Sea Store Cigarettes
It’s no secret to us old salts that our survival kits usually included a pack of Lucky Strike or Camel cigarettes. Sometimes the packs were so old, the paper would have turned a dark yellow.
In 1965, first during the U.S. Army’s Basic Training Course & later in Pre-Airborne Infantry Training, while being allowed a break from P.T., or during a long march, it was commonplace for a Drill Sergeant to say “smoke ’em if you got ’em, do pushups if you don’t”. Non-smoking soldiers would quickly “bum” a cigarette from a friend & they too would soon be smokers. Despite mounting evidence in the 1950s of the adverse health effects of smoking and tobacco use, the military continued to include cigarettes in rations until 1975.
I had been a smoker since age nine and continued to smoke throughout my navy career. When I reported to my first submarine and prepared for deployment, we could purchase “sea store” cigarettes. Sea store cigarettes were tax free and cheaper than what we could purchase at the base exchange or “PX” if you’re army. We would order them by the case for a lengthy deployment, but the glitch was that they wouldn’t be handed out until we were well at sea, hence the name “sea store”.
Sea store cigarettes at the time were going for ten cents a pack or a dollar a carton. Some bright entrepreneurs and even non smokers realized the value of cigarettes both on board or overseas as some heavy smokers would underestimate their order and would run out during the deployment. Then a pack of cigarettes could go for as much as a dollar. The real profits were, however, in foreign ports. In some ports, a pack of American cigarettes was all a hooker would ask for. Give her a carton and you could move in with her. Give her a pair of your denim dungaree trousers with that carton of cigarettes and she would offer to let her sister join the both of you.
In Italy, back in the 1960s, a pack of filtered American cigarettes could be sold for ten dollars or a hundred dollars a carton. This was illegal, however, and the penalty if you were caught selling cigarettes was arrest and imprisonment in an Italian jail. But usually when our boat pulled into port, like Naples, Italy for example, we would be rushed by dozens of shady looking Italian guys in what we called “bum boats”. They’d come alongside us flashing big rolls of U. S. Currency. They wanted navy dungarees or cigarettes, but mostly cigarettes. It was common to see someone from the boat toss over a carton of cigarettes and the guy in the bum boat toss back a wad of American currency.
The illegal selling of cigarettes was further complicated by police corruption. No problem if you conducted the transactions from the safety of the ship as the police didn’t have any jurisdiction on an American military vessel. But naive first timers would sometimes take a carton or two when the left the boat and went into town. The big mistake was when they succumbed to the easy money and sold a carton in one of Naple’s back alleys. The buyer would then report the transaction to the police and the newbie would be subsequently arrested, taken off to jail and his cigarettes confiscated. The confiscated cigarettes would be returned to the buyer and the cash divided between him and the authorities. So now the buyer has the cigarettes which he could sell and half of his cash back. The police furthered profited when the military had to pay the fine for getting the young sailor released.
Another ploy that suckered in many un-streetwise kids was the marijuana scam. Some squirrely looking guy would hang out at the head of the pier looking for some fresh face kid in uniform. He would offer to sell the mark some “real” hashish. Hash is made from the resin of a marijuana plant and is almost times more potent than marijuana. What would happen though, even if the hash wasn’t real, the seller would have a police officer standing nearby who would immediately initiated an arrest.
But, that was Naples in the 1960s. Sitting in port with all the required work and preventative maintenance or PMs done, we amused ourselves by sitting topside and watching the tide come in. A beautiful sunrise would be made even more dramatic by the tremendous amount of garbage that the tide brought back with it. Sometimes, the garbage was so thick that you could almost walk across the harbor and not even get your feet wet. Naples was a very dirty city where gutters were used as garbage disposals and public restrooms. There was a big cholera outbreak in the city shortly after we left.
Transferring to ballistic missile submarines made calculating how many cartons of sea store cigarettes you bought even more critical. Nuclear subs on deterrent patrols or deployments seldom made port calls, so you had to be prepared to have enough for the next 60 days once you left port. A lot of guys didn’t and usually around the half way point, cigarettes would become a valuable commodity. Sometimes a smart non smoker would have bought a few cartons or the ship’s store would have some for sale. But I’ve seen guys raid ashtrays for a good sized butt. For some, deployment was a good opportunity to quit the habit as I did several times, picking it up again as soon as we arrived home.
With the scientific data about the health risks of smoking and information about the effect of smoking on troop readiness, in 1975, the United States Department of Defense discontinued the inclusion of cigarettes in K-rations and C-rations. By 1978, the Department of Defense had implemented basic smoking regulations, including the designation of smoking and nonsmoking areas. In 1985, the Department of Defense conducted a study that revealed that smoking rates of military personnel were significantly higher than that of US civilians and concluded that smoking had a negative effect on troop readiness. The report also recommended potential methods to curb smoking in the military, including the elimination of tobacco products from stores, raising tobacco prices to civilian levels, and the implementation of an educational program to discourage smoking.
So, the new navy ain’t my navy anymore. Although I did give up cigarettes eventually, I still recall how good that cup of strong black coffee and inhaling the smoke from a Kool menthol was after pulling an all-nighter repairing a piece of equipment.