The simplest explanation of a historian’s purpose may be “to understand the past.” A more prosaic “historian’s Basic Job Description” is to “research, analyze, record, and interpret the past as recorded in sources, such as government and institutional records, newspapers and other periodicals, photographs, interviews, films, and unpublished manuscripts, such as personal diaries and letters.”1 This certainly seems an exhaustive list, but this article addresses specific issues confronting historians while researching naval history—particularly in Asia. Personal experiences while conducting research in China, Taiwan, and the United States are noted, with focus on four categories of historical “evidence.”
·Facts: accepted truth
·Eyewitness Accounts: from participants and witnesses
·Sea Stories: “Hey, this is a no-shitter”
·Fiction: “made up” or based on foregoing three categories of “evidence”
Chinese historians usually credit their country with 5,000 years of history. This may be exaggerated, but the American historian attempting to understand that very long and great record does so from the vantage of a nation with essentially no more than 400 years of history. Furthermore, direct relations between the United States and China only date to the late 18th century, increasing since then, largely due to the efforts of traders and missionaries, the first of whom began arriving in the mid- to late-19th century.2 My research on the activities of American missionaries in China included interviews with former missionaries and investigating collections of original documents. Given the passage of time, these collections are the richest source of information about the U.S. missionary presence.3
These resources include much of interest to a U.S. naval historian, given the near-continuous post-1854 presence of U.S. ships and Marine Corps units in China, which reached a crescendo in the 1920s. Naval and Marine Corps missions focused on safeguarding U.S. interests and personnel; the three most prominent groups in China during that troubled decade were diplomats, businessmen, and missionaries.4
Particularly prominent missionary offspring and former missionaries, such as publisher Henry Luce, Congressman Walter Judd, and others, including veterans such as Marine Corps General Smedley Butler, were especially influential in forming American public opinion about China.
Following the 1911 downfall of the Qing Dynasty and subsequent descent into widespread warlordism, Sun Yat-sen struggled to unify China. This included establishing the Whampoa Military Academy at Guangzhou in southern China. Chiang Kai-shek was Sun’s military commander, while Zhou Enlai was the political commissar. They formed a united front for the “Northern March,” a military campaign to unify the country with a capital at Beijing. This united front operated effectively until early 1927 when the Republican and Communist forces broke apart, as Chiang’s forces attacked his erstwhile communist partners, correctly assuming their different goals.
The resulting civil war between the two lasted until 1949, a period that included internecine armed struggles among warlords and a 15-year war with Japan that merged into the larger World War II. A touchstone of this long war is the museum of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, located in that city. I first visited the then-unfinished museum in the May 1994, in company with two People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers, one of them a young lieutenant. After the tour, he emotionally stated, “Now I understand why my grandparents and parents hate the Japanese.” The massacre was a fact, but his memory was embellished with family memories, perhaps qualifying as sea stories.
Mao Zedong only solidified his control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the mid-1930s, after which he played a central role in the CCP’s victory against the Chinese Nationalists and the fight against the Japanese; however, his role is magnified and propagandized by Chinese historians. One example is the large mural that graces the entry to the museum in Shanghai celebrating the CCP’s founding in 1921. Mao attended this First CCP Congress, but contrary to Chinese accounts, only “played a minor role.” However, the mural is, perhaps unintentionally, a replication of the “Last Supper,” with Mao depicted standing in the center, behind the table at which the other delegates are seated.5
PRC and Republic of China (ROC) interpretations of their civil war, the fight against Japan, and following crises across the Taiwan Strait both include fact, fiction, and outright propaganda. One example of the ROC version of events is in the museum on Taiwan’s island of Kinmen (formerly known as Quemoy) marking the ROC’s decisive defeat of the PLA’s amphibious assault in October 1949. This victory was overwhelming, but the verbiage in the museum begins by stating “Following the victory on the mainland. . .”—hardly an accurate description of the ROC’s 1949 defeat and expulsion from the mainland. So the fact of the Kinmen victory is colored by the outright fiction on the plaque celebrating that victory.
Sea stories also may be heard, of course. One involves a senior ROC destroyer captain in 1949, whom I interviewed in 2004 when he was a robust, 94-year-old retired vice-admiral. The admiral drove himself through a rising typhoon to my hotel, where we chatted for hours over tea and then a couple of drinks. He painted a picture of the Nationalists’ post–World War II vulnerabilities; he was particularly dismissive of its Leninist system of political commissars. The three commissars on the destroyer he commanded, he laughed, would have been immediately thrown overboard if he had been attacked during the exodus from the mainland to Taiwan.
Perhaps a sea story, but one that represented a line officer’s resentment of the political commissar’s role.
One usually assumes that eyewitness statements strengthen historical accuracy, but they may also reflect individual perceptions. I was involved in one fact-fiction sea-story conundrum in the mid-1990s, when I contributed to the official history of Marine Corps operations in Vietnam in 1968.
The Tet Offensive, January to April 1968, was a pivotal event in the long U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Tet was marked by the attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, the devastation of Hue City, and the so-called siege of Khe Sanh. Khe Sanh Combat Base was established in the extreme northwestern corner of what used to be the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).
I served at Khe Sanh as a naval gunfire liaison officer with the 1st Battalion, 13th Marine Regiment, working as assistant target intelligence officer.6 This involved standing a nominal 12-hour port-and-starboard watch each day, which gave me with a firsthand view of incoming and outgoing artillery and air-launched fires.
The North Vietnamese Army (NVA) fired artillery, often hundreds of rounds, into the Khe Sanh base almost every day. A particularly heavy bombardment targeted the base on 23 February, when the NVA launched more than 1,300 rounds of artillery fire at the base. I was on watch in the Fire Support Command Center all that day, intent on locating the sources of the NVA artillery fire to provide counter-battery targets to our own artillery as well as from Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aircraft.
I was asked to address the Khe Sanh battle when contributing my recollections to the historian who was writing the official history of Marine Corps operations in Vietnam in 1968. Other participants in this effort included the Marine Corps captain who commanded the 26th Regiment infantry company occupying Hill 881 South. The hill his company occupied lay on the line from the Khe Sanh base to Co Roc, an L-shaped rock formation just across the border, in Laos.
I observed the primary stream of incoming NVA artillery fire that day originating on a bearing from Co Roc. The Marine captain on 881 reported the primary stream of fire originating from quite a different bearing. Both of us were eyewitnesses, both were trained observers, both of us were experienced in-country, both of us clearly remembered what we observed—but we did not agree.
So, who was correct? How was the history of the battles at and around Khe Sanh, during the Tet Offensive of January to April 1968 to be written? I learned the valuable lesson that having an eyewitness does not guarantee accurate recall. Were our recollections of that day, one or both, Fact and Sea Story?
A “sea story” is the most interesting sort of resource. Perhaps aptly described as a “nautical fairy tale,” it usually emerges from an actual incident, but one that is then subjected to the participant’s incidental restructuring, a process that tends to increase over time.
Both the factual and fictional events I am now going to discuss occurred in China during the Northern Expedition, mentioned above.7 This campaign was strongly anti-foreign, which directly affected the naval and Marine Corps forces in China, tasked with protecting American lives and property. As missionaries, diplomats, and businessmen were the most prominent representatives of the American neo-colonialist presence, they often were the subject of Chinese opprobrium and occasional attack. The U.S. military attaché in Peking, Major John Magruder, reported in January 1926:
According to consular reports, anti-foreign feeling . . . is steadily increasing. . . . foreigners are commonly addressed as “foreign dogs” on the streets. . . . Anti-foreign demonstrations are of almost weekly occurrence. . . . [The Chinese] military has been able to tax vessels flying the flags of [foreign] powers. . . .”8
The U.S. Asiatic Fleet and Yangtze River Patrol commanders in China were frustrated by the contradiction between their mission to defend U.S. citizens and property, and the diktat not to interfere in China’s civil war, or rather “wars,” since the Nationalist-Communist conflict was accompanied by numerous warlords fighting each other for the wealth and control over the areas they controlled.9
Researching events that occurred on and around the Yangtze River during this period required dealing with fact, fiction, and sea stories. A surprising source was Richard McKenna’s novel The Sand Pebbles. The book is both entertaining and informative, containing a good deal of, yes, fact, fiction, and sea stories.
McKenna was a retired U.S. Navy chief machinist’s mate who had served in gunboats on the Yangtze during the 1930s.10 Almost all of the significant events in his novel actually occurred to a U.S. or other foreign gunboat on the Yangtze or tributary rivers and lakes between approximately 1900 and the late 1930s.11
An important episode leading to the book’s denouement is the battle that ensues when the fictional USS San Pablo tries to break through a barrier established on a river, presumably the Yangtze or a tributary, winning a somewhat pyrrhic victory followed by the rescue of would-be self-martyring missionaries.
The novel’s central river battle likely was modeled on the September 1926 battle at Wan Hsien, a city on the upper Yangtze River then ruled by General Yang Sen, the local warlord. He occasionally seized British-owned steamers to use as troop transports; his August 1926 seizure of two of these posed a challenge the Royal Navy commander on the river could not stomach.
A British gunboat, HMS Cockchafer, already at Wan Hsien, was joined by another gunboat, HMS Widgeon. Also on hand was the Kiawo, a small commercial steamer the Royal Navy had seized(!), sandbagged, armed with machine guns, and manned with a party of British sailors commanded by Commander F. C. Darley, the executive officer of HMS Dispatch, a British cruiser.
Darley laid the Kiawo alongside the two captured steamers with the intent of freeing them and their civilian British officers. Yang Sen had prepared an effective ambush, however, and Darley, two lieutenants, and four enlisted men were killed; two other officers and 13 enlisted men were wounded. Despite firing three dozen six-inch shells into the city of Wan Hsien, the Royal Navy ships were forced to withdraw, and the steamers remained in General Yang Sen’s hands.
Not only had Chinese forces defeated Westerners, but the two gunboats both ran aground while withdrawing, and the British bombarded the city, killing an undetermined but significant number of Chinese civilians. All of these events became useful propaganda to Chinese forces, intensifying anti-foreignism.
The second probable model used by McKenna for the missionary rescue that was his novel’s culminating event was the March 1927 Nanjing Incident, a clash during the Northern March of Chiang Kai-shek’s military force. Nanjing is located on the Yangtze River, approximately 200 miles from the sea, but an important economic center and port city, easily available to ships displacing up to 5,000 tons.
The fortuitous timing of my research enabled me to interview and correspond with participants in this diplomatic and naval incident 50 years after the event.
The local Standard Oil Company manager’s residence, called Socony House, was the city’s most imposing private residence, located on the riverbank. The U.S. consul in Nanjing feared a Chinese assault on the city and shared his concerns with Lieutenant Commander Roy C. Smith Jr., commanding the USS Noa (DD-343), a destroyer anchored at the city.12
Smith in turn conferred with Captain Hugh England, commanding officer of HMS Emerald, a cruiser also anchored at Nanjing. They agreed on a common course of action in the face of the expected military assault on the city. Another destroyer joined the Noa at Nanjing on 22 March, in time to help embark 175 foreign refugees.13
The next day, the two destroyers sent 11 sailors under the command of Ensign W. Phelps to the U.S. consulate; the Noa also sent a three-man signaling team to Socony House. The Emerald meanwhile dispatched a “landing party” of one Navy lieutenant and one Marine captain.
Chinese troops entered Nanjing during the night of 23–24 March and immediately attacked the U.S., British, and Japanese consulates. The Japanese consul was shot at and went into hiding; the British consul was wounded and did the same, while the U.S. consul, after being threatened, searched, and robbed, fled to Socony House with the naval detachment. An American educator was killed, and a missionary seriously wounded, while others were injured. As the mayhem spread, foreigners of all nationalities took refugees in Socony House, which soon came under fire from Chinese troops, answered by rifle fire from American sailors.
This return fire was insufficient to deter a clearly approaching Chinese assault on the house, and assistance was requested by semaphore from the U.S. and British ships. The senior petty officer from the Noa, Signalman First Class John D. Wilson, said:
[I] went up on the roof [of Socony House] to receive signals and had the misfortune of having to do a bit of ducking as there was a machine gun up in a clump of trees that was trying to discourage me from getting up. I would fire a few shots from my .45 pistol, send some more signals and have to duck. . . . Firing was so bad that the other fellows held a sheet up against the house and I sent my signals in front of it.14
The Chinese troops surrounding Socony House were dispersed and calm restored when the rescuing ships fired more than 100 rounds of four- and six-inch rounds around the House, as well as long bursts of machine-gun fire. The foreigners in the house used this covering fire to escape to the riverbank, where a 250-man Anglo-American landing party evacuated them to the ships on the river.15
Wilson also related the following colorful description of how the rifles stored in the consulate were cleaned of their protective coating of cosmoline:
I personally got a beautiful cut glass bowl and dumped several fifths of Mr. Hobart’s scotch [into it] and we took the bolts out of the rifles, washed them off in scotch and got them to work. I later took a glass and went to the bottom of the bowl and got a healthy snifter of the good whiskey and drank it down, well realizing it was oily but needed that bracer then and there.
One must consider this account very likely more in the line of a sea story, than historical fact.
Hence, McKenna’s fictional Sand Pebbles draws on historical fact and sea stories.
Propaganda usually has a nugget of fact, but then exaggerates to include sea stories and outright fiction to make its point, which is often maliciously intended. An example is the Chinese supposition of victory in the 1950–53 Korean War. Or, as Chinese historians describe it, “the War to Resist U.S. Aggression and Aid North Korea.”
Chinese civilian academics, think-tankers, and active-duty PLA officers I have interviewed have consistently supported the view that the “illegitimate lackeys of Western imperialists in the South attacked first.”
Perhaps even more jarring is insisting the war was a Chinese and North Korean victory. Citing the wildly different casualties suffered by each side when questioning this view has been consistently brushed aside by my Chinese interlocuters, who base their claim to victory on the fact that “the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea still exists.” True, but not the usual American way of evaluating a war’s conduct.
Fact, fiction, sea story, propaganda! All play a role in historical research.
I took a very fine “historiography” course in graduate school, but learning about Herodotus, Thucydides, and Gibbon was not as valuable as were my experiences writing about events in East Asia. These have provided an appreciation for the complexities of recounting past events, including similarities and differences among the categories of historical “evidence.”
Especially sobering was my own involvement in eyewitness accounts, evidenced in the Khe Sanh example cited above. I think it is safe to assume that when such accounts differ markedly, it does not usually reflect intellectual dishonesty, but the fog and friction of war.16
These views are those of the author alone and do not reflect those of the Center for Naval Analyses, the National War College or any other agency of the U.S. Government.
2. An explanation of missionary motivation is provided in John Hersey, The Call: An American Missionary in China (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). This superb, semi-autobiographic novel is based on Hersey’s missionary parents.
3. See, for instance, Paul A. Varg, Missionaries, Chinese, and Diplomats: The American Protestant Missionary Movement in China, 1890–1952 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1958); Wayne Flint, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850–1950 (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997); and Jane Hunter, The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984). Significant missionary collections are on microfilm and increasingly online at Auburn University, Yale, Harvard BOAS (London), and elsewhere.
4. There are several valuable depositories of missionary reports and documents, including collections at Harvard, the University of North Carolina, Auburn University, and elsewhere.
5. I saw the museum mural in 2005. See Philip Short, Mao: A Life (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1999), 119–122. See also Jonathan Spence, Mao Zedong: A Life (New York: Penguin, 1999); 52–55 notes that “Mao’s proven strength [at the First CCP Congress] was as a businessman.” Spence also notes that Mao explained his absence at the Second CCP Congress in 1922 by saying he “had forgot the name of the place” where it was to be held (62).
6. See Bernard D. Cole, “A NOGLOW in Vietnam, 1968: Air Power at the Battle of Khe Sanh, Journal of Military History 64, no. 1 (January 2000): 141–158, for my account of the battle from the perspective of the Fire Support Coordination Center.
7. Donald A. Jordan, The Northern Expedition: China’s National Revolution of 1926–1928 (Honolulu: University Press of Hawaii, 1976) remains a good description of this campaign.
8. Military Attache to G-2, War department, “Comment on Current Events, April 15–20, 1926, 29 May 1926, 2, Received by ONI 07 June 1926, cited in Bernard D. Cole, Gunboats and Marines: the U.S. Navy in China, 1925–1928 (Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1982),78–79.
9. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg kept close track of these incidents. His direction to not “use force of arms to enforce treaty rights” was impractical, since maintaining American neutrality in China’s civil war, while defending Americans and their interests, was contradictory guidance to U.S. diplomatic and military personnel in China. They could not carry out their protective mission without interfering in civilian political developments.
10. See Dennis L. Noble, The Sailor’s Homer: The Life and Times of Richard McKenna, Author The Sand Pebbles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015). I met McKenna briefly when I was an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina in 1961, where he had retired. When researching my dissertation at the UNC library in 1976, I discovered to my disappointment that McKenna’s papers had been retained by his widow, who was denying access to them.
11. Nine nations stationed gunboats on the Yangtze at times between 1839 and 1948: the United States (since 1857), Britain (since 1939), France, Austria- Hungary, Germany, Russia, Japan, Portugal, and of course, China. One gunboat operated under five flags (one twice) during her service: The USS Wake (PR-3) was built in Shanghai in 1926–27, seized by Japanese forces in 1941, retaken by the U.S. Navy in 1945, then commissioned into the Republic of China Navy that same year, before surrendering to the PLA Navy in 1948.
12. When I was conducting research in August 1977, I visited the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni House in search of old copies of Shipmate, the alumni magazine. I introduced myself to the Alumni Association director, retired Captain Roy C. Smith III. Not only was he the son of the Noa’s commanding officer but had been on board the ship as a 14-year-old during the Nanjing Incident! Captain Smith was a very gracious interviewee and provided me with contact information for several Noa veterans who were happy to answer my questions. Pure serendipity.
13. The Noa was a “four-piper” destroyer armed with 4-inch guns and machine guns. Emerald was one of a two-ship class built during World War I, armed with 6-inch guns as well as smaller caliber weapons.
14. LT John D. Wilson, USN (Ret.), telephone discussion, 14 July 1977, which was followed by a letter. Wilson was a Signalman First Class in 1927 and one of three enlisted men who received the Navy Cross for their actions at Nanjing.
15. Three Japanese destroyers also were present at Nanjing, as were Italian and French gunboats, but none of them joined in the bombardment.
16. According to various sources, when asked how history would judge his decisions, Winston Churchill reportedly replied “well, because I shall write the history.” See, for instance, https://winstonchurchill.hillsdale.edu/leave-past-history/. Perhaps the dishonesty factor in “eyewitness” accounts is directly proportional to the ego of the eyewitness involved.