A WORK detail of American sailors clears a small mountain of volcanic ash that has drifted against a building here. Laughter mingles with the sound of shovels scraping pavement. While about half of the gang are bare-chested under the sweltering tropical sun, some haven't shed their T-shirts - they're women."We work the women just as hard as we work the men, everybody swings a shovel," says Navy Petty Officer Jerry Moore. Deborah Johnson takes a break from the back-breaking work. Blonde curls escape her baseball cap. She removes her work gloves revealing a bright pink manicure, a bit the worse for wear. "I've been through four different jobs since I joined the Navy - ship fitting, lagging, pipework. It's a challenge. I've learned to weld. In fact, anything having to do with the structural rebuilding of a ship ... I can do it," she says in a tired but confident voice. Johnson is one of about 1,100 sailors who serve aboard the USS Cape Cod, a 600-foot "tender ship" outfitted with machine shops and facilities to repair and stock destroyers. Since these floating factories are not sent into combat, women often comprise up to half of their crews. The USS Cape Cod, after departing Bahrain, headed into Subic Bay Naval Base on June 15, the day Mt. Pinatubo erupted 40 miles to the north. A tropical storm churned up the sea and blew volcanic ash across the Philippines. Hundreds of earthquakes shook the island nation, lightning filled the sky, and pumice stones the size of ping-pong balls rained down. Subic was buried under almost a foot of ash. Two people were killed when the roof of a gymnasium on the base caved in under the weight of the rain-soaked ash - 200 other structures collapsed before morning. "The USS Cape Cod really saved the day," says Navy Lt. Comdr. Kevin Mukri. The ship provided water and a communication link immediately after the storm. The machine shop began producing shovels for the enormous task of clearing ash, and the men and women of the USS Cape Cod, who had planned on rest and recreation, hunkered down for a couple weeks of hard labor. "It's our job," says Christy Creel, 21, of Winfield, Louisiana. Creel says, although she doesn't mind the hard work, she signed up for an adventure before starting "real life," and won't make a career of the military. Johnson says she'll attend nursing school when she finishes. Both have no regrets about joining the Navy. "Women have been totally integrated into the Navy, with the exception of combat," says Capt. Louis Anciaux, a Naval Liaison Officer based in Manila. "Thirty years ago it was unusual to see a woman in uniform. Now there's nothing unique about it." Over 61,000 women wear Navy uniforms, comprising about 10 percent of the total force, and more than 9,000 women - 12 percent of the Navy's total - are officers, according to the Department of the Navy. Whereas women were once recruited as military nurses, today they're trained to do almost any job, from pilot to welder. Most male sailors take their female counterparts in stride, says Capt. Anciaux. But some sailors quietly question the fitness of women for certain tasks. "A woman ain't made to be an engine man," confides a heavy- set male sailor from the USS Cape Cod who supervises the work of several women. "Most women can't lift 500 pounds over their head - but I can't do that either," says Anciaux. "In the longer term women are stronger than men, although we don't like to admit that." Regardless of how men might feel about working alongside women, there are plans to increase military women's programs. The Department of Defense shifted its policy in 1973 to allow the assignment of women to all career fields except combat. Even this exclusion is being questioned. "Women are prohibited by law from serving in combat positions, but they provide support duties, and the definition of support is becoming broader," says Anciaux. "Its an emotional issue which will continue for a number of years." Anciaux describes the major arguments against assigning women to combat positions as "motherhood and physical strength." A third issue is sexual tension. Currently, strict fraternization laws disallow any dating between persons in a specific chain of command or of different ranks. "If it's not involved in your chain of command and it won't affect your work, they don't mess too much with you about it," says Johnson who admits dating takes place. Besides their struggle to gain acceptance from male counterparts, women must deal with the reaction of host countries which have different traditions. "In Arab countries you don't have any rights," says Johnson. "Your clothing has to be so conservative it's unreal, yet guys can do what ever they want except drink." Johnson says the Philippines is a pleasant relief from the Middle East. But, she says, Filipinos have a hard time understanding that she's a sailor and not a sailor's wife.