A Seventh Fleet Legend –The Red Haired Chief
By: Steve Hayes
It was May, 1984, USS Sterett, homeported in Subic Bay, was finishing a four-month deployment to the Persian Gulf with a Stateside carrier battle group. Our final port call before returning home to Subic was Pattaya Beach, Thailand.
I took leave while there and booked a room at the Royal Gardens, as was my usual practice when in Pattaya. There was another CG in port and, while visiting a few bars on the main drag, I bumped into a sailor from that ship, who had once worked for me in USS Worden a few years before. He quickly pointed out that my hair was considerably grayer than the last time he had seen me. I was somewhat insulted and in my buzzed condition, I said, “You have gotten considerably balder over the years, at least I have something to work with.” After this exchange, we parted company and went our separate ways as I continued to test my capacity for Singha beer. I actually spent the rest of the day and part of the night at this endeavor.
The following day, I again met the same sailor while running a verification test on my Singha capacity. Almost an identical conversation about my hair took place. This time I became somewhat indignant and reminded him that, unlike him, I still had hair to work with. With each beer, I drank, my thought processes began to eat away at me and I was determined to show him.
Now, to appreciate the remainder of this story you should know that I, a Senior Chief at the time, was the Sterett’s Senior Enlisted Advisor. No Command Master Chief had yet been assigned. Another important fact is, that prior to arrival, The CO, Captain Sullivan, had announced that anyone getting into trouble on the beach would have their liberty suspended for the remainder of the trip. A sound policy, with which I agreed.
After the second meeting with my balding, former shipmate and taste testing about ten more Singha beers, I determined that I couldn’t let this hair thing pass without some resolution. I began a stumble through the side streets of Pattaya, way off the main drag, searching for a shop to rectify my gray hair situation. I would show that baldheaded dude and prove my point that I still had hair to work with.
It wasn’t long until I found a beauty salon that would seem to satisfy my need to abolish the gray in my hair. It quickly became apparent that there was a failure to communicate. No one there could speak English and I couldn’t speak Thai. Actually, after all the Singha, I had doubts about my ability to speak English.
The Sterett slogan of Dauntless encouraged me to press on. I searched through the various products on the shelves until I found a package of hair dye that to my bloodshot eyes and Singha addled brain to be a perfect match to my once dark brown hair. By pointing to the box of dye and my hair and making many other hand gestures, I successfully conveyed to the beautician that I wanted my hair dyed.
Having quaffed a considerable number of Singhas earlier, I soon drifted off to sleep as the lady began washing my hair and preparing me for the dyeing procedure.
Quite a while later, I was nudged to consciousness. As I awakened and realized where I was and remembering, I lifted my head and looked in the mirror to see the new, younger looking me with no gray hair. There in the mirror was this American dude looking back at me with a head full of bright red hair. I realized it was me and screamed, “RED!” Oh my God, I thought, what the hell have I done. We were a few days from Subic. My new wife and 7-month old daughter would be waiting for me. How would I ever explain this red hair. Everyone would think I was nuts!
After thinking about it and realizing that we still had two days in port, I determined to find another beauty salon and get it re-dyed to brown the next day. The girl who had done this to me wasn’t at fault, so I paid her and went on my way. Knowing I would have a lot of explaining to do once I got back to the main drag and my shipmates, I found a nice straw hat that covered my bright red hair and went back to the beach road. Of course, after a couple of ice cold brews and feeling pretty mellow, I began to show everyone my new head of red hair. I got a lot of laughs. I wasn’t worried though, it would all be fixed the next day.
Continuing drinking Singha and other tropical concoctions, I became considerably more intoxicated as the evening wore on into the night. Of course, I had lost the straw hat, by this time, and had become rather proud of my bright red hair. Just as my Irish ancestors would have been. Then disaster struck.
I had begun a conversation with a young woman in one drinking establishment. And in my alcohol confused mind, I became convinced she was a spy or something otherwise devious. There had been a recent terrorist bombing in the news and, in my alcohol infused brain, I just knew she was part of the group and had the evidence to prove it in her purse. Being a proud defender of America, I grabbed her purse and headed down the street with her following closely and loudly behind.
After about half a block, I was abruptly accosted by the Shore Patrol. And they, apparently weren’t buying into my story about how I saved the liberty party from this dangerous terrorist following me. Despite my pleas, they returned the purse to the girl and escorted me to Shore Patrol headquarters. As it happens, the Shore Patrol Officer was a LTJG from the carrier. I have always thought that had the Shore Patrol Officer been a WestPac veteran, we would have resolved this pretty quickly and I could have just gone to my hotel room. Unfortunately, he had little sympathy for me and ordered me back to the Sterett.
It was a courtesy ride, no charges other than securing my liberty for the night (that’s what he thought). Of course, being in Pattaya, a courtesy ride meant waiting for the liberty launch to come get me.
Well, that was not a good thing. Shore Patrol returning a sailor to the ship would likely be considered a liberty incident and I was looking at remaining on the ship for the next two days and having no way to resolve the problem of my red hair. I wasn’t feeling especially proud of myself at this point. It was too late to do anything right then so I just headed to my rack and passed out.
Early the next morning, after dodging multiple snickers and questions from my fellow Chiefs and crewmen, I went to the CDO, Lt. Ted Dill, and pleaded my case to return ashore. I promised not to drink, just to go get my hair fixed and come back to the ship. It took a while but fortunately, being a good and fair officer, he agreed to let me off the ship.
True to my word, I went ashore and immediately located another beauty salon. This one was operated by a woman who had lived in Los Angeles and spoke decent English. She re-dyed my red hair to a passable dark brown. Although there were some red streaks and highlights, it was much better than the red.
Despite my promise to the CDO, being a WestPac steamer, I decided to have a few Singhas on the strip and show off my new hair color. Of course, I remained ashore until we departed Pattaya for Subic and, other than a lot of jokes, the red hair faded into the background and was mentioned less and less.
And as things happen, when I lifted my daughter to say hello, she reached up and grabbed my cover exposing my odd looking hair color to my wife. She took one look and said, “why you put that paint in your hair”. I later explained the entire story to her while judiciously editing parts of it as a matter of self-preservation.
That should have been the end of the story but evidently, like so many of us who sailed in the Asia fleet, I was to become a 7th Fleet legend. Two and a half years later, I returned to Sterett in Subic while attached to FCDSSA, Dam Neck. I was there to conduct a System Integration Test on the new SM-2 NTU Tactical Data Systems upgrade.
Most of the Sterett crew had turned over since my tour aboard, except for a few who were still there.
I was now an OSCM. I was sitting in the Chief’s Mess having coffee when a Chief, whom I didn’t know, sat down nearby. Exchanging pleasantries, he noticed my name tag and asked, “Master Chief, were you the Hayes who was stationed on here before?”.
“Yes, that was me”, I replied.
He said, “Were you the one with the red hair”?
My face must have gotten the same shade as my hair had been as I sheepishly admitted I was the guilty party.