- Historic Sites
A Yankee Among The War Lords
First of the Three Parts from STILWELL THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA 1911-1945
October 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 6
Chiang Kai-shek made a wider sweep. On the night of April 12-13, assisted by agents of the Green Society and police of the French concession, he carried out a bloody purge of the left, disarming and hunting down all who could be found and killing more than three hundred. The revolution was turned from Red to right. Chiang’s coup was both turning point and point of no return. He was now on the way to unity, but he had fixed the terms of an underlying disunity that would become his nemesis. Hankow expelled him as a traitor, but he had the advantage in armed force and established his own government at Nanking.
Chiang was now seen by foreign watchers as no Red after all but, as Secretary Kellogg remarked with pleasant surprise, “apparently a leader of the Moderates.”…
This impression had not yet been made on foreign residents of North China. They visualized, as the Nationalists crossed the Yangtze and continued northward, a repetition of the Nanking “massacre” taking place in Tsinan, Tientsin, and Peking. By temperament an anticipator of trouble, Stilwell wrote in his diary of speculating on the loyalty of his servants, of plans for flight at a moment’s notice to the concessions at Tientsin, and of “a sick feeling of apprehension … for risking wife and children in such a country at such a time.”
Confidence in the northern armies was minimal. Wu was not co-operating with Chang Tso-lin, who had been named northern generalissimo, and the associated war lords were regularly falling out with, or withholding support from, each other. The isth Infantry and other foreign garrisons held anxious conferences on how to ensure protection of their nationals in Peking, and recommended a doubling of the strength of each. In order to hold the railroad open, a total force of twenty-five thousand would be better still, General Castner informed the War Department. He suggested that the next Army transport, due in May, should bring in troops from Manila and take home American women and children from North China. The Japanese moved a brigade down from Dairen to Tsingtao in Shantung, and General Butler, deciding that the situation in the north was now more critical than at Shanghai, brought a full brigade of four thousand Marines to Tientsin.
Equipped with twenty airplanes and a number of light tanks, which none of the other foreign contingents could boast, the Marines were the wonder of Tientsin, much to the annoyance of the 15th Infantry. As they briskly and efficiently went about unloading field artillery, mortars, howitzers, machine guns, sandbags for barricades, trucks, tanks, planes, and piles of supplies, the infantrymen stood watching with studied carelessness and inner rage. Butler warned that he would tolerate no clashes with the Chinese people and that “if a Marine so much as laid a hand on a rickshaw coolie he would be court-martialed.” Nevertheless he spared no effort in his preparations to relieve Peking at a moment’s notice.
In May anxiety heightened as the advancing Nationalists approached Hsuchow, the crucial junction of the main north-south and east-west railways just below the border of Shantung. Dating back to legendary times, the battle for Hsuchow was customarily considered the climax of every change of dynasty. According to an old Chinese saying, “Hsuchow is the place which the generals must capture to control the sky.” It was now held by the forces of the ogre of Shantung, Chang Tsungchang, the man who was “dangerous even to look at” but who in the war had not made a firm stand yet. If Hsuchow fell, Shantung would be invaded; and if Shantung were overrun, the southerners would be at the gates of Tientsin. Should foreign women and children be evacuated now? What plans should be made? How far would the southern effort go? …
The American Legation needed to obtain at firsthand a reliable estimate of the real strength of the southern forces, not to mention of the northern. Reports from missionaries, consular agents, and newspapermen were so unreliable that it was impossible to judge the situation. Though the mission would be dangerous, given the rising mood of anti-foreign fanaticism, an American military man must go in person. The choice fell not on the military attaché, Major John Magruder, or any of his staff, but on Major Stilwell of the isth Infantry. Besides a knowledge of China and Chinese, a record of previous adventurous journeys, and a recognized toughness of spirit, Stilwell possessed a further essential qualification—willingness to go, though he would be leaving behind four children and a wife shortly expecting a fifth.
On arriving in Hsuchow he was to present his credentials in person to the famed and terrible Chang Tsungchang. A former wharf coolie in his youth, nearly seven feet tall, Chang bore the nickname “Three Things not Known”—how much money he had, how many soldiers, and how many concubines. Of the last he was said to maintain a stable of forty-two, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, twenty-one White Russians, and one bedraggled American, whom he hauled along to his wars in two private railroad cars. He was also known as La pa shih lao , or “Old Eighty-six,” because the height of a pile of that number of silver dollars reputedly represented the length of the most valued portion of his anatomy in action.