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Home arrow Sea Stories arrow Sea Stories - APSS/LPSS arrow Don O'Shea and His Hong Kong Extravaganza
Don O'Shea and His Hong Kong Extravaganza Print E-mail
Contributed by Gerry Young   
Jul 12, 2011 at 11:02 AM

Listen up – this is no shit.

First, the background to this charming story of ‘boy meets money, boy spends money, boy has no more money.’ 

Sometime in 1967 President Lyndon Johnson decided that the US had a balance of payments problem and that one of the main causes for this was that US military personnel were spending too much money overseas.  Of course, sailors always spend too much money overseas – that’s part of their job description.

But anyway,  the President decreed that in order to help solve this problem, he’d set up a special type of savings account into which military personnel who were out-CONUS (outside the continental United States) could have part of their pay automatically deposited.  To make this attractive, these accounts would earn 10% annual interest, which is an excellent rate of return, especially on a very safe investment.

In the case of TUNNY, we were spending 70% or more of our time at sea, and collecting pretty good money.  Besides base pay and submarine pay (and sea pay for the enlisted), we almost always collected combat pay and a federal income tax exemption.  So, even for sailors, we had more money than we could usually spend.  Along with quite a few of my shipmates, I promptly signed up for the Lyndon Johnson program.  At the beginning, I think, I  allotted 50% of my base pay and submarine pay.  The total savings and the interest would add up very nicely, and I think I must have gone on at some length about this program one day at lunch in the wardroom when we were in port in Subic.

This caught Don’s attention and after lunch he buttonholed me and asked me how he could sign up for this very fine deal.  I’d already decided I was going to boost my savings allotment to 70%, so I offered to go along with him to the Disbursing Office. 

My chore took only a few minutes, so I sat listening to Don being interviewed by one of the pork-chops who staffed the office.  At some point, the interviewing officer found out Don was divorced and paying alimony to his ex-wife.  “But look, Lieutenant,” he said, “you’re not getting allowance for quarters in your pay.”  Don explained that as soon as the divorce became final, he’d had the BAQ stopped.  Then the pork-chop dropped the bombshell – Don was entitled to all his back BAQ, since Navy pay regulations stipulated that a divorced service member who was paying alimony could still draw BAQ.  All Don had to do was fill out a form and the Navy would mail him a check for the back BAQ he should have drawn.  I don’t think the Navy was generous enough, however, to calculate accrued interest on the unpaid money.

A few months later – this would have been sometime in the spring of 1968 – Don got an official Navy Department letter.  Inside was a check for $28,000.  We all gathered around to look at and reverently touch the check, which was certainly the largest one I’d ever seen at that point in my life.

Naturally, we wanted to know what Don was going to do with all this money.  He, being no dummy, had already planned this out pretty well.  He was going to send his ex-wife $21,000 and in return, she was going to sign some legal forms cancelling any future claims for alimony.  “She’ll be able to buy a house with this, instead of paying rent every month,” he told us.

“But what are you going to do with the other $7,000?” we all wanted to know. 

“I’m going to spend it all in Hong Kong when we go there in June,” he told us calmly.  “I’ll get detached to go to GRAYBACK when I’m there, so it’ll be a kind of going-away celebration.”

Someone asked, “So you’re going to buy a lot of clothes and maybe a Rolex or something like that?”  Hong Kong was famous, among other things, for an abundance of shops who’d gladly make you custom-made suits, shirts, shoes, or whatever else you wanted.  I still have two very nice ivory chess sets I bought there.  The clothes haven’t fitted me for quite a while.  I don’t know why. 

In fact, Don had already had custom short-sleeve khaki uniform shirts made, with his name embroidered in gold over the right pocket and gold dolphins embroidered over the right pocket.  Here’s a photo of Don with our XO, George Barnette, to illustrate this:

 Barnette and O'Shea

Side story: Bob Christman became interested in the idea of getting similar shirts custom-made for himself.  On the July visit to Hong Kong, I accompanied Bob to a shirt emporium where he described in detail what he wanted.  The tailor was familiar with Navy uniforms, and quickly produced an appropriate fabric and took preliminary measurements.  Bob then explained he wanted silver lieutenant bars embroidered on each collar, his nickname (“Xman”) over the right pocket, and gold dolphins over the left pocket.  The tailor took notes and assured us he was all set.  Satisfied, we were leaving the store when he called out, “How you spell ‘Gold Dolphins?’”  Too bad – it’d have been  fun to see Bob’s face when he came back to see ‘Gold Dolphins’ proudly embroidered on his new uniform shirts.

Anyway, back to the point.  Don listened patiently to all of us suggesting different items he could buy in Hong Kong.  Then he told us, “I’m spending it all on services.”

Wow! – what a concept.  Hong Kong, for a bachelor with money, was one of the prime liberty ports in the world.  I’ll say only that there were some very high-quality ‘services’ available there, but you had to save up to be able to afford them.  In fact, from the first payday after leaving Hong Kong until our next visit (we went there at about six-month intervals), there was a steady stream of sailors coming to the Forward Battery with envelopes of cash to store in the overhead safe.  And on arrival in Hong Kong, it was withdrawal day.

But most of us were content with having maybe fifteen hundred dollars, and that would usually include money for a hotel room, some decent meals, and probably suits, shirts and/or shoes as well as souvenirs.  The rest went for ‘services.’  I should emphasize that at this point the entire TUNNY wardroom were bachelors, and the same went for all but one or two of the enlisted.  And our primary goal for spending on services was, if you’ll pardon the expression, ‘getting the most bang for the buck.’  Hong Kong required a lot of bucks, especially in comparison with Olongapo, but the quality level was high, especially for the savvy shoppers who made their service decision while still sober.

We all had quite a bit of time to speculate over how anyone – even Don and even in Hong Kong – could spend that much on just services.

The day finally came when we pulled into Hong Kong.  We went there directly from six or seven weeks working off I Corps in  South Vietnam, and in fact were going to go directly back to I Corps upon leaving Hong Kong.  The savvy SubFlotSeven staff had realized that if they held our annual ORI (Operational Readiness Inspection) in the combat zone, they’d get combat pay and tax exemption themselves, on top of the submarine pay they got only when they could ride an operating boat.

We were lucky enough to have a berth assigned at HMS Tamar, the British naval shore station in Hong Kong, just a few blocks from the Hong Kong Hilton (now demolished by whoever bought that valuable piece of land, but at that time a favorite hotel for us).

Here’s a picture of the Hilton as it was then:

 Hong Kong Hilton

The routine in Hong Kong was that liberty couldn’t be put down until the ship had received a visit from a briefing team provided by the US Navy station ship.  This briefing went over the rules for liberty in Hong Kong, describing out-of-bounds areas and bars, specific types of violations that would get you in big trouble, etc.  Once the briefing had been completed, liberty was piped down and people began streaming over the brow in civilian clothes carrying overnight bags with changes of clothing.  I should point out that it was OK for sailors to stay overnight in Hong Kong, but you absolutely had to either come back to the boat for morning quarters or, if you didn’t have duty, call the boat before 8 am.  If you failed to do this, Shore Patrol parties would find you and drag you back with all your liberty cancelled.

As I was leaving the boat, I paused on the pier to look back and saw Don standing with his overnight bag near the after torpedo room hatch, like he was waiting for something.  And there it came – a helicopter appeared, hovered over the boat, and let down a sling.  Don slipped into the sling and was winched up into the helo, which headed for the roof of the Hilton.  We later found out he had a chauffeured limo reserved, waiting for him at the lobby level of the big hotel.  It took him to a ‘special’ hotel out by Lei Mun Pass (the entrance to Hong Kong harbor from the east).  This hotel had mirrors on the walls and ceilings of the bedrooms, motorized controls for the bed, and other features to please a sailor.

In the afternoon, after a long shower, fresh clothes, and a visit to Lee Chong Tai, my tailor, I walked into the Ocean Bar, the traditional submariner hangout (Americans, Brits, Australians, etc.) in Hong Kong.  Don was in a booth with two young ladies.  I should explain that the cost for just sitting with one of these cuties was paying for a regular “cherry drink,” which I recall as being 10 HK dollars (roughly $2 in US currency).  These were probably iced tea, and were very small drinks served in miniature martini glasses, so one good swallow would take care of the whole drink.  A nice young girl, however, would take dainty little sips and make it last maybe five or ten minutes.  At that rate, plus your own San Miguel beer or whatever you were having, you’d start seriously dipping into your funds.  The girl got a ticket stub for each cherry drink, which she’d tuck demurely into her cleavage to redeem later so she could get her own share of your investments.

And there Don was, paying for two of these girls to sit and chat with him.  And I should say that sitting and chatting was about all you could do in the bar.  When or if you finally ‘fell in love’ with the young lady, after hours of buying cherry drinks, you could pay the mama-san a bar fine and leave with the girl.  Unless you’d spent several expensive hours there buying the cherry drinks, the mama-san would pretend she couldn’t speak English.  The bar girl would get a cut of the bar fine.  Whatever you paid her in addition was between the two of you.

The two girls Don had chosen were called, as I remember, ‘Sophie’ and ‘The Arab.’  Sophie was a very tall Chinese girl, probably taller than Don even without her high heels, and The Arab was a very voluptuous dark-haired little cutie, with facial features you can figure out from her bar name.  The next day I asked Don why he’d picked those two – I mean, they were very attractive and all that, but out of all the girls at the Ocean Bar, why them in particular?

“Because they hate each other,” he  confided.   “It makes the night lots more fun.”  As a fun mental exercise, use your own  imagination here to figure why that worked out.

We didn’t actually see Don much.  He’d arrive in his limo sometime in the early afternoon and, when Sophie and The Arab came in, they’d join him in his booth, glaring at each other while being as sweet as possible to Don.  Part of the method in his madness was, I think, that each of the girls would do whatever it took to convince him that she would provide much better ‘service’ than the other.  So in his own way, Don was contributing to an upgrade of service levels in Southeast Asia.  A true humanitarian. 

And so the days passed.  There was no sign of him at the tailor shop, although he’d been a regular at Lee Chong Tai on previous visits, and people who went to the shirt and shoe shops hadn’t seen him there either.

Extraneous anecdote:  One of Don’s eccentricities was that he abhorred wearing underwear.  Typically, on the first visit to your tailor, after you’d decided what clothes you wanted and chosen the fabric, they’d take measurements (waist, inseam, shoulders, etc.) and use those to create part of a suit which you’d then try on a day or so later.  On the ‘second fitting,’ the tailor would ask you to drop trou before he fitted the pants.  I was there with Don (probably in December 1967) for a second fitting one time.  Don dropped his trou; the tailor paused a moment, looked carefully at Don, and then advised him, “For you, I don’t think another fitting will be necessary.”  He’d clearly seen enough.

On what might have been our fifth day I was sitting in the Ocean Bar early one afternoon.  Maybe a dozen other TUNNY people were there.  We heard an unusual noise that sounded something like music outside, and, grabbing our San Miguels, went to the door to see what was going on.  Coming down the main street of Wan Chai (the sailor-bar part of Hong Kong) was a three-piece marching band.  I’m thinking there was a trumpet, a drum and … something else, maybe a flute.  Don was, of course, leading these three.  He had one of those long drum major staffs, which he was pumping up and down vigorously as the band valiantly tried to play tunes such as “Anchors Aweigh,” “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and similar favorites.  The actual tunes were hard to recognize; Don confided to me later that he’d ‘taught’ the band  these songs by humming them. 

To cap the whole thing off, Don had a canvas sack filled with Hong Kong coins in  it hanging around his neck.  Still pumping the long staff up and down, he’d reach into the sack with his other hand and scatter a handful of coins toward the sidewalks.  Sailors from four or five different nations were pouring out of the bars to witness this historic event.

Sometime during our six days in Hong Kong I must have gone down to the boat, since Bob Christman relieved me as Weapons  Officer and I relieved Don as Engineering Officer before we left.  We had Don’s TUNNY farewell dinner somewhere in Wan Chai and he flew out the next morning.  I’m pretty sure he was broke, so someone probably loaned him money to get a cab our to the airport. 

Over the next twenty-four years, I heard from Don occasionally, but to say he was a poor correspondent is a major understatement.  In 1985 I was reporting in for my two weeks Naval Reserve active duty for training at COMSUBPAC headquarters in Pearl.  The Admin Officer (a Commander whose last name may have been Axtell) was making getting-to-know you conversation with me, which naturally included the mandatory ‘what boats have you served on?’ question.

When I included TUNNY in that list, he perked up.  “Then you must know Don O’Shea.  He’s out at SUBFLOT SEVEN in Yokosuka right now.  Want to talk to him?”  He picked up a radiotelephone handset from the bulkhead and within a few seconds Don and I were trying to catch up on everything that’d gone on in the last 17 years.  He’d commanded a ship (the POINT LOMA) and had been Commander, Military Sealift Command Far East.  Not bad for a high school dropout who’d gone from E-1 to O-6. 

And at the 2003 TUNNY reunion in Reno I actually met again with Don face-to-face.  We had a good hour or so together before he had to leave, and time for my wife, Joyce, to meet him.  Over the years she’d heard many Don O’Shea stories, most of them several times.  But when he’d left, she said with some surprise, “He’s a real gentleman!  I wasn’t expecting that from the stories I’ve heard about him.”  And so he was.

Don died in 2006.  Rest in peace, shipmate. 

And this was no shit.


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