Sailor of the Week
By Dave Payson 1964-68
Idid a double-take when Chief Kerr told me that I had been chosen as Sailor of the Week in the division. My reward, he said, was a trip to Manila in a Navy chopper and two days of R&R at a four-star hotel, all expenses paid by Uncle Sam.
Liberty in Manila was far beyond my experience base, so I was flabbergasted at my apparent good fortune. Arriving in Subic Bay, Philippines, after two days of steady steaming across the South China Sea from Vietnam, meant for the sailors of the Wilhoite a night or two to unwind in Olongapo. Subic Bay and liberty in Olongapo were synonymous to the sailors of the Seventh Fleet. Manila wasn’t even in the equation. Maybe for the officers and flyboys it was, but not for us.
Indeed, Olongapo was all we expected—or wanted—in a liberty town. When the sailors of the Wilhoite hit the beach in Olongapo (in my case it was usually with my fellow radarmen buddies John Wayne Bohon and John Shanahan), we didn’t do a lot of sightseeing, nor did we bring our cameras along. Pictures of local attractions, didn’t interest us. No, we were more interested in local attractions of a different kind—and lots of San Miguel beer.
I was chosen Sailor of the Week in OI Division, now that I think back on it, because I passed my RD3 exam, earning my first chevron, and liberty in Manila, the capital city of the Philippines, was my reward. So I would be accomplishing two firsts on this trip: my first time in Manila and my first ride in a helicopter.
The helicopter ride up to Manila was both sensational and scary, as I remember it. Without Bohon and Shanahan along for the ride, I felt lost, insecure. My fellow Sailors of the Week on the chopper, a Hospital Corpsman, a Signalman, an Engineman, a Boatswains Mate, and a Quartermaster, were, for the most part, strangers to me, as I was to them. Oh, we’d seen each other many times on the ship, but not to speak to each other, other than a nod in recognition. For the most part, sailors stay with their own kind, within their own ratings and divisions, that is, the sailors they work with on a daily basis. Rare is the day, for example, you’ll see a Quartermaster paling around with an Engineman.
We flew in right over the treetops, or in this case, jungle tops, on the way up to Manila. The dense tropical jungle reminded me of Vietnam. Choppers were everywhere in ‘Nam, and they were constantly getting shot down. This trip between Subic Bay and Manila, being over so much wild jungle country, must’ve been similar in some ways to what our soldiers experienced riding choppers over the jungles in ‘Nam. Of course, there wasn’t anybody shooting at us from the ground here. Filipinos were our allies, going all the way back to World War II. And they let us stage much of our war in Vietnam from their country.
When we came in over Manila after about an hour of beating the air with the steady thwap-thwap-thwaping of our rotor blades, the city of was spread out as far as the eye could see in all directions. There was nothing like it in ‘Nam, unless maybe it looked similar flying over Saigon.
We landed at an Air Force base outside the city, and was I ever relieved to be on the ground again! During the last part of the ride, I became disoriented, dizzy, nauseated. It was my first time on a helicopter, and I haven’t been on one since, not in 40 years. Even in the wildest seas, I never got seasick on the Wilhoite, and believe me, we ploughed through some rough seas during my time on her. But on this chopper ride, airsickness got me.
A navy bus took us to our hotel in the heart of Manila. It certainly lived up to my expectations—clean, well kept with all the creature comforts of home, including a big fancy lobby with plush chairs and fancy tables with gold scallops on them. I don’t know if I’d rate it on par with a big-city U.S. hotel, though. After we checked in, we Sailors of the Week went our separate ways. As I mentioned before, we didn’t seem to be an overly-friendly bunch.
Compared to the set-up I had on the Wilhoite—a middle rack, a footlocker, and a head just up the passageway—my hotel room was the cradle of luxury, complete with a TV that had two English-speaking channels that showed predominately American westerns.
Chief had warned me not to n too far at night, especially by myself, in Manila. "Remember, Payson, you’re a petty officer now, so act like one," he probably said. Well, as it turned out, I should’ve listed to him. After all, he knew Manila, and he knew me.
The first day and a half in Manila I did okay, ranging farther and farther from the hotel on exploratory walks. The city itself sprawled on forever, it seemed, some of it modern and safe looking; but other parts I wandered into looked like the kind of places Chief warned me to stay out of. My dysfunctional sense of direction didn’t help me in this situation, for I was reluctant to range too far from my home base lest I get lost in this strange and very foreign city, and that’s exactly how I ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. The establishment I ended up in, lost, was called U.S. Bar and Grill. According to its marquee, which had an American flag hanging from it, the bar catered to U.S. servicemen. After my eyes adjusted to the dimly interior, the only other U.S. military personnel to be found in the place were two U.S. marines, and I didn’t know if I could count on them in a pinch. Besides, they each had a Filipino hostess—okay, bar girl—hanging off their shoulder, very charming ladies, I’m sure. And from my experience in Olongapo and other West Pac ports, I new it wouldn’t be long before one of their colleagues homed in on me.
Sliding up to the bar, I ordered a cheeseburger and fries, cooked American style, the Filipino bartender informed me in very precise English. When he disappeared into the back room, I realized he was also the cook. He returned from the back a few minutes later and struck up an amiable conversation with me, asking me questions like what ship was I on? Was this my first time in Manila? He was friendly enough, and I answered his questions, glad to have someone to talk to as I all the while kept a weary eye on the bar girls and the two marines. "You want drink, Joe?" the bartender/cook asked me. "I got American beer. Some Olympia."
Olympia! Though I knew I probably shouldn’t, I said what the heck, yeah, give me one. Olympia, you see, is my "hometown" beer from Washington State, brewed from "Artesian" water. (Slogan: "It’s the Water That Makes the Beer.") So I didn’t see how I could pass it up. As I drank my "Oly," I noticed that a third bar girl had joined the other two who were entertaining the marines. She was sizing me up, giggling and giving me little waves, obviously making ready to move in for the kill. I ignored her and ordered another Olympia to wash down my cheeseburger with, which the bartender had just set in front of me. The burger and fries tasted pretty good and went down easily with the cold, frosty Olympia. So I had another one as I finished my fries. About this time I remembered what Chief told me: "Remember, don’t get carried away, Payson, just keep it cool."
It was good advice from the Chief—advice I should’ve heeded.
"What?" I said. By now it was an hour or so later, and the bartender had just asked me if I wanted to meet her, the third bar girl, who was obviously alone and unattached. "Her name Susie. Nice girl," he said. "Well, let me have another Olympia first," I said, "and I’ll think about it." What made this Olympia beer was especially tasty to me, I decided, was that it didn’t have that formaldehyde taste that was so prevalent in American beer overseas. "Give me another one," I told the bartender, finishing up my food. Not the best burger I’ve had but passable. "Okay, I said, "tell Susie I’d like to meet her, and get me another Oly."
By now nighttime had descended upon Manila and the U.S. Bar and Grill, and somewhere in my head the Chief’s good advice was playing in a continuous loop, but I was no longer tuned in to it. Thanks to the Olympia beer and my own dumbness, my circuits had become crossed. "Susie" had me in her clutches after that, to the tune of 5 bucks a crack for her short glasses of tea, which she led me to believe were straight shots of bourbon whisky, the implication being that soon she would be as drunk as me, and then . . . well, who knew? I course I was well familiar with this game, having played it many times with other "nice" girls in West-Pac ports from Olongapo to Hong Kong. It was a game I always lost. "I love you no keed-ing, David, buy me drink."
Much later I had to switch to San Miguel beer because the Olympia was gone. Susie was working me for more drinks, and I was trying to tune in on my environment there in the U.S. Bar and Grill, somewhere in Manila, Philippines. For one thing I didn’t see the marines around anymore. They were gone along with their charming hostesses. Nor did my blurry-eyed inventory reveal any U.S. sailors, marines or any other potentially allied personnel anywhere in the bar. I was on my own. Susie was separating me from my money at a rapid rate, and when I managed to focus in on the bartender, he seemed to be casting me a look of sympathy and/or warning, standing back in the shadows behind the bar, where he was washing glasses. Something in that look brought me back to some degree of sobriety and sensibility, and I told Susie it was time for me to go, to get back to my ship, though I really meant the hotel. "Oh, no, don’t go, David, night is still young and you have much time to go before liberty is over. Please, David, buy me drink. I’m so proud you sailor of week, boy-son. I think I love you. No keed-ing."
I managed to push myself away from the table and get to my feet. "Have to get back to the ship," I mumbled, meaning the hotel, but they didn’t know that; I barely knew it, in fact. Staggering sideways I found the door and went out. Susie was close behind me. But it was the wrong door—the back door instead of the front door. I was standing in the back alleyway behind the bar, trying to gather my faculties. And I had company, I noticed, for there, standing with Susie, were three or four rough-looking Filipino men. I remember them encircling me, and Susie standing behind them, directing them to move in for the kill. They had in mind, I’m sure, even after all these long years, to rob me. I don’t think they wanted to literally hurt me. But we’ll never know for sure, because just as they were about to grab me the ground disappeared from beneath my feet, and I stumbled head long into a Binjo ditch, an open sewer trench, which were common in the Philippines in place of indoor plumbing.
Believe me, it was a very sobering experience climbing out of that Binjo ditch, covered with you-know-what. Did I reek of it? Probably. For my would-be assailants of just moments ago now only wanted to get away from me, and they scattered into the night, taking Susie with them. I got my bearing, saw that I had fallen in the ditch, and planned my next move, which was to somehow get back to my hotel. It was my only refuge. If I had been here with Bohon and Shanahan, then none of this would’ve happened, I was certain.
Then from the shadows in the alley stepped the bartender, and he was my salvation that night, bringing me inside, helping to clean me up, and finally arranging for a taxi to take me back to my hotel. He told me he was worried about me from the beginning, that he didn’t like the way things got done at the bar, how they preyed on U.S. servicemen. He vowed he would find another place to work after this experience. I could only thank him, admitting to him that I was in over my head on the whole deal and coming to Manila by myself had been a mistake. The taxi came and we said goodbye.
Safely back in my hotel room—by now it was the wee morning hours—I was still shaken, but otherwise in good shape. It took a long hot shower to make me feel human again. The situation could’ve turned out much worse, no doubt about that. I’d been lucky, and Chief Kerr had been right in all of his advice to me about being careful. I’d learned a valuable lesson from the experience, and for the rest of my days in the navy, I was always careful to be with a buddy in a foreign liberty port.
The next morning, at 1100 hours, the Sailors of the Week, still strangers for the most part, loaded into the chopper and made the hour flight back to Subic Bay, and from there to our various ships and duty stations in the area. This time I felt no signs of the airsickness that had plagued me on the trip up to Manila. I must say some of the others on the trip back looked none too good themselves. Is it possible they had suffered through their own ordeals, and like me had chosen not to share them? Yes, it is quite possible, I decided.
After I got back to the ship and settled in, I told Bohon and Shanahan about my ordeal, and they thought it was great fun. "Payson, you boot, when are you going to learn to do things right?" was the way Shanahan put it. They imagined the scene in the alley behind the Manila bar and what it must’ve been like when I took the plunge into that Binjo ditch, and they couldn’t stop laughing and giving me a hard time, which, come to think of it, is what you’d expect from your navy buddies. I’d have acted the same way if something similar had happened to them, I’m sure.
The next day I grew dizzy and feverish and ended up in sickbay. The corpsman told me that I’d developed a nasty infection in my leg from the contaminated sewage from the Binjo ditch that had invaded an open sore on my leg. My leg was puffy and oozy, and the doc pumped me full of penicillin. I was in sickbay for several days, and for a while doc was very worried that the penicillin wasn’t doing its job and knocking out the infection, which he described as a "deep edema infection." Chief Kerr visited me daily, as did Bohon and Shanahan and several of the other radarmen from OI Division.
Everything turned out okay in the end, though. My leg healed, and I went on to spend another year and a half on the Wilhoite, leaving her finally in early 1968.
It was the last time I was ever chosen Sailor of the Week.