My life in China 1926-1941

My life in China 1926-1941
1943年、Hallett Abend



A FEW hours after seeing Minister Shigemitsu the hunch that had taken me southward seemed to have turned very sour indeed. Japan, with her hands full in Manchuria and in North China, was supposed to be trying to restrict the new disputes to Shanghai, and to wish to avoid having the anti-Japanese movement spread all over the Yangtsze Valley where much of her vital trade with China was centered.

Late on the afternoon of January 28th it seemed as though she had succeeded in these supposed designs, for the demands which I had discussed with Major Takahashi the morning before—demands brusquely couched in the terms of an ultimatum —were accepted without reserve by the Chinese authorities and signed by the Chinese mayor of Greater Shanghai.

As I shaved and changed to go out to the Japanese flagship for cocktails with Admiral Shiozawa, I gloomed more than a little over having left Manchuria. I had expected a hot story on the crisis from the admiral, but now that prospect seemed spoiled, and I foresaw listening to nothing more stirring than a defense of the demands which Japan had crammed down China’s gagging throat.

The appointment had been made the day before, and the hour set was five o’clock in the afternoon. No one else was there except Douglas Robertson, the admiral, and myself, and we enjoyed cocktails and caviar in the admiral’s private quarters.

Admiral Shiozawa showed a marked lack of enthusiasm over the abject surrender of the Chinese authorities, and finally said sourly that their acceptance of the Japanese demands was “beside the point.” Then came the informative bombshell.

“I’m not satisfied with conditions in Chapei,” he said, measuring his precise English very slowly. “There are 600,000 excited Chinese in the Chapei district of Shanghai, and most of them are violently anti-Japanese. About 6,000 helpless Japanese civilians have their homes and shops in Chapei. I hear a rumor that the Chinese policemen are deserting their posts, and that there is danger of rioting and looting. At eleven o’clock tonight I am sending my Marines into Chapei, to protect our nationals and to preserve order.”

“But the Chinese will resist,” I blurted out. “There will be fighting, unavoidably.”

“Well,” said the admiral, twinkling, because I knew as well as he that it was not only in the United States that there was rivalry between the army and the navy, “you see the army had to protect our interests in Manchuria. There is no Japanese army in Shanghai, so the navy will have to take over a similar job here.”

It seemed to take an intolerably long time to prepare the admiral’s barge to take us ashore, and I’ve never enjoyed two more cocktails less than those which Shiozawa pressed upon me while I waited. Here was a story of first-rate importance. It was probably exclusive, and I was itching with impatience to get it on the cable in time for the last edition of the Times in New York.

Once ashore, I filed the story in “takes” of five lines each, and when finally I had three hundred words sent out I called the American Consul-General, Edwin S. Cunningham. He was appalled, not at what I considered the certainty of major hostilities at Shanghai, but at the idea of inaccurate and alarmist news getting to the American public.

“It must be all a mistake,” Mr. Cunningham said over the telephone. “The Japanese Consul-General called here in person only half an hour ago, and assured me that when the Chinese accepted Japan’s written demands the whole crisis ended. There is no disorder in Chapei—no rioting or looting. I urge you strongly not to cable such an unnecessarily upsetting news story to the United States.”

I told Mr. Cunningham regretfully that the story had already been cabled, and that I would not cancel it because I thought a direct and quotable declaration of intention from Admiral Shiozawa was too important to be suppressed. Besides I added, I knew that the navy was fretting because the army had won all the “glory” in Manchuria.

“Let’s compare notes at a quarter past eleven,” I concluded.

During the next few hours I made my own battle preparations. I arranged to hire a taxi on a twenty-four-hour-a-day basis for an indefinite period. I told T. V. Soong by telephone of the interview with Shiozawa which I had cabled to New York. After a hasty supper, Robertson and I arranged a deep pile of cable blanks with carbon papers in place to save time and assure three copies of every news cable sent.

At that time from my apartment on the sixth floor of a building on Yuen Ming Yuen Road, I could command a fine view of the river, of part of the Bund, and of the Garden Bridge and the buildings of the Japanese Consulate-General, a short distance below the confluence of Soochow Creek and the Whangpoo. At ten o’clock a drizzling rain began to fall. At ten-fifty Robertson and I, wearing hats and overcoats, were leaning out of the front windows, straining our ears, and gazing toward Hongkew, which was the portion of the International Settlement across Garden Bridge which Japanese forces were assigned to protect. The taxi was waiting in the street below.

The great clock in the tower of the Custom House boomed eleven strokes, and then silence descended over the great city. One minute passed; then two, three, four.

At precisely five minutes after eleven there were two rifle shots in quick succession. Robertson and I hardly breathed. A few seconds later machine guns began to rattle and cough. We waited no longer, but dashed for the door. We didn’t even wait for the slow elevator, but clattered down flight after flight of white marble stairs, piled into the waiting taxi, and ordered the chauffeur to drive across the creek, past the Post Office building, and on down North Szechuen Road.

Since that night of January 28th, 1932, the Japanese have progressed amazingly far in the arts of fighting. They would not commit today the blunder they committed then, when they sent companies of Marines marching across the boundary of the International Settlement into Chapei with two men of each squad carrying flaring torches. The Chinese sharpshooters began picking them off with deadly accuracy, and soon some of the streets leading toward the North Station, Shanghai’s principal railway depot, were strewn with dead and wounded.

The strongly revolutionary, rabidly anti-Japanese Nineteenth Route Army was quartered in Chapei that night, and refused to give ground. Within ten minutes after the start of the hostilities Chapei was as dark as a coal pit, and even after the Japanese doused their ridiculous torches the invaders were strongly silhouetted against the glow of lights from the undarkened streets of the rest of the International Settlement. If Admiral Shiozawa believed the Chinese would run in panic before the advance of his Marines, as the Chinese near Mukden had fled before the advance of the Japanese army in September of the preceding year, he was hideously mistaken.

By eleven-fifteen Marines with machine guns mounted on their motorcycles began roaring up and down most of North Szechuen Road and its tributary streets shooting out all the lights and spraying bullets into even second- and third-story windows of the buildings on both sides. For some reason they ignored the first four blocks of this main thoroughfare south of the Post Office, and the stretch from Soochow Creek and the Post Office to North Honan Road remained brilliantly lighted , and open to traffic.

By eleven-thirty the din of the conflict had risen to such a height that it was heard all over the International Settlement and the French Concession, and then began one of the most bizarre developments of this incredible battle in the heart of a great city.

Automobiles began arriving by the dozen, drove as far as the lighted portion of North Szechuen Road extended, and then stopped to disgorge chattering, laughing groups of American and European men and women in evening clothes. These people had come from theaters, from hotels, and from private dinner parties, attracted by curiosity concerning the “skirmish.” They stood around the sloppy streets, smoking cigarettes, occasionally drinking liquor from bottles and enjoying sandwiches and hot coffee procured from nearby cafés which had not yet closed their doors.

“What’s going on?”


“Who started it?”

“Hope the Japs will teach the cocky Chinese a good lesson.”

“Yeah, Japan is saving the white man the job of bringing the Chinese to reason.”

Thus imperialist-minded Shanghai stood about and gossiped and conjectured, while just across the width of Honan Road Japanese Marines were hastily constructing barbed-wire barricades and throwing up sandbag shelters.

Once Robertson and I ventured down a side street heading toward the North Station, the lights of our taxi full on. Rounding a corner our headlights revealed about a score of Japanese crawling forward on their bellies, dragging a machine gun.

“Lights out, you fools,” one of their officers shouted, rising to his feet. At that instant Chinese snipers on nearby roofs and from adjacent windows poured a volley into the Japanese revealed to them by the lights of our car. The officer flung both arms wildly into the air, gurgled strangely, and crumpled into a quiet heap. Another Japanese shot out one of our lights with a revolver just before the chauffeur darkened our car. We backed and turned, skidded in the muck and slush, and raced back to the lighted portion of North Szechuen Road, where the full-dress audience was still enjoying itself in spite of the occasional ping and whine of bullets ricocheting from nearby buildings. It was like a grim fantasy; there seemed to be no sense to the whole show.

From then on Robertson and I took turns standing watch at the “frontier,” and taxiing to the office to write and file one dispatch after another. All night long we worked thus in half hour relays, and the carbons piled up thick and deep on the desk spindle. Our cook stayed up, and kept hot coffee, cold beer, and sandwiches ready from hour to hour.

This was the beginning of a four-day period during which neither of us went to bed, and during which we had our clothes off only long enough to take a shower. After the first day we worked in two-hour relays, the man off duty always snatching a brief nap on a couch. After the second twenty-four-hour stretch coffee and beer had no effect; we kept going on sandwiches and scrambled eggs, and an occasional absinthe frappé. A little before seven o’clock that first morning I drove again down North Szechuen Road to let Robertson get back to the office to write his bulletin, and we stood a moment together on the sidewalk comparing notes. The overcast January sky was slowly beginning to pale from black into a dirty gray. Suddenly I heard a droning sound overhead.

“Planes!” I exclaimed.

“The little yellow bastards are going to bomb Chapei,” Robertson said in a breathless tone.

“Never!” I ejaculated. “Bomb 600,000 civilians in an unfortified city? Not even the Japs.”

“Wait and see; bet you a bang-up dinner,” said Robbie, that clever and canny young Scot.

“Taken. You’ll lose.”

So we waited, and the invisible planes droned along; apparently swinging in wide circles, while the sky slowly lightened more and more. At last we could see them dimly.

“Watch,” said Robbie. “Any minute now.”

“You still lose; they are only observers,” I insisted.

And then the unbelievable happened. Each plane loosed two small cylinders, pointed at one end. They dropped in parallel slanting lines. They seemed to take a very long time falling. Then, a second after they had vanished beyond the nearest roof line, the earth seemed to jar and shake, and then came the feeling of the concussion, and the blast of sound.

It is arresting and dismaying, now in 1943, to think back to that bombing story of 1931. The whole civilized world was shocked beyond measure by the Japanese bombing of Chapei. The cables brought to Shanghai long excerpts from scathing newspaper editorials, from denunciations made in Congress and in the British and other Parliaments. The ruthless slaughter of unarmed civilians by aerial bombing outraged humanity.

And now, only twelve years later, we have all become so accustomed to barbarities of this kind that we in the United States can scarcely contain our impatience to bomb Tokyo again and again and eventually to reduce all of Japan’s cities to a succession of charred shambles. This is only one instance in which the Axis Powers have proved their inherent evil. By their examples, which we must necessarily follow in order to survive and finally win to victory, they have brutalized us and have set the conscience of civilized man back half a thousand years.

The world-wide denunciation of the bombing of Chapei had a curious effect upon little Admiral Shiozawa, who in looks and in manner seemed to be one of the kindest and mildest of men. I saw him again on his flagship at dusk of the fourth day of the fighting—again took cocktails with him in his private quarters. His manner was an odd combination of apology and defiance.

“Well, Abend,” he began, with a forced smile, “I see your American newspapers have nicknamed me the Baby-Killer.” He paused, in seeming embarrassment. “But after all,” he continued defensively, “they should give me some credit. I used only 30-pound bombs, and if I had chosen to do so I might have used the 500-pound variety.

”The evening of the day of that second interview brought the only comedy relief of the whole conflict. I had been with the Admiral from five o’clock until nearly six. Then I dined, and it was nearly eight before I began writing my cabled account of what Shiozawa had said. A cable from the editor of the New York Times interrupted my work: “One opposition paper blares exclusive announcing Shiozawa committed hara kiri deck his flagship five P.M. Shanghai time because despair over failure his assault Shanghai. Rush confirmation or denial.”

Admiral Shiozawa certainly had had no dagger in his belly when he poured our second round of cocktails half an hour after he was supposed to have died dramatically on the deck of his flagship.

This “Shanghai Incident” of early 1932 lasted from late January until early March. The Japanese army finally had to come to the aid of the navy, and the army was forced to land 70,000 troops before the Chinese defense lines could be broken. Collectively about 35,000 Chinese and Japanese uniformed men and Chinese civilians were killed before the Japanese obtained an inconclusive victory and an unsatisfactory armistice arrangement.

This was only the mild curtain-raiser. The real battle for Shanghai was to begin five years and five months after the first one ended, and was to last nearly three months. And the struggle then was to cost about 150,000 total casualties.