The Gardiners Bay had not been able to re-supply since leaving the states several months earlier. When we arrived in Nha Trang, we had no critical shortages, but select consumables were in short supply. Fresh eggs had been gone for weeks, and all milk was reconstituted from powder. Most of the fresh vegetables were totally exhausted. At the time, vegetables grown throughout the Orient were huge, inexpensive, and very attractive to the eye. Unfortunately, most were raised in night soil, which accounts for their size and beauty. It also accounts for chronic diarrhea for those without the native’s immunity. For the unwashed, night soil is regular soil when fertilized with human feces. A thorough washing is useless, as the problem is not on the surface of the vegetables. The only solution was a thorough cooking. We discovered that most sailors were not interested in cooked lettuce or cabbage. Unlike the English, hot tomatoes were not high on the sailors edible food chain, except for the two-legged variety.
Because of the vegetable problem, the Army operated large vegetable farms throughout Japan. We had not been close to one of these sources for re-supply, and had not seen a Navy provision ship. We did have a large selection of Army training films, which were designed to encourage healthy contact with the local ladies on liberty. At the time, a rumor was circulating widely aboard ship that a few of the areas honeys had a form of social disease that had descended from alligators. It was not a visible disorder, like scales or long sharp teeth, and it required several days to culture in a tube. Most sailors were not interested in the culturing process. The ship’s doctor had a large assortment of shots and remedies for many such diseases. However, the story was that he had little available to treat animal disorders, except for painkillers, and a great bedside manner for those who lined-up outside sickbay the morning after.
The above issues set the stage for liberty in Nha Trang that was about to get underway. Some of the sailors had been here before, and knew exactly where to go for a hot meal and dessert.
My time ashore was to be spent on a special assignment from the supply officer, whose provisions were depleted. It seems we had run completely out of potatoes, and the captain insisted that potatoes be purchased ashore. I had absolutely nothing to do with potatoes, but the reasoning was that I had money, which could be exchanged for anything I wanted. All sailors know this to be true. On the surface it was a simple request, and the market in Nha Trang was only a few minutes away. I was to go ashore with money, and return with a re-supply of potatoes. In view of night soil plague and the Army training films, my appetite for anything which might be purchased ashore was completely extinguished.
Officially, I was in a catch-22. I had been carefully indoctrinated about exactly whose money I was spending. It was not my money, but Uncle Sam’s money. If I spend it, I better document exactly what I spend it for. If Uncle Sam later determines that I had not spent it wisely, I was personally responsible to cover what was called an exception. All exceptions I pay for from personal funds. A large number of stories, all designed to make the point, described disbursing officers spending time in Leavenworth for failure to go by the book. For this reason, I combed through five Bureau of Supplies and Accounts Manuals in order to find the proper authority for potato purchases. I could not find a single statement which said “The captain told me and I am telling you to go ashore and buy potatoes”. In the courts, this is called hearsay, and is not admissible. Among sailors, it is a rumor, at best. When the captain says it aboard ship, it is law, but I still go to jail. Somehow it just didn’t seem quite fair, but it did keep most of us honest.
To cover my tracks (CYA), I consulted the manual dealing with provisions, which includes potatoes. Deep in that manual, I found an obscure provision for emergency purchases that referenced a 1916 law enacted by congress. Citing this law, I filled out papers stating that “the captain declared a potato emergency”, thereby authorizing me to purchase potatoes in the open market. I was willing to gamble $50 of my own money that it was not a rumor. This is called covering your a– by placing a very small bet.
It was at about this point that I had another of my visions. As I was preparing the papers, when I got to the statement saying “The captain declared a potato emergency”, he appeared over my shoulder, and read the statement aloud as I wrote it. Then he said “What do you want to bet this statement is true?” I replied “I am betting my career, my whole career, and nothing but my career, so help me God, plus fifty bucks of my own”. Then my vision flashed immediately to a small cell in Leavenworth. I looked around my small cell, and the captain was nowhere to be seen. I have been in hiding ever since!
Hurdle two was to get some local currency, which the natives would recognize. The disbursing manual specified that when carrying currency ashore, a sidearm and locked money box are required. So there I went with a gun and my personal wager of fifty bucks in a lockbox. We exchanged the greenbacks for local currency. I elected to spend the entire wad on emergency potatoes, having no idea how many potatoes that might produce. Then we headed for the market.
The above picture captured my first view of the open market in Nha Trang. It looked far worse than the scullery aboard ship after Thanksgiving dinner. It is also where we started our search for spuds. The streets were littered with every form of rubbish, as may be seen. I was fascinated by the triangular appearing sunshades, which were worn only by the women. In the foreground is a distinctive bicycle taxicab and driver. The taxi carried only one person, who rode in the cab facing the rear. From this point, as we moved deeper into the market, the view did not improve.
We found no one merchant who had an adequate supply of potatoes, so we purchased all that was available from each vendor we found. For collecting the spuds and carrying them back to the ship, we bought three large woven baskets for a fraction of our fifty bucks. Within fifteen or twenty minutes, we had seen most of the market, and had purchased as many potatoes as we could carry back to the jeep.
If the sailors had seen the market, they might have refused to eat the fresh spuds. Most had little interest in the market, choosing the local honeys over potatoes every time. In the above picture, the two shapely ladies on the left deserve special attention. Both are wearing a traditional garment that is split to the waist along both sides, producing a front flap and a rear flap. On cool mornings, they wear silky, black full-length pants. As the day warms, the pants come off, displaying an abundance of feminine flesh, an exotic view not seen elsewhere in my experience.
The Vietnamese women were all nicely trim, and in the long garments, on a warm day, produced great views from any angle. Most were very attractive, until they smiled. The smile broke the spell, revealing bright red-purple teeth from chewing beetle nuts. Beetle nuts are dark purple seed-like objects. I was told they are mildly narcotic, and are widely consumed by the women throughout much of Southeast Asia. Whatever kind of high they produced is unknown. The stain, however, is permanent, leaving the teeth bright red-purple for life.
When we returned to the ship, we had spent all the local currency. In exchange we had a fair pile of small potatoes, and three very fine native baskets. We did not weigh the potatoes, but they were miniscule when compared with the Idaho variety. As we had purchased them from a dozen vendors, we were certain the mixture contained an assortment of contaminants capable of flushing out the GI tract for several days running.
Most of the spuds were considered too small to peel by hand, so the cooks used the mechanical peelers. They started with small potatoes, and ended with potato nuggets. The three baskets of potatoes fed the crew only a time or two, as most of each potato went down the drain from the peeler. Fortunately, the Gardiners Bay was underway before we ran out of potatoes again, thereby avoiding the next great potato famine.
The return to our friendly anchorage in Hong Kong was a pleasant relief. Shortly thereafter, a Navy provision ship arrived in the harbor, and we restocked with an abundance of potatoes, certified to be free of bubonic plague. This process was a vast improvement over our emergency purchases in Viet Nam. By contrast, there was no way to improve upon the slit skirts, which the sailors thoroughly enjoyed every day in Nha Trang.