SAVING CHARLEY COMPANY
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The Poet William Cowper once wrote: “Pernicious weed, whose scent the fair annoys.” That pernicious weed was China, and the “fair” in this case, if I may be so bold, was the China Marines. I don’t think there was a China Marine who didn’t have a legitimate complaint about the smell of China. It was not like the smells back home. The scent at home which played the best upon my mind was that of morning air on the farm, the sweet scent of grass and bloom, the damp earth from a field just plowed, or the freshness of a hayfield newly mown. Maybe those who came from the big cities had their own memory of smells, but mine were about the farm. Even the barnyard had a pleasing smell. China was so much different. When we arrived in China, we got our first whiff of the land miles off shore, and those smells never left us. In Tsingtao we got used to them, more or less, but when we went on hikes into the countryside the odors there manifested themselves. It was most unpleasant. Farmers used human excrement to fertilize their fields, and the odor seemed to be permeated into the very soul of the land.
But the rankest and most villainous smell that ever offended nostrils was what we experienced on Okinawa. I think the memory of those smells on Okinawa made China tolerable. Replacements arriving in China from the States would complain, and then you would hear one of the old combat men say, “If you think this is bad, you should have been with us on-” No, nothing could compare to Okinawa. Nearly a quarter million corpses lay all over the place, busting open from the hot sun, stinking even through their shallow graves. There was neither time, nor did we have the energy, to bury all the dead. Marines who were killed in action, came back from the front lines stacked like unwanted logs one on top another in ten-wheel trucks.
By the fall of 1947, the number of old China hands in Tsingtao was dwindling very rapidly. Smitty was scheduled to return with the rest of the troops, but he was on a run with a load of Japanese prisoners en route to Japan when the transfer orders came through. When he returned to Tsingtao, the others were gone, with the exceptions of Hecklinger and me. It took Headquarters a while to sort out the records, and Smitty was quite happy about it. He had a job he liked-security guard on LST’s escorting POW’s back to Japan. He was no sooner back in Tsingtao than he quickly offered to make another run and was accepted.
One wondered if the repatriation of Japanese from China would ever end. The problem continued because Japanese soldiers had been hiding out in the mountains ever since the war’s end, refusing to surrender, fearful that they may end up in Soviet hands as several hundred thousand of their comrades had. But then as the balu swept across north China, they flushed out scores of enemy soldiers, and rather than suffer an unknown fate, they began surrendering. When they did surrender they had to be repatriated. That task was left to the Marines. LSTs were converted to troopships and as many as 500 Japanese-civilians and whole families as well as POWs-were herded aboard and transported to Japan. The accommodations given them weren’t luxury liner, and according to Smitty, more like 15th century African slave ships, except that voyages lasted only a week compared to months at sea that it took for a slave ship to reach the New World. Nor were the Japanese placed in chains, and they were going home, a big difference. Some who had been born in China, had never seen their homeland.
After I finished my brig duty, I went back with the MPs, and found myself constantly on call as an interpreter for any number of assignments. Most of these were routine and boring, but a few were packed with real excitement. One that I liked was classified. I was to assist with the search for “Tojo’s Treasure.” That was the code name. Whether it was fact or fiction I never knew, but the quest was real enough. The month before the Sixth Marine Division landed in Tsingtao, a few of the Japanese high command did a bunk and fled China by sea, and with them they took a vast treasure from north China. Intelligence estimated that the Japanese had melted down tons of gold, gold stolen from the Chinese, and it included everything from jewelry to gold teeth. At $36 an ounce, it mounted to millions of dollars. The big question was, what ever happened to this gold bullion and other treasures? Anybody who knew anything about the gold had also fled before the Marines arrived. The authorities doubted the loot ever reached Japan. Any booty or spoils of war brought from abroad was certain to be confiscated. The only solution was to bury the treasure before they left, and return for it later. The question was, where did they bury it?
The search for Tojo’s Treasure began immediately upon our arrival in China. G2 had their hands full. Records were scrutinized and thousands of Japanese, both military and civilians, were interrogated. Every lead was investigated and always stopped at a dead end. The breakthrough, however, came when a white-bulled yacht flying an American flag appeared off the coast of the Shantung Peninsula. The yacht was the Scandia out of Honolulu.
Scandia was a beautiful gaff-rigged sailing schooner, a hundred or more feet long with a 20-foot beam. It was odd to see an American sailing vessel in Chinese waters and the Navy ran a check on the vessel only to discover it had been stolen twelve months before from its mooring at Ala Wai Yacht Club in Honolulu.
The Navy immediately dispatched a patrol boat and boarded the vessel. Instead of finding Americans aboard, the captain and crew they found were Japanese. A further check revealed the captain had been an officer in the Japanese garrison in Tsingtao. They had aboard salvage equipment that included an air compressor and deep-sea diving gear.
At a Naval Board of Inquiry, the Japanese officer claimed he had purchased the vessel in the Philippines, and he produced documents as proof. The documents, as expected, were forged, but the investigation was unable to prove whether or not the captain had faked the papers himself or if he had purchased the vessel believing it was legal. The vessel was confiscated and the Japanese were dismissed with all charges pending. What no one could answer was why was the captain attempting to return to Tsingtao waters? A vessel flying an American flag certainly had a better chance, of course. But was he after a sunken treasure? The hunt for Tojo’s Gold was renewed with more zest than before.
The Navy began systematically searching the waters around Tsingtao, under pretenses other than treasure hunting, of course. I would have known little about the mystery had I not been taken out to a navy barge one morning to do some interpreting. It seems Chinese fishermen claimed their fishing lines were constantly being snagged by unknown objects on the ocean floor a mile or two off the coast. When G2 received the report, they thought it might be sunken vessels but after checking found there were no reported ships that had gone down in the area. Could it be a vessel or barge that was deliberately sunk?
The fishermen were already aboard the barge when I arrived. They pointed out the location and the Navy diver was preparing to be lowered over the side.
I couldn’t help envying the diver when I saw him sitting on a capstan on the fore deck. He was the very soul of adventure and romance; fitted out in his rubber deep-sea diving suit. While the Chief Petty Officer gave orders, his dive team huddled around him, each sailor with a task to do: one checked the air gauges, another coiled air hoses, a third man tested the pump handles on the air compressor. Two men made ready to place the three-windowed hardhat over his head and shoulders while still another man stood by with a wrench ready to bolt the hardhat in place.
The barge was anchored about a mile off shore from the rocky peninsula near Long Beach. I knew the place well for it was here that I had taken Stevenson and Little Lew several times.
The diver and his crew bantered back and forth, and I listened to the chief telling them that the deep-sea diving equipment they were using would be outmoded and obsolete in a couple years. A new type of diving apparatus called a “diver’s lung” had been developed by a Frenchmen and the US Navy was testing it. “You just strap this thing on your back and away you go,” the chief said.
What the chief had to say was perhaps true, but what romance was there in a backpack replacing the deep-sea diver’s hardhat? My attention focused on the diver. The two assistants were about to lift the hardhat and fit it into place, but it wasn’t the Navy diver I was now seeing. It was John Wayne. We were on Guam, seated in the outdoor movie theater. Our seats were coconut logs, and our ceiling was a star-filled sky. All around us were palm trees, silhouetted against the night’s sky. We had been anxiously awaiting the movie for weeks. It first had to do the round of navy ships, and finally it came to us in Tent City. It was “Reap the Wild Wind” with John Wayne, Raymond Massey, Ray Milland, Paulette Goddard and Susan Hayward. I remembered the names, even John Wayne’s name in the movie-Capt. Jack Stuart.
On a silver screen-that fluttered when there was even the slightest wisp of a breeze-we watched John Wayne in full Technicolor standing at the helm as he skippered a salvage boat in the tropics, while fighting off both pirates and the advances of two beautiful women. His competition was Ray Milland, and the action peaked when the two men donned deep-sea diving gear and descended to the bottom of the ocean in search of a sunken treasure. When Milland was attacked by a giant octopus, it was John Wayne who saved his life, but at the expense of his own, and Milland won the hand of Goddard. Whew, what romance.