Singapore and Thailand — On USS Boxer

Originally printed in the Clear Lake Courier — June 4, 1997

I never in my life thought I’d get to Singapore and Thailand, but the opportunity presented itself when we scheduled a trip to meet USS Boxer. Three of us flew seven hours from Yokota Air Force Base to Singapore on a DC-8 contracted by the Air Force to carry cargo and passengers.

From the air the Singapore coastline appeared as a carpet of green trees and shrubs, with occasional bare spots of red earth showing through. Meandering streams contained brown/green water. We flew over a downtown with clusters of multi-story buildings, an industrial section with more red dirt, and large patches of scraped red earth being turned into housing developments.

Singapore Island, 80 miles north of the Equator, is located off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. Its average daily high temperature is ninety degrees and average low seventy degrees. The Republic of Singapore, a former British colony that now contains two and a half million people, has no native culture. Malays have been there longest and Chinese are in the majority (77 percent). Of four official languages, English appears to be most used.

I had arranged to travel on USS Boxer (a helicopter assault ship) from Singapore to Phuket, Thailand. My hosts brought me to the ship Sunday and put me in the commanding officer’s guest stateroom. It didn’t take long for the quarterdeck watch to recognize me. Even when returning from a run that afternoon, I heard “Captain, United States Navy, arriving,” announced throughout the ship as I came up the gangplank. (Senior officers are acknowledged whenever they arrive or depart Navy ships.)

USS Boxer (LHD 4) is the fourth of seven landing helicopter dockships being built for amphibious operations. With a Navy crew of 1000 men and 50 women, it is on its first deployment. The ship has five transportation decks–flight deck, hangar deck, two vehicle decks packed with Marine Corps trucks and equipment, and a well deck containing three landing boats.

The Marines on the three ships in this Amphibious Ready Group are a rapid-reaction force, traveling light and ready to go where needed at a moment’s notice. The Marine Corps mission is to get ashore quickly and either accomplish a specific task or hold out until the Army arrives to fight the war.

We pulled away from the pier in Singapore (which means “Lion City”) at 7:30 Monday morning and headed up the west coast of Thailand to the island of Phuket. At noon Tuesday we heard, “Anchor. Shift colors.”

The naval attaché from Bangkok came aboard to tell us, among other things, to drink only bottled water and to eat no street vendor food. He warned us not to use credit cards because Thailand has one of the worst credit card fraud problems in the world.

He also said we should check the liberty boats that would take us ashore–to ensure they looked safe and had life vests. Although they ran constantly, most liberty boats held only eight people, and it probably took eight hours to get everyone ashore Tuesday. I doubt if anyone cared about lift vests.

Buses took us through Phuket Town and across a small mountain range to Patong Beach on the west side of the island. The hilly green landscape along the way held a variety of trees and long grass.

Phuket is a place where you sweat constantly, even at night, but not as humid as Singapore. At least, camera lenses don’t fog over as mine did in Singapore. Most hotel lobbies and restaurants are open to the outdoors and cooled by ceiling fans. This adds to the tropical atmosphere and reminded me of World War II movies. The streets along Patong Beach are crowded with outdoor shops and bars.

We used tuk-tuks for transportation. These tiny open-air vans with back entrances (no door) had bench seats along the sides. One night we squeezed in ten people for ten baht apiece. (100 baht equals $4 U.S.) Tuk-tuks were everywhere, and easy to flag down for a ride. Without seatbelts, the rides could get dangerous. Drivers tailgated and turned out in traffic to get around slower vehicles. Motorcycles zipped in and out and horns honked constantly.

I bought a plane ticket to Singapore from one of the little open-air travel agencies along the street. I paid 1300 baht and was told to come back before midnight to pick up my ticket. I wasn’t sure there would really be a ticket, but this was an adventure and I was willing to take the risk. The ticket looked real when I picked it up, and a call to the airport confirmed my reservation.

At the airport I learned you can’t leave a country you haven’t officially entered. My passport lacked a visa stamp, and I was told to go to the Immigration office in Phuket Town because the airport could not stamp passports. (Military aircraft clear Customs when entering a country; military ships do not.)

As a tuk-tuk carried me across the mountain to Phuket Town, I wondered whether I would really end up at the Immigration Office. But I did, and my passport was stamped within five minutes.

That evening I flew back to Singapore. In my next column I’ll describe the second part of my journey.

[See “Underway with USS Independence.”]

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