Palm Desert, California, which assists clients in writing biographies, histories, and memoirs. John has been a writer all his life with numerous published works and three published books. One of his books is the award-winning Spirit Catcher, the life and art of legendary jazz musician John Coltrane, which earned the best biography award from the Small Press Association. He is involved in a number of community activities and is a member of the Palm Springs Writers Guild board of directors. A recognized expert on symbolism, he is the author of Battle of Symbols and served as a consultant on the film The Da Vinci Code. He writes a regular column for Script magazine, the largest publication for screenwriters. He is currently at work on a history of Palm Desert as well as a biography of a world-renowned nutritionist and a famous paleontologist.