- Historic Sites
The Last Powder Monkey
A TALE OF PERIL, COURAGE, and gross ingratitude on the old China station
July/august 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 4
Fortunately there was still time to enjoy the sights and friendships of Nanking and its British and American communities. I remember dining with Dad at the home of the Macartneys, the Irish boss of the British International Export Company, where I first saw wild ducks hung on hooks on the compound wall. It was explained that when they fell off under their own weight, they were ready to cook. They tasted a little gamy but very good. For recreation Noa sent hunting parties ashore to bring back wild pheasant and an occasional pig. Rafts of ducks would float down to about a hundred yards from Noa ’s bow, then fly back upriver and drift down again. Our chief electrician’s mate, who was an expert with a .22 rifle, potted dozens of them as they bobbed up and down three hundred feet away. Crew, chiefs, and wardroom ate incredibly well with almost no charge to government funds for meat. In fact the eating was so unvaryingly luxurious that after the first two weeks a delegation from the crew approached the exec with the unprecedented request to go back “once in a while” to beans and bacon.
There were a few bad points to life on the Great River, among them the “floaters,” human or animal corpses bloated from long immersion that continually drifted downriver, occasionally catching in the anchor chain or under a propeller guard to hang there until dislodged. One caught on Noa just after sunset and wasn’t found until the next dawn, when a search party discovered the cause of a foul smell that had permeated the ship. It took two days to get rid of the aroma in the belowdecks compartments.
On the way back to the dock, our rickshaws were suddenly swept up into a mob of people swarming down into an open area on the Bund, as the riverfront was called. Chips and I eased out of the rickshaws to head for the dock but were trapped in the crowd as it formed a circle. Into this circle were led twelve Chinese, all with hands tied behind their backs, who were made to kneel down. Then, from their soldier escort, out stepped a very large lad with a very long sword. He walked around behind the kneeling prisoners, and whack! whack! whack! off went their heads. One poor soul didn’t get a clean cut. The executioner in disgust held his head up by the hair and sawed the rest of the way through, whereupon Chips and I threw up. We were still very queasy when we finally got back to our boat. Such was the discipline enforced by Northern troops, although we never did find out why those twelve people were executed. Probably for stealing bread.
By this time the joint plan had been formulated with the concurrence of British Consul General Bertram Giles and American Consul John K. Davis, who was one of the very best men we had in China and a credit to the Foreign Service. He organized a telephone tree among the American community so that any important word could be rapidly disseminated. As the overall situation deteriorated, it was decided to put armed guards from the ships into their respective consulates. Hugh England landed a party of his Royal Marines, who marched up to the city’s Middle Gate and were refused admittance. After hours of fruitless argument and much dashing around offices ashore by Hugh and his consul general, the marines marched back again. On hearing that news, Dad put ashore a guard of ten men under Ens. Woodward (“Woody”) Phelps, all dressed in blue sweaters over blue uniform trousers but with no insignia whatever. They did not carry arms openly, but each had an automatic pistol tucked in his waistband, and their back-packs were stowed in the trunks of the three consulate cars sent to pick them up. After entering the city by different gates, all three cars arrived at the consulate with no problems. Later, when it seemed that general looting was imminent, a 30-caliber Lewis machine gun and several pans of ammunition were smuggled into the guard. Stored in the consulate were twenty Springfield rifles, still covered with Cosmoline preservative in their shipping boxes.
At the same time, Signalman Jack Wilson was sent up to Standard Oil house to maintain direct communications between consulate (by telephone) and ship (by semaphore). The next day Hugh England followed Dad’s example and sneaked a marine guard into the British consulate.