The Surabayan Liberty Incident
By: David ‘Mac’ McAllister
As I stood in the log room staring at the shit growing in the Petri dish the HMC just brought in, wondering if we even had enough Calcium Hypochlorite on board to make what passed for potable water here safe to drink, I was concerned about a far greater potential catastrophe. Berthed at a shallow water pier meant that at low tide the ship could settle into the mud, fouling cooling water sea chests for the ships service generators. I thought: “If the world had armpits one of them must be here – Surabaya, Indonesia”.
It was August 1977 and the 7th fleet flagship had just arrived for a two-day protocol visit following ops with the Indonesian Navy. For those not familiar with flagship ops, protocol visits were a show the flag event jammed with various activities including receptions hosted by the Admiral or local dignitaries. On this occasion in addition to civic action projects, ship tours and athletic contests the staff and ship’s company officers would be hosted at a reception on the pier by the Admiral of the Indonesian Armada. These receptions were noted for being “Command Performances” or mandatory attendance; losing electrical power would be an intolerable event.
My Division Officer, a recently promoted CWO4, had assumed a somewhat caretaker attitude leaving the business of running “M” division up to me. As he breezed through the log room in his liberty regalia, peered into the Petri dish wishing me “Lot’s of luck on that Chief”, he was obviously heading ashore to get ready for the afternoon reception.
After multiple chlorination’s, ensuring that the generator sea chests were rigged with steam blowouts and the duty section was well settled into auxiliary steaming, I set out to find a little of Surabaya myself. Jumping into a cab all I said was Bin tang, within minutes I was walking into a combination bar/skivvy house. To my surprise half of “M” Div, including CWO4, was there and already well underway. In addition to the girls the entertainment consisted of shooters of Batavia rum chased with bottles of Bin tang beer.
As is customary, I immediately ordered a round. CWO4, not at all bashful in the face of booze, tossed his shot of rum back just as someone proposed a toast to his recent promotion. Without missing a beat he spit the rum back into the shot glass, hoisted it and joined the toast to his own good fortune. After a few such rounds the hour drew near for both low tide and the Admirals reception. Wanting to be around during low tide, I shared a cab back to the ship with CWO4.
Emerging from the cab onto the awning rigged pier we noted that the tide had ebbed. The ship was breasted off the pier by camels and that distance was now a mud flat barely covered with water. Parting ways at the Quarter Deck CWO4 set off, with a definite bit of left rudder in his gait, to shift into his glad rags while I went below to check on the generators and the watch.
CWO4’s glad rags for this gala event would be Protocol Tropical White Long consisting of: tropical white short sleeved shirt, long white pants, white shoes, and gold cumber bun with miniature medals. Not as bad as it sounds, the uniform looked remarkably sharp on a slim profile. However, the years had not been so kind to CWO4 and what, at one time, could have been perhaps a barrel chest had gravitated to the south and east. This gave him a unique shape similar to Baby Huey; needless to say, rigging out in this particular uniform was a lesson in stress testing of both body and fabric.
Leaving the ship in the normal fashion is usually a painless ceremony consisting of a salute to the OOD, requesting permission to leave the ship, a 90° turn to face the ensign flying at the fantail, another salute, another 90° turn and you are on your way down the brow. CWO4 decked out in his sartorial splendor, stood before the OOD saluted and made the proper request. I don’t know whether it was the brand new leather soled and heeled white shoes from Hong Kong, the hot Sun, something slick on the brow, the shots of Batavia rum, bottles, and bottles of Bin tang beer or a combination of all of the above; what happened next can only be described as a cross between Mary Lou Retton gymnastics and Greg Louganis high diving. CWO4’s next ninety turned into a 270° pirouette culminating in a headlong death-defying plunge over the brow; although to his credit, CWO4 did get off a salute to the ensign as he passed the appropriate 90° mark. In opposition to the laws of gravity, he landed like a dart head first in the mud below clear up to the gold cummerbund; little fat legs flailing about as if in answer to some mental backing bell his brain had rung up in order to extricate him from this unintentional grounding.
Well not to ponder a point, the flying squad was called away and CWO4 was shortly extracted unscathed from the mud below and brought back aboard; naturally by way of the, by now, dignitary infested pier. Let it not be said that the Indonesians do not have a sense of humor; for although initially appalled, they did consider the incident entertaining and awarded CWO4 a grade of 10 for form and style, 9 for execution and perseverance under pressure however only a 1 for timing and decorum.
The next morning CWO4 sat in the log room; the Chief Engineer entered. In a sarcastic tone, as only an Academy puke is capable of whined, “And what have you to say for yourself this morning”.
Without missing a lick CWO4 looked at him through terribly bloodshot eyes and said “Better than twenty-six in; they don’t make W5’s”.
Without another peep the Engineer went into his office and slammed the door, and you ask me why I became a Warrant!?!