Harold Speaks Chinese, Will be the Translator
From aboard ship we could look over the harbor towards the docks where masses of humanity began gathering. Some sat along the docks, their feet dangling over the sides, while others squatted atop buildings, and still others scampered up telephone poles and any higher places they could find. The din of those voices seeped out across the water like the humming of a swarm of a billion bees.
Before our anchors settled on the bottom, hundreds upon hundreds of bumboats, or sampans, besieged us. Single oarsmen who stood at the stem sculled each boat. They came waving small American flags, shouting joyously, and quickly displayed their wares: silk robes, embroidered drapery, jackets embossed with golden dragons, ladies garments of mostly dresses slit up the sides, paper lanterns, scrolls with fancy designs, and whiskey, bottles of whiskey-White Horse scotch and Hubba Hubba vodka. Soon more boats arrived, these with young maidens half hidden under tarpaulins. With braided pigtails, bangs, powdered white faces and lips painted bright red, they smiled revealing gold-filled teeth. They definitely weren’t Vargas girls. Their presence brought howls and screams from the Marines who crowded the railings.
With a shipload of Marines threatening to jump overboard and Chinese hawkers ready to climb aboard with their wares, orders were given to the deck watch to keep the boats at bay. It was not a task easy to fulfill. Whether or not any women got aboard that first night is questionable, but whiskey did, in bottles with neatly printed labels, certified to be genuine and safe by one Dr. Wong, MD. By morning a couple of Marines from Charley Company were in the sick bay with hoses stuck up their noses, and several others had reportedly gone blind.
At dawn another wave of bum boats began to arrive; MPs with carbines were mustered on deck. When threatening warnings to the gathering bumboats had little effect, the deck officer gave the order to bring out the fire hoses. These high powered hoses could tear the bumboats apart, sending them to the bottom in an instant. I don’t think the Chinese boatmen were aware what was about to happen. I moved over to the railing and looked over the side. Chinese hawkers, many dressed in rags, stood in their boats with their arms lifted up to the Marines along the railing, beckoning us to buy their wares. They looked so pathetic, pleading with us, and I felt sorrow for them. A dozen sailors pulled the limp hoses up to the railings. Two men at each hose grabbed the muzzles and waited for the final order.
It was worth a try. In Mandarin Chinese, a language I had never spoken aloud before, I shouted out-“Ni zou, ni zou bah.” Go, go! Go borne.
I was more shocked than anyone else standing there. It worked. The bumboats withdrew. The deck officer gave me a startled look. “Where did you learn Chinese?” he snapped.
“I just learned it,” I said.
Terry had joined us and stood at my side. “His family were missionaries,” he said.
“Shut up, Terry,” I said and tried to push him aside. He wouldn’t leave.
“What’s your name, Marine?” the officer asked.
I told him, and when he asked what outfit, I had to tell him that too-Fox company, 29th Marines.
That afternoon before chow I was summoned to the bridge. What had I done now? I held my hat in my hand and stepped onto the bridge. A dozen Marine officers, with Col. Roston, our battalion commander lording over them, were gathered around a chart table with a map spread out before them. I breathed easier when I saw Whittington standing to one side. He was on duty. He wore his white duty belt with a canteen on the left side and an empty .45 holster on the right. A slight smirk came to his face when he saw me. He then stepped up to Col. Roston. “Sir, here’s Private Stephens,” he said and stepped back. I was even more dumbfounded than before. Were they going to court-martial me right here and now? Or was this all some kind of a mistake?
Col. Roston gave me the once over. I wondered if he might be expecting someone else the way he looked at me. “I hear you speak Chinese,” he said. As I stumbled for words, he continued: “The 6th Reconnaissance Company is going ashore in the morning to secure Tsangkou airfield.” Why was he telling me this? “Another landing party is going ashore with them, to negotiate for quarters for the regiment. Unfortunately no officer aboard speaks Chinese. You will go as their interpreter.”
I felt the blood drain from my upper body; my knees were about to give way on me. The feeling was far worse than looking up from my foxhole and seeing a banzai charge coming my way as it did at the southern end on Okinawa. “Sir,” I said, my voice breaking, “my Chinese is not good.”
“Nonsense. It will come back. A little practice. Report on deck in shore uniform at 0800,” he said and turned to other matters at hand. I was horrified. What was I to do now?
“That’s hot shit,” Melanowski said gleefully as he dug into the bottom of my seabag looking for my greens. There was no need. Cpl. Marsden stepped forth and offered me his uniform, all neatly pressed. Stevenson volunteered to let me wear his barracks hat. It was the only barracks hat aboard the US Napa, maybe in the whole fleet. I missed chow that evening. I had to study my Chinese handbook. I climbed into my top bunk but to my horror the light had gone out. The storm must have had something to do with it. I went into the head and sat on a toilet and studied, until I was run out. “You som’ kinda nut or sumptun,” the MP said. “Get the hell out of here!” I went back to my bunk, laid my head down on my life jacket and went over the phrases in my mind. I was progressing. “Are you married?” “Do you have your own rice bowl?”