Japan mobilizing for war with Russia!’ This electrifying message flashed to the major world capitals from foreign observers in St. Petersburg and Tokyo during the first days of 1904. For several years, czarist Russia had been penetrating southward into Manchuria with the steel bands of the Trans-Siberian Railroad–putting itself on a collision course with the newly expanding empire of Japan.
The ultimate Russian objective was the occupation of Korea. Japan also sought to extend her hegemony to Korea and to get revenge for Russia’s interference during the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, which had resulted in Russian troops seizing Port Arthur and limiting the Japanese occupation of the Liaotung Peninsula. Between 1900 and 1903, Russian soldiers secretly infiltrated across the Yalu River into northern Korea, fully prepared to fight the Japanese for control of the country’s rich mines. Japan countered those moves with a movement of 25,000 troops to the independent Hermit Kingdom.
Recognizing that conflict was inevitable, the Japanese offered the Russians a compromise: Japan would accept the Russian occupation of Manchuria in return for Russian acceptance of the Japanese claims to Korea. The proposal was rejected by the Russians, who were confident that an Asian country would not challenge a major European military power.
The Japanese response to the rebuff was swift and aggressive. Army units moved to staging areas for deployment to Korea, while the Imperial Japanese Navy prepared to steam out to sea and engage the Russian Pacific Fleet.
The threat of war between a European power and an Asian nation that, in spite of the military modernization it displayed during the Sino-Japanese War, was still regarded in the West as an exotic, mysterious land sent journalists from the major world newspapers rushing to the Far East during the first weeks of 1904. On January 7, under a cold gray sky, SS Siberia sailed from San Francisco for Yokohama, carrying a contingent of war correspondents hungry for action on the Korean Peninsula. Among the group of experienced reporters was Jack London, who was representing the Hearst newspapers. London was on his first news assignment and had no experience as a reporter, but the 28-year-old writer had already received world acclaim for his novel The Call of the Wild and other stories about the 1897 Klondike gold rush.
London’s writings were based not solely on imagination but on his own adventures in the wild. In order to reach the Yukon gold fields, London and several companions had climbed the hazardous, snow-packed trail over Chilikoot Pass. On the other side, they sailed a hastily constructed boat across the white-capped waters of Lake Bennett and then down the treacherous, swirling waters of the Whitehorse Rapids. The ominous signs of the approaching Arctic winter forced London’s party to stop their trek and hastily build a cabin for shelter. After months of survival in the brutal Yukon, spring finally came and they were able to continue their journey to St. Michael on the Bering Sea.
London was also an experienced sailor and a crafty oyster pirate. He had traveled across the United States as a hobo and spent time in jail for vagrancy. Those harsh adventures gave him an edge over his fellow correspondents and would get him into the midst of the action to report the first skirmishes of the Russo-Japanese War.
On board Siberia was a fraternity of hard-bitten journalists who called themselves the Vultures. These newsmen had covered conflicts in every remote geographic region of the world: Egyptian uprisings, French Foreign Legionnaires fighting in Madagascar, Ashanti warriors clashing with British infantrymen in Africa, bloody battles under the burning Sudan sun, Greeks and Turks fighting ancient feuds, and Boer commandos slashing into British columns in the Transvaal.
Among the most distinguished of the correspondents was Richard Harding Davis. The polished, aristocratic Davis was the walking image of the 19th-century gentleman, lending an air of class and style to the grim business of war reporting. In contrast to London, who reflected the rugged experiences of seaman, laborer and vagabond, Davis was comfortable socializing with admirals, generals and statesmen. Despite their very different backgrounds, however, a strong friendship developed between the two Americans that would prove to be very helpful to London in the coming weeks.
When Siberia docked in Yokohama, London made the rounds of the bars he had visited 10 years earlier when he was a seaman on a sealing vessel. After fulfilling his vow of imbibing a drink at each of his old watering holes, he joined his fellow correspondents in Tokyo.
The journalists were housed in the comfortable Imperial Hotel but were not permitted by the Japanese military authorities to leave the city. So while troop trains roared daily to embarkation ports on the Sea of Japan, the exasperated correspondents sipped good liquor in the Imperial Hotel Bar and were treated to nightly luxurious banquets.
After spending several days in Tokyo, London was satiated with good food and liquor but was frustrated at not being able to report on the action. On January 27, he secretly boarded an express train for Kobe, hoping to find a steamer that would take him to Korea. After a disappointing day on the Kobe docks, he was back on a train for a 22-hour ride to Nagasaki. But he was no more successful there than in Kobe in finding passage to Korea.
Undaunted, London traveled along the coastline of the Inland Sea to the city of Mojo, where he finally obtained a ticket on a steamer to Chemulpo, Korea, which was a major staging area for Japanese ground forces moving north toward the Yalu and Manchuria. With some time to kill before boarding, London wandered through the heavily fortified city, taking photographs to send back to the United States. His openness in photographing everything from people to buildings was quickly observed by the Japanese secret police, leading to the first of several major confrontations with the Japanese army.
London was arrested and subjected to hours of rigorous interrogation. The Japanese police were eventually convinced that he was not a Russian spy, but in order to save face, they took him to court, where he was convicted and fined five yen. And worst of all for a correspondent, his camera was confiscated.
London immediately wired Richard Harding Davis, who was still in Tokyo, requesting his assistance in retrieving his camera from the Japanese. Davis quickly contacted his old friend Lloyd Griscom, U.S. minister to Japan. Griscom met directly with the foreign minister, Baron Komura, and requested the return of London’s camera. Komura listened sympathetically but reported that legal counsel had advised that any weapon used in a crime became state property. London had in fact been convicted of spying and his weapon (i.e., his camera) was therefore rightfully subject to forfeiture.
The seasoned American Foreign Service officer sat thoughtfully for a few moments and then asked, Does that apply to every crime?
Yes, replied Komura’s legal counsel, to every crime of every description.
Turning his attention to the foreign minister, Griscom asked, If I can name a crime to which this does not apply, will you release the camera?
Yes I will, Komura replied confidently.
What about rape? Griscom asked with a straight face.
Baron Komura responded with a roar of laughter. London’s camera was returned, and he continued his efforts to find passage to Korea. He was intrigued by reports of reserves being called from their homes in the middle of the night for deployment and of warships moving through the Korea Straits toward the Yellow Sea and staging areas on Korea’s west coast.
London was finally able to get passage on a small steamer to Pusan. The ship had no sleeping accommodations, so Jack spent a cold night huddled on an open snow- and sleet-covered deck. At Pusan he found room on another coastal steamer hoping that it would eventually get him to Chemulpo, but the boat was seized by Japanese military authorities at the port of Mokpo on the southwestern tip of the Korean Peninsula. The passengers were simply put ashore and told to make other travel arrangements. The action reflected the intensified Japanese preparation for war.
Being an experienced sailor, London decided that he would sail the remainder of the way to Chemulpo on his own. He purchased a native junk and hired several fishermen to help him sail the small craft into the Yellow Sea and up the rugged Korean coastline. London’s journal vividly describes the ordeal:
Thursday, February 11, 1904: Wind howling over the Yellow Sea. Driving rain. Wind cutting like knife. One man at the tiller, a man at each sheet and another man too seasick to be scared.
Saturday, February 13, 1904: Driving snow squalls. Gale pounding the whole Yellow Sea upon us. So cold that it freezes salt water. O, this is a wild and bitter coast.
When London finally arrived at Chemulpo, his appearance stunned a British photographer who knew London and had arrived in Korea before the restrictions had been imposed. I did not recognize him, wrote the Britisher. He was a physical wreck. His fingers were frozen. His feet were frozen. He said he didn’t mind so long as he got to the front. He is one of the grittiest men it has been my good fortune to meet. He is just as heroic as any of the characters in his novels.
London was soon on the march with the Japanese First Army, which was moving north over treacherous, icy mountain passes toward Manchuria. Near the city of Pyongyang, he observed the first land clash of the Russo-Japanese War. Scribbling on rice paper, London reported the bold penetration of a Cossack cavalry unit 200 miles into enemy-occupied territory, probing Japanese troop strength.
Meanwhile, jealous correspondents back in Tokyo were registering vigorous complaints with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. The journalists were finally shipped off to Korea, and drastic steps were taken to limit London’s reporting freedom. He was arrested again and sent south to a military prison near Seoul.
London was released as other war correspondents began arriving on the Korean Peninsula, and once again he was soon marching north with Japanese field forces. The Japanese columns were moving on a broad front for a major advance across the Yalu River and an assault on Russian fortifications in Manchuria.
The Hearst papers were soon printing dispatches from London’s reports of skillfully executed division-level crossings of the Yalu River by the Japanese. His photographs were the first such pictures of the war to arrive in the United States.
London began to press Hearst to arrange for a transfer to the Russian army in order to report the war from their side. Before that could be negotiated, however, London’s pugnacious personality got him into the middle of an international incident. London punched a Japanese he caught stealing fodder from his horse, and for the third time in four months he was arrested by Japanese military authorities. This time, though, he would be facing a court-martial in which the death penalty could be imposed.
Again Richard Harding Davis came to the rescue. He quickly flashed off a cable to his personal friend, Theodore Roosevelt, who was also an avid reader of London’s Yukon adventure stories. Intervention by the president of the United States brought about a swift release, but there was one condition: Jack London was to depart Korea immediately, if not sooner. Several weeks later, London said goodbye to Davis on the Yokohama docks and boarded a ship for San Francisco.
London was credited with sending out more dispatches on the Russo-Japanese War than any of his fellow correspondents, and he was greeted in San Francisco with news of the success of his novel The Sea Wolf. Jack London died 12 years later, at the age of 40, from multiple medical problems that were directly related to living life on the edge, as he had during his 1904 Korean adventure.
After his return from the Orient, London had written a short essay on his impressions of the Japanese military in which an ominous prediction was made: The Japanese might one day collaborate on an ‘adventure’ which could shatter the long domination of the Western World.
This article was written by John Mancini and originally published in Military History magazine.
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