Having done what we could in the aftermath of Megi, it was time to try and get back on schedule, which meant full steam ahead for Singapore. We were all very excited to get off the ship (for longer than a few hours this time) and enjoy some culture, though in the days leading up to our disembarkation, we were presented with a rather stern picture of Singaporean mores. Every liberty brief seemed to focus almost exclusively on the "don'ts": don't spit, don't chew gum, don't jaywalk, don't make loud noises, don't look at Singaporean women, don't think about looking at Singaporean women, don't think about women period, or the police will grab your ass, toss you in the can, and then beat the skin off your ass with a cane (to get the point home, photos of asses that had encountered Singaporean law enforcement were included). Singapore seemed pretty intimidating, so much so that more than a few people decided to stick close to the ships in port fearing pictures of their asses would wind up in liberty briefs for the spring patrol.
However, the next week would show that Singapore was hardly the police state it was made out to be. All the "don'ts" boiled down to this: exercise some basic frigging common sense and Singapore could be a great time. In our travels around the island we rarely saw any police presense at all. As it was, the group I was traveling with wasn't looking to tear up the town; we were, indeed, looking for culture. While we were enroute I did some research into local sights and, history major that I am, my focus was on Singaporean history. Turned out Singapore had a lot to offer in that department - much more than we could absorb in the short time we had, so I narrowed it down to World War II sites. My knowledge of what happened in the British part of the Pacific was pretty scant; mostly it had to do with the embarrassment suffered by the British Empire at just how quickly the Japanese were able to dismantle their Pacific holdings, especially Singapore which had been hailed as a "Gibralter of the East". Judging from Singapore's tourism websites, the Japanese conquest and aftermath had a pretty significant impact on the country's attitude from then on, so the battlefield sites seemed like a good way to see what made Singapore tick. I proferred this information to one of the battalion's other FACs and our Intelligence officer who were to be my liberty buddies, and so long as they could slide some of their own non-geek suggestions into my itinerary, they were game.
We pulled into Changi harbor late in the afternoon and I'll admit it - I napped through everything and only woke up after we were tethered to the pier. The view from the flight deck, though, was impressive. A majority of the world's container ship traffic comes through Singapore, and it seemed like all of it was arrayed before us at once. Anywhere you could see water, you could see ships, a trend that followed us regardless of where we went on the island. Also lined up at the pier itself were several ships from Singapore's navy. They were an impressive collection of vessels; most of them looked like they were fresh from the naval yard, and our flotilla of rust-streaked ships didn't cut the most dashing picture beside them (but I felt better about the state of our Navy after realizing that Singapore doesn't have to patrol the world's oceans year-round; we can be forgiven a little rust in exchange for keeping the sea lanes open). And, right next to us, was a Japanese Navy amphibious ship (modeled closely on our own small-deck amphibs), complete with Rising Sun naval ensign flapping in the breeze on the stern. How the times have changed, methought: back in the time of our grandparents, any American and Japanese ships finding themselves in such close proximity would've started blasting away at each with broadsides of 16-inch shells. Now here we are, cozily tied up next to each other and sharing some liberty time.
Staring at various and sundry ships was all I accomplished that day, as we'd pull into port late in the afternoon and getting anywhere worth going in Singapore first required us to take a shuttle bus to the nearest train station, then riding the train thirty minutes to the good spots. So, my liberty buddies and I decided to save our energy and head off first thing the next morning. That turned out to be around 1000, but eventually we got ourselves out of bed and headed off to Changi Prison, our first site. Changi became infamous during World War II as the holding camp for European POWs and civilians after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. As with virtually all Japanese prison camps, conditions were atrocious and violence against the prisoners routine and brutal. But some prisoners found ways to cope and keep alive the hope that someday they'd be free again. Art seemed to be a popular coping mechanism, and the prison museum featured a large variety of sketches and paintings, from cartoony pictures of inmates mending shoes and building toothbrushes to an elaborate and moving series of murals depicting the birth, death, and resurrection of Christ that one prisoner painstakingly placed on the prison's chapel walls. We even met a former POW who was making his own tour of the place he'd once been held. He was Belgian, he told us, and this was first time he revisited Singapore in sixty years since his liberation. Held in Changi from the fall of Singapore for the duration of the war, he said he never expected to live to see his home again; having lived through that hell, he's spending his golden years enjoying the good things life has to offer.
The rest of our first day was spent mostly poking around the downtown area, doing recon on potential targets for future operations. We stopped for lunch along the riverfront, watching dragon boat races and quickly discovering that we needn't worry about ordering too little food; in both Singapore and Hong Kong, the average entree was more than sufficient for two people, though chronic fears of undernourishment resulted in chronically taking doggie bags back to the ship and then chronically throwing them away since we didn't have any way of reheating them onboard. Downtown Singapore offered interesting contrasts in architecture: government buildings, for example, consisted of a classic British colonial-style 'old' parliament house, next to which a flying-saucer-looking modern structure we dubbed the Galactic Imperial Senate had been constructed. There was also a casino, shaped like a cruise liner, straddling three different hotels. Odd choices, but then when most of the nations of the world hand you money to park their shipping, I guess you can build whatever you want (see: Bahrain). Our wanderings also took us past a World War I/World War II memorial to the 'glorious dead' of both wars, and the Civilian War Memorial (known as the Chopsticks since it looks like four chopsticks glued together) which commemorates - in the four different languages spoken throughout the island - the many civilian casualties of Japanese occupation. Again, this is a country that has not forgotten its sufferings.
Then we moved west and climbed up what little high ground downtown offered to Fort Canning Park. Built around one of the city's reservoirs, the park has some performing arts-type areas similar to downtown parks in many cities (like Balboa), but also features the "Battle Box", the underground command post from which the defense - and, ultimately, surrender - of Singapore was conducted. Being late in the day, we figured we'd come back another time, and instead went to drink beer at a microbrewery further along the river. We happened upon our CO and some other higher-ups at the brewery; I think that night was the only time in the next week that I saw any of the senior members of the command. Being off the radar was glorious.
Sigh, I am forced to concede failure. I am so far behind in this update, with so many other things to do right now, that, with a heavy heart, I must admit it's highly unlikely I will complete it in the detail it deserves. But I'm reluctant to utterly abandon the effort, so I offer you instead a heavily abbreviated version of my last months on the MEU.
We did end up seeing the Battle Box, along with several other significant sites from the British defense such as Fort Siloso on Sentosa Island (infamous for "having its guns pointing in the wrong direction"; actually they DID support the defense of Singapore as they could be traversed, it's just that British planners never in their wildest dreams imagined the Japanese would attempt an overland assault), Bukit Chandu (site of a tenacious 2-day defense by two Malay regiments, who so enraged the Japanese by their audacity to fight back that they were killed almost to a man), and the Kranji military cemetary, home to a diverse polyglot of graves of soldiers from all over the Commonwealth. We also swung through many cultural sites, like Chinatown and the Shrine of the Wooden Tooth (a relic from one of the many thousand Buddhas. I always thought there was just the one, but there are actually numerous reincarnated versions of him), and Haw Par Villa. Haw Par Villa (which we ended up calling Tiger Balm Villa for simplicity) is one of the most unique parks I've ever seen; founded after the turn of the century by the Chinese family that gave the world Tiger Balm, its purpose was to share Chinese culture, history, and mythology with the world, and it did so through thousands of miniature statues depicting religious figures, legend, and historical leaders. One of the main sub-attractions in the park is the Ten Circles of Hell, which guides you, in elaborate detail, through the Chinese underworld and the various punishments one can expect for misdeeds during life (they're all very painful, and portrayed in vivid detail. Not for the faint of heart).
So, Singapore was a blast, and I was fortunate to get to spend a few extra days there as I had moved myself over to the Denver to support some of their training. The Denver was the last to leave, as the rest of the ARG headed south to provide some presidential support in Indonesia. We pulled out and spent almost two weeks on our own as we steamed around waiting to rejoin the rest of the group in Hong Kong. While underway, I had a chance to get some much-needed FAC training with the embarked company's squad leaders and a detachment of Cobras that required training too. For two days and nights we called in rocket and Hellfire strikes on targets real and imaginary (the Denver generously provided one of their inflatable boats to run around astern the ship and play the target, otherwise our targets would've been entirely imaginary). From there we cruised generally north through the South China Sea toward Hong Kong (spending a full day and night getting tossed around by the shallow, rough seas south of HK; certainly made getting on the elliptical a more challenging experience), and finally rejoined our sister ships in the harbor. From the moment we pulled in to the moment we cast off three days later, I really only saw Hong Kong for a few miles in each direction before smog blotted out the horizons. You think pollution in your city is bad, I guarantee you Hong Kong has it beat; and its smog comes sixty miles from the north before winding up in the city itself. Wouldn't want to live in the area that actually generates it.
Our trips in and around the city (starting and ending with painfully slow ferrys by local water taxis) were an abbreviated version of our Singapore expeditions: visiting local cultural sites, like Buddhist temples and the world's largest outdoor sitting bronze Buddha statue on Lantau Island and old walled villages; climbing up and down the hills where the Japanese fought the British; eating lots of cheap local food (also, we spent a great deal of time trying to pin-point precisely which skyscaper it was that Batman was sky-hooked off of in The Dark Knight). Hong Kong is also a true vertical city; with land at a premium (and a surprising amount of the 'Special Administrative Region' is undeveloped or devoted to agriculture) the city grew up, not out, as evidenced by everything from the famous skyline crowded with giant office buildings to the dozens and dozens of government-run apartment complexes (300 square feet for a family-sized apartment, or about the size of the average American walk-in closet). Also, interestingly, we learned that each and every one of the concrete fingers reaching for the sky was built using bamboo scaffolding. Bamboo is apparently very strong; but you will not get me five hundred feet in the air on nothing but hollow tree branches.
The three days there flew by and, one new digital camera and a couple dozen free books from the naval liaison shore library later, I was re-embarked on the Essex and our little fleet made its merry way back to Oki to end the patrol. With a little luck and some assistance from the 53 detachment on board (my old squadron), I scored a seat on their fly-off, flying almost a year to the day for the first time since my last flight (and I got my first landing in a year too, feeling somewhat smug as a 46 pilot who hadn't had a year-long hiatus waved off from landing on a nice big runway). Over the next couple of days the Navy disgorged the mountains of equipment we'd onloaded three months before, and with one last long bus drive back to Camp Hanson, our patrol was over. We were still technically on tap to respond to anything that might happen in our AO for the next month, until our relief arrived at the end of December (and, after the North Koreans decided to use a civilian village for artillery practice, we were afraid we'd spend Christmas invading Pyongyang); but, for all intents and purposes, our deployment was over except for the plane ride home. I spent my time getting a few simulators and flights with my 53 buddies down in Futenma, and dragging my liberty partner to various battlefield sites on the island itself (he got me back by dragging me to the many feudal castles dotting the place as well).
The battalion's officers also took a guided tour as another chapter in our professional military education (PME), getting escorted around by a civilian guide whose tour has been featured on the Military Channel. We saw the beach 1/7 landed on and the hills and ridgelines they fought over. Combined with the Okinawa Prefecture's Peace Museum exhibit on the battle, I left the island with a sobering sense of the brutality that marked what local Okinawans called the "Typhoon of Steel". American Army and Marine leaders, determined to do whatever it took to reduce the staggering number of casualties typically taken when wrenching an island away from the Japanese, pounded enemy positions with an ungodly amount of artillery and naval gunfire before advancing, turning the lush green tropical island into a barren sea of dirt (and, in short order, mud). Japanese troops refused to surrender, forcing Americans to blast them out of each and every hole they lurked in (unless they committed suicide first). The American Navy was constantly pummeled by waves of kamikazes, which damaged or sunk dozens of ships. And the Okinawans suffered worst of all: the Japanese ejected them from what little shelter they had, forcing them into the open where American artillery and Japanese counter-fire slaughtered them. Or, alternately, the Japanese simply killed them or forced them to commit suicide, as they questioned their loyalties and didn't want them passing information to American troops. For the United States, it was the bloodiest island battle yet, with 62,000 casualties, including 12,000 killed or missing (close to half of those were Navy deaths from kamikazes). The Japanese military, fighting to the end, lost over 100,000 killed, with only 7400 captured. The civilian population, caught between the two armies, died in droves, with close to 150,000 dead from the "Typhoon". Combined with the viciousness of the other Pacific battles we'd studied, including civilian losses, one gets a strong sense of why American leaders feared military and civilian casualties in the millions from an invasion of the Home Island, and why the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki generated relief, rather than controversy, back in a United States that was afraid many of its sons in the Pacific would never come home.
Eventually, Christmas came, and New Year's, and we celebrated though in a somewhat muted fashion, since Okinawa offered all the accoutrements of home, except for the families. But not long after we finally boarded that big, glorious, welcome plane home. In the end, I didn't quite have the same feeling of satisfaction from our military actions (or lack thereof) during our patrol as I did after coming home from Iraq. In Iraq, you could quantify your accomplishments in numbers of passengers and tons of cargo flown, in combat flight hours logged in your logbook, and Air Medals won. This time around, we didn't "do" much that could be quantified; but then that's the nature of the MEU. You float around, waiting for something to happen. And while it might seem like simply 'floating around', you are, in fact, flying the nation's flag, patrolling the world's sea lanes, and letting both friend and enemy alike know that whatever happens, the United States Navy and Marine Corps - the best friend, the worst enemy - is only a day's hard sailing away.