Nearly four decades ago, the city of Asmara was part of Ethiopia and His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie, ruled his kingdom with a heavy hand after staving off fascist Benito Mussolini's conquests before and during World War II. Emperor Selassie would periodically visit the US Army base, Kagnew Station, in Asmara for dental work and his arrival through the front gate was a royal occasion. The American soldiers would stop and gape at the emperor and his colorful entourage as they passed in front of them. Selassie was a little over five feet tall but what he lacked in height he made up for in stature. Selassie's erect posture and medaled uniform commanded the soldier's attention and had several of them staring down at their own unpolished boots while standing at attention and saluting him.
The winds of change closed Kagnew Station in the mid-1970s. Emperor Haile Selassie's government soon tumbled and the Soviet-backed DERG took over. The newspapers of the world showed a photo of the disheveled emperor Haile Selassie being escorted into an old Volkswagen car after leaving the royal palace for the last time. Months later he died in prison under suspicious circumstances.
Today Asmara is the capital city of a new country-Eritrea-formed in 1993 after decades of struggle with Ethiopia. Like many new republics Eritrea has been beset by political unrest, a poor economy, and a nagging mistrust of its neighbor Ethiopia. Despite the years of war and political dishevel Asmara has retained her quiet charm.
The spirit of Haile Selassie is worshiped as a god by the Rastafarian movement, mostly centered in Jamaica but with members worldwide. They embraced his titles of Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah, King of Kings and Elect of God , and his traditional lineage from Solomon and Sheba. They believe that the deceased Emperor Haile Selassie had returned as a Messiah in the bible's Book of Revelation.
In 1971 General William Westmoreland had said of US Army post at Kagnew Station: "I do not believe we have a more remote station of our Armed Forces than Kagnew Station in Asmara, Ethiopia." For the soldiers who were privileged to be stationed in Asmara the remoteness only added to the mystique and quiet reverie of what they called the "Island above the Clouds," where they wore no US military uniforms, drove vintage 1930s Italian Fiats, and sat at palm tree lined boulevards, sipping on cappuccinos while watching beautiful half-Italian, half-Eritrean girls (called "cafe lattes") stroll by.
The soldiers of Kagnew Station will always hold Asmara and the memory of Emperor Haile Selassie in a kind of private reverence, smiling on the off occasion that someone would ask about the mile high city in East Africa. The "Island above the Clouds" made such an impact on them that some have written books and wrote songs about Asmara while for others the images of a youth spent in Asmara will forever be etched in their memories.