The Last Powder Monkey

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In the age of sail every fighting ship had its complement of powder monkeys, boys in their early teens or even younger whose duty was to carry bags of gunpowder from the ship’s magazines to her cannon in time of battle. The Navy used powder monkeys for decades, but they disappeared long before the war with Spain, displaced by advances in ordnance and humanitarian objections to exposing children to combat.

 

In the age of sail every fighting ship had its complement of powder monkeys, boys in their early teens or even younger whose duty was to carry bags of gunpowder from the ship’s magazines to her cannon in time of battle. The Navy used powder monkeys for decades, but they disappeared long before the war with Spain, displaced by advances in ordnance and humanitarian objections to exposing children to combat. In March 1927, however, the thirteen-year-old son of a destroyer skipper reprised their role during the bombardment of Nanking.

ON FEBRUARY 27, 1927, the USS Noa (DD-343), Lt. Cmdr. Roy C. Smith, Jr., USN, commanding, arrived at Nanking, China, and relieved USS Simpson (DD-221) as station ship there “to protect American lives and property.” Those were the days Richard McKenna described in his great novel The Sand Pebbles , when foreigners up the Yangtze River were in real danger, prompting the traditional cry “Send a gunboat!” Noa was a destroyer the next step up from a gunboat, 314 feet long, but at most only 30 feet 8 inches abeam, with a main battery of four 4-inch guns, one each mounted fore and aft and two on her forward deckhouse. She displaced 1,190 tons, less than a good-size yacht, and was designed to carry a crew of 184. At Nanking her complement included an unofficial but very interested observer, the captain’s thirteen-year-old son, myself.

The 45th Destroyer Division, including Noa , had been conducting exercises off Manila Bay earlier that month when a signal came from the CINC (commander in chief), Asiatic Fleet, ordering the division to proceed forthwith to Shanghai for duty up the Yangtze. Dad took me to sea with him whenever possible, a perk for Asiatic Fleet destroyer skippers in those days, so I was on board, and “forthwith” did not allow time to head back to Subic Bay to put me ashore. Which was just fine with me.

What brought us up the Yangtze in such a hurry was the latest round of the Chinese civil war. Chiang Kaishek’s Southern army allied with the Kuomintang had been moving steadily downriver from Hankow in his drive to unify the country. Its 1st Division, steeped in Communist ideology and commanded by a Soviet Russian general using the alias Calen, was now approaching Nanking. Troops of Marshal Chang Tsolin’s Northern government under Marshal Chang Tsung-ch’ang, reinforced by the private army of a mid-Yangtze warlord, Sun Chuan-feng, held a strong line of fortifications around the southern and western sides of the city, whose residents included a foreign colony of about four hundred Americans, one hundred each British and Japanese, and a few other nationalities. Because the 1st Division’s advance had been marked by pillage, arson, murder, and rape, with foreigners as the preferred but by no means the only victims, the people of Nanking, foreigners and Chinese alike, were understandably on edge.

 

Other ships present were the British cruiser Emerald , three Japanese destroyers, three small Northern government gunboats—one of them mounting on her forward deck a gun so big that the recoil must have driven her backward—and two Northern transports. About a week later the Chinese vessels defected to the Southern government and steamed upriver to Kuomintang territory. We never saw them again.

Recognizing the probable need for forceful action in the days ahead, Dad and Emerald ’s CO, Capt. Hugh England, made plans for a joint task force, with the latter as senior officer present. Dad wrote Mother that the first time he called on Captain England, he saw that “his sea library is almost identical to mine” and knew that they would become fast friends. They did, complementing each other perfectly, and Hugh remained a great family friend for the rest of his life. The Japanese commander, who had no orders covering joint operations and no taste for participating in one, would have nothing to do with such arrangements, but Emerald and Noa soon developed a very close and warm working relationship. ( Emerald , incidentally, was a sort of seagoing pun: Every one of her officers, including Hugh England, was Irish.)