Saturday, 22 June 2024

    Yangtze Patrol – Memorial Day 2024

    Memorial Day 2024

    by Pete O’Brien

    Memorial Day is the day we stop and think about the 1,355,000 Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, Airmen, and Coast Guardsmen who have died while in service to the nation. But, one of the things about Memorial Day that always bothers me is that, while the Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen and Marines who died in the major wars are remembered (though even then the focus is on the major battles, not the lesser known ones), the casualties in lesser wars and skirmishes are mostly forgotten and the Sailor or Marine who dies in some skirmish outside of a war is nearly completely forgotten. 

    Consider the USS Monocacy – itself named after a now fairly obscure battle of the Civil War, the battle of Monocacy Junction. That battle, fought on top of the Monocacy Junction of the B&O Railroad – just south of present day downtown Frederick, Maryland on July 9th, 1964, saw almost 6,000 Union soldiers – under Lew Wallace, slow the movement of Jubal Early and his “raiding force” of more than 14,000 men, allowing the Army of the Potomac’s VI Corps to man the city’s defenses; Early turned back.

    USS Monocacy was a gunboat built at Mare Island shipyard, launched in 1913 alongside its sister ship USS Palos. She and her sister-ship were 204 feet long, 24 feet 6 inches in beam, and weighing 200 tons, drafted only 2 and half feet. A look at the grainy pictures shows a ship with a freeboard about the same as the draft – these two were truly “River Gun-boats.” Once the two gunboats were finished, they were dismantled and sent to Shanghai and reassembled for use in the Yangtze Patrol, entering service in 1914.

    The Yangtze Patrol, begun in 1854 and not officially ended until 1949, was an effort to protect US interests in and between the treaty ports on the river and along the China coast. Monocacy was sent to patrol the upper Yangtze. Per the first official Navy Department articulation of the mission, written in 1921, “The mission of the Navy on the Yangtze River is to protect United States interests, lives and property, and to maintain and improve friendly relations with the Chinese people.” 

    The two gunboats proceeded up river some 1,300 miles, past Chongqing. Chongqing (about 350 miles up river from the Three Gorges)  became the operating base and the two ships would patrol the central and upper river from there, mainly up river from Yichang. In 1917 ships owned by Standard Oil began to move up and down the river and Monocacy and Palos were responsible for, among other things, protecting those ships as they moved oil and fuels along the river.

    At that time there was a mix of criminals, pirates and revolutionaries operating on and along the river and they would, on occasion, raid ships to burn them or rob from them. If this sounds like “Sand Pebbles,” it should; Richard McKenna, the author of the book, served in the Yangtze Patrol in the 1930s.

    In the spring the ships would head down river to Shanghai for an annual overhaul. It was, reportedly, of these visits to Shanghai that is was said that “a sailor with 6 months or more of money burning a hole in his pocket, would spend most of his money on women and liquor, then he would waste the rest of it.”

    When the US declared war on Germany (April 6th, 1917), the US gunboats were withdrawn to Shanghai so as to not violate China’s neutrality. China did not declare war on Germany until August 14th, 1917 and for several months after that the ships remained interned in Shanghai. But by the beginning of the new year the two ships were back to patrolling the river.

    Early in January 1918 the Captain of Monocacy, LT Harvey Delano, received reports that Chinese “revolutionary soldiers” were firing on foreign vessels from the river banks, about 50 miles up river from Chenglin. Delano set off with Monocacy.

    Of note, most of this account comes via a book written by RADM Kemp Tolley, who also served on the Yangtze patrol in the 1930s. Tolley was a true character with a truly unique career path. He was reportedly the model for Captain “Pug” Henry, the hero of Herman Wouk’s two volume historical fiction masterpieces “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance.” Tolley collected tales of the patrol into his book, the Monocacy incident is one of the tales.

    It is of further note that, if you read other accounts, some records show a different captain for Monocacy and place Delano as captain of Palos, and one Lt. Otto Nimitz (half brother of that rather more noted other Nimitz) as captain of Monocacy.

    In any case, the captain of Monocacy took his River GunBoat up river past Chenglin. There was known to be a Japanese freighter heading down river and he wanted to both stop the actions of the raiding party and ensure the freighter got through.

    Monocacy reached the area where the gunmen were hiding on the shore on the morning of January 18th, 1918, and per the log entry at exactly 0900 the ship was fired on from both sides of the river.  The ship raised its largest US flag, and they came under fire from an estimated 200 rifles. After several rounds hit the bridge, and others shot away the ships jackstaff, at 0901 the captain ordered the crew to return fire with small arms. The “revolutionaries” were estimated to be spread out along almost 2 miles of the river front. Shooting from the shore tapered off after 0905 to just sniping. But the sniping continued and two sailors were wounded and Chief Howard L. O’Brien (no family relation) was killed. The Captain ordered the ship to open fire with the two 6 pounders and the sniping soon stopped. In addition to the fallen Chief and the two wounded crewmen, Monocacy had been hit 80 times. But the Japanese freighter got through with no damage and the river remained open. 

    The incident was reported up the chain and there were several protests concerning what were apparently Chinese troops firing on Western ships and men. The Chinese government admitted that it was indeed Chinese troops who had fired on the ship, apologized and then the Chinese government paid Chief O’Brien’s widow $25,000 and $500 was given to each to the two wounded sailors. The incident was over and the river and the patrol went back to some sort of normal.

    USS Monocacy served on the Yangtze patrol until 1939 when it was decommissioned (January 31st, 1939) and then towed to sea and sunk on February 10th, 1939.

    Lt Delano would rise to the rank of Rear Admiral, and survived the attack at Pearl Harbor.

    Chief O’Brien, born in Philadelphia on August 8th, 1882, was not yet 26 years old. He was buried in Hankow. His wife, Helen Cullen O’Brien, and their 2 year old daughter Helen (born in Manila in 1916) returned to the US from Shanghai. Their son, Howard JR., was born several months later in Cincinnati.

    Chief O’Brien remains in the grave in Hankow.

    Raise a glass to him tomorrow, may he rest in peace.