Current Story: "Manila to Shanghai'd"


March 6, 2012

I’m two-thirds of the way through Yangtze Patrol: The US Navy in China, by Kemp Tolley and since this is a history book and we all know the ending (spoiler: we no long patrol the Yangtze) I figure its safe to review now.

The US Navy patrolled China’s Yangtze River for nearly a century in what was the longest continual operation in American history, fitting since it took place in one of the world’s oldest cultures. The narrative can be quite lively and even when simply giving facts Tolley writes like an engaging teacher lectures. I’ve never laughed so much reading a history book. The basic facts of the Yangtze can be fascinating on their own but everything is supported by anecdotes and example short stories to help you better understand the situation being discussed. When two or more vastly different cultures meet the results can be very amusing. When modern Sailors aboard almost-modern-kinda-antique warships deal with a society that has barely changed in centuries, both with their own set of values and philosophies, they’re sure to confuse and sometimes infuriate the other. And make the reader laugh at the situation.  

Tolley’s book isn’t just about the Yangtze Patrol but also teaches you about China during this period. To understand the Patrol, like anything really, you have to understand the world around it.  One doesn’t one day up and decide to patrol the waters of a foreign empire nor can you just throw any boat in any river and say “waters’ water, right?” Though to the Navy it’s a resounding yes to the latter. It also covers the relationship between world powers, their representatives on the river and as time marches on the changes that took place in China from the twilight of the Chinese Empire to its disintegration, the revolution and the Japanese invasions.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is the time spent explaining something that is as alien to the average American as Chinese culture and much closer to home: The US Navy and its many time-honored traditions. I’ve been in the Navy a decade, my father has almost thirty years of Naval Service under his belt as an airdale (works on airplanes) and my brother is a submariner so I know a bit about the Navy’s traditions but honestly I can’t explain a lot of them and neither can most Sailors. We do things often because it’s tradition, a polite way of saying, “We’ve done the EXACT SAME THING for a very long time... and probably because two hundred years ago it’s what the British were doing.” Which as we all know is a very good reason to keep doing something. It’s also nice to see that as early as the 1860’s the Navy Department had a policy of putting its oldest and most decrepit warships out to pasture by making them patrol the Far East, a tradition carried on to this day by the Seventh Fleet’s submarine tenders, and until not too long ago, the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk.

Again, this adds to the humor of the book- the fact that, as a commercial artery the Yangtze was important enough to patrol, but not important enough to patrol well. The Navy paid it lip service by sending boats out there that had long outlived their usefulness in the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets and sometimes even the Caribbean. The first dedicated Yangtze presence were a pair of Mississippi River paddle boats locals that could barely navigate the wild river and their replacements (after forty years of service) were Spanish-American War prize ships, gunboats that were no prize. (They too would only be retired after about forty years.)

Overall its well-worth the time spent reading and a fascinating glimpse to a truly exotic and fascinating bygone era we’ll never see again. To learn more I recommend reading Osprey’s Yangtze River Gunboats 1900-1949, by Angus Konstam alongside Yangtze Patrol. It has a lot of great pictures and drawings of the actual gunboats, technicial information that goes further in depth than Yangtze Patrol (though that book does tell you everything you NEED to know) and also goes over the same history in brief. I love looking at turn of the century and early twentieth century ship designs, even covered in rust and billowing black smoke they were beautiful ships.

Having read these books I also urge you to read Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles, my favorite fiction book. It’s about a Yangtze River Rat (Sailor) (played by Steve McQueen in the movie version) during the Chinese Revolution in 1926. It’s the most gripping fiction I’ve ever read and related so extensively to.

Beyond the book review here’s what’s in store for the next month. Due to my job I won’t be able to post much late in the month so I can’t start the new story just yet. I’d get half-way through posting and have to stop, which I refuse to do. So in the meantime I’ll keep posting these blogs while I can and even post some Mattie art. We’ll see where things take us.


Manila to Shanghai'd

Mariveles, Bataan Province, Philippines

This metal 'Soldier's Grave' is part of the Death March Memorial at Kilometer 0, where the march began in Mariveles. An identical sculpture is on Corregidor as well. We found this by accident, we were driving to the bancay boats to get to Corregidor when we missed our turn. I noticed the Death March marker we passed said "2 km" on it, so I asked our driver if he could go another two kilometers before turning around. Sure enough two kilometers down the road, across the the beach and nestled in a quiet little park next to a Jollibee fast food restuarant was the Death March Kilometer 0 Memorial Park.

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