By: Brion Boyles
I wrote this a few years ago, posted to the Facebook page of an old friend of mine, Captain Coleman Landers. We were reminiscing about the old US Navy when sailors made bad mistakes and choices but somehow managed to escape the career-ending punishments of today. Different times. Well….here goes one:
“Aboard the supply ship USS WHITE PLAINS (AFS-4), 1984. We had just pulled into Sasebo, Japan, after back-to-back Indian Ocean deployments and nearly 9 months at sea. A freshly-promoted but “salty” 2nd Class Quartermaster, I had re-enlisted in the Navy 2 years earlier in order to return to Japan and marry my sweetheart…a bar girl named Hitomi. Unfortunately, I had signed aboard the most underway ship in the Navy…. no BS. We had spent 23 days that year in Japanese WATERS, never mind actually being in her homeport of Yokosuka, Japan. We were NEVER in port…..always gone …. lobbing jet engines, toilet paper and ice cream at the busy US fleet.
I had learned a few months earlier that my fiancé had run off with the Damage Control Officer of a flashy destroyer, the USS ELLIOT. I learned this by way of a “Dear John” letter I received when we dropped anchor in Phuket, Thailand a couple of months before —a scribbled, pathetic little letter written by her new beaux, no less— which also had enclosed my tiny diamond engagement ring, listed on the customs form as “Costume jewelry, valued $10”. The ELLIOT was part of a Search and Rescue operation that had been lurking around Sasebo for a few months, sniffing around for the little bits of Korean Air Lines flight 007 the Russians had shot down earlier that year, and Lt. Jerk had locked his radar on my gal. He gave her an engagement ring the size of an ashtray and offered her the life of an officer’s wife. His scrawled words had told me not to bother coming back for her…. she’d be long gone.
Now, here I was back in Sasebo… a dollar short and several months late….but after a few hours on the beach avoiding her mother’s tiny bar where Hitomi had worked, I learned from a few shipmates on the street some shocking news: she had, in fact, NOT left Sasebo yet, but was leaving on the first train THE VERY NEXT MORNING…with HIM.
The WHITE PLAINS had given only Cinderella (midnight) liberty—we, too, were leaving the next morning, underway at 0900 hours. A Navy ship just doesn’t get up and go…it takes lots of preparation and her crew is needed many hours ahead to make certain all are aboard and all is ready. Well, I was feeling out of place in this town, anyway. A few hours on the beach would be good enough… Until I heard this strange news, I was already longing to get back to sea.
It was odd, but the entire crew had heard about my fiancé. Don’t ask me how. All night long, when I ran into other cracker-jack uniformed friends, they’d volunteer to drop their beers and go with me to Shiraki-Cho alley…to the “Blue Moon Bar and Grill” and kick the living shit out of Lt. A-hole, but I had declined their offers. Nonetheless, after a few rounds of beer, I said “to hell with it!” and didn’t return to the ship at midnight like I was supposed to. Instead, I was going to see her again, come hell or high water, and say a proper good-bye.
I hung out at the Sasebo train station all the rest of the night until the taxis carrying her, him, and a few relatives pulled up to the curb in the cold dawn ‘round about 0815. Hitomi’s aunt spied me…watching from behind a hot coffee vending machine, with the collar of my thick Navy pea coat pulled high around my face against the morning chill and my heartache…and dragged me out of the shadows and in front of my ex-fiancé and the very nervous Lieutenant. He stood there quaking while a tearful Hitomi and I whispered. I gave Hitomi a last kiss and put her on the train, then stood in the light rain and waved to her as the train glided off into the sunrise, taking them both to Yokohama and thence to Texas. Hitomi’s mother was there, crying her eyes out…said it was like something out of a Bogart movie.
Anyway, now it was 0830 and I was over 8 hours AWOL, but I didn’t care. I said good-bye to Mama-san and grabbed a taxi back to the ship. When I walked up the brow, everyone aboard was already at their Sea and Anchor Detail stations, and all saw me… from the Skipper on the bridge wing to the line handlers on the pier, getting ready to cast off. I sauntered down to my bunk, changed out of my crackerjacks and into my dungarees…knowing what was sure to come.
I then headed up to the bridge, to the chart table and my Chief’s stern gaze. The mooring lines were clear of the pier, and we were slowly pulling away into the fog, the harbor and out to sea. I knew I was probably going to be busted down to 3rd class Petty Officer…there was no denying it. I had disobeyed orders and damned near missed ship’s movement. Everyone saw me come up the accommodation ladder at 0850. My spotless record was about to come to an end. Yet, when I took my station next to my Chief, not a word was said. Not one, from anyone……ever.