Take China: The Last of the China Marines

Harold Stephens
Publication Date: 
July, 2003
List Price: 
366 pages

The occupation of China by US Marines both before World War II and after the war are part of our forgotten history. What little that has been written about the China Marines we find only as casual references in memoirs of retired generals and diplomats. Never have we heard the story as seen through the eyes of a young, unlettered Marine private who served in China after the war. "We were not loading ships to go home;" he wrote. His division was stationed on Guam after the battle of Okinawa, waiting to be sent home. "We were loading ships to go to China to repatriate the Japanese forces. That was the reason they gave, but there were other factors at hand which they didn't tell us. These we would find out for ourselves much later. All we knew now was that we were going to a foreign land we hardly knew existed, nor did we know exactly why we were going. We made no decisions, and controlled no destinies, not even our own. We were told to pack our gear, and to load the ships. That was all we knew."

When asked why he wrote a war book some 55 years after he experienced it, the author said, "I felt it was a story that had to be told. History is being re-written and facts are becoming lost. People today cannot understand why we dropped the atomic bomb, and how do you tell them the bomb actually saved lives. The world turmoil we are facing today is nothing new. As young Marines we faced terrorists, dealt with human rights and learned child abuse in its worst form. As young 17 and 18-year old Marines in China we faced a whole communist nation, and we did it alone. Not so long ago, when a US spy plane was forced to land in Red China, no one quite knew what to do. When the same thing happened in Tsingtao, China, 1945, no one asked what we had to do. We knew. Our company, some 250 Marines, boarded a Navy landing craft, sailed into the communist controlled Shantung Peninsula waters and stormed ashore to rescue our pilot and plane." TAKE CHINA is an autobiographical story about a complicated and confused world which was know to only a few, and almost forgotten today. Take China is a story of intrigue and betrayal, and a unique love story in which the author must choose between a Chinese bar girl and a White Russian woman looking for roots.

An Excerpt, Chapter 3, First Liberty

We spent the afternoon spit-shining our shoes and pressing our trousers and telling one another what we intended to do on our first liberty.

For the two days we had been in Tsingtao we has listened to talk about the best liberty spots in town. There was all kinds of scuttlebutt, good and bad. We heard one didn't have to venture too far. Right outside the main gate was Sophie & Marie's, a neat little bar that served great steak sandwiches. They said it was run by an old Russian woman named Sophie and her daughter Marie. That was as far as some of the Marines said they would go, until they heard the damn steak was really dog meat.

Even before we went ashore we knew the names of all the bars and taxi dance halls in town. We had our own intelligence source--the grapevine. Some guys said they were headed for the ABC Bar. "That's for American, British and Chinese," Terry said with certainty.

"No, the Tivoli," insisted Smitty, "that's the place to go. It's first class. They have tablecloths, and it's located in the center of Tsingtao, in the tallest building in the city," Other names were tossed out--Prime Club, New York Bar, and Cherry Club. The New York Bar, someone remarked, had White Russian hostesses. But the word was the best place in town was the EM Club--the Enlisted Man's Club.

"A good meal of steak, eggs and potatoes cost less than a buck at the EM Club," Hecklinger announced. "Drinks, for any kind of beer and five cents for any kind of liquor or mixed drink. I reckon that's fur me. It don't take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep."

We didn't talk about museums and art galleries; we talk about bars, eating and women, and not necessarily in that order. A heated subject was the bordellos; one we heard had a thousand women under one roof. We all agreed we had to go see what they had to offer and look over the merchandise, but the big question was, where would we go first? Some opted to check out the whorehouses first, while others couldn't make up their minds whether to get drunk or to eat first. Our machine gun squad elected to start at the EM Club first, and we would stick together. Buddies watched over buddies.

Clean-shaven, trousers with creases that could cut fingers, and faces that shined as bright as our shoes, we headed to the Fox Company office to pick up our liberty passes. We beamed with joy as we bounded into the office, but sadly Stevenson became crestfallen when he saw us. "You aren't gonna wait for me," he whimpered, threatening to tear up our passes. He had another hour before he got off duty.

"And waste an hour," we growled. We finally convinced him we'd meet him at the EM Club.

"As Stevenson handed me my pass, he said he had a message for me. "Col. Roston wants to see you at 0800 Monday morning," he said.

"What about?" I asked. Any time a marine had to see the Old Man it had to be for Office Hours, for some offense or fraction of the rules, but I hadn't done anything wrong, not anything that I knew about.

"He didn't say, but it must be something important. He had discussed it with the Exec."

"Why Monday? Why not now, or tomorrow morning?" I asked.

"You kidding. We go on a hike at 0600 tomorrow," Stevenson snapped. "But hey, buddy, we get liberty tomorrow when we get back from the hike, and all day Sunday too." I immediately forgot about Col. Roston and Office Hours.

The moment we stepped out the gate a half hundred rickshaw drivers, two lines of them that extended down the hill, besieged us. "Hey, Joe, hey Joe, rickshaw," they called out, holding on to their rickshaws with one hand and extending the other in pleading gestures. At the slightest signal from a Marine, they dashed forward. We made our selection, agreed to ten cents a ride, and in a phalanx like charging chariots shot down the hill to the EM Club.

We learned instantly that rickshaws are delicately balanced machines. A heavy-set Marine could lean back in his seat and lift a driver right off his feet. A couple Marines tried to put drivers in their seats and take over but it didn't work. It took skill, balance and practice to pull a rickshaw. We saw scores of other rickshaws down the road parked by the wayside. They were serving as shelters, even homes, for their owners. The drivers had covers over the tops, and many were stretched out fast asleep.

We were about to have our first real look at a Chinese city. There were no waving, cheering people now. What did greet us was reality. It was like looking through a kaleidoscope and not seeing colors but instead a scene of gloom and despair. To farm boys like most of us were, who had only seen Charleston, South Carolina, when we got out of Parris Island boot camp, this was shocking. We were too bewildered to make comments. No one cracked jokes or made wisecracks. We couldn't comment, only stare in disbelief. Every direction we turned there was something startling to see. We were awed by the Chinese, the confusion of traffic, the vehicles, the noise, the filth, the dilapidation, the smell. Charcoal burning trucks bounced over torn pavements, some so heavily loaded we thought their axles might bust. Some did, and traffic had a devil of a time getting around them. Battered buses with people hanging on the outside like flies on flypaper rolled past. Their exhausts kicking out evil black smoke. On some, passengers sat on top. Nationalist troops, in columns of two marched through the streets. Policemen ion black uniforms and Sam Brown belts across their chest stood on concrete posts at busy cross sections, blowing whistles and waving their arms frantically. No one seemed to pay attention to them. Stalls with dirty sagging canvas awnings overhead lined the sidewalks, and here merchants sold their wares and customers argued with them about prices. Motorcars with doors falling off, and some tied with twine to keep the doors on, rumbled past. None of the signs, not a single one, could we read. They were all in unintelligible Chinese characters. We could only imagine what was behind the signs and closed doors.

The saddest thing we witnessed were the heavy, overloaded carts, pulled not by animals but by men. It was inhumane to watch. These carts were the backbone of the transportation system. They were on all the streets, clumsy carts, with two huge wooden wheels with spokes and steel rims. The coolies that worked them did so with backbreaking effort. Two, sometimes three men, labored in unison at each cart to keep it in motion. Over their shoulders they slung ropes, and upon these they bent their weight as they pushed, and at the same time they pulled on the two handlebars sticking out from the front. They slid and often fell to the pavement, bloodying their knees and elbows, but not giving up. When their carts became rutted and stuck, they twisted and turned them sideways and pushed and pulled again until they had them free. Such a curse against humanity that man should labor so hard.

And among all this traffic, rickshaws shot in and out, darting away from oncoming trucks and avoiding crashing into other rickshaws. Rickshaw boys called out warnings and threats that no one seemed to heed. Now and then an immaculately kept rickshaw, shiny black and polished, with neatly crafted golden trim, ambled past. They were the envy of everyone. Their drivers were smart; they wore new canvas shoes; their clothing was uniform and clean. They pulled well-dressed Chinese men and women, and some school children. Whether man, woman or child, these passengers at back smug and arrogant and looked upon the world around them condescendingly. Some of the rickshaws, not the wealthy ones, had young boys running along side, and when they came to an incline the boys helped push. Some boys couldn't have been more than seven or eight years old. These drivers and boys wore castoff clothing. No two pieces were the same.

The masses, the throngs of people, moved along the sidewalks and out into the streets as recklessly as the traffic. Many, mostly school children, had their faces covered with surgical masks. Men wore long robes, slit up the sides; Women wore simple dresses that reach below the knees, also split up the sides. Every fifth person had a pockmarked face. Smallpox had disfigured them permanently. All the women had bangs, and when they smiled, which wasn't often, they revealed gold teeth. As we looked over the scene, there was lack of color, no pastels or light colors among the whole lot. Things were either black or brown. The Chinese, the shoppers, the merchants, the pedestrians, they all appeared oblivious to the beggars, and beggars were as numerous as the shoppers. There was no escaping them--lepers, the blind holding on to sticks following young children, men with missing limbs, young girls hardly old enough to be mothers yet still cradling infants, and child beggars who came in hordes running after our rickshaws. "No mama, no papa," they called. "Kumshaw, kumshaw!"

Mingled with all this chaos and confusion was the smell of China. The smell wasn't anything in particular but everything in general. It was the blend of the whole of China. It was a smell we first detected far out at sea, and it was the same smell that followed us ashore. It was the unwashed bodies, the human waste gathered to fertilize their crops, the garlic they ate to sustain their lives. It was the smell that would never escape us.

There were some souls we saw--we couldn't call them beggars for they didn't beg--who appeared to have never washed in their lives. Their skin was black, black as coal miners coming from the pits, their hair uncut, matted and tangled, and their clothing tattered rags as filthy as their bodies. They had to have demented, sick minds, for there was no excuse for their existence, and yet, we wondered, wasn't there a place for them to go other than the streets of Tsingtao.

The fleet of rickshaws carried us to the EM Club without mishap. Upon seeing the three-story brick building with a sign WELCOME SAILORS AND MARINES, our mood quickly changed. We gave our rickshaw boys the money due them, but they demanded more and ran after us. We charged into the club leaving them on the steps below. Laughing and hollering, happy that we were still in one piece, we burst through the doors like conquering heroes.

The EM Club was indeed, was an escape from a nightmare world outside to a heaven of retreat, a house of fun, but to all who entered, it was also entrance to a volatile world. Anything could happen, and did happen at the EM Club. There were no women, only service men in uniform. The noise was deafening. The floor vibrated, the walls shook, the ceiling threatened to collapse, and with jabbering, shouting, hard-drinking Marines from the 6th Division and sailors from the 7th Fleet, the place was unhinged. There must have been a hundred tables or more, and clustered around them were groups of Marines and sailors, not together but separately. They mocked and sneered at one another, sailors vs. Marines, and any minute threatened to pounce upon the other. The more beer they consumed, the more tense grew the situation. Among this entire melee, waiters carrying trays laden with cans of beer and glasses with harder stuff scurried dutifully among the table. The waiters accepted willingly, although not gleefully, the jibes and jeers from the carousing band of brothers. At some tables empty beer cans were stacked as high as a Marine or sailor could reach, that is, while standing on a chair attempting to place another can on the top. When a mountain of cans toppled over, it was mayhem. Dare the man who might deliberately have knocked over a pile of cans. He was as sure as hell dead meat.

Behind the bar was a large mural painted across the entire wall. The mural was a masterpiece, the EM Club's piece de resistance. It depicted various scenes common to China and to seafaring men. One scene showed King Neptune in pursuit of a beautifully endowed mermaid. He chased her at high speed, leaving a large foaming wake behind him, his long whit beard streaming in the wind. He had a wild lustful gleam in his eye and there was no doubt what his intent was if he caught her. Behind him came Queen Neptune. She was in full pursuit of the King, leaving a large wake behind her too. She was terribly ugly, having a long nose with a large wart on the end of it. Her breasts were long and stringy like an old woman's. One long tit was thrown back over the top of one shoulder. The other tit trailed in the breeze under her other arm. Her eyes were shooting sparks and fire. It was quite apparent she was mad as hell. The mural had a drunken mouse on it and the custom was for new guys to find the mouse. If they couldn't find it they had to buy a round. The more drinks they consumed, the harder it was to find the mouse for he was hidden behind a table leg lapping up spilt liquor. It was apparent the mouse was very drunk. It was really quite a work of art and very funny.

We found a table, marked out our territory and began swilling down cans of beer at ten cent a can. Hecklinger bought a box of Havanas, and soon we puffed on cigars, leaned back and boasted about what a great life we had. Stevenson arrived an hour later, all smiles, wearing his barracks hat, and immediately challenged everyone at the table to see who could chug-alug a beer faster than he could. He easily won the first round since most of us had our fill and were drunk by then. A swabbie at the next table made a remark about Stevenson's hat, a most sensitive thing to do. Chandler defended his buddy, fists began flying and the machine gun squad of 2nd Platoon, Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 29th Marines, was kicked out and banned from the EM Club on their first liberty ashore in Tsingtao.

"Never mind," shouted Smitty out in the street. He had his sleeves rolled up, and the Hawaiian girl tattooed on his left forearm seemed to dance in agreement. "Hey, boys," he stammered, gyrating from side to side, "we go dancing, you know, dance." He held his arms stretched out, like he was holding his dance partner. "Go dance, drink, you know, whiskey." He puffed his chest, tilted his head back and smacked his lips, pretending he was kissing a woman. Terry turned his back and would have pulled down his trousers and drawers to expose his butt if we hadn't pushed him away, with Smitty attempting to plant a foot in his rear. It was all worth a laugh.

Agreed, we'd go to the Prime Club, all except Hecklinger. He wanted to strike out on his own. "If you're riddin' ahead of the herd," he said, staggering from one side to the next, "take a look back every now and then to make sure it's still there with yaw. I'll find ya'll when I look fur ya'll."

We called rickshaws and instructed the drivers in our newly acquired pidgin English--"You takee us chop chop Prime Club lookie see." The lead rickshaw boy said he knew the place, but we had doubts as our convoy shot thought crowded streets and into back alleys, avoiding the main traffic route. The driver knew his business. A block before we reached the club we could hear the noise, a boisterous mixture of shouting, merry making and music. Feeling our liquor and in a jubilant mood, we gave the rickshaw boys more than they agreed to: they still complained and ran after us as we charged up the stone stairs to the Prime Club.

The club was jam-packed and about ready to burst at the seams. It was marvelous . . . I danced with a few girls but I couldn't take my eyes from the one at the next table, the girl who prevented the fight. She was tall for Chinese, and slight of figure. It was her smile that was so beguiling. She had two dimples. I was tempted to ask her to dance but it was obvious she had been bought for the night. She was aware that I was watching her.

Being Saturday night, the Prime Club was even more explosive than before. We found a table, ordered a bottle of Hubba-Hubba and bought a handful of dance tickets. Stevenson used the tickets doing the tango with Judy, a part Japanese girl he met the other night. The girl that I so admired came to the table while her date went to talk to Marines at another table. "I'm Ming-Lee," she said. I was delighted she remembered me. She suggested I come back during the week, when the club wasn't so busy. I said I would, but I wasn't about to get on the Ferris wheel. She was attractive, and had a nice charm, but on the Ferris wheel one can't always get off when one wants to. . . .

Chapter 10, We Do Everything Backwards (The author is in Peking at a Chinese language school)

When my Chinese became more proficient I was able to engage in more conversations with students, and at these times women would be drawn into the circle. They became more argumentative than the men; I could feel a revolution brewing in all of them. One Chinese student who irked me was Lee Ann. She had a chip on her shoulder and was ready to attack me for the most trivial thing. His English was excellent, for she grew up on London where her parents were in the Chinese Foreign Service. When the war ended, they returned to Peking. She obviously didn't want to be in Peking. But now that she was, she defended her position vehemently. She was a cad, a snob, and what we in the Marines called "a spoiled brat."

Nevertheless, I liked her. I liked her for her arrogance, and with her I knew where I stood, at the opposite pole. I could depend upon her being straightforward. You may not like them, but they are the most dependable people; no beating around the bush with them.

Lee Ann was a revolutionary at heart, but the country was still run by the Kuomintang, and one had to be cautious. Chinese women, who for centuries groaned under the weight of male-dominated Confucian doctrine, nurtured promises that generated from the revolutionary movement. I couldn't escape Lee Ann's wrath on this subject. She was quick to bring up the British colonial relationship with China, especially with Chinese women. The Opium War was hashed and rehashed every chance she found to bring them up. It took a great deal of effort for me, burning the midnight oil, reading up on the subject, to prepare myself to meet her head-on the next day. Her pet peeve regarded the employment contracts British males had to sign before they took up their new posts in the Far East. Essentially these contracts stated that British men were not allowed to married Chinese women, nor were they allowed to have Chinese women living with them. They could not even take Chinese women as guests to their messes. Lee Ann constantly reminded me about the sign at the entrance of the Bund in Shanghai, the promenade where all the foreigners gathered before the war, which read: CHINES AND DOGS NOT ALLOWED.

Not all the students were sophisticated as Lee Ann. To most of them I was a novelty. If I had rolled up my sleeve for any reason, they wanted to touch the hair on my arms. Often, when they thought I wasn't looking, they made funny gestures with their fingers, indicating my long nose, and would laugh about it. With these students, conversations were usually a waste of time. I learned nothing from them.

I never tired of sitting in the teahouses conversing with them. Once they got to know me, they besieged me with endless questions. At first I thought they were being facetious, but I soon realized they were dead serious. One student asked, "In the West, why do you do everything backwards?"

"Backwards! Like what?" I asked.

"You read a book from the wrong end first."

I couldn't argue this point. Chinese were writing books long before the Egyptians were using cuneiform. Which then was the right way to begin a book? I had to pass. To have said otherwise I would have made a fool of myself. The front of a book to us is the back of a book to them.

Another student asked, "How can you tell one foreigner from another? You all look alike."

So all Westerners look alike. That was interesting. How many times has it been said in the West that all Asians look alike? Before I came to China, I could not tell Chinese apart from Japanese. Now I could. It was queer to find myself on the opposite side of the fence.

There were other questions I couldn't answer either, like why do we put titles--Mr., Miss, and Mrs.--before names rather than after them, and why do we make excuses when we rely mean no? "My father has a shop," one girl said, "and every time a foreigner comes in and admires something, and then changes his mind, he says, 'I'll be back.' Why does he have to lie and says he'll be back when he does not mean it?' I never thought about it before, and I couldn't answer her.

Often times such simple questions provoked deep thought. When I returned to my room when I was alone, I pondered over them. I began feeling empty inside. Where they, perhaps, not right? Why were we so different in the West? The more I got to know the Chinese, the more I came to realize that our thought patterns are not alike. When using deductive reasoning, we don't come to the same conclusions, not from a universal to a particular. Was this what Mrs. Djung was talking about when I was more interested in stuffing myself with Djow-dzes than listening to their reasoning? Maybe I was being misled by Lin Yu-tang. At the library I begun arming myself with both Chinese and Western philosophy books and these I would devour at night. Reading these books did not make life for me any easier, only more complicated. I desperately wanted to know the Chinese mind, but I soon realize to know their minds, I would have to cast away western thoughts and ideas and think only like they do. The question was how to do that, but I would need more time than I had to find the answer. I found myself, when I was alone in my room and confused, standing in front of the mirror, slanting my eyes with my fingers, wondering why I had to look so different and be so different. Was this what it meant by being in the minority?

Not all the students were Chinese. Some came from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and from Tibet and Mongolia; others from Turkmenistan and Assam, and from many places I have never heard before. They came from faraway exotic lands, all speaking their strange tongues and dialects, bringing with them their customs and habits. They too were here to study Mandarin Chinese.