The worst duty in China, and certainly the most dangerous, was train guard duty. The coal shipments guarded by the 1st Marine Division were vital to the Chinese people. Gen. Wedemeyer pointed out that it was a military necessity that at least 100,000 tons of coal reach Shanghai every month, and his orders to IIIAC were to ensure that this coal reached its destination. Without coal shipments Shanghai would collapse. The average Marine standing his tum on guard, huddling against the biting winter wind that blew down from the Gobi Desert, was not aware of this, but his superiors were, and they lived under the constant pressure of that knowledge.
The communists were regularly sabotaging rail lines and firing on Marine-guarded trains. At Chinwangtao, Marines clashed regularly with the communists. What was so crazy about it all was that many of these communist partisans had risked their lives time and again to rescue American flyers from the Japanese. On Guam I had met crews of B-29’s who had bailed out on their return from bombing Japan and had been smuggled to safety by villagers who were now held to be enemies. In this very same area communists now sniped at Marine trains, and Marines shelled villages in retaliation. While both sides avoided open warfare, the area of intermittent conflict was spreading as IIIAC expanded its bold on key cities and vital routes of communication.
The night before when we toured the town, I met a couple of off-duty train guards in the Cherry Club. They weren’t too happy guarding trains and envied us in Tsingtao where it was peaceful and quiet. Without thought, I mentioned we were in China to repatriate the Japanese and nothing more. “Don’t give me that bullshit,” one Marine yelled and for a minute I thought he might get up and take a swing at me. “Marines are in North China to support Chiang’s regime. They said we were coming to evacuate the Japanese from China, and so we did. They shipped all those little yellow bastards back in a couple of months.”
The second Marine butted in. “Do we go home?” he asked. “Hell, no! No sooner do the Japs began to leave, when we hear the Russians are coming.”
“Yea, the Russians,” the first Marine sounded out. “We have to stick around to counter the Russian troops in Manchuria or they’d take over China. Then they announced that we are remaining indefinitely to guard supply lines from coal mines to the coast. That, too, is bullshit. Everybody knows this ain’t so. We are here to protect and defend Chiang K’ai-shek. The Kuomintang knows this! Chiang K’ai-shek knows this! Who doesn’t know it? The American people don’t!”
After the next round of beers, they both mellowed out and agreed Tientsin was good duty. “Hell, it’s better than selling cars in Pittsburgh,” the first Marine said.
“Or working in the friggn’ steel mills,” the other Marine added. They were both from the Pittsburgh area.
On the way to our train compartment the next morning, I watched two Marine guards take their positions on top of a boxcar. The doors were barred and locked. Their positions on top of the cars didn’t look very comfortable. I asked one Marine where he was from, the first thing a Marine asks when he meets another Marine. He said he was from Detroit. “I thought Detroit was cold,” he said, “but shit, this is colder than a witch’s tit, coldest I’ve ever been in all my gawd damn life. We sleep in our clothes and still can’t keep warm.” He told how one time he drank putrid water to make himself sick so he could go to sickbay where it was warm, and where he could get some decent food. Marine guards on the run to Peking had their own compartment with bunks and a wood stove to keep warm. At midpoint between Tientsin and Peking the northbound train made rendezvous with the southbound train and here guards changed trains and returned to their home’ base. They had a sign hanging on the outside of their compartment: THE GOBI EXPRESS.
Our conductor, a nervous and excitable little old man in a thread-bare uniform, led us through throngs of pushing and shouting people to our compartment. When we saw the people attempting to funnel up the steps and through the doorway, we never thought we would make it. This obviously was not the time to be polite and courteous. We shouldered our seabags and hit the line like Notre Dame linebackers do when charging Army at their championship football games. Our conductor was the referee. Somehow he got ahead through the crowd and we could see his hand waving frantically above the heads of the people, summoning us to follow. Unlike most trains, this one had a long hallway that ran the length of one side of the compartment. Every inch of hallway was jam-packed with passengers trying to find their compartments. They carried loads of luggage; their friends helping them carried loads of luggage; their coolies following behind them carried loads of luggage. Once they were inside their compartments, others outside on the platform passed to them more loads of luggage through the windows. Where all the luggage was going to be stored was a mystery.
Our four-berth compartment was jammed with passengers, all waving tickets at our conductor. Again this was time for action. We had to block and run scrimmage, and push everyone out the door. We tipped our conductor with a dollar note and locked ourselves in. We threw our seabags on the top bunk and sat down on the lower bunk.
The coal-burning train to Peking could hardly be called an express. In better times it could make the nm in less than a day, but not now. It stopped for one reason or another every few miles. Some of the stops lasted an hour or more. At one unexpected stop we saw two Marine guards run past our window with their weapons drawn. A half-hour later we saw them returning and threw open our window and asked what the delay was all about. “One of our tanks guarding the line ahead ran over a Chinese man on a donkey cart,” one Marine said.
“What happened? we asked.
“He killed them both,” he answered and went on his way. We learned later the tank commander had to pay a fine of $10 for the man and $20 for the donkey.
The train to Peking was one of those ancient conveyances that must have served the US Marines before us during the Boxer Rebellion. The coal-burning engine huffed and puffed and sent out belches of steam and messy black soot. It left Tientsin and reached out for the outer edges of the great Gobi Desert, possibly along the same route Genghis Khan had taken with his hundred thousand mounted horsemen when he conquered Peking.
We watched the great empty landscape of China, arid and dust-swept pass in slow motion beyond our window. The earth was brown, all brown without color. Farmlands were flat with the houses low to the ground and surrounded by mud walls. Burial mounds of hard earth dominated much of the landscape. The mounds seemed to be endless. The sun, only a mellow disc in the sky, lay low on the horizon, without giving warmth, and played hide-and-seek behind the mounds. The motion of the train was hypnotic. The click-idy-clack, click-idy-clack was mesmerizing. It was easy to fall into a reverie. I found myself thinking less about working with my father in his electrical shop and more of Ming-Lee and what we would do when she joined me in Peking. Maybe she would even stay with me and not go back to Tsingtao. It was a very nice thought to dwell upon.
When I tired of looking out the window, I turned to reading Lin Yu-tang’s The Importance of Understanding. I read for a while, drifted into thought, and then returned to reading. The book had more meaning for me while rumbling across a barren Chinese countryside than it would have had I been reading it back home. I thought about the author giving up China to live in America. Those Chinese I talked to believed he was a traitor. I was giving up America to live in China. This was the lot of all China Marines. Were we giving up more than we were gaining? Back home did they consider us traitors?
We didn’t move, we crawled across the wasteland, and by the next morning, after endless stops, I grew weary of reading. I left the compartment to walk along the hallway to exercise my limbs. I opened the door that lead to the next car and came upon an open area between the cars. A steel ladder led to the roof. I climbed the ladder and found I could sit on the roof with comfort, with my legs dangling over the side. I had a splendid unobstructed view. Since we were moving slowly, there was not a great deal of wind.
For the next few hours I sat there, studying the unattainable horizon. The tracks before us unrolled like a black ribbon upon an endless waste, and behind us we left a finger of smoke that lingered motionless in the lacquered sky. I became dust-covered-my eyelashes, my hair, my clothing. Then I saw it.
First I saw the dust, a sky of dust, and then the outer walls. It was Peking. The great city loomed up like a picture in a child’s storybook. Peking, the mighty and ancient capital of Cathay. What a magnificent sight.
It seemed like forever for us to close the distance; there was something so strange about it all. There appeared to be nothing else except a city surrounded by a wall. There was no hint of what might be beyond that wall. It was, if anything, a bit frightening.
The track led into an arched opening, with barely enough room for the train to slip through, and certainly not enough for me sitting on top of the car. I leaped down on the platform between the cars, but to my horror the conductor had locked the door. I couldn’t get back in! I climbed back up the ladder and lay flat on the roof, and at that instant we entered the tunnel. I was suddenly in a black void, enveloped in a cloud of acrid smoke, choking and gasping for air. We emerged from the tunnel with me coughing and covered with black soot.
But in another fleeting moment I forgot my discomfort. It was like an explosion. A new and fascinating world opened up before me, strange and unbelievable. Everything caught my attention. I wanted to stop the train then and there, as though once we passed it might disappear and be gone forever.
As we edged deeper into the city, I could hear the sounds, even above the roar of the train, and I could even catch the smells. Rickshaw and pedicab drivers shouted warnings as they padded along, vendors clicked wooden blocks to gain attention, wood-burning trucks tooted their horns and there was the general clamor of an excited city.
Still coughing and covered with soot, I made my way down the ladder to find the door open. But getting back to the compartment was a chore. The narrow hallway was again crammed with people, this time attempting to make a quick exit when the train reached the station. I pushed my way through the crowd, like the quarterback at Notre Dame, and eventually got back to the compartment where I found Melanowski and Gilbert impatiently waiting. They were angry and started shouting at me, but their anger quickly passed when they got a better look at me. They broke into laughter. “Look at you!” Melanowski shrieked flopping back into his seat.
“What in the hell happened to you?” Gilbert asked. “You look like a West Virginia coal miner.” I explained what had happened, cursing the conductor who locked the door, but not really minding, and then looked down the front of my uniform. I was a mess, covered with black soot and grime. I looked in the mirror above the wash basin. The wind had tangled my hair and it stuck out in every direction. My eyes still stung from the smoke, and they watered with tears, and as the tears ran down my cheeks, they streaked my face. I was in no condition to report to Marine headquarters looking the way I did. I would have to stop somewhere and clean up first.