Thursday, March 29, 2018

Yangtze River Patrol

History Book Club
The U.S. Navy in Asia
Wednesday, March 28. 2018

Wednesday, March 28, 2018:  The U.S. Navy in Asia. The Asiatic Squadron. The Yangtze Patrol. Patrolling the Philippine Islands, “China Sailors”, World War II, The Seventh Fleet. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]

Tolley, RADM Kemp; Yangtze Patrol: The U.S. Navy in China, Annapolis, MD: Bluejacket Books, U.S. Naval Institute Press, 1971

            Kemp Tolley spins out the sea stories one after another as be tells the story of the United States Navy in China for a century, from 1854 to 1946.

            China in the 19th century was really the wild west, and European governments staked out territory all over China, paying off local officials and then conducting trade from one end of the country to the other.  Before the age of rails, trade moved by the rivers, as it had for centuries.

            China, a land whose culture was flourishing long before these Europeans, was now in effect a colony of European nations, a humiliating condition for a proud people.

            As European nations worked out treaties with Chinese officials, their navies followed, and they rented out storage sheds (godowns) and built housing and clubs and playing fields for the crews, and even horse race tracks.

            Where our American businessmen and missionaries went, the Navy followed, with small, shallow draft gunboats that could sail up the Yangtze River from Shanghai all the way to Chungking, 1700 miles inland.

            Shanghai, (Above the Sea) on the coast, was built on the mouth of the Whangpoo River, and in the middle of the 19th century there were 3,000,000 Chinese and some 50,000 Europeans and Americans living there.

            Just upstream was Chinkyiang (to Pacify the River), the first treaty port on what foreigners called the Yangtze, but Chinese called this marvelous waterway various names at different locations.
            Next upstream was Nanking (now Nanjing) (Southern capital), then Wuhu, and next Kiukiang (Nine rivers meeting at one place), now called Jiujiang,

            Next was Hankow (now Wuhan) (At the mouth of the Han river), 600 miles inland. Then Shasi (now Shashi) (The market on the sand), and then Changsha (Sand Spit), actually 85 miles from the Yangtze.

            Next upstream was I Chang (now Yichang) (Can be prosperous), 400 miles upstream of Hankow,1000 miles from the mouth.

            Finally, deep in the province of Szechwan, and above beautiful but treacherous gorges which made river traffic dangerous, was Chungking (now Chongqing) (Happy Again), the World War II headquarters of Chiang Kai Shek and his Nationalist Army.

Map of Yangtze River in China

            American merchantmen beat a path to China with clipper ships in the early 1800s, and our government soon began to send U.S. Navy ships over to protect U.S. interests and American citizens.  The industrial revolution urged Americans to find new markets, there was brisk business in shipping tea and carrying Chinese coolies to America to work on railroads and gold mines. With some five million tons of sailing merchantmen, America was becoming as powerful as England on the high seas.

            China in those days was filthy, smelly and loaded with diseases.  Each city and town had its taotai, who was the head man, connected loosely at least to Peking and the Emperor. The local taotai had the authority to punish anyone, even to execute them. This man worked in concert with a cast of characters who could get anything for you, for a price.

            There were occasional revolutions, uprisings and riots here and there.  There were local firebrands who would periodically start trouble with the foreigners, and the navy gunboats would show up, fire some rounds into the crowd, perhaps land a platoon of Marines, and quiet things down.

            American Navy activity began with shallow draft gunboats, because that was all that could sail over the shallow parts of the river. These boats had side paddle wheels, and when they appeared in various ports the Chinese were thrilled because they had not often seen boats belching smoke before. 
            It was in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay in Japan and demanded that the Japanese grant America the privilege of entering Japan to conduct trade.  We had already made arrangements up and down the coast of China, and this opened up Japan to the western world.  Britain, Russia, France and Holland followed soon after.

            Perry often sailed into Shanghai, but he didn’t like China.  It was dirty and disorganized, there was graft and corruption.  In Japan, everything was clean and orderly.

            I joined the Navy in 1953, just a few years after the last “River rat” had come home from duty in China, and we heard many tales of these men because it was a world of wonder for a sailor. The gunboats spent much time in port, so there was plenty of time for sailors to explore the Chinese cities on the Yangtze. Wherever there were sailors, there were bars and girls, and some men took up life ashore with a Chinese girl.  Aboard ship they could hire boys to cook their breakfast, and to do their chores. 
            When the Yangtze patrol started in the middle of the 19th century, it was different. Sailors arose at the firing of a reveille gun at sunrise, and went up on deck to begin holystoning, which involved using a large stone attached to a mop handle to scrub the teak decks until they were shining. Then at four bells, 8 o’clock they had breakfast, which included spirits of one-third of a half pint. Then the men washed up and got on their uniforms for inspection, at 10 a.m. At noon was dinner, with more grog, and then work al afternoon.

CDR Kemp Tolley (1908-2000)

            When Tolley gets to the early 1930s you sense that he is not writing history any longer but telling his own story on the Yangtze Patrol.  There are the sailors with the Russian girl friend back in Shanghai, the young naval officers sweating out operating a gunboat in the Yangtze with only six inches of water under the keel, or heading up into the gorges toward Chungking against raging currents, offloading coal to reduce the draft, hiring coolies in a junk to carry the excess coal… or trying to manage paying the crew and purchasing food and supplies with a collection of Chinese yuan, British pounds, Mexican silver,  and American greenbacks and goldbacks.

            In between, there’s the occasional riot or revolution, sandwiched with elegant little parties with officers and their ladies, and businessmen and wives, from Britain, France, Holland, Russia, Japan and Germany. There’s wheeling and dealing, with a whole string of shady characters, Chinese and foreign.

            Tolley’s detailed account of the voyage of USS Palos up the Yangtze to Chungking in 1934, pitting her old, coal-fired boilers and creaking hull against roaring, rock-strewn  rapids is a tale of marvelous seamanship, facing danger that had wrecked many ships and killed thousands.
            The end really came slowly for the Yangtze River Patrol, but Tolley reports the Japanese attack on USS Panay in 1938 in vivid detail. The attack was a monumental screwup by the Japanese, and it showed terribly poor communication between the otherwise efficient Imperial Japanese Navy and Army.  They didn't want to get America in their war just yet.  That was to come in 1941.

            I first sailed into Hong Kong in 1958, and much of what one reads of life along the Yangtze River was still lurking in the shadows: the little Chinese boys who, if a sailor tossed a Hong Kong dollah (worth 10 cents) into the water near the ship, would dive in and collect it.  There was the No Squeak Shoe Company, where sailors would have shoes made to order during a week in port--- shoes that would dissolve in salt water after leaving port.   And Mary Soo, a venerable legend, with an unknown number of women operating out of small sampans, who would paint the hulls of weather-beaten U.S. Navy ships in return for all the garbage from the galley…  And the chief petty officers or sailors who were especially skilled at cumshaw, and could arrange for little men to come aboard and repair a sheet metal ventilator for a can of ham…. and always, the sleazy, shady characters who could get you just about anything, for a few HK dollars.

            This book is truly a delightful story.


Mary Soo's sampan, 1957

S.W. Coulbourn


Wednesday, April 25, 2018:  A look at the world and times of Jane Austen. Rockport Public Library is celebrating “Austen in April”.  Read about the life of Austen, or focus upon England in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy at that time, the gentle English world Jane lived in. Feel free to read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, or any of her novels to gather a sense of Jane and her world. [Suggested by Christiann Guibeau]

Wednesday, May 30, 2018:  A History of Public Relations. Managing the news, propaganda, image-building. Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels. Ancient persuasive techniques. How information, false. Tainted or factual, can be used to elect leaders, start wars, and more. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, June 27, 2018: The History of Language. Can you understand the English spoken by Chaucer? [WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote; The droghte  of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich  licour,]  Choose any language and learn how it grew from its ancient roots, how it absorbed other languages, how it spread, and its variations in use in the world today. Did you know that only one in 40 Italians spoke Italian in 1861?  What language is most widely spoken in the world today? How are languages changing in modern times? [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, July 25, 2018:  Immigration to America. How did we all get here?  Read about the history of immigration, at any stage – from first settlers to the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; victims of the Irish Potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Europeans suffering poverty in their countries, Africans brought here as slaves, Chinese brought here to build railroads; Fugitives of war everywhere; Mexicans and Central Americans coming to pick crops. Read about immigration policies and national drives to keep out or encourage immigration. [Suggested by Walt Frederick.]

Wednesday, August 29, 2018.  Fighting the U.S. Constitution.  Times and events when the Americans and even Presidents went against the freedoms in our Constitution. E, g, Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Indian Removal Act under Jackson, Mexican American War, suspension of Habeas Corpus under Lincoln, Red Scare in 1920, McCarthyism in 1950’s, and Patriot Act 2001.  [Suggested by William Tobin]

Wednesday, September 26:  Religion and Politics in America. Religious impact in American political events. E.g.: Puritan Exceptionalism, justification of Slavery through the Bible, Abolition Movement, treatment of Native American Christianization movement, Justification of Imperialism’s Christianization mission. [Suggested by William Tobin]

Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment (Afro-American) at Fort Wagner

Wednesday, October 24, 2018.  (vice Oct. 31):  African American Warriors and their place in American History. From the American Revolution, during the Civil War to Korean War. E.g.: Contraband to Massachusetts 54th, Buffalo Soldiers and Native American Wars, Spanish American War and Truth about Battle of San Juan Hill, World War I and use of African American soldiers with French combat troops, World War II and Segregated all African American combat units: Armor, Transport, Tuskegee Airmen, Desegregation and Korean War.  [Suggested by William Tobin]

Wednesday, November 28, 2018: Guns in American History. E.g. American Revolution and the Minutemen; Going West with new technology: six guns, repeating rifles, Twentieth Century automatic weapons after World War I, : pistols, rifles, Tommy guns, The St. Valentine’s Massacres of 1929 and 2018. Control vs. freedom of gun use. and Machine Gun laws, mass shootings in America: rifles, pistols, military style weapons, Guns laws in 21st century America. [Suggested by William Tobin]

December 2018: No meeting.