Americans and British Killed in Attacks at Nanking; Warships Then Shell City and Rescue Some Foreigners; Allied Commanders Serve Ultimatum; All China Aflame - Headline from The New York Times, March 25, 1927.
THE NANKING Incident, which occured 50 years ago on March 24, is the first event I can recall in detail. I had turned 6 on March 13, 10 days before we figured in - so excitingly it then seemed - the looting of our home and our evacuation by gunboat to Shanghai.
We were living in Nanking, where my father and mother had come as missionaries in 1917. Our household consisted of my two sisters (Nancy, 8, and Sydney, 4), my grandmother, my parents and myself. There were also three servants: Lao Wu, the gardener; Chu-Su-fu, the cook; and Chu Sao-tze, his wife, who did the washing and cleaning. My father was then dean of the college of science and professor of chemistry at the University of Nanking.
The Incident occured when the revoluntionary forces of Chiang Kai-Shek - the combined units of the Kuomintang and the Kungch'antang (the Nationalist and Communist parties of today) - captured Nanking. The fall of the city had been expected. None of the warlord armies of the north had shown any ability to stop the dedicated revolutionaries as they advanced from Canton north to Hankow and then from Hankow down the Yangtze Valley to Shanghai. The souther revoluntionaries seemed invincible.
The victory at Nanking in 1927 marked the end of an era - the warlord period of modern China - as clearly as the Chinese Communist capture of the city 22 years later marked the end of the Nationalist government on the mainland.
Because these revoluntionary forces, Nationalist and Communist alike, were known to be fanatically xenophobic - anti-Japanese as well as anti-Western - all foreigners were advised to leave the interior of China for the sanctuary of the International Settlement at Shanghai. (Conditions were very much like those of the Boxer Rebellion period some 30 years earlier.) In Nanking the British business and missionary personnel, as subjects of the Crown, were ordered to leave the city. We Americans, as citizens of the Republic, were only advised to go. Much was made of this difference in the powers exercised by the Consuls, but most people, acting either on orders or advice, went.
A few, my parents among them, chose to stay in the city out of a religious commitment and a concern for the welfare of Chinese colleagues. This small group of people (about 150 all told) wrote formal notes to their consulates asking that their governments not intervene with the Chinese on their behalf. (I'm sure that then, as now, nothing could have been more irritating to the Foreign Service officer, charged with the protection of Americans abroad, than such a request. I find years later, from conversations with old friends, that it also irritated those dedicated missionaires who accepted governmental advice.)
For three days after the fall of the city, Nanking was cut off from the rest of the world. Grandpa Thomson, in Middlebush, N.J., understood that we were probably dead. The news services had only rumors to go on, but the assumption was that the city had been burned and that all foreigners within the 22-mile circumference of the city wall had been killed.
An International relief mission of American, British, French and Japanese gunboats was sent up the river from Shanghai to rescue the survivors, "if any."
as "survivors" we knew that there had been killings.
We knew that Dr. John E. Williams, a 28-year missionary to China from Shawnee, Ohio, and vice president of the University of Nanking, had been shot to death when he asked a looting solider to let him keep his watch, a gift from his mother. And we knew that Anna Moffett, a young missionary woman who was at the Williams home at the time, had been wounded. We learned later that there had been other casualties. Three Englishmen, one Japanese sailor and two priests, French and Italian, had also been killed and five or six others wounded.
There had been arson.
Some foreign homes, the theological seminary and Hillcrest, the American school, had been destroyed.
An all foreign homes in Nanking had been extensively looted.
All this came as an astonishment. We had never felt vulnerable as foreigners in Nanking and my parents looked forward with enthusiasm to the arrival of the revoluntionaries. They shared the same ideals asn aspirations for the future of China and felt allied in spirit with the revolutionaries. Nanking was our home.
Nanking was, indeed, home for me from the time I was born until I went "home" to college at Swarthmore in 1939. Like all missionary children, I grew up with the "chia," home of current residence - Nanking - and the ancestral home, "lao chia" - America.
Our life in the missionary community of Nanking was what one might expect in a close-knit small-town community in America at the same time. Out home was set in a walled garden overlooking the University athletic field. The house itself was a large 1912 Western-style brick structure - spacious, high-ceilinged, somewhat sparsely furnished and heated by fireplaces and stoves. We had electricity and running water, but no flush toilet. That modern convenience came in the late '30s when Mother suddenly insisted with muddled syntax but clear meaning: "Claude, you will have to choose between me and a flush toilet."
Our entertainments were simple and for the most part homemade - family visits and charades, prayer meetings and community sings. At home we played Parcheesi and Rook (missionary bridge). There were, early on, no more playing cards in our house than there would have been in my grandfather Thomson's ministerial home in Middlebush, N.J. There was, of course, no liquor, except for the missionary brandy - terpin hydrate with codeine - we used for doctoring colds. We went by horse and carriage to Purple Mountain or the Ming Tombs for picnics or to Lotus Lake, where we poled through the islands of the park in a flat-bottomed outing bost. As a very small child, I'm told, I used to ride in a basket at one end of the carrying pole. Shorter trips, such as visits in the city to other missionary families, were made by rickshaw. For a while Grandma had her private rickshaw in the back yard with its starched white linen seat covers.
In the garden, tall fir trees separated the kitchen garden from the lawn and flower beds. We ripened the green fruit of persimmon trees with grass fires in sealed underground pits. Members of the business community ripened their persimmons in old wine vats to which missionaries would not have had access. There were camphor trees, flowering bushes and candleberries. We had a swing and a slide.
Outside our wall on one side was the home of Lossing and Pearl Buck and their daughters, Carol and Janice. And directly out back was a small farm with vegetables, chickens and pigs and a small pond. In those days, farms abounded within Nanking's city wall because of the destruction during the Tai Ping Rebellion 75 years earlier. Little had been rebuilt in the chaotic years that followed.
From the earliest time I can remember I played with "Tin Can" - a boy of my own age who tended water buffalo at the farm out back. And I used to walk around behind Lao Wu (Old Number Five), the tall stoop-shouldered Shantung peasant who tended our flowers and vegetables.
I had been in love with missy Lily Lee, in whose Chinese kindergarden my sister Sydney and I had flourished, although I was unable to learn from her the words to an English song. When I sang it at home, it came out "Every time I boppers brow . . ." All our Chinese classmates came through with "bubbles blow," but I couldn't get the hang of it.
Even so, the Nanking Incident is the one event that is fixed in time for me. Everything dates from then.
On the night of March 23 we slept on the floor in the upstairs hall of our home at Number 4 P'ing Ts'an Shan. The house was well filled. Two Norwegian missionaries to the Buddhists, Mr. Kalnes and Mr. Tangeros, were living in the third floor apartment. Our friends the Mills family, who were at our house to celebrate Jack's birthday, decided in light of the tense situation to spend the night. This meant the addition of five people; Courtesy Uncle Sam and Courtesy Aunt Mary and their three children. The 13 of us who sat down at the table that night had sung the Doxology, as a blessing, holding hands.
There had been shooting in and around the city during the day. Thus, the hallway, behind brick walls and well away from the open windows, seemed the place best protected from stray bullets which might have reached us. I remember it as exciting, rather fun, sleeping on the floor.
During the night the shooting ceased and the city was quiet. The northern soldiers has retreated from the city in an orderly manner and, to everyone's relief, there was no looting. Chinese and foreign residents had expected that the defeated soldiers, soon to be cut off from the wealth of Nanking, would take one last swipe at the city. This was the main reason the foreigners had stayed behind - to support their Chinese colleagues and to provide them with the protection of a foreign presence, if not a foreign gunboat.
The sense of relief was short-lived. A missionary neighbor - Theoren Illick, I believe - came to our house in the early morning, pale and shaken. In a low voice he told Dad and Uncle Sam that the southern soliders were looting the homes of the foreigners in Nanking, that Dr. Williams had been killed and Anna Moffett wounded, and that there were no telling what would happen next.
Mother and Dad prepared us for the looters. They asked the servants, who stood by us through the whole incident, to set a meal of rice and tea in the dinning room for the soldiers. And they told each of us, my sisters and me, to pick out a favorite toy to offer to the soldiers when they came. They felt it would be easier for us to give our own things than to see them taken whether we liked it or not. I don't remember what Nancy and Sydney chose, but I chose my new birthday-present teddy bear.
I remember standing at the top of the stairs when we heard the great crashing and shouting at the door - "K'ai man! " (Open the door!) - and a troop of men came thundering up the stairs, wild-eyed and waving guns. I still see them as firghteningly big - in fact, they were probably youngsters and frightened themselves. They would have been between the ages of 15 and 25, not long in the army. I held out my teddy bear to the first man as he stormed by. He stopped, looked at it and snarled a gruff "Pu yao!" (Don't want!). I started to cry.
The next man up the stairs took one look at me, put down his gun, stooped and put his arm around my shoulder. "Hsiao Ti-ti, pu-yao k'u" (Little brother, don't cry), he said. "My son at home is just about your age. Probably he would really love your toy bear." He took the bear gently, thanked me for it. And thereafter nothing in the three-day incident really frightened me.
The next hours were disordely and confused. Marauding soldiers, usually in groups of eight to 10, raced through our home on their rounds, collecting portable loot. Dad, looking back on the situation, was sure they had been directed to specific foreign homes by spies and agents who had come into the city before its fall. They ignored the Western-style homes where Chinese faculty members lived. (Almost immediately after the Incident it was charged that "the Communists" had told the victorious soldiers they should collect their back pay by looting "the foreigners." Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang party denied responsibility for the looting, but undertook the obligation of making reparations and, in a series of small payments throughout the 1930s, Dad received something in the neighborhood of $500.)
The first items to go, naturally, were those of greatest value and least bulk - gold, silver, jewelry and watches. Paper money and notes had little appeal because they lacked intrinsic value. Furs went next, then warm clothing, particularly heavy overcoats and hats. We never had a telephone in our Nanking home but there is the story of a looter who asked in another home what the telephone was. When he found it could be used to call across town, he ripped it off the wall and stuffed it into his pack.
At one point a particularly persistent looter decided he wanted my grandmother wedding ring - a piece of jewelry which hadn't been of her finger in 40 years. By then, of course, it was impossible to force it over the first knuckle. The soldier took out his bayonet and indicated he was prepared to hack the finger off. Grandma, a gently bred woman then in her late 60s, stayed calm and tried, as best she could, to take off the ring. (Remarkably, everyone stayed calm.) Fortunately, just at this moment someone remembered my brand new tool kit - up in the attic - which the local carpenter, T'ung Lao-pan, had made for my birthday. We prevailed upon the looter to be patient while someone rushed up stairs to get it and and may father then used the file to cut through Grandma's ring.
At one particularly tense moment late in the afternoon, when there was little left in our home to loot, I remember seeing a young officer, armed only with carriage whip, come shouting up the stairs. He was livid with rage. He struck the current troop of looters about the head and shoulders with his whip, ordering them out the house. Armed and angry as they were, they recognized his authority and left. Before the officer rushed off - to Reisner house across the street to discipline the men there - he apologized to us. His sister, he said, was one of the teachers at the Finling Women's College, the missionary institution down the road. (Going back through The New York Times recently, I found that Ginling got off more lightly than other Western institutions during the looting.)
The worst moment occurred when the last of the day's looters stormed into the house. So far as anyone could remember, there was nothing of value left. We had held back nothing. The soldiers were furious. They seized Dad and Uncle Sam, the two oldest men in the house - they were then in their late 30s - and stood them against the wall. The leader warned that the two men would be shot if a ransom were not forthcoming - immediately.
At the point one of Dad's chemistry majors at the University intervened. Sho-Lo, who had come to out house in the course of the looting to help us if he could, stepped forward and stood between the armed soldier and Dad. He put his hand over the muzzle of the gun. He bargained for our lives, slowly driving down the price to a sum he could hope to raise. I don't remember the amount that was agreed on - it could have been $30, or $300. Either sum is astonomical when you have no money at all.
The looters waited while Sho-Lo went in search of the money. There was clearly no profit in dead bodies. As time passed, however, the men became impatient. I watched them through the door of Dad's study as they stood against the wall of the guest room at the head of the stairs. One of the soldiers decided he had had enough. In a gesture to indicate that he really would shoot if Sho-Lo didn't return quickly, he took a clip of bullets from his cartridge belt and slammed it into the rifle. Somehow the clip jammed. The soldier stood there before us throwing the bolt of his rifle ever more fiercely, trying to ram a round into the chamber until suddenly the clip slipped loose and fell to the floor.
My father picked it up. This was totally in keeping, for he was the kind of person who always held open doors and pulled out chairs and picked up fallen spoons and handkerchiefs. If there were a spilling or a stepping on toes, he was so visibly sorry that people assumed he was to blame. On this occasion it was completely natural for him to pick up the clip and hold it out to the soldier. The man looked at him in consternation. He gave a gruff order to his fellow looters, "Tao-pa!" (Let's get out of here!), then he and his men turned, filed down the stairs and left the house.
Dad, still not conscious of what he had done, slipped the clip of bullets into his pockets. Later in the day, and again after we had left Nanking, we tried to tell him what had happened, but he didn't seem to understand. It was not until last August, in Japan, when he found the cartridges in a suitcase, that he recognized his gesture for what it had done - and is struck him as funny.
Of course, there is much I have forgotten. But I remember the short walk from our house to the University - to Bailey Hall. We walked out of our front door, down the steps and out through our wrought iron front gate which, as I remember, we left ajar.
Outside the gate we turned right in the early evening light onto a cobblestone road. The walk must have been difficult for my grandmother, who was rather lame, but I remember it as lovely and quietly thrilling. To our left was the University soccer-field and trakc. To the right was the farm where my friend Tin Can lived. We walked past the Illicks' house and the smouldering shell of the Williams's house and turned into the campus. Behind the University Chapel, which doubled as the Community Church, rose the large structure of Bailey Hall, the center of the University's college of agriculture.
I still wonder how the word was passed. Somehow, all the foreign missionaries in our part of the city were told to gather there on the top floor of the agriculture building - somehow, form their ransacked homes and their hiding places all over town, they came. Everyone was accounted for.
My recollection of that attic room jammed with people and mattresses is one of excitement and pleasure. The adults there must have experienced some of the same feelings, or at least a sense of relief and rejoicing to see so many friends together and unharmed.
There we were, destitute in a desperate time, clustered on the top story of a school building. Somehow, there was food and bedding for all. Our Chinese friends and colleagues must have come to our rescue with their own supplies. We had a supper of rice and vegetables. Dad, whose laboratory was across the front campus in the Science College, had been experimenting with roasting grains and nuts and with drying fruits. Somehow the products of these experiments were available to us that night. I still remember his freshly ground peanut butter and dried prunes. And I remember them as particularly good.
Order had by no means been restored in the city. Looters countinued to roam and we knew that they could come in on us at any time. When, indeed, the warning came that a band of looters was headed our way, we hurried into the storage space under the eaves. I can't imagine how any of us thought that, with bedding and clothes spread all over the floor, the soldiers would assume we had fled. In any case, a sneeze or a baby's cry gave us away. Some brave men near the door spoke us calmly and firmly: "Don't shoot. We are coming out."
One by one we crept from under the eaves. The soldiers, I'm sure, were just as surprised by the number of us who filed out as they must have been by the emptiness of the room a few minutes earlier.
Remarkably, I recall no sense of fear anywhere in the group.
The soldiers went from person to person looking for valuables. One soldier, already wearing two pairs of glasses, reached for my sister Nancy's and added them to the collection on his nose. Shipley Mills, who couldn't have been more that 2 1/2, stood with his hands in the air while soldiers frisked him. They may have thought jewelry was hidden in his clothing. No one searched me, and it was only when we reached Shanghai three days later that I discovered I was still carrying my birthday watch in the pocket of my shorts.
Some of our things did survive the looting. Mother swallowed her wedding ring. (Years later Pearl Buck, who was our next-door neighbor and shared the Nanking Incident experiences with us, irritated mother by describing in her autobiography mother's frantic search through chambers pots to recover it. My mother insisted she recovered the ring prefectly easily, with no difficulty.) Lao Wu, our gardener, who went to our house after our departure with a carrying pole and suspended baskets to demand his back pay, was told by the soldiers then in residence that they had no money but he could take any of the debris he wanted and sell it on the market. He collected our books and some pictures from the floor where they had been thrown and carried them back to the university - to be returned to us when we came back to Nanking.
Dad revisisted our house briefly before we evacuated on March 25. He lifted the heating register in his second-floor study to see whether by chance any of the jewelry which had been stowed there had survived. It was too obviously a good hiding place. I had been one of the first places the looters investigated. Even so, one of my grandmother's diamond crescent pins had somehow been overlooked. He slipped it under the cuff of the knee-length stockings that he wore with his plus-fours. It later provided that diamonds for my wife's engagement ring and the ring that my then-unborn brother, Jim, was to present to his wife. The replacement for my mother's ring, which was taken, was a pearl.
During the course of these events, beyond the range of our knowledge, the various forces of the foreign naval units gathered off Nanking were faced with a dilemma. The commanding officers of the British and American vessels - HMS Emerald, USS Noa and USS Preston - and their governments at home were determined to remove the foreigners from the city. They feared, however, that efforts to send in landing parties would bring casualties and the murder of such survivors as there might be.
The commanding officer of the USS Noa already, on March 24, had been forced to lay down a barrage around SOcony Hill, American-owned property just inside the city wall, to cover the escape of the Americans holde up there. (This is the only case in the era of so-called Gunboat Diplomacy where the decision to fire was taken by an American commander.In all other cases the leadership came from the British, French, Russians, Japanese or Fermans.) The American consul, John K. Davis, and the British and American commanding officers attempted to negotiate with the revoluntionaires - without success.
They then delivered an ultimatum: Deliver all foreigners to the Hsia Kuan waterfront by 10 o'clock or face a naval bombardment of the city. This deadline passed without even a answer. They then made the firm decision to start the bombardment in the evening if the foreigners were not delivered by nightfall - and told the Chinese as much. We refugees began to arrive at the waterfront at about 6 p.m., and all foreigners willing to leave got out of the city that night. By March 26 we were on our way down the river to Shanghai.
The next day, probably just after the ultimatum had been given, a train of horse-drawn carriages was assembled at the university. We were invited to come down to be driven to the riverfront. What I remember of the four-mile drive to the Yangtze was that the men who were now our escort, walking beside the carriages while we rode, were the same men who had looted us the day before. I recoginzed some and they were now as warm and friendly as could be. I had a box of animal crackers (where it came from is a mystery) and I am told I shared them with our friendly guards.
For the older members of the refugee group the trip down the Yangtze from Nanking to Shanghai on the Noa must have been quite uncomfortable. The ships were overcrowded and we had to run past shore batteries at near point-blank range. The captain took the only available precaution - he hung mattresses loosely over the side just above the waterline. We also had to stop at Chinkiang to pick up missionaries who were thought to be trapped there. Commander Smith could get no word from the town, however, and one of our party volunteered to go ashore and check for news. Our ship stood by until he came back, walking calmly through the crowded streets, to report that everyone was safely out of town on the way to Shanghai ahead of us. They had been taken off by a river steamer.
Somewhere along the line, I see from press reports, we Thomsons were transferred from the USS Noa to the USS Preston and the whole of the refugee group on that ship came down with ptomaine poisoning before we landed. When we arrived in Shanghai "destitute" and some of us "even without hats" as The New York Times reported, we were taken in and housed in the comfortable homes of the Shanghai American community.
None of these dangers of hardships seem to have made an impression on Nacy, Sydney and me. We had met Jocko, the mascot momkey of the USS Noa, and we adored him. When he tried to drink from the water fountain, the way the sailors did, the jet of water would hit him in the face, sending him into a gibbering rage. Days later when Mother asked us what we remembered best about the Nanking Incident, we instantly agreed: "Oh, Mother. The monkey on the gunboat."
Over the years, whenever we've had reunions of the family and Nanking friends we've relived those days. (We even risk the Doxology at tables of 13, although as a matter of fact, the second time we sang it with 13 singers was on the eve of our second, and more peacful, evacuation, by rail, from Nanking to Shanghai, in 1928.) As we did at Number 4 P'ing Ts'an SHan, we put on W.S. Gilbert's murder melodrama of Gentle Alice Brown and Saint George and the Dragon. I'm always the dragon and my brother, Jim, is Saint George.
We've polished and sharpened out recollections of the looting - and we disagree on detail. Jim, who wasn't ever born in 1927 and is amused by the squabblings of his elder siblings, suggests tht we reenact the whole of the Nanking Incident - with the Mills children - at one of these reunions, and settle it once and for all.