A local citizen, Bill Batson, recently organized a get-together in Washington C.H. for his former shipmates who all served together as Navy Base Police at Guantanamo Bay.
Although Batson grew up locally and continues to live locally, the other four shipmates who were able to attend came from different states. According to Batson, Timm Cyrus lives in Lancaster, California, Bill Dimon lives in Birmingham, Alabama, Gordon Pensyl lives in Bangor, Pennsylvania and Jim Shaw lives in Madison, Mississippi.
Shaw, according to Batson, works in a position that is involved with nuclear power plants and is relocated every couple of years—Madison will be his most recent move where he will soon be closing on a house later this month—his first owned home.
A sixth shipmate whom Batson wanted to be involved was Walter T. Jezak who lived in Fall River, Massachusetts. Jezak passed away in 2017.
According to Batson, he and his shipmates were in and out of service at different times but at one point their service overlapped. Basically, the timeframe of their service at Guantanamo was 1971 to 1972.
“We decided to do this and it all came together,” Batson explained. “We planned it around the guy (Cyrus) from Los Angeles (county), because he had a trip to Louisville planned for the same week.”
The plan, according to Batson, was for Cyrus to rent a car, drive to Washington C.H. from Louisville and spend the day with his shipmates.
Batson was asked to explain in his own words what being base police meant.
“We were the law enforcement on the base,” he explained. “You couldn’t go off the base because it was Cuba—barbed wires and mine fields. We were basically police officers.”
“Crime was low with it being a military base,” he said. “Guantanamo is a training center where the fleet comes down, the ship comes down, they go out and train out in the Caribbean, then come back in to get resupplied.”
“When they come into port, they let them off the ship and there’s not a whole lot to do,” said Batson. “They could drink. Beer was a quarter, mixed drinks were 35 cents. There were a lot of fights. We did have traffic violations, some domestic problems. As far as bad crime, there wasn’t any.”
Batson, as well as his visiting shipmates, referred to those “fights” as “riots.” This was in part due to the amount of people who got involved during the riots.
“They’ve been out to sea for weeks and months, they need to blow off some steam,” he said. “We had to pick up the losers (of the fights).”
“Back then the population of the base was around 12,000” said Batson. “So, it was about the size of Washington Court House, because we’re sitting around 14,000 (population) right now.”
“I can’t speak for the other guys,” said Batson, “but when I joined the Navy they sent me to San Diego to ship-fitter school, that’s where you repair ships, welding, plumbing, sheet metal for three months. Then I went to damage control school and that’s firefighting on the ship—that was another couple months training. I figured they’d put me on a boat and send me to Vietnam because it’s West Coast and feeds into Pacific. Then you get orders—Cuba.”
“None of us expected that,” he explained. “I asked the guy how we ended up in Cuba when we were out in California and he said they take one company and put them going to Vietnam, then the next company gets scattered around the world and then the next company goes to ‘nam, and the next gets scattered—we got scattered.”
Batson got to go home for a couple of weeks, then “hopped on a plane in Norfolk, flew down to Cuba, got off the plane and they said, ‘you, you and you—you’re on base police.’ I told them I hadn’t been trained for that, and they said they would train me.”
“So, I never did repair ships, and I never fought fires on a ship or anything like that,” he said. “I had the opportunity to train a drug dog, but I turned it down because I would have had to sign up for six more years. They’ll spend the time and money to train you, but you have to sign up for more time.”
Since his shipmates were traveling from other states to his gathering, Batson had a sign made at “The Print Shop,” 1020 Leesburg Ave. in Washington C.H., in order to place it in his yard. When Batson tried to pay for the sign, the payment was refused.
According to Batson, the shop owner told him, “You served your country, my wife did her part and served her country. The least I can do is my little part and donate the sign.”
During their get-together, the five shipmates reminisced and viewed a slide show of over 200 photos organized by Batson. Each shipmate added several laughs and jokes into their conversations.
Some of the topics discussed were ways in which Guantanamo has changed since they were on the base, although another vet who was at Guantanamo more recently was unable to attend the get-together.
Reach Jennifer Woods at 740-313-0355 or on Twitter @JennMWoods.