Tattoo Tales or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Defraud the United States Military
Howdy Los Angeles from Speakeasy Tattoo! This week I have a little yarn I’d like to spin for you all. As I’m sure we are all aware, tattoos have the power to tell stories. Be they decorative or deeply meaningful, tattoos chronicle our personal histories, and so in honor of this most patriotic of seasons, I would like to tell you a tale of one very specific tattoo.
This story comes to me by way of my father in law. Now I’m not one to overuse hyperbole but my father in law might be the most interesting man in the world. He was born in Long Beach in the 40’s, dropped out of school to run away to San Fransisco, lived down the street from both the Chemist AND the People’s Temple, once was in the unfortunate circumstance of being made homeless after his landlord got murdered and dismembered by a junkie (the landlord was cooking meth, and the junkie was a VERY dissatisfied customer), and after all that, my father in law received a letter from the draft board, and ran away again, this time to the Galapagos Islands off the western coast of Ecuador. So in the intermittent years between leaving the US and Carter pardoning the draft dodgers in ’77, he partially made a living as a fisherman, sometimes captaining his solo vessel and sometimes working on larger charter ships fishing the icy waters of the Humboldt Current (he also became an accomplished scrimshaw artist, which I should really write about at some point). During one of these stints working on another man’s boat he had a crewmate whom we will call Tom. Now, Tom had only recently returned to the western hemisphere after a lengthy tour in Vietnam where he was a staff sergeant, and so like many a military man/sailor before him, he sported a collection of prominent tattoos. There were the usual nautical fare of anchors and barrels but standing out in large black letters on the back of his calf read “FRANK FORRESTER”.
Tom and my father in law were crewmates for the entirety of the southern winter, during which my father in law wondered over the strange meaning and placement of the tattoo. It wasn’t until their final voyage at the tail end of August that he finally asked Tom about it, saying, “Alright I gotta know. We’ll be pulling into port for the last time soon, so I’ll ask now: Who is Frank Forrester?”
So Tom told the tale. He’d been drafted at some point in the 60’s, and had made it to the rank of staff sergeant. Having gotten this commission, he was assigned to be C.O. to a company with something of a terrifying reputation. Rumor had it that this company had killed their previous C.O. Understandably he wasn’t entirely pleased with being stuck with this unit, but he assumed that the rumors were vastly over-exaggerated.
They were not.
The story he managed to glean from the men was that the previous C.O. had been a reckless, self-serving glory hound, who intentionally put his company into life-threatening situations in the hopes that he’d be able to do something “heroic” and get a medal. After months of increasingly risky maneuvers the company got fed up, and eventually, when one of the previous C.O.’s stunts got one of their number killed, they made a pact, and rolled a grenade into the C.O.’s tent.
Well, Tom didn’t much like the idea of going home in a plastic bag or getting murdered in his sleep, so he sat the guys down and gave them a proposition. Something he’d noticed in the time since he’d been drafted was that equipment broke or got damaged all the time in the theatre of war. And the procedure was to report the loss, and requisition a replacement from the Army. Tom also noticed that in the great slush pile that was the Vietnam War, nobody really seemed to investigate these requisitions, as long as the paperwork lined up. So he suggested that perhaps their company ought to start requisitioning things— a new jeep, a cooking stove, a generator, whatever they could later pawn off to the locals. That would be part one of the scheme. Part two would be that using some of the money from these back-alley transactions, they could then purchase a less expensive version of whatever it was they’d sold, and use that for their own subsistence. The men seemed on board with this scam, and the deal was sealed.
For the next several months the company would make these bogus requests and pocket a handsome profit. However, all of this would easily unravel if it was discovered that Tom was signing off on his unit’s acquisitions and so he and his men decided it would be a lot simpler if the guy signing the forms could never face consequences. Somebody immune to dishonorable discharge, court martial, or whatever else. Somebody… imaginary...
Someone like Frank Forrester, a completely fictitious person, invented specifically to perpetuate this scheme. And so whenever a request was made from that point on it carried the signature of Sgt. Frank Forrester.
Frank, according to Tom, became a real member of the team. There was only one real hiccup that could throw a wrench in their works. The company already had a staff sergeant, and if the worst were to happen to Tom (it was war after all) it would be easily discovered that Frank was a nonexistent entity. Tom brought this point up to the men and after mulling it over the company agreed that if Tom was killed in action, they’d report him M.I.A., and turn his body in as Frank Forrester.
This went on for some time, and Tom and his company made some seriously good money off of it. Then one night, they got roaring drunk, and he didn't remember whether it was in Hanoi or Saigon, but whichever it was had a tattoo shop. The company, half walking, half wounded-man carrying their hammered C.O., pushed their way through the doors and, to hear Tom put it, threw him onto the tattooist’s table and requested that he tattoo, in large sans-serif font, FRANK FORRESTER, on his left calf. Their drunk logic being that Sgt. Frank didn’t have any tags or I.D to signify that Tom was him if his body was recovered and so, logically, the best way to prove that he was Frank would be to tattoo his full name somewhere on his body. Why anybody would bother tattooing his own name on his leg was a question lost down the toilet of some bar in Vietnam, along with several liters of strong liquor.
After his tour was completed, Tom decided he’d had enough of military life and decided to become a trade fisherman, traveling up and down the Pacific Coast until he finally crewed up in Guayaquil, and met my father in law, all the while carrying the tattoo and the story attached to it. It has been 46 years since the end of the Vietnam War, and Tom would be well into his 70’s at the youngest by now, but wherever he may be, be it Long Beach or Ecuador, I hope he and Frank are still going strong.