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Warning Of War
A Novel Of The North China Marines
By James Brady
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 James Brady
All rights reserved.
If you were a Marine, Shanghai was the place you wanted to serve.
The Great Wall of China that tourists know today was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368'1644) on the footprints of earlier walls dating back to the millennia before Christ. It was intended to shield the country's rich and ripe "northern crescent," those provinces open to the raids of the barbarians of the time, and later to the Mongols and Manchus, Muslims and Japanese, the Koreans and the Muscovites.
Despite battle, vandalism, and erosion, the Wall remains, immutable and largely intact, meandering for four thousand miles along the steep ridgelines of North China, silent and forbidding, a broadly paved road atop its walls facilitating the swift deployment of Chinese defenders. The Wall is no longer a military factor; if you wish to get through the Great Wall of China, you don't need an army. You simply bribe the fellow who watches over one of the many fortified gates and "passes" tunneling through the ponderous Wall at its base, which render it if not entirely vulnerable, then certainly ... susceptible. The bribe, at Depression exchange rates, might cost you several dollars. Imagine! A lousy couple of bucks to invade a country. By the time of this story, midway through the twentieth century, the price had gone up slightly, but the Great Wall wasn't truly an obstacle to enemies; merely an interruption.
Yet it remains standing, seemingly untouched, like China itself. You beat on it and beat on it for a hundred years, and in the end it is still there and you are gone, exhausted or dead, your pick and maul and sledgehammer broken. Europeans and Asians, Turk and Hun, and occasionally the Americans, we all took our shot and when we had finished, the Wall was still there, contemptuous of our efforts; China was still China.
As the individual Chinese in the street mutters even today under his breath as we pass, "Foreign devils!"
Hundreds of miles south and east of the ancient Wall, it was in the city of those "foreign devils," the great international port of Shanghai, that late in 1941 the adventure began.
Shanghai — arrogantly self-absorbed, unshaken, bustling, and disdainful — was riding out the war with Japan in fair shape. Then, on a November evening, the White Russian General Rostov, out of sorts, depressed by something or other, shot himself to death over cocktails at the bar of the Imperial Club.
This small but shocking act of violence in the midst of a major war was shrugged off by most Chinese (what did one fewer foreign devil matter?), but it made the front pages and certainly got the international community's attention. Was even blase Shanghai succumbing to war nerves, these persistent rumors of a wider war? Was there a dimension to Rostov's death that went beyond one man's tragedy? Or was the Foreign Quarter reading too much into just another neurotic emigre suicide?
Rostov was an aristocrat who'd fought gallantly under the tsar against the Germans, the Austrians, and briefly the Turks, before commanding a cavalry division against Stalin during the Civil War of 1920. His death was especially shattering for the small, influential, foreign set in Shanghai, the diplomats and soldiers and wealthy men who circulated about the hub of the Imperial Club. It was upsetting to have a decent fellow like Rostov shooting himself anywhere, but to do so in an establishment so admired for its elegance and class? Symbolically at least, the suicide signaled a bleak watershed for the city's better sort. Until then, people said, wartime Shanghai, especially the International Settlement and the French Concession, both dating back to the Boxer Rebellion, had been enjoying a splendid season.
Despite the war.
In the vast interior of the country far from the sea and the big port cities like Shanghai, the war threatened to go on forever, the Japanese winning most of the set-piece battles but the Chinese giving ground grudgingly, and with their inexhaustible manpower, chewing up Japanese troops by the score in every skirmish, sometimes by the hundreds, even thousands. A contemporary war correspondent with a poetic streak and a tolerant rewrite desk compared the combat to "full-grown tigers fighting," the bloody metaphor apt.
The Sino-Japanese War began July 7, 1937, with a night exercise during which Japanese troops fired blank cartridges into the air to simulate combat conditions. Startled Chinese troops, believing they were under attack, replied with artillery fire. The misunderstanding occurred at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking, a vista so famed for its beauty, we are told by China historian Jonathan D. Spence, that "the Emperor Qianlong wrote a poem on the loveliness of the setting moon when viewed there in the first light of dawn."
The skirmish at the Marco Polo Bridge was nothing, but not the rhetoric that followed. In Tokyo, Prince Konoye mobilized five divisions and demanded a Chinese apology. Chiang Kai-shek, always to be counted on for xenophobic histrionics, declared, "If we allow one more inch of our territory to be lost, we shall be guilty of an unpardonable crime against our race." Both irate statesmen would soon get their war. Even though Tokyo would, for its own reasons and with considerable understatement, continue to refer to it as "the China Incident."
By the autumn of 1941 two great and cultivated Asian nations had been grappling for more than four years in total, brutal combat, and millions were dead (including 160,000 Japanese soldiers), if not of wounds, then of famine, disease, and exposure. General Hata, commander in chief of all Imperial forces in China, knew his was the superior army, yet he feared "bogging down" in the morass of sheer bodies the Chinese could put into the field. Yet here in Shanghai and in four other "treaty" ports (set up and guaranteed after the Boxers were disarmed forty years earlier), international trade and something approaching normal commerce, industry, even the stock exchange continued to function. Smuggling, a Shanghai art form, was enjoying a wartime boom, the familiar harbor sampans laden deep with goods, much of it contraband. If you but had the money, you could buy just about anything: Singer sewing machines, opium, cartridges, pickled snake, White Russian girls, industrial diamonds, a slightly used trench mortar, rhino horn aphrodisiac, beautifully forged documents, single malt Scotch whisky by the case. Oddly, the national telephone system worked about as well during the war as it did in peacetime, permitting callers to reach a party on either side of the "enemy" line. At the worst of the fighting, the city's "Wall Street" in downtown Shanghai, with its art deco, Tudor, and neoclassical facades, numbered 113 fully operational financial institutions.
Although the Japanese first occupied Shanghai in 1932 during a pre-war skirmish, and then five years later fought fiercely to retain it, these International Settlements of the big cities were left sacrosanct and virtually untouched, islands above the storm, each with its own bureaucrats and small detachments of foreign troops to keep order. As late as 1941, the inspector general of the port of Shanghai, the official who collected customs, was neither a collaborationist Chinese nor an occupying Japanese, but an Englishman.
"The English are bloody," so said sophisticated Shanghai merchants, "but they don't cheat us." The French, they held, weren't "bloody," but they cheated. As for the Germans, well, they cheated and were bloody.
Here in Shanghai, and in Canton and Peking, Tsingtao and other places, Chinese government buildings and many of the hotels (the so-called "Grands" were immune) had been requisitioned by the Japanese. Yet the economies flourished with the comings and goings of all manner of moneyed people, whatever the shady source of their wealth (opium, sewing machines, pickled snake?) or the purity of their souls. And many of the foreign inhabitants, including the Brits and Yanks among them, lived very well, sometimes better than well. In the very heart of the city, the Shanghai Race Club operated a fully equipped thoroughbred racetrack (they'd recently introduced parimutual betting), where the season's race meeting became the city's primary social event. On Nanking Road was Jimmy's Place, the most popular nightclub in town, owned and managed by Jimmy Jones, featuring a swing band composed mainly of Black American musicians from Chicago, most of whom had settled in as residents, marrying or carrying on a semipermanent relationship with White Russian girls or the local Chinese and Eurasian beauties.
If you were Chinese, of course, Shanghai life was harder. Wartime shortages, inflation, and the Japanese saw to that. All these additional burdens piled atop the accepted colonial racism and snobbery. A lovely English park on the Bund had a sign: NO DOGS OR CHINESE ALLOWED.
Captain Billy Port lived well. Captain Port — full name William Hamilton Thomas Port, of Pinckney Street, Boston, and the United States Marine Corps — was a member of the 4th Marine Regiment which, with its understrength 1941 complement of 1,008 officers and enlisted men, had for a decade looked out in China for American interests: commercial, cultural, financial, even religious. There were hundreds of Catholic and Protestant missions, thousands of priests and nuns, ministers and their wives, doctors and nurses, teachers, schools and hospitals, all doing God's work in their own busy way. The Marines also made up the guard detachments at the Peking (some were starting to call the capital "Peiping") embassy, and the consulates and legations in Shanghai and elsewhere in the war-battered country, where they sought to maintain a nice balance between two warring armies, and carry out their regimental duties, without being caught up in the fighting.
In many ways, if you were a pre-war Marine, Shanghai was the place you wanted to serve. It was exotic, cheap, glamorous, and exciting.
The Marines were in China as a political, rather than military, counterweight to the Japanese, showing the flag above American properties and enterprises in a violent land. In the international quarters of Shanghai, Peking, or Canton, the Americans and the Japanese troops, who had actually stormed and captured and now occupied these cities, eyed each other uneasily but with a certain professional respect and even formal courtesies. Naturally, in such fluid, chaotic conditions, there were times when the Marines had to fight. And fighting was an occupation at which Billy Port was something of a virtuoso.
Although when he left Boston in his wake a dozen years before and tried to explain to family and friends just why he'd applied to Annapolis and later become a Marine, Billy wrote home with the self-consciousness of young men:
"Try not to be overly upset by my present mission (as a lieutenant seconded to the Guardia, the Nicaragua militia trying to put down the Sandinista rebellion). I have long felt that I might have been cut out for things away from the beach and the country club ... this might be a good foundation. Since I have no calling to the cloth nor talent for teaching or medicine, this proud and disciplined Corps may be my route to the principles of a constructive life."
Like most decent if unformed young men, Billy didn't quite match or live up to his own aspirations. Which doesn't mean he wasn't successful in his career. His commanding officer in China, and earlier his superior in the Nicaragua insurgency of 1932, Major Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, once said of Port, "I'd as soon go to war with Billy Port as any man I know. Marines will follow him anywhere. An officer either has command or he doesn't. Billy has it. And besides that," Major Puller remarked, there was one small but important matter, "he knows how to kill a fellow and has the stomach to do so."
When a disapproving colonel remarked that for all Port's warrior virtues, his men didn't march all that smartly, Puller responded: "I have several times on seagoing duty been sent by the Asiatic Squadron to show the flag in ceremonial roles. Once in command of the American honor guard dispatched to pay respects at Admiral Togo's funeral (Togo being the Japanese seaman that 'crossed the T' with his battleships at Tsushima and sank the Russian fleet). On the solemn occasion of that great man's funeral, I handpicked Marines who were cracker-jack in drill and precisely trained on the parade ground, but I was most particular that they were all of them taller than me. And consequently, taller than any of the surrounding Japanese, above whom they towered. And I would think, impressed."
"So?" the colonel said, not really getting the point. Which Puller proceeded to supply.
"And if he had been serving with the Asiatic Squadron here at the time, I would have chosen Billy Port for that honor guard."
This was too much for the colonel. "Neither Port nor his men even pretend to work at their close order drill. But kind of saunter along."
"Yes, sir. But the colonel will agree Billy is an impressive young officer ..."
Major Puller paused.
"... and tall."CHAPTER 2
"Harry Luce doesn't think there's going to be a war" said Joe Haynes of Time.
This deep into November, nearly Thanksgiving, you could still get in a decent game of doubles on the clay courts of the International Settlement near Embassy Row. But when a chilling wind came in off the swift, brown Whangpoo River, one of several tributary streams that flowed through the delta of the great Yangtse, the ball tended to float on the breeze, and most men wore smart wool sweaters, of the sort Fred Perry or Tilden favored, over their tennis whites.
Now, on a Tuesday morning at eleven, the foursome in play was a familiar one. The talk, much of it, was of the unfortunate Rostov whom they all knew. Port the Marine; Lonsdale of the British embassy staff who was spoken of as a future foreign secretary; Joe Haynes of Time magazine, a favorite of Henry Luce; and nimble, bouncing Jesse Irabu, a youngish Japanese Special Naval Landing Force colonel born in Modesto, California, to first-generation, and rather wealthy, Japanese-Americans who owned and cultivated substantial agricultural acreage. Irabu had graduated from UCLA, and for some reason later returned to Japan, dropped his U.S. citizenship, and entered government service. That was a dozen years ago and Colonel Irabu didn't bother to explain his motivation; nor did his tennis partners feel it was their business to ask. Not of Irabu, one of the few Japanese that people in the Quarter could stand, and whom some Westerners, though not all, agreed was actually "okay."
The American, Billy Port, had the sleek, combed-back hair and dark good looks of the day, redeemed from conventional motion picture handsomeness by a broken nose that had been set badly following the Navy-Penn football game his senior year at the Academy, giving him the look of a club fighter. Port was very fit and had just turned thirty-two, so he thought about age a bit, though not brooding on it precisely. In another eight years he'd be forty. Now that would be a birthday to get a man's attention, especially if he hadn't yet made major. As seemed likely, given the recent little heart-to-heart with his regimental CO. Not that Port blamed Colonel Howard; he'd had it coming. Nobody, not even the colonel, liked the boorish Sebastian, but why did it have to be Port who confronted the man at the officers' club? Ten years a Marine, and the son of more or less "proper" Bostonians, you'd think Billy would have more sense than to kayo a drunken fellow officer in front of "the ladies." Or so he told himself.
Now there was this Rostov mess.
Rostov, and of course the war, made the between-sets conversation as the four players toweled off and got their wind while a couple of elderly Chinese women swept the court and the white tapes clean of red clay dust. The first two sets went to Port/Irabu 6-4, Irabu's savage, slashing net play the impressive difference. The third wasn't even close as Billy and the Japanese colonel closed out the match easily.
"Brutal and licentious soldiery," Lonsdale grumbled in his Oxbridge drawl. Billy played to him with an exaggeratedly wolfish look and encouraging if crooked smile. He liked Lonsdale, liked the English, admired their cars, their clothes, and especially their women, and may have been the only officer of American Marines who had his uniforms tailored in Savile Row by Henry Poole of Cork Street.
Excerpted from Warning Of War by James Brady. Copyright © 2002 James Brady. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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