by Pat Dingle
I'm sure most of you are familiar with the sights, sounds, sensations and "tastes" of Hong Kong at one time or another during your service in west-pac and there's not really anything I could add to that. Or will. We've been there, done that. So I'll try to describe a liberty during the mid sixties that you may not have experienced. For thems what served after the Vietnam War, keep in mind that it was Red China then and our county's avowed enemy. Russia was supplying North Vietnam with all the sam missiles and other munitions but China too was supplying arms and providing sanctuary for the NVA's mig jets with bases just over their border. They were the "Chi-Com" and I tracked their jets and monitored their secret military signals for four years. Enroute to British Hong Kong for liberty always came with security briefings in OI division of heads up guys, keep your mouth shut while ashore, you never know who may be listening. And, CIC shut down in that harbor as in all others, except for our electronic counter measures equipment room (ECM). We stood watch in there 24/7 taking pictures of their spy stuff with our spy stuff.
We enjoyed Hong Kong and all it had to offer of course but there were times we'd take the harbor ferry over to the Kowloon side and taste the libations offered in those more up town bars over there. That was where many British families lived in very up scale homes behind tall rod iron fences on tree lined streets. It was a really nice clean area and what I imagined the English countryside must look like. The few Chinese walking on the streets in that neighborhood were household servants not coolies. Of course near the harbor itself in Kowloon were where all the Chinese laborers worked, ate, shopped and generally lived. Like Hong Kong this area was jammed packed with people too on very narrow alley like streets, like an ant hill only with warning signals that some will bite. Within an easy walking distance was the border with The Dreaded Enemy Chi-Com, Red China herself. I've walked up within spitting distance of the double fence line just to peer over into the enemies backyard many times and studied the landscape and people. Spat too but didn't pee in their general direction as my momma didn't raise no fool. Those border guards looked pretty tough and far better armed and focused then us, given our condition at those times. We'd just act ignorant, be mentally belly bumping them and sending universal hand signals. Generally we'd call it a win and turn around before they reacted by snatching our young American asses up and do the Manchurian Candidate on us.
I more often then not left my shipmates parked on a stool in a bar and did a walkabout wherever we happened to be in whatever country we happened to be in. Sitting on a radar scope for weeks, months, on end, I always just wanted to go exploring where my brighter shipmates dared not go. So I went alone, like back home in the endless desert walkabouts, it's just what I'd always do wherever I am. So, off the stool and out the door, look left, look right, and whatever sights intrigue me the most, steam that way. I could tell I was heading in the direction of the coolie enclave because of the shop fronts, products offered and lack of Caucasians in the neighborhoods if not by the stares alone. No one seemed at all hostile to my intrusion, they seldom did, so deeper into unknown territory to see the sights and whatever else I may happen upon in the narrow alleyways of a real "China Town". After about a hour or so I knew I was somewhere near the border of Chi-Com Country but couldn't yet see any real proof of it, just a feeling I had. Also had that old feeling of wanting to wet my whistle in a bar. It didn't take too long to spot the coke sign and just walk right in. This joint was small but had a bar with stools and tables about so I sat at the bar and the nice bartender came right up. There was a language barrier but when wasn't there one? I got my drink order in after about five minutes of waiving my arms and saying whiskey and 7-up, got the whiskey part but 7-up and coke were misinterpreted but no big deal, I could down it either way and have. I guess I'd been in there about a hour when the European man walked in.
This short stocky white guy about 40 years old comes in and sits at the bar several stools down from me and orders a Chinese beer. From the look on the bartender’s face I thought he must be a regular customer, others in there also recognized him. Midway through his glass the guy looked my way and nodded. I returned the nod. He then asked if I was an American? I knew right then he had an accent I'd never heard before in person, only in the movies. I pegged him as a middle eastern European type, looked kinda rough too. A big smile broke out on his face as he started telling me how much he liked Americans and ordered more drinks for me, in Chinese no less. This jovial fellow goes on to tell me he's a merchant seaman and his ship is in port to pick up cargo. By now he's moved down to the stool next to mine and kept ordering drinks for me. I thought I noticed there's a little more booze and less coke now. He asked if I was on that big aircraft carrier anchored in the harbor and I said yes. So did my arched patch on my sleeve facing towards him read USS Yorktown. He asked what I did aboard and I'd mumble something but my striker patch said it all, radar. Anyway we had a great conversation for a long time about how much we liked the Chinese and all. Their government over on the mainland could be better but the people were great etc. etc. We were singing the same hymn. I mentioned I've read a lot about Chairman Mao, the long march etc. and this guy was talking up a storm in agreement with everything I said. I was in hog heaven finding this old China hand in such a remote out of the way native bar. If BFF were used back then it would have applied to us. Line 'em up barkeep. That's when he mentioned he has many friends over the border that he visits with often, he knows some guards too and they let him go over to visit anytime he wants to, no paperwork, no hassle. He said why not the two of us go over right now, I'd get a big kick out of it and we'd be back here in a hour. Every time I heard it, even to this day, the hair on the back of my beck stands up.
General Quarters, General Quarters, This is NOT a Drill went off in my brain loud and clear. I looked at him perhaps a little slack jawed, maybe drooling a bit, saying that's a great idea, I'd love to go over inside the People's Republic, but I don't have time right now, I have to go back and stand watch in two hours. His smile turned to a frown as I fast talked my way out by telling him I'll meet him here tomorrow at noon and go over then, I'll have hours before I have to be back. I noticed then the natives in the joint were paying very close attention and there were more of them then a little while ago. I told Vladimir to be sure to be here because there's nothing I would like more then go over and meet the real Chinese people and show them we can be friends one on one. I made him promise to be back here at noon tomorrow as I kept looking at my watch and standing up. I could tell his mind was racing as he slowly, reluctantly agreed to this unwanted plan of the day. We shook on it and he broke back into his same old jovial self as I back out the door grinning like a moron at the thought of fulfilling my dream tomorrow. I was able to maneuver my way back to the area of Kowloon I was more versed in and what may be a little safer environment for a sailor on liberty. I did have thoughts that I would in fact like to go over the border and will one day but not tonight, my mind wasn't right for that caper now. But I will go over for a grip & grin and he might be the right guy to help me pull it off. Alcohol can have that effect on a teenager’s brain on rare occasions.
The next morning I did go back out on liberty as planed but musta forgot all about my big date at noon cause I got laid on the Hong Kong side and had a great dinner at Jimmy's Stake House, had fresh beef flown in daily from "Down under" or so they advertised. I hoped after we had gotten underway the following day that my new BFF wasn't too disappointed in his failure to capture an American sailor and turn me over to Them Chi-Com. Sometimes it's as much fun to foil a caper as it is to pull one off. If you get away with it as I did that night over on the Kowloon side.