THE NUNS AT LOH SHAN
. . . . .
Our Little Lew was still asleep when I returned to my quarters after spending the night with Ming-Lee. A few weeks before a third bunk had been moved into the room and one of the new replacements had taken it over. We called him Sam but that wasn’t his name at all. It was Shirley Jackson, a tough name for a gung ho Marine to live down. We wondered about him when he first arrived, with a name like that, but on his first liberty he went to Ping Pong Willies and got laid. After that we knew he was all right, so we started calling him Sam. Unfortunately, he was a dreadful bore. He was a California beach-boy jockstrap, a sun worshiper, who loved surfing. No one objected to that, except that all he talked about was the California surf. After an hour in his company you wanted to tell him to shut up. It did little good. He still raved about surfing and told how the waves were better at Rodonda Beach than they were at Peblo Beach, and that he would rather be stationed in Hawaii than in China. He was disappointed that Tsingtao beaches didn’t have surf. Sam, however, did impress Little Lew with all his tales about challenging monstrous waves and things like “wipe outs” and “pipelines.” Little Lew was a willing listener, and for me, that was fine. It was much easier on me, especially when I was spending so much time with Ming-Lee. I did take Little Lew on my outings with Ming-Lee as much as I could, and it was fortunate that he and Ming-Lee got along fine. In fact, Ming- Lee became his jiejie, his big sister.
Both Little Lew and Sam were asleep when I came into the room. In the dim light from the glow of the kerosene stove, I noticed someone had placed a few letters from the last mail call on my bunk. I carried them over to the window where the light was better so I could read who had sent them. They were from the guys back home, Terry, Stevenson and Whittington, all civilians now. I couldn’t wait to open them. Maybe the guys had joined up again and were coming back to China. That would be great, just like old times. I had an hour before we had to muster for the patrol to Loh Shan, enough time to read the letters before I packed my gear. Rather than sit in the head to read my mail, I hurried down to the mess hall. It was always open and well lit. I was surprised to find Smitty sitting at a table by himself, drinking a cup of joe. He had just returned from Japan after escorting a shipload of POWs and their families back home. I waved the letters above my head and saw his face light up. I knew he would be as anxious as I was to hear the news from the home front. He had been very concerned about Terry, who the last we heard, had been locked up for vagrancy. I opened Terry’s letter first. By nervous habit Smitty began rubbing the Hawaiian dancer tattoo on his forearm, beneath the sleeve of his field jacket.
Although the letter was addressed to me on the envelope, it was addressed to the “whole gang” inside. It was the usual stuff, how was life in Tsingtao? And he admitted he missed China. He was sorry he left, and said life in the US was mighty hard. He tried a couple different jobs but always got fired when he punched out the foreman, and as a result he couldn’t get his 52-20 money any more. He was bitter about that. But things were looking up. When I read the next line, Smitty and I couldn’t believe it. He had gotten married. Her name was Mary. She was a former WAC and a few years older than he was. They got married after the VA notified him there was a shoe cobbler school in Kansas City, Missouri, that he was eligible to attend. “Well my wife Mary and me packed all we owned which we got in two suitcases and off to K.C., Mo. we went,” he wrote. It was almost as if he was sitting in the mess hall talking with us. I could hear his voice as I read. “Well I wasn’t there in school two days when an instructor said to me that I shouldn’t be doing what I was doing, that I hadn’t reached that point of progress yet, and I didn’t like his attitude. Even Lt. Brandmire wouldn’t have done that. So I decked him and he was a head taller than me and I was kicked out of school. So the VA sent me out to Thompson School of Watch Making on main street, and here I am. Ernie runs the school. He’s a navy vet who went through the thick of it with us, so we get along. I hope you guys are not still running from those gook cops, but if you are, stay off the firing line.”
Terry’s letter ended with a sentimental note. Neither Smitty nor I, nor any of the guys, had been aware of some of the anguish Terry had suffered. One was a simple thing like getting mail. At mail call we always crowded around the company clerk as he called out names, sometimes smelling the letter and then holding it up, saying, “Get a whiff of this!” and then he’d put the letter at the bottom of the pile and make the Marine whose letter it was wait till the last. I read on with Terry’s letter: “l know how much mail means to you guys, you fighting boys overseas, so I’m writing these letters. I’m going to tell you something I never told anyone before. When I got a letter from home, which wasn’t often, I would not open it right away. I was like a little kid with a piece of candy who wanted to make it last as long as I could. I’d keep it in my dungaree pocket and make believe I had just gotten it. Of course I wouldn’t let any of you Jarheads know what I was doing and you were all so busy with your own mail you never knew anyway. I would do this, even though I wanted to read my letter very badly, and after a few days I would open it and read it slowly, and I’d even make up things to tell you guys. Be good and if you can’t be good, be careful. Semper Fi, Terry.”
It wasn’t only Terry who lamented. Everyone made up tales and exaggerated about mail from home. Every time a Marine got a love letter, we all had to hear about it. They made glowing announcements like how their girls back home bought “these new see-through nighties” for when they get back home. There were other letters, of course, maybe a Dear John from the girl back home who ran off with Billy Smith next door, the 4F guy who never went to war but who made manager at Sears & Roebuck and bought a new Packard with white walls, just like Tokyo Rose predicted. You never heard about these letters. You only knew something was wrong when the Marine went out and got drunk and swore he would re-enlist.
And so it was this way with Terry. We both agreed that maybe Mary was good for him. We all deserve a chance, and I had my chance waiting in a hotel room in downtown Tsingtao. I would have to write to Terry and congratulate him.
I opened Whittington’s letter, and as I read the neatly typewritten pages we felt that he too, like Terry, was sitting next to us in the mess hall. He wasn’t having the same hard time with the 52-20 payments that Terry was having. He was still the company runner with all the gold bricking skills intact and applying them to civilian life. He wrote: “I took advantage of the 52-20 Club for almost a year. All I had to do was show up at the Veteran’s Office once a week and sign for my 20 bucks. There was the mandatory ‘interview,’ and I made friends with the girl who conducted them. In the winter I told her I was looking for work as a lifeguard, and in the summer I told her I was an unemployed snow plow driver.”
He bought a car right after he got home, a 1933 Plymouth Coupe for $75.00 that had been up on blocks during the war. He said he had his eyes “on a beautiful 1937 Buick Convertible but that will have to wait for now.” He took aptitude tests at the VA and planned to enter college in the fall. “I’m thinking of journalism,” he wrote. “If you don’t know what that is, it means to be a writer. If l go full time, nights and summers, I’ll get my 120 hours in, in three years, and earn my ‘badge of social acceptability.’ Look out Walter Winchell.”
He went on to tell us that he thinks of us guys often. He learned that a couple of former Marine buddies, boyhood pals, were killed; one on Iwo Jima and one on Saipan. “I guess we in Fox who survived were just plain lucky. It would be great if 50 years from now we could all get together, but that’s too far away to even think about. I guess that’s hoping for too much.” He then gave me some tips. “Pick up some of that good jade and ivory stuff around that can be had for a pack of Luckies. You can bring them in with no trouble. But not everything. Remember that Thompson Sub Machine gun I stole from that Army mess tent? I field-stripped it and buried it in my seabag. I got it all the way back to San Diego, and then I got this lecture the sergeant gave us about stolen Government property and a place called Leavenworth. He scared the crap out of me and I left that beautiful piece under my sack in a Quonset Hut. It turned out that no one ever touched my seabag.” Then even Rick Whittington got sentimental. “In many ways I’d like to be with you guys. Every once in a while I think of re-enlisting, but I go out and have a few cold ones and the feeling goes away. Take it easy. The news coming from China isn’t good. Keep in touch and stay off the sky line. Semper Fi, Rick.”
Stevenson wrote to say he missed China too. He wanted to know about Mrs. Djung and Roger. I hadn’t told him in my letters about Roger being a naval officer on the other side. But I did tell him about Ming-Lee, and that Judy always asked about him.
In the last paragraph he said he was back in college, and that he had enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He was almost apologetic when he said that after graduating he’d be given a commission in the US Marine Corps.
“I’ll be gawd damned,” Smitty said. “You mean he might come back to China and this time we will all have to salute him?”
I couldn’t wait until I told Judy the news, but that would have to wait until I returned from patrol in a few days. I rushed back to my room, put away the letters in my seabag and quickly packed. I strapped two blankets to my field pack, grabbed my helmet and trusty carbine and met the others at company headquarters. The Jeep and 4×4 weapons carrier were parked outside.
Staff Sergeant Benjamin (don’t call me Benny) Granger was in charge and sat up front in the Jeep beside the driver. I sat in the rear with another Marine, one of the replacements. Hecklinger was behind the driver’s wheel of the 4×4 weapons carrier. The Jeep took the lead with the weapons carrier a good hundred yards behind, far enough to avoid most of the dust we coughed up. In spite of the cold, everyone seemed to be in good spirits, but my mind was elsewhere. My thoughts were on Ming-Lee. She would be moving in with Judy at the Prime Club while I was gone, and I wondered if that was a good idea, just to save a few bucks. I didn’t like the idea of her hanging around the club at night.
The drive north from Tsingtao led through flat open farm land of brown rice paddies laid out in neat but odd shaped patches that looked like the quilts grandma made. There was frost on all the water sheds that divided the land, and a mist hovered over the land. From mud-brick farm houses thin columns of smoke rose skyward and lingered motionless in a colorless sky. The wind was bitter and in an open Jeep rumbling along on an unpaved, pot-holed road did not make for easy traveling. We pulled our parkas tightly around us and for extra warmth we unstrapped our blankets from our field packs and draped them around us making us look more like Franciscan monks than Marines on patrol.
After three or four hours of bouncing up and down, and with our knuckles white from holding on, the road turned into a track and we had to reduce our speed to a crawl. We came to road signs but we were unable to read the faded Chinese characters. It wouldn’t have done much good if they had been readable. Chinese place names don’t translate well. The students in Peking were forever quizzing me on place names, and then made fun of me whenever I attempted to translate them-Fortune Showing Village, Terrace of Tower Watching Place, Town of Temple of Fragrance Gathering. I was sure these faded signs were no better. We attempted to ask peasants we met along the way for directions, but when they saw we were “foreign devils,” they turned their backs on us. Some even took off running across the open fields. I had not witnessed such behavior before when I drove my Jeep into the countryside on weekend outings. I could feel that something was dreadfully wrong, especially when we reached the next walled village. Villages always had a warm welcome.
The village was no different than others I had seen scattered around China-clusters of buildings surrounded by walls. Roads run right through these villages, and at each end of the towns there are huge gates. At one time the gates may have had a purpose, but now were merely vestiges of an unsettled past. All the buildings, whether homes or shops, were constructed from sun-dried mud bricks of uneven shapes and sizes, the same stuff as the surrounding walls. The color of the buildings, the town, the walls, they were all brown. It must have been that when God made the Chinese countryside he was running low on colors in his palette, and the only one he had left was brown. Even the clothing the Chinese wore was brown, and so was the color of their skin-brown. The food they ate was brown, and they ate it from brown bowls. And there was a brown dust that settled over the entire area.
It was a brown village that we entered.
In villages in China, and even in the big cities, when a motorist drives through the streets he toots his horn to get people to move out of the way, and they always responded. Not in this village. The people refused to give way, and the louder our drivers tooted their horns, the more defiant they became. These were not the same Chinese we knew when we arrived. We had grown accustom to people smiling and waving, and kids running alongside attempting to keep up with us. We soon worried that their defiance might turn into open hostility. We were relieved when we finally reached the other end of town and exited through the gate. This behavior we witnessed was strange and I didn’t like it. For my first time in China I had an uncomfortable feeling. I was considering suggesting to the sergeant that we turn around and return to Tsingtao but I knew we were under orders. “Gut feelings” don’t justify one to disregard orders. So a few natives were unfriendly-that would be the reaction back at headquarters. We pushed on.
Once we were beyond the village, the track began a steady climb to the hills above, and beyond these low hills were the mountains of Loh Shan. Their summits blended into the sky and it was impossible to discern where one began and the other left off. It was no small wonder our two F7F Tiger Cats
and the SB2C Hell Diver crashed in the mountain when they became disorientated when trying to fly across the Loh Shan Mountains. That seemed like ages ago. Before long the track narrowed. Steep precipices dropped down from one side and deep canyons formed below. At times so narrow were the gaps we could reach out and touch the rock walls as we drove by, and several times the driver of the weapons carried had to back up and start over again to ease through a narrow pass. Whenever we reached an opening the view was always spectacular. I had heard the Mongols cut the first road through the mountains centuries before, and we did come upon strange markings carved in the stonewalls that could have been left by them. Every now and then we came upon a temple ruins. We seemed to be driving not only forward over an ancient road but backwards into time. We came around one bend and standing there on a rocky overhang was a rather large temple which, after a closer examination, appeared to be a watchtower of sorts. It had crenulated walls and open embrasures facing the road from which we had just come. It was a striking structure, partly in ruin, with a crumbled roof and sagging lintels over the doorways. It had been long abandoned. The road above and beyond the tower appeared to be even more hazardous than the one we had just driven. We estimated we had no more than a dozen miles to travel to reach the monastery, but we had only a few hours of daylight left. Traveling would be slow with the two vehicles. We reasoned if the sergeant, driver and me went ahead in the Jeep we could reach the monastery by nightfall and spend the night there.