Dangers on the Harbor
The tragedy was there was no avoiding it. The helmsman could only steam ahead no matter what. There were splashes, monstrous splashes which you could only hear and not see. We were flooded, the entire APA, with a mighty sea that rose up from nowhere. No one saw it. It just came. It came and fell everywhere. Perhaps it was more than one wave; maybe two or three waves that had collided, rushed together and collapsed upon one another. It was the sea gone mad!
For sixteen endless hours the storm continued, and when we were about ready to give up, no longer caring, it ended. It ended as abruptly as it began. They say the China Sea is shallow, and it doesn’t take well to typhoons. But when the winds stopped, the seas stopped with it. I went back to my bunk and fell into a death sleep, despite the filth and stench.
I was in bunk the next morning when I became aware that the ship had slowed down. Suddenly the thought came that we were in a minefield. I was needed on deck. I grabbed my Ml and rushed topside as rapidly as I could, knocking everyone off the ladder who had already started to form the chow line.
I reached the turret and looked out at sea. It was a shocking, abominable sight. The sea as far as the eye could behold was littered with smashed, wrecked junks. These poor junks, they were literally torn apart by the typhoon, ripped wide open, beaten into a pulp, smashed into kindling wood, annihilated. The typhoon had dissipated but it had left a ravenous swath of destruction and death. The convoy had slowed down to half speed, and as we slowly churned forward we glided through a sea of death. On every quarter was wreckage, not one or two, not even a dozen, but a fleet of demolished junks, all devoid of life. There were the bodies, yes, lifeless bodies tied to the masts and rigging, floating corpses. There was not one single sign of life among the sea of wreckage. All morning we continued, but by afternoon our convoy could no longer linger, searching for life, and with a rendezvous to keep, it resumed speed. Night came and we could only imagine ploughing through such human carnage in the darkness.
Our destination was Cheefoo, a seaport on the north shore of the Shantung Peninsula. On the morning of October 9th, we caught our first view of the Chinese mainland. It appeared in a darkened silhouette off our port bow, and as the day grew brighter-there was no sun-the land began to take form. The sea turned from yellow to the color of mud and we knew we were near. A voice came over the PA system announcing it was the coast of the Shantung Peninsula.
China came as a shock, not at all what we had anticipated. It was dismal, mountainous and barren. There was no sign of life, not a tree, not even a shrub. There was no color. It was gray and hard. Even when dawn turned into day it was bleak. That first view was disappointing, but what came next was far worse. It was the smell. Far out at sea we could smell China. It was like no other smell we had known before. It was a musty, unforgiving smell, nauseating to the senses.
As we sailed along the coast, Marines stood at the railing studying the shoreline: a sheltered cove with junks at anchor. Some at least had survived the typhoon. Farther on, a fishing village nestled in a valley came into view.
There was something else. It looked so odd at first. Near the fishing village was a long and narrow line, as if someone had taken draftsmen’s dividers and had drawn a pencil mark from the edge of the sea to a diminishing point in the far mountains. As we sailed closer, we saw it was nothing more than a wall, a wall without apparent purpose. But still it was there, a Chinese wall, our first wall, but not our last.
Later that morning I was at my post in the turret, drinking cup of coffee a sailor on duty had given me, when Stevenson appeared. By the look on his face I knew he had something urgent to tell me. “We are not going to Cheefoo,” he blurted. “No Cheefoo landing.”
The words hit me like a weight, like one of those barbells try lifting but it’s too heavy and you have to drop it. The barbell hit me right in the chest. After all this, we were not going to China. I was going to the electric shop, to work for old man, to sell radio vacuum tubes. I hated vacuum tubes at that instant more than I ever hated vacuum tubes before. What in the hell are you talking about?” I shouted back. “Take it easy,” Stevenson said, looking around. “We’re not going to Cheefoo. We’re going to Tsingtao.”
That was better but I didn’t say so. I didn’t know where Tsingtao was but nevertheless it was still China. “Why’s that?” I asked, calmer now.
“The communists,” he said. There was that word again.
Over the last couple of weeks that same word was tossed around but none of the Marines would admit they had no idea what a communist was, except that it had a bad connotation. Stevenson continued and I listened, as though I understood.
Major General Keller E. Rockey, the Commanding General, IIIAC, had arrived in Cheefoo shortly before to discover communist troops had already seized the city from the Japanese. They installed a party official as mayor, and were not sympathetic to the request from Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, Commander of the Seventh Fleet, that they withdraw before the Marines arrived.
Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, Commander, VII Amphibious Force, recommended that the landing be temporarily postponed. Gen. Rockey concurred, that the Cheefoo landing be delayed, and that the 29th Marines would land instead at Tsingtao with the rest of the 6th Division.
Tsingtao, Cheefoo, what did it matter? China was China and no one in the 29th cared much where we landed, just so we would get off the tub we were on as soon as possible. Our division commander, Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr. and a small staff had transferred to the Destroyer Escort Newman and were en route to Tsingtao. The rest of the convoy followed in close pursuit. USS Napa arrived at dusk on October 10th and stood off shore for the night. The following day the rest of the convoy arrived, minus half a dozen LSTs that had lost their rudders. They were in tow.
Together we steamed into Tsingtao Harbor and dropped anchor. The rattling of chains in their hawseholes could be heard clear across the city. What a splendid show we made. From all the riggings, from the bridges to the tallest masts, signal flags, colors and ship’s ensigns flew aboard every US vessel in the harbor.
Never did the port of Tsingtao see such a massive flotilla enter its harbor as it did on October 11, l 945-APAs and AKAs, LSMs and LSTs, and other various landing craft, all escorted by the 7th Fleet with her destroyers and destroyer escorts. Ships stretched as far as the eye could see.
Against the splendid backdrop of American ships was the flotilla of Chinese junks. The contrast of ships was never so keen. By the hundreds junks were rafted together, their masts appearing like a forest of trees in a New England winter scene. One could easily have leaped from one vessel to the other and crossed a mile or two of harbor without touching water. They were ancient wooden craft, sea-worn vessels, never having known a coat of paint, only the eyes at their bows were done up in bright colors. Their rigging was hemp, thick as a man’s wrist, and their stays were cables blackened with tar. They had rudders that stuck high out of the water, and aside their gunwales running fore and aft were massive leeboards that could be raised and lowered. Their sails, of course, were lateen, and badly sagging. The junks were right out of Terry and the Pirates. They had probably been there when Genghis Khan and Marco Polo sailed past.