by: Garland Davis
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 shortimes. 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 was 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 cannot 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 I flash back to the past and wish I could go back, Just One More Fucking Time!
To follow Tales of an Asia Sailor and get e-mail notifications of new posts, click on the three white lines in the red rectangle above, then click on the follow button.
A native of North Carolina, Garland Davis has lived in Hawaii since 1987. He always had a penchant for writing but did not seriously pursue it until recently. He is a graduate of Hawaii Pacific University, where he majored in Business Management. Garland is a thirty-year Navy retiree and service-connected Disabled Veteran.
15 thoughts on “The Bridge”
Garland! Omg you nailed Shipmate !!!
Once again Garland brought back many fond memories. There was no better liberty than in the Barrio.
Pingback: I do remember the Olongapo bridge. – On the Patio
I crossed 1967 got 4 P to the $ and almost puked on the bridge. Those of you that are old enough know the shit river smell from back then
Best liberty ever! Introduced to Subic by the very best…McAllister!
OMG! 1962 and I still remember that smell every time I have to use an outhouse. But keep in mind how fast it left after a couple San Miguels!
Was discussing shit river with a face book shipmate the other day and he tells of a time that he fell in. I said and you lived to tell about it. Your one lucky bastard.
The aroma brings back so many memories,caught my first ship in Subic in 1970 USS MISPILLION
AO-105 Departed my last Ship from Subic in 1990,USS TRUXTUN CGN-35, the memories of Mom’s Club, Paula’s Beer garden, Oceans 11,Beggars Banquet
Once I got to the bridge to be a signalman striker, RD2 Pete Siegel took a liking to me and offered to be my guide for my first trip into Olongapo. We bypassed the EM club, crossed the bridge and found Yee’s Store, a tiny little sari-sari joint about four blocks up the boulevard and run by three sisters – Cora, Nita and Emi. The sisters sold San Miguel from a cooler behind the little bar there. A San Magoo was fifty centavos, which meant you could get seven beers for a buck. Pete and I would put away a few, then head out on the main drag to the Club Oro, where the “Gaytoppers” were the house band. That band could play every American hit song and cover the lyrics even though they didn’t understand a word of English. We’d spend hours at the Oro, drinking San Miguel and dancing with the bar girls. Later we’d go to Pauline’s which always had a small band going. Siegel and I followed this routine about a dozen times in our two WestPac trips. We’d drink too much, swear we wouldn’t go ashore the next day, work all day in the hot sun, then as if by a miracle be completely rejuvenated by 1600 and ready to go over again. Such was the power of youth. Not doing much of that any more at age almost 72. –Joe Frederickson, SA, SN, SM3, USS Safeguard (ARS-25), 1963-1967 and SM2, SM2, USS Tripoli (LPH-10).
A true sailor !
Great stories! Loved Subic!
I loved all the amazing music and beautiful women
Subic, if I have to explain it to you, you would never believe it.
Heard about olangapo for eight months while my first ship was in dry dock in pearl, thought all the stories that the veteran sailors told me had to be B ullshit! Then we pulled into subic and found out all their stories were true and more!! I was 17 when i first hit subic as a boy, but left there a man!
Unforgettable! O-City, The PI, Po-City, Olongapo….whatever you choose to call it. Every story from there becomes a legend. Garland, keep saving these for us, you are a treasure from the fleet.