The U.S. Naval base in Chinhae, South Korea, is so small and remote, its commander hadn’t heard of it before he came.

“I didn’t know this place existed,” said Cmdr. James E. Tranoris, the base skipper for two years until a change of command last week.

Chinhae is a small, hilly 90-acre base tucked into a mountainside, where everyone knows each others’ names and children roam freely and safely.

There’s an abundance of morale and recreation programs — and each year, quality of life is polished by new projects and renovations.

But since it’s in South Korea — where a formal peace treaty with North Korea was never actually signed — children are still issued gas masks.

“I’ve never been to a base where they issue gas masks,” said Nina Curtis, mother of two and a teacher’s aide at the school. She’s married to Petty Officer 1st Class Kevin Curtis, a Navy Master-at-Arms. “That freaked me out.”

Commander Fleet Activities Chinhae, the base’s official name, is far from the concentrations of Americans in other parts of the country — or the excitement of Seoul. It’s about an hour from Pusan in the country’s remote southeast.

“A large number of my sailors who come here don’t want to come or don’t realize what we have here,” Tranoris said.

During his command, Tranoris sought to make the place as livable and attractive as possible. He leaves his successor a list of completed projects and ideas for new improvements to come.

Because Chinhae isn’t the first pick for many sailors, a unique demographic has filled the void — more than one fifth of the sailors there are women, about five percent higher than the Navy average. Also, about two-thirds of the base population is, or is married to someone, of Asian descent, who might live there to be close to relatives, Tranoris said.

Families, single sailors and civilians assigned to Chinhae call it a tranquil, comfortable slice of Mayberry, and point to its many perks: plentiful and quality family housing with free cable; award-winning bachelor quarters and galley; a close, cozy community; and small class sizes in the base elementary school — the smallest school in the Department of Defense Dependents School system.

There’s a playground for every six children on base.

“For a family, it’s a great place,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Amy Broadus, a yeoman, who has a 2-year-old daughter.

It’s the only base in South Korea where every family gets wall-to-wall carpeting in their homes, and junior enlisted families live in nearly the same houses as officers and chief petty officers.

“There are E-4s who have better housing than an O-6 elsewhere,” Tranoris said.

Chinhae’s uniqueness benefits it financially, as well. It’s the only Navy base in South Korea, so it doesn’t have interservice competition for host nation construction funds. It’s also one of the smallest of the Pacific Fleet bases, so Navy funds have a larger impact.

“It’s a difference in numbers,” Tranoris said. “A million dollars here goes a lot farther.”

The gym and pool are new, and they converted the two-lane bowling alley from a 1950s-era eyesore into a popular state-of-the- art extreme bowling center.

The Morale Welfare and Recreation department offers subsidized trips around the peninsula and to other countries.

They take weekend trips to the movies and local attractions “just to get people off base,” said Ed Echols, MWR director. And most of the trips are free.

Echols meets with incoming sailors individually to outline everything MWR offers, and he talks to sailors before they leave to ask what they thought could be improved.

MWR also will reimburse any recreation costs up to $50 a month for recreation a sailor does on his or her own, Echols said.

“There’s a downside to being at the end of the world, so we have to find things for people to do,” Echols said. “We keep trying to do better. That’s our mission.”

As a result, many families have extended their postings to Chinhae, including the Curtis family. But Nina Curtis didn’t love it at first.

“I was miserable for the first six months,” she said. “At Yokosuka [in Japan], everything is at your fingertips.”

In Chinhae, life takes planning.

The small commissary packs 45,000 items into a little space. But a certain spice or type of cake mix might not be available. Anything can be ordered, but that takes time. Preplanning, residents say, is key to survival.

“We have to order a lot of stuff,” Curtis said. “We don’t have construction paper, Valentine’s Day cards. Holidays are treacherous.”

Once you get used to ordering goods in advance or improvising, she adds, it’s a great place to live, and a perfect place for her 9-year-old daughter Brooke to go to elementary school.

“We extended for another year just so she could finish,” Curtis said. At her last school, “she kind of slid through the cracks. She can’t do that here.”

Being small has drawbacks, especially as a Navy base on an Army-dominated peninsula. There’s no uniform shop, so sailors must order uniforms from Yokosuka.

There’s no Navy Exchange, just a small Army and Air Force Exchange. The post office is an Army Post Office (APO), not a Fleet Post Office (FPO) like other Navy bases. That confuses some people, Tranoris said.

There isn’t a Navy Federal Credit Union or a bank, just a Community Bank ATM machine and a cash cage for check cashing.

And it is far from many U.S. facilities. Having a baby, as Nina Curtis did last year, meant a stay in Seoul’s Yongsan Hospital.

Curtis was there for four weeks, which gave her plenty of time for shopping. “It was heaven for me,” she joked. “It was like a mini-vacation.”

The relative dearth of diversions could pave the way for trouble, but somehow, it doesn’t.

“No, in Chinhae, except for the market [in town], there’s not a lot for sailors and families to do,” Tranoris said. Still, discipline problems are rare, a result of the base’s small-town character, he believes. He’s held only four Captain’s Masts — for non-judicial punishment — in two years. Before coming to the base, Tranoris said he expected to find gambling, fraternization and drinking problems, but they haven’t materialized.

“We have a very small base community,” he joked. “You can’t get away from each other.”

That closeness can be good and bad, especially for the young and single. But many singles on base, enlisted and civilian, say the burden of living under a microscope is bearable.

“You can’t be anonymous,” said Crecia Villarreal, a teacher at C.T. Joy Elementary School. This is the first year at Chinhae for the 27-year-old, who said she loves the small-town community on base.

“You live in a fishbowl,” added Principal Bud Iles, whose wife, Judy, teaches at the school.

Both say living there isn’t a hardship for the creative-minded.

“It’s really what you make of it,” Villarreal said. She loves the outdoors, and Chinhae offers plenty of hiking and outdoor sports.

“You find things to do here you would never do somewhere else,” Iles said — like having a faculty meeting during a hiking trip.

Chinhae also enjoys a warm reception from its host nation neighbors. It’s surrounded on three sides by South Korea’s largest navy base, in a pro-navy town.

The fourth side of the base backs into a mountain, so it’s geographically unobtrusive, unlike other bases that exist in the center of a city.

“Because of that, we blend in here,” Tranoris said. “We don’t have those issues of anti-American sentiment.”

Chinhae is considered an enduring base in South Korea, so it will stay no matter how U.S. and South Korean officials decide to adjust U.S. troop positions in the country.

The base serves the 7th Fleet — the Navy in the Pacific — in South Korea. It supports ships that dock and tenants on the base.

The base is also responsible for noncombatant evacuation for its own people and for others assigned for evacuation by the state department.

Small class sizes a dream

The C.T. Joy Elementary School at Chinhae has the distinction of being the world’s smallest Department of Defense Dependents school.

Twenty-eight pupils attend one of three grade levels.

Half go home for lunch.

“Where can you find that anymore?” asked Principal Bud Iles. “We just have a real good connection with parents.”

The school’s Parent Teacher Organization has 100 percent participation. Kids come to school early and often stay late.

It’s utopia for an elementary teacher. “It’s like America in the 50s,” said second- and third-grade teacher Crecia Villarreal, who came to Chinhae this year from a public school in Kansas City.

She had 33 students per class in her old school and largely apathetic parents. Gangs threatened her pupils; some were abused.

Now, she has eight students with enthusiastic parents. Discipline is a breeze.

“This has been a dream. The worst we have is talking in the classroom,” she said.

Since the school is so tiny, it has a small staff. Everyone wears multiple hats.

Iles is both principal and gym teacher. His wife, Judy, teaches one of the three grade levels and oversees the computer club. Villarreal teaches and runs the Spanish, drama and technology clubs.

There’s no art or music teacher, but people from the community pitch in. The PTO collects money for a local musician to visit and teach music weekly.

The small size also helps students receive individual instruction and attention. Teachers “know their personalities,” Iles said. “With this few students, I know every one of them.”

Villarreal has second-grade students doing fourth-grade math.

Teachers recognize immediately if a student is having problems. Students can work at their own level of ability, and they all have a role in class projects and plays.

“Everyone in our school has a speaking part,” Villarreal said — even if they don’t want it. That helps children come out of their shell, she added.

Students are divided into three age or grade groups: kindergarten and first grade; second and third grades; and fourth, fifth and sixth grade.

While most are children of servicemembers, a handful of students are the dependents of foreign employees working in the area, which adds diversity and cultural exchange to the school, Iles said. After that, students attend the high school in Pusan an hour away.

Being small also carries some peculiarities. There might be three students in a grade, but the DODDS system could send 10 books per grade.

They’re frequently not taken seriously by teachers from other DODDS schools, Iles said. When he or his staff push for something, the reaction is often, “Who cares? You only have 28 students.”

“I get kidded a lot at the big meetings,” he said.

But they still want the best for their students, Villarreal said. “There are still 28 kids, and we want them to have the same things as kids in Seoul.”

— Juliana Gittler

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now