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?”
Note: Before reading this post, you may want to read last week’s post, Christmas in Singapore first.
On Christmas Eve 1972, my ship, USS Rich (DD 820) arrived at the ANZUK Naval Basin, which was part of the former British Sembawang Naval Base, and docked with our starboard side to Berth 6 at about noon. The Sembawang Naval Base was located in Sembawang at the northern tip of Singapore. Our ship had escorted USS Midway (CVA 41) from the Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin to Singapore.
My Christmas Day plan was to first find a phone exchange to make a call home to my wife Jan, and after that go off base to see what fun and partying could be had. I had managed to put aside a bit of money since Subic Bay. Our pay had been tax exempt while in the combat zone, plus I had $65 more per month of hostile fire pay, so there was a bit more spending money than normal.
Later that morning on coming out of the telephone exchange after making my Christmas phone call home, one of my snipe buddies, Matt, was sitting on a bench. I asked Matt what his plans were for the day. Matt had heard that right up the street was “The Strip,” and he proposed that we go there. Matt and I began our walk down Admiralty Road. Within less than one mile we came upon an area which had a long row of shops, “makan stalls” (food stalls), and bars. The area’s actual name is Sembawang Village. By that time it was around 1130, and we walked around for a while looking at the shops and food stalls.
One of the makan stalls looked like it was serving something that closely resembled fish and chips, so we ordered our lunch. The food was not bad; it was deep-fried fish and potatoes wrapped and served in newspaper. The makan stall also served ice-cold bottled Heineken beer. We sat at an outdoor table enjoying our lunch, the beer, and the mild and beautiful Singapore weather.
After 30 days of confinement to the ship, it felt to us like it probably did to someone who had just gotten out of jail. We had our freedom to move about, but were not sure what in the hell to do with our newfound freedom. As sailors, we would solve that issue in short order as the bar right next door was just opening for business.
After finishing our lunch, we immediately shifted berths over to the bar. The bar owner was setting up tables and chairs out in front, which to Matt and me looked like a good place to plant our butts. Matt proclaimed that since it was Christmas and he was a Texan, our drink of choice for the afternoon should be Southern Comfort on the rocks. I could see no reason to disagree with Matt’s choice of alcoholic beverages. We asked the bar owner if we could order a fifth of Southern Comfort with ice and glasses. He bowed and said, “Yes, yes,” then went inside. The owner returned shortly with a bottle of Southern Comfort, glasses, and a bucket full of ice.
The afternoon slipped by as we slowly sipped our Southern Comfort and relaxed, just shooting the bull. Later in the afternoon, several more of our shipmates showed up, then a couple more guys came along, and before long we had a party going. Matt and I ordered another bottle of Southern Comfort after killing the first one.
By nightfall, instead of getting something to eat at one of the makan stalls, we moved the party inside the bar and continued drinking and having fun. A live band was setting up inside. Suddenly, about a dozen or more bar girls arrived and began to move in with us at our tables. These women were mostly from Malaysia or Thailand, and “drop-dead gorgeous” was the best description of them. Guys were falling all over each other vying to buy the drink for their bar girl of choice. Several of the girls wanted to be clear that they were not “Boom-Boom girls,” which meant they were not prostitutes.
The band began to play Deep Purple and Doors songs, and just like in the Philippines, the songs covered sounded just like the actual artists. When they played the song “The Crystal Ship” by the Doors, you would have sworn it was Jim Morrison up there singing.
Later in the evening, Matt and I were on working on our third, or it might have been our fourth, bottle of Southern Comfort. Things seemed to be going along just fine, as everyone was having a good time. Then, a group of Australian and New Zealander sailors burst in and took over the bar area. Immediately after the Aussies and New Zealanders showed up, a bunch of British guys came running in. The Brits were all in costume dressed as Native American Indians. Most of them were wearing full American Indian regalia, complete with feathered headdresses, loincloths, moccasins, the whole bit. Some had spears, a couple had bows and arrows, and they were loud. A couple of them occasionally would let out what they thought was a good rendition of the Native American war cry, yelling and shrieking loudly. By now there were probably about twenty or more guys from Rich in the bar.
The general hellraising from the combined Aussie, New Zealand, and British group was starting to piss a couple of our guys off. I think the real issue was that some of the bar girls had left our tables and moved over to the bar area. A sensible person would have seen where this situation was headed, but drunken sailors have never been known for being sensible.
For a while everyone had some unity in the bar when the band played Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water.” For the part of the song’s lyrics that went, “Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky,” almost everyone sang along. Apparently, this particular song resonated with everyone. On the ship, some had tried to convince the XO that “Smoke on the Water” should be the ship’s breakaway song during underway replenishments. By tradition, Navy ships played their chosen breakaway song as the ship went to ahead flank speed to quickly and smartly move away from the replenishment ship after breaking the replenishment rig. Many in our crew liked the song, because for us, being off the coast of Vietnam everyday involved lots of gun smoke on the water and at night, fire in the sky.
In talking with several of the Australians and New Zealanders, all of them were stationed on board either the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) or Royal New Zealand Navy (RNZN) frigates homeported in Singapore. All of them had completed tours on their respective ships on the Vietnam gun line and had participated in various Linebacker operations. They felt much the same about Deep Purple’s song “Smoke on the Water” as we did.
Later, I got up from our table and headed to the back of the bar outside to the W.C. area, which had a long urinal trough and a commode. While I was standing at the urinal, a tall New Zealander walked in and took a position on my right side at the urinal. As I was pissing, the guy asked me, “Where you from in the States, Yank?” I told him I was from the Midwest, farm country. Next, he said, “You know, Yank; for a man, you have big tits,” then reached over and grabbed a fleshy area of my right chest, squeezed hard, and let go.
I didn’t say anything to him or even react to what he had done. I finished pissing, and as I was zipping up my jeans, I realized the nearly empty bottle of Southern Comfort was still in my left hand. From my mother’s side of the family, I had inherited the Northern European long torso with a large ribcage, and my barrel chest was a trait from my dad’s side of the family. I had always been a little sensitive about my build and large chest size. What the New Zealander had done, both through his comment and action, really pissed me off.
Turning to leave, the New Zealander blocked my path, and said, “Now where do you think you’re going, mate?” I didn’t say anything. Suddenly, and to my own surprise, I was swinging that nearly empty Southern Comfort bottle, hitting the guy hard along his right temple and smashing the bottle to pieces. Next, I grabbed him by the throat and punched him in the face with a good hard right. I have to give the guy credit, as he went down, he muttered, “You shouldn’t have done that, Yank.” I turned and walked back toward the bar.
There was a hallway leading from the W.C. back to the bar, and one of the bar girls who had been setting at our table rushed up to me and said to me several times, “You no fight. You no fight. You come back tomorrow night!” Loud bangs and yelling were coming from the bar area. I could see the band members quickly moving their instruments and equipment off the stage. I headed into the bar area and, holy shit, there was a full-on brawl in progress. I saw Matt fighting with two guys and other guys from our crew were fighting, so I jumped in…If you would like to read more stories from my book “Striking Eight Bells,” use one of these links to booksellers: Amazon.com: Books, Barnes and Noble Booksellers, BAM –Books A Million and Smashword.com eBooks.
©2018 George Trowbridge