S. S. PRESIDENT JEFFERSON
AT SEA, August 18, 1937
DEAR FAMILY: —
The Shanghai we got out of yesterday is as near my idea of hell on earth as human eyes can bear to see!
Last week I was in Tsingtao, having flown there to open a new air route because of service disrupted by war conditions — secure in the belief that it would be at least six weeks before our baby would arrive and that Shanghai was completely safe forever, no matter what happened elsewhere in China. Then came the order to return at once; Marie was dangerously ill.
Poor little girl — after all she has suffered already, she endured fifty hours of punishing labor; twenty hours before I was even able to reach her! There is no way to express the terror I felt, but on the night of August 11, at 9.58, the boy was born.
Dr. Sun had him placed immediately in an incubator; and when I was allowed to see him it did n’t seem possible a human child could be so tiny — only four pounds, twelve ounces. But, Mother, when I looked at him my heart rose right up in my throat; his hair is red, but his little face is a miniature replica of Dad’s! Marie’s condition improved at once; she began to sleep restfully and to be hungry for the first time in months. We were so encouraged and happy — then hell broke loose.
Of course, we all knew the Whangpoo was lined with Japanese battleships; that homeless Chinese were pouring into the city from the fierce conflict northward. There had been sporadic machine gunning and artillery firing since the twelfth, and several huge fires in the Japanese and native Chinese sections of Shanghai. But this was quite in line with past performances. Nobody dreamed the sacred confines of the foreign settlement could be affected by any of this.
It was on Saturday, the fourteenth, that I got a private tip of an air raid on the Japanese Consulate and their third-fleet flagship, Idzumo, docked in front. I was fairly boiling with excitement. Here was a chance to see in action what our group had worked to build up — the participants would be men I’d helped train, many of them friends of mine. I’ll swear, at that time, I thought of the coming fracas mainly as a demonstration of military technique and not in terms of flesh and blood. But that was before my first-hand view of the toll which war takes of the innocent and helpless.
Late Saturday afternoon found me with Bill Hunt on the roof of his elevenstory office building, behind the British Consulate. Everything looked just as usual except for the hordes of refugees milling about in the open space along the Bund — poor, miserable coolies, most of them, crowding close to the foreign settlement in hope of safety. Two hours passed, and Bill said, ‘It’s a false alarm; I’m going,’ for he had an engagement to meet Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and her son at the Cathay Hotel shortly. He had just rung for the elevator when I saw the Idzumo start blinking a signal to the Japanese planes scouting overhead. Before Bill could come hurrying back at my yell, six Northrop bombers broke through the thin layer of fleecy clouds that had concealed them.
Chinese bombers! There was the wing insignia, familiar to me as my own initials — Lord, what a kick it gave me!
Anti-aircraft batteries on the Idzumo opened a terrific fusillade, augmented by batteries across the Whangpoo. Right through the heavy barrage the planes moved on in perfect formation. Down through the clouds I saw a load of 100pound bombs turned loose and a direct hit in the midst of the shore batteries.
I guess I was yelling with excitement and pride for the beautiful piece of aerial warfare when I saw one bomber begin a slow, gradual descent, like a wounded quail. He’d been hit; and I held my breath while he disappeared in Chinese territory.
As these six ships hurried out of gun range, six others took their place. The Japanese batteries roared again, and suddenly I realized a startling development. Flying across the wind, these bombers were drifting strongly off course; in a moment they’d be directly above us!
Scared? You can bet! But there was no time, no place to run to, atop a tall building. We just stood, frozen, watching the bombs — eight of them — come down. They seemed to float as slowly as feathes — would they ever land? I had one sick thought of the teeming hundreds in the streets below and of ourselves — then they struck! It looked to me as if the whole Palace Hotel rose in the air in tons of débris, and sheets of flame enveloped the Cathay.
‘My God, they’re killed!’ I heard Bill cry, and knew he meant the Roosevelts.
Downstairs, my car and chauffeur were waiting and we told him to rush to the Cathay. Just as we turned, I had my first sight of the human — not the military — angle of war. Down the side street a coolie woman was running — her face a mask of horror and grief, in her arms a little girl of about two years; the baby’s entire face was blown away. The woman’s features writhed in anguished grimaces; tears poured over her cheeks. I hope I shan’t keep on remembering it as I do now.
The Bund was a shambles; hundreds of people screaming, running, falling beneath stampeding feet. The traffic officer, neatly decapitated, lay quietly on his back with not even his uniform disarranged. A coolie, with his whole calf torn away, dazedly jammed his hand into the hole, but with every heartbeat blood spurted like a fountain.
The Cathay’s steel grille doors were closed, but we got in through windows of shops bordering the sidewalk, being careful to avoid long jags of glass on which I saw one body impaled as on a skewer. The lobby was thick with smoke; great pools of blood smeared the magnificent Oriental rugs; people rushed about screaming, falling, rising and falling again — some wounded, some singed by fire from the explosions; some, I think, unconscious from shock or concussion. Somehow, in the pandemonium, Bill learned the Roosevelts had gone out just before the bombing.
What benign fate prompted Mrs. Roosevelt to leave, five minutes earlier, for the safe Columbia Country Club we can never know; but now, though we felt sure she and her son must have been killed at the very hotel entrance, we realized that present search would be useless, and I had to get to Marie.
All this takes time to read, but actually it was n’t ten minutes. Planes still roared overhead; Japanese batteries fired, as we drove down Foochow Road toward Avenue Edward VII, boundary between the International Settlement and the French quarter. Bill and I kept our heads out, following with our eyes the planes’ course. Suddenly, almost above us, I saw one ship turn loose two bombs which I knew must fall directly ahead. I yelled to the chauffeur to stop. We jumped out, and just then they hit, 200 yards ahead, at the wide intersection of Thibet Road and Edward VII, a space literally jammed with people.
A great, pyramid-shaped mass rose straight up in the air, with solid sheets of flame shunting sideways. Bodies soared like skyrockets; heads, arms, legs, scattered back to earth; some seemed literally to splatter like too-ripe fruit against the sides of buildings. Ghastly fire flared suddenly all about; it was from automobiles with gas tanks punctured by shrapnel. In a few seconds they’d burn to ashes, before wounded or unconscious occupants could escape.
I took the wheel from the chauffeur; he was past driving any more, poor fellow — collapsed with sheer horror. But I had to reach Marie, and somehow we fought our way out of it to the hospital on the outskirts. I had a hard time concealing my sick nervousness from her, but when I explained all the firing as fighting in the Japanese quarter she believed me. Like all ‘old residents,’ she never thought of danger to the Settlement.
Of course, this bombardment was accidental. American friends still at Hangchow told me the official Chinese explanation of bomb racks damaged by Japanese fire is true. When that plane reached Hangchow later, another bomb fell, without exploding, because it had been ‘safed, ’ and when the pilot realized what he had done he fainted and was carried from his plane.
Can you believe that 1053 were killed that night, and next day it took thirtyseven trucks to haul away mangled remains? All over the streets and inside stores and buildings, heads, arms, legs, and fragments of flesh were scattered like ghastly confetti.
I won’t go into detail of the fighting during the next few days, when Chinese planes practically demolished the Japanese Consulate, silenced the Idzumo’s rear guns, and wrecked the wharf of Japanese shipping firms. Forty-odd Japanese planes passed over Sunday morning for raids on Nanking and Nanchang, and when I saw five headed in the direction of Hangchow I knew the school was in for it, too. Later, I heard the Chinese had defended these points brilliantly; their pursuit shot down in flames ten Japanese bombers during the raids, and during Saturday’s performance, when the Japanese fired no fewer than 250 rounds of ammunition, only one Chinese plane was damaged.
A wife and child do something to a man’s intestinal fortitude. All my life I’ve felt convinced nothing would happen to me. Now I was just as sure every possible disaster would overtake Marie and the baby. Visions of wrecked sewers, epidemics, shortage of water, doctors, medicines, hospital space, as wounded flooded the city, set me crazy. Then there was the awful danger of looting mobs out of control and ravaging like beasts if Shanghai fell. I knew I had to get Marie and the baby out, even before the American consul-general gave me advance warning that evacuation of women and children would be ordered.
Already I’d been vainly pulling every wire to get steamer reservations, any time, to any place, and it looked hopeless. But now the consul-general had commandeered the Dollar Line’s President Jefferson, en route from Manila to Seattle, to put in to Shanghai and transport a load of women and children back to Manila. The British would evacuate their nationals at the same time to Hongkong on the Rajputana, and a truce had been arranged with both Japanese and Chinese while refugees went down the Whangpoo on tenders to liners outside the jetties.
The rest of that day is a jumble in my memory: trying to assemble all the things needed for such a journey by a five-day-old infant in an incubator and my poor little Marie — only 97 pounds left of her former 120, and so weak she could scarcely lift her head from a pillow. Most shops were closed; I got into some by fair means and some by foul, while I gathered all kinds of medicines, bottles, nipples, diapers, powder, soap, olive oil, gauze, cotton, 110-volt light bulbs to run the incubator on board, and a special syringe, over which a nipple fits, to squeeze milk into the baby’s mouth when he tires of nursing.
Of course, I had no idea of going, too; but next morning the order suddenly came. One more man was needed to take charge of a group of forty women, and because of my family’s helplessness I was selected. United States sailors and marines supervised that one-and-a-half-hour journey down the Whangpoo, and let me take my hat off, right now, to their efficiency and consideration! Three hundred women and children were packed in the small tender like sardines. We had the baby in his incubator, all tucked up with blankets and hot-water bottles; Dr. Francis Nance supervised getting Marie’s stretcher aboard and establishing her on pillows laid on trunks. He wanted the baby kept on deck, too, fearing for him to breathe the air in the cabin, used by so many people.
Japanese men-of-war formed a continuous line from the Bund to the mouth of the Whangpoo, and outside the jetties ten other craft had battled all night with Woosung and Pootung forts on either side of the river. But we felt safe in the promise of truce, and I can’t describe the terror that swept the boat when all at once an outbreak of firing burst from the Japanese craft as a lone Chinese reconnaissance plane drifted overhead.
Instantly the marines were hustling passengers below deck, handling the frightened women and screaming children with coolness and gentleness. It seemed a year until we could sight the Jefferson, standing by eight miles out beyond the jetties. Lord, but the comforting flutter of the Stars and Stripes above her was a welcome sight!
But our troubles were not yet over. As we left the jetties, a rough sea picked the overloaded boat up like a toy and it almost capsized. Pitching and rolling as we were, people fell and slid along the steep decks; mothers lost their children, screamed in terror and pain. One woman, thrown to the deck, loosened hold of her baby; when it was almost overboard a quick-witted marine made a dive and grabbed it. Water streamed over the topside; we had to move both Marie and the baby inside. Two sailors held her on the bench where she lay and I tried to keep a clear space round the incubator in an alley between cabin and engine room, with visions of germs, big as vultures, flocking to the baby’s lungs! He cried every minute of the way down, terrifying Marie, but I figured he was too warm; perspiration stood in tiny beads all over his face and little red head, but I did not dare move a blanket or water bottle.
Rougher and rougher grew the waves. Finally the tender captain announced flatly he meant to put about and go back, since there was n’t a chance of transferring passengers in such a sea. Once again the Marine Corps had the situation well in hand. One big fellow calmly took the helm, manœuvred the tender alongside, and the thing was done. Later, the Jefferson captain told me it was the most dangerous transfer he had ever experienced at sea.
Passengers already aboard the Jefferson when it was ordered back to Shanghai have generously divided not only accommodations but possessions with us. Steerage space, decks, lounges, writing rooms, and so forth, are filled with cots at night. Marie and Blanche have a cabin and each has a nice bed. The baby is in the incubator in the bathroom to the cabin, and I sleep on the flat deck, happy to have it for my bed.
To-morrow evening we reach Manila. I wired Marie’s father there to have an ambulance and doctor meet us, and have his reply, saying all is arranged.
Throughout this sad, frightening experience, these American women have made me proud to be an American man — brave, thoughtful of each other, magnificent in their response to emergency.
MANILA, P. I., August 20, 1937
I can just hear the family groaning, ‘What will Foxie get into next?’ when you realized, to top it all, we landed exactly in time for the earthquake.
I had just delivered the incubator to the infants’ room at Sternberg Hospital and was going to meet Marie at the elevator when this big old army hospital building began to sway, creak, and tremble. I had no idea what it was. Suddenly the lights went out and somebody yelled, ‘Earthquake!’ My first impulse was to run to the baby and shelter him with my body over the incubator; then I thought of Marie and turned to find her. Somebody grabbed my arm and told me to stand still, and confusion and fear made me automatically obey. In about two minutes lights flashed on, there was no damage (nor in the second shock, twenty minutes later), but while everybody was laughing at each other’s confusion I went wobbling toward the elevator, feeling that I ’d been scared out of ten years’ growth.
Marie was not the least upset. It caught her on a six-span bridge connecting two buildings, surrounded by brick and glass. Her stretcher bearer told me they were swaying so he thought each step would be their last. He was ashamed of his fear, he added, when Marie chirped up, ‘A fine way for Manila to receive us!’ remembering what she already had been through. Then, just as we got her in bed, the baby began crying, and she went almost wild. Is n’t that just like a woman? Takes an earthquake with a smile, but goes to pieces at her baby’s cry!
Everything we had was lost in Shanghai, — car, furniture, linen, clothes, furs, the poor little Scotties, — but Marie and the baby are safe, so I count us supremely fortunate. Love,