Flying her largest colors to proclaim neutrality amid China’s revolutionary strife, the American gunboat Monocacy , painted a somber gray “war color,” stood up the brown Yangtze River an hour into the forenoon watch on 17 January 1918. Less than a week earlier, 29-year-old Lieutenant Albert C. Roberts, her commanding officer, had reported that handfuls of Chinese soldiers—or bandits—had fired on nearly every merchantman plying the stretch of river between Ichang and Hankow, showing respect for no flag.
While he did not consider such sniping “a particularly serious affair,” Roberts, who had been in command since 27 December 1917 and was remembered by his U.S. Naval Academy classmates as “a swashbuckling buccaneer with a dash of the cowboy . . . the instincts of a diplomat, the ambition of a politician and the tastes of a pampered son of millions,” deemed it possible that the Monocacy could be a target. Informing his crew of the possibility of “cursory sniping,” Roberts had ordered his men to make barricades of coal bags and ready every weapon on board. He had warned them to “keep well under cover for the next ten miles” and not to return fire “under any circumstances unless properly ordered” to do so.