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), had arrived on Christmas Eve about noontime, at the ANZUK Naval Basin, which was part of the former British Sembawang Naval Base. The Sembawang Naval Base was located in Sembawang at the northern tip of Singapore. ANZUK was a force formed by Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom to defend the Asian Pacific region. Our ship had escorted USS Midway (CVA 41) from the Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin to Singapore.
In Christmas in Singapore, Part 2, I left off from the story after an afternoon and evening of heavy drinking with my shipmates at a bar in Sembawang village. Sometime during the evening 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 in. The general hellraising that ensued by 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.
As told in Christmas in Singapore, Part 2, later that evening just after I had my altercation and short fight outside of the bar in the W.C. area, with a tall New Zealander. 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 my buddy, Matt fighting with two guys and other guys from our crew were fighting, so I jumped in.
The whole thing was crazy, tables and chairs broken as bodies slammed into them. My strategy was to punch anyone I could while trying to wade through the fight, looking to help any shipmate in need. I was aware of taking some good hits in the head and body, but fortunately, alcohol combined with adrenaline tends to mask pain in the heat of the moment. There were a bunch of guys fighting behind the bar, when suddenly the whole damn bar toppled over and crashed onto the floor. Christ, even some of the light fixtures had been ripped out of the ceiling. The fight suddenly ended when most of the Aussies, New Zealanders, and the Brits held up their hands, laughing, and one of them yelled several times, “Yanks, that’s enough; it was just good fun.”
Looking around the bar, it was in total shambles; it looked like a bomb had gone off in the place. One of the Aussies stepped out and proclaimed that the bar was now closed and we all should find a new bar. Then he invited “the Yanks” to come along with them and have the next drink on them. The bar owner, along with his wife and daughters, appeared from somewhere. To my surprise, they didn’t seem upset or angry over their now-wrecked bar. The bar owner and his family lined up by the door, and as each person filed by, the bar owner and his wife wished each of them a “Merry Christmas.”
I noticed there was a small cardboard box on a table by the door that each person was putting money in as he exited the bar. All of us from USS Rich followed suit and stuffed whatever spare Singaporean money we had in the box on our way out. What a surreal evening it had been so far. However, the night was not yet done for me. We all went down the road together to Nelson’s Bar, where we engaged in some extensive drinking.
While I was sitting at a table, the New Zealander from the earlier altercation in the W.C. walked up carrying two drinks. He sat down, then slid one of the glasses over to me and said, “Yank, thought I’d buy you a drink. That was a good move you put on me; no hard feelings.”
I held up the glass of whatever it was and said, “Cheers.” The drink tasted like some type of sour mash type whiskey; it was awful, but I didn’t want to show it. I asked him, “What is this?”
He told me it was a type of Scotch whiskey made in New Zealand. After a few more rounds, around midnight, I was not feeling too well. The previous 12 or more hours of Southern Comfort and drinking who knows what else, combined with no food and the big fight, was all was catching up to me. Plus, my head and other body parts were starting to throb with pain. At some point, I must have just passed out.
From this point on, I have very little memory of what happened. Later, I had some recollections of being helped to walk to other bars, and some memories of being awake several times. Each time, there was a full glass of something in front of me in some bar or another. One time, someone had given me a lit cigar. That’s the balance of my memories for the remainder of that night.
Returning to consciousness was confusing, as I couldn’t quite figure out exactly where I was. I was laid out in a bed or something. For a while, I couldn’t even decide if I was even alive or not. Suddenly, a voice in the dim light said, “Hey, man, you’re awake. How do you feel?
Squinting my eyes, I saw the face of one of my buddies slowly come into focus. I asked him, “Where am I?”
He replied, “You’re on the ship in your rack, dumbass.” Then he told me that a van had pulled up to the ship’s gangway at about 0500 that morning and some guys had sat me down on the dock and left. The quarterdeck watch had helped me get on board and down to the berthing compartment. Apparently, they had also helped me with getting my shoes and clothes off and got me into my rack.
I asked my buddy what the time was. I couldn’t believe it when he told me it was just after 2000. I had been asleep for almost 15 hours.
With my buddy’s help, I got out of my rack, grabbed my douche kit, and went up to the after head. After stripping down, I got in one of the shower stalls and took a long, hot Hollywood shower. Coming out of the shower, I went up to one of the sinks. My reflection in the mirror showed that my face wasn’t too bad, a couple of bruises on my cheeks, a cut above my right eye with some swelling. Someone, my guess was the corpsman, had put a steri-strip on the cut above my eye.
Looking in the mirror at the rest of my body, there were too many bruises to count. There were bruises peppered all around on my chest, stomach, upper and lower back, on both upper thighs, and even on my butt cheeks. I looked like someone who had taken a severe ass whipping. Obviously, more damage had been done during the bar brawl than I’d realized. At that moment, I made the decision to swear off ever drinking Southern Comfort again. That was one decision I have stuck to in life.
I went back to my rack and lay down. It took a long time to find a halfway comfortable position before going back to sleep. The next day was still a liberty day for me, so after breakfast, I swung by sickbay to see about getting something for my pain. The junior corpsman (doc) was in sickbay; as I entered, he smiled and asked how I was doing.
I told him that I was generally okay, but was wondering if I could get some Motrin or something for the pain. He handed me a packet of Motrin and told me that I hadn’t been the only one looking for pain relief that morning. Apparently, the day after Christmas Day, several other crew members had arrived back on board in similar conditions to mine.
A couple of guys in the berthing compartment were talking about renting a taxi to go check out the downtown areas of Singapore. They asked me if I wanted to go with them, and I readily agreed. With time, effort, but not without some pain, I managed to get dressed and ready to go. Looking back at those days, the power my young body possessed in its ability to heal was impressive. With the combined effects from a lot of sleep, some food, and Motrin, I was essentially ready to go again.
I hate to say it, but my Christmas Day antics had served a good purpose. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt as relaxed and stress free as I did that day. It had been a great stress relieving exercise in spite of the physical pain…to read “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.
If you would like to purchase a copy signed by the author, George Trowbridge, with the “Striking Eight Bells” bookmark use this link: “Get a signed copy.”
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.
 Good Morning Yesterday. https://goodmorningyesterday.blogspot.com/2010/03/more-memories-of-sembawang.html