On to Shanghai

After successfully lying low at Camp #2 until all the 2nd Mates were assigned to ships, I made myself available and as anticipated, I was promptly promoted to 1st Mate and assigned to a ship. The FS-261 was one of five decommissioned Freight Supply boats the Foreign Liquidation Commission had sold to the Chinese government for non-military use. The ATC was to oversee their re-outfitting, and then deliver the vessels to Shanghai.

In early March, after a couple of month's of work resurrecting our small fleet, the five ships were all deemed sufficiently seaworthy. Once we received final clearance, the harbor filled with the smell of diesel engines and the sounds of ships and crews clamoring to abandon their moorings. We were soon underway, falling into convoy formation as we headed for the mouth of the harbor.

The Fleet Commander was Captain Martin, who was also skipper of the lead ship. Our orders were to sail directly to Formosa, then through the Formosa Strait and up the Eastern coast of China to Shanghai. It was soon evident however, that we were destined to follow a different course which was anything but direct. Instead of heading to deep water, we cleared the Bataan Peninsula and turned immediately north hugging the west coast of Luzon.

Captain Martin was reputed to possess a yen for strong liquor and bawdy women, and since he was well supplied in the former, rumors circulated that the latter was the object of our new heading. Within a few days, we dropped anchor in Gaang Bay near the northern end of Luzon. Most of the officers and crew were in complete accord with our commander's comportment so seamen went ashore and native women came aboard in whatever way best accommodated the revelry that ensued.

While most of my shipmates indulged in the sensual pleasures of the port during our four-day hiatus, I chose to enjoy the rustic and sleepy atmosphere of the Luzon seacoast as a tourist. Since the women were also skilled seamstresses and laundresses and worked for little pay in whichever trade they plied, I was at least able to get my laundry washed and mended before again weighing anchor.

Seas were extremely rough for the next two days and Captain Martin learned by radio that a gale was raging along the Northern arm of the Formosa Strait. By this time, most of the crew was in need of medical attention due to their lascivious indulgence at Gaang Bay and one of the main engines of the FS-261 was malfunctioning, so our next stop was the port city of Takao on the Southwestern end of Formosa.

As soon as we tied up at Takao, dozens of curious Chinese, Japanese, and Formosans gathered at the dock. 2nd Mate Roy Daniels and I went ashore and though we were greeted warmly by several onlookers, we couldn't find anyone who spoke English until a man in a GI-uniform came threading his way through the crowd toward us. The GI was one of a dozen men comprising a medical detachment sent there after the Japanese surrendered.

I told the GI of our engine trouble and he promised to inform the appropriate authorities. Within a short time after Roy and I returned to the ship, people began to stream down to the dock by the hundreds carrying with them all types of silks, kimonos, carved ivory, hand-painted fans, and almost anything imaginable to barter. The waterfront soon resembled a huge bazaar and the locals accepted inexpensive items in trade such as tobacco, chewing gum, candy, or surplus clothing.

Late that afternoon, a Jeep bearing a U.S. Army Colonel, his two aides, and the medical detachment's chief medical officer, pulled onto the dock alongside our ship. They came aboard to consult with Captain Eriksen who arranged to have our inflicted crew members treated at the base hospital in town.

The following morning, an old Japanese jalopy coughed its way shipside bearing a dignified looking Japanese admiral and a party of Japanese naval officers. During the war, Takao had been a Japanese shipping hub for war goods as well as "Hell Ships" bearing U.S. and allied POW's packed in like rats, and on their way to be used by the Japanese in slave labor. The Admiral and his officers were in charge of shipbuilding during the occupation and were now awaiting repatriation to Japan.

The admiral had learned of our engine trouble and was there to offer assistance. The group of Japanese officers followed our Engineer, Bob Peterson, down to the engine room and emerged shortly with a defective part, a filter element. The admiral promised to have a duplicate part machined and delivered to us by the next morning. The old gentleman was true to his word, and the new part arrived as promised.

The Japanese were so inhumanly cruel throughout the war that it seemed odd that Japanese society had produced men of such ruthless cruelty on one hand, and men of such refinement as the Admiral, on the other. It was a disturbing thought and the war was over, and I was anxious to do some sightseeing in Takao so I put it aside and joined in with a small party going ashore.

We walked in a direction that seemed to take us toward the center of town until we came upon a rickshaw stand. We divided the group into several rickshaws and since we were unable to speak the language, we used hand gestures to signal the drivers to proceed. Without hesitation, we were whisked away and within minutes, deposited in front of some sort of small compound. We had guessed as to where the drivers had presumed we wanted to go, and upon entering the main building, our suspicions were confirmed. We were at one of the city's brothels.

The actual business of the establishment was conducted within rice-paper walls of about a dozen huts built amidst a cluster of natural hot springs. The main building served as a reception area for patrons, and was located along the street in the middle of all the huts. When greeted by the madam of the house, I figured I had indulged my curiosity as much as was appropriate and I bowed out of the festivities and continued my sightseeing excursion alone.

By mid morning the following day, the weather cleared and we shoved off, but by evening we encountered a storm so severe the convoy was forced to return to Takao. This time we anchored at the East end of the inner harbor near the mouth of an estuary from which we could see what looked like a canal branching inland. Despite local weather being beautiful the next morning, radio reports described a severe storm ravaging the Northern Coast of Formosa so Captain Martin was hesitant to leave port.

Two more crewmen developed symptoms of their debauchery in Gaang Bay so Captain Martin decided to take the infected men ashore for treatment. The captain had his private motor launch lowered over the side and invited me and four other crewmen along for company. The horseshoe of land surrounding the estuary was virtually uninhabited, so we were completely taken by surprise when we discovered a virtual fairyland a short distance inland along the canal.

Flanking both sides of the waterway were the most charming and colorful oriental houses imaginable with temples in brilliant red, green, and gold dispersed among the houses. About two miles inland, the waterway ended abruptly in the heart of a town. We had accumulated what seemed like hundreds of followers running along the canal banks. As we tied up and stepped ashore, a large crowd gathered around us. In spite of their curiosity, the people drew back as though we were lepers when we approached them.

A young uniformed Chinese officer pressed forward and inquired in flawless English, "Are you Americans?" As soon as he learned who we were, the man mounted a small cart and addressed the crowd. The change was electric, faces beamed with warm smiles and many of the onlookers pressed forward to greet us. Our new friend identified himself as Captain F. K. Huang, a university graduate who had been a fighter pilot during the war and was now attached to a Formosan signal battalion.

Captain Huang directed Captain Martin to a private physician for his two infected crewmembers and then escorted the remaining five of us to a so-called "Hotel" run by a Madame Wu. We were asked to remove our shoes before entering Madame Wu's and once inside, we were supplied with woven sandals. We were conducted to a large room bare of any furniture or other trappings except for mats on the floor.

Hostesses dressed in gay, oriental kimonos appeared carrying tea. We drank the tea, though we all agreed bilge water couldn't have been worse. After having tea, we were served a truly Chinese meal prepared and served in highly formal fashion. The food and table setting was very ornate but because of blandness, it defied any description of flavor.

When we were through dining, we were led to separate cubicles where we were bathed in large wooden tubs. Our hostesses then prepared us for bed, which turned out to be a mat with a stuffed headrest. All of this was exciting but I still wasn't ready to take advantage of all the hospitalities offered by our hostesses. They had suffered so much from their own indulgence, I thought the crew ought to admire my wisdom but instead I took quite a ribbing for my prudence.

After breakfast the next morning, Madam Wu offered a single toothbrush in a bottle but, not enthusiastic about sharing communal bacteria, we all declined. From her sudden offended expression, I knew we had lost face with Madame Wu but her smile returned quickly when we were presented with our bill and promptly paid in full. Incredibly, the total fee for baths, meals, and lodging for five men was twenty-one yen, about seven cents in American money.

We spent the remainder of the day sightseeing in company of Captain Huang, who shared generously his considerable knowledge of the quaint and wonderful locale. Captain Martin and his stricken seamen rejoined the landing party late in the afternoon and we all returned to our ships. We were ordered underway immediately and found the weather tolerable, though threatening, through the Formosa Strait.

When we cleared the northern end of Formosa, the weather was growing more severe but we had squandered so much time, Commander Martin was now under pressure to get the ships delivered. Two days after pulling out of Takao, we made our way into the East China Sea, and our luck ran out. Late that afternoon, the barometer began to fall as wind and seas were rising. By nightfall, it was as if all hell had broken loose and we lost site of the other ships in the convoy.

The storm grew in intensity until we were pounded by 150-mph winds and 50-foot waves. Captain Eriksen struggled to keep the bow of the FS-261 headed into the storm, for if we broached into a trough, the broadside force of a wave would almost certainly capsize the ship, or break her in half. As we pitched forward over the tops of waves, the screws came out of the water and the whole ship shuddered as if it were being ripped apart.

Each time the bow dropped, wind and water slammed into the bridge and superstructure with such horrendous force that it sounded like a train wreck from inside of the bridge. Visibility was mostly zero but as we plowed down the backside of each wave, we were afforded the frightening spectacle of the bow plunging headlong into the turbid waters of the forward trough of the next wave.

We were taking on so much water over the bow that the crew had to abandon their quarters in the forecastle. Eventually everyone aboard was huddled in the bridge except for Peterson, who stayed below deck keeping the engines running, and a seaman named Kelly who had failed to show up for his watch. We mounted a search for Kelly but he was not found.

During a second search of the ship, I found Kelly lying in a catatonic state under splintered remains of the mess table. The crew had already searched the galley area but the floor was covered with so much food, debris, and vomit sloshing back and forth that no one believed a human could exist in such chaos. The man was so terrified I couldn't bring myself to blame him even though we had risked life and limb finding him.

By the time the storm subsided, we had been battered unmercifully for forty-eight hours straight. With the exception of Captain Eriksen, I think everyone aboard had abandoned hope of ever seeing land again, and some were so sick I don't think they cared.

Prior to leaving Manila, we had taken on cargo destined for distribution at Post Exchanges on Army bases in the Shanghai area. The cargo included sundries, supplies, clothing, electronics, and all sorts of gifts that would be sold to U.S. servicemen at-cost. Someone discovered a way to access the rear hold through the galley area and as word spread around the ship, the crew began pilfering the cargo.

About two days prior to our arrival in Shanghai, I became aware of the thefts when a crewman named Bender presented me with a new bathrobe. Upon questioning, Bender admitted the gift had come from the ship's cargo. To discourage any further theft, I spread the word among the crew that upon arrival in Shanghai, the cargo would be checked against the ship's manifest and it might be difficult to explain any missing items.

During the last leg of the voyage it was absolutely imperative to get our exact bearings before crossing into the Yangtze estuary or we could end up on a reef. The weather was still too severe for celestial navigation but I identified a small island. From there I laid a course for another critically located island from which a safe course could be plotted for our final lap.

I ordered Bender to stand watch on the bow to reduce the possibility of running aground as we neared the island. Later I was alerted to an approaching shore by the sound of breakers but I heard nothing from Bender. I quickly altered course steering parallel to the coast just as the island loomed into view directly ahead. Frustrated that Bender had failed to warn me, I went to the bow to see why he had let me down. I found Bender on his hands and knees hiding his stolen PX treasures in a storage locker near the bow.

"Glad to see you're a praying man," I said, "Be sure and let me know if you see that island." Still stuffing loot into the locker, Bender looked up sheepishly and replied, "Yes sir." I simply walked away and returned to the bridge. I later learned that when Bender looked up and saw the island off our port side, he nearly went into shock. He knew at that point that he had jeopardized all our lives.

Not knowing how to deal with his guilt, Bender said nothing to me until weeks later when, during our return trip to Manila on the SS John McLean, he approached me and erupted into a pitiful confession. The worst part of it was that he knew I had caught him red handed but had not accused him. "I could handle almost any kind of punishment," Bender sobbed remorsefully, "but a thing like that, the unresolved guilt sticks with you--it eats at your insides. I would have been better off if you had read me the riot act."

By the time we approached our rendezvous point off the Yangtze estuary, darkness and fog had set in so I posted a lookout on the bow. I marveled that the Captain was able to navigate under such conditions but I had no idea what a feat it really was until morning. When the fog lifted, I was astounded to see perhaps a hundred vessels either moving or anchored all around us. The captain was either a remarkably talented navigator or the luckiest man alive.

We arrived three weeks after leaving Manila, a trip that should have taken only six or seven days. After filing our paperwork with Chinese Customs and undergoing various inspections, we received clearance to enter the country. We then had to hire a Chinese pilot to take us into the port. By the time we waited in the queue for an available pilot, all five ships in our convoy had arrived safely.

We were late delivering the badly needed PX supplies so as soon as we docked, we were asked to immediately unload the ship. Everything went fine until a high stack of boxes toppled over on the dock. Upon inspection, we found a large number of boxes that had been emptied by pilferage, had collapsed under the weight of full boxes stacked on top of them. It was an embarrassing moment but apparently not so uncommon that anything came of it.

When the convoy left Manila, we were told that upon delivery of the ships, arrangements would be made for our immediate return to Manila. Instead, for reasons not explained, we were put up at the American Club Hotel in Shanghai. The Hotel was superb and after such an arduous journey, it was very much appreciated.

We ended up staying in Shanghai for about four weeks but we had no cause to complain. In addition to having a great time sightseeing, shopping, and relaxing in luxury accommodations, the delay allowed us to finalize a deal that would set me and Bob Peterson on a path of great adventure, and would keep us both in the Orient for some time to come.

Stories of Philip A. Mehan - Written by Scott Dawes © 2005-2009