From Temporary Relief to a Labor Camp
. . . . .
The next move was unexpected. It came as a surprise to everyone gathered there, to the villagers, to the rebels, and to me especially. The Red Army officer walked up to the rebel leader, raised his hand and slapped him as hard as he could across his face. The slap was so hard it jolted the man’s head to one side. The officer then began shouting, at the top of his voice, and while he did, his men moved in with lowered rifles. They quickly disarmed the rebels and marched them under guard into the city. The officers ordered his men to untie me. This done, he spoke to me in English. “You Melican?” he asked. His English was barely understandable, but he wanted to impress his men so I answered in English.
“Yes, I am American,” I said.
“Me reglet you flend become dead,” he said. He was shocked to hear there were but a few of us, and not a whole company as he was lead to believe. He said he would send men to retrieve their bodies. He also explained that it was not advisable for me to try to escape. My fear should not be him or his men; I should fear the masses. He said the Chinese people would kill me given the chance. In his broken English and with many arm gestures he made it understood that the Chinese people, to prove their new allegiance to Chairman Mao Tse-tung, would tum on me. He picked up a stone from the ground waved it above his head, and then brought it down to his forehead, banging it against his temple a couple of times. He followed by slumping down, in pretense that he was mortally wounded. His men laughed and he laughed with them. He threw the stone down. His message was obvious. The Chinese would beat me and stone me to death, like they had done to the Japanese officer at the Sokuku Geisha House. I didn’t find it as humorous as he was portraying it, but I grimaced and smiled, and the men broke into laughter again.
They locked me up for the night in a mud building with but one door. In the morning I was awakened by a guard and taken to a Russian truck and herded aboard along with a dozen Chinese men. I looked for the officer who spoke some English but he was nowhere around. The other prisoners in the truck were not peasants; I assumed them to be political prisoners. The rebels were nowhere in sight.
By evening we had reached our destination, a work camp in a village that faced an island a few hundred yards off shore. I remember seeing the island before on one of my weekend drives. It was a coal storage island. The guards shoved us into a compound with other prisoners, more than a hundred, all were Chinese; I was the only white man. They spoke Cantonese and I was unable to communicate with them. By their dark suntanned skin I took them to be junk boat men, probably captured around the Formosa Strait. The communists were attempting to block off the strait to keep Chiang’s forces from crossing and regrouping on the island.
The men who guarded the camp were communist soldiers, mere kids, clothed in heavy quilted uniforms. We were instructed to sit on the ground, and after waiting an hour or more we were told to form a line and strip down to the waist. The line led into a shabby waterfront building. Once inside the door I saw what was taking place. A man in a soiled white apron held in his hand an instrument with tiny needles protruding from one end. The instrument was attached to an electrical cord. A man next to him sat at a table with a ledger before him and was marking names and numbers in the book with a quill pen. The first man in the white apron was tattooing the men in line. He would dip the instrument into a shallow tray filled with black ink, tattoo a number in Chinese characters on each of the prisoner’s left forearm and then tell the number to the scribe. He used a much soiled rag to wipe away the blood and excessive ink. He would study the pattern briefly, like an artist looking at his easel, and then call for the next man to step up. The process took less than five minutes per man, and the results were frightful-crude Chinese marks, nothing at all like the hula dancer on Smitty’s arm.
The pain was far less than I expected, and I was pleased that my wound had bled a lot, to keep it clean, but still I could only think of some horrid disease that might come from the unsterilized needles. My arm pained during the night but the winter cold, with only a towel for a cover, was far worse. A dozen of us huddled together on a hard wooden pallet two feet above ground. I wondered how many nights I would have to endure this torture.
The next morning, before light, we were ordered outside and each man was fed a bowl of watery rice gruel, my first food since being captured. We were then led to sampans and ferried to the island across the narrow channel. Once we arrived I knew instantly our mission. We had to transport a mountain of coal on the island to flat bottom scows lined up along the shore. It seemed Mao Tse-tung was preparing for a major naval assault against the Nationalists and his ships needed coal to run their steam engines.
The majority of Chinese cargo vessels I had seen in Tsingtao harbor were powered by steam, and coal was needed to tum the turbines in the steam engines.
Coal was brought down from the north by trains, guarded at first by Japanese troops and later by the US Marines, to Tientsin and Chinwangtao, and from these ports it was shipped to coaling stations along the coast and to Shanghai to run their industries.
I thought hoeing corn and stacking bay on the farm back home was tough work but nothing could compare to what now faced me. It was backbreaking labor to carry baskets of coal balanced on poles from the island and unload them on to the scows. The most difficult part was negotiating narrow planks that lead from the island to the scows. At first I could hardly lift the heavy loads; balancing a basket to evenly distribute a load took skill and practice.
Our living conditions were deplorable. Sleeping quarters were mud and plaster barracks, with hard wooden pallets for beds. The rags we used for bed coverings had never been washed. Nor were we given fresh water for baths. In a few days time we were as black as the coal we carried. At night when it was totally black in our quarters, only the whites of our eyes and our teeth showed.
Fortunately, after a week the coal supply ran out and I was sent to help fishermen work their nets at fishing grounds up the coast. Conditions improved immediately. I liked anything to do with the sea, just being around water, and I welcomed the change.
Over the years I had gone as often as I could to the beaches north of the city, and there I watched these weather-hardened fishermen at their trade. I was there when US sailors, living-it-up at a beer party lost their Jeep in the incoming tide, and the fishermen refused to help them save their vehicle. The sailors had broken their fishing lines and laughed about it. And now I was going to work with these fishermen. Mao needed food to supply his army, and fishing fleets were called upon to double their catches. Every available hand was put to work.
I had learned to scull a sampan, and so I was assigned to work the nets at sea, while teams of men on shore pulled in the nets. I soon won the favor of the fishermen. It often happened when a sampan laid out a net, it got tangled on its floats, and, of course, it had to be freed. It took time and slowed down the operation. The Chinese preferred to free tangled nets by pulling them back into the sampan and working on them. I made their work easier by going over the side of the sampan and untangling the nets while they were in the water. The water was freezing cold, but if I went in and out as quickly as I could, it wasn’t too bad.
The fishermen taught me not only to perfect my sculling techniques but they also taught me the art of catching fish. I learned to lay a net, and to coil a line. Sometimes I gave a hand on shore pulling in a net, but most often I worked from a sampan. Once the nets were in, I learned to sort the catch.
In the evenings we sat around in abandoned huts left by the US military and cooked up baskets of small fish-heads, guts, tails, scales and all-in great circular frying pans called woks. With rice we had more than enough protein. A month, and then two passed. It was coming on April and the weather was getting warmer. I was kept busy during the day, but come nightfall the world closed in around me. Had China fallen? Had the Marines withdrawn? I thought about my friends. What had become of Melanowski? He was a driver for UNRA and maybe UNRA had been disbanded? Did he go back to the US with his wife? I thought about the others, but mostly I thought about Ming-Lee. I thought about her every minute.
One night, as we huddled around a fire, I overheard a Red soldier who had returned from Tsingtao talking to another soldier. He brought news that the Marines were pulling out. Flags were going up all over town to welcome The People’s Army. They were being welcomed not as conquerors but as liberators. There was no violence, no executions. It was a peaceful take over. He told how beggars and lepers were rounded up, but he didn’t know what was happening to them once they were. He told how the bars, cabarets, bordellos and other establishments that catered to the West were closed and boarded up. He told incidents about how their windows were smashed and tables and chairs tossed out into the streets.
What would become of Ming-Lee? I felt sick at heart. Because of me she was in Tsingtao. She could have been safe in Shanghai. Roger had warned me that this would happen. I wanted to get back to Tsingtao, but I remembered what the Red Army officer had told me, that the masses would turn on me. Still, I had to get back to my outfit. I had to break free. I could make an attempt to reach the south where the People’s Army had not reached. I would make my escape, and I devised a plan.
A long peninsula to the north of the cove where we were fishing jutted far out to sea. Junks coming down the coast came around the peninsula but in almost every case they would lose their wind. Their lateen sails went slack. Usually at this point the crew took out long poles which they used as oars, and by walking along the gunwales, they propelled the junk forward, ever so slowly. They continued thus, until they caught the wind again. Our fishermen said many of the junks continued on south as far as Shanghai, and some to Hong Kong. If I could only make it to one of those junks. It would be a gamble. From a sampan it would be a two- to three-mile swim.
I calculated how long it took a junk to round the tip before it lost its wind. If l could tend the net in a sampan at the farthest point out at sea, I could reduce my swim by half a mile, maybe more. I would have to take a chance that the junk people would help a lone swimmer at sea. But first I would need to get rid of my tattoo prison number.
I began to prepare. With rags I collected grease left in the bottom of the woks and placed them under the floorboards in a sampan. I had read somewhere that when preparing to swim the English Channel, swimmers covered their bodies with grease in order to keep warm. I would do the same.
When a morning catch was good, the nets went out in the afternoon again. It was often dark when they were pulled in. The afternoon would be the best time for me to make my attempt. By morning a junk would be far gone, hopefully with me aboard. The fishermen might think 1 had drowned. I started spending more time in the afternoon sculling a sampan to check the nets. After a while the fishermen didn’t take notice of me. I tried to be everywhere at once to confuse them. I tried to spend more time in the water, which was not easy.
Now I had to get rid of the tattoo. I couldn’t let anyone see what I was doing. I started staying up at night while the others went to sleep. They got used to me fiddling around with the fire. In one of the wrecked skeletons of a sampan down the beach I found a spike about six inches long. I cleaned it up until it shined. I then took a long piece of board and drove the spike with a rock into the end. I soaked the board in water, making it as fire resistant as possible, and then by sticking the tip of the spike into hot coals I was able to heat it up until it turned red hot. I took a deep breath and slowly burned away the tattoo. I was afraid the stench of burning flesh might awake the others but fortunately they slept through it. I made sure I kept my arm covered from then on.
My chance came one afternoon a few days after I got rid of my tattoo. The catch was good that morning, and we completed laying out a second net in the afternoon. At mid-afternoon three seagoing junks, all three masted, appeared coming around the tip of the peninsula. It was now or never. I announced that I would scull out and check the net. No one suspected a thing. I sculled as fast as I could to the far end of the net and tied the sampan by a bowline to a float on the net. I took the rags from under the floorboards and rubbed down my body with grease. I then slipped over the side, and began my two-mile swim to freedom.
In the Nationalist capital of Nanking, Generalissimo Chiang K’ai-shek, who had fought the communists for more than 20 years, announced that he was retiring as president of China, with hope that his departure would bring an end to the hostilities. Li Sung-jen, who was named acting president, announced his caretaker government was ready to negotiate a peace on the basic terms laid down earlier by communist leader Mao Tse-tung. In Tsingtao, the US Marine force of 8,000 were withdrawing. I knew none of this, of course.