The below story is chapter five of a crime thriller I hope to publish this year.
Join The Navy and See Olongapo
By Paul Davis
The United States Navy back in my day advertised that one could “Join the Navy and see the World.” But for young sailors like me serving on a 7th Fleet aircraft carrier in the early 1970s, we thought the recruiting pitch should have been, “Join the Navy and see Olongapo.”
During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Navy assigned three aircraft carriers and their battle groups to the 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77. The carriers operated on “Yankee Station” in the Gulf of Tonkin in the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam. The USS Kitty Hawk, an 80,000-ton warship that measured 1,047 feet long, with a beam of 129 feet, and a 250-foot flight deck with 80 aircraft, was one of the three carriers that operated on Yankee Station in 1970 and 1971.
Two of the three carriers were on Yankee Station continuously, launching aircraft that performed combat sorties against the Communist North Vietnamese and Viet Cong around the clock, as the third carrier rotated visits to port of calls to Sasebo, Japan or Hong Kong for much needed R&R. The carriers also rotated in and out of Subic Bay in the Philippines for “upkeep” and to let the sailors go crazy in Olongapo.
I had been duly warned by older sailors that Olongapo was a dangerous and treacherous town. My older friends who had visited Olongapo on the previous combat cruise had warned me that it was so very easy to be robbed, cheated and even murdered in Olongapo.
I recall a particularly shocking illustration of just how rough and heartless Olongapo could be on one of my visits to Subic Bay. A shore patrol jeep pulled up to the carrier’s enlisted brow as I was departing the Kitty Hawk, and out stepped a young sailor who appeared to be naked under a gray blanket that was wrapped around his waist.
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 Navy’s 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 he 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 sailor, although I was only 18 years old at the time, and this sailor might have been a year or two older than me. But I was a street guy from South Philly. Being robbed of all of my possessions, including my clothes, would never happen to me.
I spent the first day we were back in port with Hunt on Grande Island, the U.S. Navy’s recreational island in Subic Bay. We went scuba diving in the beautiful, clear water off the island. Afterwards, I played first base in a softball game, and I eat a hot dog and a hamburger and drank several bottles of San Miguel beer. Then Hunt and I napped in chairs on the beach, enjoying the strong Southeast Asian sun and the cool ocean breezes.
After our nap, Hunt and I, along with about two dozen other tired, hot and somewhat drunk sailors and Marines, boarded the amphibious landing craft that would take us back to the base. The boat, which resembled the landing craft that landed allied troops at Normandy in WWII, was crowded. I heeded my older friend's warning and stepped back against the bulkhead.
Just as Hunt had warned, and true to the crazy tradition, as soon as the boat cast off its lines, the passengers in the hold of the boat began punching each other indiscriminately. The coxswain who drove the boat was elevated at his station above the fray and he ignored the ruckus below. Hunt pulled me against the bulkhead and we pushed away sailors who got too close and tried to punch us.
The short voyage to the base seemed to take forever as Hunt and I defended ourselves. When we finally landed, Hunt and I stepped over the sailors who lay on the deck stunned or unconscious and stepped ashore. Unscathed, we returned to the Kitty Hawk.
Back in the berthing compartment, I took a shower and laid down in my rack with my happy thoughts about going back into Olongapo that evening and seeing Zeny again.
Everything I heard about Olongapo turned out to be true. I could see why young American sailors loved the city. American sailors far outnumbered the bar girls, so when the sailors entered the many bars on Magsaysay Drive, there were plentiful attractive hostesses who lay in wait for American sailors looking for a good time and had money to spend.
During the early evenings some anxious sailors opted to pay a fee to the bar’s mama-san so they could take the girls out of the bar for a spell and go to a hotel room for “short-time,” as the brief sexual encounter was called in Olongapo. The Americans sailors called the act a “Quickie.”
But most sailors partied with the girls until the end of the evening when the bar closed, and the girls were free to leave the bar without paying the mama-san.
The girls accompanied the dipsy sailors to near-by hotels. In the morning, the happy sailors left the girls money on the bedside table. Unlike prostitutes, Olongapo bar girls did not set a fee for sex prior to going to the hotel, but the American sailors usually left the girls a generous amount of Philippine Pesos and American dollars before they left the hotel.
I recall a Filipino priest telling me that the bar girls did not consider themselves to be prostitutes. They earned their money from a percentage of the money sailors spent buying them drinks, and they had sex with the sailors as they considered them to be their boyfriends. The goal of many of them was to marry an American sailor and move to the United States for a better life, and many of them did.
I departed the carrier that evening dressed in "civies," civilian clothes, and headed into Olongapo with Mike Hunt and Dino Ingemi. Also going into Olongapo with us was a 2nd Class Radioman named Owen Trent, a tall, lean and quiet Texan. I called him the “Tall-T,” which he found amusing. Trent, like Hunt and Ingemi, had all been to Olongapo on the Kitty Hawk’s previous combat cruise.
As we were walking down Magsaysay Drive, a street vendor near us called out, “Hey, Joe. You want sunglasses? Cheap!”
As we walked past him, I told my friends that I met a sailor who told me he really hated it when Filipinos called him “Joe.”
“I explained to him that Filipinos have called all Americans Joe since World War Two,” I told my walking companions. “He said he knew that, but he still hated it when they called him Joe. I asked him why and he said, “Because my name is Joe.”” Ingemi and Trent laughed. Hunt groaned.
I and my friends visited the Starlight and Zeny rushed up to me. She kissed and hugged me, and she pulled me to a table. Hunt, Trent and Ingemi had corralled their 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.
Jeffrey Greenberg, a thin 3rd Class Radioman from Connecticut with a brown moustache and small, round glasses, came into the bar and joined us. I liked Greenberg, as he, like me, loved books. Greenberg was a college graduate with a degree in in English Literature, and we often discussed literature on our down-time aboard the carrier.
He shared my great fondness for Mark Twain, and I introduced him to Raymond Chandler, one of my favorite writers. Greenberg became a devotee of Raymond Chandler’s fictional private eye Philip Marlowe after he borrowed, read and enjoyed the four Chandler paperback crime novels I had with me on the carrier.
Ronald Redmond waddled over to our table in Greenberg’s wake and joined us. Redmond was a 3rd Class Radioman who claimed proudly that he was a “lifer.” Redmond found Navy life far preferable to the poor and rugged rural life in Oklahoma that he endured prior to joining the Navy. Short and wide, loud and profane, most of the other sailors tried to avoid him. No one had invited him to join us at our table.
“These little brown fuck machines are something else, but I like me a “heifer,” a big ole gal,” Redmond told us. “Not these skinny little “Flips.”
“There are some water buffaloes outside of town in the rice paddies, if you’re interested,” I replied drolly. The other sailors at the table laughed.
“Shit, Davis, I might just head out there.”
“Redmond, you’re an animal,” I said. “They ought to lock you up in a cage, hose you down once a day, and feed you raw meat.”
“Hell, Davis, throw in some pussy and it don’t sound bad.”
“I rest my case.”
I turned away from Redmond and ignored him and concentrated on my beautiful companion Zeny, whom I called “Zany Zeny.” I don’t think she ever got the joke.
As our party was just getting started, I saw Lorino walk in the bar with his distinctive South Philly swagger. He pushed off two girls gently but firmly who tried to pull him to a table. He saw me and I waved him over. Lorino knew the other sailors from the Communications Radio Division from his frequent visits to me while at sea, so he sat down at our table without introductions.
We were all having a grand time when a short and stocky seaman named John Bland from our division staggered in. His face was bruised and bloody and his shirt was torn. Bland came over to our table and the girls got up and left to go to the rest room.
“What the fuck happened to you?” Ingemi asked.
Bland explained that he had gone into an alley next to the Ritz bar with a street prostitute who promised him fellatio. Two Filipino men followed them into the alley, and they beat Bland and stole his money and watch.
“I think it’s time for a little payback,” Hunt said.
“I’m in,” Lorino said quickly.
Hunt told Bland to stay with Trent, Greenberg and Redmond at the Starlight and said the rest of us will go to the alley next to the Ritz Cracker 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 Darby, Pennsylvania. He thought he was clever, and he was always trying to scam people over small things, like a Coke or a minor work detail. The dislike was reciprocal. Bland didn’t like me because I would call him out on his shady, small-time schemes. I also told the other sailors that his name was also a description of his personality.
I was certain that Bland thought he had scammed the prostitute by convincing her to perform the sex act in the alley for free. Incredible, but that was Bland. Yet, I joined eagerly the avenging patrol, and we headed out.
It was decided that Ingemi would talk to the girl on the corner after Hunt and Lorino slipped into the narrow alley. Ingemi 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.
Ingemi 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 charged into the alley. One was of average height and lean, and the other looked like a big Japanese sumo wrestler.
As the two bruisers jumped on Ingemi, Hunt and Lorino came out of the shadows and pounced on the two Filipino robbers. I stood sideways at the foot of the alley, one eye on the fight and the other eye on the street looking for Navy Shore Patrol or local cops.
The girl in the red dress bolted from the fracas and Ingemi kicked her in the behind with the side of his foot and she fell forward and splayed out on the ground. She rose quickly and scampered past me and into the street.
I saw the lean Filipino break from the fight as Hunt, Lorino and Ingemi beat on the sumo. As the lean one ran up the alley I stepped into the middle and dropped my right hand at my side.
The Filipino thief stopped and went into a martial arts stance. I went into my boxing stance. He swung at my face, but I reared my head back and to the right and slipped the blow. He then threw a kick at me, but I stepped back, and he missed. I leaned in and hit him in the face with a good stiff left jab and hard right combo.
He fell back against the wall, but he bounced back quickly, and his right leg flew up and his foot kicked me hard on my left side. I caught his pant leg in the air after the kick. I pulled on his leg, and he lost balance and fell against the alley wall. Holding on to his raised leg, I pinned him to the wall. I hit him in the face with several good short rights, and he collapsed.
I looked past the knocked cold Filipino and saw that Hunt, Lorino and Ingemi had finally laid out the sumo in the alley. Hunt took off the three watches that the thief was wearing and went through his pockets and took all of his cash.
Ingemi took two watches off the thief I knocked out and took his money as well.
“Who says Italians lose all the wars,” Lorino said to Ingemi with a broad, lopsided grin.
We all went back to the Starlight. My knuckles were scrapped and bloody and I lifted my shirt and saw a deep purple bruise where the Filipino thief had kicked me. The other sailors had similar minor injuries. The girls passed around bandages. My side was sore, so I ordered a beer and a shot of vodka to help ease the pain.
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 more like $10. Hunt gave him $100 from the money he had taken from the two thieves. He gave the other watches and some cash 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 Starlight closed, our crowd broke up and we went our separate ways. Zeny and I headed to a nearby hotel. We took a room and had a fine time together in bed until I passed out from drinking far too much San Miguel beer and vodka.
I woke up the following morning and discovered that Zeny was gone. Also gone was my watch, my wallet, my shoes, and all of my clothes. The only thing left was my pocketknife, which I had placed under my pillow the night before.
I was in shock. I knew Zeny from my previous visits to Olongapo, and I trusted her. I panicked. I thought of the poor slob 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 beautiful Zeny. She was 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 Drive 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.