- 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
Evacuation of civilians, primarily women and children, began on March 22. Thanks to the telephone tree and volunteer drivers, all the American evacuees got safely to the dock area, where they were picked up by ships’ boats. USS William B. Preston (DD-344) had arrived the day before from Wuhu, the next port upriver, and provided extra facilities for the refugees. By happy chance Dad had been a few numbers senior to Preston ’s skipper, George Ashe, in the Naval Academy class of 1910, so he retained U.S. seniority, and the joint plans remained unchanged. With some 300 evacuees expected to board the two destroyers, whose crews were about 175 men each, the chief petty officers had to be moved out of their forward quarters—which had the only semiprivate toilet facilities—and half the crews out of their forward compartments. With the kind of helpful co-operation that has always been typical of the U.S. Navy, all hands shifted aft with goodwill, dropping a mattress in any clear space above- or belowdecks.
Each destroyer had only one 24-foot motor launch, so the evacuation went slowly through the day. One of our lady refugees was Pearl Buck, whose name meant nothing to me at the time.
During the day, Dad told Preston to send two signalmen and a small guard to Standard Oil house to back up Wilson in maintaining a continuous communications watch. Since the guard arrived without rifles, Dad arranged for the consulate’s stock to be delivered over to them. How was the Cosmoline to be cleaned off? Wilson suggested using Mr. Hobart’s cellar of fine Scotch whisky, and it proved a very successful solvent, although Mr. Hobart was rather dubious about the procedure. When all was done, the cleaning detail strained the grease out of the remaining whisky through an undershirt and drank what was left. Wilson told me later, “Cosmoline doesn’t taste too bad when it’s flavored with good Scotch.”
That evening most of Preston ’s and a few of our refugees were put aboard a “chicken ferry” sailing for Shanghai (these small passenger ships got their name from the livestock the steerage-class Chinese passengers brought along with them). Nevertheless, we still had more than a hundred guests aboard for the ensuing activities.
At this time I was giving a tour of the ship to a missionary’s son about my age. We had just reached the galley deckhouse when the shooting started. As we stood on the exposed deck looking at the two 4-inch guns, we began to hear loud buzzing noises in the air. I knew what was making them and was not too happy being up there in the open, but I waited for my companion to ask what they were. When he finally did, I said, “Oh, those are bullets going by.”
“Mmm,” he said, “don’t you think maybe we ought to get down off here?”
I allowed that that would be a very good idea, and so we did, but there was no way that I was going to be the first to suggest it.
Meanwhile at the consulate Woody Phelps and his guard had become increasingly worried by the frantic retreat of Northern soldiers past their doors. They stood armed watches through the night with orders to shoot once in the air and the second time to kill if anyone attempted to enter the consulate compound. During the night, looting continued throughout the city, with indiscriminate rifle fire, and no one got much sleep in the consulate or aboard ship. I was curled up with one knee resting against the one-eighth-inch steel side of the ship when a rifle bullet hit outside at that spot. The knee was stiff for days afterward, my only combat injury then or ever.