The Stop in Olongapo
by: john harrison
I knew things had not gone exactly as I had planned when I saw the white pick up truck make a wide right turn onto the pier. It was the one with the big wire cage in the back that the Shore Patrol used as a paddy wagon to haul the drunks off to the Brig. Even before it began to weave as it drove down the pier, despite being the perpetual optimist, I was certain that it was not a good sign. Not a good sign at all.
Of course, there had been hints of trouble before this, for example lots of the men returning to the ship had been wearing different hats when they came back on board. I preferred to assume that they had traded for the Navy and Marine hats, and for the one Aussie hat that I saw as well, so I did not ask any questions.
However, I still thought that it had been a really good plan, right up until I saw that white truck driving down the pier. That scared me. We were all on our way to Vietnam, on a troop ship that was docked in U. S. Naval Base at Subic Bay, the Philippines.
When we arrived at Subic we tied up in the middle of a long concrete pier inside the Naval base. The pier looked to me more like a four lane, concrete highway jutting out into the water than a pier, but that is what it was.
It had all begun late that afternoon, when a sergeant had said that there was a major on the pier that wanted to talk to me. That was when things first began to look different as far as my plan went. I walked down the gang plank and met a Navy Lieutenant Commander standing there at the bottom. Since Army majors and Navy Lieutenant Commanders both wore a gold leaf as their rank insignia, I had already figured out that the Navy guy was who the sergeant was referring me to.
“Are you the Provost Marshall?” he asked without any preliminary.
“Yes. I’m Lt. Harrison. What can I do for you Commander?” I said as I saluted.
I knew that Navy Lieutenant Commanders loved to be called “Commander” just like Army Lieutenant Colonels liked to be called “Colonel.” A little light sucking-up to start never hurts I thought.
“You can come get your men out of my EM club.” he said.
“What?” I replied.
“They have taken over one of the EM clubs on base and they won’t leave. They have my bartenders and a couple of Shore Patrol in there with them.” he said.
“Oh.” I said and then I turned to the sergeant that had followed me down and said.
“Go get the Response Group please.”
He said: “Yes Sir” and ran back up the gang plank.
In a moment he came back with a Sergeant First Class from the 503rd leading eight large sergeants carrying axe handles, four each from the 503rd and the 506th.
“Let’s go.” I said.
We walked quickly over to the EM Club and found what looked like about a platoon of Marines in formation along with another Lieutenant Commander on the street in front of the club’s parking lot. There were also six Shore Patrol led by a Petty officer who looked very angry. His men were repeatedly slapping their black billy clubs, or batons, on their palms as they waited.
“Are you the Provost!” this second Lieutenant Commander practically shouted at me as he too ignored my salute.
“Yes Sir.” I replied. “I am the ship’s Provost Marshall. What’s going on?”
“I’m about to break some heads. Your men have assaulted and kidnapped my men. We are going to take this club back right now.” the second Lieutenant Commander said.
“Well, you’re probably going to have a lot of hurt Marines and shore patrol if you try that.” I said.
“We’ll hurt some of your jerks too. You can bet on it.” he replied.
I looked over at the door to the EM club. The whole area in front of the door was littered with beer cans, lots of beer cans. Some were still spewing beer so it was pretty clear that they had been full, or nearly so when they were thrown. A couple of the Shore Patrol uniforms looked wet, but no blood I could see. It looked good to me. I thought things still looked pretty good, considering.
“Sergeant.” I turned and said. The SFC snapped to attention.
“Yes sir.” he replied.
I turned back to the Lieutenant Commander.
“I am the Provost Marshall of that ship. Those men are my responsibility, not yours. You are interfering with a United States Army troop movement. Get out of my way Commander or I will have you arrested.” I said.
The Lieutenant Commander looked at me like he could not believe what he had just heard. In a word, he was gobsmacked.
I thought it sounded pretty good. I had no idea if any of it was true, or if as Provost Marshall I actually had that kind of power. It did not seem likely that I did on a naval base, on his naval base, but I thought that if I could get the men back on the ship, it just might be true.
Then, the sergeant behind me bellowed:
“Port arms.” and eight axe handles came up with eight hands smartly slapping the wood.
The Lieutenant Commander stared at me a moment longer, looked at my sergeant, and then he stepped slowly back.
“You go right ahead Lieutenant.” he said smiling, and then he nodded to the Shore Patrol group. Sort of a “Now, watch this boys.” nod.
“Follow me.” I said to the sergeant. When we were about halfway across the parking lot and well in front of the Shore Patrol and the Marines. I turned and said:
“Sergeant, you come with me. The rest of you form a line. No matter what happens, they do not come forward of your line.” I said to the the eight sergeants with axe handles and indicated the Marines and Shore Patrol behind.
As we walked toward the front door of the club the sergeant said sotto voce to me.
“I hope you know what you are doing Sir.”
“So do I, sergeant. So do I.” I said.
“They’re going to kill us both Sir.” the Sergeant said.
“They might.” I said. I was thinking of our guys, probably all drunk as lords inside, and then there were all those Marines as well as the Shore Patrol. It did not look so good anymore, even to me.
We were still walking toward the door of the EM club when for some reason a scene from the then recent movie Dr. Zhivago that we had just seen on the ship flashed through my mind. In the movie the Russian army was falling apart during World War I. The Russians were deserting the front in droves. They were literally walking home in their thousands.
In this scene, a Russian officer climbs up on a barrel and harangues a group of the fleeing Russian soldiers trying to get them to go back and fight the Germans. He was doing pretty well, but then he lost his footing and fell into the barrel. With that, he lost all of his dignity as an officer. One of the men shot him, and then they continued to desert the front.
I was wearing flip flops because Dr. Andrew Lovy, our battalion surgeon, had operated on my ingrown toenails a few days before. I knew I did not look very dignified, flip flops on my feet and a big white bandage taped on both of my big toes. You can’t blouse flip flops so my pants legs flapped as well. I had my butter bar on one collar, crossed rifles pinned on the other and that was about it for dignity. I could already see myself in that barrel.
But we were lucky. When the door opened, it was an Alpha Company man.
“What are you doing here Lieutenant?” he asked.
“God damn it!” I said.
While I cussed a lot, I very rarely swore. He looked like I had just slapped him. He saluted. Looked for his hat. Found it; fumbled it; put it on his head and saluted again, hitting himself in his eye the second time.
“Everybody out!” I shouted as I pushed him aside. “Get out. Form a column of twos. Let’s go. Do it! Right now! Don’t embarrass me in front of these jarheads! Move it!” I shouted.
I just kept shouting; kept cussing; kept swearing; kept moving; kept looking for faces I recognized; kept making eye contact and kept pointing to the door. I looked over and the sergeant behind me was doing the same. Slowly at first, they left the bar and then formed up into a ragged column of twos in the parking lot.
“Call them to attention sergeant and move them out. Back to the ship.” I said.
“Yes Sir.” my sergeant replied
As we marched past the Marines and Shore Patrol I snapped a salute at the two Lieutenant Commanders and then shuffled the rest of the way back to the ship on my flip flops and with my two sore big toes.
Except for yelling at the Lieutenant Commander I thought it had gone surprisingly well, but I did wonder what had happened to the two Shore Patrol and the bartenders that he had said were inside. At least our own troops, drunk or not, hadn’t killed us, but the jury was still out on what the Lieutenant Commander, the Shore Patrol and all those Marines would do.
I found out later that the guys had initially taken away their nightsticks and then locked the two Shore Patrol in the walk in beer refrigerator for a while after the two Shore Patrol had tried to close the place down. While in the refrigerator, the two Shore Patrol had gotten just as drunk as my guys. When my guys saw they were drunk, they released them and they all drank at the bar together until the two Shore Patrol had passed out. That’s where they found them, passed out, under the bar.
The troopers had paid for all of the beer they drank, and for the beer the two Shore Patrol drank at the bar. They even paid for all the beer cans they threw at the Shore Patrol when they had tried to rush the place after the first two had disappeared inside. Really, they had not broken all that much, considering. All three bartenders were still behind the bar. They were fine. Well tipped even.
I guessed that getting drunk on duty reduced the effectiveness of the two Shore Patrol as witnesses against my guys. Anyway, no charges were ever filed. While I did not know that when I saw that white truck, that part ultimately worked out better than anybody could have anticipated.
Sometimes you just have to be lucky. It is the only thing that will work.
We were on the USNS William Weigel, an old troop carrier on her final voyage, top speed twenty one knots or about twenty four MPH, 622 feet long, 75 feet wide, the USNS Weigel had lumbered as she departed US Army Oakland California Terminal on 3 October 1967 loaded with elements of the 324th Signal Brigade, the 3rd Battalion (Abn) 506th Infantry, 101st Airborne Division, the 3rd Battalion (Abn) 503rd Infantry, initially assigned for training purposes to the 82d Airborne Division, reassigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade (Separate) for fighting purposes in Vietnam, and the 201st Assault Helicopter Company from Ft. Bragg, NC, and a few more. All of us were headed to Vietnam as fast as the USNS Weigel could get us there.
The USNS Weigel was originally supposed to stop at Okinawa, but engine trouble had us putting in for two days of repairs at the naval base in Subic Bay, the Philippines instead. We arrived one afternoon, spent two full days there and then left the next morning, early.
Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO
I was the Provost Marshall, or head cop, on the ship. I was responsible for maintaining order, for posting man overboard guards when underway and for running the Brig or jail on the ship. At sea that meant that I posted guards throughout the ship and maintained a duty roster of the Officer of the Guard and Sergeant of the Guard for each day. Since I was from the 3/506th, my deputy, a Sergeant First Class who also led the Response Group, was from the other airborne battalion on board, the 3/503rd.
A couple of days before we got there, I had been warned by the ship’s Troop Commander, Major George E. Fisher, Jr., that we would dock in Subic Bay Naval Base to repair the ship’s engine. He told me that there would be some form of liberty for all the men on board, and to prepare a plan. How bad could it be I had thought as I walked back to my office from our meeting?
Liberty in the Philippines. That sounded like a lot of fun to me. After three weeks on that old ship, I was looking forward to it.
So far being the ship’s head cop had been fairly easy, except that I rarely got to sleep much at night since the Officers of the Guard routinely got lost at night checking on the various guard posts throughout the ship. Of course, getting lost was not unusual for second lieutenants. Unfortunately, since below decks on the ship everything looked the same, they got lost often.
While it was always disagreeable to be awakened from a sound sleep sometimes where we found the lieutenants was so remarkable that it almost made it worth it. In any event, I was required to know if they were lost somewhere in the ship, or if they had fallen overboard. So far nobody had fallen overboard, but I really worried about some of those lieutenants, especially when they were walking around the ship at night, alone. At least they didn’t have a map or a compass or we might have never found them.
Each time they lost one, the Sergeant of the Guard was required to wake me up and tell me. Particularly at first it happened at least twice every night, sometimes more often. It actually would have been easier for me to just check the guard positions myself at night, but that was not the way the Army worked.
My Sergeant assistant from the 503rd was extraordinary.* He had been in the Army fifteen years, all of it as an airborne infantryman, but he also knew paperwork. Since we were actually in a shooting war at the time, paperwork was not something that Infantry OCS (Officer Candidate School) at Ft. Benning had spent much time on.
The one thing that I did know for certain was that was that as Provost Marshall I was personally responsible for the Brig, or ship’s jail. Screwing that up could put me in prison. Ft. Leavenworth Prison to be exact.
The 503rd had waited for the boat ride to Vietnam to catch up on a lot of Article 15’s (Army speak for non-judicial punishment) and summary courts martial, so the Brig was full most of the way across the Pacific. My sergeant from the 503rd was the one that noticed that the paper work of his own battalion was not correct.
We had made a deal the first day, I would deliver any bad news to his battalion commander and he did the same for mine. So, one day out from Oakland, I took eleven smiling miscreants back to the 503rd’s battalion commander and told him that the paperwork needed to be redone because I was letting them go. He was not happy.
He informed me that he out ranked me. I immediately agreed that he was absolutely correct. However, I politely suggested that we could talk to Major Fisher, the troop commander on the ship, if he wished. He decided that he wished to redo the paper work instead. Smart man.
That, a little gambling and the disappearing lieutenants were the biggest problems that we had faced so far. That all changed when we got to the Philippines.
There were a little over 2,800 soldiers on board. All of them were on their way to a combat zone. Almost 1,700 of these soldiers were in two battalions of Airborne paratroopers that had just completed a rigorous six month training regimen to prepare them for combat. For six months they had done nothing except learn and then practice over and over, various ways to maim, disable and kill someone else, but they had not been allowed to actually put those skills to use yet.
When we arrived in Subic Bay we had all been on the USNS Weigel for about three very long, very boring weeks. As I thought more about it, the idea of of turning them loose anywhere but into a war zone seemed to me to be the absolute quickest form of career suicide that I had ever heard of. Particularly if you added alcohol to the mix, and of course alcohol would be a big part of that mix.
I went down into the ship to find my company commander, Tom Gaffney. Tom had been a Sergeant Major in the Green Berets and about to retire when he was offered the chance to retire out as a Captain if he would agree to stay in another year to help train an airborne rifle company and then take them to Vietnam. While the war was heating up in early 1967, it was still fairly low key but building up steadily to what it would become in 1968. Tom had already been there twice with the Green Berets. So, he said yes to the offer. As far as I could tell, Tom knew everything worth knowing about the Army.
What he told me was helpful I guess, but it did not allay my fears at all. The real place we were probably going to according to Tom was Olongapo, a Philippine town just out side the gates of the Subic Bay, Naval Base.
Olongapo, Tom said, would be our introduction to the Third World.
According to Tom, Olongapo was only a sort of town in the Philippines. It was really only there because something had to be just outside the gates to the United States Navy’s, huge Subic Bay, Naval Base. That something was Olongapo.
In late 1967 Olongapo was composed mostly of bars and whorehouses. All of the whorehouses had their own bars and all of the bars had their own whorehouses, or at least they all had rooms upstairs and bar girls that you could rent along with a room by the hour, or for the night if you were ambitious and feeling flush.
As far as we could see, Olongapo was one long muddy street of mostly wooden buildings, with a money-changing kiosk right in the middle of the street just after you left the base. Then, the bars and whorehouses started on both sides of the street. It was hard for me to tell the two apart, but they insisted that there was a difference.
According to Tom, during the Korean War when he had been in the 187th Infantry (Abn.) Regiment (aka Rakkasans), after a similar period of training at Ft. Campbell, they too had stopped in Olongapo on their way to the Korean War. It had led to a riot of epic proportions. Tom smiled broadly when he told me about that riot. I knew that smile. While it was a happy smile, there was a lot more to it than that and it did nothing for my mood. I went back to my office not at all comforted by what I had learned.
We let the officers and senior NCOs go into of the town Olongapo, the rest of the enlisted men were restricted to the Subic Bay, Naval Base. Besides several enlisted and NCO clubs, the Naval Base also had several chapels, and a base library. While the later two received some use as well, it was beer, lots of beer that was the goal of most of the men. They all succeeded in achieving their goals.
When they returned to the pier getting them back on board ship was more like herding stoned cattle than moving elite troops around. Some needed to be assisted in walking. Some were missing parts of their uniform, or had made unauthorized additions from someone else’s uniform. Some had minor abrasions that according to them, all came from falling down some stairs, located somewhere on the flat as a board base. Some seemed to be escorted back by, or were closely followed by, groups of Shore Patrol. However, as long as they were peaceful and kept moving, we ignored almost everything.
Both days I had twenty sergeants on the pier. Ten from each airborne unit and they worked in pairs. Most of the men were happy drunks, very happy, and almost all of them were also very drunk.
Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO
We let half the men off the ship the first full day in port and the other half the second day. Then we left the next morning early. The real trouble was all on the second day. First it was that EM Club, then there was that white pick up truck.
As the white pick up truck drove along the pier, it picked up a little speed but it was still weaving erratically. I ran down the gangway as fast as my bandaged toes and flip flops would let me. About half way down the white truck passed the gangway I was on. I could see some men hanging on the roof of the wire cage behind the cab and there appeared to be some more men inside the cage as well. The ones on top were laughing and throwing beer cans as they went. The beer cans they threw appeared to be empty as they bounced along behind the truck.
It looked to me like the truck was heading straight for Subic Bay. I already knew that there were sharks in Subic Bay. Lots of sharks according to the Navy. We had been told that a naval rating chipping paint on the side of a ship in the harbor had lost a foot to one the week before we got there. On our first day in port several guys had decided to “fall” off the ship into the water. One of them had fallen into a remarkably good swan dive.
I never saw those USNS sailors work so fast to get a boat in the water to pick them up. They were dead serious about it. I began to believe the story about the shark and the sailor’s former foot.
The guys that “fell” off the boat stayed in the brig the rest of our time in port. The threat of missing liberty had cured that problem, but I had no ideas at all about how to fix that weaving white truck.
Instead of flying off the pier, the truck ran into one of the big concrete and steel stanchions, or more correctly a bollard that the Navy used to tie up the big ships to the pier. As soon as the truck stopped, everybody piled out of it and off the top of the cage in back. It looked a lot like one of those clown cars in a circus act that more and more people kept leaving.
They were all laughing and some fell as they ran toward the ship’s rear gangway. There were two ways into the ship, two gangways, one in front where I had been and one at the rear of the ship. The last of them made the turn for that rear gangway just before I got there.
Since I did not know the condition of the truck or if anybody was still in it, I kept going to the truck. Inside the cage, there were four, almost naked, beer soaked, very angry men. They still had their boxer shorts, their tee shirts and their boots, but the rest of their uniforms and equipment were somebody’s souvenirs.
Since the cage itself was locked, I was really glad that it had not been driven off the end of the pier. They would never have gotten out of that cage. Not much blood that I could see though the wire. I thought that was another good sign.
I went around to the cab and there piled on the seat were four equipment belts, a Master at Arms badge on a white lanyard, two handheld radios and four wallets. The keys to the truck and the cage were in the ignition. They had purposefully left everything that would have gotten the Shore Patrol guys in big trouble if they had lost them, and then stolen everything else.
My guys, I was actually proud of them.
The rest of their stuff was now souvenirs. I knew that the Shore Patrol arm bands were particularly prized as souvenirs. They were hard to get, those guys were tough.
I had just taken all this in and was letting the Shore Patrol guys out of the cage when I heard a siren and looked up to see a jeep and a sedan that were tearing down the pier toward me. Inside the sedan sitting shotgun was that second Lieutenant Commander that I had already met at the EM Club earlier that day. Even in the weird light on the pier I could see that his face was bright red.
However, he no longer wanted to talk to me. He wanted the Troop Commander on the ship and he wanted him right now. It seemed that the Admiral wanted to talk to him. That sounded fine to me.
After all, it could have been a whole lot worse—the Admiral could have wanted to talk to me.
In the real world, there are some really great things about being a Second Lieutenant; one of the absolute best is that you cannot be the troop commander of a ship load of young men docked in Subic Bay. Being a “Butter” bar had saved me again.
After they left in the sedan, I waited on the pier for Major Fisher, picking up and throwing away empty beer cans to pass the time. There were a surprising number of them still on the pier. The major was white faced when the sedan brought him back, followed by a truck load of Shore Patrol. Other than smartly returning my salute with the battalion’s reply of “Airborne!” Major Fisher did not say much when he got back. He just went up the gangway and then straight to his cabin.
The Shore Patrol on the other hand, sealed the ship, and the pier. Except for running into the tag end of a Typhoon, the rest of the trip to Vietnam was uneventful, beautiful even, as soon as they rid the ship of the smell of all that upchuck. That stuff was slippery too. You would not believe how much one man, even a little guy, can throw up until you have been on a troop ship with him riding on the tag end of a Pacific Ocean typhoon. To avoid the upchuck, some guys spent most of their time on the bow getting doused as it bulled its way through the biggest waves I had ever seen.
We arrived at the port of Qui Nhon in Vietnam in darkness. I could see a plane over the perimeter in the distance. Suddenly it spurted a stream of bright, red fire from its side. A little later came a sound much like that of a very long, very loud, possibly PBR induced, belch. Spooky, a C-47 gun ship, had given us its own version of, “Welcome to Vietnam.” I came to love those planes, but that is another story, for another time.
After disembarking the 503rd at Qui Nhon the next day on 23 October 1967 we continued down the coast of Vietnam to Cam Ranh Bay. The USNS Weigel made three stops on the coast of Vietnam with her final stop being at Vung Tau near Saigon. We got off at Cam Ranh Bay and then rode in a truck convoy to Phan Rang, home of the 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, and our final stop on our way to the Vietnam War.
That’s Capt. Tom Gaffney calling his own cadence on the right. Sgt. McDaniel has the Guidon flag in front. Lt. James Schlax on the right (WIA 2/19/68), and Sgt Carl Ratee on the left (KIA 2/19/68) leading 1st Platoon, Company A, 3rd Battalion (Airborne) 506th Infantry Regiment ashore from the pier at Cam Ranh Bay. Photo by Jerry Berry, 3/506 (Airborne) PIO
They probably should have brought us back from Viet Nam on a ship too. It would have been useful both psychologically and physically, but they would not have been able to let it stop in Olongapo — according to Major Fisher, we were forever barred from returning by the Admiral that ran the place. It was about the only thing that the Major ever told us about his meeting with the Admiral. He indicated though that the Admiral had been absolutely unmistakable on that point.
So now, when I think about Olongapo, I smile. I smile broadly, exactly like Tom Gaffney had smiled. Our short time there is one of my favorite memories from my service in the Army.
- Unfortunately after 50 years I cannot remember the sergeant’s name. He was a good man. I hope he made it home. Like all good sergeants, he kept his officer, me, mostly out of trouble.