Life on the Oxford, Pt 3

Watchstanding get pretty old after a while.  It is pretty much unendurable when you’ve been at it for over 90 days.  We were slogging our way around Vietnam eastside to Westside and back for two months when we got a call to head for the Indian Ocean.  Our food supplies, always low, got nearly exhausted on this new deployment.  We were reduced to putting hot sauce on everything from powered eggs to mystery meat.  Midrats (the ‘fourth’ meal we had every day just before going on the 0000 to 0400 watch) consisted of bread in which you had to have faith that the crunchy things were caraway seeds; sliced, long, salami-like, tubes of meat (commonly called ‘horsecock’), and mustard with a distinctly tangy flavor.  Don’t even ask about the green beans.  As a M*A*S*H cook said “you want green, have some mayonnaise”.

We ended up that tour by passing so close to Singapore we could taste the tang in the air.  As it turned out, we were pretty fortunate because we ended up in Bangkok, Thailand for a week.  With 90 days of pay in our pockets, we hit the beach by storm.  Amazingly, our ship was the only US ship in port at that time.  The rest were Australian and they really know how to party.  We couldn’t buy a drink anywhere – they’d treat.

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The typhoon we hit wasn’t the largest one that year, but it hit us dead center.  Our speed, at ‘all ahead panic’ was about 10 knots.  The current was against us and running at around 12 knots.  Thus, we were actually going backwards at 2 knots although we were pushing nose-deep into heave swells reaching up to over 40 feet.  There is a picture on the Oxford web site here:

The Oxford was built originally as a Liberty ship during WW2.  It was blunt-bowed and flat bottomed.  It would roll, as they say, ‘in a teacup’.  Being bounced from bulkhead to bulkhead as you tried to traverse a passageway would do nothing but bruise your shoulders.  We were all told to just go lie in our bunks and strap in.

Those of us on watch had to continue on watch.  We used typewriters to put down everything we heard so with the ship rolling so hard it was difficult to pull the lever and push the carriage uphill.  One of our brighter lads found that if you put a bunch of rubber bands together and tied one end to your receiver, and the other to the end to the carriage, it would assist you in throwing the carriage.  This worked, but you had to wait until it was an uphill battle.  If you threw the carriage when the ship was on a starboard roll, the carriage shot downhill and ended up on the floor.  The repair guys (called ‘matmen’) were dismayed at us to say the least.

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One time, as we entered Da Nang harbor, a destroyer was coming outbound.  As she passed us, we saw the guns begin to elevate and train.  They weren’t aiming at us, thank goodness, but, instead, aiming at the hillside past us.  Once we cleared their stern there was a thunderous blast as several of their big guns let go.  Dust, debris, and probably bits of Viet Cong flew into the air.  Four volleys later, they secured their guns.  We found out later that a sapper attack had just occurred and the infiltrators had run into the hills around the harbor.  The destroyer was just taking care of business.

As the Chief pointed out on deck later that night “that’s why you have to darken ship and do NOT show lights on deck.  We’re so close to shore that they can hit us with their guns”.  A happy thought.

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In the dead of winter we were fighting our way on a northerly course heading for Sasebo, Japan.  Snow, freezing rain, winds, and general misery abounded.  Those of us who braved the open decks didn’t stay out long.  Finally, we arrived and, as we were maneuvering to our pier, something down in ‘the hole’ let go.  Not being an Engineman, I wouldn’t have known a steam chest from an evaporator, but the scuttlebutt (rumors) were saying  we’d really done something nasty to the engine.

It was decided that we would go ‘cold iron’ which meant we would shut down the entire engineering spaces and draw power and steam heat from shore.  There we sat for just under 30 days.  Since we were a ship of the fleet, we had to supply Shore Patrol Supplementarys (which meant we had to augment the land-based patrolmen) with members of our own crew.  Now, normally, being assigned to Shore Patrol was an odious task but under this circumstance it was a huge success.  Guys would fight to be put on the watch bill for that duty.

Being Shore Patrol meant that you got to see where all the good spots were and where and the even better spots were, so to speak.  Since you carried your SP credentials, you could always claim you were undercover.  (Hey, sometimes that worked – but not with Marines).  I, being a supervisor, even had a Jeep to cruise around in.  However, this was not all skittles and beer as you might imagine – it was COLD!  The Jeep was an open vehicle with steel seats.  The only thing we had between us and the frigid air was a windshield which, for the most part, would end up folded down on the hood because the wipers didn’t work.  At least in winter you didn’t have to worry about bugs in your teeth.

Every Naval base I’ve ever been on in WestPac (Western Pacific) had a Fiddler’s Green Club.  This is where crewmembers of all ships in the fleet come to discuss world events, meet others and interact socially.  Nightly fights were the norm and they never stopped, only went outside into the snow as we threw them out of the various rooms.  You had to be careful though because the next guy you threw out might be on Shore Patrol the next night and be operating on you!

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On one very party night in Sasebo I was studying for the First Class exam to be given at 0900 the next morning.  I finished my drink(s) and wandered back to the ship and crashed.  I barely made muster at 0858 in the crew’s mess, ready, more or less, to take a highly technical, and highly classified, examination for my next higher rate.

This was back in the days when you were handed a booklet with multiple guess questions and an IBM card which you had to use a little plastic tool to punch out the (hopefully) correct answers (remember the ‘hanging chad’ bit of the Florida election?).  I blew the first card and had to ask for another.  I was terribly hung over but determined to do my best.

Of the twenty or so of us in the spaces, I was the first to leave, having punched all the holes (finally) correctly.  The only thing I wanted was rest and an aspirin.

Two weeks passed, then three.  One day, the 1MC fired up and the results of all the tests for the various ratings aboard the ship were read off.  They started with ship’s company (naturally) and then moved to what they termed ‘passengers’ (us).  The speaker worked his way up from Seaman through Third Class and then to Second Class.  I was barely listening when I suddenly heard my name.  I’d passed the test for First Class!  Not only did I pass, but I was the only one out of seven that took the exam with me.  I was elated.  At last, I was able to get into the First Class Lounge and play Acey-Ducey with the guys.  I could watch movies on the mess decks and eat popcorn through Plexiglas instead of having to sit with the rabble.  I was a ‘wheel’.

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I can’t imagine writing down parts of my life as I lived it in the Oxford without making mention of a particularly wonderful liberty town called Olongapo.  Ah, just the thought of it would bring tears to your eyes.  Being there in person would not only do that, but close up your sinuses also.  The place was smelly, dirty, hot, dusty, noisy, and filled with the most incredible assortment of bars, hotels, bars, movie theatres, bars, restaurants, bars and more bars.  There were bars that held only six or eight people and there were bars that could hold the entire crew of the Oxford.

Surrounding these bars were dirt roads.  The main drag consisted of wall-to-wall Jeepneys.  A Jeepney is the shell of a World War 2 American Jeep that has been transformed into a personnel carrier.  It is usually brightly painted and has loads of dangling items from every window.  The more brightly painted and/or chrome items attached, the more status the owner had as an entrepreneur.  The more sailors he could cram into it, the better he could fleece them.  This was definitely the Philippine version of “Pimp my Jeep”.

A typical evening might go like this.

You dress carefully in your freshly starched and pressed Undress white uniform.  This is the white uniform that only contains ribbons instead of medals.  You make sure that your watch is either secured inside your pocket, or has a sturdy steel band (non-expansion).  You put your cigarettes firmly in your sock elastic (no where else on your uniform to put them) and add a second pack in the other sock.  Any money you have is distributed in various places around your body.  Usually about a third is in your left shoe, a third in your right shoe, and the rest in the tiny little watch pocket at your waistband.  I pays to take these precautions, trust me.

Finally (in about ten minutes after you start dressing) you begin to filter up to the Quarterdeck and look unobtrusive.  This can be difficult because there are about seventy other guys doing exactly the same thing.  The crowd grows until the Officer of the Deck (OD) gets pissed and orders us ‘the hell off my Quarterdeck until liberty call’.  I mean to tell you we were like a bunch or roaches ready for the light to be turned on.

The power switch is thrown on the 1MC (shipboard announcement system) and suddenly there it is!  A long, thin blast of the Bosun’s whistle followed by the announcement that we’d been waiting for ever since about 1500: “Now liberty Call!  Liberty for Section Two.  Liberty for all nonrated men to expire on board at twenty-three hundred; all rated and Chief Petty Officers to expire on board at twenty-four hundred.”

By the time the announcement ended, all seventy of us had queued up, saluted the OD, saluted the US Ensign, and blew down the gangplank to shore and began to swarm towards the bridge over the Shit River.  The closer you get to the guard shacks that border Subic Naval Base the headier the smell gets.  Finally, you turn the corner and are confronted with what seems like thousands of people all clamoring for your attention.

This is actually true – there ARE thousands of people all clamoring for your attention.  Jeepney drivers, bar touts, Monkey Meat sellers, girls of all kinds (more on that later), dogs, and the little boys that surround you like locusts and strip you bare if they can.  Your ID and liberty card are scanned by a Marine Guard and he passes you into the tender care of Olongapo, or “Po Town”

Every sailor I’ve ever known that hits this port will begin to salivate for a cold San Miguel beer somewhere about three hundred miles out.  By the time we tie up, this craving has reached epic proportions.  You have just GOT to have one.  This is fixed in your mind as you evade the grasp of young boys and others.  Down the dusty road you go with your shipmates in the quest of the coldest beer in town.  Ask any bar tout and they will be happy to tell you that THEIR bar has the coldest beer.  But, we are on a mission to get to “our” bar, the bar the Oxford has set aside as a place to gather before expanding outwards; and the last place to gather before heading back to the ship.

This bar, called The Shipwreck, is owned by a colorful woman (they are all owned by women) named “Boats” which is short for Boatswain’s Mate.  She had the mouth to prove it too.  We order our beer and it arrives – all seven bottles frozen together in one huge mass of ice.  Now THAT is what I call a really cold beer.  Coldness of beer is ensured by throwing a case or two into a freezer overnight.  The bottles that have the caps blown off are no good because they don’t contain enough alcohol and they freeze.  The beer bottles you are after are the ones that don’t have their caps off.  Quality control in the Manila brewery for San Miguel is a bit lax.  In fact, they didn’t even have standards for alcoholic content that I know of.

Anyway, after three or four of these, the huge mass of us begins to break up into groups.  There are never loners out on liberty in Olongapo.  It just isn’t done.  The instant you exit the bar, the law of the jungle takes over.  Inside, the mama-sans run with an iron hand.  Outside, you take your own chances.  Within seconds you get hands wandering all around your body.  Most of them are owned by future TSA pat-down artists who are only checking you for money, cigarettes, or signs you really could use a massage.  Some of them are actually female, the rest are not.  The ones, who are not, are called Benny Boys.  It is entirely possible that before the evening is over, you will get ‘the eye’ from a comely female only to find out that she isn’t a she at all.  It is extremely difficult to tell them at a glance they are so good.

From bar to bar, you navigate.  High winds, rough seas, and the ever-present shoals of humanity try their very best to part you from your money.  Some are successful, some are not.  I’ve heard tales of liberty parties that made it up one side of the four blocks of bars and back down the other – having a drink in each – but this is usually hooted down as a ‘tale for landlubbers’ and not true.  In fact, all the times I tried it I never got past the second block.

Soon, it is time for the various floor shows to begin in the larger bars.  Small bars know this and will even be known to close their doors and shoo their clientele through interior doors to a larger bar next door.  They split the take also.  Floor shows always start with several songs played by various Philippino bands.  Some are very good and some are very bad.  All are very loud.  Next, to the accompaniment of said bands, come the dancing girls and singers.  You haven’t lived until you see a forty year-old women with an appendix scar dancing a hootchie-kootchie dance, or an extremely well-built woman in a pained on dress singing ‘Cold Finger’, a James Bond themesong.

Some acts would have a Tijuana resident blushing.  Audience participation, in some cases actually solicited, is a big plus.  The evening moves along and the crowd moves from one bar to another.  All nightclubs have agreed to have their starting times staggered (as well as their clientele) which allows everyone to see the various shows.

By arrangement with the local constabulary, the shows start at the far end of town and work their way towards the main gate of the base.  The local cops, called PC’s (Philippine Constabulary), think nothing of wading into a disturbance and firing their submachine guns into the ceiling.  I don’t think much of it either, especially if there is a second floor.  A lot of big clubs are built on the second floor with smaller little bars underneath them.  The Ponderosa was the biggest one in town; it even had a sister club outside the gate at Clark Air Base.

By the time you present yourself at the town end of the bridge to the base it seems to stretch off into infinity.  You aren’t navigating well, you’ve run out of cigarettes and are now smoking local smokes made from horse manure and old telephone books, and you’re hungry.

This is when the guys with the charcoal braziers begin to tempt you with the sounds and smells of broiling meat.  NEVER, never ask what kind of meat it is; just pay your peso and bite it from the bamboo shoot.  Using whatever change you have left from your evening, you can watch the little kids dive into the raw sewage of the river for those that you toss into it.  They seem to enjoy it, but I don’t think I would.

Finally, you stagger past the Marine guard, show your ID and liberty card and shuffle down the long walk back to the ship.  Your uniform, once pristine white, is now a sort of reddish grey.  Your watch pocket is surrounded by grime from your fingers that reached for beer money.  Your shined shoes are now covered with dust and scars from the high heels of the girls who love to stand on your feet to keep you from moving away.  You trip up the gangplank, salute the Ensign, salute the OD, and make sure your name is on the “arrived home safe” list so you won’t be reported as missing in action.

You can hardly wait two days for your next liberty in this garden spot.

– – –

One extremely bright and sunny day as only the South China Sea can be, I was called down to the Ops Officer’s office.  You got your orders, here they are.  I was handed a sheaf of paperwork which I quickly scanned.  I was being sent to, of all places, Pensacola, Florida!  The very same place I’d had my initial training.  I was going to be an instructor.  Only two more weeks and I was on my way back to the World!!!!!