by Dave Payson, 1964-68
The sun always seemed hotter in Olongapo than in any other West-Pac port. And when you crossed the bridge over the fetid Bajac River, the stench—the musty, rotten-earth smell of the place—was unmistakable. Olongapo during the war was the “work horse” of the Seventh Fleet’s liberty ports, and it had no equal in the claim of being the dirtiest, most degenerate port in all the Orient. With Olongapo, what you saw was what you got—the basics. Every sailor or ex-sailor knows what the basics are. I don’t need to explain them here. Anyway, after 35 days on Vietnam patrol, it was our kind of place. I remember when we stepped off that bridge into town, we’d be overrun by Filipinos trying to sell us everything from monkey meat on a stick to their sisters. We’d push our way through them, taking special care to protect our wallets because we knew they’d try to grab them out of our pockets. And we laughed at the idea of eating monkey meat on a stick, which looked like a cross between beef jerky and barbecued beef to us. What kind of fools did they take us for anyway? (They told us it was chicken.)
“We” were the sailors of the USS Wilhoite, which, without doubt, was the “baddest” DER in the fleet, and when we were in port, we were ready for liberty at the drop of a white hat. In this case, when I think back on my Wilhoite days and West-Pac liberty ports like Olongapo, I recall hitting the beach with my two good buddies, John Wayne Bohon from Sedalia, Missouri, and John Shanahan from Newtown, Pennsylvania. The three of us were radarmen on the Wilhoite during the period 1964 through ‘67, and we pretty much did everything together, including sharing a car and an apartment together in Waikiki Beach during one of those years, in between Vietnam deployments, when the ship was back in Hawaii at Pearl Harbor, which was her homeport. As the song goes, “We were rough and ready guys, but, oh, how we could harmonize.” To this day, I miss those guys, and I think of them often.
Anyway, in getting back to the story, in many ways, I suppose, Olongapo was the consummate liberty town, made up of bars, bargirls, pimps, and San Miguel beer, along with an eclectic collection of beggars, hawkers, American copycat entertainers, and other human flotsam too numerous to classify. In other words, it was everything a sailor could ever want in a liberty port. Rizal Avenue with all of its bars was alive with activities geared to separate us from our money. Beyond the world of the Rizal Avenue bars, we saw very little else of Olongapo, because everywhere else was classified out-of-bounds. So we didn’t dare stray too far. One could only imagine the trouble one could get in if one were to wander too far off the main street. Why, one could end up floating face down in the Bajac River with one's throat cut perhaps. At least, that's what the officers and leading petty officers used tell us to prepare us for liberty in Olongapo to help keep us in line. But it didn’t make much difference to us what they said. We were there to have a good time, to unwind, and Olongapo fit the bill just fine—it was a great place for the sailors of the U.S. Seventh Fleet to blow off steam on their way to and from 'Nam, even if it was filthy, stunk to high heaven, and they sold you monkey meat on a stick pretending it was chicken.
I would be remiss here if I didn’t talk about "Jeepneys" and “baloots” in a sea story about Olongapo. Jeepneys were the primary mode of transportation along the several-mile length of Rizal Avenue in those days. Basically, they were customized, souped-up Jeeps, painted in outlandishly garish colors, all scallops and flames, and trimmed with fancy brass work. Charging along in these gaudy machines, we’d hang on for dear life as the drivers did their best to imitate NYC cabbies under the pretense of taking us to the best bars in town stocked with the best-looking bargirls, or so they’d claim.
Baloots were right up there in a sailor’s heart with the monkey meat they said they’d never eat. Prominently displayed in most Olongapo bars, in large, fishbowl-like jars of pickled brine, as I remember them, baloots were fifteen or sixteen day fertilized chicken eggs that Filipinos considered a delicacy. They’d eat them right out of pickled brine jar. Some sailors considered them a delicacy, too, but only after they’d had too many San Miguel beers. Really, you’d have to be drunk to crack open an egg and pop a sixteen-day-old incomplete chicken fetus into your mouth, especially when you can see partially formed feathers, feet, and eyeballs showing through the translucent skin of the baby chick. Most old-time sailors who visited Olongapo in their navy days would know what a baloots is; in fact, they may have even consumed a few, but I doubt they’d admit it now. They’d also remember Jeepneys, San Miguel beer, bargirls and monkey meat on a stick, because all these things were woven into the tapestry of the Olongapo experience during the Vietnam War era.
But thinking back on it now as I tell this story, just as in Hong Kong, Yokosuka, and the other West-Pac ports we visited in the Far East, we were no match for the citizens of Olongapo. Nor were we a match for the bargirls, the Jeepney drivers, or the street-hawkers. They were all trained in the science of separating us from our money, and we were in way over our heads when it came to dealing with them, powerless against their systematic technique of separating us from our money. On average, within three hours from the time we crossed that bridge into the city of Olongapo, we were broke, picked clean. I don’t know where I came up with this statistic, but I bet it’s true.
At the end of the night, as "Cinderella Liberty" came to an end, we’d pour out of town, too drunk to give a damn, but knowing we had to get back to our ships or get in trouble. And, oh yes, we’d consume that monkey meat on a stick that we’d said we’d never touch; we’d scarf it down like it was the delicacy the street vendors claimed it was. In groups and individually, and in various degrees of sobriety, we’d head for the "cattle cars" that would transport us to the dock, from where we’d be taken via motor launch out to our ships anchored in Subic Bay. We must have presented a comical scene, something straight out of a Hollywood movie, as we emptied out of town to beat the midnight curfew—a parade of drunken sailors staggering along, scarfing down monkey meat on a stick. This migration of sailors out of Olongapo took place under the watchful eyes of the Shore Patrol, who were lined up on both sides of the road leading to the cattle car pens, ready to apply force if the need arose, which it usually did, especially in the cattle cars.
Yes, those were the good old days in many ways. And believe me, the men of the Wilhoite spent more than their share of time in Olongapo during the war. Truth is, though, we were better off in the hostile waters of Vietnam than in Olongapo—and we knew it. At sea and in ‘Nam, we were good, we really knew our stuff. In 'Nam, we drew combat pay, didn’t pay taxes, weren’t tempted to eat monkey meat on a stick or baloots, and there were no bargirls around to separate us from our money. Generally, we heaved a collective sigh of relief when we left Subic Bay, Olongapo, and headed for the open waters of the South China Sea.
Olongapo was buried under a foot of ash in the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which devastated the city. Whatever is happening there today is going on without U.S. forces, including the navy. The Philippine government kicked the United States military out of the country for good in the early 90s. However Olongapo has evolved and rebuilt itself in modern times, it will never be like it was in the heyday of the Vietnam War when the U.S. Seventh Fleet reigned supreme, and we on the Wilhoite were in the thick of things. Then, it was a place that any sailor who ever pulled liberty there, including the men of the USS Wilhoite, will never forget.