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Weekend Pass

For Some Sailors, Too Much Liberty

Donna Renae

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Donna Renae serving in the Navy
(Courtesy Donna Renae)
Shore leave in New York City -- "On the Town"

Seeing a bunch of sailors swarming around a city during Fleet Week reminds Donna Renae of the old days. Renae served on a Navy ship in the '80s, just as the Navy was starting to let women serve onboard alongside men.

She says being a woman among men on shore leave was something she can't forget -- even if she'd like to:

Twenty-five years after I got out of the Navy, I still have dreams I'm back in uniform, trying to navigate the narrow passageways of my old ship, the USS Prairie. The Prairie was a World War II-era vessel, and it wasn't built with women in mind, so all 150 of us were forced to bunk in a space that contained a grand total of five toilets and three showers. No wonder I have nightmares. But hey, at least they took the urinals out.

Coping on a Navy ship with a seven-to-one ratio of men to women had its challenges. Sexual harassment was always a threat, and it did happen. On the other hand, dating was easy. I don't want to get too personal, but let's just say I felt like prom queen, cheer leader and Playboy centerfold all rolled into one... but only while we were in home port. Once we weighed anchor, the guys weren't interested in me.

Everything you've ever heard about sailors on shore leave is true. Granted, not for everyone -- I mean, there were still plenty of guys who acted like officers and gentlemen. But then there were the ones who gave the Navy its girl-in-every-port reputation. During my Western Pacific deployment, or WestPac, as it's known, some of the boys on liberty took way too much liberty. Porn, prostitutes, round-the-clock drinking, exotic sex shows, bestiality.

About the only liberty call activity the Navy doesn't tolerate, of course, is homosexuality. Engaging in same-sex affection could cost a man his career, but rattling your taxpayer-funded bottle of Tetracycline while you alternately brag about your pregnant wife back home and the nameless, possibly underage pole dancer who infected you with a nuclear-strength venereal disease? That's OK!

Based on the lurid stories I'd heard about Subic Bay in the Philippines, I didn't want to leave the ship! I did, though, and at first, it didn't seem that bad -- no one walking around naked or anything. But poke your head into the wrong place and (whew)... watch out!

In fact, about a week after we arrived I remember Cheryl, a stunning strawberry-blonde, plopping herself down in my office wearing the expression of a wounded puppy. She was heartbroken after she let a bunch of enlisted dudes she thought were her friends drag her to a sex-show.

"It was awful, Renae," she said in her Southern drawl. "Nothing but women shoving bottles and ping-pong balls into themselves while the guys all cheered and took pictures. I've never been so embarrassed in my whole life." Shoot, I was embarrassed just listening to her, but what could I do except tell her to find some better friends? To this day, Cheryl still chafes at the memory. And so do I.

Idly twiddling our thumbs while our male counterparts twiddled... other things... wasn't easy. There's only so much shopping and sightseeing a gal can do in a town that thrived on the sex trade. After a while, some of us simply gave up going ashore. We were tired of being taunted by drunk guys and hookers.

Leaving the Philippines didn't turn the Hydes back into Jekylls overnight, but eventually most of the guys came around. Some of them even seemed a little remorseful -- perhaps due to paternity notifications.

Yet, "what happens on WestPac, stays on WestPac." That's what the other women told me. No matter what you see -- or whose husband you see doing it -- not a single word. Which was ironic, because a lot of Navy wives viewed us as temptresses out to seduce and corrupt their men. I got news for you, honey: If your guy was gonna cheat, he sure as heck didn't need us. But you didn't hear that from me.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Bexar Bexar
    CD: Haralambos (Western Vinyl)
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  • By Sara Chavis



    By Bill Penrod

    From Columbus, OH, 05/01/2014

    What was wrong with Grande Island, USO tours or Sailors on my ships painted hospitals, orphanages, churches, or other projects. You girls know a lot about what when on in the Olongapo bars. I don't buy that the Sailors guys made me do it not for one second do I buy that. You might sell it to PTA but not me.

    By Bill Penrod

    From Columbus, OH, 05/01/2014

    What was wrong with Grande Island, USO tours or Sailors on my ships painted hospitals, orphanages, churches, or other projects. You girls know a lot about what when on in the Olongapo bars. I don't buy that the Sailors guys made me do it not for one second to I buy that. You might sell to PTA but not me.

    By Al Wellman

    From Santa Rosa, CA, 09/26/2011

    During the Vietnam war, Olongapo's main street outside the Subic Bay naval base gate was a row of bars and brothels. During an evening stoll through the sidewalk crowd of sailors, vendors, pickpockets, beggars, pimps, and street-walking hookers, I paused to talk to a young boy cuddling a fluffy pet duckling in front of one of the more pretentious buildings, distinguished by a short, circular driveway around a small pond enclosed by a wrought iron fence. I told him I had a pet duckling when I was his age. He offered to sell his duckling for a dollar. I was touched by the poverty that would cause a child to give up a cherished pet; so I gave him a dollar, but asked him to keep his duckling for me because I had no place for a duckling aboard my ship. He suggested I could put the duckling into the pond. Puzzled, I looked back into the poorly lighted pond and realized the shadows I had initially thought to be decorative rocks were actually crocodiles. Then I noticed the other children holding kittens and puppies for sale to the sailors.

    By Ensign Everyman

    From Long Beach, CA, 09/09/2011

    I was an officer on that Westpac. A certain enlisted woman and notorious home-wrecker on that ship dumped a drink over my head in club in Yokosuka Japan. I believe I had wondered aloud where all of the women were (it was a combined Officer/Enlisted club - I wasn't going to dance with the enlisted women). She was standing nearby and asked, "What am I?" I said something like, "You are an enlisted person, not a woman," upon which she dumped a drink over my head and walked away in a huff.

    I can imagine being insulted by it, but under the circumstances, was really the right attitude to have on my part - and should have been taken as such by the enlisted woman involved.

    If this author's experience of feeling like a prom queen, cheer leader and Playboy centerfold all rolled into one were common to all of the women on-board, it's funny that so many of those women ended up dating the married guys. Hmmm?

    By Krista Y


    @Anne Andujar... 24 years later and you're still bringing it up? Geez girl, give it a rest. Clearly it's not something you were going to leave him over, since you're still married to him. Whatever guilt he had over whatever he may have done is long gone by now, replaced by annoyance at your refusal to move on. If it's that big of an issue, move out. If not, move on.

    And people wonder why I have no female friends.

    By Robert Tweed


    My memories of those westpacs were mostly of lady sailors prancing around our the ship like they were god's gift to men. All the men chasing after them, and the girls just loving it. Many of them bragging about how much power they had over the guys. Then we'd pull into Subic or Pattaya and boom. It was like night and day. The lady sailors were pariahs and all the men brgan talking about the little brown beauties. Seems like the shift of the attention from our lady sailors brought a lot of unwarranted and jealousy motivated criticism on these poor local girls. In their defense thousands of military to this day marry them and have loving fulfilling lives with them in the states and overseas.

    By Mari Farmer

    From Ventura, CA, 06/02/2008

    I was on the WESTPAC Ms. Renae wrote about. I hadn't been on the ship long when we went left. All the guys in my shop could talk about was how they couldn't wait to get to the Phillipines and how pretty all the girls were. I was a little intimidated at first.Personally, I was pretty disgusted with the place. But you have to make the best of it. I stayed on base quite a bit and played racquetball. When I did go out it was with a fun group of people and we danced and drank....what else is there to do if you don't want to catch anything? But she has pretty much nailed it. And I too still have dreams of being on that ship. Great article Renae! I hope you are doing well.

    By Cheryl Langford

    From Rockwood, TN, 06/01/2008


    By joseph de Groot

    From Coos Bay, OR, 05/26/2008

    I too served in the military, however ex-US Army. I found Ms. Renae’s piece about the Navy’s shore leave very profound and perhaps somewhat prophetic in the sense that while the sexual escapades of all military people are at times “front and center”, the sort of 0-60 aspect of being in the Navy is quite the contrast to what I experienced in the Army. Being on post vs. being on a ship makes me grateful that I was able create my own environment with regard to leave and who I associated with. I can understand how sailors react because of the feast or famine aspect of being at sea vs. being ashore. Thank you for this piece it was very enlightening.

    By Rebecca Rose

    From San Diego, CA, 05/25/2008

    I just wanted to say THANK YOU for this amazing piece. I was driving and LITERALLY had to pull over and stop my car, because I was so emotional about what Donna was saying. I am a civilian worker for a non-profit that operates on a military installation; my office is on base. Everyday, I meet young men, Sailors and Marines, watching them come and go from their deployments and seeing how this life affects not only them, but the women who are so determined to carve out a life for them. And I see the women who serve, young girls struggling to find own paths, navigating through a world dominated by men and their wild ways. I have never really been able to articulate how I feel about this culture, but finally, someone has absolutely hit the nail on the head. I too have listened to men brag about their pregnant wives and in the same SENTENCE boast about some new young thing they picked up the night before. And YES, there are good men who go to sea and are true to their families….but take it from me-- This is EXACTLY what Sailors are like! 

    By dan lamberton

    From Walla Walla, WA, 05/24/2008

    Donna Renae's story accurately matched my own memories of my time on the USS Prairie. My wife was in her Ph.D. Program in San Diego and, because we needed rent money, I signed up to teach college courses on the Prairie through a program called Program for Afloat College Education or PACE. I had it easy; as a teacher I had my own berth, and I could choose, after an invitation from the NCOs in all dining rooms, with officers or with the enlisted sailors, and SEALs. I remember how the milk on board grew increasingly tainted. The NCO's ate very well, and they were often paunchy. The WESTPAC confounded and amazed me. The first thing asked of me after I hauled my own things up the ladders to my room, was a request by one of the officers to wear his civilian clothes. He arrayed his shirts etc across my bed. The next question, from a different officer was, "Are you faithful to your wife?" I said I was, and he said, "You won't be. We're going to Subic." Later, I heard the stories from many sailors who had joined under desperate circumstances--these sailors came from all classes, but in general, they had hoped the Navy would give them chances to learn computing, leadership, etc., but most of them were hand-scraping rust from the rails. Some, however, did have responsible, educational tasks, but nearly all of them, in their papers for me, seemed very sad. One thing I remember clearly, was a young sailor coming back on board after a trip to the bars, looking depressed. He said he'd always looked forward to his first sexual experience--he'd imagined it would be a spiritual connection--but rather it turned out to involve a tug on his zipper from beneath a table, a quick oral treatment from an unseen body, and then the sight of a woman crawling out from under the table, as she was spitting into a little bowl. Lots of the young men had their entire paychecks directed to a wife in the US, and, ostensibly, a new mother, in Subic, or some other port where the Navy had an agreement to take responsibility for the behavior of sailors.

    By Anne Andujar


    My husband went on WestPac in the early 80's and came back with crabs. He said he got it through the laundry on the ship. I didn't believe him then nor do I believe him now. I was a young mother but still sensed that this was not true. I vaguely knew about Subic (pubic) Bay. Now he just gets angry when I bring the subject up every once in a while (24 years later), of course throwing his discomfort with the subject back at me in the form of anger. Is this his guilt in another form? But this is probably more than you wanted to know about my marriage. Needless to say, I forwarded this story to him. He's on another trip overseas now and the trust has been gone since WestPac.

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