If You Can’t Be Home for Christmas, There Was Once a Good Option

In early November 1979, i took a two-week trip from San Diego to Tasmania (included was a five-day holdover at the Subic Bay Naval Base in the Philippines). i was not a happy camper. i was going to report to a staff, Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five, not a ship, which i could drive. i was leaving behind a seven-year old daughter and a former wife who was recovering from breast cancer. i would be gone over Christmas and the New Year. And i didn’t have a high regard for an amphibious squadron staff job.

The trip and ensuing two months are a story to itself for later. But then there was:

Hong Kong. Christmas Eve. 1979.

Commander, Amphibious Squadron Five, his staff, and his flagship, the USS Tripoli (LPH 10) had drawn Hong Kong as their liberty port over Christmas and had pulled into Fleet Landing on the Hong Kong side right next to the great Fleet exchange.

Staff officers Mike Peck, the Tactical Air Control officer; Pete Toennies, the UDT advisor; OW Wright, the admin officer, and me, the staff’s current operations officer, had become good friends and running mates since i joined them in Hobart, Tasmania in November, and we had proved we were good liberty hounds. We were ready for Christmas in Hong Kong.

Mike and i had been in this wonderful city several times before. Mentioning the name of Johnny Lee, the tailor, got us a room in the Holiday Inn on the Kowloon side, a much improved version of the chain than those in the states. In Hong Kong, it was considered a luxury hotel. Mentioning Johnny Lee gave us the large room with two queen beds for $65 US dollars a night.

There are a number of sea stories related to this liberty, but i will stick to one aspect of our port stay.

The British Navy contingent in Hong Kong had hosted a reception for the squadron the day after we arrived. Mike and i hooked up with lieutenant junior grade in the British Navy, and we had a great time swapping stories. Unfortunately, i don’t remember his name, but i do recall he was a helicopter pilot who had been retrained to drive their surface effect boats in Hong Kong with the mission of interdicting any attempts at illegal immigration. This had been a big problem for the Brits after the evacuation of Vietnam as many of those displaced were trying to get into Hong Kong.

The three of us hit it off. To show our appreciation of the new friendship, we took the Brit to Gaddi’s, one of the finest high end dining establishments in the world, housed in the famed Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong. It was a good evening. So Mike, the Brit, and i ran around for several days. The younger helicopter/surface effect boat driver invited us to Christmas Eve mess at the British Navy’s wardroom.

The HMS Tamar is the tall white building by the bay behind the Navy ships, either US or British. It was turned over to the Chinese when Hong Kong was transferred from England to China.

Now the officer’s mess in their wardroom was no ordinary place. The wardroom and the accompanying galley were not on a ship. They were on the penultimate floor of the British Navy’s Hong Kong headquarters, a thirteen story building on the waterfront. The Brits called it the HMS Tamar, as if it were a ship. The wardroom was actually two stories high and the bayside was a huge glass window looking out on Hong Kong. The city and its lights were a beautiful sight on Christmas Eve from that vantage point.

The HMS Tamar’s wardroom consisted of about one hundred officers, about a third of which were women, something US Navy officers weren’t accustomed to at the time. With shrimp cocktail appetizers and drinks, we chatted with all of the male and female officers before sitting down for the evening mess. It was a traditional British Christmas feast that seemed to have no end.  Roasted goose and roasted gammon (smoked ham) were the traditional meats but the British Navy added roast beef. Then there was roasted chestnuts with Brussel sprouts, roasted potatoes, pigs in a blanket, parsnips, and swede (rutabaga), ginger bread stuffing, bread sauce, cranberry sauce, and concluding with, of course, English Christmas Bread Pudding.

All of this of course, was accompanied by continuous libations of wine, whiskey, and of course, gin. It was all very, very lovely.

After dinner, we continued our discussions with just about everyone in a Royal Navy uniform. We were like celebrities. My glass was much like the professor in “The Bishop’s Wife” when Cary Grant, the angel kept magically filling the writing professor’s glass.

Just before midnight, i was looking at Mike and Pete, thinking it was about time to say our thanks and give our hosts Christmas wishes, catch the elevator, and walk back to the ship, berthed between the HMS Tamar and the U.S.Fleet Exchange. But the group of about six junior officers insisted we attend midnight mass with them. If anything, this contingent about half men and women officers, had consumed a lot more beverage than any of us. Regardless, we agreed. Then they exited the main wardroom and started walking up the stairs. i was surprised there was another floor and asked where we were going.

“To the chapel,” they informed me.

i would like to say we filed in quietly with decorum. i think Mike and i mustered the strength to approach some semblance of decorum. But it was a pretty raucous bunch who found seats in two rows toward the back of the small chapel that held about 150 people, if that. Our group was laughing and continuing to have fun until just before the service. Then, one of the female officers behind us, tapped me on the shoulder.

She pleaded with whispers for us to help them out. One of the male junior officers had hidden a fifth of gin and brought it into the chapel. He was also blown out of his mind and close to passing out. The young female officer asked me to take the gin and hide it through the service. She explained if the senior officers caught him our any of the English in our group with the booze, they could be booted out of the service, not the mass, the British Naval service.

We, somewhat dubious, complied with her pleas. She passed the bottle to me under our seat. With Mike approval, i slid it up under my sports coat and cradled it with my left arm as inconspicuously as i possibly could.

The service went on, but i was too nervous to pay much attention. Getting up and down for the liturgies and hymns was a frightening proposition. With great difficulty, i successfully maneuvered through the stand/sit requirement each time. At the conclusion, i breathed a huge sigh of relief. Mike and i had worked out a strategy, whispering during the service. We would file to the left to the center aisle and then move as rapidly as possible without causing attention with Mike leading interference for me. i would continue to cradle the booze with my left arm, hopefully looking as if nothing were amiss.

i had just cleared the aisle and was headed for the exit when the plan ran afoul of what Kevin Kline’s character in “Silverado” would have called “bad luck.”

Unbeknownst to us, the commodore, Captain Jim McIntyre, also known as the “Silver Fox,” was attending the mass, sitting on the front row with the British commander and a couple of Hong Kong notables. He spotted me and my interference walking quickly toward the door. He walked more quickly, caught up with me, grabbed my left shoulder, and spun me around.

“Sure am surprised to see you three here,” the commodore laughed.

i wasn’t thinking much about the commodore yet. When he spun me around, my grasp on the bottle of gin slipped. i lurched over catching the bottom with my right hand and moving it back up into its hiding place as covertly as i could.

Reaching out with my right hand, i shook his and said, “Commodore, you don’t know the half of it,” concluding, “It’s good to see you here as well. Merry Christmas.

With that, i turned before the conversation could continue, caught up with Mike and rendezvoused with our new British friends. They were ecstatically happy with their new heroes as we returned the bottle of gin. The female officer’s whose plea we had answered kissed me on the cheek, gave me a hug, and thanked the three of us for saving their hides.

They never knew our all of our hides could have been in deep, deep trouble if i hadn’t caught that bottle on the way down.

Christmas was nice but it was anti-climatic.

But there was more fun to come.

The ship headed back to Subic Bay, Olongapo, Fiddler’s Green with the wildest liberty port on the face of the earth. But en route, Iran had another idea. They raided the American Embassy and took the hostages. Jimmy Carter, his intelligence experts, and the military high command were confronted with some decisions. The immediate decision was to detour the Amphibious Squadron to Singapore. The five ships rerouted across the South China Sea past Borneo to the southeast and into the entrance to the Mallaca Strait. The ships anchored out, a mile ride liberty launch to the fleet landing.

Mike and i rented a room in Raffle’s Hotel, the old one which Joseph Conrad favored with the open bar and palm like fans on the ceiling with a rattan accent throughout. We sat in the comfortable couches and ordered Singapore Slings to discover the originals, created there, tasted very much like Pepto Bismol, quickly switching to gin and tonics, probably Conrad’s preference.

Pete came and OW Wright came to visit and we discovered a British pub around the corner where world champion dart players frequented. We spent a lot of  hours there, and one evening, i hit a bullseye to beat some of the best dart players in the world, never telling them i was aiming for a double twenty.

Pete invited Mike and i to join his SEAL buddies on a night out. We went to “Hungry Street,” an alley where the locals from several Asian ethnicities would roll in their wares and set up kiosks and rickety table and chairs. They offered seafood from their tanks and cook it, along with rice, of course, Asian bread, and things we decided not to ask about, in woks over fires in  the back of their kiosks. Six or so of us would order from each of the kiosks, sit at one of the round rickety tables, have a beer or two, while they cooked our fare, and eat, and eat and eat. Lord, one of the best meals i can remember.

On the other end, someone discovered Navy and Marine officers were granted entry into the Petroleum Club. It sat on the highest floor of a high rise in downtown Singapore. They served superb meals with the grass fed steaks from Australia. However, the bartender’s creation of “Le Bom Bom” was the attraction. It was one hell of a delicious drink that would knock your socks off.  And what a view.

We wandered the city, watched cricket matches, and solved pretty much every problem in the world while bringing in the New Year at, where else?, the Petroleum Club and Le Bom Bom’s.

About three days later, Jimmy Carter wisely figured out our squadron was not well equipped or well trained enough to attempt a hostage snatch. We were sent back to Subic, the Chuck Wagon, the Quarterdeck above the Subic Officer’s Cluh, Grande Island, Cubi Point’s Officer’s Cub with the Dempsey dumpster in the stag bar, and of course, Fiddler’s Green across “shit river.”

Oh lord, if you are a man and single, that was about as good as it could get…

…if you couldn’t get home for Christmas.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year: after this one we need a good bit of happiness.

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