A Yankee Among The War Lords

PrintPrintEmailEmail “They haven’t the slightest idea of the uses of the new inventions and talk of guarding a bridge with a tank.” Stilwell “doped out a Stokes mortar” for Feng and “tried my best to explain what airplanes, tanks and rifle grenades were designed for and could do, and how useless it was for him to waste money on them. With his infantry and machine guns, there is nothing in the province that he could not clean up in short order.” This was not what Feng wanted to hear, but Stilwell persevered “in the hope of keeping this really admirable man from wasting his resources on what, to him, would be the frills of war.”…

Work began on the road with eight hundred laborers armed with wooden shovels, “T’ang dynasty picks,” too few baskets, and no tamps. Under the circumstances it proved hard to get the road work under way; the workmen were “terrible” and the foremen disappointing. After a week they were “no good yet. Won’t make the men work. … Still cutting wrong after being told 20 times. … Work all bitched up.” But gradually “chaos begins to give way to order,” and Stilwell could feel that the work was really progressing. Just at this juncture the renewed war of the northern war lords intervened.

Rumor spread that Chang Tso-lin was “starting things,” and Feng’s division was sent for to help out Wu P’ei-fu. Files of Feng’s troops were marching east, Stilwell’s carts were commandeered, his foremen were disappearing, and it was plain the project would have to be abandoned. Feng’s chief of staff came to invite him to accompany the army. On April 21 he started east again, brushing aside frantic but incomprehensible pleas for delay by his courier. After two miles he was overtaken by an exhausted messenger on a bicycle bearing on his back a rug as a gift from the Tuchun . The bicyclist presented it and collapsed on the ground. Pushing on, Stilwell passed a group of Feng’s staff, “all down in the mouth and bemoaning China’s fate.” He shared their melancholy. If Feng had been left undisturbed for a period of years, he could have established control, wiped out the bandits, and attacked the opium traffic with some prospect of success, Stilwell thought. But now “the only man who has shown any likelihood of standing for law and order and decent government” was pulled back into the endless wars of faction, and Shensi was left to the old ways.

At T’ung Kuan, an old frontier fortress at the elbow of the Yellow River with big gates and stone-paved ramps leading up to them, Stilwell had a farewell dinner with Feng in an old temple. The Tuchun summoned a regiment for review by his guest, whom he introduced to the soldiers as Shih Ying-chang (Major Stilwell) of the Ou Chou (European) clan. To a provincial Chinese, a foreigner was a foreigner, and his particular nationality was rarely differentiated. …

After eighteen days of alternate jolting and trudging, of dirt and heat and overnight discomforts and, on one occasion following a cloudburst, of walking the last two hours through a foot of water in the dark and finding the gate of the town closed on arrival, Stilwell at last reached Taiyuan, where he boarded the train for Peking. He had not built a road this time, but he had lived and worked with the Chinese soldier and common man and made a friend of an outstanding leader. On the return trip to Peking, Stilwell saw Chang Tso-lin’s troop trains heading south from Manchuria toward the confrontation with the forces of Feng and Wu P’ei-fu that ended in his defeat. Two years later Feng was to turn against Wu and emerge the leader of the north and go on to become a crucial figure in the decisive years of the late twenties, when Stilwell was again in China. They were to meet again at this time and again whenever Stilwell was in China. Long afterward, a few days after her husband’s death, Mrs. Stilwell was upstairs at her home in Carmel when a visitor was announced with some confusion as “the Christian.” Mystified, she went down to find in the hall the huge figure and cannonball head of Feng Yu-hsiang,∗ who said, “I have come to mourn with you for Shih Ti-wei, my friend.”

∗ On his first visit to the United States. He went on to visit the U.S.S.R. and was killed en route in a fire on a Soviet ship in the Black Sea.


As agent of the military attaché, Stilwell was sent out on journeys to Manchuria, Siberia, and Korea, checking on whether the Japanese were evacuating the areas they had promised to in the Washington Treaties negotiated by the great powers in 1922. He also saw more of China and came home in July, 1923, to go to the Infantry School at Fort Benning and afterward to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, in the same class with Dwight Eisenhower. Then, in 1926, Stilwell went back to China, where he was to be a battalion commander in the 15th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Tientsin.

China was not the China the Stilwells had left three years ago. Momentous change was boiling up in the south, about to bring forth a leader, a climax of strife, and national government at last.

It began with the order to “Fire!” given by a British inspector of police against a demonstration of Chinese students and workers in the course of a textile strike in Shanghai on May 30, 1925. Twelve Chinese were killed and seventeen wounded.