BRITS

By Dave Moyer

 

The Owasco Chronicles

Hong Kong was a fantastic liberty port. Exotic, mysterious, and full of surprises, especially for a 20-year-old sailor from Pennsylvania. Some of those exotic events are better left unexplained, but the sights of Hong Kong and Kowloon, along with the culture of the Chinese people, are two important memories that will stay with me forever. Our stop in Hong Kong also introduced me to something I had never experienced—a close-up look at a foreign navy. British, to be more precise.

Because Hong Kong was a British Colony, it stands to reason that the British navy would also take advantage of this pearl of Asia as a place for their sailors to blow off steam. Two British corvettes happened to be in port during our visit and were permitted to tie up to a pier—American vessels had to anchor out and their liberty personnel ferried ashore in motor launches.

The Brits provided a great recreational and shopping facility dockside for their military personnel; jewelry and clothing stores, along with electronic shops and other retail outlets were under one roof called the British Fleet Club, which was sanctioned by the government—one could shop without fear of being cheated. An important fact when you are unfamiliar with the culture or language. The recreational facilities were clean, and the enlisted men’s club was the finest I was ever in. That’s where I met my fellow British sailors.

A shipmate and I didn’t have a lot of money and thought a perfect place to go was the enlisted men’s club where that English beer was cheap and the food was practically free. Entering the club we realized we were the only Americans there, but, not to worry, the Brits made us feel as if we owned the place. Two sailors escorted us to their table and immediately ordered a couple of beers on them. From the looks of things they had been there quite a while and weren’t feeling a lot of pain, but friendly they were.

We were a hit. First, we weren’t Navy men, we were Coast Guard. That was something new for those guys. Second, our hats, of all things, fascinated them. They were similar to theirs. Heck, when you’re half-way around the world that almost makes you brothers, or first cousins at the very least.

Things went along fine for the first half hour when one of them leaned forward and asked if I’d like to shoot some darts for a beer. What the hell! I had a dart board when I was a kid. "Sure, let’s see what you can do." That statement was not one of my most intelligent utterances of my life. I went to the board and pulled out the darts. He didn’t need any. You see, he carried his own. He reached into his jumper and pulled out a little polished teakwood box with brass hinges and clasp. He carefully opened this work of art and revealed four of the finest looking darts I ever hope to see, nestled in their very own niches, resting on thick red felt. This little box made some coffins look like cigar boxes. Well, after I bought the third round I guess he started feeling guilty and put his "babies" away. He was good. I wasn’t.

In addition to suckering Americans at darts, I found the driest sense of humor I have ever experienced. An example may help prove my point: we American military men like ribbons and medals, and by that time I proudly boasted four. Sounds impressive, but they should be explained. First, there was the National Defense Medal. You got that one in boot camp. It was awarded to anyone who simply served in the military during time of conflict. The second medal was the Combat Action Medal; if you saw any kind of combat, they gave that one to you. Third was the Vietnamese Campaign Medal with two stars. That was presented for duty in the combat zone and the commendation and each star stood for a major offensive, or something like that. Last was the Vietnamese Service Medal. I think the Vietnamese gave you that for showing up on time. All were worn on your dress uniform above your left breast pocket for everyone to admire.

The British Commendation process is slightly different. Let me put it this way: If a British sailor suffered 16 bullet wounds which rendered both arms and leg useless, then jumped from an aircraft flying at 5000 feet without a parachute into the enemy capital, single-handedly capturing the entire enemy force alive and returning them to Nelson’s Square in London, he may get a letter place in his personnel file. Not a medal, just a letter in his personnel file.

This subtle difference in services came to light when, after a good number of shared brews, my British counterpart leaned across the table, pointed at one of my ribbons and asked in the greatest cockney accent, "Watcha get that’un fer mate, crossin’ a river?" He made his point.

We swapped cigarettes, stories, and insults for about three hours that day. Finally one last round was bought and the farewells were toasted and drunk to. The next morning the corvettes sailed. I think about those guys occasionally and wonder if they remember that day. You know, after a few hours, the uniforms looked the same as ours, and the accents seemed to disappear. Funny how that can happen.

 

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