The Tori Gate. I saw many of them in my travels in the Orient.

It was late 1972. Our crew left Barbers Point, Hawaii, and flew to Guam, then to Naha, Okinawa for a six-month deployment flying missions in support of the Vietnam maritime operations in the South China Sea. I had just stepped on terra firma when I heard a guy shout, “25$ for a car – last chance!”

I walked over and asked about it. One of the guys from the previous deployment had already left for home and was trying to sell it. The guy I was talking to would be on his squadron’s last plane out of Naha later that day. I asked, “Why $25.00?” He told me that there were some cosmetic issues, but it drove great! I got the only key and was the owner of a deployment car.

I figured that $25.00 was something that I could afford to lose. There were still two months left of the registration and it was on base. My deployment car was a 1967 black two-door, no hood, Fiat 850 Sport Coupe. I can’t remember the miles because it wasn’t important. I had wheels!

I was impressed with the acceleration and performance. The engine could rev to almost 7000 rpm and still sound good! I could lay rubber without really trying. However, the tires were not much to write home about. I knew that I would probably have to buy new ones before the end of our deployment.

Having a car gave me the flexibility to drive around Okinawa and that was worth the price of the car!
After landing from a mission, I would drive onto the flight line to the aircraft and pick up any crew that wanted a ride to the hangar. Three could fit comfortably inside and three or four more sitting where the hood used to be – along with their flight gear. One or two brave souls could stand on the bumper occasionally. We were all ‘bullet-proof’ back then!

The registration on the car expired before I had time to do anything constructive. I got a 30-day pass from the base and it coincided with my wife’s visit. One of the first things we did together in Naha was to find an auto junkyard and attempt to find a hood for my vehicle. We found one not far from the base. After two-plus hours of rummaging around the derelict vehicles from unknown countries and manufacturers, we gave up and decided that our car would be an off-base vehicle.

As we were leaving the yard and heading back to our car, there was a vehicle sitting by the exit that looked remarkably like mine. In fact, it was a perfect match. I bought the hood for next to nothing and managed to get it tied down across the front of my car and headed back to the base. I borrowed some tools and installed the hood. It fit perfectly!

I heard a few stories of the inspection process and readied myself for it. I ‘borrowed’ two tires from another car in the parking lot. The two ‘bad’ tires were temporarily replaced with better tires. I drove to the inspection facility with a car of WD-40 that I would have to spray on the right rear brake disc after every dozen or so stops to quiet the screech that came from metal on metal.

I sprayed the brake disc and drove it. The facility had a one-way drive around that I had been warned when it was time for an emergency stop, to punch the brakes as hard as I could and pull on the emergency brake at the same time. The braking test involved driving up a slight incline onto a level area with four brake carpets, at least that’s what they looked like.

There was one brake carpet for each tire. It measured the actual braking force for each brake. I was told by nearly everyone that they failed this part and they were asked to back-up and do it again and again until it passed. However, my car could not go backward. It was a forward-drive car only.
When I was told to back-up, he didn’t understand me telling him that my car didn’t have reverse.

Actually, it had reverse, but the gear shift was so loose that it didn’t catch the reverse portion of the gearbox. I could go forward and repeat the braking test. It worked the second time around. I was beginning to worry now about the brake screech that could happen any second.

I didn’t pass the visual appearance. They don’t allow any rust on the outside of the car. I had rusted out chrome around the headlights. I wasn’t sure how to address that, but I got a piece of paper with that detail to fix. The inspector got in the back seat of my car and looked around. He pulled up the carpet and found holes in the floorboard. He checked all four floorboards and found similar holes.

My door needed Bondo (automotive body filler) along with the floors and my headlights. I put aluminum foil in the rusted-out headlight chrome liners, for lack of a better word. I put putty inside the chrome area, sanded it, painted it silver and it was good enough to pass that portion of the inspection.

The floorboards were a bit more difficult. With enough effort, I got the backside passenger floorboard behind the driver fixed well enough for a reinspection. The rest of the items on the inspection list were fixed and I was back for another look.

The inspector accepted my ‘chrome’ fix and wasn’t sure how to interpret ‘holes in floor’. I opened the back door and lift the carpet and beamed and showed him my fix. He sat down in the backset and stomped several times on the floor. He shook his head yes and didn’t check any other floorboard.

I had passed the inspection! Our Skipper had commented once in the 440 Club around dinner one night that if my car passed inspection, he would “eat his hat.” He was jesting, of course. But my wife took him up on his offer and brought him his hat and asked if he needed salt and pepper as she handed him his hat.

After two or three days of driving in Naha, Okinawa, my wife said she would never drive in that city. A week later, she was driving with the best of them. One day, she was speed shifting to get around a car in front of her and the gearshift handle came off the floor and it was dangling from her hand as she and the other gals in the car were looking at it. One woman from the back pushed her foot forward and held it from moving backward. The one in the front passenger seat held it in with her foot. They were able to drive back to the base.

It turned out that the gearshift handle was held in with three bolts. With all three bolts in place, there was no wiggle room to get the car into gear. With two out of any three in place, the car could go forward – still no backward action!

The brakes and muffler were getting so bad that no amount of WD-40 could stop the noise. I got a price from a local repair shop in town to fix both – around 30,000 Yen. We came back a couple of hours later and the repair guy told us it was now 50,000 Yen. My wife went into hysterics! There is no way to deal with an irate woman – no matter what country you are in. He settled for 30,000 Yen.
All was well. My wife and I enjoyed driving around Okinawa. I took some of my crew out to the New Japan Hot Batch and Massage Parlor in Naminoue (a section of Naha) on most Wednesdays. That is another story – maybe a future post.

I had flown to the Philippines and returned a couple of days later and found that someone had stolen our car. We lived about a half-mile off base. Now I walking to work. Fortunately, my wife was leaving in a few days to return home and this was not a major inconvenience.

One of the senior officers in my squadron told me that he thought he had seen my car parked at a place off base – down an alley. He gave me the landmarks – go down past the store with the Orion Beer sign, look for a store across the street with a mannikin wearing a yellow dress. Turn opposite that yellow dress and follow that down to the Coca Cola sign and it should be in the alley just past the Coke sign.

Sure enough, there was an alley. I turned and saw it immediately. I tried the key, but the engine wouldn’t start. I tried to jump it and it still wouldn’t start. I took the plates and left the car. I had less than 30 days before we went back home.

For those who had cars on deployment, I hope you enjoyed these memories of my deployment car.

Live Longer & Enjoy Life! – Red O’Laughlin –

4 Responses

  1. So, I work for NAVAIR out of MCAS Cherry Point. A few years back, my office was in a corner of a building on the second floor. The base rerouted traffic from a main road past my windows. One of my engineers, a retired Master Chief, and I were looking at all of the $50k to 60k cars all the junior enlisted guys were driving. You can tell rank, Marines sport stickers on their cars showing it. We laughed, most of the cars had tires and wheels on them that cost three times as much as most of cars we could afford back in the day. Most times, our cars were used, three times over. And, we were fortunate if two of the tires(slicks) matched. Most of us were happy just to get where we wanted to go. Today, it’s all about looking cool getting there. I remember a 63 Ford pickup I had with a 3-speed Hurst shifter, a Thunderbird seat, a fake roll bar made out of black iron pipe, and painted brown with a brush and roller. It was amazing how many people were pissed off when I didn’t sell it to them. I didn’t make much money back then, but it seemed simpler.

    1. Yes, totally agree! Our culture has changed since the Vietnam era. I sold two cars in Germany in the late ’90s and they were clunkers. But, they got you to where you needed to go. And, I could go home over the lunch hour at 120+ mph – both ways. I learned very early that I could not drive over 130 mph at night because I outran my headlights. So, I kept my speed down at night.

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