Another Door Opens

After I’d reenlisted, life went back to usual for around two weeks. Sitting at home on Mill Street one day, I received a large yellow envelope from the U.S. Navy. Inside was all the paperwork I needed to begin my new life, to have a fresh start, a don’t-fuck-this-one-up chance. My orders were to Naval Station Subic Bay Medical Facility for an 18-month tour. Not the Hospital, but to another dispensary.

I was skeptical, having never heard of Subic Bay. I made a quick call to New Orleans and spoke with Beyers[1] who said, “You lucky fuck. You’re leaving one party city for another party town. Your drunken ass will be in heaven.” That was all I needed to hear. So I packed my bags, said my good-bye’s and grabbed a ride to the Memphis airport. This time, I didn’t ask my father. Frankly, I can’t even remember how I got there. I just know it wasn’t dear ole Dad or Greyhound.

I headed back to Travis Air Force Base (AFB) outside of San Francisco to catch another plane going in the same direction I had come from nine months earlier. While in the Memphis airport, I ran into a Captain from the US Army. We were the only two in uniform, so he invited me to the bar to grab a couple of beers before the flight. He was headed to Vietnam (aka Shithole) for another tour while I was headed for the land of the perpetual party. We continued to drink on the airplane and at the bus station for the ride to Travis AFB. By the time we arrived at the air terminal at the base, we were both so drunk it was a miracle (or the military’s sheer desperation for bodies) that they let us on the airplane. We went our separate ways, as in separate lines, since he was an officer and I was enlisted.

After a 14-hour plane ride to Okinawa, where about half of us sat and waited for the plane to refuel, I was finally on my way to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

Landing at Clark Air Force Base in October of 1969 was supposed to be a whole new beginning for me. During the flight over, I’d decided that a new place would allow me to forge a new life for myself. I’d vowed to not make the same mistakes I’d been making. I was determined to find my way in life.

Once again, I was in the Navy. But now I needed to figure out what I wanted to do while I was in it: Medical Records, Administration, X-ray, laboratory or patient care. I was determined to become more mature, sober and a productive member of Enlisted Naval Society and to find some way to sleep without chemical assistance. I vowed to save money for the future and build that future around a career in the Navy, and to try finding something that held my interest longer than eight hours. And of course, I’d stay away from the Marine Corps side of the house. I loved them crazy shits, but the endeavor never ended happily.

In my fractured mind, I made more resolutions to change than I ultimately could remember, let alone accomplish.

Aerial view of Subic Bay 1969

The heat and humidity that greeted us when we landed in the Philippines didn’t bother me this time because I was filled with hope for a bright future. I gathered my belongings, a sea bag and suitcase, and headed to the Navy Liaison desk in the lobby. There, we filed onto a bus without air conditioning (a gray bus that if you painted it yellow could pass as a school bus). Some of us were going to be stationed in the various commands scattered within the confines of the base: Ship Repair Facility (SRF), Naval Supply Depot, Cubi Point Naval Air Station, and a myriad of other lesser commands. Commander Naval Forces Philippines was a huge sprawling base that took a lot of manpower to run because it provided services to all of the ships that were deployed for the ongoing war in the Shithole. Ships came in and out of that port all the time. A lot of sailors would join their crew when they pulled into port.

After two or so pit stops to stretch, grab a quick bite of something and wash it down with a tepid San Miguel (god I loved that beer), we finally arrived at the base and were taken to the Receiving Depot, where personnel arriving in the Philippines are sorted out and held until their duty station picks them up. In the meantime, they’re made into productive citizens of Naval Society by being sent to working parties for various duties, such as Shore Patrol in town and on the base.

Having arrived on a Friday when most base offices were closed, I was destined to be there until Monday. I was given base liberty (meaning I could go anywhere as long I remained on the Naval Station) and a 10 PM curfew, since I was new and not allowed off base until I’d attended an orientation on how to behave in a foreign country. Didn’t matter, I was beat, tired, dirty and hungry. After a quick shower, I went off to investigate the sprawling, beautiful base. I found a small exchange (like a 7–11 or Circle K), purchased necessities, a large bag of peanut M&M’s, a couple of paperback books and a pack of Marlboros.

My short, hot walk from the minimart alongside beautiful, well-manicured lawns in front of buildings painted bleach-white to reflect the tropical sun ended at a three corner intersection with the Sampaguita Club on one corner, the China Seas Club across from it and the Chief Petty Officer’s Club on the other corner. Ironically, on the other side of the parking lot from the Chief’s Club was the base gymnasium.

This base had it all. Get drunk and fit in one stop.

I went into the Sampaguita Club, which was a far cry from any enlisted club that I could have ever imagined. It was already late enough in the afternoon, so it was starting to fill up. Fleet sailors stuck out because they had to wear uniforms when they left their ship after work, whether on base or off base. Station sailors could wear their civilian clothing so it was easy to tell the difference. There was a bar, a dining area, a dance floor, an area with large TVs hanging from the ceiling playing recorded football and basketball games, and a room with slot machines. It was a Vegas resort under one roof.

One feature that was hard to miss was the girls. I quickly discovered that the women, who were employees of the base, were young Filipinas who worked as hostesses at the base clubs and served as companions for dining, dancing, and talking. Commander Naval Forces Philippines enabled these women on base for the sailors and Marines in order to keep them on base and out of Olongapo. I’m sure there were a few who engaged in the sex trade, but if they were found out, they would be fired and lose their base passes. It wasn’t uncommon for sailors to meet their future wives at the China Seas and Sampaguita Clubs.

A few people, like my Uncle Rudolph and a fleet sailor I sat next to on the plane, had warned me about Olongapo. It was considered a great liberty town, but it was a tough place with serious crime and anyone could easily lose his life over a few pesos, a shiny watch or a turn down the wrong alley. The buddy system was highly recommended until we learned where to go and not go.

So I decided to be a good boy and read and uphold my new life’s resolution to be a productive citizen of Naval Society. I spent the majority of that weekend reading, eating M&M’s and sleeping. Besides, I was dealing with jet lag so I wasn’t exactly perky enough to spend a whole lot of time investigating this new opportunity. After all, I had a year and a half to see the place.

Monday morning I showed up bright and early to the Personnel Department for Naval Station Subic Bay. As one of around five or six enlisted to be processed, I had to fill out this form and that form, promise to be a good citizen and not embarrass the United States in the Philippines by acting like a drunk sailor, “Yes I promise.”

“Your first tour overseas?” asked a 2nd class personnel man.

“Hopefully the first one where no one is shooting at me or trying to blow me up, so yes and no,” I replied.

It was obvious he’d had a few too many the night before so he didn’t care much for that answer. Then again, after that comment, he took another look at the ribbons I was wearing, and took another look at my service record, and became a bit nicer to me. To some people back then, Corpsmen who served with the Marine Corps in Vietnam were placed on pedestals for us to knock ourselves off of, so I kept the attitude tucked away for another day or person.

I was given a check-in sheet with all the various departments I was to check into. I’d been assigned to the Master-At-Arms Barracks (these sailors are kind of like the on and off base police for COMNAVPHIL), which was one lucky stroke since it was the only air-conditioned enlisted barracks and I was to get to know a lot of the Masters-At-Arms. (Oh my, was this to pay off so many times during my tour). They’d give me a pass on my alcohol-fueled behavior, and in return, they didn’t have to stand on line at the clinic nor would their VD status enter their medical records (they’d even take VD meds out to their local friends.)

The Masters-At-Arms were enlisted sailors and by definition that made them flawed human beings. They’re Boatswain Mates, Gunner Mates, Enginemen, Machinistmates, and Boiler Technicians. This was their shore duty. Serving as law enforcement, none of them were White Knights, Hopalong Cassidy or Roy Rogers. They were happy to be there and did their job as they viewed it to be. Sometimes this led to being judge, jury and executioner (not that severe but the stories they told after the dust settled could determine the severity of your punishment).

The Master-At-Arms Barracks was also next door to the Marine Barracks. The Marines took care of all the gates coming into and departing the base in addition to patrolling the perimeter. Again another stroke of luck that would serve me later. As I got to know many of them, they would pull me out of harms way and show me out the door before real trouble started. They’d sometimes give me an outside seat in the Shore Patrol headquarter’s where I’d occasionally end up. (The inside seats had handcuffs. I was in their break area.) I ran into a Marine who’d been stationed at the barracks that I’d met once or twice while doing time in the Shithole. He’d been a tanker (tank commander) that had been assigned to the Tu Cau Bridge[2] where I started my tour in the Shithole. Gene Addison was a good ol’ Texas boy. We had quite a few San Miguel’s together over our time.

After dropping off my luggage at the barracks, I headed to the Naval Station Subic Bay Medical Facility. I went down to the Officer-In-Charge’s (OIC) office and was introduced to the Leading Chief who happened to be on his way out the door to a golf tournament at the world class golf course on base. Then I was shepherded into Lieutenant Crumbly’s office. Lt. Crumbly, a Medical Service Corps Officer, was the OIC for the clinic, but the first command he had after being commissioned was the Field Medical School at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.[3] He made sure to look into any Corpsman’s records to see if they had been through that school while he was in charge of it. His name was in my service record. Turned out, I had gone through Field Medical School while he was the OIC, gone to Vietnam and lived.

He was gruff and constantly had a cigar in his mouth or his hand (yes, you could smoke in hospitals and other medical spaces at that time — pipes, cigars and cigarettes, even the spit type tobacco product). He told me he was happy and proud I survived and asked me where I’d like to work. I said I wanted to learn X-ray, which pleased him even more. It seemed he had an HMI X-ray technician running the department but he wanted him to gain experience in other sections to broaden his scope of training. I was to be given over to the civilian X-ray technician, Romeo, to learn. Thus, I went from one enabler named Senior Chief Simpkins to Lt. Crumbly becoming my new enabler. God loves alcoholics doesn’t he/she/it!!!!

Unfortunately, checking in at Naval Station Subic took about a week, not because it’s so sprawling or because there were many places to check into, but finding the people authorized to check us in was a challenge. Most everyone took liquid lunches — six martinis or a six-pack of San Miguel. If you couldn’t find their offices by lunch, you had to go back the next day.

One of the most important places on base was next door to the clinic. It was called Household Effects. They managed on and off base housing for the married personnel, what we could buy and take off base, as well as controlled and issued ration cards. Ration cards were issued based on your status (married or single) and the number of dependents living with you.

Ration cards were a big deal because the black market in American goods was in high gear. If we wanted to purchase items such as hard liquor or cartons of cigarettes, we had to produce our ration card, which would be marked by the cashier. This way they dictated and monitored how much liquor we could buy and take off base, how many cartons of cigarettes we could buy in a month, etc. Only married personnel were legally authorized to take items off base, but the quantity was limited since the black market was a thriving business for American products, especially liquor and cigarettes. I never knew anyone personally who got into trouble for taking illicit goods off base and being caught, but the rumors were always flying.

Psst, you know Lt. So and So. His wife was busted at a gate inspection for trying to take six cartons of cigarettes and four bottles of booze off base. Yeah and Chief Schmuckatelly was arrested for trying to take a busted window air conditioner off base to sell — yea, he said a buddy of his was going to fix it, ha ha.

Smuggling goods was a huge and lucrative business, at least for those who could get away with it. Booze, cigarettes, jewelry, perfume — all were profitable, so everyone stationed there, military, civilian, and dependants, all had to swear and attest that they would not participate in selling controlled goods outside the base. We even had to attend an in-person briefing and sign our lives away.

God, I got writers cramp signing my name to documents I didn’t even bother to look at. Hell, I could’ve reenlisted for six more years or even admitted to killing Kennedy, and I wouldn’t have realized it.

Finally, after a week of checking in and eating in the chow hall and sleeping in an air-conditioned barracks I was finally ready to settle down and get to work.