Being overseas in Asia during the mid-1960s was a cheap place to live – gasoline was only 26 cents a gallon, about 3.8 liters – and most military installations had nearly all of the stuff you would need for standard American living.
Starting with the important stuff, the price for a fifth-gallon (roughly 750 ml) of bourbon, gin, rum, or vodka at the Class VI store (military liquor sales) was about $2.25. Even better, American beer was $2.20 for a case of 24 twelve-ounce (about 350 ml) cans, while soda-pop was $2.40 per case of 24 twelve-ounce cans.
Cigarettes at the Commissary (military grocery store) were only $1.10 per carton. Nearly all the favorite foodstuffs that a person could expect to find in a normal grocery store back in the U.S. were carried. And the prices were much more favorable – even though goods had to be shipped overseas in cargo vessels.
There were even party staples like my favorite, an Oscar Meyer canned ham the size and shape of a small loaf of bread. The butchers would always honor my request to slice it for party trays. It was a cheap yet tasty way to provide sandwich meat when hosting a large gathering.
Of course, due to space restrictions, commissaries did not have everything. There were ways around that, however. As one example, when I was stationed at Yokota Air Base, there were no hot-link sausages. But friends stationed at Eielson Air Force Base found them in nearby Fairbanks, Alaska. Often enough, when one of the Eielson planes visited Yokota, a “care package” of hot-links would also arrive.
The Exchange had clothing, household items, and a limited supply of furniture – a military department store. Even cameras and electronic goods were available. I recall buying my first SLR camera there, a 35mm Pentax Spotmatic with a 50mm lens, for only $105. Phonograph records – LPs only – were priced at just $1.98.
And while most exchanges carried stereo equipment, a smart shopper would not buy at Army or Air Force Exchanges. Due to a different way of calculating overhead, Navy and Marine Exchanges had the best prices on amplifiers, speakers, turntables, and tape decks. I once made a trip from Yokota to Atsugi Naval Air Station – perhaps 50 miles (80 kms) and two hours distant on yesteryear’s roads – just to get a pair of Fisher XP-7 speakers at a better price.
The larger military installations also had “Bazaars” at which local goods were featured. On one occasion, I got a pair of pearl earrings for the wife by buying two living oysters from a tank, harvesting the gems at the counter, and having them mounted right on the spot.
The point of this is that, to my way of thinking, military families did not lack for much just because they were away from the United States. Given the benefits and opportunities that being overseas afforded them, it was the best of both worlds.