THE SCENE IN NANKING was chaotic. Mobs of angry Chinese coursed through the streets of the ancient walled city hunting for foreigners—any foreigners—and threatening to kill all they found, their anti-Western fury stoked by a decades-old resentment of foreigners’ wealth and power. On this March morning in 1927, they cut a swath of destruction, looting the homes and businesses of the “foreign devils” and murdering an American missionary. After sacking the U.S. and British consulates, the rioters turned toward Socony Hill, where some 50 Westerners, most of them Americans, had taken refuge in the local headquarters of Standard Oil Company of New York.
‘The most of my pay goes for likker and wimmen. The rest I spend foolishly’
Not far away, a trio of warships in the Yangtze River kept a close eye on developments. The day before, the three ships—two American and one British—had helped evacuate hundreds of foreign residents. Presciently, Lieutenant Commander Roy C. Smith of the U.S. destroyer Noa had deployed a small detachment of armed sailors and signalmen to Socony Hill. Now, these men warned Smith that the remaining Westerners were in grave danger.
All day bullets pinged and whizzed around the hill as snipers tried to pick off the foreigners. Late in the afternoon of Thursday, March 24, 1927, Earle Hobart, local manager for the oil company, and John K. Davis, U.S. consul, tried desperately to bargain with a band of renegade Chinese soldiers who had broken into the compound. They handed over all their money, but the Chinese were not satisfied. “Now we are going to kill you,” one told Hobart. The oilman turned to the navy guards concealed upstairs and shouted, “Break out your arms!” With that, signalman Jack Wilson began to wigwag a message to the warships: “Commence firing. Fire over our heads. SOS. SOS.”
The 4-inch guns on the Noa and the USS William B. Preston and the 6-inchers on HMS Emerald let loose a barrage that made a neat triangle around Socony House. The startled Chinese mob scattered instantly, and the foreigners made a dash for the city wall, just behind the compound. They scrambled down the 60-foot precipice on ropes improvised from bed sheets, then crossed a moat and two miles of marshes to the Yangtze. By early evening all were safely aboard the ships.
As one later told a reporter, “The navy saved us….Every foreigner would have been murdered.”
The heroes of the rescue were the “River Rats” of the American navy’s Yangtze Patrol Force, which protected U.S. interests and citizens on the river for nearly a century, from the 1850s to the start of World War II. Theirs was one of the longest continuous military operations in U.S. history. Sailors clamored for duty in the “YangPat,” a plum posting full of exotic perks and danger. During the 1920s and ’30s, the YangPat often found itself caught in heavy crossfire as warlords, pirates, civil war, and a Japanese invasion tore China apart.
Visit our gallery of photos of the River Rats and other Westerners on the Yangtze
ONE OF THE MIGHTIEST RIVERS IN THE WORLD, the Yangtze (Chang Jiang to the Chinese) begins as glacier melt in the far west, gathering strength as it falls some 16,000 feet and cuts east through the heart of the country to Shanghai and the East China Sea. At nearly 4,000 miles it is, after the Nile and the Amazon, the world’s third longest. One-third of China’s people live in its watershed, and combined with its 700 tributaries, it drains one-fifth of the country, daily discharging twice as much water as the Mississippi.
For millennia the Yangtze has been China’s main artery; before rail, Britain and other Western powers coveted it as the key route into the country’s vast interior. Unhappy with the Qing emperor’s limits on trade, the British in 1839 initiated the First Opium War and, with its victory three years later, gained access to five ports, including Canton (now Guangzhou), on the Pearl River, and Shanghai, at the mouth of the Yangtze. Nearly 20 years later, after the Second Opium War, the Treaty of Tientsin opened 11 more ports (among them Hangkow and Nanking) and gave foreign ships navigation rights on the entire river. With the increase in trade, the Royal Navy established the China Station in 1865 to patrol the coastal and treaty ports and protect British traders and interests.
Americans eager to do business in China quickly arrived, and with them the U.S. Navy. In 1854, the Susquehanna became the first gunboat to show the Stars and Stripes on the Yangtze. Soon the navy had a squadron stationed in Chinese waters. In 1871 the sidewheel monitor Monocacy began to chart the Yangtze, and three years later its sister ship Ashuelot surveyed up to Ich’ang—nearly a thousand miles upriver from Shanghai.
The 1898 Spanish-American War and the resulting American acquisition of the Philippines introduced a large U.S. presence in the region. The navy organized the Asiatic Fleet, based at Manila in the winter and at Chefoo (present-day Yantai), in northern China, during the warmer months. It also assigned gunboats to patrol the Yangtze. Put into service in 1903, this flotilla featured three tiny ships the United States had won in the war with Spain—the Villalobos, the Callao, and the Elcano. They were a motley lot. The Elcano, at 620 tons, was the largest. The Callao was the baby of the group, just 119 feet and 243 tons. The Villalobos was only slightly bigger. None was particularly well suited for duty on the Yangtze—their deep drafts and lack of power kept them from its upper reaches, which featured a series of deep gorges and fast rapids. Two Spanish War veterans were added to the squadron later—the Samar in 1909, and the Quiros in 1911.
FOR MUCH OF THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, American sailors clamored to join the Yangtze Patrol; it was considered the best duty in the navy. The gunboats enjoyed an informality blue-ocean navy officers would not have tolerated. Typically, no one wore insignia. Beards were common. Men of all ranks wore the same uniform—white shorts and white shirt. The only way to tell if a man was an officer was to look at his shoes: Officers wore white, sailors wore black.
Amenities were plentiful and varied. Each boat carried an unofficial supernumerary crew of up to a dozen Chinese, who did almost all the hard work: swabbing decks, painting hulls, washing clothes, cooking meals. Each “coolie” received about 75 cents a month, plus room (maybe a place on the deck or in a passageway) and board (often rice and vegetables).
Thanks to the Chinese boatmen, River Rats had ample leisure time. As one officer noted, “Gunboat life is not a continuous round of shocks and shells. There is a lighter side—beer and baseball, tennis and tango, pheasants and philandering.” Asked what he did with his wages, a seaman recalled, “The most of it goes for likker and wimmen. The rest I spend foolishly.”
Treaty ports boasted an abundance of women. Most popular at Shanghai and Hangkow were the often beautiful émigrés from revolutionary Russia. On the upper Yangtze, Chinese women predominated. The bars usually required the Rats to buy a bottle of overpriced champagne to share with their dates. (Of course, the barmen filled the girls’ glasses with apple juice to keep them sober and productive.) It was not uncommon for a River Rat to marry a local woman and settle down in China after his tour.
For officers, life on the China Station could be paradise. Private clubs offered luxurious diversions. Hunting was a favorite pastime—the Yangtze Valley teemed with wild game. Many married officers brought their families to China, and the wives found plenty to do while their husbands were on the river: bridge, horseback riding, house boating, shopping.
Most of the ships fielded sports teams. In June 1920, Lieutenant Commander Glenn F. Howell, skipper of the Palos, challenged his counterpart on the Japanese gunboat Toba to a friendly game of baseball. The Japanese declined, so the Palos deck sailors played the engine room crew, winning 7–3. Inter-ship basketball was very popular, but the Americans played hoops with Chinese teams too. The Chinese often won—or were allowed to win to curry the favor of the local warlord.
THE GOOD TIMES ON THE YANGTZE couldn’t last forever. The Qing Dynasty, which had ruled China since the mid-17th century, was losing its grip. China had given up considerable territory in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895, and frequent rebellions undercut Qing power and challenged the growing foreign presence in the country. Tensions boiled over in 1911, when revolution forced the abdication of the Qing emperor, ending more than 2,000 years of imperial rule and giving rise to the Republic of China under the leadership of President Sun Yat-sen. But infighting among myriad rival factions ensured that unrest continued.
In response to these events, the United States beefed up its little squadron on the Yangtze. In 1914 two new ships arrived—the Monocacy (the Civil War-era boat of the same name had been struck from the navy list in 1903) and the Palos. Both were built at Mare Island, California, dismantled, shipped to China, and reassembled at Shanghai. Designed specifically for duty on the Yangtze, each displaced 204 tons, with a draft of a mere two and a half feet, enabling them to steam through the gorges of the upper river to reach the pivotal treaty port of Chungking (Chongqing). The navy gradually decommissioned the older gunboats.
By 1916, however, China had plunged again into turmoil with the rise of dozens of regional warlords backed by private armies. The advent of what’s now known as the warlord era (1916–1928) coincided with an uptick in American commerce, in particular for Socony, which operated a small fleet of tankers. Violent anti-Western demonstrations erupted, and lawlessness swept the Yangtze region; bandits and pirates became particularly bold. The Palos’s Captain Howell wrote in his diary for June 10, 1920: “[The port of] Wanhsien is in an uproar today. The robbers snuck in and stole a whole school—seventy fourteen-year-old boys, [and] tons of leading citizens. They ran them off into the hills and will hold them for ransom.”
Attacks on Western shipping increased, with pirates boarding small junks to rob (and often kill) the passengers. On the bigger steamships, they would buy tickets, stake out a strategic location on deck, wait until the crew’s guard was down, and spring their trap. An American missionary wrote of such an encounter: “They searched our persons—a proceeding particularly distressing to the ladies—not even omitting the baby a year old.”
The warlord era also saw a spree of kidnapping, with bandits frequently targeting missionaries and businessmen. Captain Charles Baker, skipper of a merchant steamship, was snatched in early 1932 and held for $25,000 ransom. Chinese government officials countered in novel fashion: They authorized their navy to kidnap and hold bandits as hostages. This did nothing to slow the epidemic of abductions, but Captain Baker was finally released after four and a half months in captivity.
Gunboats from the allied nations—the United States, Britain, France, Italy, and Japan—worked together to safeguard their nationals, with mixed results. The River Rats, meanwhile, became a more formal fighting unit. In 1919 the squadron was officially designated the Yangtze Patrol Force; three years later, the navy assigned as its commander a rear admiral, William H. Bullard. With this new status came new ships. In 1927 the U.S. Navy began taking delivery of six more gunboats built in China expressly for service on the Yangtze, bringing the flotilla’s strength to 11.
The navy also began putting armed sailors on American craft, with strict rules of engagement: “If fired upon by bandits ashore the guard will return fire sufficient only to silence the firing.” The guards usually included a petty officer and five sailors armed with pistols, rifles, and a Lewis machine gun. The squadron also started escorting convoys of merchantmen—sometimes as many as 10 ships watched over by a pair of gunboats.
In 1927, a full-fledged civil war broke out, adding to the YangPat’s troubles. The gunboats were targeted by both sides—sometimes simultaneously, with Nationalist soldiers firing from one bank and communists from the other. The crew of one ship running such a gantlet later found 80 bullet holes in its superstructure. Fortunately, Rats were rarely killed or injured—Chinese soldiers were execrable shots.
In 1931 the Japanese—long China’s main antagonists—invaded Manchuria. A few years later, in July 1937, they stormed into China itself and by December stood at the gates of Nanking, then the capital of the republic. An unremitting campaign of bombing and shelling began, leaving the city in flames.
Sunday, December 12, 1937, dawned clear, bright, and a bit chilly in Nanking. USS Panay was anchored on the Yangtze about three miles above the burning city. With it was a trio of American-owned Socony tankers.
At about 8 a.m., fearing damage from the bombardment, the Panay’s skipper, Lieutenant Commander James J. Hughes, signaled the others: “Follow me.” The little convoy steamed 28 miles up the Yangtze, anchoring between a pair of islands where Hughes believed they would be safe. Among the civilian evacuees on the Panay were several journalists, including two newsreel cameramen.
At 1:38 p.m., navy lookouts noticed a formation of three twin-engine aircraft flying toward the American ships. Fireman First Class John L. Hodge said to a shipmate, “Do you hear what I hear?” As the planes neared, he later recalled, “Hell broke loose.”
“A sudden cry of ‘planes above’ was heard,” wrote United Press correspondent Weldon James. “I started looking upward but almost immediately heard a strange whistling sound [like] when a bomb was dropped from high altitude.”
“For a moment I couldn’t realize what had happened and then I realized the planes were actually bombing the Panay. I was knocked off my feet by the concussion,” said army observer Captain Frank Roberts. The first bomb hit near the Panay’s bow, disabling the forward 3-inch gun and punching holes in the hull near the waterline. The crew raced to man the ship’s vintage Lewis guns. A second bomb wrecked the pilothouse, radio room, and steaming fireroom. The ship was left with no steering, no communications, and no power. The skipper was badly injured. Shrapnel hit the exec, Lieutenant Arthur F. Anders, in the throat. Though unable to talk, Anders carried on, writing orders on the charts; when he ran out of space there, he scribbled on the bulkhead walls.
Six dive-bombers followed the first wave of planes. In short order, the Panay was a shambles. As it began to settle by the bow, word passed to abandon ship. Two sampans ferried the many wounded to a veritable swamp on the near shore, then came back for the others. Still more bombers arrived, intent upon destroying the ships.
The Panay slid beneath the Yangtze about two hours after the attack. Despite the mayhem, only two River Rats died, along with an Italian journalist. The three tankers were destroyed, and the American captain of one of them was killed, as were some 60 Chinese sailors. It took two days for American and British ships to reach and rescue the survivors.
The story of the attack made headlines around the world. Many Americans believed that the sinking was, as the New York Times reported, a “deliberate, premeditated action”; the United States lodged a strong protest with the Japanese government. Some in Congress even called for war. Japan claimed the attack had been unintentional and eventually made a full apology. In April 1938, when it paid $2.2 million in reparations, the matter was closed. Later that year, 23 of the Panay’s crew received Navy Crosses.
THE WAR BETWEEN CHINA AND JAPAN ground on. As they moved up the Yangtze, the Japanese put a squeeze on British and American commerce. Socony soon left the field, as did rival Texaco. The five remaining gunboats of the YangPat often just languished at anchor off one of the ports. The fun times had ended. The bars and clubs frequented by American sailors closed for lack of business. There was very little left for the River Rats to do.
In late November 1941, three of the gunboats sailed for the Philippines, where they might be of more use. On December 5, the Yangtze Patrol Force was officially disbanded. When war broke out a few days later, the little gunboat Wake was captured and impressed by the Japanese navy at Shanghai. Thirteen hundred miles upriver, the Tutuila was handed over to the Chinese at Chungking, its crew evacuated.
It was an inglorious end for the YangPat. For 12 years short of a century, little U.S. gunboats patrolled the great river, protecting American citizens and their property. For most of those years, duty on the Yangtze had been considered the best billet in the navy—full of romance and glamour, good times, and sometimes danger. Even today, the history of the YangPat and its River Rats is the stuff of legend.
Steven Trent Smith, a regular contributor to MHQ, lives in Kalispell, Montana. In the Winter 2013 issue, he wrote about the special U.S. command dedicated to finding and returning the remains of American servicemen.