- 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
The three Japanese destroyers moored above Noa took no part in the action, but when our guns began firing, their crews rushed to the afterdecks and shouted, “ Banzai! ”with each shot. Later one of the Japanese officers committed hara-kiri to remove the stain placed on Japanese honor by the ships’ inactivity in a time of crisis—when their consulate had been attacked and looted, with several casualties.
The fifty-two evacuees from Standard Oil house made their way unmolested to the city wall, which was ground level at the top, and tied together bed sheets and blankets brought from the house to make the sixty-foot descent. From there it was a short hike to the river and safety, with no interference from anyone. The only casualties were Mr. Hobart and Signalman Wilson, the last two over the wall. The improvised line parted before they were all the way down; Mr. Hobart broke an ankle, and Wilson landed flat on his back. (Ten years later the after-effects of the fall forced Wilson to retire as a warrant boatswain because of physical disability. He came back to active duty as a chief boatswain in 1940, served as an ordnance inspector, and retired again as a lieutenant in 1946. After that he became a bank examiner and did another twenty years of federal service. Then he retired for good to grow roses in Washington State and gained wide recognition as an expert in this distinctly nonmartial field.)
Early that day two of Noa ’s missionaries wandered up to the bridge and were most effusive in expressing their thanks for our having saved their lives. But the duty quartermaster, Hungerford, had heard about their prayers the day before, and he was very succinct in his reply: “We didn’t give a damn about you people. We had shipmates ashore in that mess who had to be got out.”
So far Dad had violated three cardinal points of Navy regulations: (1) He had placed his two ships in a joint task force under British command, (2) he had landed armed troops upon friendly foreign soil without that government’s permission, and (3) he had opened main battery fire upon a friendly foreign nation. Now he committed a fourth: He joined Hugh England in a joint ultimatum to the Chinese general occupying the area to cease all harassment of foreigners and escort those remaining in the city to the docks or suffer further bombardment of the city. The Chinese accepted before deadline, so there was no more shooting, but the whole affair was a great embarrassment and loss of face for Chiang Kai-shek.
Shortly afterward the Rear Adm. Henry Hough, commander, Yangtze Patrol, reached Nanking in his flagship USS Isabel (PY-10) and, to Dad’s great relief, superseded both him and Hugh as senior officer present.
Hough ordered Noa upriver to Wuhu, where there had been a spot of trouble, with our refugees still aboard. We picked up a few more at Wuhu, where we had to buy large quantities of meat, produce, and such to feed all the people. The meat was bad. By the time we got back to Nanking the next day most of the crew and refugees were down with ptomaine poisoning, and we were ordered to make a high-speed run to Shanghai to put the sick in hospitals. Approaching Chinkiang, the next port downriver, where the Silver Island forts had been firing on every passing ship, we couldn’t muster enough well people to man a single gun. Dad put cots around the three broadside guns, propped them up at about a forty-degree angle, and laid the gun crews on them. From the big 343 on her bow the forts’ garrisons must have recognized Noa as the ship that had bombarded Nanking, and not a shot was fired as we steamed by.
The day after we arrived in Shanghai and disembarked the refugees and the sick, we had a rude shock. At Nanking all the refugees aboard Noa had drafted and signed a testimonial given to Dad declaring that only his determined action had saved their lives and stating how grateful they were to the U.S. Navy. Now the North China Daily News reported that all of them, even Pearl Buck, said they had been deliberately poisoned on board the ship. There was no mention that the crew had also been poisoned or of the refugees’ previous gratitude. A few, led by a Father O’Brien, took violent exception to the story in subsequent letters to the editor, but it still lingers in my mind as the classic act of ingratitude.