Thanksgiving in Subic Bay

Excerpt from; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir.”

“Another story on what most Americans don’t know about the Navy’s role in the Vietnam War?”

Many Americans probably believed that by 1972, the war in Vietnam was essentially winding down. However, for the U.S. Navy in Vietnam, 1972 would prove to be a busy year of conducting numerous and dangerous combat operations.

My ship USS Rich (DD 820) docked on November 18, 1972 at the Subic Bay Naval Station in Subic Bay Harbor at 0710. The ship would remain in Subic Bay for six days while making the necessary preparations and alterations to enter the combat zone of Vietnam. From our berth, USS Warrington (DD 843) was clearly visible where she was moored at another berth in the ship repair facility. The ship was abandoned now and had a mystic look about her similar to that of an empty and deserted old house.

USS Warrington DD 843_Subic_Bay
The empty and deserted Warrington (DD 843) awaiting her final fate in Subic Bay, Philippines.*

On July 17, while operating in company with USS Hull (DD 945) and USS Robison (DDG 12), Warrington came under the rapid and heavy fire of North Vietnamese shore batteries; but she took prompt evasive action and avoided damage. Later that same afternoon, though, the ship was rocked by two underwater explosions close aboard on her port side. There are accounts that the ship did not receive any messages warning about laid mines and entered an area where U.S. aircraft jettisoned bombs and mines, so the mines the ship had stuck were ours. She had suffered serious damage in her after fire room, engine room, and in the main engine room or main control.

Warrington’s crew had been able to control the damage and flooding from the mine explosions, which enabled the ship to retire from the area under her own power. Ultimately, it was determined that the ship was so badly damaged that she had to be towed to Subic Bay. Once the ship was back at Subic Bay, the Navy’s initial intent was to repair the ship and return her to service, but in August, an inspection and survey found her to be unfit for further naval service. Warrington was decommissioned on September 30 in Subic Bay. The now deserted and dark USS Warrington stood as a stark reminder to me and many in our crew of what could happen to any ship operating in the waters along Vietnam’s coast.

Map of Subic Bay. Subic Bay Naval Base and Olongapo.

While in Subic Bay, the crew was granted all-night liberty each day. The only place to go was right outside the main gate of the base, Olongapo City. I reckon that any sailor who has ever been to Subic Bay has memories from their time in Olongapo City. It was an easy walk from the docks to Magsaysay Drive and then to the main gate. Right outside the main gate was a combination vehicle and foot bridge leading into town, spanning a drainage canal from the Santa Rita River.

The infamous “Shit River” bridge leading into Olongapo and to Magsaysay Drive.*

The drainage canal was famously known as “Shit River.” Crossing the Shit River bridge was everyone’s first experience as they make their way into Olongapo City. Down on the water in small boats beneath the bridge there were always a bunch of beggar Filipino kids from the barrio. The kids would beg sailors to throw coins in the water so they could dive and retrieve them.

Ahead of the bridge huge billboard-type signs advertising Sansui and Pioneer stereos; a huge Marmont Restaurant sign was on the right. After the bridge, Magsaysay Drive continued as the main drag. Magsaysay Drive was always busy and bustling with sailors, pedestrians, Jeepneys, motor scooters, and bicycles everywhere.

Magsaysay Drive, Olongapo in the 1960s or early 1970s.*

What also lined Magsaysay Drive were countless street vendors, bars, restaurants, shops, and night spots; another paradise for sailors on earth. Street vendors constantly came up to us trying to sell us “monkey meat” cooked on wooden skewers. I think most of the monkey meat was really dog meat, or only God knows, some other small animal. Along Magsaysay Drive, the sidewalks were concrete, but the road was mostly an unpaved dirt road with a narrow concrete slab running right down the middle. Fortunately, it didn’t rain much while we were there. They told us that when they got heavy rains the streets turned to mud.

I recall one club on the right side of Magsaysay Drive that had a small pond out in front with a wrought-iron type fence around the water. The pond held live crocodiles about five feet in length. A woman with a large basket would sell live baby chickens to customers. Once you had bought your baby chicken, you were supposed to toss it in the pond for the crocodiles. Usually the one of the crocodiles would at first just push the baby chick around, as if playing with it, then suddenly it would open its jaws wide and chomp down. Just another oddity one could see in Olongapo City.

Olongapo City was under martial law and had been for many years, so the town had mandatory curfew starting at midnight until 5:00 a.m. each morning. The words of warning were, “Do not get caught violating curfew; the Olongapo City police have the authority to shoot anyone on sight they find on the streets after curfew.” So our crew had overnight liberty in a town with a mandatory curfew starting at midnight. Now there was the formula for the making of some damn good sea stories.

The day before the ship was to depart from Subic Bay was also Thanksgiving Day. The ship’s cooks served the traditional Thanksgiving dinner on board. Of course, turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and all the traditional side dishes were on the menu. The cooks tried to do well, but Navy food was still just Navy food; it couldn’t hold a candle to Thanksgiving Day meals back home. Most of us found that the turkey, cranberry sauce, and biscuits were the best parts of the meal. Later, they probably carried the rest of the prepared meal to the dumpsters on the pier, where it belonged.

My ship, USS Rich (DD 820). Gearing (FRAM I) class destroyer.*

Our six days in Subic Bay raced by and the next day it was time to once again get the ship underway and leave. At 0652 local time, Friday, November 24, USS Rich got underway and departed from Subic Bay bound for Military Region I (MR1) in northern South Vietnam. The passage plan distance from Subic Bay to MR1 was 806 nautical miles. It would take the ship about 35 hours at the planned speed of advance of 22 knots to arrive near MR1…To read “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and eBooks.

©2018 George Trowbridge

The stories in these posts and the book; “Striking Eight Bells: A Vietnam Memoir,” reflect the author’s recollection of events. Some names, locations, and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the privacy of those depicted. Dialogue has been recreated from memory. Dates, times, and locations were recreated from declassified U.S. Navy records and others. Photographs used are either public domain or owned by the author. Illustrations and maps used were either created by the author or in the public domain. The stories in these posts and the book are solely the opinion of the author and not the publisher, Richter Publishing, LLC.

*Image was found in public domain or it could not be established after reasonable search, that any claim existed to the image. Image used for illustrative purposes only and is not the property of the author. Where ever possible credit for the image is indicated in the caption.

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