USS Oxford was some 100 kilometers east of South Vietnam by mid April of 1967. We were on our way for an eleven day stay at Subic Bay. We needed to replenish our foodstocks, and initiate repairs on the chain locker bulkhead to secure watertight integrity of the ship. There was a three foot hole where the anchor chain used to be welded to the bulkhead by its bitter end. The whole crew needed liberty, and there was no better liberty in the whole of Asia than Subic Bay, Philippines. It would take the Ox another five days to reach it's calm and tranquil bay.
Below decks, most operations were shut down concerning us "spooks" Ditties could normally be heard outside the door to our secure spaces, they carry, and people with good hearing will pick up on them. But, all was silent, we were heading for port, and some fun. There was a big poker game going on in the overhead of our spaces, where there was little chance of being caught since very few of the crew of three hundred men were allowed in the door. It was protected by a combination lock. We only had to worry about the officers with security cleances. The poker game was well organized, one had to buy twenty Dollars worth of poker chips to get into one of the maximum of six slots. The game was dealers choice, and the favorite game was High Chicago, where the holder of the Ace of Spades shares half the pot. We played quietly, as not to alert any officers with clearance, that might be below us in our spaces.
The sea had some high rolling waves, we were skirting a storm that was in the South China Sea, the storm heading towards eastern Japan. The Ox, being top heavy from the hugh antenna array on the aft mast, and from being a flat bottomed Liberty Ship, was taking heavy rolls. Many sailors were seasick. I was used to rough seas, it didn't make me seasick, I had my sea-legs. But some hung their heads in buckets looking very pale and green in the face. I dropped out of the game, cashing in my chips, wanting to have some money left for liberty. I wanted to go up on deck and take some pictures of the high seas. It was getting rougher as I played poker, I could feel the increase in wave height. I could hear the waves breaking over the main deck above us. My pal Thorson wanted to go up with me which was fine with me. We grabbed our cameras and headed up to the 0-1 level, one deck above the main, just aft of the bridge. We took the passageway to the ladder to the 0-1, we could not go out on the main deck since big waves broke across it and we would have been washed away.
The 0-1 level deck is about 20 feet by 50 feet and had a guardrail of rope around it to keep men from falling off. The Ox chugged along parallel to the waves, and heading due East. Thorson and I went to the port guard-rail, the ship was sliding sideways into the oncoming waves on the port side. It was a clear sunny day with a strong wind from the North. We held on tightly when the ship began to slide into a wave, and snapped off some pictures as it hit the side of the Ox and broke below us over the main deck and out the port side. It was quite exciting to watch and we got some good shots. Suddenly, the ship's 1-MC, (an internal communications device used to talk to the whole ship, to call General Quarters, and fire emergencies,) came to life. We were warned that the ship was about to take heavy rolls. We were taking heavy rolls now, it couldn't get much worse.
Thorson and I stayed up there, we didn't see anything out of ordinary. A few minutes passed, then we both seen it coming. A huge towering wave looking much like a tsunami, but the Ox just rode up to the top of it and the wave failed to break over the main deck. Then we saw the second huge roller coming, and we slid from the top of the first huge wave, down into the deep trough between it and the second wave. We had to look way up to see the top of the second wave, and I held on to the railing for dear life and prayed. Thorson broke and ran twoards the port side, big mistake! The wave hit so hard that it took all my strength to hold on and it streched me out horizontal to the deck but I held. Poor Thorson was not so lucky. He got washed across the deck and his left ankle hit a large padeye sticking out of the deck, shattering his ankle, but he held on to the starboard side guardrail and was not washed overboard. The wave had hit as high as the 0-4 level, some 60 feet above the waterline. I was soaked, and ran to Thorson and pulled him into a hatchway just as another wave broke over the 0-3 level. He was in a bad way. We got a strecher and got him down to sickbay, to get his ankle treated. He was in excruciating pain, but only complained of losing his expensive Pentax 35mm camera.
The ship had taken a forty degree roll when that wave hit. Even the men on the bridge got soaked and they were up some 50 feet above the waterline. Thorson's ankle was too badly damaged for the ship's doctor to treat. He was taken off the ship, a day later, by helicopter; no easy task in such heavy seas. I would miss my good drinking buddy.
The next day, I went back to my spaces. Then, up the short ladder to the overhead, to rejoin the action of the poker game.
I had had enough of the action up on deck. Now here was some real action. One of our Second Class Petty Officers, Fitzsimmons, had just shipped over in Vietnam, and he got a whopping $8000 bonus called a VRB, (Variable Re-enlistment Bonus.) Fitz was now deep into the poker game against some of the better players. I did not last long in the game, I was no match for the likes of these sharks. You can more or less tell how good a player is by the way they shuffle the deck. I seen much fancy shuffling, it's intimidating to the lesser poker players. One guy, Vancil, could keep the straightest face you ever saw, even if he was holding a straight flush. With such a hand I would grin from ear to ear, and nobody would take the raise, they would fold and let me take a small pot. Fitzsimmons was considered one of the better players and had a wad of cash from his VRB.
Good I dropped out, the stakes went up. White chips went for $10. Red chips were now $20, the blue went to $50. Out of my league. The game dropped from six players to just five. I had no duty so I stuck around, the action was about to get hot and heavy.
In dealers choice, the dealer can select any variation of the game of poker he wishes. One of the more interesting variations is Indian poker. Your hole cards are held over your head like feathers worn in the hair of American Indians. The cards face your opponents but you cannot see them, since they are over your head and you never get to see them until the showdown. All the other players see your hole cards, and you can see all of your opponents hole cards. It's a fun game and really makes for some good fat pots. These five played every variation and even some I have never seen before, it was great fun, and an education, to watch this one game. Fitzsimmons was doing okay, at first, but then he lost a couple of big hands in a row and had to leave the game to go to his locker to get more cash. Vancil was raking in the pots, he had large stacks of chips before him, mostly the blue ones. He had been hot the whole voyage, and was accused in a few heated hands of stacking the deck, dealing off the bottom, among other things. The guy had sleight-of-hand, for sure, he had shown us all kinds of card tricks, and probably did half the things he was accused of. But I'd be damned if I could catch him, nor could anyone else, and we all watched him closely.
Fitz was back in a flash and fanned out about three $3,000, buying a $1,000 worth of chips, mostly the red and blue ones. He was a bit of a poor loser and wanted revenge. The guy that took his place had won the last pot and didn't want to give his place back to Fitz so he was allowed to remain in the game. Back to five players, the game again see-sawed back and forth, but still Vancil was raking in the cash from Fitz. Fitz had to buy more chips. He was getting good cards, but Vancil's were just a wee bit better.
About another four hours passed, and poor Fitz was down to only $200. Not to be detered, he bowed out and ran up to his compartment to get the rest of his VRB. He really was pissed that Vancil kept one upping his hands. He even hinted that maybe the game was not straight, and ordered a new deck of fresh blue Bicycle, playing cards, there was a box of them held by the cashier, holder of the chips. They cut out playing those silly Indian Poker games, and they got serious with five card stud poker, a more accepted game in all circles of poker.
The Ox still was taking rolls, but not as bad as before. We had to hold onto our coffee mugs so they didn't spill. Fitz was sitting there with and angry look watching intently as Vancil deal out a hand of five card stud, with a slight variation. I seen Fitz raise his hole cards very careful as so non players couldn't see and give any hints to other players. But, I caught a King, and two Queens. Vancil peeled up his, as did the other three players, but I couldn't tell if he had good cards or bad. He had a face of stone. Fitz passed, he could open but didn't. Good move, I thought. Vancil opened, he had to have a pair of Jacks, or better, to open. He had to show what he had for openers. The openers were set aside, to be shown after all betting was finished. He threw in $200 worth of blue chips. Everyone called, adding their $200 worth of chips of all colors.
Vancil dealt another five cards all face up. Fitz was greatly relieve to see he got the Ace of Diamonds, with no other Aces showing. Fitz pushed in $300, Vancil was showing a two of Diamonds, he called and raised by $200 more Vancil pushed in $500. Everyone called. Fitz raised $500 and Vancil, now looking sheepish, pushed in another $1000 raising Fitz. All other players threw in their hands careful as not to expose any cards.
Down and dirty, the last card. We watched extra carefully as Vancil dealt. Fitz beamed from ear to ear as he looked at his last card, and pushed in another $1000. Vancil called and raised $500 more. Fitz called, and threw in all his chips. This was it, do or die for Fitz. Vancil called matching the raise in chips. Vancil did not have many chips left. The pot was shifting with the roll of the ship. As cool as it was in the overhead, we were all sweating, not just the players.
Fitz exposed his hole cards, showing three Queens, and Ace, and a King. Vancil grinned from ear to ear, first time I seen him smile the whole game, and that was days. Vancil turned up his cards, first he showed his openers, Jacks, then turned up his other two hole cards two deuces, he had a full house! Fitz'es fists came down on the table so hard the chips flew, and he stormed out of the overhead in a hurry. Guys below told me later that he was in tears going out the security door. He had lost his whole VRB. He had re-enlisted for nothing but an extra stripe on his sleeve. The ultimate bummer.
It wasn't long before the whole ship knew the whole story, there were few secrets on the Ox. Our Chief Petty Officer asked everyone to keep an eye on Fitz, expecially when he hung around the main deck near the side, alone. Fitz never did jump.
We arrived in Subic Bay a couple of days later. To my great relief, I found my pal Thorson at the Bayview Bar, our ship's bar, in Olongapo City, he had a cast on his ankle, and had a cute little chick on his lap. He was swilling down the San Miguel beer like there was no tommorrow. So much for all the action on the Ox, now we could get down to some real action, the action we all needed, with the girls of "Po-town."