Last Train to Peking
I didn’t have to wait until the next morning to have Col. Roston break the news to me. Stevenson told me without the need to wait. I figured it had to do with my meddling in the affairs of all the guys and their Chinese dolls. Maybe the colonel knew about Ming-Lee and me, that I planned to move in with her. Could I be on the next boat home? I wasn’t afraid to face the truth, that I was keen on a Chinese girl, but what about her, Ming-Lee? Would she understand that this wasn’t my doing? That’s the first thing I said to Stevenson: “What about Ming-Lee?”
“She can join you,” he said.
“How in the hell can she join me? How do I get her to America? You know the rules.” “Who said America?”
“I didn’t say anything about America. You didn’t give me a chance to say anything.”
“Okay, let’s start from the beginning. I am going someplace.
So where am I going?” “You’re going to Peking.” “Peking!”
“Yea, Peking. The colonel is sending you and two others from Fox Company to Chinese language school in Peking. A special six-month course at University of Peking, sponsored by the Nationalist Government. They are taking three guys from every outfit, and you have been selected. You’ll be detached from Fox Company and put on TDY.”
Col. Roston confirmed the appointment the next morning. “You will wear Chinese clothes, and you will have your own rice bowl,” he said with a smirk while shaking my hand. He returned to his seat behind the desk, with the American flag to one side and the Chinese nationalist flag on the other, and became serious again. He mentioned the directive from Fleet Marines. “Aside from you,” he said, “Cpl. Gilbert from Easy Company has been chosen. Maybe you can recommend someone from Fox Company.” He saw me glancing around. “Not Whittington. He’s got so many points he should have gone home a long time ago. And not Stevenson. I can see the two of you running around Peking. Besides, we need him here. Pick somebody else, and be prepared to leave before the week is up. You’ll fly to Tientsin and take the train from there to Peking.” He then dismissed me. He may have been smiling but I didn’t wait long enough to make certain. You never knew about your COs. You thought they didn’t care but they did. Sometimes.
Not one single Marine, not a one, wanted to go to Peking, especially to go to school to study Chinese. Part of their reasoning was due to a directive that came down from Fleet Marine Headquarters. It was disturbing news. On April 1st, 1946, the 6th Marine Division was officially disbanded. The 29th Mariners became Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Brigade. It didn’t mean much to the new recruit replacements who were joining the 29th in droves, but for the old timers who fought with the regiment since Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester and survived Okinawa, the news didn’t come with any great joy. Even more disheartening was the order that we had 30 days to remove 6th Division patches from our uniforms and replace them with 4th Division patches. That was the worst possible thing they could have done to us. Headquarters could have told us we were being absorbed by the US Army and it would have had Jess effect than telling us we had to give up our 6th Division patches.
No one wanted to go to Peking knowing that when they returned there would no longer be the 29th Marines. I felt much the same, but I had my orders, and I was getting desperate. I had to go, and I had to take two men with me. Cpl. Gilbert from Easy Company had already been chosen, and now another Marine from Fox Company had to volunteer. I knew it was hopeless to recruit Hecklinger. With his woman problem, he was only a step away from going over the hill as it was. Col. Roston wouldn’t let Stevenson go, as he was needed to run the office, and he knew we’d get into trouble if we went together. Ruker was tied up in the laundry room and wouldn’t want to jeopardize his position. Kyle couldn’t stay awake long enough to make up his mind. Terry thought I was crazy even to mention it to him. “Go back to school!” he stammered. “I couldn’t get through the sixth grade.” That left Smitty, Chandler and Melanowski. I thought both Smitty and Chandler would be good mates for six months, but Melanowksi was out of the question. He had never even opened a book let alone read one. But Smitty and Chandler flatly refused. l told them they didn’t have a choice. Colonel’s orders. One of them had to volunteer.
“I hate the gooks so why do I want to study their stupid language,” Smitty said and rolled up his sleeve. He gently kissed the Hawaiian girl tattooed on his forearm, as be always did when he was frustrated or under pressure. Chandler made some lame excuse about needing reading glasses. When I said he could have his eyes checked in two days, he complained about his arthritis. When I questioned him further, he didn’t even know what arthritis was. “It just sounds good,” he said. I didn’t even bother to ask Melanowski.
“I’ll tell you what,” Chandler finally said. “Since one of the three of us has to go, I say we draw cards.” They agreed and they drew cards. Melanowski drew the top card. He would be going with Gilbert and me to Peking.
“Well, old gold bricker, we’ll be waiting here for you when you get back,” Stevenson said when I went to his office to say good-bye. “Hell, six months is no time,” he added and then handed me a package that just arrived in the mail. It was from my sister. She had mailed me three Lin Yu-tang books: The Importance of Learning, The Importance of Understanding and From Pagan to Christian. I was delighted.
“When I finish reading these volumes,” I said, “I will be able to stand up to Rose Djung.”
“When you finish reading them,” he replied, “you won’t want to.”
Sammy checked out a 4×4 and drove Gilbert, Melanowski and me, along with Ming-Lee and Little Lew, to the airport. I felt terrible about leaving. Things were going well for me in Tsingtao. Ming-Lee was terribly sad but she cheered up when I made her promise she would come visit me in Peking. Little Lew was all tears. “I’m not leaving forever,” I explained to him. “I’ll bring you back a present. What would you like?”
“Only you,” he cried and started to tum away. I reached out and grabbed him and pulled him close to me. Try as I did, I couldn’t hold back my own tears.
“Lew, listen to me. Everything will be alright,” I said. “The guys will take care of you.” He wouldn’t stop crying and my heart went out to him. I thought of him in that sewer, and now only a couple of months later he was a changed boy with rosy cheeks and hope at last. When Ming-Lee saw the tears in both our eyes, she too began to weep.
“You better get out of here,” Sammy said, “or you’ll see me bawling too.” I left them standing at the edge of the terminal building, not daring to look back.
My terrible anguish about leaving my friends passed when I climbed aboard the DC-6 and saw for the first time the inside of an aircraft. I had not flown before and I looked forward to this moment. Back in 1946not many people had the experience of flying. When one wanted to travel across America they took a train. When they traveled across oceans, they went by steamer: three days across the US by train; five days from New York to London by boat; three weeks from San Francisco to Manila and Hong Kong by slow boat. That song “A Slow Boat to China or Maybe Siam” was only too fitting. For us, two hours from Tsingtao to Tientsin by a DC-3 Gooney Bird wasn’t bad either.
The pilot, a young 1st lieutenant flyboy with a MAG-3 patch on his flight jacket, instructed us to make sure our seat belts were secured and then reminded us that lifejackets were under our seats. He added we would fly at 5,000 feet and would follow the Yellow Sea to avoid flying at a higher altitude to clear the Loh Shan Mountains. He didn’t say it, but I imagined he didn’t want a repeat of the three spy planes that went down in bad weather on the north shore of the peninsula. I could envision Fox Company coming to look for us.
We strapped ourselves into bucket seats with our backs to the bulkhead. Gilbert was all smiles while Melanowski had the look of uncertainty in his eyes. The co-pilot closed the door, swung a bar down into place and locked it. He yanked twice to make certain the door was secure. He paid no attention to Melanowski who sarcastically asked if the captain thought we might try jumping out. Ignoring him the co-pilot walked to the front of the aircraft, disappeared behind another door, and the three of us were alone. The propellers began to rotate, painfully, the port side first, then the starboard, coughing and spewing out smoke as they labored to come to life. Once they began turning in unison, the pilot revved them up. The old bird began to vibrate and shake, and the noise grew so loud I could no longer hear Melanowksi complaining. We began rolling down the runway, turned and stopped. The plane jolted as the pilot applied the brakes and held them. I didn’t think the noise could grow any louder, but it did as the pilot revved to full throttle. He then released the brakes, and we went rolling down the mesh-laid landing field. It seemed we would never lift off the ground. Breaking all rules, I unfastened my seat belt and stood up to look out the tiny oval window above our heads. Gilbert followed suit. We watched until the clouds obliterated our view and the ground below disappeared. Even the wing and starboard engine, only yards away, melted into the white void, and the air in the cabin turned frightfully cold. We reached for blankets stuffed behind our seats, and spent the next two hours shivering and wondering if we would ever reach our destination. There was one advantage with the unending loud noise-we couldn’t hear Melanowski beating his gums.
I had never been to St. Louis, but I had seen enough movies to know I’d like the place. When I saw Tientsin, I thought I had arrived in St. Louis. It was a displaced modem Western city transplanted to the Orient. High rises, glass-fronted shops, wide avenues, restaurants and at night bright lights, not at all what one might expect for China. I had seen Broadway and 42nd Street when I got out of boot camp while on my way home on furlough, and the main drag though Tientsin was much like Broadway and 42nd Street. No wonder China Marines bragged about Tientsin duty. That night a couple of Marines from the garrison showed the three of us around town. We found it so enjoyable I hoped we could spend a few days more, but we had a rendezvous at 0600 at the rail station the following morning.