Between Peace and War
. . . . .
Mail call brought slews of letters from the guys who had returned home. They all had the same tune to hum. Hometowns had not changed much except the people had gotten older and the girls were more independent. Gasoline prices were up, at 29 cents a gallon, but ration books were no longer needed. The guys keep in contact with one another. Some of them returned to their old trades and some went to college on the $500 yearly tuition plus living allowance-$90 a month for married men-provided by the GI Bill of Rights. And the letters always had the latest skinny from the home front: “Night Baseball Revived in America,” “Jackie Robinson becomes first Black to sign a contract with a major baseball club,” “Joe Louis retires from the ring after fighting 25 title bouts since 1937,” “Shirley Temple is Engaged,” and “Benny Goodman plays at the Dome in Chicago.”
And the same old talk was still there-girls.
They were all looking for girls, and wanted them, but they did not want to have to work to get them. China had ruined them. They were finding life at home all too complicated when they had to explain their actions. There was not all this need to talk to Chinese girls. It was so simple. After a while at home they didn’t want to talk about China, nor the war, for no one wanted to listen, nor did they believe them anyway. Every letter I received had a message to pass on to a Chinese girl left behind.
Some former Marines, of course, were having harder times than others. Stevenson was able to pick up with his old sweetheart he knew before the war, but he still had his dark confusions of the mind. Ruker and Chandler returned to their hometowns and took up life where they left off. Terry wandered the streets, got arrested for vagrancy, but found an older girl who took him under wing. Whittington started college.
Although it was obvious some Marines would always bear physical and emotional scars from the war, I could read between the lines that they would eventually let the war memories pass and forget about China, at least for the time being. They were quickly getting caught up in the new America they discovered-the latest cars like Studabakers with convertible tops and whitewalls, the gadgets like television, new personalities in politics and entertainment and the new fads.
Not all the mail came from America. A letter came from Shanghai. It was from Ming-Lee. I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Katarina had found her and they became friends. Katarina explained to Ming-Lee that our relationship in Peking was not intimate. Upon receiving the letter I immediately went to see Roger, but I was terribly disappointed to learn he had moved out. He and his wife no longer lived in the hotel, and they left no forwarding address. I had the feeling I would never see Roger again. One day might he be at the opposite end of a Marine’s gun sight? It might even be mine. Could I pull the trigger?
I answered Ming-Lee’s letter, and more letters followed.
She liked going to school, and enjoyed the new friends she had made, but she confessed she missed me. In one letter she said she was thinking about taking a respite from school and coming to Tsingtao. Would that be agreeable with me? With great joy I told her to come ahead. She arrived the day before New Years. She was the best present I could ever have had.
For the next two months we were together every minute. I was earning enough money, with the help of a few black market sales, to rent a small room in a hotel in town, and with my MP pass I could come and go as I pleased. We had much to talk about, and so much to learn about each other. We were two cultures trying to be one. However, we knew we had to be rational and we agreed we would use logic. But logic has to do with words and arguments, and the tools of logic are thinking. And a man in love is not a thinking person. A kiss can annihilate all logic.
Nevertheless, we did our utmost to close off the world outside our door. While letters from home talked about peace and prosperity, Asia was in turmoil. Harry Truman was elected president of the Unites States, and he appointed General George Marshall to US Secretary of State. Marshall, who had replaced Patrick Hurley as US Ambassador to China, turned a cold shoulder on the Far East and concentrated on rebuilding Europe by initiating the Marshall Plan. Marshall not only turned a cold shoulder but he also withdrew as mediator in China and let Generalissimo Chiang K’ai-shek and Mao Tse-Tung fight their own battle. The China Marines were in the middle.
The end of the war saw the beginning of the end of colonialism in Southeast Asia but it did not end political strife. It created it. India gained her independence from Britain, and before the ink was dry, the partition of the subcontinent began with Hindu battling Moslem. The Dutch East Indies fought tooth and nail to free themselves from the yoke of the Dutch and did get independence, but at a great cost. Burma was set free but the French were fighting a losing battle in an attempt to hold on to Indochina. When would it end?
It was no secret that Chiang K’ai-shek was losing his grip on China. The Marine garrison in Tsingtao was ordered to pull in its perimeter. Patrols went out to warn those in the field that the US could no longer guarantee their protection. Among the relief organizations was UNRA, and everyone was concerned about Melanowski. I had no word from him in months. We used to see Monique once in a while at the PX but no more. Patrols now were a daily occurrence and the circle kept getting smaller and smaller. Even the beaches were closed to military personnel. The Provost Marshall ordered a patrol to proceed to the Loh Shan Mountains north of Tsingtao to assist with the evacuation of a Christian monastery nestled in the mountains. The monastery was run by nuns who maintained an orphanage for abandoned children. I was assigned to go along as interpreter. When Hecklinger heard about the patrol he volunteered as driver. We were notified on a Friday that we had to depart early Monday morning. There would be six of us on the patrol, and we were authorized the use of a Jeep and a 4×4 weapons carrier. We were to be lightly armed. No heavy guns. On standby were another six 4x4s if we needed more space for transporting the nuns and orphans out of the mountains. We had no idea how many people were there, or if they would even come with us.
Ming-Lee became very upset when I told her about the assignment. “Do you have to go?” she pleaded. She had already made up her mind not to return to school in Shanghai but to remain with me in Tsingtao. We wanted no more separations.
l promised I would be back in a few days, and I vowed I would never leave her again. She agreed to move in with Judy at the Prime Club while I was gone.
I spent the night with Ming-Lee, with her curled up at my side, but I knew she wasn’t sleeping. With a faint light coming through the window, I studied her gentle face. She looked so beautiful, and we were so helpless, two kids, neither of us 20 yet. We had no control over anything, not even our own fate. We were at the mercy of whatever came our way, and there was no changing our destiny. How hopeless a situation; such agony we had to suffer. Just before dawn her breathing grew steady and I knew she was asleep. I had to leave now, or I might never be able to tear myself apart from her. I wanted to kiss her gently on the cheek but that might awaken her. Instead, I slipped silently out of bed, dressed, and before the light of dawn befell the sleeping city, I made my way back to the university.
I met with the others in the mess hall where they were having an early meal and discussing our plans. I joined them for morning chow. Nothing like hot coffee in a canteen cup that burns your lips and a plate of shit-on-the shingles to start the day off.
When we went to the office to check out, the duty clerk handed me half a dozen letters. “Something for you to read on your trip,” he said. He mentioned they were waiting for a news report from the Associated Press, and asked if we wanted to wait round for it, but we didn’t have the time. We had to get moving to reach the monastery by nightfall. By 0600 we had cleared the outskirts of Tsingtao and headed north. Hecklinger was at the wheel of the Jeep, with Staff Sergeant Benny Gray in charge sitting in front beside him. I sat quite contentedly in the rear with another Marine. I had my mail to read and for the first time I didn’t stop to enjoy the scenery. But we did make a mistake; we did not wait for the news report from Associated Press. It would be some time before I did read it.