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1220 DaysThe story of U.S. Marine Edmond Babler and his experiences in Japanese Prisoner of War Camps during World War II.
By Robert C. Daniels
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Robert C. Daniels
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Wisconsin to the Philippines
December of 1938 saw the depression at its peak. I wasn't going anywhere as a boxer, having just lost my last two fights, and, in reality, the $30 worth of boxing purses I made every month or so just wasn't enough. So, although I hated to leave home just before Christmas, I enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in Chicago, Illinois, on 20 December 1938. I recall the recruiting sergeant telling me that anything could happen during my tour of duty, including a war. Nonetheless, I told him that I was ready to go.
I traveled by rail to San Diego, California, where I went through a rough eight-week training period, followed by two weeks on the rifle range at La Jolla, California. Upon completion of these ten weeks of training I was assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion Fleet Marine Force, Sixth Marine Force, which was stationed at La Jolla.
At that time Shanghai, China, had the reputation of being the best liberty town in the Marine Corps, and it seemed as if every Marine wanted to spend at least part of his enlistment there, and I was no exception. However, being a junior Marine with only a few months in the Corps, I had to do some real dealing to get my name on the list. The battalion football coach made a verbal agreement with me saying that if I would practice with his football team, he would insure my name was added to the Shanghai list. So I began attending football practices.
Besides working out with the football team, I also trained four nights a week with the pros at the Gold Street Gym in downtown La Jolla. Between the football practice and the boxing training, I was able to keep myself in top physical shape, which helped enable me to defeat all of the local heavyweights in nine amateur boxing bouts at the Coliseum in San Diego. I continued boxing and, as promised, practicing with the football team until 13 November 1939 when I departed for Shanghai on the transport Henderson. Major Hall had indeed placed my name on the list. [The Henderson was a transport that routinely made stops in both Shanghai and the Philippine capital of Manila.]
One of my first Marine Corps excitements happened the day before the Henderson left. I was part of the detail assigned to load supplies onto the transport, which was moored about twelve feet from a dock at the Mare Island Navy Base. While carrying quarters of beef across the gangplank to the hold, the man I was working with became careless and allowed the side of beef we were carrying to hit the side of the ship, which in turn caused me to be knocked overboard. I can recall hearing the duty boatswain calling out, "Man overboard," as I fell towards the cold water. I sank down to about what seemed like forty feet of water before finally being able to begin my upward swim. When I finally surfaced a sailor tossed me a life jacket and several men pulled me to the dock. As soon as I walked aboard the ship I was wrapped in several blankets and handed hot coffee. Even with blankets and the coffee, it took several minutes for the chill to disappear.
The next day at 12:00 noon, with me warm and dry onboard and with only 25¢ in my pocket, which I soon spent having my shoes re-heeled, the Henderson departed San Diego heading towards Honolulu, Hawaii. For many of the young men onboard, both Marines and sailors alike, the trip was the first Pacific Ocean crossing they made onboard a transport. With the ship constantly swaying from side to side in the high seas, coupled with water splashing onto the main deck when the sea became really rough, many of the men soon became seasick.
Onboard the Henderson was the Navy's runner-up to the Pacific Fleet heavyweight boxing champion. Once the word was out that I had fought at San Diego the ship's crew wanted me to fight their Navy runner-up, so a smoker match was arranged, which turned out to be the highlight of my voyage across the Pacific.
My opponent was a member of the whale boat crew and had large, well developed shoulders. A Navy chief [Chief Petty Officer] was chosen to be the referee, and his orders to us just before the fight were simple; "After the bell, come out, touch gloves and begin fighting." Upon hearing the bell sound, I did just that—or at least I tried to. As soon as I put my hands out to touch gloves, my opponent let fly a wild right roundhouse, which I managed to avoid with a quick duck. I decided right then and there that I was going to punish this sailor for his attempt at hitting me with that sucker punch. Boring in, I hit him with everything but the ring post and the water bucket. As I battered him from one side of the ring to the other he reeled around in seemingly desperate attempts to hang on. It doesn't take long with this type of boxing before a fight turns into a rough and tumble brawl, and ours did just that. Both of us abandoned formal boxing altogether and just began slugging it out toe to toe, and the ref didn't make much of an effort to stop us.
The ocean that night was particularly rough, which caused the ship and, consequently, the two of us to sway from one side to the other, which only added to the fray. Although the big sailor repeatedly fell into the ropes, the referee continued to enable him to stay on his feet, so my opponent was able to stay up and keep reeling around again and again. If only he would have stood up and fought I'm sure I would have been able to knock him out that night. Nonetheless, even though I wasn't able to chalk up a knockout against him, I was finally declared the winner of the fight. This meant the Marines had beaten the Navy, a fact that hadn't escaped the attention of the Marine Corps brass that was sailing with us.
I knew the rivalry between the Navy and Marine Corps was legendary, and my winning this fight had meant a lot for the Marines onboard. This fact was made apparent to me one night later in the voyage. The wind became very cold as we approached China, especially at night. And while I was standing guard duty on one of those frigid nights, because of the cold, I was unable to properly salute a Marine lieutenant as he passed by. It was when he simply replied, "That's OK Babler," that I knew just how seriously the Marine Corps brass took this rivalry, and my defeating the Navy's runner-up heavyweight champion, the Navy's pride and joy, had made this same Marine Corps brass very happy.
On 10 December 1939 the Henderson tied up at the Bund, which was located adjacent to Nanking Road and about eight blocks from downtown Shanghai. We marched off the ship and onto the waiting motor transport trucks for the ride to our quarters, which turned out to be large apartment houses leased from the Chinese.
I had never before seen such large crowds of people in one area as I did on the streets of Shanghai as we passed them by on the way to our quarters. At the time, Shanghai was a city of about seven million inhabitants, and thousands of its Chinese citizens were milling around like cattle. It was then that I truly realized that my stay in Shanghai would indeed be a very exciting and interesting one.
During my tour in Shanghai I was assigned to B Company, 1st Battalion of the 4th Marine Regiment, which was billeted on Ferry Road. Our daily routine was similar to that of a rifle company in the States, although we pulled more guard duty. This guard duty consisted mainly of manning one of the dozen or so guard posts throughout the American sector, each of which were manned twenty-four hours a day.
[In 1941, the City of Shanghai contained many foreign nationals, several of which maintained their own settlements. Included among these were the United States, Russia, England, Italy, Japan, and France. Due to the nearly constant turmoil throughout war-torn China, these nations maintained armed contingents in Shanghai to protect their nation's interests. The 4th Marine Regiment, known as the "China Marines," had been stationed in Shanghai since 1926 to protect the American interests. Ever since the outbreak of war in Europe, the international settlements in Shanghai had been deteriorating. In addition, from across the Soochow Creek, a tributary of the Whangpoo River, the Japanese had been unceasingly attempting to intimidate and undermine the Western powers occupying the various sections of the city.]
When not on duty at one of these posts, our normal day was comprised of an hour of close order drill each morning, with the balance of the day devoted to weapons training, including the rifle, the .45 Colt automatic pistol, and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR). This training often consisted of our sergeant breaking down the weapons, placing their parts on our bunks, and then leaving. We were then expected to have the weapons reassembled by the time he returned.
Our mess hall was located two blocks down Ferry Road from our quarters. We always walked these two blocks for our meals, and it was not uncommon along the way to come across cripples and beggars lying in the center of the sidewalk; many whose bodies were covered with sores. A Marine always seemed to be good for a buck or two for these people. Many times, even during the cold winter months when snow covered the ground, we also came across newly born babies wrapped only in newspapers. None of the locals even seemed to care about this.
There were thousands of small shops throughout the city which sold fish, fowl, pork, and vegetables. Many of these shops were similar to our small grocery stores back in the States. However, unlike our small grocery stores, the small shops in Shanghai were open and located along unpaved, dirt streets, and dust and flies covered all the produce. It was no wonder many of the Chinese people died young. It also appeared as though 80 percent of the Shanghai people lived at the poverty level in simple wooden shacks, which were generally connected one to another, allowing little or no privacy.
The city of Shanghai was divided into sectors, with the Americans, English, French, Italians, Russians, and Japanese each controlling a sector. Although I found that the American sector had the best theaters and restaurants, entertainment could be found in the other sectors as well. French Town was my favorite liberty spot because the section was clean, had good restaurants, good theatres, good cabarets, and good-looking girls. The Marine Commandant allowed the men from the other countries into our sector; however, several locations in the sector were considered so dangerous they were placed out of bounds. I was told that in one of these, known as "Blood Alley," you could even get killed. To avoid any serious incidents, these rough areas were well patrolled by the MPs. Nonetheless, I made it a point to stay well enough away from these places.
[It should be noted that, although Ed referred to the senior Marine officer of the regiment as the Commandant, the only Marine holding the title of Commandant is the Commandant of the Marine Corps, the senior General of the Marine Corps. The 4th Marine Regiment's Commanding Officer at the time was Colonel Samuel L. Howard (USMC).]
One of the best features about duty in Shanghai was the rate of exchange, which never fell below seven to one during my twenty-one-month stay there. Many times on paydays the exchange rate went even as high as thirteen to one. We paid Chinese boys to press our uniforms and clean and shine our shoes. They would also do all the household chores for about $1 in gold currency, which we could easily afford.
Not long after my arrival in China I found myself passing many well-dressed American men in downtown Shanghai, all looking as if they were American businessmen. Realizing that there weren't this many American businessmen in Shanghai, I began to think, "Who are all these well-dressed Americans living in Shanghai?" I even saw these same well-dressed Americans drinking expensive whiskey in the Shanghai bars. It wasn't until after about a month of this that I finally noticed that all the men in my company had nice suits and would dress in them when going on liberty. As it turned out, the great exchange rate allowed all the Marines, even privates, plenty of money to spend. All this money enabled my buddies and me to buy tailor-made suits for about $10 apiece in U.S. currency. It also allowed the Marines to drink the usually too expensive whiskey.
The Commandant wanted his men to look neat and sharp at all times, so we always wore our dress uniforms while on guard duty, and since we pulled so much guard duty we ended up wearing our dress uniforms more in Shanghai than we did back in the States. Because of this very few of us would wear uniforms while on liberty, preferring civilian clothes because it felt good to have a change from our norm.
I found that the Chinese were ranked among the best tailors in the world, making wonderful robes containing beautiful dragon designs, bedspreads, tablecloths, and tapestries. I had never seen such excellent quality and handiwork as displayed by these tailors, and I had half a dozen tablecloths and bedspreads made for my mother. I also had robes made for every member of my family, and recall paying only $200 in American currency for the entire purchase. At that time, I was due to return to the States in December 1941 and had full intentions of bringing all these gifts, along with my suit, back with me. But as we'll see later, things didn't turn out that way and none of these items ever made it home.
The Marine Club in Shanghai had the best food, and their beer and whiskey were priced right. It was also open only to the Marines. To get to it we had to walk down the Bubbling Well Road, which was what I would consider to be the main street of Shanghai because it was the entrance to the downtown area and was always clean, well paved, and didn't have any beggars along it.
I well remember the first night the members of my platoon coaxed me into accompanying them to the club. Prior to this outing I was strictly a beer drinker, and not really much of a drinking man at that. Up to this point I had also stayed in my quarters every night and read, eating a candy bar and drinking a coke. But on this night the men of my platoon, many of whom had been in Shanghai for two years or more, decided to get me started and proceeded to furnish me with rum-cokes. It wasn't long before I was drunk, and after I grabbed and flipped over the small table we were sitting around, my buddies put me in a cab and sent me back to our quarters.
Another episode that I'll always remember from my stay there in Shanghai began one night when some Italian Marines came over to our sector for liberty. They went to the Palace Cabaret and were involved in a brawl with a few of our Marines, allegedly beating up our buddies. After a buddy of mine, Don Vidal, and I heard about this, we decided to go dancing at the Palace the next Saturday night and get even. Don was a husky kid from Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a good boxer who trained with me. Neither one of us thought that anyone could whip us in a fight.
After telling several of our buddies about our dancing plans, they decided to go along with us to the Palace. The next Saturday night we indeed found our friends, the Italian Marines, at the Palace. While dancing, Don and I bumped into a few of them and the fight was on. The two of us stood back-to-back and floored six to seven of the Italians. The balance of the remaining Italians then retreated to the tables along the sides of the dance floor and started throwing glasses at us. By that time several of our buddies had also become involved and one of the Italian Marines ended up being hauled over the piano keys. About five minutes later the Shore Patrol arrived. Although I managed to avoid them, Don wasn't as lucky. He had slipped on the floor and got a cut on his hand from the broken glass. He went home with the Shore Patrol.
Excerpted from 1220 Days by Robert C. Daniels Copyright © 2011 by Robert C. Daniels. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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