Stalin did not forget
. . . . .
The news that was closer to Shanghai always got everyone to sit up at the bar: “Chinese communists occupied Tientsin after a 27-hour battle with Nationalist forces,” followed by “The Chiang Government moved the capital of China to Canton.” If it wasn’t for the Teletype machine, we wouldn’t have known about the British frigate Amethyst which had come under fire from communist Chinese artillery and was aground in the Yangtze River. The British were having a tense standoff with the communists, and many British sailors had been killed.
What was happening in America always got a lot of comments from the guys. Everyone had something to say when Look magazine proclaimed that radio was “doomed” and that within three years television would completely overshadow it. What a marvel television must be, we said, for none of us bad seen it. But what were soap operas? We asked the question when we heard the report that “The first TV daytime soap opera, ‘These Are My Children,’ was broadcast from the NBC station in Chicago.”
Times were changing back home without us. RCA Victor announced a “newfangled product” to replace the 33-1/3 ‘long play’ phonograph disk with a smaller, seven-inch record, with a big hole in the center, called the 45-rpm disk. And at the Academy Awards, “Hamlet” won best picture of 1948 and its star, Laurence Olivier, best actor; The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” opened on Broadway. We all thought it was funny that they would do a musical on the Marines in the South Pacific. Hell, before the war no one knew anything about the Pacific. Now they were writing musicals about us.
More exciting was the news that an American B-50 Superfortress, the Lucky Lady II, had landed at Fort Worth, Texas, after completing the first non-stop, round-the-world flight. We all commented that only a few years before our planes had a hard time flying from Guam and Saipan to bomb Japan and make it safely back to base. But the most distressing news was the report that the United States had charged the USSR with interning up to fourteen million in labor camps. Were they going to add the White Russians in China to that list? I wanted to tell Katarina but there was no need to frighten her more. She had already made up her mind.
When I met Gilbert and his friend Leroy Thompson that night after seeing Katarina and her aunts, the Seaman’s Club was quiet, a thing that didn’t often happen. They were sitting at a table in the comer with a couple of empty bottles of Tsingtao beer on the table.
Introductions were made and I shook hands with Leroy. He had hands the size of catchers’ mitts, and his grip was like sticking your hand into a vice. He was a boxer, and after meeting him you knew he had to be a winner. He was as tough as they came, but at the same time he was as mild as a Sunday school teacher. He had an interesting story to tell. He was with Charley Company, 3rd Marines, in Tsingtao, and left with his outfit two weeks before, about the same time I was floating around the China Sea aboard the Hai Lang junk. His battalion had loaded men and supplies aboard the USS Chilton transport and sailed straight to Shanghai. The men were living aboard and had the task of guarding American personnel and property and supervising their evacuation from Shanghai. He had just returned from Nanking that day, after helping evacuate Americans there. “It won’t be long, and we’ll all be out of Shanghai,” he said. The Cruiser Springfield was standing by down river and would be the last ship to leave China.
I made a few more visits to see Katarina and her aunts. I felt that I should give them all the support that I could. Katarina tried to find out from friends in Tsingtao about Ming-Lee but all her sources had dried up. In the meantime, the feuds among the Russians and their family members continued. Some wanted to return to Russia; others didn’t. Katarina and her aunts were waiting for news from a doctor friend who decided to go back first, and he planned to send for his family when he saw what the conditions were like. He would cable or else write. That was a month ago, and they had heard nothing. There was an Englishman, head of the British School divorced from his Russian wife. They had children, and the’ wife decided to return with their son to Russia. There was little the father could do. Katarina went to see them off aboard ship. They were waiting news from her too.
The Saturday morning after meeting Leroy at the Seaman’s Club, I checked out early on liberty and went to pick up Katarina. I promised her that I’d take her to the Trillion for lunch. When I knocked on her door, her aunts were there to open it. Both were in tears. They said Katarina had gone. She received word the night before that she had to be at the docks at 0600 the next morning with all her belongings. A US transport was taking some 3,000 Russians to Vladivostok. Departure time was at 0900. It was 0900 when I knocked at the door. “Why didn’t she tell me?” I shouted.
“She sent a message, and the boy left it at the front gate. She waited for you. She delayed until the last minute, hoping you’d come. We asked her to change her mind. She wouldn’t.”
She had to be leaving from the US Navy Fleet Landing on Soucho Creek. I caught a pedicab and had him peddle as fast as he could, but I was too late. The ship had cast off its mooring lines by the time we arrived and had already pulled away from the dock. Every available inch of space along the railing was occupied by Russians returning home. I desperately searched the railings from one end to the other but could not see her. J was hopeful now that she had missed the ship. Maybe for some clerical reason they hadn’t let her board-her papers were not in proper order, or a form had not been filled out properly. An important stamp or signature was missing. My hopes were dashed when I saw her. She was standing alone near the stem of the ship. I ran along the dock waving frantically but the figures along the railing grew fainter and fainter as the ship slipped further away. She didn’t see me.
I was so utterly confused about this whole affair. Did the Soviets really welcome their expelled citizens back home? One man who might have the answers was Father Wilcock. I went to see him. He was terribly busy, getting ready for the first boatload of refugees to depart for the Philippines, but he took time to talk to me. He was brutal and frank, and spared no feelings.
“What the world is well aware of,” he began, “is that on the 4th of February 1945, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta to decide how to divide German territory, What they don’t know is that there was also a secret agreement, and that was to exchange each other’s liberated prisoners and to return each other’s liberated civilians as they were rounded up in Germany and China. In accordance with this secret understanding, the United States has to return White Russian civilians in exchange for Allied prisoners.”
It all suddenly came to light. Mrs. Murray and her family, and many hundreds of thousands of other prisoners, were given free passage from concentration camps. Now it was America’s turn to repatriate the White Russians.
Father Wilcock continued: “Everyone forgets that the Soviet decree in 1921 stripped all Russians outside the country of their citizenship. Unfortunately, most refugees remained hopeful, and expected that their exile would be only temporary. Stalin had other ideas. You have to remember, many White Russians fought alongside German forces against the Red Army; this included their Cossack regiments who had left their homeland after the revolution. Stalin won’t forget. Several hundred thousand Russians took up arms against the Soviet Union in the years following the German invasion in June 1941.” He then gave me the example of General Pyotr Krasnov, a Cossack who had fought against the Bolsheviks back in 1918 and hoped that the British would sympathize with his situation, for they had decorated him with the British Military Cross. It did no good. Under the Yalta agreement, he too was sent back to the Soviet Union to certain death. He was for Stalin a prize captive.
I was sick at heart when I left Father Wilcock at his parish. Life bad been so simple when we first stepped ashore in China in October 1945. Our biggest concern then was, could we get to the Prime Club before some swabbies booked our girls and we had to wait around until their time was up. We never heard of Yalta and the only White Russians we were concerned about were those serving borscht in their restaurants. Mao Tse-tung was someone who Chiang K’ai-shek could whip with his hands behind his back, with a little of our help, of course, and the Eighth Route Army couldn’t shoot straight if they had to.
At the Seaman’s Club we learned from the foreign correspondents that life in China was much more complicated than that. Troubles began when General Douglas MacArthur designated Chiang K’ai-shek as the sole authority empowered to accept surrender from the Japanese in China. The Soviets were forced to sign a Sino-Soviet Treaty whereby Moscow was compelled to accept the Nationalist government as the legitimate government in China. Stalin was not pleased when Americans airlifted Nationalist troops to key points in Japanese-occupied territory in the East and North, and 50,000 American Marines soon occupied port areas and airfields on the Nationalists’ behalf in Tsingtao, Peking, and Tientsin.
Stalin was finally having his revenge. Now with his ally Mao Tse-tung gaining complete control, Russia was forcing the United States to honor the Yalta accord, and that was to repatriate all Russians in China. Katarina was the victim. And the China Marines had to go.
When the first US ships returned from Vladivostok, they had horror stories to tell. We received more reports from the Teletype machine at the Seaman’s Club. Thousands of refugees who disembarked on Russian soil found instead of being welcomed, they were immediately stripped of the new winter clothing and personal equipment that had been generously issued to them by the Americans and British. The stories were told that they were then shipped off to prison camps for long sentences, to receive the same treatment as all the Gulag’s inmates. Ship captains and their guards testified that some prisoners never made it that far. They were shot behind warehouses on the quayside with low flying Soviet planes circling overhead to help drown the noise of the rifle fire. Some Americans were appalled when they eye witnessed many desperate acts of suicide by Russian men and women who preferred their own deaths and that of their children to falling into the hands of the Soviet secret police.
I had hardly enough time to pack my seabag when our orders came to muster at 0500 for transport to the airport in Shanghai. Mao Tse-tung’s troops were at the outskirts of the city. There was no fighting, and the handover was expected to be peaceful. At the airport I found Gilbert waiting in line to board the same C-47. We had little we could say to one another. None of the Marines there had much to say. Our destination was Hawaii. Once in Honolulu, we transferred to navy ships for the last leg of our journey to San Diego-back where it all started.