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The Last Powder Monkey

June 2024
16min read

A TALE OF PERIL, COURAGE, and gross ingratitude on the old China station

In the age of sail every fighting ship had its complement of powder monkeys, boys in their early teens or even younger whose duty was to carry bags of gunpowder from the ship’s magazines to her cannon in time of battle. The Navy used powder monkeys for decades, but they disappeared long before the war with Spain, displaced by advances in ordnance and humanitarian objections to exposing children to combat.

In the age of sail every fighting ship had its complement of powder monkeys, boys in their early teens or even younger whose duty was to carry bags of gunpowder from the ship’s magazines to her cannon in time of battle. The Navy used powder monkeys for decades, but they disappeared long before the war with Spain, displaced by advances in ordnance and humanitarian objections to exposing children to combat. In March 1927, however, the thirteen-year-old son of a destroyer skipper reprised their role during the bombardment of Nanking.


ON FEBRUARY 27, 1927, the USS Noa (DD-343), Lt. Cmdr. Roy C. Smith, Jr., USN, commanding, arrived at Nanking, China, and relieved USS Simpson (DD-221) as station ship there “to protect American lives and property.” Those were the days Richard McKenna described in his great novel The Sand Pebbles , when foreigners up the Yangtze River were in real danger, prompting the traditional cry “Send a gunboat!” Noa was a destroyer the next step up from a gunboat, 314 feet long, but at most only 30 feet 8 inches abeam, with a main battery of four 4-inch guns, one each mounted fore and aft and two on her forward deckhouse. She displaced 1,190 tons, less than a good-size yacht, and was designed to carry a crew of 184. At Nanking her complement included an unofficial but very interested observer, the captain’s thirteen-year-old son, myself.

The 45th Destroyer Division, including Noa , had been conducting exercises off Manila Bay earlier that month when a signal came from the CINC (commander in chief), Asiatic Fleet, ordering the division to proceed forthwith to Shanghai for duty up the Yangtze. Dad took me to sea with him whenever possible, a perk for Asiatic Fleet destroyer skippers in those days, so I was on board, and “forthwith” did not allow time to head back to Subic Bay to put me ashore. Which was just fine with me.

What brought us up the Yangtze in such a hurry was the latest round of the Chinese civil war. Chiang Kaishek’s Southern army allied with the Kuomintang had been moving steadily downriver from Hankow in his drive to unify the country. Its 1st Division, steeped in Communist ideology and commanded by a Soviet Russian general using the alias Calen, was now approaching Nanking. Troops of Marshal Chang Tsolin’s Northern government under Marshal Chang Tsung-ch’ang, reinforced by the private army of a mid-Yangtze warlord, Sun Chuan-feng, held a strong line of fortifications around the southern and western sides of the city, whose residents included a foreign colony of about four hundred Americans, one hundred each British and Japanese, and a few other nationalities. Because the 1st Division’s advance had been marked by pillage, arson, murder, and rape, with foreigners as the preferred but by no means the only victims, the people of Nanking, foreigners and Chinese alike, were understandably on edge.


Other ships present were the British cruiser Emerald , three Japanese destroyers, three small Northern government gunboats—one of them mounting on her forward deck a gun so big that the recoil must have driven her backward—and two Northern transports. About a week later the Chinese vessels defected to the Southern government and steamed upriver to Kuomintang territory. We never saw them again.

Recognizing the probable need for forceful action in the days ahead, Dad and Emerald ’s CO, Capt. Hugh England, made plans for a joint task force, with the latter as senior officer present. Dad wrote Mother that the first time he called on Captain England, he saw that “his sea library is almost identical to mine” and knew that they would become fast friends. They did, complementing each other perfectly, and Hugh remained a great family friend for the rest of his life. The Japanese commander, who had no orders covering joint operations and no taste for participating in one, would have nothing to do with such arrangements, but Emerald and Noa soon developed a very close and warm working relationship. ( Emerald , incidentally, was a sort of seagoing pun: Every one of her officers, including Hugh England, was Irish.)

Fortunately there was still time to enjoy the sights and friendships of Nanking and its British and American communities. I remember dining with Dad at the home of the Macartneys, the Irish boss of the British International Export Company, where I first saw wild ducks hung on hooks on the compound wall. It was explained that when they fell off under their own weight, they were ready to cook. They tasted a little gamy but very good. For recreation Noa sent hunting parties ashore to bring back wild pheasant and an occasional pig. Rafts of ducks would float down to about a hundred yards from Noa ’s bow, then fly back upriver and drift down again. Our chief electrician’s mate, who was an expert with a .22 rifle, potted dozens of them as they bobbed up and down three hundred feet away. Crew, chiefs, and wardroom ate incredibly well with almost no charge to government funds for meat. In fact the eating was so unvaryingly luxurious that after the first two weeks a delegation from the crew approached the exec with the unprecedented request to go back “once in a while” to beans and bacon.

SEEING the need for forceful action ahead, Dad and Emerald ’s CO planned a joint task force.

There were a few bad points to life on the Great River, among them the “floaters,” human or animal corpses bloated from long immersion that continually drifted downriver, occasionally catching in the anchor chain or under a propeller guard to hang there until dislodged. One caught on Noa just after sunset and wasn’t found until the next dawn, when a search party discovered the cause of a foul smell that had permeated the ship. It took two days to get rid of the aroma in the belowdecks compartments.

BY THE MIDDLE OF MARCH things had begun to get tighter as Chiang’s noose closed around the city, and Dad figured that a direct communications link to the shore might become necessary. One day I went ashore with Chips, our carpenter’s mate, to build a small signal station—platform and mast—on the roof of Standard Oil house. The house, on Socony Hill in open country just south of the downtown area, overlooked the city wall and the lowlands leading down to the river. The resident manager was E. T. Hobart, whose wife, Alice Tisdale Hobart, became famous as the author of Oil for the Lamps of China . When we were finished, Mrs. Hobart asked us down for tea, which we politely accepted. I’ve never seen such disgust on a man’s face as when Chips realized that our refreshment really was tea.

On the way back to the dock, our rickshaws were suddenly swept up into a mob of people swarming down into an open area on the Bund, as the riverfront was called. Chips and I eased out of the rickshaws to head for the dock but were trapped in the crowd as it formed a circle. Into this circle were led twelve Chinese, all with hands tied behind their backs, who were made to kneel down. Then, from their soldier escort, out stepped a very large lad with a very long sword. He walked around behind the kneeling prisoners, and whack! whack! whack! off went their heads. One poor soul didn’t get a clean cut. The executioner in disgust held his head up by the hair and sawed the rest of the way through, whereupon Chips and I threw up. We were still very queasy when we finally got back to our boat. Such was the discipline enforced by Northern troops, although we never did find out why those twelve people were executed. Probably for stealing bread.


By this time the joint plan had been formulated with the concurrence of British Consul General Bertram Giles and American Consul John K. Davis, who was one of the very best men we had in China and a credit to the Foreign Service. He organized a telephone tree among the American community so that any important word could be rapidly disseminated. As the overall situation deteriorated, it was decided to put armed guards from the ships into their respective consulates. Hugh England landed a party of his Royal Marines, who marched up to the city’s Middle Gate and were refused admittance. After hours of fruitless argument and much dashing around offices ashore by Hugh and his consul general, the marines marched back again. On hearing that news, Dad put ashore a guard of ten men under Ens. Woodward (“Woody”) Phelps, all dressed in blue sweaters over blue uniform trousers but with no insignia whatever. They did not carry arms openly, but each had an automatic pistol tucked in his waistband, and their back-packs were stowed in the trunks of the three consulate cars sent to pick them up. After entering the city by different gates, all three cars arrived at the consulate with no problems. Later, when it seemed that general looting was imminent, a 30-caliber Lewis machine gun and several pans of ammunition were smuggled into the guard. Stored in the consulate were twenty Springfield rifles, still covered with Cosmoline preservative in their shipping boxes.

At the same time, Signalman Jack Wilson was sent up to Standard Oil house to maintain direct communications between consulate (by telephone) and ship (by semaphore). The next day Hugh England followed Dad’s example and sneaked a marine guard into the British consulate.

Evacuation of civilians, primarily women and children, began on March 22. Thanks to the telephone tree and volunteer drivers, all the American evacuees got safely to the dock area, where they were picked up by ships’ boats. USS William B. Preston (DD-344) had arrived the day before from Wuhu, the next port upriver, and provided extra facilities for the refugees. By happy chance Dad had been a few numbers senior to Preston ’s skipper, George Ashe, in the Naval Academy class of 1910, so he retained U.S. seniority, and the joint plans remained unchanged. With some 300 evacuees expected to board the two destroyers, whose crews were about 175 men each, the chief petty officers had to be moved out of their forward quarters—which had the only semiprivate toilet facilities—and half the crews out of their forward compartments. With the kind of helpful co-operation that has always been typical of the U.S. Navy, all hands shifted aft with goodwill, dropping a mattress in any clear space above- or belowdecks.

Each destroyer had only one 24-foot motor launch, so the evacuation went slowly through the day. One of our lady refugees was Pearl Buck, whose name meant nothing to me at the time.

THIS BEING MY FIRST EVAC uation, I decided to record it by photographing with my little Brownie the refugees arriving on Noa . Later, when everything was over and we were about to shove off for Shanghai, Henry Misselwitz of International News came on board to cover the Nanking story. Hearing of my pictures, he bought the undeveloped roll of film for the princely (to me) sum of ten dollars gold. Luckily for both of us the pictures came out well enough for some to be used with his story.

During the day, Dad told Preston to send two signalmen and a small guard to Standard Oil house to back up Wilson in maintaining a continuous communications watch. Since the guard arrived without rifles, Dad arranged for the consulate’s stock to be delivered over to them. How was the Cosmoline to be cleaned off? Wilson suggested using Mr. Hobart’s cellar of fine Scotch whisky, and it proved a very successful solvent, although Mr. Hobart was rather dubious about the procedure. When all was done, the cleaning detail strained the grease out of the remaining whisky through an undershirt and drank what was left. Wilson told me later, “Cosmoline doesn’t taste too bad when it’s flavored with good Scotch.”

That evening most of Preston ’s and a few of our refugees were put aboard a “chicken ferry” sailing for Shanghai (these small passenger ships got their name from the livestock the steerage-class Chinese passengers brought along with them). Nevertheless, we still had more than a hundred guests aboard for the ensuing activities.

BY THE TWENTY-THIRD WE could hear heavy gunfire south of the city, and word came that the Southerners’ “silver bullets”—bribes—had been very successful: Marshal Sun Chuan-Feng had sailed for a rich exile in Japan, other Northern commanders had defected, and their troops were in full retreat toward Nanking. The Bund went mad with activity when in midafternoon Northern soldiers began arriving and commandeering anything that would float to get them across the river to safety. About four o’clock some Southerners began arriving and shooting at the ships in the Yangtze. Noa , anchored not quite a mile out, received her fair share of attention.

At this time I was giving a tour of the ship to a missionary’s son about my age. We had just reached the galley deckhouse when the shooting started. As we stood on the exposed deck looking at the two 4-inch guns, we began to hear loud buzzing noises in the air. I knew what was making them and was not too happy being up there in the open, but I waited for my companion to ask what they were. When he finally did, I said, “Oh, those are bullets going by.”

WE HEARD heavy gunfire south of the city, and word came that Northern commanders had defected and their troops were in full retreat toward Nanking.

“Mmm,” he said, “don’t you think maybe we ought to get down off here?”

I allowed that that would be a very good idea, and so we did, but there was no way that I was going to be the first to suggest it.

Meanwhile at the consulate Woody Phelps and his guard had become increasingly worried by the frantic retreat of Northern soldiers past their doors. They stood armed watches through the night with orders to shoot once in the air and the second time to kill if anyone attempted to enter the consulate compound. During the night, looting continued throughout the city, with indiscriminate rifle fire, and no one got much sleep in the consulate or aboard ship. I was curled up with one knee resting against the one-eighth-inch steel side of the ship when a rifle bullet hit outside at that spot. The knee was stiff for days afterward, my only combat injury then or ever.

Early on the morning of March 24, signals came from Consul Davis via Socony Hill that Southern troops had entered the city in force and had looted two American Christian missions. Rifle fire from the Bund increased, and a dumdum bullet put a nice hole in Noa ’s number three stack (Dad left it there throughout his command). Further reports came of violent assaults on the British and Japanese consulates, the robbery and murder of the American vice president of Nanking University, and other acts of violence against foreigners by uniformed Southern troops in organized groups. Some foreigners fled to Standard Oil house and were taken in by the Hobarts, but the house was soon surrounded by soldiers, and the signalmen had to duck rifle fire while semaphoring messages. Luckily none were hit, and all three were later awarded the Navy Cross, as was Chief Quartermaster Horn, who received their signals standing on Noa ’s open bridge.

During the initial looting of the city, Consul Davis and Woody Phelps decided that the consulate was untenable, so the consular staff, naval guard, and some missionaries who had taken refuge there set off on foot across two miles of open country to Standard Oil house. Two missionaries were detailed to carry the machine gun and ammunition but, apparently terrified by being under sporadic rifle fire and eager to hasten their progress, threw everything away. Fortunately again, the whole party reached Socony Hill with only one casualty, a seaman who took a bullet through his posterior. The party’s arrival eased Dad’s problems because all our people known to be ashore were now in one place and that place could be reached by Noa ’s guns. Lt. Benny Staud, the exec, navigator, and gunnery officer, had long before plotted ranges and bearings, and ammunition had been placed in the ready lockers on deck.

As the morning wore on, everything on the river came under heavy rifle fire, which was not returned, but its sources were noted for future attention. The soldiers ringing Standard Oil house demanded ransom from its occupants; the first batch was bribed away, but others kept coming until there was no longer anything to give them. One soldier told the consul, “We are Bolsheviks, we’re proud to be Bolsheviks, and we’re going to act like Bolsheviks.” At that point Davis ordered all hands to take arms and prepare to defend the house, and sent a signal to Noa : “Commence firing. Fire over our heads. SOS. SOS.”

Dad called up to Benny Staud on the flying bridge. “Well,” he said, “I’ll get either a medal or a court-martial out of this, but let her go, Benny.”

FEW MINUTES EARLIER DAD had ordered me down to the forward crew’s compartment, where our refugees were berthed, to make sure that all the lower-deck ports were secured. They were right at the waterline, and the recoil from a four-inch broadside would roll Noa over far enough to put them underwater. I had just finished dogging the last one shut when the first salvo went off. Immediately a large group of missionaries dropped to their knees and began praying for the souls of the innocent Chinese who would be killed; there was no thought of the Americans whose lives were at stake.

From the crew’s compartment I ran up the ladder to the main deck, where we had set up two .50-caliber Lewis guns. These were a species of machine gun fed by a revolving metal pan that worked like the carousel on a slide projector. The gunners were firing at the sniper nests along the Bund, which cleared off as if by magic. Seeing me standing there, the gunners yelled for more ammunition. I was happy to oblige. I scrambled to the ready locker, grabbed some pans, and hurried back with them. Thus I became the last (albeit unofficial) powder monkey in the U.S. Navy.

Our four-inch guns were firing a barage of flat-nosed shrapnel in a U pattern around and behind Standard Oil house, leaving the river side open for evacuation. At the first bursts bugles blew and the soldiers took off like scared rabbits. Emerald ’s six-inchers joined in, along with Preston ’s four-inch guns. Emerald deliberately put her first shot through the roof of the British consulate, pulling the whole works down on several hundred looters inside. Looting throughout the city ended; the Southerners immediately disappeared.

After nineteen rounds from Noa all ships ceased firing and a signal was made to the house for its people to withdraw toward the river, where they would be met by landing parties from Emerald and Preston , covered by HMS Wolsey . This last destroyer had arrived on the scene just as Noa ’s first salvo went off. “Crikey,” said her skipper, “the bloody Yanks have got the wind up again.” Just then Emerald ’s six-inch battery opened up and Wolsey was told to stand by for orders.

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.)


THE MAIN SHOW WAS ALL over by six o’clock in the evening, with everyone safely on board our ships except for a few businessmen and missionaries who came down to the docks and were picked up the next morning. They told us that when the first shells burst, officers rounded up the looters and the whole army skedaddled, leaving piles of booty in the streets. The soldiers had still not returned by morning, apparently fearing another bombardment.

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.

OUR guns fired a barrage around Standard Oil house.

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.

Our arrival in Shanghai ended my cruise. Dad put me aboard SS President Harrison , bound for Manila, arranging for the captain to keep an eye on me. The first night out word got around that I had been at Nanking, and I was asked to appear in the ship’s lounge to tell about what had happened there. Like all sailors, I got carried away with a good story. My description of being in Noa ’s crow’s-nest watching the whole show while trying to catch passing bullets in a baseball glove was enthusiastically received, if not universally believed.

AS IT TURNED OUT, DAD’S prediction that opening fire at Nanking would get him a medal or a court-martial was mistaken; he received neither. He was recommended for a Distinguished Service Medal, but for various reasons he was not in the good graces of the chief of staff, Asiatic Fleet, and the recommendation never went any further. He did receive warm letters of commendation from the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Navy, and, on Hugh England’s recommendation to the Admiralty, from King George V.

Years later, long after Dad’s retirement, Congress passed an act providing for promotion on the retired list for personnel who had been decorated or commended at the secretarial level for combat service. Friends persuaded Dad to apply for promotion on the basis of his commendations for Nanking. Eventually the Department of the Navy replied that his request had been considered but was declined; although it met the spirit of the law, Nanking could not be considered “combat service.” A couple of days later Jack Wilson came by to visit Dad and said he had just been informed that he’d been promoted from boatswain to chief boatswain on the retired list because of his Navy Cross for Nanking.

A final note on the Nanking affair: Chiang Kai-shek was so angered by the behavior of his Communist troops and so embarrassed by the ultimatum his deputy had had to accept that he made a complete break with the Communists. He threw them out of the Kuomintang and fired all his Soviet advisers and commanders. These actions led ultimately to another Chinese civil war and the eventual victory of Mao Tse-tung.


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