A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail Its officers attended to regimental affairs, tea and dinner dances, and polo at the Race Club; its enlisted men enjoyed a venereal-disease rate three times that of the American Army as a whole; its weekly journal, The Sentinel , published news under the heading “Domestic,” which referred to the United States.

Tientsin, located sixty miles upriver from the sea, was the main port and business center of North China. As in Shanghai, the concession area was policed by Sikhs provided by the British and had its advantages for the Chinese. During the war-lord era two presidents, a premier, and twenty-six provincial governors at one time or another took refuge there. The concession’s main street was named in its different sections Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse (renamed Woodrow Wilson Street), Victoria Road, Rue de la France, and Via Italia. The United States had not taken a territorial concession until after the World War, when it took over a section of the former German concession, about a city block in area, now called the American Compound. Besides the barracks, the compound housed the post hospital, service club, and recreation hall, where the heartbeat of America throbbed through a change of three or four American movies a week. …

One battalion of the 15th Infantry had served against the Boxers in 1900, but the regiment had not taken up its station in China until after the revolution of 1911. Its regular complement was three battalions, of which one remained in the Philippines. The two in China totalled about fifty officers and eight hundred men, somewhat less than the British and French contingents in Tientsin and approximately the same as the Japanese at that time. The 15th’s motto was “Can Do,” taken from the pidgin phrase used by Chinese to express, as the regimental manual put it, “ability to carry out the mission.” At the end of the training year a “Can Do Week” was held with track, field, and marksmanship events, horse and transportation shows, and much awarding of trophies and medals. The duty day, dominated by the sergeant and taken up with rifle and machine-gun drill, was short, generally over by noon, with little field exercise, because the area for maneuver was limited. … The entire regiment was served by coolies, each company having its Number One Boy dressed in long blue gown and black skullcap. The coolies pitched officers’ tents during field exercises, waited on their mess, and performed all the menial tasks, even sometimes cleaning the soldiers’ rifles.

The over-all command, established for reasons of rank and prestige, was held by a brigadier general designated commander of United States Army Forces in China (U.S.A.F.C.). This was the post held by General J. C. Castner, an overwrought and unstable man in his sixties who wore unkempt clothes in contrast to the 15th’s reputation for classy dressing and was not from West Point. The regiment came under his direct control in December, 1926, when headquarters of the 15th Infantry and U.S.A.F.C. were merged. Proud of his physique and prowess in walking, Castner had a passion for physical exercise, which may have been one reason why Stilwell understood him and was one of the few officers with whom Castner never quarrelled. Coming from a command in the wilder reaches of Alaska, he was going to teach these tea-drinking s.o.b.’s some real soldiering and “reduce the fat men of the regiment to a workable condition.” To prepare for the worst, in the face of the Red anti-foreign crusade that he, and indeed many others, saw overwhelming Peking as in the days of the Boxers, he resolved to train the regiment to relieve the legations in three days of forced march. As he explained to the War Department, it might be a “vital necessity” in the future, and he personally trained for the event by walking daily around the Tientsin Race Course. …

When Stilwell came as a battalion commander in 1926, he found the person and formed the connection that would be decisive for his future. This was his acquaintance from World War I days, now serving as executive officer of the 15th Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall. Their tours in China overlapped for only eight months, but it was enough for what had been mere acquaintance to grow into a bond of mutual respect. Of any other two men the relation might have been called friendship, but these two closed personalities have left few references to this stage of their relationship, and Marshall was not a man easily claimed as a friend. A graduate of V.M.I., courtly and distant, closing all conversations with his cool “Thank you very much,” he never called anyone by his first name and rarely got the last name straight. As befitted Pershing’s particular protégé, he was, in the opinion of one soldier of the i5th Infantry, “the most military-looking man in the entire army.”

The Stilwells took tea at the Marshalls’ two days after their arrival and went again to a “special court dinner” in the same week. Stilwell felt sufficiently easy to borrow his host’s coat. At a dinner party given by the Marshalls on another occasion one invited couple was late, and after a brief wait the host announced they would go in to dinner. Just after soup was served, the doorbell rang. Stopping the Number One Boy as he was going to answer it, Marshall went to the door himself, and the guests heard him say, “I’m sorry, but dinner is nearly over,” and then the door was firmly closed.