LONG BEACH — Generations of sailors have ambled into Long Beach for a few hours of relaxation. For years, they flocked to seedy bars, tattoo parlors and the Pike amusement park.
The Pike and most of those other establishments are long gone, cleared in the name of redevelopment. Now, Navy officials would like to give the servicemen a new home away from home in Long Beach--a USO club.
"I think a USO club in Long Beach would serve a purpose," said Navy Capt. Walter Heinecke, commander of the Long Beach Naval Station. "It would get sailors off the bases and off the ships and get them into an environment (where they can) relax and watch TV and not feel the pressures of work."
Heinecke said his interest in establishing a Long Beach USO grew out of a meeting he attended a few months ago with other Southern California military base commanders to discuss the future of the Bob Hope Hollywood USO.
He said he and USO officials decided to explore the possibility of a local outreach center as an alternative to forcing sailors to drive for an hour and then have trouble finding a place to park in order to visit the Hollywood USO.
Would Provide Services
A Long Beach USO is envisioned as a branch of the Hollywood center that would serve as a self-help center for sailors. It would provide enlisted men and women with services such as counseling, housing and child-care referrals and emergency loans.
Two meetings have been held with Navy, USO and Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce officials to discuss the idea. So far, USO officials fully support the concept.
"They intend to get away from being (just a) Navy canteen, the coffee-and-doughnuts kinds of things," said Lt. John Anderson, Naval Station spokesman who attended one meeting. The USO "would have a little of that . . . but they want to expand their services."
"It would be wonderful to open an outreach facility in Long Beach," said Cindy Lipson, administrative director for the USO in Hollywood. "There certainly is a need. The community seems very supportive to opening a USO, which would be off base but close by."
The next step will be for the USO to list potential services and their benefits so that they can be presented to the chamber's executive committee, said Dewey Smith Jr., who sits on the committee and the board of directors of both the chamber and Hollywood USO.
Smith, who is manager of community relations for McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, said a Long Beach USO could provide area servicemen with an alternative to Navy-provided services. On sensitive issues like counseling, he said sailors might be able to receive help confidentially.
"Sometimes a sailor doesn't want to deal with the Navy on a private problem," Anderson said. "He wants to go off base. That's his right, his prerogative."
A housing referral service is needed because sailors continue to have difficulty finding suitable off-base housing at rents they can afford, Lipson said.
"I think there would be tremendous usage as far as housing," she said. "These people don't have a lot of money to spend. Just because they don't have a lot of money to spend doesn't mean they want to live in a slum."
List of Units
Although the Naval Station posts a roster of off-base rental units, Lipson said Navy officials tell her the list is not kept up to date.
A USO would provide an alternative for minors who are too young to be admitted to bars or nightclubs, she said. The USO in Hollywood stages dances at which volunteers dance with the servicemen.
Lipson said an outreach center in Long Beach would be closer than Hollywood for many of the 250,000 service personnel at 21 military installations in Southern California. A similar outreach center is planned for Barstow, which has a large number of soldiers and Marines at bases in the vicinity.
"There is going to be such excitement when this thing gets rolling," Lipson said.
Although the USO is supported by donations from United Way and other sources, a major fund-raising drive would be needed to finance the cost of a Long Beach branch, Lipson said. The cost has not yet been estimated, she said.
If financial support is obtained, the joint USO, Navy and Chamber of Commerce team would launch a search for a building and recruit volunteers to staff the center and start raising funds, according to Lipson.
Although Long Beach had YMCA services for sailors in the past, Smith and USO officials said they do not believe the city ever had a peacetime USO club. Smith said the tawdry sailor bars are gone forever, even though the Navy presence is growing locally.
A Long Beach USO would mark the return of sailor-oriented establishments that have disappeared since the station proudly billed itself as the home of 120 ships during the Vietnam War buildup of the 1960s. Today, there are about 30 ships crewed by about 10,000 sailors based in Long Beach, the Navy says.
Smith said he expects the Navy's comeback will encourage new businesses and services catering to sailors, but that the new establishments "will come back in a more refined manner" than the bars and sailor dives of yesteryear. "I don't think the city Planning Commission . . . would allow that to happen again."
Nowadays, "you have a different kind of sailor and an awful lot of them are married."
Heinecke said, too, that today's sailors tend to blend in with the community more readily. Instead of heading to the dives, sailors now tend to go to the trendy bars and restaurants of Belmont Shore and similar night spots. He said few now wear their starched white uniforms while on shore leave, preferring to wear civilian clothes so they blend in more with the public.
"They're hard to find," he said of sailors on shore leave.