Wednesday, May 11, 2016

One of my oddest gigs ever

In my working life of 54 years I've had several jobs, some would be classified as 'positions', others as whimsical wanderings. Since 1970, they've all moved in one strata, that of clinical or diagnostic medicine. Before that, I was in the military, or in high school or at university. One stands out in my mind as something that was unique.

I think it was early summer of '68, I know it was some months after Tet. My group, like many Marine groups, was sent to a Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni Japan. Southern Honshu, on the Sea of Japan side, for what was called 'TDY', a temporary respite from Viet Nam. A few years later I was to return to the area to work in Hiroshima, some 50 kilometers to the south for the ABCC.

Companies were sent on temporary duty, usually to get them out of the war zone for a three month respite. During the temp duty, most of the members engaged in training of some sort. Those 'specialists', such a corpsman (medics), were assigned to the local medical facility to do with as they needed. I was assigned to the MCAS Station Hospital, a small facility that shipped out it's urgent cases via air to Yokokuska Naval Hospital. There was really nothing for me to do there, I was at that point a E5, the equivalent of Sargent, so they didn't feel they could assign me to being a ward attendant or the like. What they did do, was assign me to the Sanitation Department.

Now, this is not what it sounds like, not what you might imagine. There were no inspections of the base sewage system or the mess hall. We had one primary duty: the investigation of cases of venereal disease (STD's in modern parlance).

Outside the main gate of the MCAS was the town of Iwakuni.....prior to WW2 it had been a small Japanese air force base and fishing community, on the shores of the Sea of Japan, about 50 kilometers north of Hiroshima. During the occupation it was first a British RAF base, then a Marine Air Base.

Predictably, the town sprouted 'places of entertainment' for the military men in their off-duty hours.

Interestingly, the first establishments one would encounter leaving the base were pawn shops, catering to those soldiers who were low on cash but had things like cameras, Hi Fi systems, etc. 
Then came the bars...

And in those bars girls. Hostesses, if you will. Women who would sit with you and let you buy them drinks (colored water, they needed to watch their liver function), and if the proper arrangements were made, and appropriate yen had changed hands, provide other entertainment after the bar closed. 

Also predictable was the incidence of venereal disease, mostly gonorrhea and NSU (non-specific urethritis).  It was not epidemic by any means, but also not rare. Also, in addition to the women 'available' in the bars, there were also two outright brothels, fronted by two men who wandered the streets near the bars advertising their wares, so to speak. 

Am I offending anyone here? 

Here's how the process of 'investigation' worked:

The Marine or Sailor would discover he had one of the symptoms, most often in the morning during micturition. (just threw that one in for fun, two bonus points if you didn't have to look it up.) He'd head for Sick Call, sent to the lab for microscopic exam of discharge, diagnosed and given antibiotics.  Then, he was sent to me, or the other corpsman doing investigations. 

The goal of the process was to find out from whom he'd contracted, locate them, and get them 'taken out of the game' for a few innings while they were treated with antibiotics.  There were often several impediments to the process. 

First, and the most surprising to me, was the fellow would deny having sexual contact. I remember one or two actually doing the 'I must have got it from the toilet seat' routine. The standard comeback to that was 'so who were you on said seat with?'. I could usually get them past this stage with a real threat I had at my disposal. "Ok, well then we're going to have to quarantine you to base for 6 months, it's such a rare case we have to be careful." 

The next obstacle, alas real, was he was too drunk to remember. This wasn't too often, but it happened, and the poor guy had to undergo extensive grilling before he was believed. 

Often he'd remember the bar, and the name the woman used. In this case, we had this huge file, furnished to us by the Japanese Health Department for the prefecture, with the women working at each bar, complete with alias and a picture. This was updated every few months, so as you can imagine, was often only accurate in the past. 

The the best case scenario, I'd trot out this file and picture, the Marine would nod, "Yep, that's her." More often he'd go through the entire bar file and shake his head, so I'd bring out other bars and the pictures. This could go on for hours. 

Even in the best case, the card did not contain one crucial bit of information: an address. So I had two choices, or rather possibilities since choice wasn't part of the process. The first would be load the Marine, my interpreter, pick up a rep from the prefecture health department, and ask the Marine to retrace his path from the bar to her house they had taken. In no case I can remember was the Marine or Sailor sober at that time, so you can picture the possibilities. Going to the wrong house, being greeted by a housewife with kids clinging to her skirts, or a husband taking offense that we'd ask such a thing. 

Occasionally it was the right house or apt. The woman might answer the door (it was usually mid to late morning), the Marine/Sailor behind me pointing over my shoulder saying "Yep, that's her.", and then being chased down the street by an angry woman swinging a broom or mop. Another scenario might involve the man pointing her out, and then hearing a clearly  American male voice from inside "Hey, what's going on out there?" The situation was rife with possibilities, and they were all interesting. 

The other option was to wait until the bar was open, 8 or 9 at night, take the same entourage and to to the bar. Consider all the possibilities with this option.....maybe she's sitting with some guy who she's trying to wheedle more drinks from, maybe this guy spent last night with's endless, the possible outcomes. 

Perhaps this is what kept me out of Infectious Diseases and a career at the CDC in Atlanta? 

I've had a fun life, and some of actually interesting. 



  1. Humans are just chock full of entertainment, aren't they? Anything in the medical field exposes you to some of the seedier sides of the human condition, and stories like yours make it all worthwhile.

    1. I have a feeling we all have similar stories in our past,one way or another.

  2. Fascinating. Never having been in the service, I had no idea these events were ever investigated. I just figured the soldier was given an antibiotic and told to use protection next time.

  3. I didn't have to look it up, but to this day I can't pronounce it correctly.

    1. Hope you're well, Martha. Think of you often.

  4. It is interesting the jobs the military have--I wonder how successful you were in saving GIs from an STD?

    1. I doubt it, since they all had one when they saw me. As I remember I did suggest using some prophylactic in the future, but it was the time and place, and most thought that VD was the least of their worries, what with a return to Vietnam in their future.

  5. Crap! My comment vanished before I finished it. I'll try again.

    Not exactly the kind of job one dreams about! You really caused my head to fill up with memories. Different cites though (Saigon, Tokyo in Japan, Naha in Okinawa, and Cebu in the Philippines). No antibiotics needed, thank you very much! The thing I remember most was that the "hostesses/bar girls" all used American names, and I swear they all looked the same. I thought it was all pretty seedy and more than a little bit sad, so I usually couldn't bring myself to partake. A drink or three, but that was usually it.

    1. Pat. You're right, it was sad. seriously fucking sad. I had a lot of time to think about it, decided how I'd react to it, talk to Cary about it, on and on.
      I'm now wondering if the 70 plus years I've lived have been with a purpose, then see my kids and grandkids, and know that yeah. I'm good. '

    2. Oh yeah! You are good Mike.
      My kids and grandkids did the same for me.