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.
Then, about 52 miles north of the Yangtze village of Chenglin, the gunboat sailors saw what appeared to be about 500 entrenched troops spread out along the river’s right bank. A shot rang out, the bullet hitting the gunboat’s jackstaff. Two more shots followed. A volley then crashed out, two rounds striking the bridge. The swelling volume of fire convinced “Cy” Roberts that the shooting was not accidental. He then did what he felt necessary to uphold the honor of the Stars and Stripes that snapped from the ship’s mainmast and gaff: He ordered his men to open fire.
Authorized by Congress on 4 March 1911, “Shallow Draft River Gunboat No. 1” was named Monocacy on 10 November 1911. Reclassified as Gunboat No. 20 on 2 December 1912, the Monocacy was the second ship to honor the river in Maryland. Workmen at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California, laid her keel on 28 April 1913, and construction proceeded through the summer. On 23 October 1913, however, the process of dismantling the ship began, after which she and her sister ship Palos (Gunboat No. 16) were packed like giant jigsaw puzzles on board the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s Mongolia for transportation to Woosung, near Shanghai, China, whence the Ko Chin Company lightered the parts to the Shanghai Dock & Engineering Company’s yard. Re-erected alongside her sister, the Monocacy was launched on 27 April 1914; Mrs. Andrew F. Augusta Carter, the wife of the inspector of the ship’s machinery, performed the christening. Delivered to the Navy on 20 May 1914, the Monocacy was commissioned on 24 June 1914, Lieutenant Andrew F. Carter in command.
Drawing less than three feet of water, the Monocacy, like the Palos, had been equipped with two vertical compound engines whose 800 horsepower propelled her at a top speed of 13.25 knots—although sometimes, when entering rapids and steaming with the current, the ship could proceed at nearly twice that rate. Four large rudders beneath her square stern gave the Monocacy the ability to maneuver in the often turbulent waters of the upper Yangtze—her shallow draft enabling her to operate where the ex-Spanish gunboats Samar and Quiros could not—and proceed as far as Chungking, providing protection to American citizens who were in China for gospel or gold. Sometimes, the mere sight of a gunboat was enough to inspire respect, but sometimes, as on that day in January 1918, it was not.
The Monocacy’s sailors returned fire, the chatter of the reliable Colts and the bark of the 1903 Springfields intermingling with the thud of bullets striking the ship. The gunboat sailors dropped at least 40 of their assailants, and the Americans’ spirited fire—some 3,000 rounds all told—compelled the Chinese resolve to waver.
At 0905 Chief Yeoman Harold L. O’Brien, standing directly behind the captain, was wounded, shot through the pelvis and bladder, and collapsed into Roberts’ arms. The Chinese pilot, visibly frightened and on the verge of collapse himself, had to be driven back to his post. Assistant Surgeon (Lieutenant) Aubrey M. Larsen, the only other officer on board, and Chief Pharmacist’s Mate S. C. Metzker immediately began to try to save O’Brien’s life. Two other Monocacy sailors suffered wounds as the battle continued.
Seeing the Japanese river steamer Tayuen standing downriver at about 0925, Roberts ordered his main battery to commence firing at the Chinese. Just six rounds of the 6-pounder fire seemed to break the soldiers’ morale, for their shooting slackened, then died away altogether by 0930. Passing the Tayuen five minutes later on an opposite course, the Monocacy took advantage of the widened channel at that point to turn and fall in astern of the merchantman, ready to renew the engagement if necessary. But the Chinese, believed to have been “Southern Revolutionists,” had had enough of Roberts’ feisty Yankee sailors.
At 0947, O’Brien succumbed to his wounds despite the efforts of Larsen and Metzker. “O’Brien died a hero,” Roberts reported later, “never a murmur” coming from the mortally wounded sailor but to assure his commanding officer, “Never mind me, I am alright.” Given the small size of the little ship’s company, the chief yeoman’s death, Roberts lamented, was “very greatly felt by all hands.”
Lauding his crew’s morale under heavy fire, citing “the greatest courage . . . displayed by all,” Roberts praised his engineer force for giving the Monocacy—struck at least 80 times—“a full head of steam and of running the engines at their maximum speed [on] very short notice.” In retrospect, he reasoned that perhaps the Chinese had mistaken the Monocacy—in her dark gray paint, rather than the white of British and Japanese gunboats—for one of the “loyal Chinese men-of-war . . . in that vicinity.” Furthermore, an untrained observer could mistake the colors flown by Chinese troop transports for the red, white, and blue American flag. “Certainly,” Roberts concluded, “no act on the part of any member of the [Monocacy’s] crew could have given grounds for such a dastardly attack.” Soon thereafter, the Monocacy received a coat of white and spar color that she wore for the remainder of her life on the Great River.
Reclassified as PG-20 on 17 July 1920, and PR-2 on 15 June 1928, the Monocacy ultimately was decommissioned at Shanghai on 31 January 1939 and was stricken from the Navy Register the same day. Less than a fortnight later, on 10 February 1939, the little ship was towed to sea and sunk—intentionally rammed by the tug Minnie Moller when scuttling charges failed to do the job—in the estuary of the Yangtze.
Soon after the action of 17 January 1918, Roberts had called the attack by Chinese troops “a direct insult to the United States flag,” and resolved to take “such steps . . . considered necessary to uphold its honor.” Far from her native land, the Monocacy had done just that, as she and her crew wrote another chapter in the life of what naval history would record as the Yangzte Patrol.