The Philippines were strategically important to the Vietnam action. The archipelago of 7,100 islands, only 6.5% of which were larger than one square mile, was about 750 miles west of Vietnam across the South China Sea. It was a short trek from Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin to the southwestern part of Luzon island, Philippines, location of our Naval Base on Cubi Point, Subic Bay, and Clark Air Force Base. Southeast from the US Naval Base and across Manila Bay was the "City of the Philippines," Manila, herself. A short distance south of the base were Bataan and Corregidor, two famous World War II theaters of combat. Just off base was the infamous Olongapo City.
It was no easy matter getting on or off the base. For both actions a person had to get in line and wait until it was his turn to be inspected, even frisked. Marines searched for contraband, which included products purchased from the Navy Exchange on base. I was once caught "smuggling" a box of chocolate covered cherries. I had three choices: stay on base; eat the contents before leaving base; dump the contents before proceeding through the gate. I did a combination of the second and third choices.
When a fellow finally got through the normally long line and passed inspection, he would then find before him a line of local men and women stretching from the gate, across the Po River bridge and into town. Getting past was like running a gauntlet. They all wanted to provide some type of service, and each wanted us before we had a chance to be gotten by somebody else. Many men in line were Jeepney drivers. A Jeepney was a highly decorated taxi with Jeep design that could carry several passengers at a time. It rode high enough off the ground to be used even during monsoon flooding. Also, it had a roof and roll-down, canvas sides.
The Po River was more like a sewage canal than a free flowing tributary. Some sailors found great amusement in throwing coins into the sludge and watching local kids dive in to compete for the treasures. Other kids not interested in catching hepatitis had different get-rich schemes. In fact, one scam came close to separating me from my wallet. Several yelling, cherub-like boys and girls were playing off somewhere and then suddenly swarmed around me as if it were all part of their game (which it was). They made sure to bump up accidentally against their victim so he would not notice the little hand tugging at the wallet. I noticed, anyway, and pushed away the hand of a gap-toothed, smiling little girl who quickly became engulfed in comrades. The swarm moved elsewhere still yelling and laughing as kids will do.
I'll list four of the things we learned from veterans of Olongapo City liberties. Never take a camera or wrist watch, especially if they were things with which you would not want to part. Never carry money or ID in wallet. Never go into town if you suspected someone on the ship might want you dead. Never buy food from street vendors. A contract could be taken out on a person for about $50, and this fact was widely known. Consequently, many "hard ass" (very strict, arbitrary) petty and commissioned officers who would not be missed, preferred life on ship or on base.
The word was that meat-on-a-stick vendors who hawked their morsels on the streets sometimes used monkey meat. (I also do not recall seeing any dogs or cats in the city). Nevertheless, meat-on-a-stick vendors conducted a lucrative business, especially with drunken servicemen grown bored with biting the heads off live baby ducks.
The prostitutes in Olongapo City were the most companionable I had ever encountered. Upon comparing notes with my fellow sailors, it was poignantly evident that nearly all of those we had dealings with claimed to be using the earned money to put themselves through college while supporting their families back home (always other locations than Olongapo City). Unfortunately, of all the vast sums of money flowing into Olongapo City each month, brought in by aircraft carrier crews and sailors from a steady stream of smaller vessels, very little remained in Olongapo for the city's upkeep. Most of it quickly left the city and contributed to the fortunes of people in power, i.e., friends of the Philippines government. The town, itself, consisted mostly of hovels, cheap hotels, bars, and massage parlors, with the people living in near-poverty.
An older fellow I worked with said he remembered Olongapo City when it was a sleepy village housed with nipa huts. That was before it became a recreational port open to the US military. Since then the sleepy village has become to the Philippines what Tijuana has become to Mexico, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) has become to Vietnam, ad infinitum.
Onward came the Americans. Many sailors left their supposedly born and bred civilized behavior either back in the states or on the ship to be donned upon return. These became animals loosed. The prostitutes, both female and male, had to work hard and fast to keep up with the onslaught, though their share of the take was next to nothing. The young prostitutes of mixed parentage never knew if one of their tricks was their father, brother or uncle. Anything disreputable went. Many were the disgusting tales stored up by sailors for telling during gross-out sessions, boring weeks at sea or when later years would bring fewer "noteworthy" adventures.
Many partakers were husbands and fathers, with families stateside, destined to return one day and carry on the responsibilities of the land. During especially wild liberties it was not unknown for "buddies" of a married man to have pictures taken when their friend was in a compromised situation. Then later, if the now-repentant husband refused to go on another sex-gorged, drunken binge, or do any other bidding, the buddies would blackmail him into compliance by threatening to mail pictures to his wife.
The town bars competed for clientele, and many employed entertainers who displayed special erotic talents before the gaping, beer-guzzling servicemen. Meantime, there would be an abundance of "companions" around to help a fellow who was getting sexually turned-on. The sailor and the companion could either go behind one of many tall screens situated inside the bar or go to a nearby hotel. There also were more sexually open bars where "itches could be scratched" in the open.
Fortunately for all concerned there were many more Americans who found entertainment of a wholesome and beneficial variety. Of these, some men joined volunteer projects to paint schools and hospitals and in other ways minister to the often-deficient and always impoverished human side of the Olongapo City community. In appreciation, more than once the men of the Midway were invited to dinners put on by thankful Olongapo City citizens.
I never warmed to Olongapo City or its people for some reason but found a few locations at least marginally enjoyable. A few were bars. Others were stores, restaurants, and a particular massage parlor. The Royal Swedish Warm Bath, at 175 Rizal Avenue, provided Swedish massage, steam bath, cocktail lounge, a barber shop, and the personal care of girls like Eden, whose tiny feet felt great as they walked up and down one's back as part of the massaging process. The way to get to the Royal Swedish Warm Bath was to walk up the city's central street to its far end, then go a block or so left on Rizal. This end of the street catered exclusively to people of light skin. If a fellow were black he would have turned right at the intersection and gone into the area catering to Blacks. If a person of the wrong color found himself in the wrong quarter, he would either find himself in a fight or would be snubbed. Boundaries were strict.
A friend and I were talking one afternoon with the owner of a store that sold electrical devices, sundries and souvenirs (mostly local, hand carved products). Somehow the topic of "Japan" came up, probably introduced by the store owner, who obviously had an ax to grind. He then engaged in a long soliloquy about how Japan was working constantly to undermine the Philippines' economy. According to him, Japan was doing this by flooding the Philippines' market with lower priced goods, making it impossible for her people to compete. I sympathized with his gripe and did not have the heart to tell the fellow I had already begun purchasing components for a superb, completely Japanese-made stereo system from the Subic Bay, and Yokosuka, Naval Station Post Exchanges.
It was always monsoon season when we were in Westpac, and this fact usually made traveling great distances to see neighboring towns and points of interest difficult. The city of Baguio was a popular attraction that beckoned many sailors. However, it was about an eight hour bus ride from base over bad, mountainous, dusty or muddy roads. The guys I talked to that went complained of tortured buttocks and disjointed sacroiliacs. Baguio was famous for its wooden, hand carved statuary. Also famous were the vast, spectacular rice terraces of Banawee. We were warned, however, to stay clear of any communist "Huks" (Hukbalahaps) we might see in our travels. These Huks were members of the People's Liberation Army, a guerrilla organization causing no end of trouble for the Philippines government under Ferdinand Marcos. They were recognizable by the armament they carried. One never knew when one or more of these guerrillas would appear, even in Olongapo City, and I heard tales of occasional shoot-outs.
Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos not only had the Huk problem to contend with but also had to deal with student and other popular uprisings in complaint against economic conditions (e.g., high inflation and a practically valueless, floating currency) and governmental policies, plus a Muslim secession movement. It was my opinion that the only reason the government had not fallen was the fact that our Naval and Air Force bases sat a mere hop, skip and jump from Manila and the seat of government. The country was like a Vietnam on the verge of igniting. When it did ignite, violently, in August of 1972, Marcos was only able to bring things under a semblance of control by declaring martial law. He did this on September 20, five days after I had left there for the states and another theater of popular unrest.
The furthest I ever went from base was a trip to Manila, which my friend Skiff and I took in mid-1972 to visit a friend-of-a-friend. The day we left for the "City of the Philippines" was hot and muggy. We departed Olongapo City in the morning, riding in a bus crowded to overflowing with locals, a few servicemen, chickens, pigs, a goat and other carry-ons. The road was unending, winding, dusty and bumpy, and the bus stopped in every village along the way to drop off, but mostly to pick up, people and carry-ons. I envied those riding on the roof, since their muggy air at least was moving. In one little village a ten-year-old boy came up to Skiff and me on the bus asking if we wanted a cold bottle of CokeŽ. Our tongues were swollen with thirst, and we could hardly form the word yes. We then gave him enough money to buy himself and us sodas. That was the last we saw of him, until he cheerfully waved us goodbye when the bus departed.
The entire outing took a day and a half. Bus rides took up a good portion of this time. We spent the first day getting to Manila and then doing a combination of touring the city plus tracking down Catherine's mail box. All we knew was her name, PO Box number and that it was in the Manila suburb of Makati. During this time we happened onto a Protestant missionary couple who managed a local religious radio station. They took us on an auto tour of Manila and told us much history, particularly of their station and Protestantism in the city.
The next morning Skiff and I located Makati and the bank of PO Boxes which included Catherine's number. The Post Office attendant said she knew Catherine by sight and then told us what time of day she routinely picked up her mail. We would have to wait only about an hour. Meantime, a little boy came by pulling a red wagon filled with green coconuts. [Here we go again? No, not this time.] He asked if I would like one as a cool drink. I thought this sounded exotic, so I purchased one. After taking my money he took a huge machete and whacked off part of the coconut's top. Then he stuck a straw in the resulting hole and passed it to me. I did not like the coconut milk but chewed away at the coconut meat for some time.
Catherine arrived alone on a motor scooter right on schedule. She was bundled up, her hair obscured beneath a scarf, and she wore sunglasses. Even if I had known what she looked like, I still would not have been able to recognize her. She was momentarily startled upon hearing her name called out by two men unknown and unexpected by her. However, she did not feel the presence of danger, and a quick explanation on our part saw her thoroughly adjusted to the day's change of direction. She then invited us to her house in Bel Air not far away.
Bel Air was a wealthy, walled-in, restricted area complete with gate patrolled by armed guards. Catherine also had a bodyguard at her home (all precautions dictated by the country's political instability and high crime rate). The bodyguard was Filipino and an untypical tall, husky fellow with gun-in-holster.
Soon after our arrival Catherine shed her incognito disguise. What met our eyes was a long-haired, blond, fair complexioned, airy, extremely intelligent person with intense presence and flawless beauty. One entire inside wall of her living room was canvas for a pastoral painting. In it, Catherine stood near a white stallion amid a great grassland, perhaps reminiscent of her native New Zealand. A frequent international traveler, Catherine had been living in the Philippines for four years so as to be near her boyfriend, who was with the Australian embassy.
Skiff and I could have felt out-classed, even plebeian in her company, except that she made us feel valuable. Also, our odyssey to see her was appreciated. We visited for about two hours, during which time both Skiff and I experienced a spiritual and aesthetic ecstasy that would buoy us for some time to come. Even the hot, muggy, noisy bus ride back to Olongapo City did not bring us down off Cloud 9.
It was not until after I moved to Los Angeles, in 1975, that my appreciation for Filipino virtues began to develop. [Since 1975 I have had several Filipino friends and have found them to be warm-hearted, loyal, intelligent, religious, strongly family oriented, and great cooks. Several Filipino dishes are among my favorite ethnic foods.] However, many more (observant? open? tolerant?) sailors became close to Filipinos and discovered their virtues during liberties. There were several marriages and marriage attempts, and some men became enamored of the assorted cultures, races, history or even languages (80 dialects to choose from). A Facconer, Bartlett, fell in love with Tagalog (ta GAH log), the local Manila dialect adopted as the national language. He went as far as to buy a book explaining its fundamentals.
During our first Westpac cruise a stone age tribe called the "Tasadays" was discovered in the densely forested mountain ranges of southern Mindanao island. The tribe of twenty-five food gatherers became instant targets for study by excited anthropologists. Welcome, Tasadays, to civilization!
Most of my Philippines liberties were spent on base. I frequented the Sampaguita (name of the Philippines national flower) Enlistedmen's Club, library, Navy Exchange stores and other attractions. It was not until 1972, however, that I was introduced to Grande Island, the Pacific tropical paradise I had been looking for all along. The island was in Subic Bay and was for exclusive use by US servicemen.
Grande Island was far enough out in the bay to make it seem like a million miles from the military, the war, and the rest of tarnished civilization. Policing the area were uniformed Filipinos, who might have been part of the Philippines Army. They kept a very low profile. All services were provided by locals, who made the trek to the island from the mainland each day and went home at night. The only drawback was that there were no women.
We would arrive by boat from the Naval Base and go first to the entrance/bath house. There we would change into our bathing suits and check-in our baskets of clothes with an attendant, who would give us retrieval numbers. Then it was a short walk across a hot, pebbly stretch to a hot, white sand beach ribboning between the verdant green and brown of grass and the aquamarine blue/green of the bay. A bunk house was available for overnight stays. There also was a club house with interior and exterior tables catering to frequent parties, events to which local girls were invited.
I spent my first visits swimming and sun bathing at the beach, always with one or more friends, e.g., Skiff, Newman, Fox, Marzak, Westfield, Kelly and others. Then some of us bought swim fins, snorkels and underwater face masks to begin a romance with sea life. Snorkeling tended not to be very good in the churned, swimming area. However, when we would swim out a few hundred feet or so, we would find better conditions. Out there, and approximately thirty feet down, was a Japanese World War II Destroyer resting and rusting at the bottom. The ship was a definite snorkeling attraction, though it seemed sharks always accompanied us.
My favorite snorkeling place was a quiet, secluded area of seashore some distance beyond where the white sands ended and around a bend. The water there was clear and undisturbed, plant life and sea life were abundant, and underwater humans did not cause the slightest alarm. Colorful, tropical, aquarium-like fish were everywhere, some coming by to inspect the new variety just arrived. It was here that I came face-to-face with a school of small, curious squid. The water's buoyancy allowed me to float just below the surface, breathing fresh air while watching the squid "standing their ground" and watching me with equal candor. Finally, after tacit agreement, we went our separate ways.
Copyright 1992, 1998 Charles W. Paige
Eleuterio a.k.a. Eric, my US citizen Filipino-American friend of more than a quarter century, has created two resorts in the Philippines. Facility 1 is at Calamba, Laguna Province, and Facility 2 is at Ibaan, Batangas Province. If planning a trip to the Philippines, be sure to book some time at one of the Villafranca resorts.
Last modified: Saturday September 25, 1999
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