The below short story appeared originally in American Crime Magazine.
By Paul Davis
As a young enlisted sailor on route to the Philippines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk in 1970, I was warned by older sailors that Olongapo was a rough town.
One had to be very careful, I was told. There were pickpockets, thieves, con artists, and armed robbers that preyed on American sailors. Shoeshine boys will hold a razor against your heel until you handed over your wallet. Bar girls will rob you if get too drunk. And so on.
These older sailors had visited Olongapo on the previous combat cruise, so they were able to advise me of the dangers and pitfalls, as well as the many delights, of Olongapo. It was so easy to be robbed, cheated and even murdered in the wide-open sin city that lay next to the U.S, naval base at Subic Bay.
I recall a particularly shocking illustration of just how rough Olongapo could be on my second visit to Subic Bay. A shore patrol jeep pulled up to the carrier’s enlisted brow as I was departing the ship and out stepped a young sailor who appeared to be naked under a gray blanket that was wrapped around him.
He looked as if he were in shock as hundreds of American sailors and Filipino yard workers and vendors laughed wildly at him as he walked up the brow. To make matters even worse, a cruel sailor grabbed the tip of the blanket and yanked it off of him and tossed it into the water. The humiliated young sailor, now naked, covered his crotch with his hands and ran up the brow. He was then escorted away from the laughing crowd.
I learned later from the ship’s “scuttlebutt,” which is what sailors call gossip, that the sailor had passed out drunk in a hotel room and a Filipina prostitute robbed him of everything from his glasses and watch to his underwear and socks. The hotel clerks pulled the crying sailor out of his room and threw him into the street naked. The Shore Patrol showed up, placed a blanket around him and brought him back to the aircraft carrier.
To add insult to the proverbial injury, the sailor was reprimanded for losing his Navy ID card and went to Captain’s Mass, a sort of naval hearing. The captain busted him down a rank, but his real punishment was that he was ridiculed by nearly everyone on the carrier for the rest of his time on the ship.
I felt sorry for the kid, although I was only 18 years old myself at the time and this young sailor might have been a year or two older than me. But I was a street-smart South Philly kid. Being robbed of all of my possessions, including my clothes, would never happen to me.
The Kitty Hawk was sent to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War and served long line periods on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea off the coast of North Vietnam in 1970 and 1971. The aircraft carrier’s launched aircraft performed combat sorties against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong in support of American and allied ground forces and interdicted the flow of weapons from North Vietnam to the south on the famed “Ho Chi Minh Trail.”
The Kitty Hawk was relieved periodically from Yankee Station by another aircraft carrier and sailed off to make port of calls to Hong Kong and Sasebo, Japan for R&R periods. The Kitty Hawk also visited the American naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines on several occasions 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 reprieve for the bent-up sailors who went wild in Olongapo.
Olongapo in the early 1970s 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 Drive, where there were numerous bars and nightclubs, hotels, restaurants and plentiful attractive women calling out for the young sailors to enter their particular bar.
Magsaysay, the main drag of the city, was always crowded at night with passing sailors, shoeshine boys, drug dealers, street vendors, including those selling “monkey meat” on a stick (actually beef and chicken), and the ubiquitous “jeepneys,” the colorfully decorated jeeps that carried the sailors across town.
Pretty Filipinas gathered outside of the bars on Magsaysay and enticed sailors to enter the bars with hugs, kisses, swaying hips, pushed out breasts and shaking bottoms, as well as more strongarm-style tactics. Come inside and enjoy the music, the dancing, the Sam Miguel beer, and the sweet companionship of the bar girls, the sailors were told by the hawking and preening girls outside of the bars.
The music from the Filipino bands flowed out from the bars into the streets. The Filipino bands were incredible mimics and covered popular bands’ hit songs, sounding eerily like the original musicians. Once inside a bar, the bargirls, called "hostesses," rushed up to the sailors and tugged them towards their tables. The sailors bought the girls “whisky” (actually Coke) and champagne (actually 7-Up). This is how the girls made their money, and it was so inexpensive that few sailors cared.
During the early evenings some sailors opted to pay the bar’s mama-san so they could take the girls to a hotel room for “short-time,” as it was called. Most sailors partied with the girls until the end of the evening when the girls could leave the bar without charge and would accompany the dipsy and happy sailors to near-by hotels. The American dollar was like gold then and one could spend a wild and sinful night in Olongapo drinking, eating and buying companionship for about $20.
On this, my third visit to Olongapo, I left the carrier and headed into town with some friends. One was Mike Hunt, a 3rd class radioman from California. Hunt and I became friends when the carrier was stationed in San Diego. We were both amateur boxers. At 6’2” and nearly 200 pounds, Hunt fought in the heavyweight class. Weighing in at 165 and just under six feet, I fought in the middleweight class.
Also with us was another 3rd class radioman named Owen Trent, a tall, lean and quiet Texan. I called him the “Tall-T,” which he found amusing. Hunt and Trent had been to Olongapo on the previous combat cruise.
“Dino” Ingemi, a big, burly, easy-going and funny guy from the Bronx, also came with us. As I was half-Italian on my mother’s side and I grew up in a predominantly Italian American South Philadelphia neighborhood, I called Dino my paisan.
On my previous visit to Olongapo I met a bargirl named Zeny. She had long, raven hair with bangs cut just above her dark, sultry eyes. She also had a pretty face and a nice figure. Zeny was beautiful, smart, sexy and funny. I called her “Zany Zeny,” but I don’t think she ever got the joke. We spent three fun days together before I had to head back to sea.
On this visit, I and my friends visited the Stardust and Zeny rushed up to me. She kissed and hugged me, and she pulled me to a table. Hunt, Trent and Ingemi had corralled girls and we all sat at the table and ordered San Miguel beer. The band was outstanding, and we all danced and drank and had a good time until a seaman named John Bland from our division staggered in. His face was bruised and bloody and his shirt torn.
Bland came to our table and the girls got up and left to go the rest room.
“What the fuck happened to you?” Ingemi asked.
Bland explained that he had gone into an alley with a street girl who promised him fellatio. Two Filipinos must have followed them into the alley, and they beat Bland and stole his money and watch.
Ingemi asked what the girl’s name was and what street she hung out on. Bland told him.
“I think it’s time for a little payback,” Hunt said.
Hunt told Bland to stay at the Stardust and he said we should visit the street corner and confront the girl and her two friends.
“She’s wearing a bright, red dress,” Bland said. “You can’t miss her.”
I didn’t like Bland. He was an ingratiating guy from a Philadelphia suburb. He thought he was clever, and he was always trying to scam people over small things, like a Coke or a minor work detail. I was certain that he thought he had scammed the girl by convincing her to perform the sex act in the alley for nothing. Yet, I joined eagerly the avenging patrol and we headed out to the other bar.
It was decided that Trent would talk to the girl on the corner as Hunt and Ingemi slipped into the alley. Trent would then allow her to take him into the alley, as she had done with Bland.
As I was the youngest guy in the group, Hunt told me to stand at the foot of the alley and keep a lookout for the Navy’s Shore Patrol and the Olongapo police.
“I can take care of myself,” I told Hunt.
“I know you can handle yourself, but we need you as a lookout. Dino and me will handle these creeps.”
Trent approached the girl in the red dress on the corner. After a brief discussion, they walked up the alley. Only a moment or so later, two Filipinos, one about average height and lean, and the other looking like a sumo wrestler, charged into the alley.
As the two bruisers jumped on Trent, Hunt and Ingemi came out of the shadows and pounced on the two Filipinos. I stood sideways at the foot of the alley, one eye on the fight and the other eye on the street looking for Shore Patrol or local cops.
The girl ran up the alley in a panic and as she passed me, I kicked her in the ass with the side of my foot. She fell forward and splayed out on the ground.
I looked back down the alley and saw the lean Filipino break from the fight as Hunt, Trent and Ingemi beat on the sumo. The lean one ran up the alley as I stepped into the middle and dropped my right hand at my side.
The Filipino ran right into my short right and I heard two clonks. The first clonk was when my fist hit his chin and the second clonk was when he fell backwards and his head hit the ground.
I looked past the knocked cold Filipino and saw that Hunt, Trent and Ingemi had finally laid out the sumo. Hunt took off the three watches that he was wearing, went through his pockets and took all of his cash.
Hunt then took two watches off the lean one I knocked out and took his money as well.
We went back to the Stardust. Hunt laid the watches on the table and Bland picked out his. He also said they stole $100 dollars from him, although I suspected the actual figure was $10. Hunt gave him $100 from the money he had taken from the two robbers. He gave the other watches to the girls.
He held up the rest of the cash and proclaimed, “The rest of tonight is on the girl in the red dress!”
After the Stardust closed, Zeny and I headed to a nearby hotel. We took a room and had a fine time until I passed out from drinking far too much San Miguel beer.
I woke up the following morning and saw that Zeny was gone. Also gone was my watch, my wallet, and all of my clothes. The only thing left was my knife, which I had placed under my pillow the night before. I was taken aback. I knew Zeny from my previous visit, and I trusted her.
I panicked. I thought of the poor sailor who had returned to the ship naked under a blanket. This could not happen to me. I was too smart. Too streetwise. Too cool.
But it was happening to me. I wrapped a sheet around my middle and paced the floor, wondering what I was going to do. I cursed. I punched a wall. I looked out the window, hoping to see one of my friends.
It was perhaps only a half-hour, but it seemed like an eternity, when there was a knock on the door.
I opened the door and there stood Zeny holding my brightly polished shoes in her right hand and holding a hanger with my cleaned and pressed shirt and slacks in her left hand. My chain and dog tags hung around her neck and my watch hung loosely on her wrist. My folded underwear and socks were under her right arm.
She told me that she took my clothes to her home and cleaned and pressed them. She shined my shoes. She said she didn’t know that my slim black leather wallet, which held my Navy ID and cash, had been in my pants pocket.
I kissed her full on the lips and hugged her.
As I walked down Magsaysay back towards the naval base, I saw other returning sailors staggering along, hung over and disheveled.
I smiled as I knew I looked sharp in my polished shoes and cleaned and pressed clothes.
© 2022 By Paul Davis