Subic Bay: The Real Last Frontier


Toward the end of the 19th century, the historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, published his famous “Frontier Thesis” which stated that America, and our unique form of democracy, was shaped by the moving frontier line and the impact it had on pioneers as they moved ever westward.

He felt that the frontier had shaped American character, along with “egalitarianism, a lack of interest in ‘high culture,’ and violence.”

It follows, then, that one could make a case for the proposition that California was the “last frontier” in America, at least on the contiguous mainland.

It is my feeling, however, that the last American frontier was actually the Philippine Islands. Let me explain, but first some background.

Last time, I wrote that I went to parachute school because I had orders to the Marine Corps. As it turned out, I never made it to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.  At the last minute, I was reassigned to a ship in the far eastern Pacific to relieve an officer who had suffered a nervous breakdown.

I was up for it; however, my subsequent trek to the far East was not my first, neither literally nor metaphorically.  Although I had previously served on ships west of Hawaii, I had, as a youthful reader in Mississippi, much earlier bought into the myth of boundless opportunity in the western United States,  what others more learned than I would  recognize  as Manifest Destiny and the golden promise of California and beyond.

While Horace Greely, the founder and editor of the New York Tribune, which became the highest-circulating newspaper in the country through weekly editions sent by mail, popularized the slogan, “Go West, young man, and grow with the country,” early Americans never needed much incentive to push the frontier further and further westward.

Some literati would say that American fiction suffered when the West was won because the spirit and excitement that had fueled much creative writing was lost. Others, however, have said that this actually gave impetus to the genre of the detective story which rebounded from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic Ocean. In any event, the frontier did not stop with Route 66 at the end of the Santa Monica pier.

For me, it was the adolescent “perfect storm”. I knew I wanted out of Lumberton, and the West was calling. I listened to Jimmy Rogers, the “Blue Yodeler” from Meridian, on the radio as he sang about “going to California where they sleep out every night.” Later, during my early teen “folk” phase, I listened to Woody Guthrie, the earnest socialist, crooning about “laying his weary head on a bed of California stars, dreaming his troubles all away.” About the same time, I was reading Jack Kerouac’s counterculture, California-bound novel, On the Road, and other works by the “Beats.” My mind was made up.

I made it to California at 18 and lived there off and on for 12 years, albeit in the Navy towns of San Diego, San Pedro, and Long Beach, and my mailing address was always USS Whatever, in care of Fleet Post Office, San Francisco. However, the California of my youth is not the California of today, which is characterized by high taxes; high living expenses, especially housing; heavy regulation of business; and the strongest environmental regulations in the country.

I suppose these are not necessarily all bad things, but some are extreme. Take the environmental regulations, for instance. When I was on ships homeported in San Diego, the standing joke on the piers was that if you draw a bucket of water out of San Diego Bay, it would be against the law to pour it back in because it didn’t meet the water standards. They say that “liars figure and figures lie,” but the truth is that California has lost population every year since 2007.

When California was finally settled, some might have thought that the Pacific Ocean would serve as a “backstop” for the expansion of the United States; however, reparations from the Spanish American War victory over Spain  (The Treaty of Paris, 1898) gave us Guam (“Where America’s Day Begins”) and the Philippine Islands (the “PI” as sailors know it). We promptly took over the Spanish naval base at Olongapo on Subic Bay, on island of Luzon, and gradually built it up to our largest overseas naval base. Our western frontier, therefore, moved into the Pacific, far beyond the International Date Line.

Incidentally, a good way to see the Pacific is to book a flight from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Yokosuka, Japan, on Continental Air Lines’ twice a week “milk run” that stops briefly at several of the little islands in between. You would get to see places like Palau, Chuuk (formerly Truk), Kosrae, and Kwajalein. The arrival of the airplane is the only game in town and the locals come to watch just like people in the Old West watched the trains. Usually, the passengers getting on and off are mostly missionaries and NGO workers, except for spooks at Kwajalein, a nuclear test site.

While I was never stationed there permanently, through time spent during ship overhauls, maintenance, port calls, and R&R from Vietnam, I accrued at least two years onboard Naval Station Subic.  It’s hard to describe Subic and the adjacent town of Olongapo during its heyday at the height of the Vietnam War. Think Dodge City, Kansas, when it was the toughest town in the West; think Storyville in New Orleans before Prohibition; think Natchez Under the Hill before the Civil War. And after you think about those places, start over, because you are not even close.

When you went out the gate into Olongapo, all of your senses were bombarded. It was a kaleidoscope of the mind, or maybe a “Coney Island of the Mind,” to quote the poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. There was a cacophony of sounds: hill-billy music with an oriental interpretation wafting out of bars; jeepney (highly decorated World War II era Jeeps converted to taxis, usually with religious motifs) drivers soliciting passengers (Question: how many passengers will a jeepney hold? Answer: one more.).

There were unidentifiable smells: open sewers; mystery meat frying over outdoor spits; cheap perfume, etc. ; aborigine Negrito warriors in loin cloths selling papa-san chairs they had woven themselves; little old bare-foot ladies selling black-velvet pictures of Jesus that looked you straight in the eye, no matter where you were standing (eerie – made you want to confess to things that hadn’t even happened yet); ragged children begging for a few centavos; and touts of every description: “You want a custom made suit? Be ready tomorrow. Guaranteed not to shrink!” “How about a genuine Rolex? $50.00? 25.00? O.K., How much have you got?”

Despite literally hundreds of sailors and marines walking the streets with money in their pockets and mayhem on their minds, the Shore Patrol and the local Filipino constabulary generally managed to keep the lid on things. About the only times I ever saw thing go south were when aircraft carriers were in port and dumped three or four thousand thirsty sailors on the beach.

Even if one stayed out of the “ville” and spent liberty on base, it was an experience to remember: it cost $17.00 for three minutes to call back to the states and you had to make a reservation; at night you could hear the chain saws of the poachers cutting down the last of the Philippine mahogany trees in the jungle outside the fence; the officer’s club had a house band that didn’t know anything but John Denver songs (ever heard “West Virginia, Blue Ridge Mountains” in Tagalog?); the golf course supposedly featured the dreaded “three-step” snakes: put your hand in the cup to retrieve your ball; get bitten by a bamboo viper in the cup; take three steps and die.

I didn’t golf.

I must point out that such a rowdy, even lawless place was an embarrassment to the average Filipino.

Olongapo/Subic no more represented the PI than TJ (Tijuana) or other border towns represented Mexico back in the 1960s. 

The Filipino people are some of the most humble, honest, industrious, religious, and America-loving individuals in the world; however, by 1992, they had had enough, and the Philippine Senate voted to expel the United States from Subic and from Clark Air Force Base outside Manila, despite the $400 million annual rent payment. 

Our expulsion coincided with the eruption of the volcano, Mt. Pinatubo, which virtually destroyed Clark and heavily damaged the Subic facilities.

I happened to be there at the time, passing through on an ammunition ship, and we saved the historic Catholic chapel, where Japanese soldiers had stabled their horses during the World War II occupation, by getting on the roof and shoveling off the heavy ash as it fell. Many other buildings collapsed.

When we abandoned Subic, the bar in the officer’s club at the adjacent Cubi Point airfield was disassembled and brought in toto to Naval Air Station, Pensacola, where it was reassembled in the excellent aviation museum there.

It’s worth a trip to see the squadron plaques and other mementos on display, including a miniature helo dunker, a water rescue device attached to the bar which off-duty pilots would ride up and down.

Generations of American sailors and marines look back on Olongapo/Naval Station Subic with nostalgia; the Filipinos, not so much. Today, it is known as the “Subic Bay Freeport Trade Zone.

For a while, FEDEX used the old airfield at Cubi Point as a major distribution hub, and a Chinese firm once employed several thousand Filipinos in a shipbuilding venture. Both have moved on.

From what some of my expat friends tell me, the Naval Station is slowly receding back into the jungle, a fitting end for the last American frontier. 

Light a candle for me.

Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via his website at: