The Last Powder Monkey


Early on the morning of March 24, signals came from Consul Davis via Socony Hill that Southern troops had entered the city in force and had looted two American Christian missions. Rifle fire from the Bund increased, and a dumdum bullet put a nice hole in Noa ’s number three stack (Dad left it there throughout his command). Further reports came of violent assaults on the British and Japanese consulates, the robbery and murder of the American vice president of Nanking University, and other acts of violence against foreigners by uniformed Southern troops in organized groups. Some foreigners fled to Standard Oil house and were taken in by the Hobarts, but the house was soon surrounded by soldiers, and the signalmen had to duck rifle fire while semaphoring messages. Luckily none were hit, and all three were later awarded the Navy Cross, as was Chief Quartermaster Horn, who received their signals standing on Noa ’s open bridge.

During the initial looting of the city, Consul Davis and Woody Phelps decided that the consulate was untenable, so the consular staff, naval guard, and some missionaries who had taken refuge there set off on foot across two miles of open country to Standard Oil house. Two missionaries were detailed to carry the machine gun and ammunition but, apparently terrified by being under sporadic rifle fire and eager to hasten their progress, threw everything away. Fortunately again, the whole party reached Socony Hill with only one casualty, a seaman who took a bullet through his posterior. The party’s arrival eased Dad’s problems because all our people known to be ashore were now in one place and that place could be reached by Noa ’s guns. Lt. Benny Staud, the exec, navigator, and gunnery officer, had long before plotted ranges and bearings, and ammunition had been placed in the ready lockers on deck.

As the morning wore on, everything on the river came under heavy rifle fire, which was not returned, but its sources were noted for future attention. The soldiers ringing Standard Oil house demanded ransom from its occupants; the first batch was bribed away, but others kept coming until there was no longer anything to give them. One soldier told the consul, “We are Bolsheviks, we’re proud to be Bolsheviks, and we’re going to act like Bolsheviks.” At that point Davis ordered all hands to take arms and prepare to defend the house, and sent a signal to Noa : “Commence firing. Fire over our heads. SOS. SOS.”

Dad called up to Benny Staud on the flying bridge. “Well,” he said, “I’ll get either a medal or a court-martial out of this, but let her go, Benny.”

FEW MINUTES EARLIER DAD had ordered me down to the forward crew’s compartment, where our refugees were berthed, to make sure that all the lower-deck ports were secured. They were right at the waterline, and the recoil from a four-inch broadside would roll Noa over far enough to put them underwater. I had just finished dogging the last one shut when the first salvo went off. Immediately a large group of missionaries dropped to their knees and began praying for the souls of the innocent Chinese who would be killed; there was no thought of the Americans whose lives were at stake.

From the crew’s compartment I ran up the ladder to the main deck, where we had set up two .50-caliber Lewis guns. These were a species of machine gun fed by a revolving metal pan that worked like the carousel on a slide projector. The gunners were firing at the sniper nests along the Bund, which cleared off as if by magic. Seeing me standing there, the gunners yelled for more ammunition. I was happy to oblige. I scrambled to the ready locker, grabbed some pans, and hurried back with them. Thus I became the last (albeit unofficial) powder monkey in the U.S. Navy.

Our four-inch guns were firing a barage of flat-nosed shrapnel in a U pattern around and behind Standard Oil house, leaving the river side open for evacuation. At the first bursts bugles blew and the soldiers took off like scared rabbits. Emerald ’s six-inchers joined in, along with Preston ’s four-inch guns. Emerald deliberately put her first shot through the roof of the British consulate, pulling the whole works down on several hundred looters inside. Looting throughout the city ended; the Southerners immediately disappeared.

After nineteen rounds from Noa all ships ceased firing and a signal was made to the house for its people to withdraw toward the river, where they would be met by landing parties from Emerald and Preston , covered by HMS Wolsey . This last destroyer had arrived on the scene just as Noa ’s first salvo went off. “Crikey,” said her skipper, “the bloody Yanks have got the wind up again.” Just then Emerald ’s six-inch battery opened up and Wolsey was told to stand by for orders.