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Hard Liquor, Easy Duty

By Elihu Rose
Autumn 1993 • MHQ Magazine

The 15th United States Infantry Regiment at Tientsin—”the Can Do Boys,” as they liked to be called—may have had a very martial-sounding motto, but they didn’t do much. They didn’t have to; they had the cushiest assignment between the wars. 

 

IT WAS A GLORIOUS SCENE, LIKE SOMETHING OUT OF AN OLD MOVIE—perhaps Four Feathers or Gunga Din. The date: March 2, 1938. The place: Tientsin, China. The setting: The 15th United States Infantry Regiment was going home after nearly 26 years in the Tientsin garrison. The road from the American Barracks to the railway station was lined with British police and British, French, and Italian troops. Flags were everywhere. As the Americans marched by, the foreign regimental bands in turn headed the procession. To add to the hullabaloo, the British municipality provided the traditional Chinese farewell firecrackers. The British civilians and military had already given valedictory receptions during the morning, and now the parade stopped at the French Club long enough for the presentation of a bouquet to the regimental commander’s wife. By the time the 15th reached the station, all was pandemonium. Honor guards crashed out their salutes, and the three regimental bands were joined by the Chinese police band.

Years later, a retired colonel recalled that last day in Tientsin:

Tears as big as cobblestones streamed down my cheeks as the troop train pulled out of East Station, with the bands playing “Auld Lang Syne.” We were headed for the transport that was to carry us back to the States. Every day of my service with the 15th I was fully aware that not only had I never had it so good, I would probably never have it so good again.

The chronicle of the 15th Infantry in China really started with the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, when the United States participated in an international effort to relieve beleaguered foreign legations during the famous 55-day siege at Peking. The subsequent treaty granted the major European powers the right to maintain garrisons in China, ostensibly to preserve rail communications between the capital at Peking and the sea. The United States did not avail itself of this privilege until 1912, when the turmoil attending the Chinese Revolution brought a renewed threat to local foreigners. The 15th Infantry, 850 strong, was sent out to Tientsin, and there it stayed until that tearful, noisy day 26 years later when the regiment made its farewell parade through the city.

Notwithstanding the delights of Tientsin, the more pragmatic U.S. Army planners questioned what national interest could possibly be served by so small and exposed a garrison. After all, China constituted a scant 1 percent of America’s total foreign investment and less than 4 percent of her overseas trade. And there were only 9,000 to 10,000 Americans living in the entire country, of whom perhaps 2,000 lived anywhere near Tientsin. The town itself had only 600.

Mindful of the possibility of a Custer-like debacle, the army had been trying to extricate the Tientsin garrison since the mid-1920s. The requests for permission to withdraw were continually rebuffed by the State Department, which cited any number of imprecise political reasons for maintaining the garrison: the protection of American nationals in North China, the protection of the American legation in Peking, the protection of American business interests, the protection of American missionaries, the protection of rail communications between Peking and Tientsin, the demonstration of American political support for China in the face of Japanese expansionist tendencies, the maintenance of national prestige, and the general support of American policy in the Far East. All this was a tall order for 850 soldiers. The military means for the execution of these diverse and sometimes contradictory goals were left vague, but with no other choice, the 15th Infantry simply made the best of it. And the best of it was very good indeed.

The press liked to call them “America’s Foreign Legion,” or “the Forgotten Fifteenth.” They themselves preferred “the Old China Hands” or “the Can Do Boys.” The regimental motto was “Can Do,” an adaptation from pidgin English. But however martial the label, the activities of the 15th were distinctly more boring than bellicose: no shots fired in anger, no blood, no thunder. Its most warlike activity consisted of setting up roadblocks or guarding bridges. It lived the day-to-day existence typical of any American infantry regiment of those years, from on-post ceremonial to off-post dissipation. But the locale was Tientsin; and that made all the difference.

Tientsin was China’s second-greatest commercial city, after Shanghai, with about 1 million inhabitants in the 1920s. By 1992, Tientsin—now known as Tianjin—would be a megacity of 9.8 million, 14th largest in the world. In the days of the 15th Infantry it was already a thriving 20th-century metropolis, having been virtually rebuilt following the devastation of the Boxer uprising. Like Shanghai, much of Tientsin was divided into foreign concessions—British, French, Japanese, and Italian— whose Western architecture gave it the ambience of a European city: sober office buildings, imposing hotels, wide boulevards, and manicured parks. Its cosmopolitan character was enhanced by a profusion of uniforms: Indian Sikh police in turbans, French Annamite troops in lampshade hats, Highlanders in kilts. An American officer recalled that “the mounting of the guard at Gordon Hall, the Headquarters of the British Concession, was a never-to-be-forgotten military spectacle, rivaling Buckingham Palace.”

One veteran of the 15th described Tientsin as a complex, puzzling, and beautiful city. Yet its all-embracing Western milieu could be disconcerting to those who sought the essential sophistication and subtlety of Oriental life. Joseph Stilwell, then a major on his second China tour, felt that Tientsin lacked the charm of Peking and was dismayed to find Chinese-style housing unavailable. He had to “settle” for a home that could have been found on any upper-class American suburban street.

In one particular, even Major Stilwell might have longed for a touch of Western convenience. As the U.S. Army’s 1927 intelligence summary noted: “There is no such thing as sanitation in China except in the modern hotels and office buildings in the big cities.” Correspondence and recollections abound with references to the unbearable odor of sewage that pervaded the city; newly arrived soldiers found the smell literally overpowering. Tientsin’s sanitary system, such as it was, consisted of open gutters and sewers that emptied directly into the Hai River bordering the city center. A hoary joke among 15th Infantrymen was the advice to take a bottle of Hai River water back home to the States and, when overcome by nostalgia for the attractions of Tientsin, simply take a whiff.

But one got used to the smell, and Major Stilwell’s repugnance to colonial culture was atypical. Most American officers considered Tientsin the cream of foreign service; the word “fairyland” appears more than once in old letters and memoirs. Accustomed to the meager salaries of a depression-era army, officers found themselves living like kings in China. Lieutenants had household staffs of five or six; the commanding officer had as many as 15. Unlike their previous lives at such places as Fort Huachuca, Arizona, or Fort Missoula, Montana, junior officers and their wives, invariably addressed as “Master” and “Missy,” now awoke to breakfast served in bed, with baths already drawn. Inexpensive food, combined with the extravagant size of household staffs, permitted entertaining on a scale unknown in their former existence. The favorable exchange rate also encouraged shopping, and it was unusual for an officer’s wife not to return to America laden with rugs, silver, lingerie, brocades, carved chests, or screens that ordinarily would have been beyond her means. China duty meant the outfitting of one’s home for a lifetime. One officer’s diary noted his homeward shipment of nearly six tons of furniture and other effects. The wife of George C. Marshall regarded her husband’s service with the 15th as a “three-years’ shopping trip.”

Officers, of course, were thoroughly at home with the parochial formalities of the typical American military post: the endless receptions, dinners, dances, receiving lines, and social calls. As one observer noted, “The leisure to do minutiae correctly, and the continuity to know what is right, form the essence of garrison life.” But in China, the officers were now embraced by a much larger and more cosmopolitan community. In addition to the usual foreign colony—commercial representatives, diplomats, adventurers, White Russian refugees—were almost 200 fellow officers of foreign military units, making for a continual parade of welcome and farewell parties and regimental guest nights. For soldiers in Tientsin, the most essential weapon seems to have been the full-dress uniform. Reciprocity was the foundation of etiquette; every dinner party, every courtesy call, every invitation to drinks had to be repaid. One captain wrote his mother: “We have about cleared up our calls—something between fifty and sixty.”

In the absence of a regular American officers club, officers became, as a matter of course, members of the downtown Tientsin club and—the epicenter of all social activity—the Country Club, with its full range of graceful and elegant amenities. No cash ever changed hands; everything was on credit. The chit, a British invention and the precursor of the modern credit card, efficiently and effortlessly took care of everything, for officers and enlisted men alike: A soldier just signed his name and unit for almost any service in almost any establishment, and bills were mysteriously rendered monthly. Settlement of these accounts was a matter of honor, and default was unthinkable.

These diversions did not exhaust all the recreational possibilities. The American army, like all others, had a soft spot for equine sport, and the racing club provided the occasion not only for racing but for riding, polo, and hunting. And when even these amusements palled or, in the words of one officer, the “frantic pace of enforced socialization back at the compound” became overwhelming, you could always travel throughout the exotic Orient.

Insularity from civilian society was a long-standing feature of garrison life in the American military. But in Tientsin, insularity had different roots and fostered a different behavior. It took its cue from the colonial racist attitudes of the small foreign community, which separated itself from the native Chinese residents by an unbridgeable gulf. The segregation was absolute. Other than with servants or shopkeepers, there was virtually no social intercourse between officers—or indeed any foreigners—and the local Chinese. Money was not the issue. Not even very rich Chinese were admitted to the clubs, and there were almost no other places where social contacts between the two groups could be cultivated. It was the perfect embodiment of Kipling’s East-is-East-and-West-is-West dichotomy. For the American officers, the one million Chinese of Tientsin were non-people.

Given the many agreeable social activities and obligations, it is no small wonder that the officers ever found time to pursue the profession of arms that brought them to Tientsin in the first place. But the American army between the wars was hardly a demanding employer: Except for occasional tours as officer of the day or officer of the guard, or service on a court-martial, the duty day ended by noon. Although the ceremonial nature of the 15th Infantry’s service probably encouraged an overemphasis on spit and polish— all officers and first sergeants wore sabers on duty—the daily routine was essentially indistinguishable from that of any other army post.

Because service in the 15th was so desirable, some commentators have concluded that officers either pulled strings to be assigned or were handpicked because of especially fine records. The roster itself certainly lends credence to the latter hypothesis: In one five-year period (1925—30), no less than 25 future generals served with the regiment, among whom were such luminaries as Stilwell, Marshall, and Matthew B. Ridgway. But the army’s assignment policies of those days make it unlikely that the War Department went out of its way to choose the créme de la créme as officers for the 15th, and the standard selection process probably yielded a reasonable cross section of the officer corps: good, fair, and poor.

The commanding officers also ran the gamut in quality from outstanding to outright eccentric. General William D. Connor, who commanded during the mid-1920s, was in the outstanding category. Number one in his West Point class, he was the first to recognize the tactical vulnerability of the 15th Infantry and to counsel its removal. He also appreciated the importance of language as the key to understanding a foreign culture, and he insisted that officers learn the rudiments of Chinese; the course was optional for the enlisted men. Language instruction continued until 1931, when Colonel Reynolds J. Burt terminated the program, referring to Chinese as a “fool language,” useful to the troops only in their dealings with tradesmen.

Burt was something of a character. Described by one of his officers as “an old fuddy-duddy,” he was typical of those martinets for whom punctilio, ceremony, and appearance were the sine qua non of the military profession. In a triumph of form over function, the troops were “armed” with dummy wooden pistols, thus preventing an unsightly sag at the belt. And, lest the blanket rolls on the backpacks appear the slightest bit wrinkled, stovepipes wrapped in blanket material were employed as an ideal substitute. As the troops stood for inspection, thus accounted in their tidy if ersatz equipment, coolies would dash out to give a final dusting to their already spit-shined shoes. A careful observer would have noticed that the wood of the rifle stocks had a lustrous patina reminiscent of Old World gunsmithing. If the truth be told, each soldier had two stocks: one for field use and range firing, and one—carefully honed and stored in rags soaked with linseed oil—for parades and formal guard mounts. Even in their more bellicose combat garb, the Old China Hands were a sight to behold. Sacrificing the utility of camouflage for the sake of chic, their helmets were polished and shellacked, bearing the regimental crest stenciled on the front. And their bayonets—the most bloodthirsty of weaponry—were burnished until they gleamed. As the French general was reputed to have said while observing the Charge of the Light Brigade, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre.”

Colonel Burt was in his element in such a unit, so long as no untoward military exigencies interfered with the meticulously executed guard mounts and parades. He also fancied himself the 15th Infantry’s John Philip Sousa. He had written a march entitled “Kings of the Highway,” although there was certainly no thoroughfare worthy of that name in northern China. The bandmaster naturally acceded to his desire to have the march played at every possible regimental function. As Burt boarded the ship for his return home, the band struck up one final rendition in his honor. In a finale, unobserved by the colonel, the bandsman unceremoniously threw all copies of the song in the water.

Colonel Burt’s antithesis was Brigadier General Joseph Castner, best described by such adjectives as choleric, overwrought, and unstable. Castner was not a West Pointer and possibly for that reason affected a one of-the-boys demeanor. In a unit that prided itself on immaculate turnout, Castner enjoyed dressing in dirty, unpressed, enlisted men’s fatigues. His slovenly and disheveled appearance was no doubt calculated to irritate his officers, whom he referred to as “tea-drinking SOBs.” He is remembered riding around Tientsin in one of the city’s few automobiles, a Cadillac no less. Woe betide the soldier—officer or enlisted man—who failed to salute; not seeing him was no excuse. Castner’s consuming passion was marching, and on most days he could be seen walking or jogging around the racecourse. His obsession reached its apotheosis in what came to be known forever after as the “blockbuster hike,” a forced march of about 36 miles that he personally led at a blistering pace, covering the distance in 13 hours. Some 120 men fell out of ranks, slumping and sprawling along the route in various attitudes of exhaustion. That evening the post hospital was literally overflowing with the walking wounded. Mercifully, a visiting inspector general insisted that the march, scheduled to be resumed the following day, be canceled forthwith.

The most famous regimental commander was, of course, George C. Marshall. Actually, he was acting commander for only a two-month period. However, his three-year tenure in the mid-1920s as executive officer to a phlegmatic, easy-come-easy-go commanding officer encouraged the general observation that the maxim “Let George do it” must have been coined in the 15th Infantry. But Colonel Marshall was too straitlaced and persnickety to be beloved by his subordinates. Indeed, one of his officers found him “often irritable, capable of grotesquely unfair judgments.” Incidentally, that same officer, in commenting upon his colleague, the illustrious General-to-be Matthew B. Ridgway, noted that he “didn’t enter into the spirit of things over here.” The word “spirit” was left without further interpretation.

 

CONCERNING ENLISTED MEN, THE 15th INFANTRY MUST BE SEEN in the context of the entire U.S. Army of those years. It was like all regiments, like some regiments, and like no other regiment. In its essence, however, it was more typical than unique. Its members led a pure version of American army life between the wars, a life so perfectly described by sometime Private First Class Victor Vogel in his charming memoir, Soldiers of the Old Army, as “a school, an athletic club, an orphans’ home and a boys’ camp all rolled together.”

The 120,000 men who lived in this school-club-home-camp-army between the wars were a mixed bag. In the late 1920s the adjutant general observed that “the demand for labor in civilian activities” made it “necessary to accept every man who could be included under the most liberal interpretation of the regulations.” True, the best recruiter remained the proverbial Sergeant Hardtimes, and during the Great Depression years the army could be more selective. But even then, it appeared to one historian as “a combination of Rudyard Kipling’s British Army and the French Foreign Legion.” Yet the characters in James Jones’s From Here to Eternity or Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles who are perceived as stereotypical of that era—profane, alienated, dissipated, having enlisted at the behest of some local judge as an alternative to jail—may have been the basis for a misapprehension of the nature of that army. There were, of course, those types to be found, but certainly not a whole army-full. More typical were men who just needed a job; or believed the recruiting posters’ promise of “Earn, Learn and Travel”; or sought a safe, predictable home with no responsibility; or hoped to mend recently broken hearts; or were genuinely motivated by patriotic zeal; or liked the macho atmosphere of military life; or were driven by any one of a hundred other reasons.

It was a single man’s army. Marriage was possible, with the permission of one’s commanding officer, but pay was so low for all but the top three enlisted grades that having a wife and family almost automatically consigned a soldier to near poverty. So being mostly single, healthy young men, they behaved the way single, healthy young men did. Although neither chastity nor temperance was thought to be a cardinal virtue, the army was puritanical in the matter of venereal disease and on-duty drinking. Women and liquor, or more specifically, venereal disease and alcoholism, have been the twin nemeses of every army since Alexander the Great— probably before. They were major concerns for the American army in both its continental and foreign garrisons.

It was not what could be called a stressful life. Military duties customarily ended by noon, and unless one were enrolled in educational or vocational classes, most afternoons were free for organized sports. Thursday afternoon was parade; Saturday morning, inspection. And that was all. Every evening after 5:00, Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, and all day Sunday, a man’s time was his own. Victor Vogel, that most perceptive chronicler of life in the Old Army, quotes an adage of the period: “Every day in the army is like Sunday on the farm.” And like the farm, the main occupational hazard was not tension but boredom.

The army’s twin institutional fetishes were athletics and individual marksmanship. Interunit athletic competition had a hard edge, with the definition of “sportsmanship” pushed to its farthest limit. The preoccupation with boxing, featured in From Here to Eternity, was mirrored in other sports as well: soccer, basketball, volleyball, cross-country, hockey, football, baseball, wrestling, track, you name it.

The obsession with marksmanship was based not only on the notion of military competence or unit esprit, but also on simple economic incentive: A “marksman” rating was worth an extra $2 a month; an “expert,” $5. As a percentage of a private’s monthly pay of $21, that amounted to a considerable premium, well worth the endless hours of painstaking drill. Months of grueling practice with the classic ’03 Springfield rifle—both indoors and on the range—led each year to the final event, firing for record. But the Springfield was an unforgiving master; according to Vogel, “Hardly a man left the firing line without a black eye, a bloody nose, a bruised cheek, a fractured jaw or busted teeth.”

The social parameters of an enlisted man’s world were exceedingly narrow. Civilians regarded all enlisted men as pariahs, as if leprosy automatically came with the uniform. Noncommissioned officers had considerable prestige, at least on the post, and consorted with the lower ranks only in the line of duty. Commissioned officers barely recognized the existence of privates; officers were addressed only by rank and in the third person, as if they themselves were not present: “Begging the captain’s pardon, will the captain be riding today?”

This, then, was the life in virtually every regiment in the army, the 15th Infantry included. But the 15th was in foreign service, and that lent it an aura shared by only a few other units. Compared with England or France, the United States had only a handful of overseas stations. Today one certainly doesn’t think of Puerto Rico, Hawaii, or Alaska as “foreign,” but the between-the-wars army thought them foreign enough to earn a soldier a pay supplement. And besides China, there were garrisons in Panama and the Philippines. In those days soldiers enlisted directly into the unit of their choice. Vogel recalled the foreign-service privates as “a different breed…with restless feet and a faraway look in their eyes…(who) seldom served out an enlistment in the States and who were not concerned about being reduced in rank to get a transfer.”

For this rolling-stone kind of soldier, Tientsin was just the place. Statistics confirmed Vogel’s observations: In 1929, reportedly, “at least 18 percent of the men had either purchased their discharges in order to enlist for duty [in China] or had voluntarily taken a reduction in rank in order to serve with the Fifteenth Infantry.” As noted, much of its day-to-day military life was similar to that of all other army units, but there was an undeniable fascination in the exotic, Oriental hustle and bustle just outside the barracks gate. And for many, there was emotional comfort in the simple geographic fact that Tientsin was about as far away from home as a man could get.

There were more down-to-earth benefits as well. Even American privates in China were well paid compared to soldiers in the other foreign garrisons, or to the European clerks in the foreign concessions. And off the post, the universal acceptance of the chit—implicitly underwritten by the signer’s American uniform—insured the availability of enough credit to tide a soldier over until payday. An extremely favorable exchange rate, combined with a limitless availability of inexpensive labor, meant that local Chinese performed all routine military chores. There was none of the traditional peeling of potatoes on KP; in fact, there was virtually no fatigue duty of any kind. The lowliest private had his bed made, his shoes shined, his buttons polished, his canteen filled. He was even shaved. (The troops did, however, have to clean their own weapons.) Nor did the Old China Hands have to undergo the indignity of a cafeteria-style mess; they were served by Chinese attendants, on china plates set on tablecloths. A veteran of the 15th recalled years later that the cuisine one particular mess sergeant prepared would have graced the dining room of a French ocean liner. All in all, not a bad life.

 In 1925, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall summed up some of the other attractions of China service in a letter to his old commander, General John Pershing: “Today is payday and we are up against the problem of cheap liquor and cheaper women.” This reflection was seconded by the mercurial General Joe Castner, who complained to the War Department that “women, intoxicants and narcotics can be obtained in their vilest forms for a few cents. The men seek long tours in order to continue cohabitation with low-caste Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Russian women. ” Hardly a soldier in the 850-man garrison would have disagreed— or, indeed, would have wished it any other way.

The opportunities for dissipation reached mythic dimensions in China. Because enlisted men had to pay the considerable costs of bringing their wives out to China, there was a greater proportion of unmarried men than usual. That, and the ready availability of prostitutes, led to a venereal-disease rate that was three times higher than the army average. One officer estimated that 50 percent of the regiment was infected—an exaggeration, maybe, but one that indicated the general perception of the extent of the problem. According to a report to the adjutant general, perhaps 12 percent of the command had “syphilitic infection.”

As pervasive as it was, venereal disease might have been even more prevalent had not semi-permanent living arrangements with local women been so accessible. The influx of White Russians into North China in the wake of the Russian Revolution provided an entirely new and attractive source of companionship, the 15th Infantryman’s version of safe sex. These liaisons were mutually beneficial: In the words of one officer, “The soldiers of the 15th (were), as the Chinese say, ‘their food, clothes, and parents.'” Most of the White Russians lived in abject and degrading poverty. For many of the women, prostitution, or the next thing to it, was all that stood between them and actual starvation. So many of the young White Russian women claimed to have been former Czarist princesses that “princess” became the generic name given to them by the troops. It was easy to manage these alternative accommodations. Soldiers were not required to sleep in the barracks but could stay out all night, returning only for reveille roll call. One officer reminisced that “80 percent of my company…at one time or another were what they called shacked up.”

Notwithstanding the relative hygienic benefits of cohabiting with real or imagined White Russian princesses, the army tried every possible means of limiting venereal disease, from humiliating personal inspections to free rickshaw rides to bring the men back from the bars at closing time. Contracting venereal disease was even made a court-martial offense. In desperation, the War Department retained the services of a social worker from the American Social Hygiene Association especially trained in the arts of venereal-disease control. The results of this initiative are lost to history. The redoubtable General Castner tried, via his “blockbuster hike,” to sweat the troops into a state of celibacy and temperance; but he devised other programs as well. Back in Washington, the adjutant general applauded his efforts: “I am especially gratified to know that you have interested yourself so much in protecting the men from the degrading influences that prevail at that place. The surest remedy is what you have adopted of athletics, physical activity, and sport that will occupy the time and the interests of the men instead of having them seek harmful recreation.” Yet one can be reasonably sure that the troops preferred both the “degrading influences” and the “harmful recreation.”

For the record, it must be stated that Tientsin offered wholesome entertainment as well. There was an enlisted men’s club, a WICA, and a Knights of Columbus, establishments where the less dissolute could while away their off-duty hours in more benign surroundings than the ubiquitous bars with their ritual, just-for-the-hell-of-it brawling. The YMCA ran tours, and there were the usual band concerts, amateur theatricals, and lending libraries. However, Tientsin is fondly remembered by veterans more for the princesses on Woodrow Wilson Street than for the coffee at the Y.

Such minimal military duties as were necessary were performed with an éclat that befitted the unit, one of whose main purposes was to impress the natives. For example, the standard-issue dress uniforms, straight from the quartermaster, simply would not do for so fastidious and discriminating an organization. The 15th Infantry turned out in uniforms tailored in Hong Kong, with British-style buttons and spiral puttees, carefully wrapped around breeches as highly pegged as a motorcycle policeman’s. The outsize collars and wide lapels of the greatcoats were patterned after those of the British Guards. And when a soldier strolled about the city, he did so in slacks creased to a razor sharpness; in a dress tunic whose brass buttons shone; in cap and belt whose leather his Chinese orderly had patiently buffed to a high gloss. The shirt was white, the tie black. The ensemble was completed with a swager stick, an accessory long out of style in the rest of the army, but de rigueur in the 15th. In the words of one commentator, “It took a nice eye to discern that he was still (only) a private.”

Indeed, the whole question surrounding the wearing of the uniform was fraught with social implications. In the continental United States, the military uniform conveyed so negative an image among the general public that most off-duty soldiers lost no time in changing into civvies at the first opportunity. In China, too, soldiers were at the bottom of the social scale, but that prejudice did not extend to foreign troops; these were foreigners first and soldiers second. The Old China Hands found their uniform not a stigma but a mark of distinction to be worn with pride, if not outright arrogance. In China between the wars, it was a not-so-subtle indication of who was boss.

The unbearable summer heat of Tientsin and the need for rifle-range exercises required the regiment to rotate by companies to its summer camp on the beach at Chinwangtao, a small port about 80 miles from Tientsin. There the troops enjoyed an idyllic life, interrupted only by the tensions of firing their weapons for qualification. Charles Finney, a writer who served with the 15th in the late 1920s, left an enchanting picture of the camp there:

All we did was eat and swim and shoot on the target range, and drink beer at night at Jawbone Charlie’s back of the camp…. Reveille was at four-thirty in the morning. Lights were out at night at 9 P.M. Camp activity usually stopped at noon. Almost every afternoon we took naps before going swimming…”Maskee the uniform,” the sergeants would say monotonously. Maskee is one of the most wonderful words in any language. It means, roughly, “just do as you please.”

For those needing more relaxation than drinking beer at Jawbone Charlie’s, there was a small brothel close at hand. In a reassuring display of New Deal—inspired patriotism, a sign in its window read: NRA, We Do Our Part.

 

THUS DID THE 15TH INFANTRY LIVE COMFORTABLY WITHIN ITS COCOON, and only rarely did the harsh realities of the Chinese political-military world intrude into its otherwise carefree existence. The so-called Warlord Wars of the mid-1920s were such a time, and they provided the 15th with its few real harum-scarum military adventures. But, to use a modern rubric, they turned out to be more peacekeeping than war making.

The term Warlord War itself needs more precise definition. Warlords, or tuchuns, were provincial military governors who recruited personal mercenary armies. The tuchuns were a colorful lot, to say the least.

Barbara Tuchman wrote that the fearsome Chang Tsung-chang was said

to have “the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger” and to be “dangerous even to look at.” 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…He was also known as “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.

Cut from similar cloth was Marshal Chang Tso-lin. Known as the “Mukden Tiger,” he was first a common private, then an uncommon bandit, before becoming the master of Manchuria. At the other end of the spectrum was Marshal Wu Pei-fu, a highly cultivated mandarin who had even passed the classical examinations. Marshal Feng Yu-hsiang was in a league of his own; he was called the “Christian General,” and he manifested his religious zeal by having his troops baptized wholesale with a fire hose. He had enlightened social views, and his troops marched to songs with such lyrics as “We must not drink or smoke,” and “We must not gamble or visit whores.”

The word army, when applied to the forces of the warlords, must be taken with a grain of salt. Hsi-Hseng Chi, a historian of the phenomenon, has written:

Weapons were few and not standard. Sometimes there were more officers than soldiers, more soldiers than rifles, and more rifles than bullets…[The armies themselves] were sarcastically dubbed “the two-gun armies,” one gun being the regular military rifle, the other being the long opium pipe, also standard equipment. In times of military reverses, the soldiers would not hesitate to abandon the gun in order to keep the pipe.

The wars these armies fought are monuments of muddle, comprehensible only to the most diligent student. unending square dance, the warlord alliances were in a continual state of constitution and dissolution, in which double-crossing one’s confederate was as natural as breathing. It was even difficult to tell winners from losers, because the battles were rarely decisive. In fact, the battles themselves were frequently only illusory encounters, the outcome having been negotiated beforehand. In the euphemism of the time, they had been fought with “silver bullets.”

This military hurly-burly with its attendant civil chaos was of little interest to the Can Do Boys, walled up in their pleasant Mei kuo Ying p’an, as the American compound was called. But in late 1924, northern China was suddenly a swarm as three opposing warlord armies infested the area around Tientsin. As many as 100,000 troops a week streamed down upon the city and lapped at its gates. They came on foot and on horseback; they jammed troop trains, steamers, and barges. Within Tientsin, both Chinese and foreign inhabitants were panic-stricken, fearing—not without reason—the hell-raising that would likely occur should the warlords go on a rampage within the city. The Chinese regulars in Tientsin were confined to their barracks under the watchful eyes of their officers, lest they get out of hand or, worse, get into an unintentional scrap with the warlords. But the biggest threat to tranquility came from the surrounding countryside. The plains west of the city teemed with the bedraggled flotsam of the contending armies, victors and vanquished alike, all drawn as if by some magnet toward fat, prosperous, tempting Tientsin. Keeping this leaderless, hungry rabble under control was the most pressing consideration.

The international troops, including the 15th Infantry, fanned out in a wide arc on the outskirts of Tientsin, setting up positions and barricades at every important access to the city: roads, railroads, dikes, canals, and bridges. At these stations, the warlord troops were to be fed, disarmed, and persuaded to give the foreign-concession areas of Tientsin a wide berth as they made their desperate way around the city. The 15th’s sector was seven miles long and consisted of five large outposts, with three smaller ones in the intervals. Although these strongpoints looked menacing enough and bristled with arms, the weapons were unloaded. Rather than risk the danger of an accidental shootout, the American outpost commanders were ordered to dissuade the renegades by means of “bluff, entreaty and expostulation.” However, should the bluffs, entreaties, and expostulations fall on deaf ears, the greater part of the regiment was back at the compound, helmets issued, guns loaded, packs on, ready to ride to the rescue at a moment’s notice.

Happily, things never got that far, although there were plenty of close calls. The individual outpost commanders were granted wide latitude in the discharge of their delicate assignments, and they performed with admirable professionalism. George C. Marshall reported, “Many of the officers carried out their missions…with guns or knives pointed at their stomachs.” In the 15th’s most glorious episode, a single captain and nine men faced down 5,000 warlord troops. Fortunately, they were not a ragtag mob but an organized unit, advancing in open order with bayonets fixed. The captain and his opposite number parlayed in Chinese for what must have seemed like an eternity, after which—honor satisfied—the Chinese officer ordered his troops to withdraw. Matthew B. Ridgway reported a similar encounter in which he and two other mounted volunteers “accompanied” a 12,000-man force as it skirted the city. As always, the 15th was concerned with the proper way of doing things. As the regimental yearbook summed up this typical 15th Infantry problem: “To shoot or not to shoot; to salute or not to salute.” For the Old China Hands, these questions were, no doubt, of equal importance.

By early 1926, things had returned to normal, or to what passed for normal, in China. The small rural villages that came under the protection of the 15th Infantry during the late unpleasantness, realizing that they had escaped plunder and pillage by a hairbreadth, expressed their appreciation by presenting the regiment with a stone monument. It remained in the compound until the 15th left China, and today it stands in front of the officers club at Fort Benning, Georgia. But however touching the sentiment expressed by the village elders, there was no denying that the brushes with the warlords were too close for comfort, an opinion that General Connor forthrightly expressed in his annual report: “We escaped conflict by as narrow a margin as I considered possible.”

It took 12 more years and the danger of a real war—not a warlord war—to finally get the 15th Infantry brought home. In the mid-1930s Japan became ever more deeply embroiled in what was euphemistically referred to as the “China Incident”—actually, a full-scale invasion—and in December 1937 Japan came to blows with the U.S. Navy, when the American gunboat Panay was sunk on the Yangtze River. Apologies and crocodile tears notwithstanding, tempers were frayed. Both sides were acutely aware that the slightest barroom scuffle—a regular feature of garrison life at the best of times—might easily escalate into warfare. In March 1938 Japanese and American commands breathed a collective sigh of relief as the 15th packed up and marched into history.

Some years earlier, an American officer about to leave China wrote that he hated to be giving up his “front row seat in the midst of the performance.” But in China, he noted, a “front row seat is only a step from the stage and this drama may easily involve the audience.” After 26 years, it was definitely time for the 15th Infantry to exit, with fanfare. MHQ

ELIHU ROSE teaches military history at New York University.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1993 issue (Vol. 6, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Hard Liquor, Easy Duty

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