February 2nd, 1968
The Tet offensive rolled through South Vietnam like a tsunami in the early morning hours of January 31st, 1968. Communist forces launched simultaneous attacks on nearly every city and military base in the country. At Cam Ranh Bay, enemy mortars opened up on the perimeter and rained down on bunkers and buildings. Sailors and Marines raced for defensive positions carrying weapons and ammo, their chests crisscrossed with bandoliers. Aircraft handlers scrambled to launch aircraft, while swift boats and helicopter gunships sped along the coastline firing rockets and pouring gunfire into the enemy. Tracer rounds, trailing phosphorescent tails in the thick dark night, sliced the air with a piercing squeal. Bullets hissed as they passed inches from helmets and skulls.
The shriek of battle was a deafening cacophony of contrasting olive drab instruments vomiting fire and metal and straining men’s nerves to the edge of endurance. Men withstood the inhuman roar by grinding their teeth and swallowing their screams as they waited for the barrage to lift so they could pour their rage into the enemy. A constant “whump whump whump” came from both sides of the perimeter as mortar rounds shot from their tubes and flew through the humid air with high-pitched shrills before exploding on impact. Cries of “incoming!” echoed from one end of the base to the other. Flares turned night into day as they burst into light and illuminated the ground to deprive the enemy the cover of darkness before floating slowly back to earth under the white of their parachute canopies. The shrill “preet” of whistles signaled enemy combatants to rise from cover and attack. Black-clad attackers surged forward firing at anything that moved before they were mowed down by American gunfire like metal targets at a county fair.
It was over as quickly as it had begun. The intent had been to shock South Vietnam, to signal that communist forces were not going give up. It wasn’t necessary to win the battle.
As the fighting wound down, sandy haired Frank Bailey, twenty-eight years old, the detachment’s Chief Petty Officer and senior enlisted man, hurried the launch crew as the main cabin door closed aboard the ready alert P-3 Orion when an Army H-1 Huey helicopter landing awkwardly on the pad fifty feet away. The co-pilot’s forward and side windshields were shot out and the fuselage riddled with bullet holes. The Huey settled heavily, hidden by swirling dust, its rotor blades dipping dangerously low, nearly scraping the fire bottle on the ramp. The door gunner jumped down, stumbled on his left leg and slid a litter out of the cabin. The soldier on the litter writhed in agony from the massive bleeding hole in his chest. The gunner was screamed, “Give me a hand. Give me a hand!”
Chief Bailey dropped his tool pouch and signaled to Sam and O.T., two of his launch crew, to pull the aircraft chocks, and then yelled for the aircraft handler to “launch the aircraft, now! They can start engines 1 and 4 as they taxi!” He and Sam ran to the helicopter and grabbed the litter from the gunner who was bleeding from his left calf. They dragged the litter out while O.T. and the helicopter co-pilot grabbed the second. The soldier lying on it, unconscious but breathing, bled through the bandage on his head.
The P-3 taxied away, its prop wash sending hot engine exhaust blowing back on the men. An ambulance skidded to a stop a few feet away from the chopper and two corpsmen jumped out. Once the litters were loaded, the driver floored the accelerator and sped away for the aid station, sending a rooster tail of sand peppering the fuselage of the helicopter. Frank and the gunner turned and watched as the P-3 took off. The aircraft rolled a short way down the runway before the pilot hauled back on the yoke and the Orion ascended to the safety of the sky.
“Jesus Christ!” the gunner exclaimed, his eyes wide. “We barely got off the ground with the wounded when an RPG smashed through the windshield. I thought we were dead. I don’t know why it didn’t explode. The damn enemy came out of nowhere.”
“The same thing happened here. It sounds like the assault is pretty much over, just some sporadic rifle fire is all. You guys are fortunate to be standing here if it was an RPG. What happened?”
“It was an RPG all right, and I shot the bastard who launched it. The shock put us in a spin and when we stopped I was facing the fucker holding the grenade launcher. Filled his skinny chest with enough lead to stop a damn train!”
The gunner spoke loud and shook with the excitement and rush of adrenaline. He was half-deaf from the noise of his door gun and the screaming of the wounded. “We were preflighting to provide cover for a supply convoy when observers spotted the enemy massing near our firebase. They started lobbing mortars before the sirens went off. One round hit three Marines standing outside a bunker.”
The gunner shook his head and scratched the ground with the toe of his dusty flightboot. “The dead Marine must have taken most of the blast. There wasn’t enough left of him to put on a stretcher. The other two are the ones we brought in. We started getting peppered with bullets and had just gotten airborne when the RPG hit. Enough metal was already flying around the cabin when it came in – that’s when I got this,” he said, leaning down to unzip the leg of his flightsuit.
He probed the bleeding wound that looked uglier than it was. “What do you know, a piece of shrapnel. I didn’t feel it until the blood started running down my leg.”
Frank looked at the wound, then at the gunner. He bore a remarkable resemblance to Mark Twain, from the bushy brown hair to the thick moustache that hid his upper lip. “You bear a remarkable resemblance to Mark Twain. Don’t tell me your name is Sam Clemens,” he said.
“Yeah, that’s what people tell me. It must be the moustache,” he said with a wink. “My name’s Rich Karlin. What’s yours?”
“Frank Bailey. I’m the detachment Chief for the VP squadron. Come on. I’ll give you a lift to the aid station.”
“I gotta take care of my chopper, first.”
“Don’t worry about it, my guys will take care of her. We have to get you checked out; you look like hell. Let’s go.
“Sam,” he called.
“No worries, Chief; we’ll take care of it.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
The orange-red sun set on another sweltering day in the Philippines as the C-130 touched down at Cubi Point Naval Air Station, leaving the war in Vietnam nine hundred miles behind. The Hercules taxied off the runway and came to a stop in front of the air terminal. Inside the aircraft, four Sailors collected their small overnight bags and waited for the cabin door to swing open so the Customs agent could board. Spirits were high and several of the aircrewmen laughed and kidded around, in contrast to the atmosphere of the previous day’s flight transporting the bodies of Marines killed in the Tet offensive. That was all they seemed to do lately: transport dead American boys from Vietnam to Clark Air Base in the Philippines. Another crew would fly the bodies home to families back in the states. It was somber duty and no one enjoyed it.
After completing his inspection, the customs agent stepped to the ladder and turned, winking at the Sailors. “Have a good time. Don’t forget your protection!”
The Sailors smiled as the crew chief replied, “Don’t worry, we always come prepared.”
Chief Petty Officer Frank Bailey and his crew, petty officers Sam McBride, Jim Sanders, and Otis “OT” Parker walked down the cargo ramp and headed for the terminal. Inside, Chief Bailey gave the men their orders. “All right fellas, we’re back for a week. I want to see you here no later than four o’clock next Thursday afternoon for the return flight to Vietnam. I don’t want to have to tell Commander Stephenson we came back without you. The guys filling in for you are returning on the same plane. Check into the barracks and stow your gear before you do anything else tonight. I want you at the squadron by eight tomorrow morning so you can update your personnel records. You have ninety-six hours’ basket leave before you have to work for a few days. I’m staying at the Chief’s barracks if you need to reach me. What is it, OT?”
“Where you going tonight, Chief?”
“To church, of course. Where I always go when I get liberty in PI. Why?”
“I want to make sure we don’t go to the same bar. You might order me to buy you a drink.”
“Don’t worry yourself. The first barmaid who sees you will scream and have you arrested for impersonating a Sailor.”
“Real funny, Chief.”
“I’m meeting an old shipmate, Master Chief Franklin, at Maricel’s Bar. I’ll see you guys at the squadron tomorrow when I check in with the command master chief. I have to see Chaplain Michael after that.”
“The Chaplain!” Jim’s laugh echoed through the empty terminal. “Are you confessing something? A dirty deed? A secret marriage? You’re a Russian spy?”
Frank rolled his eyes. “I’m confessing the unforgiveable sin: my association with you guys. No. Sam and I volunteered to help with repairs to an orphanage in the Barrio on Monday. That’s something you two should think about instead of blowing your money on booze and broads. All right fellas, get going. Be careful – use the buddy system – and stay together. As the man said, don’t forget your protection. You don’t want to spend the flight back to ‘Nam in agony every time you go to the head. I hear the new strain of clap around Olongapo is resistant to penicillin. The new shot feels like peanut butter going into your left testicle through a fat, square-tipped needle.” He smiled and waved them off. “Have a good time!”
Have a good time, he thought. Something nagged at Frank as he walked out of the terminal and crammed his lanky frame into the back seat of a taxi. He couldn’t put his finger on it but it made his heart quicken when it came to mind. He wasn’t a fatalist, and he wasn’t afraid to die, but he had felt before the Tet attack that his number was up. When the alert had gone off, all he could think about was what it would feel like to get shot. He wondered what it felt like to die. He shook his head, but couldn’t shake the feeling of doom hanging over him like a nightmare.
A few minutes later he hopped out and walked into his room in the CPO barracks. George had said to meet him at the bar at eight. He had three hours, enough time for supper at the Chiefs Club, a shower, and a quick letter to his folks in Annapolis before heading into town.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Frank walked across Shit River bridge and bought a couple skewers of monkey meat from a vendor on Gordon Avenue. He stood on the sidewalk while he ate the barbecued meat – pork, he hoped – and contemplated the scene before him. Testosterone Alley would have been a more fitting name for the zone of pleasure known as Magsaysay Drive. Pheromones floated like fragrance around the little brown foxes and intensified the burning urge for sexual release of young American Sailors. He had already seen a few Sailors from the squadron; he’d see many more before the night ended.
The vendor was a friendly, open-faced old woman with few teeth. She finished helping another customer and joined Frank.
“Many Sailor out tonight, yis, yis? Many more soon when the aircraft carrier arrive, yis?”
The USS Midway battle group was due in port the following day. Olongapo would grow by seven-thousand Sailors.
The old lady, Mumbles he had heard her called, winked at Frank. “How many baby you tink Sailor and bargirl make? Sailor only tink about beer and sex when they awake, yis? All day they tinking of sex with bargirl, and beer. Make good for business for me when they buy food.” She rubbed her fingers together. “Look.” She pointed at a group of Sailors standing on the corner looking at bargirls on the balcony of Daisy Mae’s Bar. “They looking for girls. They want to make babies. Maybe they marry bargirl and take them to America, yis?” Frank raised his eyebrows and tilted his head.
“What about you? You looking for girlfriend?”
“Not me. I’m thinking the same thing you are about Sailors. About young men in general. Food, beer, and sex. That’s what drives the world, right?”
“Yis. I tink you are right.”
The young Sailors would spend hours reconnoitering the perimeter of Magsaysay Drive, drinking beer, eating cheap food, looking out for willing young Filipinas ready to help them obey the irresistible urge to couple. Away from the states, there were no boundaries or community mores to hold one back from finding love and making love, planting one’s seed and fertilizing that seed. That release offered hope to the girl and her family. Hope that the seed would grow and bloom and pave a golden road to opportunity and comfort. The girl would bid farewell to poverty and thatch-roofed huts. She would forget her fear that one day, a failure at love, she would live out her years as a dry, wrinkled, bitter mama-san watching over a nursery of young barmaids clamoring for their turn to suckle at the teat of the American Dream.
Frank finished eating and wiped his hands on the towel the vendor offered. He tipped the old woman who rewarded him with a toothless smile. Frank turned and walked up the noisy street. He passed Wimpy’s Burgers and Apple Disco, a club he had frequented with Sam. He walked by the Brown Fox bar and turned off Magsaysay Drive at Mariposa’s Bar and Restaurant, jammed with Sailors and Marines sitting at street-side tables. He walked up the hot, dusty side street to Maricel’s. A jukebox blasted Jimi Hendrix’s latest hit, Purple Haze, while barmaids danced on the balcony upstairs. A short, plain, young girl called out to him. “Hey, handsome, you come see me? Buy me drink, I love you long time.”
Frank chuckled behind a broad, boyish grin. “No. I’m coming to see George, a friend of mine.”
“Ohhh, you Benny-boy?”
“No, no, I’m afraid not.”
The girl laughed and blew a kiss to him and disappeared into the bar. Another girl, tall and slender, exceptionally pretty, leaning on the balcony railing, watched him as he walked up the street. She turned to a call from inside the bar, looked back at Frank, and then she too disappeared into the bar.
In all his years of deploying to the Philippines, Frank had never been to Maricel’s. He wondered what he would find. He frequented Daisy Mae’s, Apple Disco, or VP Alley bar, the patrol squadron’s home-base in town when he ventured out for a beer. Every bar had its loyal patrons. Helicopter crews claimed Maricel’s as their own. Not much differed between the bars anyway. Every bar offered three things in abundance: cheap beer, cheap love, and loud music. Frank didn’t care much for cheap love.
He walked into Maricel’s and looked around while his eyes adjusted to the dark. His lungs recoiled from the thick cloud of cigarette smoke wafting around the interior. Entering the dim light of the bar crossed the threshold to another world, quite possibly Dante’s Inferno. At least eight of the nine circles of Hell would be found here. He wasn’t sure about Heresy, but Sailors could do just about anything they had a mind to doing.
Tables covered in beer stains and cigarette burns, nicotine-covered ceiling and walls, and the ground-in dirt of the floor tiles gave Maricel’s a shabby patina. Framed photos of grinning GI’s and Sailors holding barmaids on their laps decorated the walls, along with a large number of squadron plaques given to the bar’s mama-san in appreciation for the fun and memories of their R&R, or I&I as it was sometimes called: intercourse and intoxication.
Sailors and Marines in various stages of drunkenness crowded the bar and tables. The dark interior and stale air gave the room a close, dingy, seedy feeling. Frank listened to a roar of laughter and loud cheers as a drunk Marine swallowed the contents of a beer bong to chants of encouragement and fell out of his chair where he lay senseless. He looked barely old enough to shave. Two barmaids in bikinis danced atop stands on either side of the jukebox – Aretha Franklin belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Several couples made out at nearby tables. Frank smiled at the irony. He noticed the beautiful girl from the balcony speaking with an older woman, presumably the mama-san, sitting at the bar stretching along the back wall. The girl saw him, spoke briefly to the older woman, and walked through the maze of tables to him.
“Hello, George’s friend. Have you found him?”
“Not yet, but it’s dark in here.”
“What does he look like?”
“He’s a big man with a crew cut, George Franklin. He’ll be chewing a cigar.”
“Oh, Master Chief. He’s in the back room with the Chiefs meeting.”
“You know him?”
“Everybody knows Master Chief. The girls call him Goody-Goody.”
“Yes. He’s a good boy. He never touches the girls, but he always buys them drinks. And his wife lives on base,” she said in an undertone. “Are you a good boy too?”
“My mother believes so.”
“My mother believes I’m a good girl.”
“I’m not married.”
“I am not married, either.”
“I didn’t think you were.”
“Oh, why not?” she said, her eyes narrowing.
She smiled under arched eyebrows. “You’re a smart boy.”
“I’m more careful than smart. May I go to the back room to see Goody-Goody?”
“Come. I will take you to him.”
Frank followed her through the tangled mess of Sailors and Marines to a door at the far end of the bar. ‘Why do I feel like a puppy following her?’ The mama-san cast a thoughtful look at the pretty one before turning her smile on Frank. Marie stopped as the mama-san spoke to Frank.
“Hello, Sailor. I’ve never seen you here before. Your first time?”
“Oh, uh, yes ma’am. My first time in Maricel’s.”
“Will you come back again?”
Frank glanced at the lovely young woman – her eyes on him. “I might, ma’am.”
“Good. We’ll be waiting for you. Come see me if anything pleases you.”
As they walked away the girl told him, “That was the mama-san, Helen. She owns Maricel’s.”
“She’s very forward.”
“She’s not afraid of anyone. The police look out for her, and Shore Patrol come by often to check on the Sailors and Marines.”
“Doesn’t that make the Sailors and Marines stay away?”
“Does the bar look empty?”
Frank grinned. “What’s your name?”
“Hello, Marie. I’m Frank.”
“Frank.” She gave him an amused smile. “And your friend is George Franklin. That’s funny.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
Marie knocked on the door and opened it. “You will find George Franklin in here…Frank.”
“Thank you, Marie. Will you be here long? Will you join me for a drink later?”
“No.” She turned and left, leaving Frank speechless.
‘Damn, turned down by a barmaid.’