A trip to the PI

A comment on my Veterans Day post made me think that perhaps documenting what the life of a young Navy man and his new wife was like back in the sixties.  Ignoring, for the moment, all the places here in the States we lived, I’d like to concentrate on the other places; those outside  and in the real world.

The tale starts in California, in 1964.  My wife and I were coming off thirty days of leave which we spent in Colorado visiting both sets of parents (how nice to have all four in the same town, eh?).  We traveled to Oakland Army Base in our own car so we could get it scheduled for shipment to the Philippines – our ultimate destination.

We arrived one sunny day, went through the gate, and we in search of our billeting area (place to sleep that night) to drop off our bags.  On the way over, we spotted the terminal gate that led to where we had to leave the car for shipment.  There was a guard at this gate.  When we asked him where to leave the car for shipment, he told us to put it at the end of the line he pointed to and leave the keys in it.

No problem.  We did just that, and I took the paperwork into the office and handed it over, along with several pounds of paper representing my orders.  Duly stamped, I left with a chit that I would use to pick up the car when it finally made the trip.  They were nice enough to take the two of us over to the little on-base hotel.

We checked in and were taken to our room.  I could almost reach out with my hands and touch opposite walls.  The “bed” was a slightly larger version of what the Army refers to as a ‘low back pain generator’.  How the two of us were going to get into it was up for discussion.

We did manage to however and, after a fairly sleepless night, we were duly picked up by a bus and taken to our transport.  This ship was originally built as part of the President line of cruise ships, but the Navy took over and renamed it the USNS Barrett after a Marine Colonel.

Our cabin was surprisingly large and, even more amazing, it was on the boat deck.  This is the deck that holds all the lifeboats.  In keeping with my rate, which was only an E-5, I expected to be put down below the waterline; possibly in steerage.  I found out later, that I happened to have the same name as the Port Commander of Subic Naval base and ‘they’, in their infinite wisdom, decided that they probably shouldn’t take a chance and tick off the big guy.  So I ended up in officer’s country.

The trip started that evening.  We were headed to Hawaii.  The on-board rules and regulations regarding passengers was that we were free to do most anything we wanted during the time on board, but we did have to wear uniforms for the evening meal.  The rest of the time we wore civilian clothing.  I got a few quizzical glances at my wife and I sitting at a table surrounded by officers, but after a couple of meals we were all friends.

In Honolulu, we were turned loose for ten hours to sightsee.  We were so broke that another couple and us took a bus into town and headed for Waikiki Beach, just so we could say we’d been there.  We were run off after about an hour because we couldn’t provide a room key for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, upon whose sacrosanct beach we were treading.

Pffft!  Who needed your stinky old beach anyway?  We retired to a bar and found out immediately why it was pretty much empty.  A single beer cost three dollars!  The wife and I only had thirty-five dollars between us for the whole trip to Subic.  Not good.  We went back to the ship by bus.

When we left Hawaii, I decided that I was going to be really bored just doing nothing.  I’d heard the Chaplain was looking for volunteers for this and that so I looked him up.  He saw the ‘spark and quill’ of my Navy rating and asked if I could copy Morse code.  I’d been able to do that since I was twelve so I said yes.  He sent me up to the radio room to help copy the UPI newscasts from the land station KPH out of Marin County, California.

When I got there, one of the radiomen was struggling with what appeared to be around twenty words per minute code.  As a radioman, he should have been able to do it but I asked if I could help.  With a smirk, he handed me the phones and stood up from his receiver.

I asked for a fresh ditto mat and rolled it into the ‘mill’ or typewriter.  By now, I’d attracted the attention of the Chief on watch.  He strolled over and asked me what the **** I thought I was doing.  I told him that I’d been sent up by the Chaplain to gather up news stories for publication in the ship’s paper every day.  He questioned the use of a ditto mat and I told him it was faster to do it this way directly instead of having to re-type it later.  His exact words were “You’re gonna just ****ing sit there and take that ****ing code and ****ing type it directly onto the there ****ing ditto mat?”  I nodded, sat back and began copying at the start of the next article.

Over the course of the next forty-five minutes I whacked away on that typewriter, taking time between articles to pull out the full mat and insert a new one.  When I was done, I had seven mats.  I had also been showing off a little by drinking two cups of coffee, and smoking three cigarettes while typing one handed.  At one point, I stopped to scratch my leg and then, in a furious burst of typing, caught back up.  Heh.  CT’s were much better than Radiomen!

“Well, now I’ve seen every ****ing thing.”  Was all the Chief said.

I also won forty dollars in bets off the radiomen in the shack by out-copying them at very high speeds.  The day I beat the Chief I was suddenly twenty dollars richer.  I copied the newscasts all the way across the Pacific.

The Barrett could have made somewhere in the vicinity of twenty knots, but, due to some sort of casualty in the engine room, we were only able to sustain around ten knots.  This meant that not only were we slow, but we rolled in the long Pacific swells pretty badly too.  We were headed generally southwest.  Our next port was Midway Atoll.  It turned out to be so small that if we dropped the anchor we ran the risk of sinking the island.  The main attraction was watching the Gooney birds as they attempted to fly.

We left Midway during the preliminaries to a fairly large storm.  The seas had increased to around fifteen feet and winds had picked up so that they howled around the lifelines and blasted you unawares as you turned a corner on deck.  Our next stop was to be the beautiful island of Guam.  But first we had to batter our way through a nice typhoon.

In the process of fighting the weather we crossed over the International Date Line.  Most of the passengers were pretty sick, but some of us managed to show up for the festivities – but they were brief.  My wife still has the Domain of the Golden Dragon certificate she was given when we stepped over the line.

Seas rose to main deck heights, we rolled up to around seventeen degrees, and pitched up over a crest and slammed down into the trough.  Out ten knots was being eaten up by winds that were practically canceling out our forward progress.  It was a miserable trip.  Finally, four days late, we pulled into Apra Harbor and those people who were to be stationed there thankfully debarked.

The next morning we set sail (in much calmer waters) for Manila, Philippines. Where we were to spend almost twenty hours unloading cargo.  This, we were told, was where the most pilferage of automobiles occurred.  We were thankful that our car was still back in California.  Passengers, having little to do anyway, stood along the rails or sat on deck chairs and watched the cargo booms steadily moving crates and boxes from the holds to shore.  By now, we were thoroughly bored to tears.

Our final leg began.  In one day, we were due to dock in Subic Bay.  We had sent a message to our sponsors (a husband/wife team at our new base designated to ease our move) that we would be there on a given date.  We were a bit late, but we thought we’d be able to phone when we made it to shore.  My wife was the first to tug on my arm and point.  “Isn’t that our car?”

Sure enough, the dockside crane was lifting our little ’58 VW convertible out of the hold and setting it down on the pier.  Now, we had been told that it might take as long as six months to get our vehicle shipped to the base, yet here it was.  The only thing I can figure out is that when the guard at the base told us to ‘put it at the end of that line’ that the line was of cars scheduled to be shipped on the Barrett.  Being at the end of the line, that meant it was the last to be loaded – and the first to be unloaded.

A couple we’d made friends with were incredulous that our car had actually come on the ship with us.  We couldn’t wait to debark now.  We said our goodbyes to everyone we’d traveled with in the huge hall on the pier and gathered up out baggage, such as it was.  I had a heck of a time trying to convince the Officer in Charge that my car was just outside on the dock.  He actually said ‘show me, petty officer’.  And I did – I even had a spare key that turned the engine over.  He was even more shocked than our friends.

Armed with a map, we mad the hour long trip up to San Miguel in a harrowing two hours at about thirty miles per hour.  We had to dodge buses, which we later learned were called “Rapid Rabbits” because they shot down the roads at the speed of light.  Numerous bridges were single-lane bridges and, until we learned that whoever got their headlights on first had the right of way, caused several heart attacks.  Our arrival the our new duty station caused a flap also – nobody knew what to do with us.  We hadn’t arrived in the prescribed manner; and we were in our own personal car, which stumped the Base Security team for quite a while.  Finally, we managed to call our sponsors and they came down to help straighten things out.

Our new home, 7156A Tripoli Court, was a bi-level, louvered window, house.  The carport and a small storage area at ground level, and the rest of the house on the upper level.  All the closets had a 75 Watt bulb in them to keep things from molding overnight in the 99.9% humidity.

Next:  Life in San Miguel.

Bill

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3 thoughts on “A trip to the PI

  1. Can’t wait for the next installment! Thanks for writing this down…I find it very interesting (especially since I know all the players!!)

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