The Great Subic Sex Riot
The Subic Bay Naval Station was a big base. A town in itself. This can be seen by how it is being used today. An industrial zone forming a separate jurisdiction from its surroundings Until recently it had changed little since I last saw it at the end of the 1970s. The Mabayuan river runs alongside a high ridge-line that sweeps south-southwest to the base of the deep U-shap of Subic bay. In between that ridge and another group of hills a few miles to the east, tucked into a narrow low delta fan lies the city of Olongapo. The outside portion of that delta where it met the bay, a wedge-shaped piece of land, a half mile or so wide and a mile or two long, formed the main part of the Subic Bay Naval Base. This was an American base leased from the Philippines and partnered in those years with Clark Air force base some 40 miles to the north. A tidal channel merged with the Mabayuang at a right angle just upstream of where it poured into Subic bay and separated the base from Olongapo city, save for two bridges. The main gate of the base stood at the end of one of these, this carried you over onto Magsaysay drive. I would not be being sufficiently accurate if I did not mention this channel was little more than an open sewer, possessing a stench like a physical assault. Often dead animals (Goats pigs dogs) could be observed floating in it, like some chthonic stew. There were things that always stood out about Subic bay for me. The hill that formed the ridge line; stark and dry, long and sinuous. A shade of pale brown that seemed previously un-encountered, darker than straw, lighter than oak leaves winnowing from the trees in the fall. There was nothing like it in New England. There was the way the city of Olongapo changed from a second world city to the third world in the last few blocks to the rivers edge. Then changed again across the channel to the industrial first world of the naval base; a place that often reminded me of South Boston but without the charm. In its mono-colored construction Olongapo gave the impression of being a town built of bare wet wooden boards. Not even of two by fours, or one by eights, but as if 8"x ½" was the standard plank of record.
In 1979 we - a grand gesture for a group of people that day I mostly do not actually remember - were young. We were aged from nineteen to maybe twenty-one. There was a distinct difference between those older than that and us. They would be non-comms often by that age, on their second or third deployment. Fixated on work, the cars they would buy when they got back state-side, the off-base housing they would rent, the girl they would move in with and marry. They had seen the east and now no longer saw it, not at least the way we did. I never got out there again on a subsequent deployment to see it on a return.
The day was a singular day from the start. It was toward the end of a eight month deployment (long in those days, not so much now) It was on an oil burning aircraft carrier which did not have the at-sea stamina of the new nuclear carriers. It was our last in-port period in the Navy's frontier port of record. The post-Vietnam cold war was a strange time for the military I think. Unpleasantly quiet; equally in its general monotony, and invisibility from the public's consciousness. A time of shrinking budgets and aging material. There was no shooting to be sure, just the threat of big iron annihilation from hydrogen bomb armed fleets that shadowed us as we shadowed them.
A Situation Report prepared for the day would surely start by noting that the Fleet was in. Subic Bay was a working port, a big enough base on its own. Having a carrier group come in for an in-port rest period added around seven to nine thousand sailors to the family. This made it a tremendously busy and full place. It lit the whole array of satellite bases and base housing up around to Cubi Point, the Naval Air Station on the southern limb of the bay. The local San Migual brewery either had to stock up for such events, or run double shifts. Until the ships went back out to sea.
The Sit. Rep. would further detail that off-base liberty was cancelled that day. This is where the story really starts. The town had closed because of a chain of strikes by local business. This being te currency changers, the bars, the earnest and endlessly accommodating bar girls. All the critical infrastructure. The dispute to the extent I recall (or ever knew in the first place) was between Olongapo's mayor and the business community, involving the US Navy only tangentially. At any rate the Base Commander responding to a request from the local Philippine authorities made the decision to confine all military personnel (all fleet personnel, at least) to the base. This was a bit of a disappointment. Liberty in Olongapo was a legendary. Olongapo seemed to be composed entirely of cheap and cheaper bars, tattoo parlors and tailors specializing in embroidered dragons. Many of the bars made it a special feature to stake out particular ships, squadrons, and divisions within the larger ships. It made no difference that for relaxation you deliberately reconvened with the very same group you had just spent three weeks at sea with. It was comfortable, homey, and within those warm confines a great deal of alcohol could be sold. The local hospitality made a living catering to American sailors and very little sailors could do fazed them much. It required effort and force of will beyond the ability of most to attract the attention of the police or shore patrol. The shore patrol were more likely to be interested in what sailors were up to, the local Philippine police more likely to be carrying M-16s, with the safeties off.
The day must have been a Saturday. In port during the week Mondays thru Fridays would have been work days and we wouldn't have got off until five. Weekends, unless you were standing a watch, you had off. This day I know started in the morning. We had the news that the town of Olongapo was off limits, I think a little later they announced that all base gates were closed. Barrio Barretto, a separate town, lay some distance down the road beyond the north gate. It was a warm day, there was nothing unusual about that. A summer day in the Philippines is always a warm day. Going off base was not our first appointment of the day anyway. I was with a small group of four or five people, The only one I distinctly recall today was Mark Edmunds, my best friend in those days and habitual companion. A manageable list of names I have at hand would likely do for naming the rest. The impositions of the day didn't concern us. The base Enlisted Man's Clubs and points of beer sales, we were assured, would be open all day and so our pressing concerns as sailor were answered. We took this as a conscious and deliberate decision for our positive welfare. We set off from the ship for what was shaping up to be a relaxed (if enforced) nature day. The first stop was an intramural soccer game featuring people we knew. This might afford clues to who I was with, as echos from long departed memory suggest the players were from RVAH-7 rather than the USS Ranger's CVIC. This makes sense as the squadron had off loaded to Cubi Point from the ship during the previous mid summer at-sea periods, and had taken up base life. Ensign Gent and I had elected to stay with the ship. We arrived at the base playing fields and set up on the bleachers there. We had some sandwiches, and it being roughly the noon hour intended to make picnic of it. These intramural games: soccer, softball, basketball, I ought to point out were genuinely popular activities. Most other people out were also trying to make the best of of the day. In general spirts were up. I distinctly recall being able to score a few bottles of beer from another group who were in a generous mood and had a cooler. These were not the only bottles around.
At some point during the game it became clear that a large number of people were percolating through various parts of the base and gathering before the main gate. A single line of MPs were standing between the crowd which grew ever denser and the gate. Our group watched this from the top tier of the bleachers which were maybe 15 feet high and gave a reasonable though distant view of this which was occurring a few blocks away.
View Larger Map
In this google map photo the playing field we started out is called the Remy Field track oval, the main gate is where Aguinaldo st and Security rd cross, and our ship, the USS Ranger, was docked at what is now called Alava Wharf. You may have to zoom in for some of these labels to pop.
The line of MPs were being edged ever backwards by this slowly advancing crowd and it seemed inevitably the crowd would eventually surge through the gate across the bridge and into town. We speculated briefly on this. People that we knew were already in town, having spent the night there on rumors that the base would close the next day. The shore patrol was apparently not trying to roust them out of wherever they had gone to ground. If you got through the gate you could claim you were one of them. Alternately, we reasoned you could claim you were not one of the ones that rushed the gate, but went through it later. In any case it was clear that something was about to happen and it might be fun to watch. On the strength of this analysis I convinced our little group to decamp from the bleachers and head over to the main gate.
Once we got down among them it was apparent that this crowd was a lot drunker than we were, having made that the first order of their day. There was something on the other end of that bridge they wanted, and they wanted it bad. I think our plans involved more spaced out drinking, perhaps culminating with a trip up to the Cubi Point EM club that perched on top of the small mountain above the airfield. Watching the sunset and getting gracefully plastered through the length of a warm summer evening. All that was out the window now. The crowd began turning in its mood. Moving from being simply loud and boisterous to profane shouting and ugly. One enduring impression of the day I have is that this happened quickly. Within the space of a few minutes without anything in particular seeming to occur, a violence end became assured. Stuff started getting thrown around or rather thrown at the MPs, beer bottles, rocks, and whatever was at hand.
At this point I see a large group of people in full riot gear moving up from the left. It was a company sized group, a hundred men or more, I marked this group as marines from barracks on the north side of base. Worse, possibly they were from from the base correctional custody unit. Correctional custody units, what can I say? Given a choice between a red-line brig and a correctional custody unit most people would pick the red-line brig - and you don't want to be in a red-line brig. I pointed this development out to my friends and suggested it might be time to leave. They were already coming to this conclusion themselves, but took pains in the moment to point out it had been my idea to come to the gate in the first place. In that brief interval the riot squad quietly slid in behind the MPs.
We were already turned and heading out when at an almost imperceptible signal from off stage, the riot police burst through the line of MPs who step aside and descended on the crowd. Swinging freely at heads backs and shoulders with their riot batons. We adjusted our fast walk to a dead run shouting out to each other to keep together, and offer suggestions for a plan. We ran about a quarter mile in this manner. I remember thinking as I ran that it was an injustice that the people up front were the ones who had gotten smacked up - they had just been yelling. The bottle throwers as is typical with these affairs were a few rows back. They, like us, had time to turn and run.
I was not overly familiar with all the side streets and buildings of the base; Mark and the rest of the Squadron (RVAH-7) had spent the mid summer at Subic. They were now attempting to work to a plan they were improvising as we ran. Every time we'd stop to get our bearings one of the riot squads would catch up to us. We would need to take off again or get whacked with a riot stick. It was becoming increasingly apparent that several other riot police units had been positioned around the base. They were swinging two foot t-style batons which were quite effective. When they caught up to people they were hitting them and hitting them hard. I caught a few blows myself and had aching shoulders and more than a few bruises on my arms and legs the next day.
The plan such as it was was an attempted detour to some enlisted quarters (housing that is) along the way. I think this was housing that had been used by some in our squadron during the summer, who didn't end up at Cubi Point. Getting there didn't help us much. The doors were locked, apparently well before we arrived. Continually through this we saw there was more preparation for this pushback than we realized. This section of the base was in a grove of trees; though, and we had hope that we might escape notice there. What we did discover in the stairwell was a the beer machine. We pooled our change together and dispensed some beers. The very thought of a beer vending machine is glorious, really. I've never seen one since. In the course of maybe five minutes respite lurking in an outdoor stairwell we managed to successfully get a little drunker. It ended too soon. I have a distinct memory of having a beer smashed out of my hand by one of those riot stick wielding Samnites. It may have been here or a few minutes earlier. As a visual memory it's a little vague, but the pervading sense of wronged inciviliality remains.
After this incident it finally began to dawn on us that we were losing this foot race. And we could see how the end game was going to shape up. There was a barbed wire fence at the end of this tunnel. We were being pushed back to the fleet quay. The fleet quay was a sort of double quay a separate parallel structure to the main quay joined to it by short causeways, designed with either security or keeping the carriers out in deeper water in mind. For whatever purpose it had a 12 foot barbed-wire topped chain-link fence separating it from the rest of the base. We were finally left with only those gates to head towards. On the quay MPs from all the ships were waiting for us with cruel smiles and night sticks. Having drawn duty that day themselves they cared nothing for our misery. It was only the comic relief of a dull interval of duty. They herded us up the gangplanks to the quarter deck in a narrow order and slow deliberate manner.
After three hours of relative freedom and a half-hour of blind (and slightly terrified) flight. We found ourselves back on the ship. Buzzed beyond measure between white and green steel walls. We locked ourselves in vault three, for lack of any other place to go to. This was an auxiliary work/storage space (a large closet) that it had been our art to reclaim as a recreation center. Once you finish putting five thousand plus people on a Forrestal class carrier there isn't a whole lot of quiet personal space.
There we sobered down and gradually reintegrated the ships routine as if by osmosis until bells rang and it was again, time for dinner.