Emergency Rescue (Broken Arrow)
It was a nasty cold morning on December 17, 1945, when we boarded LST 755 in Tsingtao harbor. The rope flag halyard at the bow had to be thawed out before we could raise colors. There appeared to be even more junks in the harbor than when we first arrived three months before. We felt sorry for the Chinese sailors who stood on their decks, tending lines with trembling fingers. They shivered in the cold and we could just imagine them at sea in their leaky ships with waves of icy seawater breaking over their decks. It didn’t seem much better for the sailors aboard a rusted freighter who lined the deck and watched us depart.
A sharp, biting wind blew in from the sea, and regardless of us not being accustomed to the cold winters of north China, we braved the weather, lined the railing and watched the shoreline disappear into the distance. I had my Brownie box camera with me but my fingers were so numb I couldn’t click the shutter.
We arrived at Peng Lai the following morning. Col. Roston and a small landing party were the first to go ashore. Whittington with a radio strapped on his back went with him, along with a LIFE photographer, an interpreter, two enlisted men and the Duck crew. I was pleased that we had an official interpreter, especially when I learned, even though I was beyond “what is the color of your rice bowl,” that he was to contact the communists and offer them reward money for caring for the pilot and crew member. He would also ask the communists for a “guarantee of safety” while our landing parties went to the downed aircraft to see what could be done.
Col. Roston and his men carried a briefcase packed with Chinese money. We watched them as they pulled alongside the LST before going ashore. “Hey, Whittington, you know how to use that thing,” Terry called out and Whittington gave him the finger. The second rifle squad and our machine gun squad were ordered to stand by. We would be boarding the second Duck to escort aviation personnel to the aircraft.
From the deck of the LST, we watched Col. Roston and his party draw near to the shore. About 500 yards before they reached their destination, a rowboat manned by four armed soldiers approached. From the LST, with rifles ready, we watched the soldiers board the Duck and place the rowboat in tow. Whittington reported over the radio that all was well, and that the soldiers were guiding them to an unmined stretch of beach. The Duck reached the beach, and as Whittington later reported, they caused concern when they left the water and drove up the embankment. Suddenly about a hundred Chinese troops appeared from nowhere and came running to assume positions along the parapeted top of a 50-foot wall fronting the sea. We lost no time boarding the remaining two Ducks and headed toward shore as fast as we could.
As we were rapidly closing the distance to the shore, we noticed the Chinese troops had disappeared; then but minutes later they had reappeared, this time wearing Japanese steel helmets. Whittington who was on the beach guided our two Ducks through the mines whereupon we entered a massive seagate. The Duck with our aviation personnel aboard headed directly for the downed aircraft. The others headed off in the opposite direction toward the town, with the briefcase filled with money. We were fearful for their safety.
The Tiger cat was undamaged, but the hardened ground began to thaw, making take-off impossible. We attempted to pull the plane to higher ground with the Ducks by attaching cables to each landing gear but that too failed. I was trying to get photographs with my Brownie when Stevenson came running. “I can’t believe it,” he said, out of breath. “Those commie bastards brought a carpet bag filled with American money and wanted to buy the plane.” There was no sale.
The lieutenant from G-2 took charge of operations. He lost little time climbing aboard the plane followed by the aviation mechanics and a demolition man from headquarters. We took position around the plane. Several dozen Chinese troops arrived and were helpful when they formed a cordon around the plane and kept the local Chinese from approaching closer than 500 meters. The men with the moneybag left.
We had to complete our mission before nightfall and get back to the LST. The men worked quickly. They removed heavy cameras from the nose of the aircraft, and stripped the navigation equipment. They carried two 5-gallon Jerry cans of fuel aboard and returned with empty cans. The last Marine to leave the aircraft was the demolition man. He set a charge, timing it to go off in an hour, enough time for us to get back to the beach. We returned to the seagate as quickly as we could. The third Duck with Col. Roston and his party had not returned. We waited for them as long as we could. Night was falling.
We still were standing on the beach, preparing to board the Ducks, when there came a terrific explosion. We turned to see the plane on fire. Darkness was almost upon us and still the other Duck was not in sight. We had no alternative but to follow orders and return to the LST. We could only make wild guesses what had happened to Col. Roston and his men. As we returned to the LST, we could see the silhouette of the burning plane against the night sky.
Back aboard the LST, we stood at the railing searching the darkness, looking for some sign of the others. We were thinking the worst when we heard shouts coming through the darkness. The Duck was returning. We gave a shout of victory. They had made it! They had out-smarted the communists. A few minutes later and we could hear their voices, more clearly now, and then their laughter. We knew that sound. Oh, how we knew it-drunken Marines. The LST opened the gate, lowered the ramp and the Duck drove aboard.
Whittington gave the account of what had happened. The town of Peng Lai had anticipated the arrival of the Marines and was waiting with full honors. The streets through which they were escorted were emblazoned with freshly painted posters in English, decrying US interference in Chinese internal political problems, and at the same time fervently wishing long life for Presidents Harry Truman and Mao Tse Tung.
They were taken to the office of the Mayor, Mr. Ba Nan Kong, and introduced to Brigadier General, Sun Rai Fu, and Commander of the Tung Pei Hai Military area, and Mr. Chang Hsao, editor of the local newspaper. A banquet hall where they dined was also plastered with banners, together with pictures of Mao, and a flaming red map of China. “According to the map,” Whittington said, “practically all of China was in communist hands.” Gen. Sun Rai Fu refused to accept the money offered by Col. Roston for safeguarding the aircraft.
The dinner party at the Mayor’s house was a full-blown ten-course affair with various wines, brandies and palate cleansers, served by a battalion of waiters. After almost a week onboard the LST, the banquet meal was an unexpected treat. The Marines were completely baffled by the feast, and after months in the field, they were certainly not the most refined dinner guests ever to share the Mayor’s table. The drinks were generous. One Chinese host became a bit loud and offered continuous toasts, which only served to increase the guests’ alcohol intake. Whittington admitted he tried to follow the Colonel’s lead, as far as table manners went, and thought he did fairly well for a slightly tipsy 19-year old kid from Saugerties, N.Y. However, the Marine next to him, to everyone’s dismay, drank the contents of his finger bowl, which he thought was just another exotic course. “It was like something from out of Terry and the Pirates,” Whittington said, “although no ‘Dragon Lady’ ever appeared.”
With the sky over Peng Lai ablaze in a red glow from the burning aircraft, LST 755 departed that same evening for Tsingtao. It was a two-day voyage at best. We spent Christmas Day at sea. To brighten up morale, several men put on a skit, which ended abruptly. Terry went drag with a mop for wig and padding under his shirt for breasts. A sailor made a witty remark, Terry punched him out, and the fun ended in a brawl. No sooner was calm restored than an oil line broke and sprayed oil over all our bedding: We spent the night cleaning up the mess. But Fox Company, 29th Marines, did have a Christmas feast, a day later on December 27th back at the Strand Hotel.
On December 31st I took Ming-Lee to a dance at the Shantung University Gym, and Stevenson took Judy. Ming-Lee looked very lovely in a western dress and high heels. I was experiencing a feeling I never had before. Could it be that I was falling in love? But Marines don’t fall in love.