As a young sailor stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in 1970 and 1971 during the Vietnam War, I was fortunate, as the Navy recruiting advertisement promised, “to see the world.”
Even with long line periods on “Yankee Station” off the coast of North Vietnam, where the warship launched aircraft for combat sorties, the Kitty Hawk made time for port of calls to Honolulu, Hawaii, Sasebo, Japan and Hong Kong.
The Kitty Hawk also visited the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines.
The Kitty Hawk visited Subic Bay periodically to take on weapons and supplies and do needed repairs before heading back to Yankee Station and the war.
The port calls to Subic Bay also provided a rest and relaxation period, called R&R by the military, for the bent-up sailors who went wild in the wide-open sin city of Olongapo.
Olongapo in 1971 was Dodge City, Las Vegas, and Sodom and Gomorrah all rolled into one. Subic Bay was called “Septic Bay,” by the sailors due to the high rate of VD cases.
American sailors walked from the naval base to the city of Olongapo on a bridge over “Shit River,” so called due to the pungent smell. On the other side of the bridge, sailors encountered Magsaysay Blvd, where there were numerous bars and nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and plentiful attractive women calling out for the young sailors to enter their particular bar and den of iniquity.
One also encountered the street vendors selling “monkey meat” on a stick (actually beef and chicken) and the ubiquitous “jeepneys,” the colorfully decorated jeeps that carried the sailors across town.
The American dollar was like gold then and one could spend a wild and sinful night in Olongapo drinking, eating and buying companionship for only around $20.
The music from the Filipino bands spewed out from the bars into the streets. The Filipino bands were incredible mimics and covered popular bands’ hit songs, sounding eerily like the originals.
Once inside a bar, the bargirls rushed up to the sailors and tugged them towards their tables.
I was an 18-year-old street-smart South Philly kid, so I was able to withstand the barrage of sounds, smells and sights of this strange town better than most. I also had friends on the carrier who had visited Olongapo on the previous combat cruise, so they warned me about the dangers and pitfalls, as well as the delights, of the city.
Seaman Dylan Harris was a different story. He was overwhelmed and appeared to be in shock as two girls grabbed his arms and fought with each other, cursing in Tagalog.
The two girls called Harris a “Cherry Boy,” and they delighted in having the shy young man in their claws.
Harris, a thin, baby-faced 18-year-old, never had a girl provide him with any attention at all, so he was grinning like a fool and pulled out his money and bought the two girls “whiskey” (actually Coke) and champagne (actually 7-Up). As this was how the girls made their money, and as it was so inexpensive to American sailors - about a buck - few cared about this transparent scam.
At the end of the night, Harris ended up with one of the girls, who said her name was Ligaya. She was a young and beautiful girl with a slim figure and long raven-hair. She was a good dancer, funny and sexy.
Harris, for the first time in his life, was in love.
On the first night with Ligaya, Harris took her to a hotel where they spent the night. Harris, who never been intimate with a woman, was in Heaven.
The next time the carrier was in port, Ligaya took Harris to her home in the Barrio Barretto.
In her primitive but neat and clean shack, Harris told Ligaya he loved her. He told her he wanted to marry her and take her home to the States.
“OK," Ligaya replied. "I love you, no bullshit.”
While Ligaya was getting him a San Migual beer, Harris saw a photo album on the table. He picked it up and scrolled through dozens of photos of American sailors.
“Who are these guys?” he asked, somewhat shocked.
“They business,” she explained. “You boyfriend.”