Sasebo Silent Night
by Lawrence F. Farrar
It was the afternoon of December 24, 1962 in Sasebo Japan, and Seaman Bradley Haynes was in a thorny mood. With most of their shipmates already on holiday routine, at 1500 Chief Bascom put Haynes and seaman Dirk Chandler to work wire brushing rust off the base of the ship’s crane. It struck Haynes as more like punishment than necessary maintenance. But what really rubbed the young sailor the wrong way was that he would also be pulling security duty that night–for the third time in two weeks. Why him? Not that he had any Christmas Eve plans; but the unfairness of it gnawed at him. Why him? He expected sentry duty that night would be miserable. Dampness hung in the air; the temperature was falling; and a thickening gray sky promised snow.
Nineteen years old and a Milwaukee product, Haynes had curly blond hair cut short. He had gray eyes and a narrow nose with flared nostrils set above thin lips. His dungarees hung loosely over a thin and stoop-shouldered frame. His workmate, Chandler, was a broad-faced overweight kid from Idaho. Their vessel was the USS Romulus (AR-9), an aging repair ship that rarely left its Sasebo pier.
Contemplating the upcoming security assignment, Haynes said, “Chandler, if you ask me, these security patrols are nothing but damn make-work.” Haynes had an opinion on almost everything. His shipmates called him motor mouth. “It’s going to be cold and pitch dark out there tonight. Damn pea coat’s not worth a shit and all they give you is a flashlight and, if you’re lucky, a crummy pistol. Probably can’t even see somebody if they come over the fence.”
“Well, I heard there’s been some pilferage, and . . .”
Haynes disregarded his shipmate’s words. “I don’t know why I signed on with this outfit. As far as I’m concerned, they can take the whole US Navy and shove it.”
“You better not let Lieutenant Ames or Chief Bascom hear you, Brad. They’re both as gung-ho as they come.”
Haynes put down his brush. “Well, then why don’t they go patrol the goddamn fence themselves?”
Haynes knew Chief Bascom had it in for him, anyway. It was Bascom, the leading deck division petty officer, who’d made up the watch list. A real lifer, Bascom displayed special animosity toward those sailors he denounced, as “just putting in their time.” Haynes had become one of his favorite targets.
More than once Bascom had said, “Haynes, as far as I can tell, you are an A-1 jack-off and a malingerer. If I have anything to do with it, buddy boy, either you’ll turn yourself into a squared-away sailor or you’ll live to regret it. You can count on it.”
Haynes made no secret of his reciprocal dislike. “Bascom’s always studying you; always looking for something you did wrong,” he told Chandler. “I wouldn’t mind if he sort of disappeared the next time we go to sea.”
Haynes’ litany of complaint didn’t end with Bascom. He also believed the base command screwed him and his shipmates.
“You know, Chandler, the brass on the base try to make life easier for their own people,” Haynes said. “Why else do you figure they pull sailors like me off home-ported ships to help out with base details?” Security duty, patrolling the perimeter fence or standing sentry on the piers, like Haynes’ assignment that coming night, was one of those details.
As Haynes spun it, the damn base sailors all had cushy billets. “Hell,” he said, “if they can’t find one of those Japanese bar girls to shack up with, they can always go back to warm barracks rooms, with real cots; not to some damned shipboard compartment with tiered racks where you can hardly turn over.”
Chandler nodded a lot, but said nothing. He’d heard Haynes go on like this before.
A jeep would pick Haynes up from the foot of the gangway at1945 and deliver him to the duty officer shack inside the main gate. Once there, he and other watch personnel would each be issued a duty belt, flashlight, and, depending on their specific assignment, a weapon. When Haynes came up on the quarterdeck that evening to leave the ship, a gaggle of eager sailors with late liberty passes surged by him and down the gangway. Haynes doubted they were headed for Christmas Eve services at the base chapel.
Somebody had hung a couple of plastic wreaths on either side of the gangway. And the ship’s PA system had piped in Christmas music from Armed Forces Radio. Haynes heard the mellow voice of Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” Haynes liked tunes like that, but he didn’t care much for the religious ones.
At the top of the gangway Boatswain’s Mate Chief Jack Bascom greeted Haynes from behind the OOD’s stand desk. In his early forties, Bascom was heavy-set, thick necked and bad tempered. He displayed a pouchy ruddy face and a nose blue-veined from too much booze. He often declared, “My tastes are simple. I like to screw, I like to drink, and I like to eat, not necessarily in that order.” Such pronouncements apparently struck him as hilarious.
Just my luck, Haynes thought. The bastard’s here to see me off.
“How you doing, Haynes?” Bascom said, his voiced lace with sneering insincerity. “Too bad, you have the duty tonight. But then somebody’s gotta do it. Right?”
“What do you think?” Haynes said, his bitterness inadequately concealed. The duration of the shifts had been extended so more men could have the evening free.
“I’m getting off watch soon.” Bascom delivered a crooked grin. “Guess I’ll have to go out and make some of those little honeys at the Blue Lantern have a happy holiday; if you catch my drift. You know, whoop it up. Too bad you can’t go, too. I’ll be thinking of you, though.”
“Yeah, right,” Haynes said. Whoop it up? In what century did this guy live?
Haynes smirked inwardly. Bascom didn’t know they were making it with the same girl in the Club Blue Lantern. She’d been two-timing the chief with Haynes for several weeks. When he discovered Bascom was paying her rent and thought he had an exclusive claim on the girl, Haynes took special pleasure in her willingness, as he put it, to share the wealth. He didn’t think Bascom had figured it out yet, but Haynes worried Sumiko would tell him, especially if Bascom irritated her somehow—which he likely would, since he was a jerk by nature. The Chief would likely flip out if she did. Maybe Bascom already knew; maybe he put Haynes on the duty roster to keep him away. In any case, a modicum of apprehension at the prospect of harsher retaliation invaded Haynes’ gut and lingered there. But for now, what the hell.
By the time the jeep departed the ship, save for a mild sheen of stars, darkness had settled over the harbor. As they drove away, in addition to the looming presence of the Romulus, Haynes made out the shapes of two destroyers, a pair of mine sweepers, and an LST. He also spotted the running lights of a Japanese ferry churning across the water and the shadowed forms of several small craft. Otherwise, the port seemed deserted and eerily quiet.
Once they picked up their gear, Haynes climbed into the jeep with two base sailors, a craggy-faced petty officer third, Phil McCrae, and vacant-faced seaman, Charlie Keelan. McCrae was in charge and took the wheel. They drove toward the fuel pier, located half a mile from the main piers where the ships were berthed and adjacent to the small boat basin. Snowflakes had begun to fall.
In keeping with the split shift; Keelan would stand sentry duty at the pier while McCrae and Haynes patrolled the base in the jeep. Later McCrae would drop Haynes off to relieve Keelan.
“If you want my opinion,” Haynes said, “this is for the birds. I’m pretty sure, according to Navy Regs, ship personnel can’t be required to . . .”
“Stow it,” McCrae said. “I’ve heard all this before. You act like some fucking sea lawyer. Just do your job. And I don’t want to hear any more out of your mouth about Chief Bascom either. Everybody knows you two don’t get along.”
“Well, I don’t think there’s any real need for us to . . .”
“Look, Haynes, it’s not hard to understand—even for you. There’ve been people sneaking in trying to siphon fuel from the barge, people looking for brass or copper salvage, or anything else they can peddle on the black-market. Pieces of line, fittings; just about anything that ain’t nailed down. Okay?”
Haynes reached inside his pea coat and extracted a pack of Luckies. Cupping his cigarette with one hand, after multiple thumb flicks his Zippo flared and he lighted his cigarette. He crouched in the back of the vehicle, sullen and silent, taking short nervous puffs. McCrae was, he concluded, a prick.
Ten minutes later they arrived at the fuel pier and Keelan climbed out to take the first shift.
“I kinda wish there was a phone—or maybe they’d give us a walkie talkie,” Keelan said.
“Well, there ain’t one,” McCrae replied. “Just keep your eyes open and your mouth shut. We’ll be back in two hours.”
They pulled away and Keelan evaporated in the darkness.
For the next hour or so they drove around among the workshops and supply buildings, swept the area behind the Enlisted Men’s Club with the jeep’s spotlight, checked out the motor pool on foot, and cruised along the perimeter fence on the far side of the base. Nothing going on.
“To hell with this,” McCrae finally said. “Let’s get some coffee.”
He parked behind the petty officers’ club. Although lights shone in the windows, the place looked almost deserted.
“I expect everybody is out in town living it up,” McCrae said. “Should be somebody in the galley, though.”
Haynes knew making a stop like this violated their orders. But it was McCrae’s idea and it sure as hell felt good to get in out of the chilly air.
The club manager, a former warrant officer named Maxwell, met them. “Kinda raw out there, huh? Heard it was snowing some,” he said.
“Yeah,” McCrae said.
What does Maxwell care, Haynes thought, he doesn’t have to go out. Stays in here where it’s nice and warm. Maxwell reminded him of Chief Bascom—not a good feeling.
“I don’t think we’ve had more than ten people in the dining room tonight,” Maxwell said. “You boys want something to eat?”
Haynes felt hungry, but before he could answer, McCrae’s eyes warned him to silence. “No,” McCrae said. “Just some coffee’ll be fine.”
They sat there on straight chairs, among the stainless steel stoves, refrigerators and cooking pots; smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee for the next half hour. Haynes could hear pop tunes wafting in from the juke box in the club’s bar. His hunger persisted, but he didn’t want to cross McCrae. He said not a word.
After a long silence Haynes said, “I guess the locals don’t really celebrate Christmas. They’re all Buddhist or something.”
“Not much,” McCrae mumbled.
Haynes realized that McCrae, hat pulled over his eyes, hands laced behind his head, had dozed off. Great. The longer the better. Haynes really didn’t care if Keelan had to wait to be relieved. Then he thought better of it. McCrae might come down on him for not waking him.
“Hey, McCrae, I think we need to get going.”
By the time they came out, a sugary dusting of snow covered the ground.
After another base circuit, they rolled up to the fuel pier. A pole with a sputtering dim bulb at the far end of the pier provided a bit of ambient light, enough to see Keelan emerge from the darkness. The jeep’s headlights illuminated the crystalline snowflakes that now stung their faces.
“Am I glad to see you guys. It’s been getting colder. And I thought I saw somebody on the other side of the boat basin. Scared the bones out of me. Not sure, though.”
“Probably your imagination,” McCrae said. “But we can swing by over there to check it out. Anyway, give Haynes your weapon.”
“Here it is.” Keelan handed over the belt with its holstered automatic. “The clip’s still in there.”
“We’ll be back for you in two hours, Haynes,” McCrae said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Yeah, Merry Christmas,” Keelan added, his voice lost in the sound of the jeep’s engine.
Haynes stood alone in the dark.
Chief Bascom meant what he said when he told Haynes he intended to go into town and whoop it up. Dressed in civvies, he stepped out of a cab and into the crackling neon lights of the town’s bar district. Bascom loved this place—and places like it, from Hong Kong to Olongapo. In the old days he would have been dubbed a China Coaster, a sailor who spent his entire career between Asian ports. Out here on the beach he could shed the strait-jacket of military discipline; no need to call some snot-nosed ensign or j.g. “sir.” Out here he was a big man: being a chief counted for something. The girls favored him over the lesser enlisted ranks and bartenders and shopkeepers stoked his sense of superiority.
American sailors thronged the district, a warren of alleys and lanes crammed with bars, cabarets, tea houses, snack stands, and pachinko parlors. The Sasebo Saloon Owners’ Association had hung garlands and bells over the street and here and there had positioned forlorn-looking Christmas trees at the entrances of establishments having little to do with the Christmas spirit. Signs proclaimed Best Sasebo Bar, Hot girls waiting, Cheap drinks. Most of the bar hostesses who usually hung in the doorways trying to lure customers into their places of employment had retreated inside to escape the chill. But a few of the more intrepid, their shoulders draped with shawls or sweaters, still called out. Come on in, sailor. Happy time for you. Merry Christmas inside.
Bascom launched his own celebration at the Club Silver Slipper. He was a regular and the bartender and the mama-san both greeted him warmly.
“How are you, Chief?” the mama-san said. “You want special drink. Maybe nice girl?”
“Too early, Mama.” He seated himself at the bar. “Just give me a whiskey and water.”
Despite his words, he felt a hand on his arm. “Come on Chief. Don’t you love me anymore? Buy me drink.” The woman was a gold-toothed veteran of the place.
“Tell you what. I’ll buy you a drink if you just shove off.”
She gave him a dirty look but scooped up a ready-made Pink Lady off the bar and flounced away.
Bascom downed two drinks in quick succession, patted the mama on her kimonoed backside. “Merry Christmas, you old bitch.” He laughed, put some yen on the counter, and went out. Here and there the street surface glittered with melted snow.
In the Cisco Club he exchanged raunchy stories with the bartender and then retreated into a darkened corner with a Japanese hostess who called herself Mary. She had dyed red hair and seemed eager to accommodate Bascom’s roaming hands. Like a local silk merchant, he felt entitled to touch, rub, and feel the merchandise. After twenty minutes and another drink, he announced “I’m making the rounds. Be seeing you.” And with that he wandered back into the street.
By the time he’d downed more whiskies in the Moon Dream Cabaret and Club San Francisco he had a good buzz on. Swearing at a Japanese delivery boy who bumped into him and cursing at a pair of American sailors who did not move out of his way quickly enough, Bascom rambled in and out of side alleys until he zeroed in on the Club Blue Lantern. Sumiko would be there.
Bascom pushed through the door, scanning the room for her. Crammed with sailors and a full house selection of bar girls, the placed burbled as voices rose and fell; glasses clinked and rattled, and people laughed in chorus or in staccato solos. The girls had decked themselves out in what they deemed appropriate holiday attire, the common elements being heaviness of makeup and skimpiness of dress. Music blared from a juke box while the club’s three piece combo took a break. Gene Chandler vocalized with Duke of Earl. The Shirelles emoted on Soldier Boy.
A pair of Bascom’s buddies waved him over to their booth. “Hey, Jack. Join us.”
Their female companions ensconced themselves on the sailors’ laps to make room. “Where the hell is Sumiko?” Bascom said.
“Have a drink,” one of the men said. “We’ve got a bottle.”
And so Bascom gulped another whiskey and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Hey, Jack you’re not getting sloshed are you?”
“What if I am?” Squinting, Bascom surveyed the room. “Where is she? I don’t see Sumiko.”
“She went with customer,” one of the ensconced girls said. “She back soon, I think.”
“Sure as hell better not have been giving him a short time,” Bascom declared.
Those words no more than uttered than Sumiko rushed up and threw her arms around Bascom’s neck. A Japanese woman in her mid-thirties, hair piled on top of her head in a bouffant, she wore a tight fitting red dress.
“Hi, Jack-san. Merri Kurismasu.”
“Where the fuck you been?” Bascom didn’t seem gratified by her late arrival.
“I was helping young sailor find present for girlfriend.”
“Do you expect me to believe that?” He downed another drink.
She glared at him, but before she could answer, the club’s manager trotted up on the stage and tapped the microphone. “Merry Christmas, American friends,” he said. The crowd continued to yammer along. He said again, “Merry Christmas.” He finally elicited their attention when he said, “Tonight we have special show for your holiday enjoyment.”
One of Bascom’s grinning companions nudged him. “Probably one of them Filipina nude shows.”
“Yeah.” Bascom chuckled obscenely.
The lights dimmed and a procession of ten or so bar girls now dressed demurely in long white gowns, with small red Christmas bows in place of corsages, filed onto the stage and into the area in front of it. In one hand each of them clutched a burning white candle, in the other hand a sheet of music. The incongruity not lost on them, some of the sailors began to snicker, but the hostesses at their tables shushed them.
Then the girls began to sing, their faces exuding sweet sincerity. And the mellow strains of Silent Night drifted through the dimly lit cabaret. Silent night, holy night . . . The room, too, fell silent. Even the most raucous members of the assemblage sealed their lips and paid rapt attention to the soft refrains of the beloved carol. When the song finished, the singers blew out their candles and filed away to a back room, just as they had entered. For a moment, at least for some, there were moist eyes. Then the assemblage burst into applause and whistles.
“Never heard anything that pretty since I was a kid,” Bascom announced and scoffed down another drink, spilling some on the table.
“You bring me present, Jack?” Sumiko said. She looked at him expectantly.
Bascom had troubled focusing on the question and his speech slurred. “I guess I forgot.”
“You forget plenty. No present. You one mean son of a bitch.”
Bascom grabbed her wrist. “Why you . . .”
“That hurts.” She jerked free and angrily blurted out, “Guess what, Jack. I have new boyfriend. You know him. His name Haynes. Good looking, too. Not ugly like you.”
“It took a moment for the notion to register. “You mean you been making it with that little . . .” His speech came thick as Japanese cooked rice.
“Hai. Tough luck for you, you old man.” Her voice heavy with dismissal, she said, “See you next time.”
He did not realize at first she’d gone. Faces and colors blurred, the room undulated. Bascom tried to stand only to slump back into the booth.
“Too much whiskey, pal,” one of the men said. “You better get back to your ship, Bascom. We’ll get you to a cab.”
He shrugged them off. “I’m okay.” This time he got to his feet and made his way unsteadily to the club’s entrance, where he hailed a taxi.
Slumped in the back seat, Bascom said to no one in particular, “What happened to Sumiko?”
“Where to, sailor-san?” The driver looked over his shoulder for instructions.
“Take me to the base. I’ll tell you where you little buck-toothed bastard.”
At the base gate the Marine on duty recognized Bascom and waved the cab through,
As Bascom mumbled to himself, his alcohol-marinated brain conjured up an image of Haynes and Sumiko together. The little shit. Bascom didn’t really care about the girl—one in a series. But he wasn’t about to be one-upped by a punk like Haynes. No way.
As the cab moved along a darkened street, Bascom suddenly said, “Just let me out. Behind those buildings. Anywhere along here.” The supply buildings screened him from the fuel pier.
He handed his billfold to the driver who dutifully counted out the correct fare and handed it back to Bascom. He got out of the cab, caught his balance, and staggered off in the direction of the fuel pier. Drunkenness permeated his body—head, arms, legs. Yet as he stumbled along, a sense of purpose seized his besotted mind. He’d find Haynes and straighten him out once and for all. Teach him a thing or two. As to what that lesson might entail, he could formulate no idea. Steering a sinuous course, he made his way through the night toward the fuel pier.
It seemed the duty would never end. McCrae and Keelan had to be back soon. Haynes wished he had a watch. He stamped his feet trying without success to get warm. That Dixie Cup sailor hat perched on his head offered no protection for his freezing ears and, despite thrusting his hands into his pockets from time to time they trembled in the marrow-piercing cold. The earlier sheen of stars had long since disappeared and the wind had picked up. The twinkling lights of the town across the water seemed to mock him. He wanted to be there, not on this damned pier.
He pictured officers and their families relishing Christmas dinners at their club or opening gifts in their homes. Was it possible to feel more alone? Or more hungry? For a moment he tormented himself with the imagined aroma of a sizzling Wisconsin bratwurst. But a miasma of odors from the harbor assaulted his nostrils and destroyed the illusion.
When he tried to light up a cigarette, his Zippo failed him. He tried several times; no luck. Finally, in frustration, he pitched the device into the water. Why was he here? On this pier? In this foreign country? Why? He tried singing, but forgot the words to “On Wisconsin” and was reduced to humming through chattering teeth. How pathetic, he thought.
For a time Haynes huddled behind a storage shed next to the boat basin where small craft tugged at their moorings. But he found little relief. The mean wind seemed directed at him personally. He adjusted the collar of his pea coat, rubbed his hands together, and once more stamped his feet. He worked for idiots. Where he came from people knew better than to stand around pointlessly in a winter night.
Shadows formed, shifted, and faded; Haynes sensed movement everywhere. Even the surface of the harbor, ruffled by the wind, moved constantly. And random sounds distracted him, put him on edge. The scream of a siren from somewhere across the water touched his nerves. From time to time tarps rustled and flapped in the wind. Waves lapped against the pier and water black as navy coffee gurgled beneath him. Who knew what might be down there? Hadn’t Keelan said he saw somebody?
Now, staring into the blackness, Haynes became obsessed with the idea someone was moving in the shadows of a supply warehouse. He cocked his head, looking; listening. He was attacked by a gut-wrenching spasm of nerves. His mind raced, his thoughts fast and frenetic as pin balls in a Japanese pachinko machine. He loosened the flap on his holster.
What was he supposed to do? No one had really briefed him. How did you say halt in Japanese? Sentry duty had been nothing more than a kind of game, nothing more than going through the motions. But now it seemed all too real. Someone was out there—he was certain.
Haynes narrowed his eyes and again peered into the snow-powdered gloom.
“Halt. Who goes there?” He’d heard the line in the movies. What for two hours had been a state of boredom and resentment now morphed into one of near terror. “I said, halt.”
A new sound captured his attention. Was it the wind; a voice groaning with despair? Or with anger? Haynes drew his weapon, clutching it in two shaking hands. A shadowed movement caught his eye and, in a moment at once transient and eternal, Haynes fired into a figure suddenly lurching toward him. He fired again and kept firing until the clip was exhausted.
The snow had stopped and the apricot glow of early morning tinted the sky when McCrae and Keelan showed up to retrieve Haynes. Instead they found Chief Bascom, arms outstretched; face down at the edge of the pier, almost as is if he were gazing down at the water. How many times they could not tell; but there was no ambiguity. He’d been shot to death.
“Hey, I found a pistol,” Keelan said. He’d spotted Haynes’ weapon on the pier under a dusting of snow.
“Leave it alone,” McCrea said. “I’ve got to call this in.”
By the time the Shore Patrol and base duty officer arrived, McCrae and Keelan had tracked Haynes down. They found him slumped against a dumpster behind the storage shed at the end of the pier. Nearly incoherent, he shook with cold and fear.
“It was dark. I didn’t know. You’ve gotta believe me.”
“But it was Chief Bascom. For Christ’s sake, couldn’t you tell?”
“Couldn’t see. Didn’t know it was him. Night time. Thought it was somebody come to steal. Came right at me.”
Watching the hospital orderlies load Bascom’s body into the ambulance, its red lights flashing, McCrae said to the duty officer, “I expect it will go hard for Haynes. Everybody knows he had it in for the chief. They say he’s threatened him more than once.”
“Yeah,” the duty officer’s driver volunteered. “But word is the chief found out Haynes was screwing his girl. Maybe Bascom came after him.”
Haynes shivered in the back of the duty officer’s sedan. Why him? he thought. Why him?
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former US diplomat with multiple assignments in Japan as well as with postings in Germany, Norway, and Washington,DC. During his time in the Foreign Service, he graduated from the National War College, was Consul General in Okinawa, and served as the Political Advisor to the Commandant of the USMC. Before his diplomatic career, Farrar served as a deck officer on the USS Kearsarge (CVS-33) and as a ComNavForJapan staff officer. His son is a Marine reserve officer with service in Somalia and Iraq. Including those in O-Dark-Thirty, Farrar’s stories have appeared in nearly fifty literary magazines.