America has long maintained interests in China. American commercial and missionary efforts date back to the late eighteenth century, and the United States maintained a naval presence in China dating back to the pre-Civil War era. By the early twentieth century, however, unstable
conditions in China prompted the U.S.Navy to designate a permanent force of gunboats to patrol the Yangtze River, the Pearl River ( leading to Canton), and the China Coast, forming the Yangtze Patrol and the South China Patrol.
Popularized by the novel and movie Sand Pebbles, the gunboats and China sailors represent an important aspect of the American "Old China Hands" experience in China, and duty aboard a gunboat in China was the most unique the Navy had to offer. Was the depiction of the gunboats and sailors in Sand Pebbles accurate? What did the gunboats really do, and what was the life of
the China sailors really like? The U.S. gunboat patrol and their sailors provided vital protection, transportation, and support for American national and private interests in China, and their primary mission to protect American lives, property, and show the flag, was essential to the American presence in China.
The purpose is not to provide a chronological history of the gunboats and sailors in China, but rather to investigate their equipment, activities, duties and mission during the "heyday" of U.S. Gunboat activity in China (1920-1941). The subject will be further addressed in two main
sections in the future; The Men, and The Mission. It is necessary, however , by way of explanation, to offer a brief synopsis of the themes and attributes contained in Sand Pebbles that will be examined, and the events leading up to our era of study (1920-1941), to provide a background and context for the information investigated in this research.
research will address. The fictional gunboat in the novel, the San Pebble (based on the real Villalobas), is portrayed as an antiquated coal burning vessel that is limited in mobility certain times of year by the water level and its draft The sailor' life was good, with plentiful food, comfortable crew quarters, diversions of liberty, and Chinese laborers who lived onboard
and did a lot of work. But events intervene, and the Sand Pablo and her men were ordered to evacuate American missionaries out of harms way. They battle Chinese revolutionary soldiers and are able to extricate the missionaries; at a cost (the protagonist is killed). But the gunboat and its sailors are portrayed as well armed and capable of engaging superior numbers of
antagonists (Chinese Revolutionaries) successfully in the course of fulfilling their primary mission: to protect American lives, property, and project American presence by showing the flag.
The United States has been involved with China since the eighteenth century, and the first U.S.flagged merchant ship arrived at Whampoa in Canton on August 28, 1784. American merchant activity continued into the nineteenth century, and in 1844, the Treaty of Wanghsia granted American most favored nation status and extraterritoriality. From that point in time on, the American government assumed the right to protect American flagged shipping in Chinese waters, and began to actively participate in China as both a commercial, and a military power. Events in 1853 proved to be a turning point for the U.S.Navy in China as the Plymouth landed marines in Shanghai to assist the British in securing their concessions, and the Susquehanna marked an essential change in American policy in 1854 by ascending the Yangtze River as far a Wuhu, officially opening the Yangtze River to U.S. naval vessels. Although the Susquehanna was a clumsy paddle-wheel steamer, not really a gunboat, it started the Yangtze Patrol, the "longest uninterrupted military operation in U.S. history (at least inname).
The open treaty ports on the Yangtze eventually included (in order going upriver) Shanghai, Chinkiang, Nanking, Wuhu, Kiukiang, Hankow, Shasi, Changsha , Ichang, and Chungking. After the Civil War, the U.S.sent the Monocacy and the Ashuelot to China, products of U.S. riverine experience in the Civil War, and more appropriate to the conditions on the Yangtze. From 1866 to 1941, there is a continuous U.S naval presence on the Yangtze, indicating that the importance of the commercial invovlvement, and the number of American nationals in the region was growing, and the U.S. felt compelled to maintain a military presence to protect these interests. Also, 1867-1941 represents the actual length of the "longest military operation inthe U.S.history.
By 1898, several additional U.S.naval ships had served in China and growing American influence in the Pacific began to change the composition, and the importance of the U.S.naval vessels active in the region. The Spanish-American War in 1898 changed the role of the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. Commodore Dewey's victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay on May 1 thrust the U.S.Navy into a new role of protector of a Far East Empire. Additional trouble in China with the Boxer rebellion of 1900 reinforced the Navy's commitment to protect American interests in China, and in 1903 the U.S. moved several vessels captured from the Spanish in the Philippines to China, including the old coal burning gunboatsVillalobos,Elcano, and Pampanga.???????????
The Pacific Fleet, as the U.S. acknowledged the growing Japanese aims in the region, and the gunboats, were organized into the Second Division, Third Squadron, of the Pacific Fleet in
1908. The Navy commissioned its first specially built shallow draft gunboats in 1914, the Monocacy and Palos (both replaced old China boats of the same name, decommissioned in 1893 and 1904). The ships were built in the U.S.disassembled, shipped to China in pieces, and reassembled in Shanghai. These gunboats essentially completed the early U.S. complement of gunboats in China, and they gave the Navy the ability to operate in the shallow water of Changsha (Tung Ting Lake) and Chungking year-round. World War I also started in 1914, and soon the Americans found themselves the only ones patrolling in China, as other treaty powers (Britain,Russia,Germany, and France) withdrew their gunboat forces or were interned, (the Chinese were still neutral). The U.S.Navy had its own gunboats interned briefly during 1917 as the U.S.entered the war in April and the Chinese did not follow until August. Following the war, the importance of U.S. gunboats in China was even greater (because of the power vacuum created by absent treaty powers and vastly increased American post-war prestige), as China was in constant turmoil and attacks on American interests by war lords and revolutionaries had grown, and would continue for another decade. The U.S. "Dollar Diplomacy" and "Open-Door Policy" in China took the moral high ground, but the fact was, U.S.business was making hundreds of millions in China, and it was the job of the gunboats to protectthese interests.
Due to this increased importance and the growing number of gunboats, on December 28, 1919, the gunboats were organized into the South China Patrol (based in Hong Kong/Canton), and the Yangtze Patrol (based in Shanghai/Hankow). These official designations, and divisions of the
gunboats, would exist for the next two decades, until World War II brought them to an end for good. Thus were the conditions and historical background of the gunboats leading up to our era of study, 1920-1941. This era represents the apex, and swansong, of American gunboats activity in China.
The first element of this study is the gunboats themselves. The nature and features of the individual gunboats could vary greatly, and this had significant bearing on the kind of experience the crew had, and how effective the boats were in fulfilling their mission. As a general rule,
U.S.gunboats and their crews were well armed, capable of projecting sufficient firepower to prevail in most situations. But the other individual idiosyncrasies and differences between boats deeply affected the lives and moral of the gunboat sailors, where the boats could go, and to a degree determined the level of success they achieved. Some boats were better than others. Consequently, it is necessary to examine the characteristics of the gunboats to provide an understanding and appreciation of these differences.
The gunboats that comprised the early patrols of this era were a decidedly mixed bag. Some were relics captured or purchased in the Philippines during the Spanish-American war; some were manufactured in the States around the turn of the century or during World War I, and were large enough to make the trans-Pacific trip to China, and two, the Palos and the Monocacy, were newertrue river gunboats assembled in Shanghai in 1914.
Many of these gunboats had coal-burning steam engines, while some had been converted or initially fitted with oil burning boilers. Brevity prevents listing all the gunboats used in this early period, but a list for our purposes discussion includes South China Patrol-Helena, Pampanga, Asheville, Pigeon,a 6-1/2 foot draft, was able to cruise the shallow Canton estuary. All were
well armed, however, with main batteries of 4" cannons and machine gun emplacements (the 4" cannon made a distinctive "crack" that terrified the Chinese and could pulverize targets in short order).
But all these ships were primitive relics and none had electrical power, all had to have portable gas generators. They lacked baffles (a component of the firebox/boiler system that trapped heat and could, but this "open flue" stack made the boilers highly not be used with wood because it blocked the flames) and were able to burn wood or coal forfuel .
Inefficient and the engines weak. The crew quarters were cramped and often below decks, (with the exception of the Villalobos, which had light, airy, wooden crew quarters above deck), making these boats very hot in the summer. The Navy squeezed all the use it could out of these boats, however, and some served until the late 1920's. The common view among the officers about this
group of gunboats might have been summed up by a Navy report from 1920, recommending the Elcano and Villalobos should be "condemned, stricken and offered for sale. Another group of gunboats is the larger ocean going boats guilt in the States. This group includes the Helena, Asheville, and Sacramento. The Helena was a steel gunboat built in 1897 and was one of the first gunboats made specifically for service in China. She had large view over the 50-foot dikes and banks of the Yangtze. The Sacramento was a steel gunboat built for tropical service in 1914, and the Asheville was a gunboat built for tropical duty in 1918. Both these vessels could burn coal
or wood, but were later converted to oil burners. All three boats were well over 200 feet long, averaged 12 knots, and were heavily armed (up to 4" cannons and multiple machine guns). These boats also had large crews (150-185 men) and could carry substantial amounts of fuel, making them well suited for coastal patrol, not river patrol, because their draft averaged more than 10 feet.
Three odd-ball (conversion) ships were used during this period: the Isabel, Pigeon, and Penguin. The Isabel was a yacht converted to a destroyer in World War I, and served as flagship for the Commander of the Yangtze Patrol. She was 1probably the fastest of all the gunboats to serve in China: at 26 knots she had blazing speed, but could not go up river past Hankow. The Penguin and the Pigeon were both converted World War I minesweepers. They were capable of 13 knots, but had 133-foot drafts, once again preventing upper-river travel. All of these convertedgunboats carried 3" main batteries and machine gun emplacements.
The only true shallow draft river gunboats during this period were the Monocacy and Palos. Based on British plans, both were constructed at Mare Island Naval Yard in San Francisco, disassembled, shipped to Shanghai, and reassembled there in 1914. Smaller (165 feet) and lighter (204 tons) that all of the other American gunboats, these boats were true Yangtze gunboats. Able to negotiate the rapids and gorges of the Yangtze to Chungking, they only drew 2-1/2 feet of water, and Far East Commander-in-Chief "fighting Bob:" Evans remarked that they were"almost able to float on wet grass."
These two gunboats were probably the most used and long lived of the early gunboats (used long after their prime), in service until the late 1930's. But even these gunboats had the same and vexing flaw in their designthat plagued other coal burners.
o Lt. R.C. Sutliff, Executive officer of the Palos in 1926, the combustion took place in the stack The ships boilers were designed to burn wood or coal, and according t .in order to get up enough steam to shift or sight anchor the stack would belch flames four or five feet out of the top of the stacks. Claude Bailey, "George" officer (Lieutenant Jr. Grade) aboard the Monocacy on her final
trip down the Yangtze in 1938, confirms this: "We did not make more than 5 or 6 knots," because "half our energy went out the stacks in flames..we would have to get underway at five o'clock in the morning and steam until seven o'clock at night to catch up with the other people. We did not have any trouble getting underway in the dark, because the flames from the stack
illuminated the banks of the river. The Navy used these vessels until they barely functioned and the Palos was sold in Chungking in 1937, and the Monocacy was sunk by demolition charges off Shanghai in 1939, making these two of the longest serving gunboats of the Yangtze Patrol.
In 1927-1928, the Navy commissioned six new gunboats to supplement and replace the older gunboats, and these would be the last of the China gunboats constructed. They were as follows: Guam,Tutuila, Oahu, Panay, Luzon, and Mindanao.
The fate of this final series of gunboats is representative of the end of the gunboat era in China. The Mindanao (Flagship South China Patrol), Luzon (Flagship Yangtze Patrol), and Oahu were all withdrawn from China to Manila in the Philippines in December 1941, only to be sunk in Manila Bay in May 1942 (the Luzon was salvaged by theJapanese and named the HIJMS Karatsu).
Japanese Army planes sank the Panay on the Yangtze near Nanking in 1937.The Tutuila was transferred to Chungking in 1938 with the American Ambassador, and became trapped Japanese blockade of the Yangtze, and was turned over to the Chinese Nationalist government in January 1942. This leaves the Guam, which had the strangest end of all the gunboats (or lack of it). The Navy changed the name to Wake in April of 1941 (the Navy wanted the name Guam for another ship), and it was deemed too small to make the crossing to Manila in December
1941. Consequently, the Japanese captured it in Shanghai on December 8, 1941, and they renamed it the HIJMS Tartara (the Wake was he only U.S. ship captured at the start of World War II). It survived the war and was turned over to the Nationalist, who named it the RCS Tai Juan. When the Nationalist fled the mainland in1949, the gunboat was handed over to the Red Chinese, who put it into service, meaning the boat served under the flag of five different nations.
The gunboats used from 1920-1941 were a mix of a little of everything the Navy could assemble. The South China Patrol and Yangtze Patrol more or less used relics and old coal burning gunboats until 1927-1928, when the newer, much improved oil burning boats were introduced. The old boats were often ill suited to the conditions, particularly where a lot of power and a shallow draft were needed (like the upper Yangtze). The coal burners were susceptible to not only their own idiosyncrasies, but also lack of range due to coal availability. Chinese coal was generally of a low grade and contained many impurities, not ideal for prime boiler efficiency, and half the heat went up the stack on lot of these boats anyway. But the
Patrols did have some very good gunboats for their time.
USS MINDANAO PR-8
That's all till next newsletter, and then we will continue with this very interesting review of the gunboats of the United States Asiatic Fleet.