Turn out the lights, the party’s over for West Pac sailors

A lot of myths surround military life. It seems those stories appear much more in frequency and intensity when you talk about the Navy life, at least that’s how it seems to me since I served four years in “the Nav,” as we called it back then. One perpetual stereotype of sailors deals with drinking and drunkenness. Why, the sea shanty “What Shall We Do With A Drunken Sailor” dates back at least to the mid-1800s.

When our ship pulled into Subic Bay — ending my first voyage at sea though it was just the beginning of our deployment to the Western Pacific (West Pac) — I learned first hand that the drunken sailor was no myth.

That was September 1977, when the U.S. still had the Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark A.F.B. near Manilla. Today, at least with rules recently handed down by Navy and other military commanders, the drunken sailor is perhaps as close as it has ever been to a myth.

A spate of incidents involving U.S. military personnel in West Pac and particularly in Japan have prompted some of the harshest liberty restrictions in ages. Sailors stationed in Japan have an 11 o’clock curfew. If sailors stay at home they are not allowed to drink after 10 o’clock. If they go to a bar they must have an accompanying adult. They are also not allowed to leave home after more than one drink. As rightly pointed out in a Stars and Stripes article, some high school kids are allowed to state out later.

Incidents such as the rape of a 13-year-old girl in Okinawa had pressured the military to keep a tighter rein on all personnel, not just sailors. Two Texas-base sailors were arrested in the October crime. The military has dealt with a number of infractions, many with a civilian misdemeanor equivalent, committed by service members throughout Asia. Brawls and even worse behavior in Okinawa have long been a touchy point between the U.S. military and its Japanese hosts.

The result has been severe crackdowns and almost unheard of restrictions on sailors, Marine and other service members serving in or deployed to Asia. Restrictions are part of life for the military. Past restrictions usually emanated from unit-level or above.

The first transit on our destroyer’s West Pac deployment was from San Diego to the Philippines. We stopped off for six-hours on-base “liberty” at Pearl Harbor. I had duty that day and on the overnight visit on the way home. The first time, I got to take some trash off the ship to the pier. Such a Hawaiian adventure! And other time-eaters on the way to our home port away from home port in the Philippines included Naval Gunfire Support in which we fired our 5” cannons on some desolate, I suppose, island in the Hawaii chain. Although two weeks is not really a long time at sea we were nonetheless ready for liberty at Subic Bay and adjacent Olangapo. The latter is another story.

Plenty of drinking and bad behavior commenced when we sat foot on Philippine soil the first time and other times we docked here and elsewhere. The ship’s compliment as a whole was probably better-behaved — I was the ship’s legal yeoman so I knew who got in trouble — during our port visits to New Zealand and Australia. Part of the reason was the friendliness and genteel manner of our hosts. That isn’t to say a few incidents took place, even between the hard-drinking Aussies and the Americans. Some guys though, just couldn’t handle their liquor or had emotional problems which were compounded to produce some real screwups.

What surprised me the most about the time I spent on liberty in various locales of West Pac and the Southern Pacific is that behavioral incidents were not limited to the young, lower-ranked sailors. Our ship’s career counselor, a chief petty officer, went to Captain’s Mast for dancing on an Olangapo bar table, fighting with Shore Patrol and talking smack to our Command Duty Officer. The Old Man gave the chief seven-day’s restriction to the ship — those days were served after we were under way! I had come to the fleet from shore duty where senior enlisteds or officers either stayed out of trouble or who were an asset to the command so their report chits often got “lost.” I don’t know why I suspected the higher up’s didn’t cut loose some time.

We had restrictions sometimes and often they made no sense. Of course, the ultimate restriction was a midnight curfew in the Philippines due to martial law imposed by President Ferdinand Marcos. If we weren’t off the streets at midnight we could be, quite simply, shot by the M-16-carrying Constabulary, or so we were warned.

Certain sailors, E-5 and below, were given “Cinderella Liberty” in Jakarta, where we had to return to the ship at midnight. We also had uniform restrictions. Originally, E-4s — a third class petty officer, which I was at the time — and below had to wear their uniforms on liberty in Jakarta. All others could wear civvies. I think I made a reasoned, respectful argument to the Executive Officer as to how E-4s were as well non-commissioned officers and noted the Navy’s NCO corps was dropping out like flies at the time. I opined that perhaps such a small gesture as E-4s being allowed to wear civvies on liberty as was the norm then, might help restore a little RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges) for new petty officers. He agreed and so third class petty officers on the ships, including myself, wore civies in Indonesia.

We had one other restriction. We were tied up outbound of a frigate that was sailing with us and we had to cross it to get to our ship. The scuttlebutt was that our ship was known for having drug problems — this was the late 1970s — so the docking would help prevent smuggling illegal substances aboard. Also, which I found rather extreme, each of us returning from liberty were given a die to roll and if it hit the magic number, ta ta!, we got body cavity searches for drugs. I was lucky in that I didn’t hit the magic number. As it turned out, all the attention to our sailors may not have achieved its goal. I knew of at least a couple of folks who, with one sailor swimming to our unattended port side, managed to smuggle two pounds of Indonesian hashish on board. Those were different days.

Such restrictions we faced often achieved no real results and were offensive to many. The Navy has tackled abuse of both alcohol and other drugs over the past 30 years since I was a sailor. It really had to be done, I suppose. You had old lifers getting up popping cans of beer from the barracks vending machine at 0630 before going to work. The enlisted club was open all day and you could get a couple of cold ones for lunch with your burger and fries at the Navy Exchange grill. And drugs, of course, were a “whole ‘nother thang.”

But the Navy and other services have gone overboard, pardon the pun, with the crackdown in the Pacific. The consequences of what some term “infantilezation” may blow up in the military’s face, as noted here. These are adults, like it or not, the military needs to treat them like responsible adults they should be and punish them or get rid of them if they are grossly irresponsible. It has been that simple for years now.

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