Over sexed, over paid and over here: American sailors in Perth

This feature was first published in About Town, December, 1981, pp 4-6, Swan Publishing, Perth

Shelly and Alma were trying not to cry.

‘Ted, throw a wrench into one of the boilers,’ Shelly, the brave one, shouted from the wharf in a half-hearted attempt at a joke.

‘Sabotage the engines, Mike,’ Alma added. But tears were already rolling down her cheeks.

Ted and Mike waved and grinned from the deck of the U.S.S. Denver. They were already in trouble for returning to ship six hours late, but they conspired together for a moment then disappeared into the guts of the huge vessel. They ran down flight after flight of narrow metal stairs to a small but heavy sealed door just above the level of the wharf. After struggling to open it, they swung themselves out onto the quay and grabbed their grief-stricken girls for a final desperate kiss. With that last loving gesture even brave Shelley broke.

‘It’s just as bad for the boys,’ Lieutenant Commander Mitchell of the U.S. Navy commented as he watched Shelley and Alma sobbing in one another’s arms while the tiny tugs dragged the Denver out to sea. ‘Sometimes you meet someone in a port and just everything goes right. And then you have to leave.’

‘I remember a girl I once met …’, and the Lieutenant Commander fell silent, reliving his own sad farewell at a foreign port.

‘You write to one another but you never really know if she’s met someone else. Or if she is just saying she’ll wait because she doesn’t want to hurt you. And you are always wondering if it would be the same if you went back …’

The scene has been played a hundred times before. Usually the girls would never see their sailors again, either for economic reasons or simply because of the doubts and personal changes which occur when lovers are separated by thousands of kilometres of ocean. There have been a few happy endings, though. This year about six Western Australian girls flew to the United States to be re-united with their American sailors, eah hoping the magic of their brief romance in Perth would lead to more permanent commitments – and be strong enough to help them endue the long separations that are part of being with a naval man.

During the year of the Second World War it was just the same. Many older women who were young girls in the 1940s farewelled their own American sailors down at Victoria Wharf and shed a tear or two just like Alma and Shelley. The former members of the Working Girls War Effort Club (WGWE) in particular share the bitter-sweet memories of those days … of the ‘devil-may-care’ submariners, sailors and the pilots of the Catalina flying boats, the silk stockings and the occasional pound of butter or a chicken on the sly from U.S. naval stores, the dances and the fund-raising nights … and the frantic rush to the air raid shelters on March 10, 1943, when General MacArthur thought the Japanese bombers were on their way to attack his submarine base at Fremantle.

The enemy planes never came, of course. But for the 6,000 United States servicemen estimated to have been stationed here, for the girls of the WGWE, and for everyone else in the city, it could have been another Pearl Harbour.

The 6,000 men of our first ‘American Occupation’ seem an insignificant number compared to the hordes of sailors and marines regularly arriving in Perth these days. This year we had 40,000 of them. Next year maybe more. That’s a lot of sad farewells down at Victoria Wharf – but it is also a significant boost to our economy, worth an estimated $30-70 million each year.

The last ships of the United States’ Seventh Fleet to visit Fremantle for 1981, the USS Okinawa, the Denver and the Alamo, were here for just six days. Their last port of call had been Mombassa in Kenya more than a month before. Since then they had been maintaining the American presence in the Indian Ocean. A community of 3,500 men crowded into three warships. No beer. No women. No privacy. Just the routine of military life and the endless Indian Ocean. With plenty of time to fantasise about those precious days of liberty in Perth.

‘All you have to do out there is think,’ said one young marine from San Antonio, Texas.

‘Especially on Sundays when they give you the day off. That’s the best time to go up on the flight deck and stare at the ocean. You’ve got all day to just sit there.’

This was his first visit to Perth, but he had heard about it all the way across the Indian Ocean from his buddies who had visited in 1980. About the friendliness of the locals, their hospitality, about the women, the nightclubs, the beaches, and all the unprintable details that had been exaggerated across thousands of miles of open sea.

‘Perth is known for its hospitality but it is almost a disappointment to come here. Not because Perth is bad but … it’s like how Christmas is an anticlimax to a little kid. Like he’s talked about it every day for a whole year. And it’s not that it isn’t good, it’s just that it’s built up to be so much,’ a young Pennsylvanian officer explained on board the Okinawa.

His ship, an amphibious assault vessel named after the biggest amphibious battle American forces were involved in during World War II, was the first of the three ships to berth at Victoria Wharf. Her guns were unmanned, her radar system was no longer operating and probably only minor trivia was being received from the military spy satellites overhead. But from every porthole, from every opening and even brazenly from the open deck, the latest in sophisticated American surveillance technology — the hand-held binocular — was carefully focused on the shore (or, more specifically, on the younger women there) as each man prepared for his personal assault on the city.

A junior officer named Ken was the first man off. He had a rope to attach to the wharf. Part of his job, he said. But within a minute, his rope still in his hand, he had begun his private assault. He was 26 and not married. A fixed wing pilot with a major in literature, he told me, almost all in one breath. And he had been 35 days at sea without a beer or a … ‘and, ma’am, you’re the first woman I’ve seen since Mombassa!’

Ken had been here before. He loved Australia. He loved Perth. He only had four more months ‘in the military’ and wanted to come back here to fly geologists and businessmen around the mining boom. And the women?

‘American men and Australian women get along reeel well, ma’am,’ he said. ‘American men are different from the Aussies and the women here appreciate that. We are more compassionate and understanding. More sensitive.’

‘But the women back home are spoilt. They take advantage of our sensitivity,’ he added.

A shout from his commanding officer brought young Ken’s attention back to the rope still in his hand. He quickly tied it to the wharf and jumped back onto the Okinawa a hero: the first onboard to chat up an ‘Aussie chick!’

Normally introducing the Americans to the ‘Aussie chicks’ is one of the responsibilities of Lt Commander Joseph A. Mitchell II, the American Seventh Fleet’s representative in Perth. His parties, thrown to promote Australian-American social intercourse, have become famous. On this occasion, his party for the enlisted men simply involved booking the overseas passenger terminal at Fremantle, hiring a rock band and caterers, and advertising the time and venue on local radio and the press. Perth women did the rest. They got in free while the men had to make a donation to the Crippled Children’s Association and buy the drinks. It was like any other Saturday night ‘do’ only more so.

The second party, the one for the officers, was a much more sophisticated affair and was called a ‘reception’. An invitation-only event at the Ascot Inn down by the river in Belmont, with a choice of pink, white or red carnations to be charmingly pinned onto the women’s dresses by a gallant senior officer in shining white with gold braid, while waiters hovered obsequiously nearby with wine and canapés.

Competition for the guests’ attention here was ferocious with older officers even ‘pulling rank’ on their subordinates to parade their medals and discuss, as though they were appropriate subjects for light party conversation, the current political instability in Iran and Reagan’s latest military budget. But when it came to flirting, the younger men won convincingly – after they had loosened their inhibitions with several glasses of wine. And the ladies were impressed.

‘They are gentlemen,’ one elegant woman gushed. This was a repeat performance for her. She said she knew what she was talking about because she was wined and dined at Perth’s most expensive nightclubs and restaurants last time the ships were in.

‘They are prepared to spend a lot of money on you and not expect anything in return. Australian men could sure learn a few things from these guys.’

Australian men do not generally agree. The Americans have been their rivals for years.

‘I think they are jealous,’ a 19-year-old marine from LA volunteered. To illustrate his point he described a typical scenario. The Australian men, he said, would take their girlfriends out to a tavern or nightclub and, leaving them sitting in a corner, would got to the bar to order their drinks and yarn for half an hour. Enter the Americans. With an ‘Excuse me ma-am, are these seats taken?’ and a ‘Wow, aren’t you girls lonely? Would you like a drink?’ they would take over from where the Aussie’s had not even started. And by the time the Australians returned, they were no longer welcome. The Americans would then leave … but with the girls on their arms!

‘You always get into fights at nightclubs and place like that,’ another marine, a sergeant on the USS Okinawa commented. ‘The Australian men, they say ‘Hey, you’re a big, bad marine man, you wanna go outside?’

‘Everyone wants to take you on, especially if you are in uniform.’ Which is probably why this particular ‘big, bad marine’ was in his civilian clothes, although they made him no less conspicuous. In a dove grey crepe suit that clung in all the right places and a delicately floral vest, he looked like a television stereotype of a Harlem spiv. He was, in fact, a married man from Hawaii with five children whom he missed desperately. But he also loved dancing and beautiful women, and at nightclubs like Pinocchio’s he had enjoyed both, despite what he called ‘harassment’ from local males whose pride was hurt to see their potential dates preferring the company of a good-looking foreigner.

The staff and management of the nightclubs and restaurants, hotels and taverns where the servicemen congregate for some of the comforts of home, welcome their presence. With quickly-chalked signs out on the footpath tempting the American with ‘see-through girls’ or favourable rates of exchange for their American currency, even the sleaziest bars and ‘adult bookshops’ increase their turnovers when the ships are in. The travel companies, too, join the rush for the Yankee dollar with attractive deals for one-day bus tours and brief stopovers at tourist resorts in the State. And the taxi drivers, of course, have a bonanza. For everyone associated with the service industries the American Navy means Big Money. Millions upon millions of dollars added to the Perth economy. Although no-one is certain just what the sailors and marines are worth to us.

Richard Balfour, manager of the Perth Branch of Thomas Cook Pty Ltd, conservatively estimates the total value of the American naval presence here as between $50,000,000 and $70,000,000 this year [1981]. He says the trade is worth $15,000,000 to his company alone through its function as a clearing house for American currency. But a spokesman for the Bank of NSW, Len James, the man responsible for actually changing the servicemen’s pay packets into Australian dollars when the ships first dock, disagrees with Mr Balfour’s estimate. He suggests the total turnover would more realistically be between $30,000,000 and $40,000,000.

But for many Perth and Fremantle residents whether we get $30,000,000 or $70,000,000 out of the American servicemen is immaterial. For them, no amount of money can compensate for the potential threat imposed upon Western Australians by the American military presence here. Amongst those who feel most strongly are Fremantle playwrights Mark Blumer, Brian Peddie and Di Shaw, who recently presented their fears to enthusiastic audiences in a play called ‘Kiss your Arsenal Goodbye.’

Down in the basement of Papa Luigi’s in Fremantle, the characters of the play were discussing the latest influx of American sailors and marines. ‘Just what have you got against the Americans?’ Sandra, a young feminist journo, played by Sue Russell, asked the local ‘nutcase,’ Prudence (aka Di Shaw).

‘Nothing, nothing,’ crazy Prudence mumbled. ‘I don’t mind working for an American company, I don’t mind driving American cars, smoking American cigarettes or eating American takeaways. I don’t mind watching American TV shows, or listening to pseudo-American voices on the radio. I don’t even mind American helicopters flying overhead all day when the ships are in.’

‘I don’t mind the jibes and come-ons from the American sailors in the street. And it doesn’t bother me that I can’t get into my favourite tavern ‘cause it’s full of American sailors getting drunk and getting into brawls. I just feel like we’re an invaded country.’

Enter Chuck, a good average middle-of-the-road marine played by Brian Peddie, who looked as though he would rather confront a whole battalion of Russians, or even Muslim extremists, rather than face dear Prudence.

‘We could be the first to go, you know. Because of you,’ she told him.

Prudence had just received a message from God through a packet of cornflakes and was doing a Noah with whatever animals she could find at short notice (notably a couple of cockroaches and her pet budgie) while she turned Sandra’s office into a bomb shelter with some bags filled with the sand she had pinched from the sandpit at the local kindy!

‘Yes, the Russians might use us as an example to scare the Yanks. A limited exchange of remote targets I think it is called. Perth is the perfect place to bomb. It’s the most isolated city in the world. It’s American aligned. We may have a United State’s fleet home-ported here one day. Americans wouldn’t mind if they bombed Perth. But if they bombed somewhere like New York, Americans might get angry. They might see Red. I mean, if they bombed New York, there’d be no more Broadway. No more first nights.’ And she burst into song. The Bugs Bunny overture accompanied by a soft shoe shuffle.

‘Think of all those theatre-goers up in arms and putting pressure on the President saying Give it to them Reds, Ronnie, don’t hold back.’

‘Whereas Perth … I mean, where’s Perth on the world map? Nothing interesting has happened at the Playhouse since 1952 and then it was only someone flushing the toilet upstairs during Richard III.’

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘we might be the first to go.’

Although Western Australians have had a long association with the American Navy dating back to even before World War II, it has only been since the political instability in the Middle East threatened world oil supplies, or more specifically, since the American hostage crisis in Iran, that we have seen large numbers of military personnel in Perth.

Before the trouble in Iran, America maintained her military presence in the Indian ocean with an occasional aircraft carrier or destroyer passing through, plus a fleet of submarines equipped with nuclear warheads all carefully armed at strategic targets in the Soviet Union. Because the nuclear missiles only had a range of 2,400 nautical miles or less, military specialists told us, the submarines had to be in the Indian Ocean so the nuclear warheads could reach their targets.

But in 1979 a new submarine missile system with a range of 4,000 nautical miles was tested to replace the shorter ranged missiles. According to the former US President, Jimmy Carter, it would no longer be necessary to have naval ships or submarines patrolling the Indian Ocean because the new missiles could just as easily reach their targets from the Atlantic or the Pacific. After the Iran crisis, the new President Reagan reversed Carter’s decision, however, and significantly increased the American presence in the Indian Ocean by transferring his Seventh fleet of ships from the Pacific. Since then the increased military activity has been most easily measured by the increased number of American military personnel seeking rest and recreation in Perth … 9,000 in 1980 to nearly 40,000 in 1981.

We welcome them now, but would we continue to welcome them if, like Prudence in ‘Kiss Your Arsenal Goodbye’, we saw them as a threat rather than as a chance to get rich quick or be wined and dined when the ships are in port?

The American magazine Newsweek recently conducted a poll to find out what people in the United States thought about the possibility of a nuclear war. Seventy percent of the people asked said they believe there was a chance of an all-out nuclear war with Russia within the next 10 years. Thirty-eight percent believed there was ‘some chance’, and six percent were absolutely certain. And the chance of surviving the nuclear holocaust they believed was probably coming? A great majority, 86 percent, thought they would, at best, have a 50-50 chance.

Prudence might not be such a ‘nutcase’ after all.

Story first published in Perth, 1981, first posted on merrillfindlay.com 5 January 2005. Reposted on this new web site on 23 January 2011.


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