. . . . .
During World War II, there was a saying among the fighting Marines.in the South Pacific, and later with the Mannes in China, that the only gate they ever wanted to see was the Golden Gate in San Francisco. The USS Marsh, DE 699, the destroyer escort that carried Gilbert and me homeward bound, and a half dozen other Marines, was heading to San Diego and not San Francisco, but that really didn’t matter. The Golden Gate stood as the symbol of our “going home,” and we were going home.
I was up early, just as dawn was breaking, and found an empty gun turret to the starboard of the bow. I squeezed underneath the barrels of a twin 40mm cannon, and leaned out facing forward. I pined to see America come into view. Many thoughts raced through my head as I stood there searching the horizon; so much had happened since that day in April 1945, when we sailed away from San Diego. What a moment that was for a bunch of young, excited Marines. How innocent we all were.
I thought about that most often when we were on Okinawa, like the time I was with Terry, hugging the bottom of a foxhole in the rain, terrified that a shell from the battery of heavy bombardment whizzing overhead might fall short; or like the time when I was aboard that junk in the China Sea, with a chain around my feet, wondering when they might shove me overboard. It was times like this that I though how happy we had been. Every detail of that departure had been engraved in my mind. There was a band playing a John Philip Sousa’s march, and hundreds of people were gathered on the docks, waving and shouting, some crying, all wishing us well. And I remembered so well that lovely young lady in black slacks, high heels, and a low cut black blouse. I remember her throwing kisses, and she called out that she would be there waiting for every single one of us to return.
Well, we were back. The USS Marsh slowly entered the harbor, but there was no woman in black, no waving crowds, and no band playing a John Philip Sousa’s march. Instead there were two sad-looking longshoremen waiting to catch the lines our seamen threw to them. There was no one else, just the two of them.
The men picked up the lines, which were attached to larger mooring lines, and pulled them in. Once they had the mooring lines in tow, they threw the looped ends over two bollards. Without bothering to see if the ship was securely moored, the men turned their backs and strutted back to their tin-roof office shack at the end of the dock.
What a dismal sight, a miserable navy dockyard in San Diego! I watched the wind carry a newspaper across the yard. It swept past a pair of unused rail lines, and piled up against a chain link fence. Sea gulls came to rest on the bollards.
I threw my seabag over my shoulder, and along with the others, headed toward the gate. A Marine guard in a helmet liner and a .45 at his side said a bus would be along in half an hour to take us to the base. He said we could go inside the guard shack, out of the cold, and wait there. A half hour wait, I thought; he could have said a day, or a year. What did it matter? Where was the band?
Outside the gate, I could see a red blinking neon on a bar across the way. It was mid-morning, but it was open. “Not a friendly dump,” the Marine guard said when I asked about the place. “It’s a longshoremen’s hangout, and they don’t like navy types there.” I had no quarrel with longshoremen, and I felt like a beer. None of the others wanted to go, so I left my seabag in the guard shack and beaded toward the bar.
It was a dark, dingy place, and it smelled of stale beer. Sitting at one end of the bar were several dockworkers in overalls. They wore heavy boots and metal safety hats. They weren’t very friendly looking. Above the bar was a television. My first thought was to ask the bartender, after I got my beer, to turn it on. I’d tell him that I had never seen television before. That might amuse him. He was cleaning a glass, and when he saw me approach, he placed the glass on the bar. “Something you want?’ he asked. There was no cheer in his tone of voice.
“Yeah, a beer,” I said.
“Is that right. Well, then, you got identification?” he asked in a raised voice for the others to hear. All conversation stopped. The bartender picked up the glass, turned it upside down and placed it on the bar.
“Identification? Why do I need identification?” I asked.
“You gotta be 21 to drink in here,” he said.
“What the hell you talking about!” I said. I was hot under the collar now. “I just got off that ship, and you mean to tell me I can’t get a drink.”
“What I’m telling you is,” he said, “you had better turn your ass around, march right for that door, and get the hell out of here.”
Ten thousand gobs laid down their swabs-where in the hell are you, Terry and Chandler and Stevenson? Where in the hell are all you guys? I know, scattered out across America, sitting in your new civvies, watching television, getting fat on your wives’ and your mothers’ cooking? Where in the hell are you when it’s time to help a Marine buddy clean up a bar, as you all had done so often in China?
There were no Marines to help me here. I was home, after almost four years, and couldn’t even get a beer. Nor could I even tell these early morning drunks that when I left a couple of years ago, there were people outside waving flags and cheering, and a band was playing a John Philip Sousa’s march. There was a girl in black and she said she would be waiting until every single one of us got back. Well, there were a lot of us who weren’t coming back, ever, but there was no reason for that girl in black not to be here. Would these guys sitting there, sneering at me, would they understand about Okinawa and China, about napalm-filled caves and suicide bombers and tortured comfort women and the balu on the march? Would it do any good to tell them about Hecklinger and Melanowski, and Little Lew. They might laugh when I told them about Little Lew, and might say he was only a little gook kid anyway. Would it matter to them that Katarina might be dead, or if she wasn’t, she’d probably be in a labor camp in Siberia somewhere, and Ming-Lee might well be in a Chinese reformation camp.
All it mattered to them was that I was under 21 and not old enough to have a beer with them.
My family, of course, was thrilled to have me back. My sister sent an application for me to fill out, to enter Michigan State University under the GI Bill. I could get by without a high school diploma, but I had to pass a GED test first. Not to worry; it was easy. Electrical engineering courses were some of the best in the country. For an elective, I could take drafting. My father said it would help when we opened a shop. But I said I wanted to take Chinese studies. The answer came back. There were no Chinese studies at Michigan State. There were no Chinese studies at any college or any university in America. China was dead, they all said. There was no China anymore.
I guess they were right. We had to forget China, put it away, get China out of our minds. That’s what everyone told us. Farewell China!
But China Marines can’t forget. We just keep silent.
Stalin did not forget
. . . . .
The news that was closer to Shanghai always got everyone to sit up at the bar: “Chinese communists occupied Tientsin after a 27-hour battle with Nationalist forces,” followed by “The Chiang Government moved the capital of China to Canton.” If it wasn’t for the Teletype machine, we wouldn’t have known about the British frigate Amethyst which had come under fire from communist Chinese artillery and was aground in the Yangtze River. The British were having a tense standoff with the communists, and many British sailors had been killed.
What was happening in America always got a lot of comments from the guys. Everyone had something to say when Look magazine proclaimed that radio was “doomed” and that within three years television would completely overshadow it. What a marvel television must be, we said, for none of us bad seen it. But what were soap operas? We asked the question when we heard the report that “The first TV daytime soap opera, ‘These Are My Children,’ was broadcast from the NBC station in Chicago.”
Times were changing back home without us. RCA Victor announced a “newfangled product” to replace the 33-1/3 ‘long play’ phonograph disk with a smaller, seven-inch record, with a big hole in the center, called the 45-rpm disk. And at the Academy Awards, “Hamlet” won best picture of 1948 and its star, Laurence Olivier, best actor; The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific” opened on Broadway. We all thought it was funny that they would do a musical on the Marines in the South Pacific. Hell, before the war no one knew anything about the Pacific. Now they were writing musicals about us.
More exciting was the news that an American B-50 Superfortress, the Lucky Lady II, had landed at Fort Worth, Texas, after completing the first non-stop, round-the-world flight. We all commented that only a few years before our planes had a hard time flying from Guam and Saipan to bomb Japan and make it safely back to base. But the most distressing news was the report that the United States had charged the USSR with interning up to fourteen million in labor camps. Were they going to add the White Russians in China to that list? I wanted to tell Katarina but there was no need to frighten her more. She had already made up her mind.
When I met Gilbert and his friend Leroy Thompson that night after seeing Katarina and her aunts, the Seaman’s Club was quiet, a thing that didn’t often happen. They were sitting at a table in the comer with a couple of empty bottles of Tsingtao beer on the table.
Introductions were made and I shook hands with Leroy. He had hands the size of catchers’ mitts, and his grip was like sticking your hand into a vice. He was a boxer, and after meeting him you knew he had to be a winner. He was as tough as they came, but at the same time he was as mild as a Sunday school teacher. He had an interesting story to tell. He was with Charley Company, 3rd Marines, in Tsingtao, and left with his outfit two weeks before, about the same time I was floating around the China Sea aboard the Hai Lang junk. His battalion had loaded men and supplies aboard the USS Chilton transport and sailed straight to Shanghai. The men were living aboard and had the task of guarding American personnel and property and supervising their evacuation from Shanghai. He had just returned from Nanking that day, after helping evacuate Americans there. “It won’t be long, and we’ll all be out of Shanghai,” he said. The Cruiser Springfield was standing by down river and would be the last ship to leave China.
I made a few more visits to see Katarina and her aunts. I felt that I should give them all the support that I could. Katarina tried to find out from friends in Tsingtao about Ming-Lee but all her sources had dried up. In the meantime, the feuds among the Russians and their family members continued. Some wanted to return to Russia; others didn’t. Katarina and her aunts were waiting for news from a doctor friend who decided to go back first, and he planned to send for his family when he saw what the conditions were like. He would cable or else write. That was a month ago, and they had heard nothing. There was an Englishman, head of the British School divorced from his Russian wife. They had children, and the’ wife decided to return with their son to Russia. There was little the father could do. Katarina went to see them off aboard ship. They were waiting news from her too.
The Saturday morning after meeting Leroy at the Seaman’s Club, I checked out early on liberty and went to pick up Katarina. I promised her that I’d take her to the Trillion for lunch. When I knocked on her door, her aunts were there to open it. Both were in tears. They said Katarina had gone. She received word the night before that she had to be at the docks at 0600 the next morning with all her belongings. A US transport was taking some 3,000 Russians to Vladivostok. Departure time was at 0900. It was 0900 when I knocked at the door. “Why didn’t she tell me?” I shouted.
“She sent a message, and the boy left it at the front gate. She waited for you. She delayed until the last minute, hoping you’d come. We asked her to change her mind. She wouldn’t.”
She had to be leaving from the US Navy Fleet Landing on Soucho Creek. I caught a pedicab and had him peddle as fast as he could, but I was too late. The ship had cast off its mooring lines by the time we arrived and had already pulled away from the dock. Every available inch of space along the railing was occupied by Russians returning home. I desperately searched the railings from one end to the other but could not see her. J was hopeful now that she had missed the ship. Maybe for some clerical reason they hadn’t let her board-her papers were not in proper order, or a form had not been filled out properly. An important stamp or signature was missing. My hopes were dashed when I saw her. She was standing alone near the stem of the ship. I ran along the dock waving frantically but the figures along the railing grew fainter and fainter as the ship slipped further away. She didn’t see me.
I was so utterly confused about this whole affair. Did the Soviets really welcome their expelled citizens back home? One man who might have the answers was Father Wilcock. I went to see him. He was terribly busy, getting ready for the first boatload of refugees to depart for the Philippines, but he took time to talk to me. He was brutal and frank, and spared no feelings.
“What the world is well aware of,” he began, “is that on the 4th of February 1945, Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt met at Yalta to decide how to divide German territory, What they don’t know is that there was also a secret agreement, and that was to exchange each other’s liberated prisoners and to return each other’s liberated civilians as they were rounded up in Germany and China. In accordance with this secret understanding, the United States has to return White Russian civilians in exchange for Allied prisoners.”
It all suddenly came to light. Mrs. Murray and her family, and many hundreds of thousands of other prisoners, were given free passage from concentration camps. Now it was America’s turn to repatriate the White Russians.
Father Wilcock continued: “Everyone forgets that the Soviet decree in 1921 stripped all Russians outside the country of their citizenship. Unfortunately, most refugees remained hopeful, and expected that their exile would be only temporary. Stalin had other ideas. You have to remember, many White Russians fought alongside German forces against the Red Army; this included their Cossack regiments who had left their homeland after the revolution. Stalin won’t forget. Several hundred thousand Russians took up arms against the Soviet Union in the years following the German invasion in June 1941.” He then gave me the example of General Pyotr Krasnov, a Cossack who had fought against the Bolsheviks back in 1918 and hoped that the British would sympathize with his situation, for they had decorated him with the British Military Cross. It did no good. Under the Yalta agreement, he too was sent back to the Soviet Union to certain death. He was for Stalin a prize captive.
I was sick at heart when I left Father Wilcock at his parish. Life bad been so simple when we first stepped ashore in China in October 1945. Our biggest concern then was, could we get to the Prime Club before some swabbies booked our girls and we had to wait around until their time was up. We never heard of Yalta and the only White Russians we were concerned about were those serving borscht in their restaurants. Mao Tse-tung was someone who Chiang K’ai-shek could whip with his hands behind his back, with a little of our help, of course, and the Eighth Route Army couldn’t shoot straight if they had to.
At the Seaman’s Club we learned from the foreign correspondents that life in China was much more complicated than that. Troubles began when General Douglas MacArthur designated Chiang K’ai-shek as the sole authority empowered to accept surrender from the Japanese in China. The Soviets were forced to sign a Sino-Soviet Treaty whereby Moscow was compelled to accept the Nationalist government as the legitimate government in China. Stalin was not pleased when Americans airlifted Nationalist troops to key points in Japanese-occupied territory in the East and North, and 50,000 American Marines soon occupied port areas and airfields on the Nationalists’ behalf in Tsingtao, Peking, and Tientsin.
Stalin was finally having his revenge. Now with his ally Mao Tse-tung gaining complete control, Russia was forcing the United States to honor the Yalta accord, and that was to repatriate all Russians in China. Katarina was the victim. And the China Marines had to go.
When the first US ships returned from Vladivostok, they had horror stories to tell. We received more reports from the Teletype machine at the Seaman’s Club. Thousands of refugees who disembarked on Russian soil found instead of being welcomed, they were immediately stripped of the new winter clothing and personal equipment that had been generously issued to them by the Americans and British. The stories were told that they were then shipped off to prison camps for long sentences, to receive the same treatment as all the Gulag’s inmates. Ship captains and their guards testified that some prisoners never made it that far. They were shot behind warehouses on the quayside with low flying Soviet planes circling overhead to help drown the noise of the rifle fire. Some Americans were appalled when they eye witnessed many desperate acts of suicide by Russian men and women who preferred their own deaths and that of their children to falling into the hands of the Soviet secret police.
I had hardly enough time to pack my seabag when our orders came to muster at 0500 for transport to the airport in Shanghai. Mao Tse-tung’s troops were at the outskirts of the city. There was no fighting, and the handover was expected to be peaceful. At the airport I found Gilbert waiting in line to board the same C-47. We had little we could say to one another. None of the Marines there had much to say. Our destination was Hawaii. Once in Honolulu, we transferred to navy ships for the last leg of our journey to San Diego-back where it all started.
White Russians Eager to “Go Home”
. . . . .
The next morning I conned the company clerk in to giving me an early liberty pass and went to find Roy Lund. It wasn’t difficult to do. He had opened a new camera shop right off the Bund. “Maybe Chairman Mao will let me keep it,” he said after greeting me. “After all, the communists will want to take pictures, too.”
Roy was in a very happy mood, but that soon changed when he confirmed Little Lew’s death. “The street kids didn’t envy him,” he explained; “they hated him. Poverty does strange things to the hungry.” Roy was deeply saddened too about Melanowski. “I liked that guy,” he said. “He always talked about wanting to go home, and all that changed when he met that girl in Peking. The last time I saw him, he was proud that he was getting a fat belly. It was his measure of success. He’ll never be going home now.” Roy was also upset about Ming-Lee. “You shouldn’t feel bad. It wasn’t your fault.” I explained what had happened to me, that I couldn’t get back to her. “And if you could have, what could you have done anyway?” He agreed he would try to find out what he could about her. He suggested that I might try Katarina. “She had been in contact with Ming-Lee until the very end,” he said. He didn’t know her address, except that she was staying with her family in French Concession were the White Russians mostly lived. “There’s a Russian bakery on the corner of Jeffrey. They might know her.” I thanked him and was about to leave. He put a hand on my shoulder. “You better hurry. Many White Russians are returning to Russia. She might be one of them.”
I found the bakery, by following the wonderful aroma of baked bread up the street. The proprietor asked that I be seated and sent his young son to find Katarina. He brought me a steaming cup of coffee and told me to wait. The bakery was like the one in Peking where Katarina and I went the first time we had coffee together. His customers were all European, mostly Russian. They all left the shop with bundles under their arms and pleased looks on their faces. The poor Chinese, they didn’t know what they were missing.
I must have waited half an hour, and still no Katarina. I was getting ready to leave when the tinkling of the bell above the door made me tum in that direction. Katarina stood there. I had forgotten how lovely she was. Her skin seemed even whiter than before, and her hair darker. She greeted me by throwing her arms around me. Before we could exchange greetings, she announced, “I’m going home.”
“Going home, you just got here,” I said somewhat bewildered.
”No, silly, home to Russia,” she replied.
Roy was right. She sat down, and while we held hands across the table, she explained her intentions. In excited words she said the US State Department announced that the descendants of all White Russians who were bilingual could return to Russia. The State Department had a registration office and they told Russian refugees they could come and register. American ships as well as Russian ships would transport them back home. They could take all their possessions.
“Russia is still our homeland,” she insisted. “Most White Russians feel this way. They are tired of living as second-rate citizen in foreign lands. Many of us have decided to go back.” “But you once told me in Peking that you would never go back to Russia,” I said.
“That was before,” she said. “Conditions have changed.” “How do you know you will be welcomed back?” I asked. “Your State Department guarantees our safety,” she replied. “That’s a guarantee to get there. They can’t guarantee anything after you arrived,” I answered. She didn’t respond, only winced her nose, and I continued: “And if some Russians decide not to go, what then will happen to them?”
“Come, you must meet my aunts,” she said. “They will explain better than I can.”
I actually wanted to meet Katarina’s two aunts. I had not forgotten the stories she had told in Peking about her family. I especially wished I could have met her mother, remembering that her second husband, Katarina’s stepfather, was a China Marine. They had married in 1931, but both she and her husband left Shanghai just before the Japanese arrived.
Katarina took me to meet her aunts Sunday afternoon. They lived in the same three-bedroom apartment in the French Concession that Katarina had told me about. The apartment was exactly as she had described it. It was more museum than a place to live. Every comer, every inch of wall, every space on top of tables and on top of the piano was used to exhibit some memento or other, many which dated back to imperial Russia. There were photos of Russian nobles in uniforms with sashes and sabers at their sides and chests full of campaign ribbons. There were regal looking Russian women dressed in ankle-length skirts with laces and frills, and wearing large hats rimmed with flowers. There were plaques and brass bowls with engraved names on the sides. Looking down from the walls were life-sized oil paintings of somber Russian nobles, both men and women. The rugs, one on top of another, were rich Persians and Afghans, and the drapes that shaded the light from the windows were right out of a Russian painting.
Her two aunts were a reflection of the apartment. It would be difficult to say if they molded the apartment, or that the apartment molded them. I couldn’t imagine them any place but there, sitting as they were, surrounded by their faded past. They were pleasant enough. They asked me to be seated, and we began our conversation over tea. Katarina introduced me as Stephan-a fine upstanding Boyar name, she said when we were climbing the stairs to the apartment.
“Stephan asked me what will happen to those of us who choose not to return home to Russia,” Katarina said.
I studied the two women, aristocrats, turned milk cow farmers in Manchuria, and seamstresses, hairdressers and clothing-and-fur store owners in Shanghai, except they called them salons. I tried to picture them as young beautiful women, in their early 20s, when they arrived in Shanghai, as Katarina said they were. But I could only see two weathered old ladies with wrinkles and lines on their faces, and an overabundance of heavy makeup, trying to be someone they were no longer. The older of the two women wore bright red lipstick, which she had applied beyond the contour lines of her lips. I wondered which one of them had turned down a film producer for an American sailor who sailed away and never returned. The other one, if l wasn’t mistaken, fell in love with a Flying Tiger pilot, but he, it turned out, already had a wife in Oregon. I could see now why Katarina wanted to further her education. She didn’t want to be like them. It was her means of escape, but the communists put an end to her studies and hopes.
“What will happen to those who don’t want to go back?” the younger of the two repeated. “Why Father Wilcock will manage that, of course. He is making the arrangements this very minute.”
I suspected she would say Father Wilcock. Katarina had taken me to meet him a few days before-Father Feodor Wilcock, an English-born Jesuit. He was a guy I had to admire: barrel chested, pince-nez glasses, flamboyant with a black cape and a red lining that fluttered like a great winged sea hawk when he moved about. He certainly was colorful, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me about himself. In 1929, he went to Rome to study at the newly formed Russian College established to train young men for work in Stalinist Russia. He was ordained in 1934, and his first assignment was to the borderlands of Poland and Czechoslovakia where he ministered to large numbers of refugees from the Russian revolution who had settled there. He managed to cross over into the Soviet Union several times, but he was quickly expelled by the Soviet authorities. Some of his fellow Jesuits in the Russian mission were not so fortunate. They ended up serving long prison sentences, and in some cases losing their lives in the dreaded Soviet Gulag.
When World War II began to engulf Eastern Europe, he went off to Manchuria and China to assist the White Russians who bad taken refuge there. In Shanghai, he set up a Russian Catholic chapel and eventually a boys’ boarding school. But with the Chinese communist forces closing in on the city, he was assigned by UNRA to supervise the hasty evacuation of Russians to a detention camp in the Philippines. The makeshift Russian settlement was to be on uninhabited Tubabao Island off of Samar. There were 40,000 White Russians in Shanghai, but after seeing the ships that were to carry them there= three old condemned cargo vessels-only 6,500 agreed to go.
“At least we will have American ships to take us home,” Katarina said when her aunts brought up the subject.
“Russia! Russia! Katarina, how can we talk sense into you?” the elder said. I was surprised for I thought they would be in favor of returning to Russia, at least the older generation. I could see a heated argument coming.
Before we had come to visit her aunts, Katarina told me that she had given up hopes of finding a husband. It wouldn’t have done her much good even if she had found someone. A few months before, in December 1948, the War Bride Act ended and it didn’t appear that they were going to extend it. It was now a dishonorable discharge for any GI to marry a foreign woman.
“Until we got this offer, it was the dream of every single White Russian woman in China to acquire a passport,” Katarina announced to her aunts. “We are stateless, we have no country, and we have nowhere to go. We are not Soviet citizens but refugees from communist rule.” She looked at me and laughed. “Before the War Bride Act, the best prospect, of course, was an American passport. You single American males became our chief prey.”
“Katarina,” her aunt said with astonishment, “how can you say that?”
“Auntie, you know that’s true,” she replied. “Any foreign man! They could be young, middle-aged, senile, handsome, ugly as sin, tall, short, fat, thin, it didn’t matter. The goal was a passport. British, French, German, any male who breathed ‘and had a legal travel document would do, but you Americans were the prize catch.”
“Katarina, you demean Russian women,” the older aunt snapped.
“Not only Russian women but all Russians,” the younger aunt said.
“I agree,” the older aunt said. “The Bolsheviks cast us out. And they also cast out ballerinas from Moscow and St. Petersburg, first-class opera singers, and painters, musicians, and poets. White Russian girls in the ballrooms of Shanghai were famous for their beauty. Russians have made Shanghai one of the best-known artistic centers in the Far East.”
“You are right, auntie,” Katarina said in agreement, but I could sense she had more on her mind. I was right. “Agreed, the Russians brought a new kind of style to Shanghai, but also through their poverty and desperation. They gave the Chinese a glimpse of the fact that white people are not necessarily the infallible master race.”
“Katarina, watch your manners,” the older aunt said.
“Auntie, we are talking about the women, always about the women, but what about our Russian men? We should pity them, the great Cossacks and Boyars that they were. Look around. A single man in Shanghai today has little hope of marrying a girl of his own race, or any race for that matter. He has nothing to offer. He has no national stature, no prospect of a well-paying job. What prospect is there for even a former officer in the Czarist army, or high-ranking naval officer? At best he could find employment as a guard for one of the rich mansions in one of the concessions, or else work as a cemetery keeper. Walk through the French Concession, around the Orthodox Cathedral in Rue Dourner. You see young Russian men begging from Europeans, even from Chinese, Eurasians, anybody. You see Russian men lying on the pavement.”
Katarina went on, and my thoughts faded back to the image I had of a tall good-looking Russian man I saw in the hutongs in Peking. He had leprosy eating away at one side of his face, and had to tum to begging to survive.
No, after all was said and done, Katarina had made up her mind. She was going home to Russia aboard the next available ship. Not even the prospect of a husband could stop her.
After I said good-bye to Katarina and her aunts I had an appointment at the Seaman’s Club to meet Gilbert and his Marine buddy from the 3rd Marines. I stepped out into the chill evening air, glad to be away from all the talk about White Russians, took a pedicab to the Bund and walked from there. I followed the Waibaidu Bridge over the Suzhou River. During the day, the bridge was usually crowded with pedestrians, cyclists and laborers pushing bicycle carts heavily loaded with wares, but now it was still and peaceful. I stopped and looked out over the river, and I thought how Shanghai at this moment was all mine. I was alone, on the Waibaidu Bridge, all by myself. That was something! Alone in Shanghai. I thought about all the time I bad spent in China. Years. I thought about my age. I was twenty now, and time was slipping by. Was my time in China up? Was the time up for all China Marines. I was late by now and hurried to the Seaman’s Club. The club may have been called a “seaman’s” club but there were more than seamen who stepped through the front door. Many of the foreign correspondents used the club as a meeting place. They took advantage of the Teletype machine that continuously pounded out messages on the top floor, bringing the news of the world in a noisy display of difficult-to-read words. On their way back from the Teletype room the reporters always stopped at the bar, and there they talked about what they had just read. Some interesting bull sessions went on there at the bar. When I could manage to get away, I went with a few other Marines to catch up on the news. Some of the stuff they talked about was hardly interesting, like “Czechoslovakia announces a five-year plan to attain economic independence from the West” or “Secretary of State Marshall resigned for health reasons and was succeeded by Dean Acheson.”
Back to the Bars and Bad News
. . . . .
Outside in the street we caught two pedicabs. We didn’t have to tell the drivers twice where to go. They knew, like the old mare on the farm back home that knows well where the stable is. The moment we turned up Avenue Edward VII on to Avenue Rue Chu Pao-san, the official name for Blood Alley, the scene changed. It wasn’t a gradual change; it was like an explosion. Even though I had an idea what was coming, it was still a jolt. Those thousands of Marines who came before me hadn’t lied. Blood Alley was in a class all its own. We had hardly turned down the block when we were met-no, besieged-s-by gangs of pimps, panhandlers, conmen offering to serve as guides and who knows what else, all wanting to sell us something, or else wanting to buy what we had to sell. And there they were, the fun houses-dives, brothels, cabarets, cafes, side by side with fancy eateries and the lowest of low bars, all with swinging doors-s-a thoroughfare entirely dedicated to wine, women, song and all-night lechery.
Swinging doors were left open. From the cabarets music blared out into the street, a cacophony of off-key saxophones and strident trumpets thumping out the hits of the day. We paid off our pedicab drivers, who demanded more money than agreed to, and ducked into the first bar we came to->- Monk’s Brass Rail. Inside, standing shoulder to shoulder, were US Marines with leather belts slung over their shoulders ready for action, gaunt US Navy men from the Seventh Fleet, Seaforth Highlanders in kilts, seamen from the Liverpool tramps, French sailors with their silly-looking tams, Savoia Grenadiers, and the half casts of Shanghai’s underworld. Customers were in every stage of drunkenness, from “feeling good” to staggering blindness. Monk’s Brass Rail was like a time bomb, ready to explode at a slight side glance-“what the frig are you looking at”-or a slight misunderstanding-“hey, swabbie, I seen her first.” You could rest assured, any minute a drunken sailor would ask a Seaforth Highlander what he had under his kilt, and it would begin.
We finished our drinks and went next door to George’s Bar. Two Marines from Monk’s Brass Rail teamed up and went with us. A wise Marine always knew that safety lay in numbers. Marines with Marines; sailors with sailors; Grenadiers with Grenadiers. The two Marines who joined forces with us had been stationed in Peking, and like lost brothers we became instant buddies, ready to defend one another against all odds, if need be.
Customers in George’s Bar were more subdued. Here they had ears only for the girls clinging to them in the half-light of dance-floor alcoves. The freewheeling painted beauties in ankle-length dresses slit up the sides, sitting on stools at the bar, called out to us when we entered: “Dar ling, buy me one drink, pleeease.” We bought them drinks, but not one of them had any information about Tsingtao, except to say girls from Tsingtao hung out mostly at the Palais Cabaret.
We ventured from bar to bar, having a drink in each place, and finding each dive wilder, more noisy and better than the last one. We lost count-the Crystal, the New Ritz and Mums, plus a few more. By now we had forgotten what we came for, and it was then that we stumbled into the Palais Cabaret. They could hear us coming, walking down Blood Alley four abreast, singing to the tops of our voices, frightened of no one- Highlanders or Grenadier, Seventh Fleet swabbie or British Marine. The manager met us at the door. He was White Russian, wearing a frayed white-linen suit. He abruptly, without asking, moved three bargirls from their seats and gave us their stools near the door. We ordered Hubba Hubba vodka and before we had the first sip, bar hostesses were upon us like flies. The Palais, Gilbert insisted, was noted for the best looking women in Blood Alley. It appeared that way, with something else-variety. We had our pick-Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Anamneses, Russian Eurasian, Filipino, Formosan.
Gilbert was right; the cabaret was popular. It was jam-packed, with some customers standing three-deep at the bar. The booze poured like water from an open tap: rotgut whiskey, vodka, and local Chinese beer. The heavy smoke-laden air was so dense it was impossible to discern the faces of those sitting at the other end of the bar. Still, through the haze, I thought I saw a face I recognized. But I had to be mistaken.
I tapped Gilbert on the arm. “Who does that remind you of?” I asked, pointing to a girl sitting with a Marine officer at the other end of the bar. Gilbert looked hard, squinted and looked again.
“No,” he said and got up from his seat. Without explaining or commenting, he elbowed his way through the crowd, nearly causing a brawl with each step, and headed directly toward the girl and her Marine officer friend. I followed him, trying to keep up. I became momentarily separated from him, and when I moved in closer I could hear him screaming, “You son of a bitch! You bloody whore.” I closed the distance, and the girl whom I thought looked like Monique was Monique, Melanowski’s wife!
“You had better watch it, Marine,” the officer said to Gilbert, getting to his feet. He didn’t shout or threaten. He remained composed.
But not Gilbert. He was in an uncontrollable rage. I had never seen him like this before. He was always quiet and mild-mannered. Now he was like a demon released from a cage. Those standing around began to move back. I took my eyes from Monique and looked at the officer. My heart missed a beat. That son of a bitch! The officer was Lt. McCaffery, the Jap lover, the hometown boy who introduced me to Sofuku Geisha House in Tsingtao. He was with Melanowski’s wife. My thoughts flared up. Had he started fooling around with her while Melanowski was out in the field with UNRA? That creepy son of a bitch, an ill excuse for an officer. I never did like him. He recognized me. “You had better call your friend off,” he said to me.
“You giving me an order?” I fired back.
Monique hastily took a position and stood between him and Gilbert, for it was obvious Gilbert was going for his throat. “You bitch,” Gilbert continued shouting at Monique.
“Where’s Ski? Home waiting for you?”
“Hey, take it easy,” Lt. McCaffery repeated, pushing Monique to one side. He was getting angry now.
Our Marines buddies had sensed that something was wrong and came running to our aid. “You are a son of a bitch,” Gilbert shouted at Lt. McCaffery and made a lunge to grab him by his jacket, but hands from every direction reached out and held him back. “Let go of me,” he shouted. “Let go! I’ll kill the bastard.”
This was serious. Gilbert was about to strike a Marine officer. Monique moved in and attempted to grab hold of my arm. “Let me talk to you,” she pleaded.
“You go to hell,” I shouted and pushed her hand away. “Listen!” she cried. “Listen, damn you!”
“Listen, listen to what?” I repeated.
“Let me tell you,” she said, looking directly at me and then at Gilbert. Her eyes filled with tears, and she reached out for my arm again, to steady herself. She looked solely at me now, attempting to dry her eyes with the back of her hand. Her voice choked up with emotion. She finally blurted it out: “Melanowski’s dead.” She hesitated, letting her words sink in. “You hear, Melanowski is dead.” Our Marine buddies let Gilbert go and his arms dropped to his side.
The White Russian manager pushed through the crowd that had gathered, and seeing that things had settled down, suggested that Monique, Gilbert and me follow him. He told Lt. McCaffery to wait where he was. He led us to a back door that opened into a small courtyard.
Monique told us the story. Her husband, Melanowski, was killed when a convoy of half a dozen UNRA vehicles bringing in refugees to Tsingtao from the south was ambushed. All the drivers were killed, including Melanowski. The refugees were unharmed. A patrol of Marines was dispatched to retrieve the bodies but the gunfire became so intense, and they were so outnumbered, they had to turn back.
She talked about the evacuation from Tsingtao. Only military personnel and their dependents could travel on US ships. She told how White Russians with suitcases jammed with money pleaded for passage to Shanghai but the Americans had to turn them away and leave them to the mercy of unscrupulous ship captains for passage. Those without money attempted to flee aboard open sampans and bumboats.
I asked her about Ming-Lee but she had never met her and didn’t know her. She suggested I contact Roy Lund. Roy had owned the Hansen Photo Studio on Chung Shan Road in downtown Tsingtao. He was a friend of all Marines and sailors. I knew him. He came to the aid of any Marine in distress. He loaned us money when we were broke, as we usually were between paydays, and he guided us in the right direction when we got into trouble. He was our Chaplin, without preaching religion. Melanowski had befriended him, and he was the one who was able to secure Monique’s safe passage to Shanghai.
“But you were married to an American citizen,” I said to her. “Didn’t that cut the mustard?”
“No one would listen to me in Tsingtao. It was terrible. I had to get here on my own. Once I got here I went to the US Embassy. With thousands of dependents wanting to leave, they have lines of people waiting. But the consul was helpful. They put me in touch with Lt. McCaffery. He’s working with the American dependents and refugees.”
To Gilbert and me that still didn’t matter, not at all. The way Lt. McCaffery was pawing her at the bar, he had to have more in mind than a passport.
“What about the other civilians?” I asked. “What about Little Lew? You remember him. You met him when you and Ski came to the PX one day.”
Monique again welled up with tears. I braced myself for the worse, “Yes, I know,” she said. “The Marines told me what happened to him. I can’t bear the thought.”
“Where is he?” I asked. “Tell me, what happened.”
“They killed him,” she sobbed.
Nothing she could have said could have come as a worse blow. Was I hearing right? “I am talking about Little Lew,” I said, thinking she must have the wrong kid in mind, hoping she was wrong.
“Yes, it was him, Little Lew,” she replied.
“Killed him! Who killed him? What are you talking about?” I demanded.
“The other kids,” she said. “When the Marines left the university he stayed back, as long as he could, but he eventually had to come out. He put on his old clothes, but the kids recognized him when he stepped out the gate. They picked up stones. They stoned him to death. There was nothing the Chinese guards at the gate could do. There were too many.” What had we done? My teacher Mrs. Murray was right. She said our making Little Lew the company mascot would lead to no good. “What about when you Marines leave?” she had asked. Who thought we would ever leave China? Why didn’t we listen to her? I left Monique standing there with Gilbert at her side, and they made no attempt to come after me. I found a back gate to the courtyard and walked through the streets of Shanghai back to the barracks.
LAST STAND IN SHANGHAI
. . . . .
With pomp, pride and a display of showmanship, the helmsman brought our whaleboat-packed with sailors from the destroyer, going ashore on liberty-up the congested Huangpu River, past ships flying the ensigns of a dozen nations-United States, Britain, France, Russia, Australia, New Zealand, Panama, Nationalist China, and many more I couldn’t recognize. Pulling at their anchors midstream were war ships and gunboats, river scows, coastal steamers, oil tankers, rusted freighters, smart cruise liners, huge seagoing junks and even an Arabian dhow. There were still more, Chinese lighters with painted eyes, white-hulled government launches with shiny brass rails and hundreds of other vessels. And sculling back and forth, from ship to shore, was a sea of tiny sampans and bumboats carrying passengers and cargo. Some bumboats were so heavily-laden with cargo, their freeboard was but inches above waterline and it appeared that the slightest wave might swamp them and send them to the bottom. The entire waterfront was pulsating with vigor. We continued smartly, our own ensign flying from the stern, up the Huangpu headed for the US Navy Fleet Landing a couple of blocks north on Soucho Creek. It was a proud feeling.
All along the waterfront, cargo vessels moored to the docks, loaded and unloaded their wares, while whizzing cranes swung their booms back and forth overhead. Sweating coolies tottered up and down narrow gangplanks with loads heavy enough to break the backs of ordinary men.
Two sailors with SP armbands had been assigned to escort me to Marine Headquarters. We disembarked at dockside, and there, before us, like a dutiful waiting mistress, was the wondrous, exciting world that was Shanghai. How many tales about Old Shanghai I had heard from Marine salts. “Why, kid, let me tell you, it’s the best liberty port east of the Golden Gate,” they’d say, and then rave on about ladies like Shanghai Sally “who could out-drink any Marine in the Corps,” and about a row of bars in a back street called Blood Alley that never closed. “In Shanghai, for five bucks, you can get fed, drunk, and laid, and still have some change left over.”
Indeed, and here it was, Shanghai, a city beyond any law; and lived up to the many names people gave it-“Paris of the East,” “Whore of Asia,” “Capital of the Tycoon,” “Paradise for Adventurers,” and a score of other such epitaphs. I couldn’t wait to find out for myself.
A US Navy Jeep with a Chief Petty Officer aboard was waiting for us at the gate. The sailors turned me over to him and jumped into the whaleboat for the journey back to the destroyer. “First time in Shanghai?” the chief asked when the sailors had gone. I told him it was, and began to explain what brought me to Shanghai, but he said he already knew. “We got the radio message yesterday from the Tin Can you were on,” he said, “and they reported you had been picked up at sea. I guess you’re just a lucky bastard.” I didn’t know what he meant by that last remark, but I assumed it was for the better. I sat back and we took off through the streets of Shanghai, with the chief pointing out the sights.
We drove past the Bund, the waterfront promenade where all the foreigners gathered. Here was the pride and joy of the British community, but for the Chinese, the Bund meant humiliation. I wanted to ask the chief about that sign “No dogs or Chinese allowed” but he was too busy talking about other things for me to interrupt him. I only half listened to him anyway. I was too dazzled by our surroundings. I didn’t know which way to look, nor where to tum. Everything seemed to be happening at once. Pedicab drivers hustled cargo as well as passengers through the streets, clanging their noisy bells as they pushed through milling crowds. There were more rickshaws than I had seen in any other city in China. Men, women and school kids peddled bicycles in and out of traffic. Coolies pulling heavy overloaded carts with wooden wheels struggled against the traffic. There were street-side hawkers, amahs in their black-and-white habit buying food for their masters’ tables, beggar kids who ran up every time the Jeep slowed down, and people, people, people everywhere. Stem-faced Sikh policemen, complete with beards, turbans and truncheons, stood guard at government buildings, not hesitating to use the sticks upon anyone who didn’t pay them heed.
And beyond all this, as far as I could see up and down the muddy river, rose a granite wall of magnificent colonial buildings: banking institutions, customs houses, hotels, private clubs, government offices, foreign consulates-buildings with clock towers, columns and domes, powerful and elegant-so un-Chinese.
It was the Opium Wars that changed Shanghai forever. As we drove through the streets, I could hear the voices of Roger and the students in Peking echoing in my ears. The Opium Wars erupted and China lost to the West. In 1842, the British imposed upon China the Treaty of Nanking that paved the way for the opening of Shanghai to the world. A British gunboat was the first ship to sail up the Huangpu; it hoisted the British flag over the city, and declared Shanghai a free port where all foreigners could enjoy “free” access and extraterritorial rights. Chinese justice, however, did not apply. The official languages became English, French, German and Russian, but not Chinese. But for how long? The cannons of Mao Tse-tung were roaring in the hills not too far away.
We followed Nanjing Road with its thronged sidewalks, past European-style shops, cheap Chinese garment shops and clothing stores, magnificent hotels like the Park Hotel, colonial mansions behind high wrought-iron fences, and terraced houses in densely populated side-streets. We finally came to Main Headquarters. The chief saluted the duty officer, handed him a brown envelope containing my orders and left. He wished me luck.
I learned from the duty officer that the Marines had evacuated Tsingtao. With the exception of Charley Company, 3rd Marines, who were living aboard the USS Chilton, a transport ship in Shanghai, the others were on their way home, and all our records were sent to San Diego with them. Until my files could be forwarded, or until some staff officer decided what to do with me, I would be attached to Casualty Company. I explained briefly what had happened in Loh Shan, and that I had been with the MPs in Tsingtao. He looked at me with a distant stare in his eyes. As an afterthought, I mentioned that I spoke Chinese and had been to the language school in Peking, and that was the reason I was sent to the Loh Shan Mountains.
“Language school in Peking,” he said and his expression changed. “A coincidence. There’s another Marine in Headquarters who went to the language school too.”
“Who is that?” I asked, trying hard to think who it might be. “Cpl. Gilbert,” he replied.
Cpl. Gilbert-he was the last person I expected to meet in Shanghai. I hadn’t seen him since Tsingtao, after we left Peking. He was only in Tsingtao a short while before he was reassigned to Tientsin, after the 29th broke up. I was sure Gilbert would like to know about Melanowski. He and Melanowski had become good friends in Peking, and he was quite concerned about him. He had doubts about Melanowski’s relationship with Monique. “If he wants to shack up with her, that’s fine,” he said back then. “But to marry her, that’s something else.” Gilbert would be surprised to learn that Melanowski did marry Monique, and he got his discharge in China and landed a job with UNRA.
I told the duty officer I’d like to see my old buddy Gilbert, and he offered to get word to him that I was in Shanghai. He then assigned me to my quarters and told me I would have to make a report later. Shanghai was in its own time of troubles and there were many other pressing matters that had to be settled first.
At the paymasters I got an advancement against my pay, and I had just returned from the quartermaster’s with new khakis and greens when Gilbert came charging into the room. He was beaming! For a full five minutes we kept firing questions at one another, hardly giving the other a chance to answer. He was, of course, surprised to hear that Melanowski got his discharge and married Monique. “I never thought it would happen,” he said. “I guess I was wrong.” The question that neither could answer was, what happened to Melanowski and his wife now that the Marines had pulled out of Tsingtao. Maybe he was in Shanghai. I asked Gilbert if he knew anything about Little Lew and Ming-Lee, but he couldn’t tell me. “Hell, you forgot, but I’ve been stationed in Tientsin,” he said. A thought came to him and his face then lit up like one of those folly little cherubs you see in those old religious paintings. “There is one place where you can find all the answers. They can tell you anything you want to know about what’s happening in China, and about anyone you want to know.”
“Where’s that?” I asked. I thought he was going to say he knew someone in headquarters. He completely threw me off.
“At Blood Alley,” he said.
“Blood Alley! You gotta be kidding!” I replied.
“Not at all,” he said. “Everything happens at Blood Alley, and there’s always some drunk or bargirl around who has the latest scuttlebutt, the straight scoop.”
“What the hell are we waiting for?” I said.
Rescued at Last
. . . . .
We sailed following off shore winds to the south. I helped at the helm and learned to adjust the rudder, which at sea, is lowered down the trunk and extends well below the keel. Learning to set the sails was quite a chore. I ran around the deck like a Keystone Cop trying to help. With lateen sails, no reefing is needed. When the wind got too brisk, as it did the second night aboard, the crew simply Jet the halyard go, and the weight of the sails and battens brought the sails down into the topping lifts.
When the wind picked up I became uneasy, but the crew didn’t seem worried. My concern was the masts and rigging. The masts were extremely heavy and built up with heavy stiffeners bound around with iron bands. The masts carried no stays whatsoever. They just stuck up in the air on their own. Why they didn’t come crashing down is a mystery. The first time we tacked, I fully expected to see the masts lift right out of the boat as the heavy yard swings across with a rattle and crash. It didn’t. Jibbing without stays was an easy procedure. The secret I figured was the even distribution of the weight all up and down the mast.
I was shocked out of my wits my first night aboard, when they started to tack to change our course. It had to do with superstition, and no one is more superstitious than Chinese sailors. Everything they do is governed by their wishes to please the gods. It is necessary that much propitiation be made to them. “Chinese paying plenty chin chin joss,” one of the crew explained to me in his Pidgin English. The date of departure is always governed by feng-shui, a curious Chinese custom which is supposed to be the influence of the wind and water spirits for good or ill. We anchored in one cove and I expected to set sail the next morning but our feng-shui wasn’t right and we had to wait another two days. But the worst time to observe feng-shui was at night. Unless you know what to expect, it can be frightening.
It was one of those black evil nights when it was impossible to see hardly more than a fathom beyond the bow. It was like sailing into a void. Chinese junkmen seem to be able to see in the dark. But this night was unusual. The crew was up to something. Suddenly the silence was broken and the skies lighted up. Flares were flying and streams of sparks from their tails fell into the sea, lighting up the surface of the water in brilliant displays of color. At this signal the crew without warning began beating gongs. The noise they made was shattering. While some of the crew beat gongs the rest of the men “came about,” tacking and changing our course. I was certain the procedure was to signal the other junks that a maneuver was taking place, but the mate explained in his pidgin that it was to frighten away the devils of the sea. We had to give them warning, he said, and not bump into them, and make them angry. The kids thought this was great fun and ran up and down the deck shouting with joy, waiting for the next time we came about.
In Tsingtao when I visited the docks I saw hundreds of rats running up and down the quay, taking cover in the godowns whenever someone approached. I was sure the junks were alive with rats. Imagine my surprise to find there were none. The reason I learned, after one tasty meal, was that the crew trapped and ate them. I remembered our first winter in Tsingtao. We had restaurants we favored, and one was near the waterfront area. We liked one dish in particular that the management always served us. It was a meat dish, very small pieces, cooked in garlic. It had a name but I forgot what it was. One evening, when it was warmer than usual, Stevenson went to open the window, which, when he did, found it faced a small courtyard. That wasn’t the only thing that it faced. On lines that stretched from one wall to the other, much like clothes lines for hanging laundry, were skins strung out on hangers and hung to dry. There were hundreds of them, and they were rat skins. The specialty of the house was rat meat. That was our last time to dine in that restaurant.
Junkmen burned endless packets of joss below deck as well as topside, and at times the smoke got so dense below deck I had to run above deck to get a breath of fresh air. The mate in his pidgin explained that every junk carried its own particular little joss idol on the poop. When the weather grew foul they moved the idols below deck. Much burning of silver joss paper representing sycee took place before them. I soon noticed when we met with bad weather, an extra supply of joss paper was burned, and when we safely anchored in that cove, the crew lit more joss and beat gongs.
After all my time in China, I still found it difficult to squat for any length of time. It was most difficult aboard “Sea Wolf’ during meal times. We all squatted around the wok, and waited in turn as our gruel was ladled out into our bowls filled with steaming rice. There were no spoons, only chopsticks, and with these we had to push the food into our mouths. Dried fish was served every second day.
I couldn’t complain. They fed me and kept me alive. After a week I was almost one of the family, which got me thinking. If a patrol boat came now, would they still tie me to a chain and toss me over board? The chain was where it always was on deck, and I thought about it every time I passed it. It wasn’t a very happy thought. I made up my mind. If it even looked like they might have thoughts about dumping me over board, I would drive over the side and take my chances with the sea.
I spent hours sitting at the bow, aside the anchor. It was a massive single fluke, wooden anchor with shanks twelve or more feet in length, weighted down with stones tied in place. As we plowed through oncoming seas, our painted eyes below on both side of the bow, “seeing the way” for us to go, my thoughts would not rest. What was Stevenson doing now? Studying to be an officer no doubt. Terry, did he and his new wife make it to Kansans City, and was he a watch repair man now? And there were the others. They were pleasant thoughts, reminiscing about them, but not so pleasant were my thoughts of Hecklinger and Sgt. Grander. Melanowski was lucky; he got out. He could have been with us. There were the others too on that patrol, and I couldn’t even remember their names. Try as I did, I couldn’t even remember their faces. Little Lew was different. His smiling face was constantly before me. What was he doing now?
And Ming-Lee, where was she now? Maybe Roger got her out of Tsingtao. Certainly, with Roger’s help the communists wouldn’t do harm to her. I pictured Roger in uniform. He didn’t have to hide it in his closet any more. Maybe he would be on one of the patrol boats, and they would sail up and I would call out to him. Wishful thinking. He might be another Judas and say he didn’t know me.
Sitting on the bow gave me time to reflect, and I imagined-no, dreamed-all sorts of things. Would Shanghai be the last stronghold? Would the Marines fight to defend the city? Our navy must be standing off shore, with her heavy guns pointed to the shore. I pictured those ships, the battle cruisers and destroyers. They called the destroyers “Tin Cans.” I even pictured one now, on the high seas, coming straight for us. Its bow rose high out of the water, and then dropped deep into a trough. I saw it rise again, and then I heard the junkmen yelling. Low and behold, this was no illusion, no dream, not a thing imagined. It was a real US Navy Destroyer followed by two destroyer escorts. The junkmen began waving, and I quickly stood up, removed my dungaree jacket and began waving it above my head.
Like us, they were running south toward Shanghai, two hundred yards off our starboard beam. I could see a deck officer on the bridge with binoculars looking at us. One minute the ships were on our beam, and the next they were leaving us behind. I waved even more frantically now. My hopes were dashed. They must not have seen me. Suddenly the destroyer began flashing signals to the other ships. The two escorts stopped. The destroyer did a sweeping turn and came back towards us. It came to within a hundred yards, and I could see sailors lowering a whaleboat from its davits. They were coming for me.
I was jubilant, elated, thrilled, but also saddened to be leaving my new friends. The children lined the deck, and each of the crew in turn shook my hand. I went over the side and stepped into the whaleboat. I waved my last good-bye to Hai Lang and her crew. The next morning we arrived in Shanghai.
JUNKS ON THE HORIZON
. . . . .
In less than a minute I was numb with cold, so cold I couldn’t breathe. My lungs refused to function. I desperately beat on my chest with both my fists, and once I started breathing again, while still gasping for air, I swam as hard and as furiously as I could toward the junks. I had to keep my blood pumping. There was no turning back now. In the water, I could not see the junks and had no way of telling if they lost their wind. What if they had wind? They would be gone by the time I got there. I could only continue, swimming with all I had, hoping for the best. It was all or nothing.
The will to survive is incredible. I had but one thought, and that was that I had to make it. I knew that once I let the thought of failure take over, my body would quit. I thought of myself as the weightlifter, standing before a bar with more weight than I had ever lifted before. I had to psych myself into it. I had to tell myself, over and over, that I could do it. Once I picked up that bar, it was my mind that took command. I had to listen to my mind and not my body.
I could see the high rise of the peninsula in the distance, and I knew I had to swim to the right of that. I kept going, swimming frantically toward an unseen object. I had my dungaree coat and trousers rolled up and strapped across my back, and I was about to discard them when I looked up and only a hundred yards ahead were the three junks, without wind, gliding slowly southward. I could see seamen along the gunwales working long oars. I swam harder. The first junk was beyond my reach. I struck out for the second one in line.
The man at the oar on the second junk saw me, and in seconds, dozens of Chinese appeared at the railing, all shouting and waving. They could see that I wasn’t going to make it and pointed to the third and last junk. I was back at the gym, my hands on the bar, and in one mighty grunt I lifted with all my worth, the bar came up, and in my last surge of strength I had to press the weight above my head. I could do it, I told myself. My hands reached out and touched the side of the junk. The hull was all black, coated with tar and pitch, and at the waterline and below was a sheath of barnacles. There was nothing to grab on to. I could hear voices shouting to me from above, but they spoke in a strange Chinese dialect. They dropped a rope over the side, and I reached for it, and missed it. I was near the stem now, and the junk kept slipping by. I made another lunge for the rope but again I couldn’t reach it. The junk slipped by and I was now looking up at the high stem silhouetted against the sky. The junk was leaving me! It couldn’t stop, nor could it tum around. Like me, it was at the mercy of wind and the sea. I dropped the weight and it came crashing to the floor.
Something hit me square in the back of my head with a thud. It was the bow of a sampan. I hadn’t noticed but the junk was towing a sampan on a long tether. The sampan was low to the water and in a half daze I was able to reach up and grab hold of the starboard gunwale, and there I clung. The crew pulled the sampan up alongside the junk and two men jumped aboard, and I was aware of hands reaching down and taking hold of me. I could feel them holding my arms above the elbows and pulling me out of the water. A dozen more hands hoisted me from the sampan to the deck of the junk. Everything was hazy before my eyes. Faces in a blur were looking down at me. I could feel that I was being wrapped in blankets, and someone was forcing warm tea into my mouth.
I coughed and struggled but they kept pouring. I felt warmness closing in around me and sleep overtaking me. I didn’t have to struggle any more.
I lay there for the longest time, not wanting to move. It was daylight, the next morning. Luck had been with me again. But my rejoicing was only a fleeting moment. Now that I was free, my thoughts centered on how I could get back to my outfit? I surmised that during the night we had passed beyond Tsingtao and were still sailing southward, most likely to Shanghai. I continued to lie there, thinking of my predicament. My eyes took in everything around me.
A junk, what a noble, time-defying vessel! In Tsingtao I climbed aboard a few junks, all moored in the harbor, and I wondered how it would be sailing aboard them. Now I was finding out. Like most other Westerners, I questioned their seaworthiness, especially after seeing all those wrecked junks littering the China Sea on our voyage from Guam to Tsingtao. But maybe I wasn’t giving them the credit due, for that was after the typhoon had nearly wrecked the US Navy as well. I also remembered reading Richard Halliburton, the adventurer who went around the world doing crazy things, like swimming the Bosporus and climbing the Matterhorn, and writing about them. They were great, exciting books, especially for a farm kid to read. But it was a junk, Halliburton’s last adventure that finally did him in. In Hong Kong he outfitted a junk and set sail in 193 8 across the Pacific bound for the World Exhibition in Seattle, but he never made it. He, his junk and his crew, were lost at sea, never to be seen or heard from again. Junks after that got a bad name.
The junk that was carrying me to freedom was named Hai Lang, meaning “Sea Wolf,” a fitting name right out of a Jack London novel. I wondered why London never wrote anything about the Far East, and yet in his youth he had served aboard a sealer in the seas around Japan.
Hai Lang must have been around since Kublai Khan’s day. It was ancient, and it was a miracle it was still afloat. As I was soon to find out, the crew had to man the bilge pumps hourly to keep the vessel afloat. I didn’t know this, of course, as I lay there on deck, amidship, between two stacks of charcoal that were bundled and tied with hemp rope. When I first opened my eyes, I was uncertain where I was. I could see the masts towering above me. The heavy, cumbersome lateen sails strained at their halyards. After my eyes focused in, I became conscious of sounds: the sea lapping against the hull and the creaking of the masts and rigging. No, it was more than creaking; it was groaning. The entire ship was groaning, straining to keep moving and alive. And then came the smells, a hodgepodge of everything: burnt charcoal, fish, hemp rope, tar, the salt air. Mingling with all these smells was the aroma of food being cooked somewhere forward.
Gradually I sat up, and then very unsteadily I rose to my feet. I hadn’t noticed but several young children had been watching over me, and now they ran off toward the stern shouting in Chinese. I recognized the dialect. It was Cantonese, much different than Mandarin. Cantonese is guttural, harsh, and unpleasant to foreign ears. Mandarin is soft sounding in comparison. The two are as opposite as French and Italian, although their writing is the same.
Near to where I was bedded down, I noticed a six-foot length of heavy chain. At the time I thought nothing about it, but I later learned it had been dragged there for a purpose. If a communist patrol boat had approached, and I was discovered aboard, it would have been curtains for the junk and all those aboard. The patrol boat would have sunk the vessel on the spot without hesitation. The remedy was to tie me to the chain and push me overboard, a simple solution for the junkmen, but not for me.
The children had hardly gone when a horde of Chinese appeared, and at once I could see they were all from the same family clan. Young children scrambled between the legs of their elders. There were old men, stooped and bent, and old women with tiny feet. They all wore loose fitting clothing, dark blue, with wrap-around belts and sashes. The younger men, obviously the working crew, wore turbans and bandanas wrapped around their heads. Without exception, they were all barefoot, even the old women. When they saw me, and smiled, I had never seen so much gold in any one place except perhaps at a gold shop in Peking. Their gold teeth had to be their biggest investments.
The junks were up from the southern provinces, and were carrying home cargoes of charcoal for cooking and heating fires and dried fish for the market. The cargo of fish was stored below deck. After our initial meeting and introductions, I was at liberty to look about the ship. She was divided into compartments, five or maybe six, each one sealed off from the other. If they touched upon a point or rock and got holed, only one part of the vessel would fill and the others would remain dry. If I ever were to build a boat, I thought, that was the way I’d do it.
A loft poop made for comfortable quarters. The junk was obviously overcrowded, old men, young men, women and children, all jumbled together, eating and drinking, playing, smoking and of course gambling, in its nooks on deck or in its depths far below deck. This is the way they live, for months and years, at sea, in ports, in typhoons, in calms; they live quite happily, knowing no other life.
I soon marveled bow at ease everyone aboard was. The youngest toddlers were tethered to the ship, with only enough line to reach the rails. How the lifestyle of these simple sea people differed from those farmer people I had seen living ashore. They are born on junks, grow up, live and die on junks. During this process from birth to death there is nothing they have not learned about the vessel or the sea.
From Temporary Relief to a Labor Camp
. . . . .
The next move was unexpected. It came as a surprise to everyone gathered there, to the villagers, to the rebels, and to me especially. The Red Army officer walked up to the rebel leader, raised his hand and slapped him as hard as he could across his face. The slap was so hard it jolted the man’s head to one side. The officer then began shouting, at the top of his voice, and while he did, his men moved in with lowered rifles. They quickly disarmed the rebels and marched them under guard into the city. The officers ordered his men to untie me. This done, he spoke to me in English. “You Melican?” he asked. His English was barely understandable, but he wanted to impress his men so I answered in English.
“Yes, I am American,” I said.
“Me reglet you flend become dead,” he said. He was shocked to hear there were but a few of us, and not a whole company as he was lead to believe. He said he would send men to retrieve their bodies. He also explained that it was not advisable for me to try to escape. My fear should not be him or his men; I should fear the masses. He said the Chinese people would kill me given the chance. In his broken English and with many arm gestures he made it understood that the Chinese people, to prove their new allegiance to Chairman Mao Tse-tung, would tum on me. He picked up a stone from the ground waved it above his head, and then brought it down to his forehead, banging it against his temple a couple of times. He followed by slumping down, in pretense that he was mortally wounded. His men laughed and he laughed with them. He threw the stone down. His message was obvious. The Chinese would beat me and stone me to death, like they had done to the Japanese officer at the Sokuku Geisha House. I didn’t find it as humorous as he was portraying it, but I grimaced and smiled, and the men broke into laughter again.
They locked me up for the night in a mud building with but one door. In the morning I was awakened by a guard and taken to a Russian truck and herded aboard along with a dozen Chinese men. I looked for the officer who spoke some English but he was nowhere around. The other prisoners in the truck were not peasants; I assumed them to be political prisoners. The rebels were nowhere in sight.
By evening we had reached our destination, a work camp in a village that faced an island a few hundred yards off shore. I remember seeing the island before on one of my weekend drives. It was a coal storage island. The guards shoved us into a compound with other prisoners, more than a hundred, all were Chinese; I was the only white man. They spoke Cantonese and I was unable to communicate with them. By their dark suntanned skin I took them to be junk boat men, probably captured around the Formosa Strait. The communists were attempting to block off the strait to keep Chiang’s forces from crossing and regrouping on the island.
The men who guarded the camp were communist soldiers, mere kids, clothed in heavy quilted uniforms. We were instructed to sit on the ground, and after waiting an hour or more we were told to form a line and strip down to the waist. The line led into a shabby waterfront building. Once inside the door I saw what was taking place. A man in a soiled white apron held in his hand an instrument with tiny needles protruding from one end. The instrument was attached to an electrical cord. A man next to him sat at a table with a ledger before him and was marking names and numbers in the book with a quill pen. The first man in the white apron was tattooing the men in line. He would dip the instrument into a shallow tray filled with black ink, tattoo a number in Chinese characters on each of the prisoner’s left forearm and then tell the number to the scribe. He used a much soiled rag to wipe away the blood and excessive ink. He would study the pattern briefly, like an artist looking at his easel, and then call for the next man to step up. The process took less than five minutes per man, and the results were frightful-crude Chinese marks, nothing at all like the hula dancer on Smitty’s arm.
The pain was far less than I expected, and I was pleased that my wound had bled a lot, to keep it clean, but still I could only think of some horrid disease that might come from the unsterilized needles. My arm pained during the night but the winter cold, with only a towel for a cover, was far worse. A dozen of us huddled together on a hard wooden pallet two feet above ground. I wondered how many nights I would have to endure this torture.
The next morning, before light, we were ordered outside and each man was fed a bowl of watery rice gruel, my first food since being captured. We were then led to sampans and ferried to the island across the narrow channel. Once we arrived I knew instantly our mission. We had to transport a mountain of coal on the island to flat bottom scows lined up along the shore. It seemed Mao Tse-tung was preparing for a major naval assault against the Nationalists and his ships needed coal to run their steam engines.
The majority of Chinese cargo vessels I had seen in Tsingtao harbor were powered by steam, and coal was needed to tum the turbines in the steam engines.
Coal was brought down from the north by trains, guarded at first by Japanese troops and later by the US Marines, to Tientsin and Chinwangtao, and from these ports it was shipped to coaling stations along the coast and to Shanghai to run their industries.
I thought hoeing corn and stacking bay on the farm back home was tough work but nothing could compare to what now faced me. It was backbreaking labor to carry baskets of coal balanced on poles from the island and unload them on to the scows. The most difficult part was negotiating narrow planks that lead from the island to the scows. At first I could hardly lift the heavy loads; balancing a basket to evenly distribute a load took skill and practice.
Our living conditions were deplorable. Sleeping quarters were mud and plaster barracks, with hard wooden pallets for beds. The rags we used for bed coverings had never been washed. Nor were we given fresh water for baths. In a few days time we were as black as the coal we carried. At night when it was totally black in our quarters, only the whites of our eyes and our teeth showed.
Fortunately, after a week the coal supply ran out and I was sent to help fishermen work their nets at fishing grounds up the coast. Conditions improved immediately. I liked anything to do with the sea, just being around water, and I welcomed the change.
Over the years I had gone as often as I could to the beaches north of the city, and there I watched these weather-hardened fishermen at their trade. I was there when US sailors, living-it-up at a beer party lost their Jeep in the incoming tide, and the fishermen refused to help them save their vehicle. The sailors had broken their fishing lines and laughed about it. And now I was going to work with these fishermen. Mao needed food to supply his army, and fishing fleets were called upon to double their catches. Every available hand was put to work.
I had learned to scull a sampan, and so I was assigned to work the nets at sea, while teams of men on shore pulled in the nets. I soon won the favor of the fishermen. It often happened when a sampan laid out a net, it got tangled on its floats, and, of course, it had to be freed. It took time and slowed down the operation. The Chinese preferred to free tangled nets by pulling them back into the sampan and working on them. I made their work easier by going over the side of the sampan and untangling the nets while they were in the water. The water was freezing cold, but if I went in and out as quickly as I could, it wasn’t too bad.
The fishermen taught me not only to perfect my sculling techniques but they also taught me the art of catching fish. I learned to lay a net, and to coil a line. Sometimes I gave a hand on shore pulling in a net, but most often I worked from a sampan. Once the nets were in, I learned to sort the catch.
In the evenings we sat around in abandoned huts left by the US military and cooked up baskets of small fish-heads, guts, tails, scales and all-in great circular frying pans called woks. With rice we had more than enough protein. A month, and then two passed. It was coming on April and the weather was getting warmer. I was kept busy during the day, but come nightfall the world closed in around me. Had China fallen? Had the Marines withdrawn? I thought about my friends. What had become of Melanowski? He was a driver for UNRA and maybe UNRA had been disbanded? Did he go back to the US with his wife? I thought about the others, but mostly I thought about Ming-Lee. I thought about her every minute.
One night, as we huddled around a fire, I overheard a Red soldier who had returned from Tsingtao talking to another soldier. He brought news that the Marines were pulling out. Flags were going up all over town to welcome The People’s Army. They were being welcomed not as conquerors but as liberators. There was no violence, no executions. It was a peaceful take over. He told how beggars and lepers were rounded up, but he didn’t know what was happening to them once they were. He told how the bars, cabarets, bordellos and other establishments that catered to the West were closed and boarded up. He told incidents about how their windows were smashed and tables and chairs tossed out into the streets.
What would become of Ming-Lee? I felt sick at heart. Because of me she was in Tsingtao. She could have been safe in Shanghai. Roger had warned me that this would happen. I wanted to get back to Tsingtao, but I remembered what the Red Army officer had told me, that the masses would turn on me. Still, I had to get back to my outfit. I had to break free. I could make an attempt to reach the south where the People’s Army had not reached. I would make my escape, and I devised a plan.
A long peninsula to the north of the cove where we were fishing jutted far out to sea. Junks coming down the coast came around the peninsula but in almost every case they would lose their wind. Their lateen sails went slack. Usually at this point the crew took out long poles which they used as oars, and by walking along the gunwales, they propelled the junk forward, ever so slowly. They continued thus, until they caught the wind again. Our fishermen said many of the junks continued on south as far as Shanghai, and some to Hong Kong. If I could only make it to one of those junks. It would be a gamble. From a sampan it would be a two- to three-mile swim.
I calculated how long it took a junk to round the tip before it lost its wind. If l could tend the net in a sampan at the farthest point out at sea, I could reduce my swim by half a mile, maybe more. I would have to take a chance that the junk people would help a lone swimmer at sea. But first I would need to get rid of my tattoo prison number.
I began to prepare. With rags I collected grease left in the bottom of the woks and placed them under the floorboards in a sampan. I had read somewhere that when preparing to swim the English Channel, swimmers covered their bodies with grease in order to keep warm. I would do the same.
When a morning catch was good, the nets went out in the afternoon again. It was often dark when they were pulled in. The afternoon would be the best time for me to make my attempt. By morning a junk would be far gone, hopefully with me aboard. The fishermen might think 1 had drowned. I started spending more time in the afternoon sculling a sampan to check the nets. After a while the fishermen didn’t take notice of me. I tried to be everywhere at once to confuse them. I tried to spend more time in the water, which was not easy.
Now I had to get rid of the tattoo. I couldn’t let anyone see what I was doing. I started staying up at night while the others went to sleep. They got used to me fiddling around with the fire. In one of the wrecked skeletons of a sampan down the beach I found a spike about six inches long. I cleaned it up until it shined. I then took a long piece of board and drove the spike with a rock into the end. I soaked the board in water, making it as fire resistant as possible, and then by sticking the tip of the spike into hot coals I was able to heat it up until it turned red hot. I took a deep breath and slowly burned away the tattoo. I was afraid the stench of burning flesh might awake the others but fortunately they slept through it. I made sure I kept my arm covered from then on.
My chance came one afternoon a few days after I got rid of my tattoo. The catch was good that morning, and we completed laying out a second net in the afternoon. At mid-afternoon three seagoing junks, all three masted, appeared coming around the tip of the peninsula. It was now or never. I announced that I would scull out and check the net. No one suspected a thing. I sculled as fast as I could to the far end of the net and tied the sampan by a bowline to a float on the net. I took the rags from under the floorboards and rubbed down my body with grease. I then slipped over the side, and began my two-mile swim to freedom.
In the Nationalist capital of Nanking, Generalissimo Chiang K’ai-shek, who had fought the communists for more than 20 years, announced that he was retiring as president of China, with hope that his departure would bring an end to the hostilities. Li Sung-jen, who was named acting president, announced his caretaker government was ready to negotiate a peace on the basic terms laid down earlier by communist leader Mao Tse-tung. In Tsingtao, the US Marine force of 8,000 were withdrawing. I knew none of this, of course.