By Paul Davis
They say that anything stolen during the night in Hong Kong will be on sale on Cat Street the next morning.
I heard that saying many years ago when I visited Hong Kong as a young sailor and it recently came back to me at a reunion with an old shipmate.
I knew Salvatore Lorino before we served together in the U.S. Navy, as we were both born and raised in the same South Philadelphia neighborhood. He was a minor hoodlum who dabbled in all of the rackets at the time. He was about six feet tall, lean, with dark hair and rugged features. He had a long face and a perpetual lopsided grin that served to alternately charm and menace.
Although he was several years older than I, we both entered the Navy in 1970. I enlisted at age 17 in a patriotic fever, coupled with a strong desire to see the world. Lorino told the judge he had a strong desire to avoid a term in the state penitentiary. So when the judge gave him a choice between prison and the military, he chose the Navy.
After boot camp we both received orders to report to the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk. Both of us avoided mess cook duty, an awful job that all new seamen experience when they were first assigned to a carrier in those days. Thankfully, one of the petty officers in personnel was a Philadelphia native and he spared us the ordeal by assigning us to Special Services instead.
In Special Services we performed a number of odd duties - which included my covering the San Diego scene for Kitty Hawk sailors in my first published pieces in the ship's newspaper, The Flyer - but our main job was to help run the shipboard TV and radio cable throughout the ship. The Kitty Hawk was the first warship to have cable TV and radio.
After three months I was reassigned to the radio communications division and Lorino was reassigned to the deck department. In November of 1970 the carrier sailed from San Diego to the Gulf of Tonkin in Southeast Asia.
Lorino gained quite a reputation aboard the ship in a very short time. He was an aggressive and energetic predator. He conned naive and gullible sailors out of their pay. He gambled, cheated, hustled and stole. A large ship like the Kitty Hawk allowed Lorino to constantly be on the move, like a shark. I often followed in his criminal wake, sadly informing his victims that he was not truly representative of South Philadelphia.
Despite his criminal activities, he was a popular guy throughout the ship. Even the chiefs who failed to get much work out of him could not help but like him. He was gregarious and amusing, and most of the ship reluctantly accepted his larcenous bent.
His military career ended in 1971 when he left the ship in the Philippines, handcuffed and escorted by special agents from the Naval Investigative Service.
So when after all these years, I heard his rapid-fire, raspy voice on my voice mail, I was taken aback.
His message said he happened to see my column in the local paper and called the number listed. He suggested we meet somewhere for a drink and he left his telephone number. I was curious, so I called him back and agreed to meet him.
We held our reunion at a small bar in South Philly. The bar was typical of South Philly, friendly and unpretentious with relatively inexpensive and good Italian food. We ordered a bottle of wine and quickly dispensed with what we’ve done with our lives since our Navy days.
After the Navy, I went to Penn State for a year; he did two at the state pen. I went to work for the Defense Department as a federal civilian employee; he went to work for Federal Prison Industries as a federal prisoner. I was happily married with children; he was happily divorced without children. I went on to cover crime for the local paper; he went on to commit crime for the local mob.
We eat, drank and launched into swapping sea stories and reminiscing about our time in the Navy with boyish enthusiasm. Lorino, like most con artists, was very entertaining.
He had not changed all that much, it seemed, in character or looks. His once dark hair was now mostly gray, but he appeared to be the same old Lorino. After consuming several glasses of wine and a large serving of baked Zitti and Italian sausage, I sat stirring my cup of coffee and waited for his pitch.
Lorino looked about the bar and then leaned forward and spoke in a low voice. He offered to tell me a story that would make both of us rich and famous. A tight smile was my only response.
Lorino asked if I remembered Nichols and Johnson from the ship and I replied that I remembered Johnson very well. An amiable Northern Californian who grew up on a ranch, he was the only person I ever met, over the age of ten, who wanted to be a cowboy. He was murdered in a robbery in Hong Kong. Nichols, I recalled, was a sad sack who deserted the ship in Hong Kong with his new bar girl bride.
Lorino did not contradict my recollection, but his grin widened above the rim of the glass as he drank his wine. If I agreed to write his peripheral tale of the Vietnam War, Lorino said he would confess his involvement in a three-decade-old case of kidnapping, espionage and murder.
The USS Kitty Hawk sailed into Hong Kong Harbor in February of 1971. The 80,000-ton aircraft carrier had just completed 70 days on "Yankee Station" in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea, performing combat operations off the coast of Vietnam. During that time the ship’s 90 aircraft dropped a record tonnage of ordnance on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong supply routes, which were collectively called the "Ho Chi Minh Trail."
When the carrier dropped anchor in Hong Kong Harbor, a loud cheer rose from the crew and carried across the water. Heads must have turned towards the roar for at least ten nautical miles. Sharing the harbor with the American warship that day were freighters, ocean liners, British destroyers, Soviet cruisers, commercial speed hydrofoils, sampans and junks. The contrast between the splendid modern ships and the ancient and decrepit fishing boats was striking.
Visible from the carrier’s flight deck was Victoria City, the capital and business center of the then-British Crown Colony. Dark clouds circled Hong Kong’s famous peak mountain. Looking down from the flight deck we saw the approaching Chinese motor launches, which were called Walla Wallas. The water taxis lined up along the starboard side of the ship and waited to take the eager American sailors ashore.
Those of us who were fortunate enough to have liberty that first day in port were ordered to assemble on the hanger bay prior to our departure. A third of the division would remain aboard the ship in the event of an emergency and the watch bill would change two days later.
Chief Petty Officer Lionel Shaw stood sandwiched between the noses of two chained down F-4 Phantom Jet Fighters. As security officer for the division, he was tasked with presenting a briefing to the first batch of sailors preparing to leave the ship for the exotic streets of Hong Kong.
The chief radioman truly loved the Navy. He left a poor family and a bad neighborhood in Chicago when he enlisted in the Navy and there was no going back for him. When he entered the Navy black sailors like him were restricted to orderly duties and he was enormously proud of the trust the Navy now bestowed upon him. He held, as did all of the men assembled before him, a top-secret security clearance.
Shaw was only 5’6" but appeared to be much larger due to his muscular torso, his ever-ready fighter’s stance and a great, booming voice. A model sailor, his khaki uniform and black boots were immaculate.
He briefed the crew on-route to Hong Kong as well, advising them not to wear their uniforms when they went ashore. Adorned on the left arm of their uniforms were lighting bolts, the distinctive occupational batch that identified them as radiomen who handled highly classified war information. This was bad OPSEC, or operations security. Now that the sailors were about to go ashore, he was pleased that they had heeded his warning. The concept that none of the men wanted to wear their uniforms in any case, was alien to a proud sailor like him.
"Listen up," Shaw bellowed. "Hong Kong is the Goddamned spy capitol of the world, so don’t be yakkin’ about your job or what the ship does, or what we’re goin’ to be doin’ next month.
"Remember that we’re only a few miles from Red China, the ally of our enemy, and ain’t nothing better them communists would like, then to haul your drunken, silly asses over the border."
He paused for breath, and perhaps for dramatic effect, and then added "And if one of them barhogs ask you what you do on the great, big ship, tell em’ you’re a Goddamn cook!"
The people of Hong Kong were given the impression that American sailors lived really well. On a ship with 5,500 men, 2,000 of them were cooks.
Not known to Shaw or any of us at the time, another Navy radioman, Warrant Officer John Walker, was feeding the Soviets a steady diet of vital information on Navy communications. Communist Chinese intelligence was also in the market for a source of information. They wanted a U.S. Navy radioman to call their own.
Petty Officer Third Class John Nichols was one of the men assembled before Shaw. He had been in the Navy for more than three years and this was his second combat deployment aboard the carrier. Returning to the combat zone was common for carrier sailors during the 12 years of the Vietnam War. Many of them made two or three 11-month-long Western Pacific (WESTPAC) combat cruises during their four-year enlistments.
During the war there were always three 7th fleet carriers in Southeast Asia. Two remained off Vietnam, taking turns pounding the enemy in support of ground combat troops, while the third carrier went on R&R or made a port-o-call to Subic Bay, the American naval base in the Philippines. The carriers went to Subic Bay to take on weapons and supplies, do repairs and to release the bent-up sailors who went wild in the wide-open sin city of Olongapo. After ten or eleven months in Southeast Asia, a stateside carrier would relieve one of the 7th Fleet carriers in rotation.
There was an unwritten rule that there were only two ways to get off a carrier during the Vietnam War: one way was to be discharged from the Navy, and the other was to die. Unlike other men who resented not being reassigned to shore duty or a non-combat ship after their initial cruise, Nichols was thrilled. It meant that he would be seeing Hong Kong again.
Originally from a small town in Ohio, Nichols joined the Navy after graduating from high school. An only child, Nichol’s father had deserted the family when he was an infant. An alcoholic and inattentive mother raised him.
He had been a below average student, a poor athlete and he had few friends. Looking forward to the great Navy adventures that lay ahead, he was soon disappointed when he discovered that he was as unsuccessful with women in San Diego as he had been in Ohio.
Nichols was of average height, but his poor posture made him appear to be much shorter. With stooped shoulders, a slight paunch, balding brown hair and nondescript facial features, Nichols was certainly not a matinee idol. No clothes horse either; Nichol’s uniforms and civilian attire were always unkempt and unflattering. While looks aren’t everything, Nichols also lacked what one would call a personality.
Nichols’ disappointing young life changed one night in 1969 while he was on his initial cruise. On leave for two days in Hong Kong, he met a girl named Nancy Chen in the Wanchi District. The red-light district was made world famous by Richard Mason's fictional character Suzy Wong.
Like Suzy Wong, Nancy Chen was alluring in her black silk Cheongsam, a long slit rising invitingly up her left leg. Her long straight black hair, sleepy black eyes and doll-like figure were intoxicating to Nichols.
In her limited English, she told him that her family had escaped from China and came to Hong Kong when she was a young girl. As the family had no money, she was forced to work the bars. Touched by her story and madly in love, Nichols spent three months pay romancing her in two days of liberty. As he prepared to return to the ship, he grew bold and asked her to marry him.
"You crazy!" was her curt response to his heart-felt proposal. Undeterred, he said he would come back for her when the ship again visited Hong Kong during the next WESTPAC cruise.
A little more than one year later, the Walla Wallas pitched and rolled across the choppy, blue-gray water as the boats carried the Kitty Hawk sailors ashore. Nichols’ wedding party was aboard one of the boats. His wedding party sat on his immediate right and left. Nichols had invited the entire radio communications division to his wedding, but only Seamen Dennis Johnson and Lorino accepted.
Nichols was not popular with the crew. It was well known that his request to marry a foreign national was denied by the Navy. She still had family behind the "Bamboo Curtain" and that presented a security risk. Nichols didn’t care what the Navy said, he was getting married. He talked of nothing else since the cruise began. His shipmates constantly ridiculed him. Sailors in close quarters aboard a ship can be crueler than children.
Johnson was Nichols only friend and that was due primarily to Johnson being everyone’s friend. A cheerful 22 year old, Johnson was a real "cowboy" who amused everyone with his tales of growing up on the range in California. He enlisted in the Navy to avoid being drafted in the Army.
Lorino, who often visited me in our berthing area, accepted Nichols' invitation as he had no other plans. I passed.
Nichol’s wedding was set to take place above a store in Hong Kong’s commercial section. The happy couple would spend the night in the Hong Kong Hilton. Nichols had been informed of these arrangements by his bride-to-be in a letter.
The trio of sailors piled into a taxi at the pier and were driven to Ladder Street. Ladder Street was not really a street in a traditional sense, but rather a series of wide steps spread out between rows of shops. At the bottom of Ladder Street lay Morlo-Gai, or Cat Street. The area was locally known as the "Thieves Market."
Cat Street was a bustling market where tourists and locals alike were herded through the ubiquitous shops and wooden street stands. Under colorful Chinese banners and signs, the merchants screamed out the praises of their wares and haggled over prices with their customers. Trinkets and inexpensive products, mostly manufactured in the People’s Republic of China, were laid across counters and tables. Pickpockets, beggars, prostitutes and lunatics fought openly over territory.
Passing through the crowd, store touts and street urchins frequently accosted the sailors, but they brushed them off in good humor. Nichols paid a small boy to take them to the address written in his letter. They were led up a set of back stairs and into a room where the Americans faced the waiting bride and her Chinese "family."
Music from the American band Chicago blasted from an elaborate stereo system. A ten-foot wooden bar, amply stocked with bottles of liquor, stretched across the room. Three round tables were set up to create a small dance floor. On the tables were dishes of crabmeat with sweet-corn soup, fried prawns, crabmeat Fu-Young, sweet and sour pork and fried garoupa. Two young women huddled with Nancy Chen and giggled. Three Chinese men stood in the center in the room.
The sailors stood in the doorway, momentarily overcome by the sights, sounds and smells of the scene. Nancy Chen walked towards Nichols and embraced him. He began to cry and she laughed at him, making a comment in Chinese to her girlfriends. One of the men announced in English that he was Jimmy Lung and that he was the bride’s brother. He introduced the women as Lucy and Wendy.
The two lean and gaunt men in white shirts and dark slacks were introduced as the Woo brothers, cousins to the bride. They were also serving as the bartender and waiter for the affair.
Lung was as thin as a child’s crayoned stick-man. His hair was a dark mop and sunglasses hung precariously on his skeletal face. He wore an open collared silk shirt under his expensive suit and his silver snakeskin cowboy boots drew Johnson’s envy.
When Nichols stopped crying, they all took seats at the tables and began to eat and drink. The women danced seductively with Johnson and Lorino. During the festivity, Nichols put his arm around his future brother-in-law and asked him why he and Nancy had different last names. "Chinese custom," Lung replied bluntly. Nichols did not question the dubious explanation.
The party ended abruptly when Lung leaped up and screamed "No one move!"
Swiftly extracting a foot long knife from his left sleeve, Lung placed it roughly under Nichols’ chin. The waiter also drew a long knife and the bartender vaulted over the bar holding a long barreled revolver. The three women huddled into a corner.
"We are moving this party across the Shumchum," Lung announced. The Americans didn’t know that this was the name of the river that separated Hong Kong from Red China, but they got the idea when Lung added, "My friends on the other side want to talk to you about your little American Navy secrets."
Johnson sat still and cursed to himself softly. Lorino casually crossed his legs and took a long draw from his cigarette, trying to look as cool as a South Philly gangster ought to under these extreme and unusual circumstances. Nichols was frozen and bug-eyed in Lung’s grip.
To Lorino, who had personal experience in the field of armed robbery, Lung made two critical mistakes. The first mistake was that he took time to brag to his captive audience.
Lung told them proudly that he was a member of the Nine Dragons Triad, one of the oldest secret criminal societies in Hong Kong. He explained that in addition to routine criminal pursuits, he also gathered information that his girls extracted from American servicemen and passed it on to the Red Chinese. The pay for the information was generous, considering that he was dealing with communists.
Lung's second mistake was that he took his eyes off Lorino for just a second when he turned his head towards a crash.
Johnson caused the noise when he jumped up from his chair and tackled the Woo brothers. All three men slammed into the bar, causing it to split down the middle as if hit by a giant karate chop.
Lorino leaped from his chair, hit Lung with a solid and hard overhand right, and without losing momentum, bolted through the door. Lung collapsed from the blow and dropped to the floor with Nichols still in his grip.
Like the thief that he was, Lorino jumped down the stairs, ran out into the street and quickly waded through the crowd for several blocks. He later stopped at a bar, had a drink, and hooked up with a bar girl for the night. He returned to the ship the following day and kept his mouth shut. Lorino was a survivor.
I recall that next day on the Kitty Hawk vividly. Nichols was reported to be UA, unauthorized absence, which surprised no one. The news that Johnson was murdered in a robbery was a surprise and the story quickly spread throughout the ship.
There was much talk of "dungaree liberty," a time-honored naval tradition in which sailors donned working uniforms, armed themselves with knives, pipes and clubs and went ashore to wreak havoc on an offending liberty town.
The captain wisely canceled all water taxis. A British police inspector came aboard and addressed the crew over the ship’s 1MC.
"I wish to inform you that your Seaman Dennis Johnson was indeed found murdered last night on Cat Street," The inspector said in an accent most of the sailors found familiar from old movies.
"A known criminal, one Jimmy Lung, was apprehended and I assure you he will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
The crew’s anger was quelled. Johnson was given a memorial service and the carrier returned to Yankee Station and the war. After 30 days, Nichols UA status was upgraded to AWOL, absent without leave, and he was declared a deserter. The paperwork was processed and Nichols was forgotten.
As I write this and reflect on the unhappy life of John Nichols, I hope that he escaped with his bride and lived happily ever after. But my guess is he was taken to Red China, where they drained him of his classified information and then shot him. My source for this story, Salvatore Lorino, was unable to furnish the story’s ending.
I recently received a letter from my source, who is now incarcerated at the Federal Prison in Lewisburg, PA. A simple case of interstate theft, he assured me. Still the survivor, Lorino claims he can handle the prison stretch.
"I get along in here," he wrote. "I wear a uniform and I’m told when to work, eat, sleep and shit – just like the Navy."
© 2002 By Paul Davis