Naval officer 'would rather kill a faggot than work with one': Terry McCarthy in Sasebo investigates the gruesome murder of a homosexual sailor

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE Shipmate bar, they are playing Bruce Springsteen. On the wall are posters of pin-up girls, the type that appear on motor oil calendars. The decor is faded and stale. So are the no-longer-young barmaids, who sit looking at their nails as the two American sailors at the bar discuss how drunk they should get before going for a burger.

The Shipmate is one of a cluster of bars in Sailor Town, an 'entertainment district' for US sailors based at Sasebo in southern Japan. The naval base has 4,000 personnel, part of the 50,000 US military contingent stationed in Japan. They used to be a crucial part of the US forward defence against the Soviets in the western Pacific. Today they are there 'maintaining stability in Asia', which roughly translates as reassuring Asia that Japan is not about to reassert itself militarily, keeping an eye on China, and maintaining the ability to defend sealanes if necessary.

Although the sailors in Sasebo have a less urgent mission, they have not shed the macho image of young men in uniforms. And so the girls in the Shipmate have learned not to bother handing out glasses with the bottled beer, and how to duck when the fights start.

Usually a few glasses and a chair or two get broken before shore patrol arrives to drag the young warriors back to base. Unless a Japanese national is involved, the Japanese police never intervene in these brawls.

But last autumn, something far worse than a drunken brawl occurred in a park behind Sailor Town - something that would eventually affect even the President of the United States and his controversial campaign pledge to lift the ban on homosexuals in the US military. On 27 October, shortly before midnight, the corpse of Seaman Allen Schindler, 22, was found brutally beaten in the park toilet. Only weeks before, he had confessed his homosexuality to his commanding officer, and was expected to be discharged by Christmas.

One of the main reasons Schindler confessed was his fear of being attacked, since he was finding it increasingly difficult to hide his homosexuality. In a journal that has since been presented as evidence in court, Schindler had written: 'More people are finding out about me. It scares me a little. You never know who would want to injure me or cease my existence.'

The day after the murder, two men were arrested: Airman Apprentice Terry Helvey, 20, and Airman Charles Vins, 20. Helvey went on trial for Schindler's murder this week, and could be sentenced to death ifconvicted. Vins had earlier engaged in a plea bargain, confessing to a lesser charge of concealing a crime in exchange for testifying against Helvey.

'Whoever did that should hang,' said a submariner who called himself John, sitting at the bar. 'Did you see that - it was wall-to-wall blood.' The murder was gruesome. Schindler had been repeatedly bashed against the toilet fixtures. All his ribs were staved in, his face was smashed to pulp, and his penis had been slashed. His mother later said she could identify his body only by a tattoo on his arm. But while John, and most of the other sailors interviewed during a long night in Sailor Town, expressed revulsion at the murder of Schindler, few saw any bright future for gays in the navy, even if the ban were lifted. 'There'll be more killings over this,' said Bill, a 12-year naval veteran shaking his head sadly.

Most said they simply disliked the idea of living in close quarters with gays. One sailor blamed the navy's training. 'When I went to boot camp, the officer stood up on the first day and asked, 'Is anyone here a faggot? Because I would rather kill a faggot than work with one.' That's kind of heavy, and at 18 you are pretty impressionable.'

Nimitz Park, where Schindler was killed, is nearly empty after dark. A sign gives park hours as 05.00 to 23.00, no pets allowed.

A few closet homosexuals from the base were known to have frequented the park at night, soliciting sex in the shadows of the trees. This activity increased last year when a group of American male entertainers arrived at a holiday theme park just down the coast. Some started coming up to Sasebo's Sailor Town at night. Schindler was apparently intending to meet some of these entertainers on the night he was murdered. No one comes now, after the murder.

A Japanese man strolling through the park during the day turned out to be a chef in one of the canteens on the US base. His name is Ukita, and he has worked in Sasebo for most of his 50-plus years. Mr Ukita still has fond memories of American largesse when Japan was struggling to rebuild itself after the war. But like many Japanese, he feels sorry for the declining power of the country he once admired and longed to imitate.

The days of the affluent American GI striding confidently through poor Asian states are over. The sailors driving out of Sasebo base were mostly in cheap, second-hand Japanese cars that contrasted sharply with the shiny new models driven by most of the locals. They have brought a lot of money to Sasebo town, and many of the buildings have been indirectly financed by the US navy.

But today, the 250,000 people who live in Sasebo have increasingly turned to other businesses, as the Americans have less money to offer. In the Westerner bar the night before, one sailor had said his mates mostly drank on the base. 'The beer is cheaper there. Most guys will get tanked up on base, and then come out later. Japan is expensive for us.'

(Photograph omitted)

Comments