Junket Is Nice
In November, 1943, the Japanese forced a crossing of the Yangtze above the great lake of Tung Ting in south-central Hunan Province. The objective: Changteh, a walled city of 50,000 beyond the north shore, and eventually the larger urban complex of Changsha, the provincial capital. The overall goal: control the “rice bowl,” so named because the region fed half of China.
After fierce resistance, Changteh fell. But within days, Chinese forces counterattacked,and supported by the American Fourteenth Air Force, they won it back. In so doing, the Nationalists said they inflicted “heavy” casualties, and in December, 1943, they ran a press tour to back up the claim and counter criticism of not doing enough in the war effort. My father, covering wartime China for the Associated Press, hated junkets, joined this one only reluctantly, to protect against getting scooped by one of his competitors.
The party included: Israel Epstein of United Press, Vadim Sinelnikov of Tass, Guenther Stein of the Manchester Guardian, Harrison Forman of The Times of London and Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. The group, also including Allied military attaches and assorted Kuomintang minders, overnighted in Changsha, an attractive city still largely unscathed by the war. Dad recalled narrow streets and shop signs in gilt calligraphy denoting the wealth of merchants. Mao Tse-tung, son of a prosperous grain dealer, was born 70 miles away, in the village of Shaoshan, but Changsha was where he went to school and launched his political career.
From Changsha, the party edged north by riverboat into the contested lake region, overnighting in Taoyuan, near Changteh, where fighting had been fiercest. To demonstrate a signal victory, the Nationalists recruited gravediggers to exhume bodies of freshly buried Japanese soldiers. Amid much shouting, diggers laid out corpses in parallel trenches. Then, after photo and newsreel shoots, everyone was invited to the Belgian missionary’s home for tea and cakes.
That night they all stayed in the empty dorm of the riverside Taoyuan girls’ junior high school, where the Kuomintang hosts threw a banquet in the gymnasium. Shaoshing – the nutty-flavored Chinese rice wine, served warm and deemed essential after the day’s horrors – flowed smoothly. Carols, led by Atkinson, on wartime leave as the celebrated drama critic of the New York Times, brought a raspy harmony, and the smiling hosts applauded each rendition. Everyone repaired to beds upstairs, but as these were too small, most opted for blankets on the floor.
At dawn came a reminder that even during blessed Noel, war takes no breather. They came under attack by three Japanese Zeros. Hung over and trying to belt up, reporters rushed breathlessly into the courtyard. The more nimble sought willows and reeds by the riverfront. When Dad emerged, one bomber seemed headed straight at him. He hit the dirt, covered his head. Yards away, earth spewed, as the plane pulled out and roared off. Shrapnel grazed the shoulder of the Australian military attaché, amazingly the only casualty.
Despite the grizzly interlude, the Nationalist tour guides had still more to show. Opening a sealed cellar, they uncovered a trove of captured landmines, grenades, artillery shells and other explosives, which, had that aim been a little sharper, could have blown everyone into the South China Sea. Ashen, they insisted on moving out. Rankin Roberts, an American army press officer, warned that a riverboat back to Changsha risked another attack. The safest return was by foot along 100 miles of paddy paths. For those unused to walking, the hosts offered ponies, rickshaws, sedan chairs.
Dad hoofed it beside Harrison Forman, a voluble, articulate companion, who expressed relief they weren’t returning via Changteh, and described an incident two years earlier – on Nov. 4, 1941, according to New York Times files. Forman was then a stringer for the Times. According to the news item, Dr. Robert Lim of the Chinese Red Cross confirmed a macabre experiment. A Japanese plane had circled the walls to drop not bombs, but foodstuffs and clothing, seemingly a humanitarian gesture. But within a week, six Changteh residents showed symptoms of Bubonic Plague: black tongues, dark spots on the skin, swollen glands. All died, Forman reported in a dispatch published in the Times on March 1, 1942.
But on that day in November, 1943, Dad faced a more immediate crisis: his Brazilian-made mosquito boots were falling apart. Flapping soles had been bound with medical adhesive tape, which left blisters causing severe discomfort; so he persuaded himself into one of those sedan chairs, borne by four sinewy men, with a relief detail of two trotting behind.
“I was comfortable enough,” Dad told me, “but only after overcoming second thoughts of having four little men, any two of whom I could practically carry, trot along hour after hour levering my 180 pounds and the weight of the chair on their bony shoulders. They didn’t seem to mind. I was giving them work. Behind those curtains, coddled by a soft inner light, I was back in the days of the dynasties. The only sounds — hard, regular breathing of the men outside and the squeak of bamboo poles against lashings. ‘Dinghao,’ I said every time we stopped. And we stopped often, at intersections of lanes, where merchants offered noodle and soup dishes, duck and pig barbecues. The smells were great, and everyone ate.”
Without further incident, they returned to Changsha, where Marshall Hsueh Yueh, the governor-general of Hunan, threw a banquet in their honor. The Marshall, a little man seemingly engulfed by his boots, was reputed to be one of the great Nationalist field commanders. In September, 1939, having successfully defended Changsha, he earned the nickname Little Tiger — perhaps an exception proving the rule because Hunanese, like Texans, reveled in bigness.
Everything there seemed big, Dad said: chopsticks, bowls, even scrapers for a furred tongue. That banquet was in yet another girls’ junior high school. Almost hidden by a screen behind the host and his family was a beefy gentleman in a cotton-wadded suit, a Mauser coddled on his lap: Little Tiger’s chief of security and taster. Dad joined Epstein of the UP, Forman of the London Times, and Stein of the Guardian. A one-eyed, crimson-faced brigadier general came over to their table, introduced himself in passable English, and, weaving slightly, flung a gauntlet: whoever chugged the most shaoshing was the better man. Dad, albeit a light drinker, was “elected” to represent the western press, and, later ruing the decision, accepted.
The pale liquid was served from a teapot and poured into earthenware rice bowls. Bowl after bowl he swigged across from his ever-grinning opponent, who more than kept up. They toasted Allied solidarity, defeat of the common foe, the long lives of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill, French leader Charles de Gaulle. The wine was warm and heady. When one bowl was emptied, it was turned upside down to await the refill for yet another toast…Dad let the western press down! No argument! Unconditional surrender!
They adjourned to a Chinese opera laid on in the auditorium. Taking a seat, he heard loud gonging, saw a woozy blurring of colors, hastily made for the exit. Forman, antennae up, helped him back to his room where a charcoal brazier glowed. That sudden warmth, the smell of acrid smoke, the endless shaoshing proved explosive. He laved the coals, which, like Vesuvius, ignited lava and ashes into the above and beyond. Then somehow, with Forman’s help, he made it to bed.
If one sedan chair rescued the AP man, another almost figured as an international embarrassment. It was May, 1944, and Dad was covering a visit to China by Vice President Henry A. Wallace. On a side trip up the Min River in Szechuan, the Vice President was inspecting an irrigation project. His host was Col. J. L. Huang, the head of Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s New Life Movement, a kind of fusion of Confucianism and Christianity. Huang arranged for the party to walk a mile up-river to a Taoist temple where everyone could admire the view, sip green tea, and munch watermelon seeds. For the return trip, sedan chairs were available.
Wallace, a fitness enthusiast, refused to be carried and persuaded Huang to join him in a role switch in which they would join as coolies to bear a member of the international press. Dad had picked that up from his good friend, Acme Pictures photographer Frankie Cancellare, who overheard Wallace plotting. Several press colleagues had already departed on sedan chairs. As Dad’s bearers tagged along, Wallace and Huang fast approached on foot, aiming to trade places with two of the four carrying my father. Photographers scurried to catch the incredible role reversal. What a photo op! The Vice President and his Chinese host bearing the reporter for the Associated Press. For kicks, Dad had half a mind to go along, until noticing the miserable look on Huang’s face. Feeling Huang’s embarrassment more than his own, he demanded to be put down.
Wallace was crestfallen. A great publicity shot missed! Probably not so great for the reporter whose picture might then have graced front pages around the world with a caption like: “White Man’s Burden.”
© Clyde H. Farnsworth
Clyde H. Farnsworth has been a working writer all his life, almost a half-century as a journalist during which time he turned out thousands of articles. He also is the author of Tangled Bylines: A Father-Son History of the 20th Century (University of Missouri Press), from which this selection is drawn; Shadow Wars (Penguin), Out of This Nettle (Times Books), No Money Down (Macfadden), and an unpublished war novel, The Pyramid. After assignments in Britain, Belgium, France, Canada, and Australia, he now lives in Washington, D.C., and Southern Maryland.