Leaving Subic Bay

Leaving Subic Bay

By: John Petersen

USS Halsey CG-23, WESTPAC 91-92. Made a port visit to Subic on the way to the Gulf, this visit was after the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo and during the workings of the base closure. We were not allowed to leave the base. Some areas of the base still functioned. The Navy Exchange (pretty much a ‘liquidation’ sale type deal), a few food joints, base club, etc.

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Getting around the joint was a crapshoot, the base taxis (remember those shitty little white Isuzu I-Marks?) were idle unless someone volunteered to drive ’em. There were mounds of volcanic ash everywhere, the maintenance shops were shuttered.

A few native vendors were still on site, hawking bamboo furniture and WESTPAC jackets and such, but not much more. Pretty dismal, actually. I picked up a matching ‘his & hers’ set of jackets, and a cool San Magoo mug.

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At one point during the few days we were there, I found myself looking through the fence across that notoriously putrid river at Olongapo, picking through my memory bank of the fun, the debauchery, the seemingly endless supply of San Magoo’s and MOJO and Green Bullfrog, and the caramelized skin of those warm little sweeties…I may have actually shed a tear that day, knowing that when we pulled out of port, we would never return. The day the ship got underway, the crew was solemn, other than the barking over the 1MC and the chatter of the 2JV down in engineering, things were strangely quiet.

During the return trip from the Gulf, we passed Grande Island. The base was by now closed, no US ships remained. I stood on the fantail having just gotten off watch, along with probably every other individual not on watch. The port side of that cruiser was lined with people. As we passed the Island, without any fanfare or orders from the bridge, practically everyone popped tall, saluted, then placed our covers over our hearts, knowing that decades of a Naval tradition was no longer. Almost akin to a burial at sea, only the ceremony detail was sharply attired in grungy 2190 soaked dungarees.

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The memories of Subic Bay that I have will never wither away. B-52 Club, Cordon Bleu, Tigers Den. The Shakey’s Pizza joint a quarter way up Magsaysay on the left side. The grizzled old toothless woman selling black market Marlboro’s on that famous bridge. Getting one’s butt kicked by a seven-year-old pool shark. Trike races to the Barrio in ankle deep mud (long before that road was paved). Showing up at the Iron Horse in the Barrio, somehow Mamasan knew exactly when you would be there, and she’d have a plate loaded with lumpia and a huge mound of shrimp fried rice and a couple of cold one’s waiting for you. A rousing game of smiles at Marilyns. White Castle ‘n Sprites. Dancing baluts on the table while a bunch of tough guy Marines stare at you with contempt, then biting the heads off and wind up in a brawl. River Queens and her minions diving for pesos in Shit River, before they put up that twelve-foot steel wall. Subic City, the complete adult Disneyland, where everything goes (and stayed). Scarfing down a fistful of BBQ of questionable origin while staggering back to the ship to hopefully grab an hour or two of shuteye before quarters, swearing on a stack of Bibles that after the day’s chores it was nothing but sleep that evening, yet back to the fun you went instead.

I swear, there will never be any place on God’s green Earth that will compare to Subic Bay in it’s heyday. Those of us who were fortunate enough to be a part of it’s history are to be revered. Those who have not pulled a liberty in this paradise, including today’s Naval warriors, should bask in the glory of the true Asia Sailor, for you have no idea what fun really is.

My Last time in Subic:

The Bridge

By: Garland Davis

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It doesn’t seem so long ago that I crossed that bridge for the first time. It was 1962. A couple of hours at the club to get a buzz on before you hit the gate and crossed the infamous “Shit River Bridge.” Your shipmates had told you about Olongapo and the one peso beer and the four peso short times. You halfway believed them. You really wanted to believe them. But could it be that easy? They were right about liberty in Sasebo and Yokosuka. There was no way liberty in Subic could be better than Sasebo.

Stopped at the on base money changer. The exchange rate was P3.85 to one US dollar. Supposedly you could get a better rate from the money changers across the river, but a lot of guys had been burned with worthless Japanese occupation Pesos. Better safe than sorry.

With almost forty P’s tucked into the inside pocket of my white jumper, My watch in my pocket. (I had heard about the watch snatchers.) I headed for the gate only to be blocked by Marine Private brandishing a billy club. He looked my uniform over, told me to square my white hat and asked how many packs of smokes was I carrying? After he had been satisfied that I was squared away and wasn’t going to wreck the Philippine economy with black market cigarettes, he motioned for me to pass. I walked to the edge of the bridge to wait for my shipmates.

Suddenly I was hit with a god awful smell. Something like the combination of a leather tannery, a paper mill, a landfill, and an overflowing shitter. It was all I could do to keep from gagging. I surmised that it was the odor of the much talked about Shit River. They had damned sure named the son of a bitch correctly. After a few moments, my friends satisfied the Marine Corps and joined me. As we walked across, we looked at the boys in the water begging for sailors to throw coins, wondering why they still lived after swimming in that black viscous liquid.

The tales about the delights of Olongapo proved true. It became a looked forward to port of call on many WestPac cruises. Of course, there were other ports, the aforementioned Sasebo and Yokosuka in Japan and later Hong Kong, Kaohsiung, and Keelung. They were all sailor towns and catered to the American sailor.

As the Vietnam War dragged on, the economy of Japan and Hong Kong improved, and they became less enjoyable and more expensive than in the past. New liberty ports were discovered in Singapore and a small fishing village in Thailand known as Pattaya. All these ports were welcome interludes in the endless hours of flight operations, plane guard, gunfire support, constant rearming and refueling. The cold drinks and the warm, willing women healed us and maintained our sanity.

Viet Nam ended only to be replaced with Indian Ocean cruises. A stop at Subic on the way into the IO, if lucky, a stop in Freemantle/Perth on the way out and, of course, Subic.

The one port, the one city that became the Asia Sailor’s Mecca was just across that bridge. Olongapo and onward to the much more debauched, if that is possible, Barrio and Subic City became the one liberty port that I looked forward to over all others. I guess one of the best descriptions I have ever heard is, “Big Boy’s Disneyland.” I could do and did shit in Subic that they would put my ass in jail for in Oklahoma City. Am I proud of all that I did there? No. Am I ashamed of some things that I did there? Probably should be, but I just can’t find it.

Twenty-five years, eight Seventh Fleet ships and numerous trips across that bridge passed until I made the last trip across. It was 1987. That time it was in a Special Service’s van to Clark AFB to catch a flight to Japan and on to Hawaii for my twilight tour before retiring.

Sometimes when I am walking my dog in the mornings, I will see one of my young Filipina neighbors walking to the bus stop and catch the odor of a Filipino mother cooking their breakfast, and it flashes me back to a morning in the past and wish I could go back, Just One More Fucking Time!

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11 thoughts on “Leaving Subic Bay

  1. Crossed that bridge many times from 70 on. Stationed there 9 years and enjoyed every minute of it. Still visit for six months every winter and even though things have changed; they haven’t really changed that much. Still loving PI.

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  2. kellydunn says:

    Me too. I can relate to what you said about your experience there in PI. It was the summer of 77 and I was a 21 year old 2nd class with no restraints. I was one of many lose on the streets of Olongapo, I too walked across the bridge with all that entailed. After PI we pulled into Hong Kong where nearly missed ships movement. The last liberty boat had already left, and I knew my Boat was already on Maneuvering Watch. I gave a guy my last $20 and made it back in just enough time to cast off all lines. Consequences? Of course I got a royal butt chewing from the XO, the COB, and my Chief. And… I would restricted to the boat on our out bound trip to PI. (I was told I ought to be grateful that was all I got) That was 40 years ago. I am a different man now than I was in those days. If the people I know heard the story now (after the shock wore off) could not possibly imagine me doing any of that. If asked, and looked me squarely in the eye, I would have to say”Yes. All of it is true” I did tell my future wife about it later in the name of full disclosure thinking if she still want to marry me then I will have someone who REALLY loved me in spite of who I was. That was 37 years ago and I am having to come to full disclosure to my three adult sons (none of them are in the armed forces) Do I have any regrets? Yes, some regrets, but we are after all the sum total of our experiences. I am 61 and retired today and I have a good family and a few true friends.

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  3. Bernard Morosco says:

    An awesome story, I was on the USS England CG-22 last left Subic in 1987. I hated the service for closing that base, looks like we are trying to re-establish something there now again……

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  4. Mitch Cook says:

    My first experience of crossing the shit river bridge was in 1973. I was stationed on the USS Midway. Left the Midway in Jan. 1976 and was stationed at NAS Cubi Point until June 1977 ( ordinance shack). To this day I think of my time there, what an amazing time.
    Mitch Cook

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  5. Dennis Davis says:

    Spent 1967 in WestPac, served on a minesweeper, USS Enhance, MSO-437. Probably cycled back and forth to Subic about five times after our patrol assignment off the coast south of Danang. Olongapo was all that and more. Didn’t have Isuzu’s then, the local taxi was a modified Jeep Roadster, with a fringe-lined canvas canopy, garish colors and loud music. Called them “Jeepneys.” The trick was to hide one’s money and ID in your shoe, those little brown fingers were quite adept of relieving one of one’s pesos. In 1965, a fire almost wiped out the entire city, being wooden shacks, one can imagine. The route into the Naval Station passed Cubi Point NAS, where the carriers tied up and the air groups would stay. Can never forget sailing past the USS Forrestal after the terrible flight deck fire in the Gulf of Tonkin, still pumping water from fire suppression ops. Grande Island was a great place, essentially the “healthy” recreation center for the sailors. A ship would arrange for LCM’s to ferry crews from the ship to the island, for a day of softball, BBQ, and, dare I say, a lot of beer.

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  6. Dennis R. isabell says:

    Spent 3 months in Subic in 1966 on the USS Klondike, all these stories bring chills up my back. What wonderful memories we all have of Olongopo Bless all you sailors who served and have some grand memories

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  7. James Spires Sr. says:

    Well my story is a little different. All things said were very true. I was aboard the USS Dewey DLG 14 1966-68. I had just turned 19 and from a very small town in South Florida. As we sail for wespac with liberty in several ports, but nothing prepared me of what was to be an adventure of a lifetime in Subic Bay When we tied up to the USS Chicago. I had a brother in the Navy but had not seen him in over 9 years. A few weeks earlier i got a letter from my Mom telling me my brother Jerry had called and said he was getting transferred to the West coast. My sea detail was normally the fathometer passing depth reading to the bridge, but on this memorable day would be is the forward area of the ship. As we are passing lines over, and behold it was my brother, I said “Jerry”, he said “James”! 9000 miles away from home, not only passing the line, but passing it to my Brother! That was about 1400 hours and we had liberty at 1600 hours. I don’t know if we would have ever seen each other if he had not been where he was, I had no idea he was on the Chi.
    Now my brother being 7 years older and 2PO boatswain mate and this being his third tour and I truly looked up to my big brother. Well on the way out the gates he was giving me all the advice as a big brother should about Olongapo, one was don’t keep all your money in one place and hide your ID. Well into the Jeepney we went, first stop was Paulines, Well I said I would pay the driver. Reached into my jumper pocket and boom! this kid maybe 10 years old jumped in the Jeepney grabbed my money and out the other side. I started to jump out and chase him down, Jerry said let him go, he didn’t get but about $3.00, not worth it. Had my first San Miguel at Paulines. Well no use in repeating all the other wonderful adventures of Olongapo. They are all true. Now I sit back and see the stories told by shipmates who earned the patch of the shit river. All memories now of how things use to be. As the Navy has changed, so have I. I am much older man now. My brother Jerry pass away June 2011. I go visit him every 2-3 years at Fort Barrancas National Cemetery in Pensacola, FL. I sure miss him. I guess i too will one day fade away as did, my Navy, My shipmates and my memories of Olongapo. I truly would like to visit the Philippines just one more time!

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    • Dennis Davis says:

      I was on the USS ENHANCE, MSO-437 from 1966-67, with 1967 being our Westpac cruise. The ship had been on another Westpac cruise in 1965, and some of the old hands were still on board. They spoke of a massive fire that took out a lot of Olongopo in 1965,

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