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Page 48
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Remembering Olongapo

By Al Wellman

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Subic Bay, on the seaward side of the Bataan Peninsula which separates Manila Bay from the South China Sea, was the forward base of the United States Navy through the Vietnam war, where sailors could spend a month's pay in a few days ashore between weeks afloat off the coast of Vietnam.

Navy veterans of the Vietnam war remember Olongapo's main street of nightclubs with inexpensive San Miguel beer and talented Filipino musicians. Walking along the concrete sidewalk adjacent to the street which was dusty in dry weather, or muddy in wet weather, one might hear the familiar melody of The Ballad of the Green Berets, but the lyrics were different:

Sailors gazed upon her chest.
She'd go short-time with America's best.
Four hundred miles they'd sailed today
to **** the girls of Subic Bay.

The nightclubs were used as dating sites by Filipina women hoping to marry one of those sailors who seemed so wealthy in comparison to life in the former American colony. Nightclub owners required payment from these women, but that payment was usually in the form of drinks (weak tea pretended to be expensive liquor) purchased for the women by the sailors enjoying their companionship. Most nightclubs offered rooms for sexual encounters, but the women often invited the sailors home with them to avoid the cost of those rooms.

Subic Bay had been a naval base since Spanish rule. The mouth of the bay was sheltered from the South China Sea by Grande Island. The United States Army built Fort Wint on Grande Island following the Spanish-American war, but the ruins of the base required major rebuilding following the scorched-earth retreats of American, and then Japanese, occupiers during the second world war. The Navy retained that piece of real estate when the remainder of the Philippines became independent in 1946, with the promise of jobs for Filipinos preserving the local community's dependence on colonial economic relationships.

The rebuilt base facilities included a community with water, telephone, and electrical utilities as housing for Filipino civilian employees at the base. This housing area, which became the city of Olongapo, was separated from the remainder of the base by a tidal estuary known to naval personnel as Shit River for its prevailing odor of untreated sewage. Olongapo was part of the naval base until 1959. The Korean war demonstrated Subic Bay was too distant from Clark Field for efficient air transport logistics, so the Cubi Point Naval Air Station was built nearby. The Cubi Point runway alignment required razing the Philippine village of Banicain. Displaced Banicain residents were relocated to homes in Olongapo, where they chafed under the restrictions of living on base without the economic support of base jobs.

Olongapo became a focal point for the perceived continuation of US colonial practices. The issue reached national proportions when an American sentry at the Naval Supply Depot shot a Filipino and the Navy failed to put the sentry on trial. In response, the mayor of Manila announced in July 1955 that American servicemen accused of crimes in Manila would be tried in Philippine courts rather than released to military authorities. Martial law was declared in Olongapo when the American owner of an Olongapo auto parts store was murdered in October 1959.

Although Philippine President Ramon Magsaysay (for whom Olongapo's main street of notorious nightclubs was named) had ended the Hukbalahap (Huk) rebellion in 1954, the murder was attributed to the Huks when the town of Olongapo was turned over to the Philippine government in December 1959. Official sources typically attributed all anti-American violence near the base to the allegedly communist Huks through the Vietnam war while Olongapo became home to three political parties; the party controlling local government incarcerated the other two as outlaw gangs.

By the 1970s the back wall of the Olongapo jail was a line of three cells separated by bars. The place was illuminated by a single naked bulb dangling by an electrical wire from the ceiling in front of the center cell. Each cell was standing room only with a bucket serving as a toilet. Male members of the two gangs were in the two outer cells to prevent them from injuring each other through the bars. The center cell was for female prisoners. There was a small crowd of visiting friends outside the cells bringing food to the prisoners since none was provided otherwise. The crowd was generally attired in shorts, tee-shirts, and shower sandals, while the immaculately groomed police wore crisply pressed military-style khaki uniforms and carried M16 rifles.

Further incidents of privileged Americans shooting impoverished Filipinos were addressed by base security teams of an unarmed American guard accompanied by a Filipino with an M16 rifle who would presumably follow the American's directions. Readers may be interested in Gerald Anderson's book entitled Subic Bay from Magellan to Pinatubo.

Al Wellman was a second-generation United States naval officer whose combat participation was limited to launching guided missiles at RADAR images

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