American satellites tracked in Rapa Nui

American satellites tracked in Rapa Nui

American satellites tracked in Rapa Nui

It was the year 1966.  A US Air Force base with 120 men under the command of Colonel John Ashley was installed on Rapa Nui with the name of Ionosphere Research Center ITT, which was authorized by the then Chilean president, Eduardo Frei-Montalva as part of an agreement with the Chilean Air Force.  This foundation’s mission was to track satellites.

 

The Rapanui people were awed.  In Mataveri, where today one finds the offices of the Civil Aeronautics Authority, sixty containers began to fall from the heavens with material for dormitories, cafeterias and dining halls, offices, electrical generators, a dental clinic.  The enormous Hercules airplanes also left another fifty containers on the side of the road to Rano Kau volcano in an area that was totally surrounded by a barbed wire fence.  No Island authorities were allow inside, only the Americans.  They all wore white; to the locals, they looked like doctors.  They even denied entry to the then President of the Chilean Senate, Dr. Salvador Allende , who visited the Island escorting guerillas who had survived the jungle battles alongside Che Guevara to French Polynesia (Tahiti).  His only comment was, “Here in Chile, many things are going on about which we have no idea.”

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From one day to the next, the tranquility and passivity of the Island was transformed into cheerfulness and a flood of dollars.  More than 100 Islanders, both men and women, were hired by the “Marite” (Americans) to work as drivers, in the dining halls and in the construction, all at very good salaries.  The Americans maintained excellent relations with the community and everyone was happy, especially the pretty young girls of the time.  Every Friday there was a party and dancing which lasted until the early hours of the morning.  Everyone had a good time and nobody lacked for money.  This caused an economic development as never before seen on the Island.  Everything began to change.  There was more clothing, household items, radios, tape recorders, dolls, perfumes, deodorant, creams and electric shavers – all new to the locals.  Liquor and soft drinks also began to arrive and were cheap.
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According to some, the Americans caused irreparable damage in the local population by changing their traditional Polynesian life style for one more continental.  However, the Rapanui looked upon it differently.  “We Islanders learned to feel that we were decent people.  Here the streets were all unpaved.  When a Chilean would drive by, all you would see was the cloud of dust, but when the Americans drove through, they went slowly.  It was the first time that we felt as if we were being considered and respected as persons.  That was the difference between the Americans and the Chileans.”

 

The sudden departure of the Americans caused great surprise in the Island.  It began on September 5, 1970, one day after the election of Salvador Allende as President of Chile and was completed in January of 1971.  Very early, around 5 a.m., the Hercules airplanes landed again at Mataveri airport and the US naval transport “Wayandot” and a SHOLS (Single Hoist Ordnance Loading System) frigate dropped anchors outside Hanga Pico Bay.  In less than seven hours, most of the military base was dismantled, with no explanation offered.  At midday an airplane brought the US Ambassador to Chile, David Young, to sign a document with the local governor in which the United States donated to the government of Chile for Easter Island the electrical station to light the houses of the town, a crane, six trucks and a small bus, a bulldozer and other heavy machinery, a radio station and the dental clinic to be run by the Chilean Air Force.  As soon as that was done the ambassador returned to the airport to re-embark.  The Hercules planes had already left, as well as the naval vessels.  The now-unemployed personnel and many Rapanui girls, some pregnant and others with babies in arm, said emotional good-byes to their “gringos” with many tears and waves,  For some, the sadness didn’t last long.  A short while later a special plane from the US Air Force appeared to take 13 Rapanui women and one Chilean to rejoin their beloved airmen.  Today at least five of them have come back, either alone or bringing their family.  The Rapanui, sooner or later, always return to their Island.

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