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by Carl Fritz

Our vision of China today is that of an emerging gigantic economic and military power, one with a huge trade surplus with the United States and a reputation sullied by violations of human rights, spying to obtain U.S. scientific and military secrets, and trying use money to influence American elections. This perception is one of a major player on the world stage.

It wasn’t always so, and I well remember the days when it was not. The following highly personal account may serve to illustrate just how chaotic, almost anarchic, the scene was in China back a bit more than a half a century ago, at the end of World War II.

My U.S. Army Air Corps unit landed near Liuchow in South China in mid-1945, before war’s end. We landed at an airfield—not on the runway, but on a nearby dirt road. The reason for the dirt-road landing? Over 1,000 land mines had been planted on the field. We feared some of them might be on the runway, as almost certainly there were.

We soon found ourselves surrounded by Chinese refugees forced by exigencies of war to trek from one part of China to another. They were eager to collect waste food from our mess kits or garbage cans. From everything we could see, China was a terribly war-torn country. Occasionally we visited the city of Liuchow, on the opposite side of a wide river from the base. Buildings were mainly heaps of bricks, ruined by repeated shellings or bombings. Even among the few buildings still standing, I saw none without at least one bullet hole.

Soon we and the refugees went to work. We put up tents, including a fairly large one which served as a mess hall. (One day one of the people usually in the chow line disappeared, and we learned he had been a Japanese spy who had been caught.) The refugees could be seen daily pushing and pulling large rollers on the landing strip or repairing roads throughout the airfield. They included carpenters who soon built a quite serviceable radio station building where, when alone on night duty, I carried on friendly conversations with Chinese guards and learned a bit of Chinese. Among our radiomen was Moon Poo Gee, who was born near Canton, but who had immigrated with his parents to New York in 1923. During the ‘thirties he had returned to China with his father, married, and sired a couple of children. He had made a trip to New York, but found it impossible to return to Canton after the Japanese took over that area. Moon was then drafted into the Army Air Corps.

In addition to serving as a radio operator, Moon Poo Gee often translated and supervised some of the Chinese laborers. He evoked our interest in the case of a maid we had hired to make beds in several of our tents. While she was at the base one day, a burglar had robbed her small apartment in town. The robber had been caught and was being held by the Chinese police. Moon thought the presence of a few “big Americans” at the court would discourage the thief from taking any forceful action. It turned out there wasn’t really any chance of the thief making trouble in the court. When we sat down at tables forming a square in front of the judge, a Chinese lieutenant colonel, we found that the criminal had been tied to a pole in such a fashion that any struggle on his part would tighten the noose around his neck. As the trial proceeded, the judge passed around a jug of wine for all of us to take a swig, which we did. The criminal was duly sentenced.

Finally the war ended. About that time I got a new job, that of radio operator on the C-47 assigned to my unit, the only aircraft we had. My unit was an air service group, and when the war ended members of the unit were widely scattered all over China. We used the plane to make sure they got paid, received PX supplies, etc.

On September 12 we flew to Canton, the first Allied aircraft to land at that city. As we disembarked, a Japanese soldier ran up to us, holding up his hand and signaling us to remain where were. I followed him to an open tent, however, where he furiously cranked the handle of a field telephone. After a few minutes two Japanese platoons arrived. A Japanese officer signaled for us to inspect the troops—which we proceeded to do. Two of our group of five were officers, but not I. We three enlisted men nevertheless participated in the inspection, including Moon Poo Gee, a Chinese in his American uniform.

Then several Japanese army staff cars drove up. If this had been 1999, I’m sure they would have been Toyotas. But these were 1941 Plymouths. We got into two of them and were driven to the Great Eastern Hotel. On the way, Japanese guards stood at attention and presented arms at each street corner. The crew chief, a fellow named Bill from Georgia (his surname unremembered now), and I treated our Japanese chauffeur to dinner that night. He could speak a bit of English and explained that he had no desire to return to Japan where he had been a poor farmer. Of course, I have no idea what ever happened to him.

Some members of our unit had been assigned to Peking, as it was then. When flying there for the first time, I got my first glimpse of Tianamen Square. A very large arch carried huge, imposing pictures of Harry Truman, Clement Atlee, Joseph Stalin, and Chiang Kai Chek. Whenever staying overnight in Peking in 1945, I put up at the Hotel de Pekin. Much later, in 1994, I conducted a symposium at the University of North Carolina Kenan Center called “Emergence of East Asia on the World Economic Scene.” Hearing one speaker mention a recent trip to Beijing, I asked him about the Hotel de Pekin. He knew nothing about it. Dr. Rittenburg, another of the speakers on China, then spoke up: “It’s right across from the MacDonald’s!” I later learned that the hotel name had naturally enough changed to “Hotel Beijing.”

A lieutenant colonel, previously unknown to me, once flew our C-47 transport plane, with me along, to Swatow, another town on the Chinese coast. The colonel hoped to recover a P-38 fighter aircraft he once had been forced to land near there. After ditching the fighter, he had hiked across hundreds of miles of mountainous terrain to Liuchow without being captured by the Japanese. When we arrived at Swatow, the Japanese were still in charge. Walking away from the airfield parking apron, we saw the P-38, guarded by a Japanese soldier. We approached the fighter plane. The guard evidently decided under the circumstances to be friendly. When he asked about the cigarettes in my shirt pocket, I pulled out the pack and showed it to him. He looked at it and read slowly and carefully, in English, the product’s slogan of the time: “Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.” That night Bill and I slept on army cots swathed with mosquito nets in the American consulate in town. It wasn’t much, but it was the finest bedroom we had seen for a long time. While we were bedded down, a tragic scene took place at the P-38 site. A small group of Chinese tried to ambush the guard then on duty, throwing rocks at him. The guard caught one of the rock throwers—and ran him through with his bayonet. Peace did not quite yet prevail in China!

Returning to our C-47 the next day we noticed a number of Japanese officers, as well as Americans from the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of our present-day CIA. They were awaiting the arrival of a Japanese general flying in to sign the local peace treaty, a ceremony that took place while we stood nearby. The OSS officers hoped to ride with us to Liuchow, expecting then to catch flights to India and to the United States. As we waited for the ceremonies to end, Crew Chief Bill noticed two OSS officers conversing in friendly fashion with the Japanese. Bill didn’t think it had yet become acceptable to act in an over-friendly fashion with the Japanese military. So I’m not sure I can criticize him for what he did next.

Now that the lieutenant colonel had found his aircraft, the P-38, someone else could arrange to take care of it. He would fly us back to Liuchow. But after the OSS baggage had been stowed aboard, Bill hung around outside the plane, and made no move to get the plane ready for departure. The colonel asked him with some asperity what was up. He replied, “Sir, I don’t think I’ll fly back with you back today. I want to go home to Georgia when all this is finished, and raise peanuts and kids.”

When asked if something was wrong with the plane, Bill replied, yes, that it was overloaded. Our pilot, the colonel, asked who had the biggest load and Bill pointed at the two who had been friendly with the Japanese. Their luggage, including considerable radio equipment, was immediately off-loaded, and these two gentlemen stayed behind when we left Swatow.

Another trip during that September of 1945 was to Hong Kong. A major accompanying us took pictures of the many sunken ships in the harbor. RAF officers had recently arrived but had not yet dared to go into the city, which I was told was being ransacked by Japanese troops that very day. I got to see the city from the air, however, and noted no tall buildings such as signified its overwhelming presence when I next visited in 1969. In fact, I saw no construction over three or four stories high in 1945.

Members of my unit, including myself, were now transferred to Shanghai. Most of us had no duties except to prepare for departure Stateside, but I continued to travel in our plane, sometimes carrying drums of gasoline, once a cargo of coal, and several times refugees. And we continued to transport PX supplies and monthly pay.

While traveling around China this way, we learned there were three kinds of Japanese occupation currency still in circulation. In addition, there was the Chinese National Currency (CNC). A common problem we encountered in China in 1945 was the unfamiliarity of the Chinese business community with the American dollar. For example, going to Canton just after payday, we spent many dollars simply to get a meal. Then, with fewer dollars left to exchange, we flew to Kunming and get a rate twice as good as that at Liuchow. The rates fluctuated according to local familiarity with the dollar.

Author Fritz (top, left) and friends
Shanghai 1945

When not traveling, I had several opportunities to visit Shanghai with my buddies. One such visit was with a fellow named Charley D’Onofrio. As Charley was getting a shoeshine on the sidewalk, we were discussing a place to find lunch. An Italian-looking gentleman approached us, and seeing Charley, exclaimed “Paysan!” He was truly an Italian. He had originally come to Shanghai with the Italian merchant marine, but the Japanese attitude toward his ship and crew had changed after Italy’s surrender to the Allies. Marooned here, he hoped to go home soon, now that Japan had surrendered. Our new friend took us to an Italian restaurant where an Italian instrumental and vocal quartet of middle-aged men were singing and playing songs fashionable in that day. One we had previously never heard was “Sentimental Journey.” We thoroughly enjoyed all the variations they sang and played. We also had a delicious if gluttonous meal to remember. Our friend ordered it, and we paid for it. An appetizer, then pasta, then half a chicken. Thinking we had had enough, we then received a platter—not simply a plate—of spaghetti and meatballs!

Some of us also made Chinese friends during this strange period. We met Gary Mai and C.T. Wu in their clothing shop. They were friendly to everyone, offering tea to customers while settling their accounts. We were invited to Gary Mai’s home where we enjoyed an excellent meal. When I asked Gary what would happen if I wanted to date his sister, he asked how long I expected to stay in China. When I stated that I wanted to return to college as soon as the Army allowed me, Gary said he could not allow me to date his sister. “Whenever the two of you went out, you would be observed by our friends and neighbors. That would be O.K. as long as you stay in China. But when you depart, she would be considered a prostitute.” This was a lesson I long remembered.

One European group with a significant presence in Shanghai was made up of German Jews—refugees from Hitler’s Germany. They resided in a large settlement known as Hongkiew. A natural pool of employee talent for the American forces in Shanghai, they could be easily identified when visiting the PX. Another group was the White Russians. We picked up a family of them in Peking on one trip and brought them to Shanghai. They had a club in Shanghai which I visited on occasion.

With war over, the Army finally sent me home. Arriving in Seattle on December 29, 1945, I called my father to announce my return. He informed me that my cousin, Maria, had just left Seattle, having been sent to China by UNRRA, the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. When I met her again in later years, I learned that she had gone to Liuchow, where I had originally come into contact with refugees from the war. That she was sent there, it seemed to me, somehow closed the circle on my own experience in the extremely unsettled circumstances of post-World War II China.

Author Carl FritzThe author, a member of this journal’s Editorial Review Board and a Foreign Service retiree, is a frequent contributor of articles and commentary (see sidebar).
~ Ed.

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