A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail He supported a luxurious yamen thronged with officers and dined lavishly with brandy and champagne from a Belgian cut-glass dinner service of forty covers, which he boasted had cost fifty thousand dollars. A magnificent carved and lacquered teakwood coffin accompanied him on board a flatcar of his private train. It was his boast that he would return from battle inside it if he failed to conquer, but he returned from Shanghai sitting on the coffin, smoking and slightly tipsy. Under his reign Shantung was plagued by famine in 1927, brought on not by flood or drought but by the Tuchun’s rapacity.

Stilwell caught the evening train for Hsuchow on May 26. With him went Chao, his Chinese servant, without whom, as he wrote afterward, he might not have returned. “Why should Chao poke his nose into danger and risk his life in loyalty to a lao mao tze [old hairy one, a common designation for a foreigner] when all his own countrymen were screaming ‘Kill them'?” Stilwell could supply no answer, but he acknowledged his respect for “a game and loyal little man” who when the situation became nastv could easily have run out, but did not.


As the train rattled across the border into Shantung, Stilwell saw telltale signs of trouble. Carts with safe-conduct flags waited for hire at the stations, an indication that local security was nonexistent. The carts were in fact a racket run by bandits who took squeeze from the cart owners. Villagers with worried faces were mending their mud walls. There was “an ominous quiet when there should have been a hubbub about small things.” As the train progressed, soldiers of the northern army began to be seen, “unconcerned, apathetic … in a jungle of units … no evidence of any organization of positions.” Rolling stock in railroad yards was in “terrible condition … one or two wrecks in every round house.”

“After dark of the next day they reached Hsuchow and found it crowded with soldiers of all arms and ranks. Drunken pings (soldiers) and scowling White Russians of the war lord’s cavalry reeled in the streets. The travellers met surly replies and no room at the inns. Chao suggested the local Y.M.C.A., and they slept at the house of its secretary, Mr. T’ang. Hsuchow, as they discovered next morning, was a “wreck,” washed over time and again by the wave of war. The homeless, evicted by famine or soldiers, were camping where they could, food supplies were giving out, dead bodies were lying in the streets where they had fallen. “We stepped over them with the other passersby and went our way.” Stilwell saw fifteen blind women leading each other around; otherwise no other women but a few old crones were visible in the streets, the rest being hidden away behind closed doors in fear of the soldiers. The refugees, possessing nothing but the rags they stood in and a few clay pots for cooking, “did not beg; they simply sat and looked out with hopeless eyes at an incomprehensible world.” They were fed a meager ration of pressed-cake, the residue after oil is pressed from beans, which in Manchuria, Stilwell noted, is broken up for fertilizer or fed to pigs. Once hard-working and industrious farmers, the refugees had seen “their carts and animals seized for armies, their sons drafted, their grain eaten up by locust hordes of soldiers, their homes pulled to pieces for firewood, their women mistreated, their children perhaps scattered- this is the saddest side of Chinese wars.”…

After trying in vain to see Chang Tsung-chang, Stilwell prowled around the city. “Russky cavalry,” the feared and prized adjunct of a northern war lord’s army, galloped through the streets. They wore dark green, almost black uniforms with yellow leather boots reaching to their thighs, and carried an armory of weapons: pennant-tipped lances in their stirrup sockets; long-barrelled Mauser pistols in wooden holsters; and the da-bao , or Chinese beheading sword, like an oversize machete strapped over the shoulder in a canvas scabbard. Merciless and fierce, men without a country, they were “the toughest eggs I ever laid eyes on.” Besides the cavalry troop of about one hundred, a Russian infantry brigade under General Netchaeff of about three thousand men with four armored trains served with the Tuchun’s forces....

An informant told Stilwell that the northerners would not fight; they were all afraid of the Red Spears. These were bands of resistance fighters drawn from the country people who, made desperate by marauding soldiers, had organized the Red Spear Society to prey upon whatever small groups of soldiers they could handle. They killed without mercy, inflicting wounds that left their victims alive for three or four hours before they died.

Each day food grew more scarce. Chao scrounged and brought in some canned goods. Preparations for a general movement were increasingly evident. Stilwell kept watch at the two railroad stations and yards, counting guns and calibers, recording troop trains, and trying to evaluate from the chaos what Chang Tsung-chang was planning. From the pings he learned that some units had not been paid for five months, some not for a year. Their ration was mantou , rice and water. He picked up the news that Feng Yu-hsiang had taken Chengchow, dominating the western end of the transverse railway.