April 22, 1945 – Subic Bay, Luzon, Philippine Islands
We were enjoying all the comforts of a South Sea Island vacation resort. Our hotel of course was the enormous, bathtub-like ARD7, a US Navy floating dry dock. Its main suite was occupied by our ship, the USS La Vallette DD448, now being patched up after being hit by a mine during the taking of Corregidor.
These days of repair have been fun and games for all of us. We were bursting with joy, knowing we would soon be heading for home. This was a given. We all knew that each of us would be awarded a thirty-day survivor’s leave, and then by the time our ship was overhauled and ready for action, we would have enjoyed a few more months of peace and safety. Now that’s happiness!
Today we were having a hell of a time swimming and diving off the deck of the flat barge. It sat about three feet above the water and probably measured about a hundred feet long by forty or fifty feet wide. Sitting close to the middle of the barge, spreading out to within two feet from two edges, rose a high wooden building called the carpenter’s shop. In here all improvised needs for damaged ships were shaped. It also stored tools, wood, metal materials, and parts. This carpenter’s shop was a very important arm of ARD7. It was tied tight to the dry dock and laced with gangways bridging the forces and needs of this working team. The friendly crew of the carpenter’s shop had two pets whose high energy levels were a constant challenge to everyone’s sanity. They played havoc with all of us at one time or another. Pedro was a monkey and the talkative one was an Australian cockatoo.
Though the diving board was crudely constructed, it served its purpose. Dusty, as usual, displayed his manly physique by doing back flips and back breakers. Bruce Munday, Oaks, and Mac were horsing around, darned near earning added purple hearts with their roughhouse pushing and bumping of each other into the water. Even Price, whose alcoholic preferences made him allergic to water, found swimming in the stuff novel and refreshing.
It was close to dusk and this was the regular time we expected our native friends to paddle around the fantail of the dry dock with the cleaned laundry they were employed to wash for the good of the crew. I was all prepared to hopefully make a quick pencil sketch of beautiful Choling right now, even though inwardly I knew that all my efforts to get her to pose would be in vain. Choling was like something out of a movie. She certainly was beautiful. There was no mistake. I had a crush on this kid.
“Hey George! Here comes your girlfriend” I turned around to see the little canoe nose around the side and come into view. Choling was in the back paddling. Roz was in the center, her big gold-lined teeth exposing a winning smile. Up forward sat chubby and content Daling. Baily and Mari trailed behind in a canoe loaded with part of our washed laundry.
I quickly walked over to the girls, who were passing the cleaned clothes to the boys for a few pesos in exchange. This was a daily ritual. It was democracy at work. It was more like democracy at play for me. I enjoyed just looking at these fine specimens, fantasizing a romantic life with Choling. The boys were teasing Choling again. Questions would pop out from all sides. It was very distracting to her as well as for me. I was trying to catch her likeness on paper but it was impossible. The boys’ constant teasing would make her angry and she would frown and half-shout, “You arrr always joking … please … I do not like!” Then almost in the next moment she would break into a big dimpled smile that would make my heart pound fast.
I felt someone nudging me in the back and when I turned around it was my handsome young Filipino pal, Felix. He was so happy to see me. Our friendship had been developing over a period of time since we arrived here for repairs. Unlike in normal trading, I often give things away without taking anything in return. At first this gesture attracted a one-sided kind of attention, but strangely, new found friends would not accept anything unless they could reciprocate, with mush melons and things of equal importance. A sense of trust and friendship developed which I shall never forget. I was treated like family. It was a new dimension of warmth I had never before experienced.
Felix is a classic example of Philippine youth. He is of moderate height, clean cut, with olive skin, short black hair, dark eyes, and a strong, wiry body. By American standards, very good looking. I must say that he first impressed me as being a little vain. I was mistaken. It was his self-consciousness and shyness that created this false impression.
When Choling left , I made up my mind to jump ship to get ashore to see her. I knew we had no amorous ties or that I had any reason to think I had any chance with her. It was just a matter of weeks before our ship would be ready for the long trek back to the States. I’d be gone and would never see that dimpled smile again… yet I felt something. It was one-sided and totally wishful dreaming. Her whole village knew who I was since the day I gave Tony Salas the large, full-color reproduction I painted of our ship. The natives have special respect for people who do things with their hands – especially artists.
Choling recently told me she liked my painting of the ship. She saw it in the village. She was very shy that day and blushed when I asked if she would pose for me. Nothing more was said but I felt a warmth in her voice and a sense of closeness in that moment. I guess it really meant nothing, but my curiosity was overwhelming and I just wanted to see and talk to her under different conditions. I wanted to visit the village. I wanted to see her people and how they lived. Time was running short … maybe I could make a quick drawing of her in her own environment to capture her face in artistic memory, because I knew we would never meet again.
Before long Felix and I planned my first trip ashore for the following night. There were many dangers out on the waters at night. First of all, jumping ship was not new to Subic Bay. Many sailors were getting into trouble and the brass began to clamp down hard. Higgins landing boats patrolled the entire bay looking for perpetrators of this forbidden practice. Court-martials for violations of the rule were high according to what we were told and the punishments for these offences were severe. Higgins boats were easily identified by the ominous sounds of their motors. To hear one approaching, getting louder and louder, created great fear.
The nights that followed this first excursion were filled with similar excitement and romantic memory we shall never forget. The plan was set in motion. I told Felix I wanted to take a friend along with me. It was okay with him. He would slip in under cover of darkness in the outrigger canoe about an hour after sunset. This was the usual time when all hands and officers gathered on the forecastle to watch the movies. It was pretty dark by then and little attention was paid to anything else. Natives and canoes on the water at night were not uncommon. The Higgins boats were equipped with searchlights in the event a canoe was challenged to show its passengers. Caution was observed for good reason. The whole plan was exciting.
It was a perfect night. We slipped into the outrigger canoe, put on straw coolie hats to look like natives, and glided through the warm night towards shore.
The sounds of sweet voices singing dominated the silken air as the Higgins boat motors faded in the distance. We landed softly on the resisting white sand of the palm-studded beach. It felt like another world. A place of peace and safety. Doc Eagle and I followed Tony and Felix along a jungle path to a thatched roof hut where their family anxiously waited for us. We exchanged greetings and offered jam, coffee, and cigarettes to our hosts as a token of friendship.
Soon we filled the small room, crowded with family from children to grandparents. The walls were decoratively covered with pages from Life magazine. When settled, we were offered fruit, cachou nuts and coffee. The fun was just beginning. The evening rolled by quickly as we sang songs dating from turn of the century America, such as “You Are My Sunshine.” The family roared with laughter in an effort to teach us words of Tagalog, their native language. All too soon it was time for us to safely return to our ship. It was three AM Back we went to the beach. We signalled our ship with our flashlight. The coast was clear and we reluctantly retuned to our ship in Tony’s outrigger canoe.
A few days before we were scheduled to head back to the USA for our wounded ship’s complete overhaul, a huge outrigger canoe carrying many of my friends came to warmly say goodbye. A new sentry signalled them to distance themselves from dry dock ARD7, in which my ship was still housed. They waited and could not understand this change of friendliness. The sentry fired a warning shot from his rifle. The canoe quickly turned and fled the area. It happened so fast I was unable to stop this embarrassing, sad moment. It was impossible for me to communicate with anyone to explain the happening before leaving for the USA. I was devastated.
To this day I reflect on the hurt of the unfulfilled parting. I shall always remember my friends with warmth and affection, especially the beautiful, dimpled, smiling face of Choling Lacendilly.