Happy days are here again for Subic Bay

For Subic, the rapidly escalating tension over a smattering of rocks in the South China Sea can only be a good thing.

China's growing assertiveness in this part of the world is bringing the Americans, who left 22 years ago, back to Subic - once a United States naval base and now a special economic district in Olongapo city, north of Manila.

Plans are already being laid out for a long-awaited homecoming for a much-beloved kin.

"We have always loved the Americans, loved them for more than 100 years," Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority administrator Roberto Garcia told The Sunday Times.

"It was like someone in the family died when they left," said Mr Ruben de Guzman, president of the Metro Olongapo Chamber of Commerce, recalling 1992, the year the American flag was lowered for the last time in Subic and the last 1,416 sailors and marines packed their rucksacks and headed back to the US.

From remote outpost to naval fortress

The Americans built Subic into what it is today.

They turned it from a remote Spanish outpost in 1901 into a naval fortress that by the 1970s - with two costly wars in Korea and Vietnam fuelling a steady flow of money and material into Subic - grew into the largest military installation outside the US.

The 678 sq km base - about the size of Singapore - was pivotal in every major US military engagement from 1901 to 1992.

It was home to the mighty US Seventh Fleet at the height of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. During those years, some 90 ships visited Subic each month to restock and have repairs done, and its six wharves, two piers and 160 anchorages had about 30 ships on any given day. In a single day in October 1968, Subic serviced a record 47 ships.

During the 1991 Gulf War, 70 per cent of US naval supplies that went to that conflict came from Subic.

At its peak, Subic had about 40,000 Filipino employees, mostly from Olongapo, and four in five companies in the city depended on the base.

With thousands of sailors docking each month all hungry for rest and recreation, an entertainment strip grew along Magsaysay Drive in Olongapo just outside Subic's main gate.

Hundreds of hookers with names like "Jane Fonda Superstar" loitered all over Magsaysay Drive all night, and strip clubs, bars, brothels and motels lined every square inch of the street.

But when a nationalist Philippine Senate voted to shut down Subic and its twin base, Clark air base 187km away, in 1991, the American-fuelled party in Subic and Olongapo ended.

Back to the fore as US boosts presence

In April this year, Manila and Washington signed a 10-year defence pact that will station more US troops for longer periods of time in the Philippines.

The significant build-up in American presence in the Philippines is a response to China's increasing assertiveness as it pursues its claims over nearly the whole of the South China Sea.

US and Philippine officials believe that ringing the Philippines with US troops will help contain that assertiveness.

Both sides have yet to agree on exactly how many American soldiers will be coming to the Philippines, except to say that the number will be "significantly larger" than a contingent of 500 elite troops now operating in the southern island of Mindanao and more than the 6,500 who take part in annual military drills in the main Luzon island.

The Philippine Navy has started building a new base that the Americans can use on a 500ha lot along Subic Bay that is nearer to Zambales province than Olongapo, adjacent to the shipyard of Korea-owned Hanjin Heavy Industries and Construction.

Construction of this base, however, will take years, and the Americans will have to use their old base's docks and bays for now.

After 21 years of poor maintenance, these facilities are in need of repairs before they can accommodate the much larger number of warships that will be dropping anchor in line with the new Philippine-US defence pact, said Mr Garcia.

Already, Subic's harbours can barely handle a recent rise in traffic from the US Navy, and Mr Garcia expects it to rise threefold once the American deployments are in full swing.

Between January and June last year, 72 US warships and submarines visited Subic. That figure compares with 88 US naval vessel visits in 2012, 54 in 2011 and 51 in 2010.

A subsidiary of a major US defence company is bidding for ship repair and logistical support contracts.

Of Family Days and speaking English

Mr Anthony Bayarong, a public affairs consultant at the Olongapo city government, saw Subic in its heyday as an American enclave, as both his parents worked there.

It was the commissary inside the base he remembers most.

"It was like shopping at Wal-Mart. We had Gatorade years before everyone else in the Philippines did," he said.

The base opened its doors to families of its civilian workers once a month for "Family Day". That was when Mr Bayarong would get his chance to cross Subic's heavily fortified gates and have a brief taste of what it was like living in America.

The currency used inside the base was the US dollar.

There was no need for traffic lights because cars stopped at intersections, people crossed on zebra lines, and the streets were policed by Americans.

The roads were clean, with names that were decidedly American: Washington, Taft, Dewey and McKinley. They were laid out in neat grids, and each grid was populated with big, white bungalows and manicured lawns.

Everyone spoke English, and on Family Day, there would be picnics everywhere.

"We ate what the Americans ate, which were mostly steaks, hot dogs and burgers, and then I'd get to practise my English with American kids my age," Mr Bayarong recalled.

A matter of protecting what's theirs

When the Americans left, Mr Bayarong's parents were laid off, and like most of the base's other employees, their only choices were to accept jobs that paid a fraction of what they used to earn or start their own business.

Magsaysay Drive shut down. One by one, the strip clubs closed shop, and in their places rose restaurants, fast-food joints and department stores.

But Subic and Olongapo managed to pull themselves together.

"We've moved on. We've coped. People's lives have changed since then," Olongapo Mayor Rolen Paulino told The Sunday Times.

Now, with talk of an increasingly assertive China getting louder, Subic and Olongapo are bracing themselves as they prepare to again play a role that is central to the US' so-called pivot to Asia, never mind the risks a large American presence usually brings.

"We are just trying to protect what's ours," said Mr Paulino.


This article was first published on July 07, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.