If there is one movie that is near and dear to the heart of any retired Navy engineer, it is The Sand Pebbles. This movie recreates what we remember so very well: from the realities of the engine room to getting our asses professionally chewed by the captain; from spending most of our liberty (and money) in That One Bar to the shipmate who risks his career (and life) for the Asian bar girl whom he loves; from the high ideals of showing the flag in a foreign land to the depths of a crew's despair — and how a courageous captain can forestall a dangerous impasse among the crew.
And it's not just the concepts above, but the detail! Those of us who remember the old days cannot help but recognize the dragons on the inside of the wrists of Steve McQueen's dress blues; the unpainted, almost Spartan rooms where the bar girls usually slept; and the engineers' dungarees stained by sweat, grease, and oil.
My dad was a 'wiper' – an engineer – on a merchant marine ship. He drowned in Hong Kong harbor back in '74 after trying unsuccessfully to jump from the liberty boat to the ship's accommodation ladder. I cried about it once, but that's it — I hadn't seen him since I was two. Ironically, when I joined the Navy seven years later, I became a Machinist's Mate, the Navy equivalent of what my dad was, and the same rate that Steve McQueen wore in the movie. I can state unequivocally that the engine room scenes in the movie are as real as it gets, from the deck plates to the deck gratings to the scene in the bilges (including the steam from the gage glass) to the reciprocating gears, jacking gear, burnt bearing, the slugging wrench, the main steam stop valve… I could almost smell it! Next time I feel particularly maudlin and have a six-pack handy to cry in, I know what movie I'll be watching.
Perhaps the most true-to-life – and the saddest – part of the movie is the bar. Some American sailors would indeed treat Asians with just the same amount of scorn… and other sailors would stand up against the prejudice of their shipmates. The bar girls in the movie are no different from how I remember them. The mama-sans were just as heartless (and yes, we called the mama-sans by that Japanese sobriquet even in the Philippines), and the girls themselves were just as deep in despair. To many sailors, we saw this as our chance to be a hero, to help save even one girl from that life. Sometimes our motives were exactly that — but some sailors were just as crude and cruel as the character Starski in the movie, who cared only for his own pride and libido, never mind the shame and hurt he'd inflict upon the girl half his size.
To retired sailors who remember something of those days, The Sand Pebbles is our story. Some of us see it as a paean to the "good old days," the "real" Navy. But in retrospect, I know the world – and the Navy – is now a better place. Now, such tragic stories of the bar girls in the Orient are the exception and not the rule. Those good old days were really the bad old days – but part of me will always miss them.