We made the short journey from the Taiwan Strait to Hong Kong with a high sense of anticipation. By the accounts of many sailors at the time, Hong Kong was considered the absolute title-holder as best liberty port in the world. This high title is reminiscent of the story of the old sailor, who had tested liberty ports throughout the world. As he was walking through a red light district, one of the honeys leaned out of an upstairs window. She shouted down “Come up here, sailor, and I will give you something you have never had before”. To this the old salt replied, “What do you have, Leprosy?” It was clear that a serious test of Hong Kong, as a liberty port, was about to get underway. As the Station Ship in Hong Kong, we were to play a central role in that testing process.
The following map shows the area in which we would become semi-permanent residents. The city often called Hong Kong is officially Victoria, an obvious reference to Queen Victoria and the British who controlled the area for 100 years until 1997. Because of the British influence, English was spoken by a large number of locals. The city of Victoria is located on the north side of the Island of Hong Kong, which is separated from the mainland by Victoria Harbor, a distance of several hundred yards. The area of the mainland entitled Hong Kong on the map was called the New Territories. As the British Crown Colony, the area was a hub for trade and tourism by people from all over the world for centuries. After WWII and the Japanese occupation, Hong Kong became a favorite port for rest and recreation (R&R) for as many ships of the Navy as could manage the journey.
The approach to Hong Kong from the East is a scenic ride, with hills rising several hundred feet on both sides of the waterway. During the final portion of our entry into Victoria Harbor, we were accompanied by a group of British patrol boats, which were officially acknowledging our arrival. The escort is shown below, looking toward the mainland of China. The mountains in the distant background were beyond the New Territory, and were strictly off limits for US servicemen.
A Navy Admiral was permanently stationed in Hong Kong, and the Station Ship was under his command authority. We were scheduled to remain in Hong Kong to the end of our current tour, about December of 1955. As the Station Ship, we boarded every US Navy ship that arrived in Hong Kong, a floating tourist information center. We gave them maps that showed the off-limits areas to military personnel, distributed information about how to contact and deal with local authorities, told them to stay out of the opium dens, and provided information for use of their shore patrol. On a limited basis, we issued general supplies for those ships with critical shortages. For the smaller ships that did not have supply officers, we also held payday so the sailors would have adequate cash for liberty. Virtually all forms of cash were accepted in Hong Kong for an exchange fee.
Every day or two, at least one ship would arrive in the harbor. They were interested in being boarded as soon as possible, so they could send their crews on liberty. Our boarding parties of four to six officers and men would provide the information needed for liberty, and respond to questions or special needs to the best of our ability. Within an hour or so, we could usually provide our orientation for liberty, and return to the Gardiners Bay.
The Station Ships duties were all in addition to our regular shipboard duties whic were quite heavy at times. Navy air patrols were continuing to monitor all shipping along the coast of China and Viet Nam. The Gardiners Bay continued to work as a communications hub in this reporting network. The crypto shack was a busy place for encrypting and decrypting messages on a daily basis. Because of the workload, or the need to recuperate from liberty, the ships crew was divided into two 24-hour duty sections. Shipboard work hours remained the same as usual, but liberty was available only on alternate, off-duty days.
A major Station Ship responsibility was organizing the shore patrol for the ships in the harbor. A number of enlisted personnel worked regular shore patrol duties. While each ship was responsible for its own shore patrol, their activities were coordinated and supervised through officers and men from the Gardiners Bay. If several ships were in port at the same time, thousands of sailors and hundreds of SPs could be ashore throughout the day and night. A good feel for one of the shore patrols duties was just received in personal correspondence from one of the senior officers aboard the Gardiners Bay at the time, Commander A.E. Mix. He describes one focus of his activities as follows:
“Johnson and Johnson was a garment firm that made suits and other clothing. They were reported to me as having bought Red China material with US money, which was against the law. I assigned two shore patrol to the door of their firm, placing their business out-of-bounds. This kept all US troops from doing business there, and the Chinese people stayed away because the firm had lost face. About a week later, Father Gilligan, whose office was next to mine, advised me that Johnson and Johnson had opened for business in the Luk Wak hotel, a large building near the pier. I was advised that the hotel had a thousand rooms with a female in every one. As the hotel had four main doors, I sent eight shore patrol to place the hotel out of bounds. Even the Mayor called to plead for removing the shore patrol, but the admiral approved of my action. The next morning I heard Father Gilligan yelling as he approached the pier ‘Commander, Commander, come see!’ I walked toward the Luk Wak, and saw bolts of cloth and half made suits being thrown from a second floor window into the street by hotel employees. Johnson and Johnson was being evicted, and was no longer in business in the hotel. I contacted the Admiral and he agreed that I should remove the shore-patrol, and let the hotel resume business.”
A long list of specific kinds of merchandise was presumed to originate in communist China. The merchants in Hong Kong could purchase such items for resale, and place them on the shelves along with all their other merchandise. To import the items on this list into the US legally, a Certificate of Origin was available for the merchant to complete, specifying that the goods did not originate in communist China. One could drive a Mack truck through this process, but it helped with the politics of the situation. Hong Kong was well known for its tailors. At the time it was possible to have a fully tailored dress suit from woven English woolen fabrics for about forty dollars.
While Victoria Harbor is well protected, it is not a safe harbor for ships in a major storm. The following experience, also told by Commander Mix, deals with the character of the sailors, who were testing Hong Kong as the worlds finest liberty port.
“I was Senior Shore Patrol Officer of Hong Kong and had about 150 sailors as shore patrol, because the fleet was in, including carriers and cruisers. Late one afternoon we were advised that a typhoon would hit the island. My office was on Fenwick Pier on the island. We put out a general recall of all those on liberty, but the winds hit hard about dark and we had to suspend boating. Many of the ships left port to ride out the storm at sea. About 10pm, I had 2000 sailors, all wet, broke and mostly drunk waiting at the pier. In an office next to mine was a Catholic priest, Father Gilligan, who was assigned by the church to look after the sailors. He came to me and said ‘Give me four men who can write, and have them write on a piece of paper, This provides a place to sleep and breakfast, and I will sign each one. Give one to each man and tell him to go anywhere he wants to’. By early morning the streets were clear. By late morning the wind let up, the ships came back into port, and we resumed normal operation. A week later the admiral asked me to contact Father Gilligan and arrange to pay for the sailor’s bills. Father Gilligan told me that every sailor had paid his bill.” (Many thanks to Mixer for the above stories)
After well over two months in Hong Kong, we had settled into a comfortable routine as Station Ship. It came to an abrupt halt with urgent orders to proceed immediately to Nha Trang, Viet Nam. We were to rescue a P5M crew and patrol plane, which had lost an engine. Within hours, we recalled the troops, weighed anchor, and headed for Nha Trang.