Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Sojourn on the South China Sea

Jeff Sharlet hoped to be shipped to Europe, but landed on the shores of the South China Sea. He had enlisted in the Army Security Agency (ASA), a semi-secret communications intelligence outfit, the military arm of the National Security Agency in Washington. ASA sent Jeff to the Army Language School (ALS) in sunny California.

By late ’62 he’d completed the 47-week Vietnamese course, received Top Secret and Cryptographic clearances, and was soon dispatched to the 9th ASA Field Station at Clark Air Force Base (AFB) in the Philippine Islands (PI).

Life in the islands – a quiet backwater of the global Cold War – was relatively pleasant for ASA personnel. Across the South China Sea a low intensity civil conflict was underway in Vietnam, and the Pentagon was gradually stockpiling Vietnamese linguists (lingys for short). ASA was temporarily parking most of them in the Philippines out of harm’s way.

With so many interpreter/translators on hand, the workload at the 9th ASA was not heavy, and the troops enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. But for the war looming in Vietnam, one might call it an extended spring break in the South Pacific.

For the young college-boy lingys, it was something of an adventure. While they bided their time waiting for the call to war, daily life in the tropics resembled scenes from From Here to Eternity without the romance – a sprawling military base, a nearby GI town, palm trees swaying in the breeze. 

Excerpts from Jeff’s letters home trace his carefree time as a GI in the PI during the early months of ’63.

13 Jan 63 – from Honolulu enroute to the Far East

Hawaii is beautiful and warm. I’m on a Super-Constellation. It will take 30 hours to get to the Philippines. The South Pacific looks enchanting.

29 Jan 63 – at 9th ASA Field Station, Clark AFB, PI

This base is like a little piece of America. It has everything. We live in a fairly new billet in three-man rooms. Outside walls, and inside walls as well, are louvered for ventilation. We have houseboys at $2.50 a month to make beds and shine shoes as well as clean rooms, the billet, and its grounds.

Jeff (r) & Fred Baumann outside barracks, Clark AFB, 1963

The pool is across the street, tennis courts are nearby, and the enlisted men’s open mess, called the Coconut Grove, is next door.

The pool across the street

You hear music everywhere on base. It’s from Armed Forces Radio (AFR), which we get on our transistors, and you can also hear it through speakers in the clubs and the rec areas.

It’s a strange combination of Country Western and Rock ‘n Roll, everything from ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ and ‘Oklahoma Hills’ to Little Richard’s ‘Good Golly, Miss Molly’ and lots of Ray Charles.

♫ I’m an old road-hog/I drove a big truck
Shot the pinball machine, but it brought me bad luck

The work is interesting, informative, and not too hard. I work the mid-shift from Midnight to 7:00 AM. The place where we work, called Operations (Ops for short), is a windowless, concrete building in a heavily-guarded, barbed wire enclosure in the middle of an enormous field.

When I wake up in the afternoon, I do errands, read in bed, or go to the pool. I generally go to Happy Hour at the Airmen’s Club from 4:30 to 5:30  afternoons. All drinks are only 10 cents, normally 20 cents, while weeds run 95 cents a carton. I either stay there for a while or go into town with a buddy.

The town called Angeles City is right outside the base. It’s like something out of Susie Wong’s world, just like those Far Eastern army towns you read about in war novels. All the joints have American names.

A GI joint, Angeles City, PI, 1963

It’s one huge collection of bars, whores, beds, Jeepney taxi drivers, horse and buggy conveyances, and the most poverty stricken people I’ve ever seen. The girls are mostly young.

Thus far when I think of this country, the R&R song ‘Babycakes’ (Ooooh, baby, oooh), the dance ‘Mashed Potatoes’, strong San Miguel beer, as well as comments in the bars like ‘Hey Joe, you buy me a ladies beer’ – come to mind as representative of the PI.

Hey Mama, don’t you treat me wrong
Come and love your daddy all night long††

15 Feb 63

The Filipinos and the bar girls don’t need any information. The first night I went to town, all the girls asked me if I was ‘9th ASA’. I’m trying to organize the girls into an entertainment union so they can get a guaranteed wage for hustling drinks.

Jeff (2d on l) & buddies, Angeles City, 1963
Manila, the capital, is 65 miles away. I just got back from there. It’s just like any large city in the States, a total imitation of the US with gangs, the PTA, an American Legion, and a Chamber of Commerce. English is the common language, and just about everyone speaks it. The University of the Philippines even has sororities.

I like it here, but I don’t know why.

24 Mar 63

I have a chance to get a hop to New Delhi next month, but I’m going to pass it up for a while. They have space available on planes to India once a week and to Saigon, Bangkok, Taiwan, and Japan every day. They also have a ship, which goes to Hong Kong 4 times a year, expressly for guys going on leave.

I might go out for football because they go on game trips to Japan, Korea, and Okinawa. This station has a good team. They almost beat the Far Eastern champions last year.

11 Apr 63

Some friends and I took a train to a place called Dagupan, a few hours from here. Just beyond the city is a beautiful white sandy beach on the South China Sea where we rented a hut for a couple of days, took in some sun and surf, and drank a lot of beer.

Where the deep blue pearly waters

Wash upon white silver sands
We watched the sun set in the evening
In a far and distant land†††

I cut it too close getting back from town last night and almost missed the shuttle to Ops for mid-shift. If a guy’s had one too many in Angeles, the flood lighting around the Ops building for night security definitely has a sobering effect.

28 Apr 63

The PI is quite different from any other environment I have ever seen. This country is a cross between the 20th and 19th century. Even in Manila, a large (pop. 2 million), Westernized, and extremely dirty city, one will see horse-drawn carts on the streets with old WWII jeeps used as taxis and private vehicles.

Manila Bay

About 85% if the people are extremely poor, ill-fed, ill-clothed, and unhealthy. Begging for money or cigarettes is very common here.

A strong national police force secures the peace. In the expensive commercial sections of Manila, there’s a cop on duty every hundred yards. There are guards on all the trains. Most cops carry submachine guns or shotguns.

It’s starting to get very hot now with the rainy season approaching soon.

17 May 63

Some of us took a bus to Baguio, a mountain resort about 120 miles north of Clark AFB. It’s about 5000 feet up in the clouds and nice relief from the heat of the plains.

♫  I’m gonna climb that mountain
Walk up there among the clouds††††
On the way up – before the steep ascents – we passed many poor farmers and their water buffalo. The trip was one of the most beautiful as well as the most dangerous bus rides I’ll probably ever take.

Perilous Baguio road, 1963
In the Philippines, Jeff availed himself of the Army’s recruiting slogan ‘Fun, Travel, and Adventure’ or FTA,* but the bloom was beginning to fade. The weather in the South Pacific – rising temps and drenching monsoons – was a damper, but he was also finding the repetitive classified work less challenging, while the allure of an endless party life had begun to pall.

As will be apparent in the next post, it was war just over the horizon that would dramatically change Jeff’s experience in the military.
*With the later rise of GI anti-Vietnam War protest in which Jeff was a principal player, the Army’s slogan FTA became ‘Fuck the Army’.

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