Notes from the Southwest Corner: Liberty is freedom, especially for an old sailor


For the past two days, i have been considering writing my Democrat column for next Tuesday about Pattaya Beach, Thailand. It was a great liberty port with an interesting way to get to shore. I was even going to submit the column two to four days earlier, hopefully pleasing Editor Jared Felkins.

This evening, as i prepared to write and while copying a photo to run with the column, something was nagging me. So i did a search of back columns and found the one below i wrote in 2009. My old memory has some holes but occasionally nagging thoughts serve me well.

Since i can’t use this for The Democrat, i decided you might enjoy reading about our exploits in 1981. It is the cleaned up version.

SAN DIEGO – In the Southwest corner, there is some historic land bordering San Diego Bay.

“Historic” is in the eye of the beholder. Many consider this land historic because it was in several scenes in “Top Gun,” the Tom Cruise blockbuster.

An aside: my cousin Angelyn Jewell, was the inspiration for Kelly McGillis’ character. Angelyn, born to Wesley and Barbara Compton Jewell after they moved from Lebanon to Oroville, CA, received her doctorate in mathematics and flew in F-14s in her work on fire control radars for the Center for Naval Analyses. She and her husband, Scott Berg, now live and work in Washington, D.C.

But from 1923 to 1997, the 361 acres at the base of Point Loma was the Navy Training Center. The Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC) decreed its 1997 demise. Now it is called Liberty Station, a hodge podge of housing development, commercial areas, parks, and some Navy historic edifices.

The name could have been derived from “liberty” as in Patrick Henry’s quote, “Give me liberty or give me death!” in his speech to Virginia’s House of Burgesses in 1775.

But I don’t think so. To mariners, Navy “liberty” is getting off the ship in a port without taking leave. My most glorious adventures and craziest moments occurred during such liberty on deployments.

Reduced deployment time and the new Navy with ship crew swaps and heavy operating tempo in the Indian Ocean have greatly decreased port visits. With women now an integral part of Navy ship crews, the wild times of earlier liberty has been greatly tempered.

It ain’t what it used to be and that ain’t necessarily bad.

In my days, sailors would go to extremes to go on liberty and be extreme while there.

In 1981, I had one of my best years on liberty. I spent ten out of 12 months in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean on the staff of Amphibious Squadron Five and later joining the U.S.S. Okinawa as Weapons Officer.

During that summer, the USS Belleau Wood, the squadron’s flag ship went to Pattaya Beach, Thailand. Originally, Pattaya Beach was a small fishing village at the southeastern side of the Bay of Bangkok.

In the 1960s in part due to the U.S. Air Force and the Vietnam conflict, it became a popular location for rest and relaxation (R&R) for U.S. military personnel. It is now a resort destination for that part of the world.

For a large Navy ship, there were some problems going to Pattaya Beach. Due to the shallow gradient, the USS Belleau Wood anchored five miles from the beach. Large pontoon boats loaded about fifty of the liberty party onto each boat and carried them to about a mile from shore.

The pontoon boats would lie to while “longtails” would come alongside for the passengers. The “longtails” were narrow, wooden canoe-like boats which could carry about 15 people. The boats got their name from the shaft of the outboard motor. The shafts were roughly twenty feet long, sticking out astern. This allowed the propellers to be in deep enough water to drive the boats as close to shore as possible before going aground.

With the shallow gradient, even this was not enough to get the “longtails” ashore at low tide, which of course was the condition when I went ashore. Passengers took off their shoes and socks, rolled up their pants to above their knees, stepped over the side and waded about 100 yards to the shore.

I felt like McArthur returning to the Philippines except for the numerous para-sailing tourists zooming over my head.

In 1981, Pattaya Beach surpassed even Subic Bay on Luzon in the Philippines for wild and wooly liberty. Yet it also had high end resort hotels and fine restaurants. Even though I was single, stories of the dangers kept me out of the bars and “off-limit” areas. I had some fine meals with fellow officers, enjoyed the scenery, and shopped for exquisite jewels at ridiculously low prices. I bought my mother a gift.

For a change, I was a good boy and did not cut a wide swath through Pattaya Beach liberty. However, many friends did, and the stories were astounding but too risqué to relate here.

But when I think of liberty, I think of Pattaya Beach, not a development in downtown San Diego.


A long tail boat. This one is in Bangkok, and much nicer than our liberty boats in Pattaya Beach in 1981.
A longtail boat. This one is in Bangkok, and much nicer than our liberty boats in Pattaya Beach in 1981.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *