A Sailor's Story
E.C. "Rocky Lane".
(Used with permission)
I thought of it as I slid towards Shanghai. All of the adventure books I'd read back in the states describing it. Here it was. Just a few feet away,-on this April day of 1948.
Farmers going about daily tasks as they had for centuries not anymore looking up to watch sleek grey behemoths sliding by as though a part of their land, much less noticing odd beings in funny white costumes running about causing the monsters to move across their land. Caring little and knowing less about books in Philadelphia high school libraries about them.
The land was flat and old. There'd been habits, customs, careers, stretching through millenia from the sleek cruiser on which I stood. The U.S.S. Helena CA-75, flagship of Commander-Cruiser-Division Three, Rear Admiral Roscoe Good. I was his baritone horn player, Edward C. Lane, Musician-Seaman First Class, standing there in his band waiting to play honors for entering port.
Buildings of the city began appearing as well as streets containing strange vehicles not mentioned in my adventure stories.Instead of rickshaws I'd expected to see, what I saw were bicycle contraptions attached tt passenger cabs. Elo rickshaws.Later I would see rickshaws but not at first. At first I saw pedicabs by the thousands.
As twentieth century life appeared the river widened and on it floated all kinds of commerce. Boats the likes of which I'd never seen on Philadelphia's Delaware River. Many took station behind us and followed up the river, the Whangpoo River.
We were approaching a cruiser much like our own, the U.S.S. Duluth. readied to play passing honors which would be the Star-Spangled Banner and the Flag Officer's march for the Admiral on board. We sailed into the picture now hangiover my desk taken from the Duluth by my Uncle. I was to meet him later and get the lowdown on China duty.
He'd been there on cruisers since the late thirties ad filled me with many salty sea stories plus much advice on hoar have fun. They all involved China beauties and were little help as it turned out since I was sending most of my money home.
The younger brother of my father knew the ropes.
On March 8th,1948 Unit Band #144 became Admiral Good's Flag Band and mustered aboard the Helena in Long Beach. Our duties were rendering honors for visiting dignataries, entering ports, passing ships as well as upholding morale by playing concerts of dance
band music for ship's company whenever possible. We were a new band of 21 musicians fresh from the Navy's School of Music in Anacostia D.C. and had spent our time crossing the Pacific practicing big band dance music.
In Shanghai we played dances at the U.S.C. during the week and also for a Sunday tea dance. A large group of nice young ladies whose par-rents were White Russian refugees were the hostesses. Admiral Good was our biggest fan according to those spending time with him on his bridge whenever we played a noontime concert. Whenever we played an officer's dance and he arrived, we immediately dove into "Begin the Beguine'. A fitting tribute for a guy nick-named "Take it in Close Roscoe" and now buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
On May 28th the band was transferred to the Glenline building in Shanghai the site of the hotel in the recent movie "Empire of the Sun".The Helena had operations to go on and we had a few local commitments the Admiral wanted us to make, like parading to the English-American cemetery on May 30th for memorial services.
Never to be forgotten were the events of May 3lst at the American school. We were to play incidental music for a program the youngsters put on. Each national group at the school were to present a rendition of something related to their culture. American kids presented a show based on "Casey at the Bat'. The Chinese kids presented a dragon dance complete with firecrackers which was quite good. What wasn't so good was what followed.
An unauthorised group of youngsters made a presentation of a snake dance with communist propaganda blasted over the loudspeakers. The dance consisted of Chinese peasants through the ages going about their peaceful lives until this century. They were then downtrodden
by capitalist dictators. This was depicted by
the dancers moving two steps forward and one step back, always progressing one step.
Then various events occurred resulting in a tall Uncle Sam giving money to the Japanese and collaborators who'd connived to grind down the poor Chinese.
Well of course, not knowing propaganda when we saw it, we of the band thought this was a pretty good show and were much enthralled. People around us however, were not. They knew communist clap-trap when they saw it. Especially the two-steps-forward-one-stepbackwards- routine (basic Mao theory). They starter shouting loudly and excitedly.
Our chief bandmaster knew a riot when he saw one. To save us from being trampled in the oncoming melee he ordered up "Stars and Stripes Forever". It turned out ana excellent choice of music to accompany a riot. The police rushed in with batons swinging to the tempo of a Souza march and in minutes had everything under control.
We were quickly loaded into buses and rushed back to the Glenline building. No liberty for us that night or the next day,
On that morning from our tenth floor windows looking out on a hazy June day we heard the popping of sounds similar to the fire-crackers we'd heard the night before, during the dragon dance. Later in the 1970's while teaching World History to my 10th graders & showing a film on China I realized what those shots had been.
It was those youngsters who'd led the riot kneeling in the street being executed by policemen. All the other youngsters had been sent to jail and held there until Mao's army victoriously entered Shanghai November, 1949.
The doors to their jail cells were opened and over the loudspeakers they were told they could leave. Singing arm-in-arm they swung down the jail's corridors until they turned the corner. They were there met with machine-gun fire mowing them down into a heap.
I was told of this massacre by a Chinese gentleman whose young daughter played violin in the San Diego Youth Symphony with my son. Whether or not that was just more communist claptrap I have no way of knowing.
Then there were the adventures occurring on the Karachi trip. The admiral had us moved to the USS Toledo, the third and much newer of our three cruisers. The Helena and St. Paul remained in China and Japan while we sailed to Pakistan to participate in her birth as a new nation.
As we were to play her national anthem it was discovered there wasn't one. Our Chief Bandmaster hastily wrote an arrangement for band based on "Call to the Colors" which is the Bugle call used to lower our flag. We were thrilled to play it but sadly it has since been replaced.
Another memorable event was the night in Singapore we observed the British fox-trot from ringside seats as well as a tasteful steak dinner. The couples whirled and swirled around the dance floor never even touching at all, a thrilling sight to see. I didn't see it again until watching Lawrence Welk some years in the distance.
We had more fun in Singapore enjoying watching the many beauteous ladies. It was the one port where I enjoyed the old salt's tales of overseas adventures. On seeing such beauties I realized the American experiment of race-mixing would in time be an unqualified success.
Being at the tip of the Malaysian peninsula, Singapore for thousands of years has been an area of continual blending of all the world's peoples. Races of the earth's three main anthropological groups have intermarried here producing the most strikingly beautiful population imaginable.
Rounding its tip into the Indian Ocean we came to the island of Ceylon now called Sri Lanka. It was August and the blistering sun would've been unbearable except for the ocean breeze kicked up by our ships on the prowl.
Sri Lanka is the home of the world's biggest trading center of precious stones. Our imaginative drummer had a plan for this stop. He loaded his bass drum with cigarette packs we donated. When the band went ashore to play for a dance he carried his large equipment cases as always. Unusual however was the rest of us walking along with our regular instruments plus cymbals, snare drums, & other percussive items.
The Admiral's driver was our guide to the best of the rare stones merchant. We came back with a treasure trove of gems of all hues, weights, and sizes dividing them up according to some kind of formula. For years I carried mine around in a little sack never having the money to ever get them mounted. Sadly, they were lost somewhere in my travels.
Sri Lanka was also the site of a much more active adventure. It
worked on all our minds being what a true south sea island is, Hot, humid, with tall coconut palms swaying in gentle sea breezes somehow mitigated by the humidity. Approaching it we became overly concerned with what's always on young men's minds wherever in the world he may . . .sex, and where next to relieve the itch. I
We of the flag band were crammed into crowded quarters with other members of the Admiral's staff. His driver, Marine guards, cooks, barge drivers, and what all else. So of course young men commenting about the next women they'd see were of much interest to all. Sam Siciliano-American trumpet player had much to say on the subject. Unfortunately, a Filipino cook who didn't understand English too well thought Sam was talking about his wife.
He suddenly with wild abandon began flailing his fists down on Sam. Sam's lips were slugged so hard blood began flying about the crowded cabin. The more blood that flew the greater would be the omerta Sam would require. He's told me to this day he's never been able to produce the sound he made on his trumpet till then.
Now all of us musicians being of the peace-loving type one usually associates with our craft, moved quickly to break up the fight. We knew how bloody it would become. Sam spewing fire with blood was determined to immediately do in the Admiral's cook. Someone removed the cook as well, then went to tell the Flag Lieutenant about needing to find a new cook since none felt the present one had long to live.
Our Flag Lieutenant was a tall handsome Ivy Leaguer from Vermont we all muchly appreciated since we felt he seemingly understood those things which caused young men to do brave if foolish things.
Everyons knows of course, the worst thing anyone can do on a ship outside of mutiny, is to hit somebody. Ships don't cut through
the seas too well under the threat of people fighting all over the place. Such a condition doesn't make for happy shipmates.
So Lieutenant Wentworth had a meeting with our bandleader, Chief Lewis. The Chief told him forcefully all about omerta and the need for a trumpet player to play his horn with no cuts. It is after all, a small mouthpiece and every note renews the memory.
The Lieutenant told the Chief about the need to put food on the Admiral's table. It seemed this cook was the only one in the whole Pacific who could please the Admiral and the Admiral's queasy stomach. At the end of their discussion a deadlock was in place with the Lieutenant hoping the Chief fully understood the only real outcome possible over this matter.
The Chief came down to the crew's quarter's & making sure we were all witnesses to his discussion with Sam, told him there was absolutely nothing to be done over this. The Chief was a great one for chewing toothpicks and I'll never forget the wily way he looked at Sam when he told though he knew a breach of Naval discipline had occurred, the guilty party was to go free.
This hit Sam's Sicilian nature hard & he didn't understand all this too well. His rantings and ravings reached monumental proportions as he picked up one circumstance after another, compared it to his happenstance, then dropped it to move on to another waving arms and hands vigorously. I was proud of him. Of all the sons of Italy I'd known to that time, he emerged triumphant.
The Chief was also a piece of work to watch. He stood there solidly with his foot on a lower bunk frame chewing his toothpick as non-committally calm as Sam was hot. When he got a chance to comment
it was to say something like he knew how Sam felt and if it was he'd feel the same way etc., etc., yada-yada-yada. He also made sure Sam knew he didn't condone fighting and didn't feel Sam should retaliate as Sam should know he was against such action. Such talk only increased Sam's ire until he finally ran out of words and just stood staring at the Chief. We all felt a meeting of the minds had been reached. Sam sucked it in, the Chief sucked it in, and wherever the cook was I'm sure he sucked it in. We didn't see him again until a few days later ashore on Sri Lanka.
Several of us ashore with Sam came upon a large open hut which served as an outdoors tavern. A small band was playing to people sitting around small tables enjoying themselves. Our attention came to rest on a table in front of the bandstand. On it rested a pile of gemstones through which a dealer was poking explaining their values to the Admiral's cook.
Behind a bush of big tropical leaves Sam held out an arm exclaiming, "there's the son-of-a-bitch!" A fact of which none of us defferred.
He moved quickly to the table and behind the cook landed a beautiful blow somewhat similar to the one the cook had gotten in. The cook, table, gemstones, and chairs went flying. Sam got in a few more licks amidst all the surprised shouts before we grabbed him and ran off.
We heard the cook went running to the pier and jabbered his unhappiness to the Shore Patrol who didn't seem too interested in his comments even though he was a Chief Steward and was shouting about some kind of altercation. One would've thought a nasty cabal was afoot.
He took the next boat back to the ship and went running to the
Flag Lieutenant's cabin to shout his annoyance.The Lieutenant seemed interested, vaguely. Shook his head sadly and asked the cook what he should do. The Chief told him as best he could of his unhappiness.The Lieutenant agreed with him but said he didn't know what
he could do since the cook had hit the musician first and the musician seemed only interested in defending himself. He said this with a kind of quizzical look on his face, then stopped and staring at the cook nothing more.
A few days later as the ship sailed away from Sr Lanka the cook sat on the deck leaning against the side of turret t--3 staring philosophically at the royal blue sea. From a few feet away Sam & I watched him. Sam mentioned he thought omerta was satisfied and went over to the guy to talk it over. Hands were shook and that was that)
Llthough Sam told me years later he had trouble in the Woody Herman band reaching those high notes.
In September back in Shanghai the Flag transferred to the USS Saint Paul a sister ship to the Helena. We prepared to take a trip down to Hong Kong.The few of us with money looked forward to buying some excellent civilian suits. Others looked forward to long nights with Chinese beauties. I locked forward to climbing that hill over-looking the bay.
Money values in China had been wildly fluctuating since we'd arrived. It seemed that the brother of Madame Chiang jai-shek had been sending every Yankee dollar he could get to Switzerland. On
the day we'd arrived in April the exchange rate was about 15 million to one hmerican dollar. Later when it climbed out of sight Truman persauded Congress for a monetary loan which settled the rate down to four to one where it stayed awhile.
Sailing into Hong Kong Bay is a pleasure one rarely loses.The mountain on which the city rests rises out of the water piercing the cobalt blue sky sprinkled with vaiious buildings as if dropped like confetti. As our sharp-edged cruiser glided to its anchorage a Pan-American flying boat rose from the sea but a few yards away soaring skyward taking our lifted spirits with it.
Several of us along with a few intrepid Marines went ashore determined to get to the top of that mountain so as to enjoy the view. Nobody thoughrabout gzLting there an easier way. just walked up the streets of the city past the last building then began our climb.About
halfway up I made the mistake of looking down. were up past the top floor of new high-rise apartment buildings and fear of heights grabbed me. As I was the last one in line it didn't bother the others so I didn't mind sitting curled like a ball shivering and shaking uncontroliaby.
I was facing across the bay to an area called the new territories. China was behind them as they were flat undeveloped land stretching for miles.Traffic of all sorts on the bay caught my eye and as I
sat taking it in the shivering,shaking,and nausea subsided tiYU
life seemed once more worth living. I turned and began following
Then as we fu excitedly. Looking up
we suddenly heard people talking we saw them pointing down to us jabbering
away from a wide footpath no doubt wondering what those foolish Yankees would think of next, climbing a steep hill when all they had to do was walk_. up the path like everyone else, go like everyone
else, we walked down the path which had shops and children's playground games all the way,.
One the St. Paul's arrival back in Shanghai we found things of the monetary level had worsened. The rate of exchange had jumped from Lf to 1, to 7 to 1 and on a daily basis beginning to worsen as the Soong brother had discovered more creative ways to loot the Chinese treasury of the millions we had given China.
The city streets were filled in late 1948 with thousands of poor people who'd been driven south by Mao's victorious forces in the north.They'd lost everything and were hanging around their relatives homes wondering what to do.
Seeing U.S. sailors dashing about in careening pedicabs throwing thousands and millions ofChinese dollars to them did little to cause appreciation for American cruisers on the river. A sort of deep-seated hatred for American sailors existed in the hearts of the multitudes.
Into this Sam & I ignorantly walked one Sunday night searching for a way to satisfy Sam's always empty sex-drive. We were almost wiped out by Mao's insidious infiltrators of the Shanghai milieu.
We arrived back at the Whangpoo dock to get on our boat to the ship.`3e'd been playing at the U.S.O. tea dance and I guess the sight of-all those pretty young females pressed against navy uniforms had stirred him ur.
"I could do with female companionship, " said Sam. (He spoke more descriptive words than that but "female companionship" will have to do.)
Of course I'd never known a time when Sam couldn't have used female companionship. He was always hung-over. Waiting in the shadows of the wharf were old females past the age of attractiveness, looking for a means to earn money for their next meal. He talked to one of them.
We next were in a pedicab wheeling down Nanking Road, Shanghai's major road,longside us padded this pathetic creature heading for a backalley in which she could earn next week's pay.Ve turned off onto a sidestreet and as we tooled along we began to hear loud mutterings from families sitting on their front doorstoops. We didn't know what was being said and cared little about it. They however knew what we were about and didn't like it.
The driver wheeled onto a deserted street and stopped at the head of an alley and motioned for Sam & the creature to go there. I waited in the cab while Sam and the lady went down the alley to conduct their business.Suddenly around the street corner came this huge mass of angry citizens waving clubs and shouting threats.
The driver never hesitated about leaving but took off down the alley shouting something.Sam pulled his pants back up and jumped in beside me. I foolishly hung over the back of the careening cab trying to hit faces in the mob.They in turn were doing their best to pull me out.
I was surprised they hadn't seen those John gayne movies where he'd always beat the hell out of rioting mobs. I had. I knew they wouldn't have a chance against me. But, maybe they'd seen those movies and knew I was no John Wayne.
The pedicab driver knew he wouldn't live much longer in that neighborhood and pumped us the hell out of there. gave him a good tip so he could enjoy telling about it. Sam went to bed that night still hungover but happy nevertheless,he could still breathe and enjoy sweet dreams.
A short while later occurred the election of Harry Truman in 1948. Most all of us bandmembers were raving conservatives (we
knew a good thing when we saw one). Except Sam. He was from Euey Long's Louisiana and had a better idea on how the people would vote.
For days we hammered away at him in the cramped quarters of the bandroom.The brains of our group was leading petty officer first class, Bill Reese. He played piccolo and baritone sax but best of all in our whole trip throughout Asia spent his days walking back and forth, back and forth, in whatever bandroom on whatever ship we were on, hands behind his back grandpa pipe puffing clouds of smoke, just back and forth, back and forth. He knew Dewey would win and Truman would lose, He didn't say much about it but agreed with all we smart-talkers had to say to Sam day-in, day-out.
The first Tuesday of November came & went. That day as we went onto the quarterdeck to play our noon concert all us smartass know-it-alls learned a few things about Huey Long's Louisiana Democrats.
Sam sat there smugly legs crossed, trumpet to a smirking mouth, behind a music stand on which sat a newspaper, the Shanghai Press, with a large picture of a smiling Truman his arms widespread in the victory salute. We got to look at that picture throughout the concert and down through the ages, hate it a little more than other conservative Americans.
A few days later we sailed from Shanghai our adventures in the Orient ended. As we glided through the countryside towards the Yellow River (which really is yellow) somebody of Mao's persuasion got a few licks in. Shots rang out. Nobody was hurt but bullets clanged around the superstructure.
Looking back, it seemed a fitting end to the days of China station.