Excerpts 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.
USS Rich (DD 820) docked early in the morning on November 18, 1972 at the Subic Bay Naval Station in Subic Bay Harbor. The transit from Norfolk to Subic Bay, Philippines had taken one month and one day, 32 days total. Of the 32-day transit, almost 29 of those days had been at sea. The ship would remain in Subic Bay for six days while making the necessary preparations and alterations to enter the combat zone of Vietnam. Our ship was docked at Pier 16-17, Rivera Point Ship Repair Facility. 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 naval 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.
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. The kids would beg sailors to throw coins in the water so they could dive and retrieve them. The name Shit River was accurate because the canal was ripe with sewage and dirty water from the town. We heard that many of these kids didn’t live to be very old, because most died of diseases from their constant exposure to the water.
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. Jeepneys are still used today, and are the most popular means of public transportation in the Philippines. They got their start as Willys Jeeps, left behind when America departed the Philippines at the end of World War II. Jeepneys are Jeeps modified to carry more passengers, and they’re painted with all kinds of brilliant colors with lots of chrome and highly decorative cloth awnings. Some people consider Jeepneys to be works of art.
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.
Live music could be heard coming from each bar out in the street. You would hear Chicago coming from one bar, Deep Purple from the next, then Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones. We weren’t hearing records or recordings; these were live Filipino bands and singers in each bar. It was a marvel to listen to them; if you closed your eyes, you would swear the real band or artist was playing on each stage as they were that good. Just imagine thinking you were hearing Johnny Cash, so you walked into the place. There on the stage was a Filipino less than five feet tall, wearing blue jeans and a western style shirt, with cowboy boots, singing “Ring of Fire.”
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.
I recall one club along Magsaysay Drive that had a small pond out in front with a wrought-iron type fence around the water. The pond held several live crocodiles about five feet in length. A woman with a large basket would sell you a live baby chicken. Once you had bought your baby chicken, you were supposed to toss it in the pond for the crocodiles. Usually the one of the interested crocodiles would at first just seem to toy with the baby chick by pushing it around, as if playing with it, then suddenly it would open its jaws and chomp it down. Just another oddity one could see in Olongapo City.
Most bars on request would serve the Filipino delicacy “balut.” A balut is a developing bird embryo (usually a duck or chicken) boiled and eaten from the shell. Baluts were sold as street food or in bars, usually served with beer. Some guys felt that it was some type of rite of passage to eat a whole balut and wash it down with beer. I had no desire to try one, which was justified when most people who did eat one hurled it up anyway. No thanks!
Anyone who ever entered any bar in Olongapo City experienced the immediate visit from the bar girl. The Filipino bar girl experience could be a nuisance, especially if one just wanted to have a drink or two alone or with a buddy. It was a bit like trying to walk onto a used car lot just to look at the cars and not wanting to be bothered by a salesperson. That just wasn’t going to happen. However, the Filipino bar girls were something to behold, always well dressed, young, attractive, and very friendly. Usually the first full sentence you heard from any Filipino bar girl after the word “hello” was the question, “Buy me a drink, Joe?”…. 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.