Skip to main content

A Yankee Among The War Lords

June 2024
51min read

First of the Three Parts from STILWELL THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE IN CHINA 1911-1945

This is the beginning of a three-part series by Barbara W. Tuchman on the encounter of two giant nations, a story whose ending is not yet known. Her theme, she writes, “is the relation of America to China, in a larger sense to Asia. The vehicle of the theme is the career of General Joseph W. Stilwell. Why Stilwell? Because he combined a career focused on China with background and character that were quintessentially American; because his connection with China spanned the period that shaped the present from the dramatic opening moment of 1911, year of the revolution, to 1944, decisive year in the decline of the Nationalist government; because his service in the intervening years was a prism of the times—as language officer from 1920 to 1923 in the time of the war lords, as officer of the 15th Infantry in Tientsin from 1926 to 1929 at the time of the rise to power of Chiang Kai-shek, as military attaché from 1935 lo 1939 at the time of the Japanese invasion, as theater commander in World War II; because in the final and critical years of this period he was the most important figure in the Sino-Amencan relationship. Impatient, acid, impolitic, he was not the ideal man for the role. But in knowledge of the language and country, friendship for the people, belief and persistence in his task—combined with America ‘s power at his disposal—he personified the strongest endeavor and, as it was to prove, the tragic limits of his country’s experience in Asia. …”

Joseph Warren Stilwell—Warren to his family, Vinegar Joe to the men he fought with in China and Burma—came of a prosperous family of early American background; he graduated from West Point m 1904, number thirty-two in a class of 124. His first real military experience took place in operations against the remaining guerrillas in the Philippines in the early 1900’s. In World War I he served in France as a staff officer in the intelligence section, emerging with the D.S.M. for his part in planning the attack on Saint-Mihiel.

As the Army returned to the peacetime doldrums and Stilwell reverted, like many with temporary ranks, from colonel to captain, he obtained an appointment in 1919 as the first Army language officer for China. The language officer program was intended to tram a body of officers as a source of information about the Far East. And in this fashion, although he did not realize it at the time, Stilwell ‘s future career was sealed to the Far East. After a year of language training in California he found himself on the way to China in 1920. It was a China that was making frontpage news in American newspapers.

Headlines flared the “Rape of Shantung,” the “Crime of Shantung,” the “Shame of Shantung,” and various other heated pejoratives by which senatorial opponents of the Versailles Treaty were excoriating the award to Japan—instead of restoration to China—of the former German leasehold and economic concessions in the Shantung Peninsula. The senators were not so much concerned with upholding China’s claims as with defeating the League of Nations. Since President Wilson had made the League inseparable from the peace treaty, the Senate was obliged to defeat the treaty and for this purpose had fastened on Shantung as its “outstanding iniquity.” So it was that the fate of that remote peninsula became the focus, however artificial, of a tremendous struggle in American politics, with historic effect on both America and China. Besides aiding American rejection of the League, the issue gave Americans a sense of guilt about China, and it gave Chinese a new injection of nationalism that revived the failing and dispirited Kuomintang, preserving it for eventual power.

The catalyst of these developments was Japan. Having watched imperialism endow the Western nations with wealth and power, Japan was determined to emulate the process and become, in the words of Count Okuma, premier in 1914, one of the world’s “governing nations.” China, appearing senile and beyond salvation, was marked for the role of first colony. The chief obstacle in the way was not China herself but the other powers. As soon as they turned upon each other in 1914, Japan, entering the war on the side of the Allies, took the opportunity to seize Germany’s leased territory with its railroad and other concessions on the strategic Shantung Peninsula. As her further contribution to the Allied war effort, she also took from Germany the Marshall, Mariana, and Caroline islands in the Pacific, placing herself across America’s road to the Philippines. …

Too disorganized and disunited to resist Japan, China fell prey to the rival ambitions and private armies of the tuchuns , translated rather too grandly in English as “war lords.” Some were able governors and predators combined, others ignorant ex-bandits and adventurers tossed to the top in the general broil. Appointed military governor of a province by the nominal government in Peking, either in recognition of existing control or in consideration for support, the tuchun furnished and paid—or failed to pay—his own military forces. Chinese soldiers no longer served the state but feudal overlords, who in constantly changing alliances traded and fought for power, gnawing like rats at what was left of the republic. The “government” of China recognized by the powers remained in Peking in the hands of a group of northern war lords known as the Anfu clique (from the provinces of Anhwei and Fukien), who owed their hold on office to Japanese support and loans. They adopted the terminology of republican government, with a president, premier, ministers, and a puppet parliament.

The Peking government was declared illegal by the Kuomintang regime re-established by Sun Yat-sen in Canton. He had returned in 1917, summoned the remnant of the original Kuomintang parliament to Canton, and declared it to be the only constitutional government of China. Though his party had been born of Western ideas and offered the only promise, if not the capability, of a new political order for China, it attracted no foreign support. From political inertia and natural preference the powers continued to deal with whatever tuchun group held the titles to office in Peking, because this required no unsettling break in the succession. It is not in the nature of established governments to opt for change, even in their own interest. Sun Yat-sen maintained virtually a separate state dependent for military support on uneasy alliance with southern war lords. For the next decade, one of the most ruinous in China’s history, fragmentation proceeded, puppets and war lords held sway, and the mandate of heaven held itself hidden. …


On September 18 the army transport bearing the Stilwells and the family of another language officer, Lloyd P. Horsfall, rounded the Shantung promontory just at dusk, when the jagged coastline and the brown batwing sails of Chinese junks were outlined against a rose-colored sunset. Two days later the ship came into Chinwangtao, a treaty port at the northern frontier of China proper near where the Great Wall comes down to the sea and the mournful chant of fishermen hauling in their nets rises twice a day. A 250-mile railroad trip southward via Tientsin brought the travellers to their destination, the famed city in the plain, Peking.

Stilwell spent the next ten days looking for a house and exploring one of the great capitals of the world. Here the old mandarin class mingled with venal adventurers, the new China throbbed with plans and hopes of reform, foreigners lived a charmed, hedonistic existence, and the silent Altar of Heaven lay in eternal marble perfection open to the sky. Within moats was the Forbidden City, with enamelled tiled,roofs of imperial yellow and three artificial lakes dotted with islands. On the islands were pagodas and painted pavilions and the palace where the last emperor had been imprisoned by his aunt. Gnarled willows and cypress grew along the shores, and miniature hills with rocks and caves simulated the mountain scenery beloved by Chinese painters.

Upper-class residences were hidden behind walled streets. Each had its courtyard garden with lotus pool and tea house, peonies in flowerpots, honeycombed rocks carved by hundreds of years of trickling water, and a moon window in a wall. Springless covered Peking carts bumped over the cobblestones, camels from the northwest moved with the haughty dignity of the desert, Buddhist priests, in saffron robes stood among the red columns of the Lama temple, dust storms blowing off the plains periodically tortured the capital and its residents. Outside the walls the plain stretched away to the Summer Palace and the Western Hills, where the Monastery of the Azure Cloud and other temples were sheltered by ancient pines. …

Within the Legation Quarter were the foreign residences and hotels, the polo grounds, the stately American Legation at the top of the street, dignified banks and business offices, but none of the roaring commerce of Shanghai. Peking was not like the treaty ports; foreigners here even held intercourse with educated Chinese. Peking was the center of intellectual as well as official life.

Besides diplomatic corps and journalists, educators and missionaries, the capital attracted art collectors and Sinologues, travellers who came through and never left, and retired foreigners who settled here from choice because life was gracious and placid and money went far. With abundant servants, a summer home in the Western Hills, the Golf Club and Race Club for the legation set, picnics in summer and pheasant hunting in fall, Peking for the foreigner represented, in the phrase of a nostalgic resident, “the years that were fat.”

The Stilwells and Horsfalls together took a Chinese-style house outside the Legation Quarter at No. 3 Pei Tsung Pu Hutung near the east wall. Like all Chinese houses it was built on one floor in a series of connected quadrilaterals, each around a courtyard, and had paper in the windows instead of glass. A house with four bedrooms, dining and living rooms, kitchen, library, office, and servants’ quarters cost at this time fifteen American dollars a month with cost of servants in proportion. The usual officer’s family employed five or six servants at a cost of about thirty-five dollars in American money plus “squeeze,” the commission on every transaction that is the heart of Chinese life.

Language officers studied at the North China Union Language School, founded in 1910 originally to teach missionaries and later expanded to include the many foreign advisers in the Chinese service as well as businessmen and any others who wanted to learn. At the end of the first year the student was supposed to know seven hundred characters and converse without pain. He also attended seminars and lectures on Chinese history, religion, economics, and current affairs. The language officer after his first year added study of technical and military terms. Travel, both for his further acquaintance with the country and for fact-finding missions in the service of the military attaché, was part of his duty. He was required to take examinations each year and at the end of his three or four years’ tour was supposed to know three thousand characters and speak fluently.

Dr. William B. Pettus, founder and director of the school, complained that Stilwell and Horsfall had picked up a bad accent at the language school in California, which could lead to confusion, for even the most fluent foreigner could encounter difficulties. Dr. Edward Hume, an old-timer who spoke perfect Chinese, told Stilwell that once in the countryside he asked two farmers the way to Changsha. They looked blank, and after repeating his question several times he gave up. As he walked on he overheard one farmer say to the other, “It sounds just as if the foreigner were asking, ‘Is this the road to Changsha?’”


Stilwell acquired, like all foreigners, a Chinese name derived from the sound of his own, in his case Shih Ti-wei, written:


Separately the characters meant “history,” “righteous path,” and “majestic” or “awe-inspiring"—a provocative collection. …

He met the charm and cruelty of China side by side. Kite flying was a favorite sport, with kites fashioned in the form of dragons, castles, or butterflies with gauzy tinted wings. Hung with whistles or bells or wooden chimes, they filled the air with color and motion and, as an observer described it, “a soft unearthly music … as of oriental cherubim.” Executions were equally popular, watched by eager crowds as the victim with hands bound was kicked to his knees and his head severed by a stroke of the heavy sword to admiring shouts of Hao! When the blood spurted, women and children rushed forward to dip strings of copper coins in it, which were then hung around the children’s necks to frighten away evil spirits. Nearby under a roofed plaza might be found a storyteller in gown and skullcap holding in rapt attention his audience of perhaps a hundred coolies and workers who squatted in total silence as they listened to a tale of ancient heroism and legendary deeds. The narrator softly clapped bamboo sticks in rhythm to his recital or changed into song for philosophical passages or beat a drum for the martial parts.

The seduction of China was at work. Stilwell had been in Peking less than a month when he answered a War Department questionnaire on preference of service by marking military attaché, China, as his only desired post.

Two months before Stilwell arrived, three war lords, each a remarkable personality, had combined in alliance for just long enough to oust the Anfu government and had then turned upon each other to vie for the dominant power that went with control of the capital. The winner, who now held Peking, was Marshal Wu P’ei-fu, a gentlemanly mandarin and graduate of the classical examinations; the loser was Marshal Chang Tso-lin, ex-bandit and lord of Manchuria; the holder of the balance of power was the “Christian General” of peasant birth, Feng Yu-hsiang.

Wu P’ei-fu sincerely regarded himself as a public servant with concern for public order and the hope, larger than personal ambition alone, of restoring national government to China. … For the benefit of an American journalist he exhibited a picture of George Washington on the wall of his yamen (residence headquarters) and told his visitor that it was his desire to do for his country what Washington had done in uniting the thirteen colonies. He maintained discipline among his troops and even regularly paid them their whole pay, which earned him the dislike of other chieftains but gave him an army that would not readily desert. …

Wu’s sometime ally, sometime enemy, was the renowned Manchurian marshal Chang Tso-lin, a small and delicate man who had started life as a common soldier in the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, progressed to bandit, accepted an offer of amnesty, and in return for bringing in his troops received command of a garrison outside Mukden. From this base he acquired wealth by supplying first the Russians and then the Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War. He now wore on his black satin skullcap a pearl said to be the largest in the world.

Around these two marshals in the struggle for control of North China other factions and tuchuns combined and recombined. The most considerable was Feng Yu-hsiang, less because of his prodigious stature than because like Wu he took care to build up a loyal and effective army. He had become converted not only to Christianity but also to the gospel of the revolution according to Sun Yat-sen, and he believed that moral indoctrination in addition to food, clothes, and pay was necessary in making good soldiers. During the shifts and confusions of the republican years he had been appointed military governor of the province of Shensi. He married the Chinese secretary of the Y.W.C.A. in Peking, baptized his soldiers with a hose, and taught them to sing evangelical hymns and marching songs to the words “We must not drink or smoke” and “We must not gamble or visit whores.” …

The subject of study of a military attaché and his staff is the soldiery of the host country. Stilwell began his acquaintance with the Chinese soldier, whom he was one day to command, under the conditions of the tuchuns’ strife. He saw Wu’s men march off in a long gray file accompanied by two-wheeled carts carrying ammunition, bedding, and supplies. These were superior arrangements; the average war lord’s troops had only squeaking man-powered wheelbarrows for supply trains. Many in Wu’s army, as in others, were barely more than fourteen years old, but they were well equipped with knapsacks, trench picks, shovels, lanterns, teapots, oiled paper umbrellas, alarm clocks, and hot-water bottles. They were followed by coolies bearing coffins on poles as reassurance to the soldiers that if killed their bodies would not be left unburied on the plains. On the gray cotton uniforms, padded in winter, common to all Chinese troops, Wu’s men wore red arm bands to distinguish allegiance. As a rule these arm bands were not sewed on but fastened with a safety pin for easy removal when armies changed sides.

Military performance of the average army was not sharp. When soldiers reached the field of battle, they would stand for a few moments, look around, unsung their rifles, fire a haphazard shot or two without aiming through the sights, and then sit down. Cannon were fired recklessly, often missing their targets by a quarter mile or more. If it rained, the paper umbrellas blossomed down the line like a sudden sprout of mushrooms, and fighting ceased. Wu’s army was better than most and in 1922 in combination with Feng’s drove Chang Tso-lin back to Manchuria.

In his effort to form a national government Wu P’ei-fu had invited the adherence of Sun Yat-sen, but Sun, who held the title of President of China, conferred by the rump Kuomintang parliament, refused. He wanted to unite China under the Three Principles of the Kuomintang program: Nationalism, Democracy, and the People’s Livelihood. But all his schemes and alliances failed, and his various partners turned against him. He repeatedly proposed to the American minister his grand plan for the Western democracies to invest in a new government for China, hut it found no takers.


Failed by the West and by his own countrymen, he turned for help where it was offered, to revolutionary Russia, and made alliance with the Comintern in January, 1923. In 1919 Soviet Russia had announced the waiving of all czarist treaties and concessions, causing a tremendous impression in China as the first Western power to give up anything voluntarily. When it came to the practice, the Soviets had second thoughts and proved unwilling to give up the Chinese Eastern Railway in Manchuria or their rights in Mongolia. Nevertheless, to Chinese disillusioned with the progress of their own revolution the attraction of Moscow was strong, and conversions to communism began. On its side the Soviet Union was looking for friends and for another base for the ultimate advance of world revolution. While acknowledging that under present conditions China was not ripe for communism, the U.S.S.R. agreed to aid the Kuomintang to achieve national unity and independence. Under the terms of the alliance, the Chinese Communists, who had formed their own party in 1921, were admitted into the Kuomintang as collaborators in the goal of regenerating the country and for the time being agreed that the Kuomintang should assume the leadership of the national revolution. …

Stilwell had been in Peking only six months when he found an opportunity to break away from legation life and become acquainted with China on a working level. Following the severe famine of the previous year, 1920, the International Relief Committee of the Red Cross borrowed him from the Army to serve as chief engineer of a road-building program in Shansi. … He had no training or experience in engineering beyond what he had learned as an undergraduate at West Point, but he had self-confidence, and like Ulysses he was never content to stay long in one place. Hearing of the road-building project and eager for a chance to move out and use his newly acquired Chinese under real conditions, he asked for the job. Leading as it did to a mission of greater consequence the year afterward, the road-building in Shansi played a significant part in deepening the Chinese channel of Stilwell’s career.

The Shansi road was designed partly to give work to famine refugees but chiefly as a step in long-range famine control through improved transportation, so that in future surplus grain could be imported into the stricken areas from the northwest provinces, which never suffered famine. Away from the railroads and rivers, China was virtually without roads for wheeled transportation. The Chinese government did not make a habit of relief projects. Emergency distribution of food stores, if undertaken at all, was never done in time to prevent mass starvation. Accustomed to the Western impulse to “do something,” China let the foreign activists do what they could, but the Oriental attitude did not insist on man’s conquering his circumstances. Centuries of calamities inured the Chinese to their recurrence; masses would die, but more masses would be born. In the famine of 1920, said to be the worst in forty years, a foreigner reported that “incredibly filthy and ragged bands of staggering skeletons with staring eyes, no longer human beings” headed in long lines for the towns and crowded the small railroad stations. The countryside was sere, with no sign of spring grain; only the grave mounds stood out against the brown earth, while the wind whirled clouds of yellow dust over deserted houses.

The International Famine Relief Committee meeting in Peking heard reports of bungled food shipments, of incompetence and graft among officials, and of profiteering in grain. The committee took the “hopeful view,” however, that official China had at last awakened and “will leave the work for foreign committees and the American Red Cross, trusting no more to country and provincial officials.” This was the pattern of Western activism and Chinese acceptance. Appealing to the American public for the Chinese Famine Relief Fund, President Wilson, in a classic statement of the American point of view, said, “To an unusual degree the Chinese people look to us for counsel and for effective leadership.” The Chinese themselves never confused material aid, which was what they looked to America for, with either counsel or leadership. Spurred by the missionaries, the campaign in the United States brought such an outpouring of funds that a surplus resulted, and this made possible the road-building program.

Stilwell himself believed that the missionaries deliberately exaggerated reports of the famine, justifying themselves on the ground that by bringing in money and food in a time of distress they were furthering the cause of Christianity. Having to work “against the passive resistance of officials,” he wrote, they had a chance “to do something for the people that the government could not or would not do.”

Out in the field, where the provincial interest was paramount, he found the local officials of Shansi more ready to help than hinder the work of road building. This was owing to the influence of the tuchun of the province, Yen Hsi-shan, a progressive and practical materialist who enjoyed the title of “Model Governor.” He had the wit to see that he could draw more strength and wealth from the province by improving its conditions than by squeezing it dry. …

The projected road link was to be eighty-two miles long, starting at Fenchow and finishing at Jung-tu on the Yellow River. Stilwell’s instructions were to make it twenty-two feet wide, with a gravel surface, keep the grade under 6 per cent, and finish the job by August 1. He had twelve foreign assistants, including a Standard Oil civil engineer, a Swedish mining engineer, two Norwegian missionaries, and an Anglo-Indian reserve officer. The country was rocky and mountainous, with rich agricultural valleys where crop failures were unknown. Everywhere the Chinese farmer could be seen “with his patient cow and B.C. plow,” as Stilwell wrote, turning over furrows on hillsides so steep that “the daily struggle even to reach his fields would appall a white man.”

The trace ran along a river valley, over a pass, down into another valley, and “after that to be determined.” Riding or walking miles every day, sleeping in a different place every night, often outdoors to avoid bedbugs and lice, Stilwell directed the work of six thousand men, showing the Chinese surveyors what to do, helping the section engineers, locating the work gangs, deciding on grades, ings, cuts, and fills, and trying to master the local dialect. Fortunately many spoke Mandarin.

Homes in the area were mostly caverns in the hills, lined with stone arches and closed by stone walls in front. Stonemasons were plentiful. Stilwell dealt with small contractors for rock breaking, lime, marking stakes, mules, water buckets, and road labor, avoiding the sleek, silkgowned businessmen from the towns who offered to take on the whole contract. He preferred to deal with common men in patched breeches and dirty shirt than with the fat gentry “so refined and elegant that they cannot walk up six steps without puffing.”

Most of the pick-and-shovel men were small farmers earning extra money, organized in work groups of about thirty men with an overseer and one or two cooks. The tuan chang , or overseer, carried a cane, wore a straw hat and clean clothes, and usually snoozed in the shade with sentries posted to whistle at Stilwell’s approach. When the work was poor the battle of face began. Stilwell would reproach the overseer, who in turn would roar at the work gang, who in their turn “rather enjoy the play: they know it is all for effect and if favored with a wink from the foreigner from behind the overseer’s back will break into broad grins.” When “the Chief Engineer meets man after man who can see through a joke, even when it is on himself and laugh as heartily as the bystanders, his heart warms to the whole race.” …

In Shansi, Stilwell could see, unfiltered through the pleasant life of Peking, the raw wants of China; all that it lacked, all that it needed, and how one local strong man was attacking the problem. …


In 1922 the road’s chief engineer was an object of interest to the war lord of the neighboring province, Feng Yu-hsiang, the Christian General of Shensi. This province, the earliest center of Chinese civilization, was a region of hills and caves and terraced agriculture, where in the next decade the Long March was to bring the Communists to settle around Yenan. With cotton, wool, wheat, and mountains rich in minerals, Shensi should have been prosperous but was not, owing to opium smoking and banditry, but fundamentally to lack of good communications. There were no railroads in the province and only one “so-called road” about ninety miles long from T’ung Kuan at the bend of the Yellow River to Sian, the provincial capital. This was hardly more than a track shovelled out without any surveying. Negotiations ensued between Feng and the Famine Relief Committee, which undertook to build a proper road from T’ung Kuan to Sian with Stilwell again as chief engineer.

He travelled as far as he could by the railroad, which came to an end in Honan, about one hundred miles from the border of Shensi. From here he continued in a convoy of fifty mule carts plus assorted camels, pack animals, wheelbarrows, pedestrians, and an escort of twenty soldiers to conduct them through bandit country. “Off we go in a cloud of dust, a chorus of yells and much cracking of whips. … We look like the flight of the Kalmucks or a squad of 49ers on the way to California.” Moving at a slow pace over a horrible road, the convoy constantly tangled with wheelbarrow traffic coming in the opposite direction. The barrows carried loads of cotton with babies tied on one side, mothers sitting opposite, fathers pushing, and one or two little boys out in front pulling. Congestion was thickened by beggars lying along the road and farmers’ boys with four-pronged forks and baskets picking up the droppings of draft animals and humans. Progress was a “constant succession of struggles between straining, sweating chinks and their unwieldy machines and unwilling beasts.”

It took four days of such travel to reach the border of Shensi and four more days to reach the capital. To escape the awful jolting of the cart, Stilwell walked eight, ten, or twelve miles a day, trudging through ruts and mudholes and swallowing dust. Nights were spent in a “dirty flea-bitten town” or a “filthy inn” or in one case in an opium den where hard-worked coolies “kept trooping in for 10, 15, or 20 coppers’ worth, put their money and their little pots down and got their poison.”

Crossing into Shensi, Stilwell at once saw signs of the Christian General’s rule. Soldiers sang hymns as they marched through the streets. “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was sung around the theme of “save your ammunition” and the Doxology as an appeal to save the country from decadence. Admonitions painted in blue characters on whitewashed walls exhorted citizens, “Do not smoke cigarettes, do not drink wine,” “Be honest in business,” “Honor thy father and mother,” “Plow land, weave cloth, read books.”…

Entering bandit country, the convoy passed a man’s head hanging on a tree, and that night the tu fei (bandits), disguised in uniforms, killed a lieutenant and a soldier. Farther along, outside a town, they passed a dead bandit “shot recently and left for all to see.” Death was as common as the wind-blown dust of China, its reminder everywhere in the grave mounds that would wear away over the centuries to be plowed back into the fields, its visible presence in the corpse of a girl baby, victim of infanticide at birth, laid out unburied between the grave mounds for dogs to eat.

At a hot spring one day’s journey from the capital Stilwell learned “the Tuchun had sent orders for me to be taken up there and use his special tub.” It was his first bath since leaving Peking.

Stilwell was taken to meet the Tuchun at his headquarters in the old Imperial City, which he had reconstructed into “neat clean barracks and drill grounds using soldier labor and bricks from the ruins.” Feng Yu-hsiang, a big man of forty-one who abjured the usual war lord’s grandeur, lived in a “neat little brick shack and is a slow spoken bird … a solid sort of guy with no airs who makes friends.” Discussion of the road project was begun, but Feng did not seem very interested. The reason, as Stilwell discovered in further conversations, was that “he cares not if I build the road or not; he wants dope on military affairs.” Feng invited Stilwell to return next day to inspect his arsenals and meanwhile showed him through barracks and workshops.

In the barracks the soldiers’ rooms were each adorned with a map of China showing in vivid red the territories lost in the last fifty years—Indochina, Korea, Formosa, Port Arthur. Maps of Shensi, of China, and of the world were painted on the ends of buildings. The men, much neater and cleaner than the average Chinese soldier, were practicing giant swings on the horizontal bar, and their proficiency was something of a shock. “Show me any other organization in the world where man after man can get up on the bar and do a giant swing.” It was another shock to see men at rest studying the Bible. In classrooms they were being taught to read and write, and in the workshops they learned a craft—as weavers, carpenters, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, tailors, and blacksmiths. In the shoemakers’ shop an officer was in charge, working with the men. “This is also a shock. To see a captain pasting uppers doesn’t fit in with ordinary notions of military procedure.”


General Feng’s chief of staff came next day to ask “a lot of questions about planes, tanks, rifle grenades, etc.,” followed by the Tuchun himself, who talked to Stilwell for an hour about weapons. “They haven’t the slightest idea of the uses of the new inventions and talk of guarding a bridge with a tank.” Stilwell “doped out a Stokes mortar” for Feng and “tried my best to explain what airplanes, tanks and rifle grenades were designed for and could do, and how useless it was for him to waste money on them. With his infantry and machine guns, there is nothing in the province that he could not clean up in short order.” This was not what Feng wanted to hear, but Stilwell persevered “in the hope of keeping this really admirable man from wasting his resources on what, to him, would be the frills of war.”…

Work began on the road with eight hundred laborers armed with wooden shovels, “T’ang dynasty picks,” too few baskets, and no tamps. Under the circumstances it proved hard to get the road work under way; the workmen were “terrible” and the foremen disappointing. After a week they were “no good yet. Won’t make the men work. … Still cutting wrong after being told 20 times. … Work all bitched up.” But gradually “chaos begins to give way to order,” and Stilwell could feel that the work was really progressing. Just at this juncture the renewed war of the northern war lords intervened.

Rumor spread that Chang Tso-lin was “starting things,” and Feng’s division was sent for to help out Wu P’ei-fu. Files of Feng’s troops were marching east, Stilwell’s carts were commandeered, his foremen were disappearing, and it was plain the project would have to be abandoned. Feng’s chief of staff came to invite him to accompany the army. On April 21 he started east again, brushing aside frantic but incomprehensible pleas for delay by his courier. After two miles he was overtaken by an exhausted messenger on a bicycle bearing on his back a rug as a gift from the Tuchun . The bicyclist presented it and collapsed on the ground. Pushing on, Stilwell passed a group of Feng’s staff, “all down in the mouth and bemoaning China’s fate.” He shared their melancholy. If Feng had been left undisturbed for a period of years, he could have established control, wiped out the bandits, and attacked the opium traffic with some prospect of success, Stilwell thought. But now “the only man who has shown any likelihood of standing for law and order and decent government” was pulled back into the endless wars of faction, and Shensi was left to the old ways.

At T’ung Kuan, an old frontier fortress at the elbow of the Yellow River with big gates and stone-paved ramps leading up to them, Stilwell had a farewell dinner with Feng in an old temple. The Tuchun summoned a regiment for review by his guest, whom he introduced to the soldiers as Shih Ying-chang (Major Stilwell) of the Ou Chou (European) clan. To a provincial Chinese, a foreigner was a foreigner, and his particular nationality was rarely differentiated. …

After eighteen days of alternate jolting and trudging, of dirt and heat and overnight discomforts and, on one occasion following a cloudburst, of walking the last two hours through a foot of water in the dark and finding the gate of the town closed on arrival, Stilwell at last reached Taiyuan, where he boarded the train for Peking. He had not built a road this time, but he had lived and worked with the Chinese soldier and common man and made a friend of an outstanding leader. On the return trip to Peking, Stilwell saw Chang Tso-lin’s troop trains heading south from Manchuria toward the confrontation with the forces of Feng and Wu P’ei-fu that ended in his defeat. Two years later Feng was to turn against Wu and emerge the leader of the north and go on to become a crucial figure in the decisive years of the late twenties, when Stilwell was again in China. They were to meet again at this time and again whenever Stilwell was in China. Long afterward, a few days after her husband’s death, Mrs. Stilwell was upstairs at her home in Carmel when a visitor was announced with some confusion as “the Christian.” Mystified, she went down to find in the hall the huge figure and cannonball head of Feng Yu-hsiang,∗ who said, “I have come to mourn with you for Shih Ti-wei, my friend.”

∗ On his first visit to the United States. He went on to visit the U.S.S.R. and was killed en route in a fire on a Soviet ship in the Black Sea.


As agent of the military attaché, Stilwell was sent out on journeys to Manchuria, Siberia, and Korea, checking on whether the Japanese were evacuating the areas they had promised to in the Washington Treaties negotiated by the great powers in 1922. He also saw more of China and came home in July, 1923, to go to the Infantry School at Fort Benning and afterward to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, in the same class with Dwight Eisenhower. Then, in 1926, Stilwell went back to China, where he was to be a battalion commander in the 15th Infantry Regiment, stationed at Tientsin.

China was not the China the Stilwells had left three years ago. Momentous change was boiling up in the south, about to bring forth a leader, a climax of strife, and national government at last.

It began with the order to “Fire!” given by a British inspector of police against a demonstration of Chinese students and workers in the course of a textile strike in Shanghai on May 30, 1925. Twelve Chinese were killed and seventeen wounded. The Shanghai Incident, as it came to be called, was only one incident in a train of history, but, like those other shots from British rifles called the Boston Massacre, it was fuel for an upheaval that led to sovereignty.

The Kuomintang, by this time infused with new strength by its alliance with the Comintern, was already on the way up. The most significant help Sun Yat-sen had received from the Russians came in the form of two foreign advisers, Michael Borodin for civilian affairs and for military affairs the man known as Galen, who later as Marshal Vasili Bluecher was to command the Soviet Far Eastern Army. Borodin was a calm and deliberate man with a long view of history, whose influence over his clients grew until he came to be called the Emperor of Canton. The Russian advisers, together with Russian arms and other material support, marked the turning point in Kuomintang fortunes. Revolution, Dr. Sun was told, was not to be accomplished by relying on opportunistic alliances without a common goal. Its first requirement is an indoctrinated armed force of its own. Accordingly, a military academy with thirty Russian instructors under the direction of Galen was founded at Whampoa in 1923. For reciprocal indoctrination and training Dr. Sun sent a military mission to Moscow headed by a thirty-seven-year-old disciple of outstanding qualities, Chiang Kai-shek.

In 1924 Dr. Sun had proclaimed his program of the Three Principles with inspiring effect throughout China. But lured as ever by the prospect of power through arrangement, he accepted an invitation from Chang Tso-lin and Feng Yu-hsiang in Peking to join a conference of “reorganization” for national union. While in Peking he died of cancer on March 12, 1925, leaving behind his principles, a movement, and a successor already steeped in the realities of Chinese power politics.

Chiang Kai-shek was not one of the Western-educated group, nor did he become Soviet oriented, but rather the contrary, during his sojourn in Moscow. Born in 1886 of petty bourgeois origins in Chekiang, whose rather plebeian accent he never overcame, he had received a military education at the Paoting Academy and the Tokyo Military Academy. When in Japan he joined Sun’s party and later participated in the revolution. In the decade afterward he appeared and disappeared, sometimes sharing in Sun’s attempted coups, sometimes moving in the Shanghai mafia world of the Green Society, the archetypal long that controlled various rackets as well as the Chinese version of ward politics. He made connections with a leading Chekiang businessman, Chen Chi-mai, who became Dr. Sun’s principal financial patron, and he served for a while on the staff of the Fukien war lord, who was alternately Sun’s ally and enemy.

Appointed head of the Whampoa Academy upon his return from Moscow in 1924, Chiang enjoyed the prestige of the Teacher, to whom the highest loyalty of a Chinese is given. By virtue of control of the Revolutionary Army, which went with the Whampoa post, he emerged the dominant figure in the Kuomintang. He attracted loyalty and respect not through political inspiration like Sun Yat-sen but by the magnetism of an impressive personality. He was slim, laconic, and expressionless except for alert dark eyes that seemed to pierce through as if from an inner head behind a mask. His great talent was not military but political, exercised through a mastery of balance among factions and plots, so that he came to be called “the Billiken,” after the weighted doll that cannot be knocked over.

As soon as Sun’s death removed restraint, a schism between right and left wings within the Kuomintang came to the surface, with Chiang as leader of the right. He and his associates wanted national sovereignty, while the Communist-Left coalition wanted social revolution. Cabals and intrigues, arrests and assassinations, marked the internal struggle for control of the party.

Revolutionary effort among China’s proletariat, laboring twelve hours a day, seven days a week, in textile mills and dockyards, provided the tinder for the Shanghai Incident in 1925. Hatred of the foreigner, drummed on by agitators, spread north and south, surpassing anything since the Boxer outburst. More shots were fired and men killed at a riot in Hankow on June 11. At Canton a great parade of workers, students, and soldiers led by Whampoa cadets along the bund drew fire again—with some provocation—from British and French marines lined up opposite. This time fifty were killed and one hundred wounded.

A paralyzing boycott of the British in Hongkong followed that was to last fifteen months, cost the British millions of pounds, and, with servants deserting and goods and services withheld, emphasize to every foreigner in China his final vulnerability. Missionaries in the interior, as in Boxer days, suffered harassment and attacks, forcing some to close down or flee. Living as they did in Westernstyle houses in their own walled compounds, the missiona appeared to the Chinese as much the exponents of the unequal treaties as the consuls or the agents of Standard Oil. Missionary presence was more of an insult, despite the medicine and schooling they offered, because its basis was the assumption that Chinese ways of worship were inferior and should be discarded for those of the West.

The Kuomintang found its opportunity in the antiforeign furor and in July, 1925, proclaimed itself the Nationalist government of China. Rivalry for the succession to Sun Yat-sen was not yet resolved, and leadership was shared in fragile partnership between Chiang Kai-shek as military chief and the good-looking, persuasive, Frencheducated Wang Ching-wei as political chairman. Chiang soon ousted his partner and in March, 1926, attempted a purge of the Communists that ended in a draw. The movement was still revolutionary. Communist members were active in the Hongkong boycott and in organizing peasants and labor unions. Political advisers of the commissar type, headed by Chou En-lai, were attached to the faculty of Whampoa, and their slogans appeared on the walls: “Down with Imperialism!” “Laborers of China Arise!” “The World Revolution Will Save You!” “Down with Foreign Cultural Aggression!” “Destroy the Unequal Treaties!” …


The time for an expedition against the north, which Sun Yat-sen had so often tried and failed to launch, had come. It began in July of 1926, with the three great cities of the Yangtze Valley, Hankow, Nanking, and Shanghai, as the objective of the first stage. The Kuomintang Nationalist forces numbered under one hundred thousand, with Chiang Kai-shek none too solidly in control as commander in chief. Their opponents, composed of various forces of the tuchuns , numbered over a million. They were joined by the crisis in an incompatible union of old antagonists, all of whom had fought each other at one time or another. The union embraced Chang Tso-lin, Wu P’ei-fu, Chang Tsung-chang—the notorious war lord of Shantung, said to have “the physique of an elephant, the brain of a pig and the temperament of a tiger” and to be “dangerous even to look at”—and Sun Chuan-fang, war lord of five provinces in the Shanghai area. Off in the northwest Stilwell’s two former clients, the Model Governor Yen Hsi-shan and the Christian General Feng Yu-hsiang, watched and waited, Yen as a highly uncertain ally of the other tuchuns and Feng as an intended ally of the Nationalists.

The Kuomintang soldiers, following the revolutionary doctrine of not molesting or preying upon the people, swept forward during the first months in a series of triumphs. Many units of the northern armies came over to them or fell back without fighting. They took Hankow by September, the month in which Stilwell arrived at Tientsin after his return from the States, and scattered Wu P’ei-fu’s forces in October. Chiang Kai-shek’s First Army suffered a setback in Kiangsi, but otherwise the advance like a flooding river spread outward and northward toward Nanking and Shanghai. Its way was opened by the hopes and hospitality of a people weary of oppression. The Kuomintang’s promise of “better days” to come, not its military powers, accounted for its easy success. As it entered Hangchow, one hundred miles from Shanghai, thousands of spectators lined the streets with smiling faces to watch the well-equipped troops parade through the city. Never before had troops been welcomed by the populace. …

By January 1, 1927, the Nationalist government had moved up to Hankow, where the left wing gained control. While Chiang concentrated on his drive toward Nanking, the former southern capital, and Shanghai, the locus of money power, Hankow seethed in the ardent atmosphere of international revolt. …

Among Americans and other foreigners in China the rise of the Nationalists precipitated a violent quarrel between the Treaty Port community, which took a colonial view of China, and the missionaries, who for the sake of their own survival championed China’s rights. The missionary establishment was at a peak at this time of eight thousand Protestants in 1,149 stations, with half again as many Catholics. If they were to exorcise the hostility of the Chinese, the missionaries had to divorce themselves from the foreign treaty system, even though this was what protected their position in China. Supported by the liberal foreign journals, they argued for China’s right of self-determination and presented her cause as one concerned with “the same questions for which we fought when we separated ourselves from Great Britain.” They persuaded themselves that the Kuomin-tang, with its source in the Christian Sun Yat-sen, was the sincerely progressive force that would at last end civil strife and bring good government to China. They castigated businessmen and diplomats for taking the cynical view and pleaded China’s rights in letters to their boards and churches, in magazine and newspaper articles, lecture tours, and public conferences.

The “man in the club,” who personified the business community, upheld without question the right of the West to arrange conditions favorable to the well-being and commerce of Westerners wherever they might be. Chinese effort to curtail Western privileges was regarded as “encroachment on foreign rights.” Western education fostered by the missionaries was blamed for breaking down the old Confucian morality and raising up ideals inappropriate to China.

That view did not appeal to the American public, which saw the Chinese as a people rightly struggling to be free and assumed that because they were struggling for sovereignty they were also struggling for democracy. This was a delusion of the West. Many struggles were going on in China—for power, for nationhood, even in some cases for the welfare of the people—but election and representation, the sacred rights on which Westerners are nursed, were not their concern. …

The 15th Infantry in Tientsin felt the vibration of these events without greatly concerning itself, being precluded by American policy from playing any role that might involve it in Chinese affairs. Planted in the midst of the concession area, it was quartered in three-story brick barracks buildings facing a parade ground. Its officers attended to regimental affairs, tea and dinner dances, and polo at the Race Club; its enlisted men enjoyed a venereal-disease rate three times that of the American Army as a whole; its weekly journal, The Sentinel , published news under the heading “Domestic,” which referred to the United States.

Tientsin, located sixty miles upriver from the sea, was the main port and business center of North China. As in Shanghai, the concession area was policed by Sikhs provided by the British and had its advantages for the Chinese. During the war-lord era two presidents, a premier, and twenty-six provincial governors at one time or another took refuge there. The concession’s main street was named in its different sections Kaiser Wilhelmstrasse (renamed Woodrow Wilson Street), Victoria Road, Rue de la France, and Via Italia. The United States had not taken a territorial concession until after the World War, when it took over a section of the former German concession, about a city block in area, now called the American Compound. Besides the barracks, the compound housed the post hospital, service club, and recreation hall, where the heartbeat of America throbbed through a change of three or four American movies a week. …

One battalion of the 15th Infantry had served against the Boxers in 1900, but the regiment had not taken up its station in China until after the revolution of 1911. Its regular complement was three battalions, of which one remained in the Philippines. The two in China totalled about fifty officers and eight hundred men, somewhat less than the British and French contingents in Tientsin and approximately the same as the Japanese at that time. The 15th’s motto was “Can Do,” taken from the pidgin phrase used by Chinese to express, as the regimental manual put it, “ability to carry out the mission.” At the end of the training year a “Can Do Week” was held with track, field, and marksmanship events, horse and transportation shows, and much awarding of trophies and medals. The duty day, dominated by the sergeant and taken up with rifle and machine-gun drill, was short, generally over by noon, with little field exercise, because the area for maneuver was limited. … The entire regiment was served by coolies, each company having its Number One Boy dressed in long blue gown and black skullcap. The coolies pitched officers’ tents during field exercises, waited on their mess, and performed all the menial tasks, even sometimes cleaning the soldiers’ rifles.

The over-all command, established for reasons of rank and prestige, was held by a brigadier general designated commander of United States Army Forces in China (U.S.A.F.C.). This was the post held by General J. C. Castner, an overwrought and unstable man in his sixties who wore unkempt clothes in contrast to the 15th’s reputation for classy dressing and was not from West Point. The regiment came under his direct control in December, 1926, when headquarters of the 15th Infantry and U.S.A.F.C. were merged. Proud of his physique and prowess in walking, Castner had a passion for physical exercise, which may have been one reason why Stilwell understood him and was one of the few officers with whom Castner never quarrelled. Coming from a command in the wilder reaches of Alaska, he was going to teach these tea-drinking s.o.b.’s some real soldiering and “reduce the fat men of the regiment to a workable condition.” To prepare for the worst, in the face of the Red anti-foreign crusade that he, and indeed many others, saw overwhelming Peking as in the days of the Boxers, he resolved to train the regiment to relieve the legations in three days of forced march. As he explained to the War Department, it might be a “vital necessity” in the future, and he personally trained for the event by walking daily around the Tientsin Race Course. …

When Stilwell came as a battalion commander in 1926, he found the person and formed the connection that would be decisive for his future. This was his acquaintance from World War I days, now serving as executive officer of the 15th Infantry, Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall. Their tours in China overlapped for only eight months, but it was enough for what had been mere acquaintance to grow into a bond of mutual respect. Of any other two men the relation might have been called friendship, but these two closed personalities have left few references to this stage of their relationship, and Marshall was not a man easily claimed as a friend. A graduate of V.M.I., courtly and distant, closing all conversations with his cool “Thank you very much,” he never called anyone by his first name and rarely got the last name straight. As befitted Pershing’s particular protégé, he was, in the opinion of one soldier of the i5th Infantry, “the most military-looking man in the entire army.”

The Stilwells took tea at the Marshalls’ two days after their arrival and went again to a “special court dinner” in the same week. Stilwell felt sufficiently easy to borrow his host’s coat. At a dinner party given by the Marshalls on another occasion one invited couple was late, and after a brief wait the host announced they would go in to dinner. Just after soup was served, the doorbell rang. Stopping the Number One Boy as he was going to answer it, Marshall went to the door himself, and the guests heard him say, “I’m sorry, but dinner is nearly over,” and then the door was firmly closed. As a childless man Marshall became fond of and friendly with the Stilwell children, but with most adults he remained aloof, leaving an impression of someone “higher up.”…

As Chiang Kai-shek’s troops advanced on the key city of Shanghai, their battle was fought for them and the way opened by Communist-organized strikes and demonstrations involving one hundred thousand workers, which the defending forces of the war lord Sun Chuanfang, despite savage efforts and a hundred beheadings, were unable to suppress. The concessions saw the spectre of revolution. Frenzied consultations took place among the Treaty Powers. Britain announced the sending of three brigades. The United States, shrinking from the prospect of armed intervention in China, cautiously moved 250 Marines from Guam as far as Manila and only after three weeks’ hesitation moved them on to Shanghai. As Chiang’s troops reached the outskirts and a state of emergency was declared, fifteen hundred more Americans and fifteen hundred Japanese were landed to supplement nine thousand British and the Shanghai Volunteer Force. Foreign residents prepared for siege and employed the labor of hundreds of Chinese to dig trenches and put up barbed-wire barricades and concrete blockhouses.

At the height of the crisis five thousand American Marines arrived, led by the Congressional Medal hero General Smedley Butler, veteran of every Marine engagement from the Spanish-American to the World War, including the Siege of the Legations, who promptly exasperated fellow commanders by his unheroic declarations to the press. His mission, he announced, was solely to protect American lives, not treaty rights. This was the principle steadfastly maintained throughout the Chinese turmoil of 1925-28 by Coolidge’s Secretary of State, Frank Kellogg, a self-taught lawyer and former senator from Minnesota. American forces in China, he insisted, were not sent to fight for the International Settlement or any other treaty provision but only to safeguard American nationals directly threatened. General Butler refused to give Shanghai hope of anything more.

On March 24, 1927, a day before the Marines landed, Nationalist forces entered Nanking and let loose a day of fearful terrorism against foreigners that was to go down as a date of reckoning in the relations of China and the West. In a campaign deliberately but anonymously instigated, troops rampaged through the city, yelling and shooting, attacking foreigners, looting and burning foreign homes, killing six foreigners—including the vice president of Nanking University, John E. Williams. Others took refuge on Socony Hill, the Standard Oil property, from which they were able to escape over the walls to gunboats in the river only when the British and American commanders, after an agony of hesitation, opened fire to keep off the attackers. A missionary’s wife, Pearl Buck, cowering with her family in the tiny one-room hut of a poor Chinese woman she had befriended, listened to the ferocity outside and thought, “The whirlwinds were gathering … and I was reaping what I had not sown. … We were in hiding for our lives because we were White.”

As news of the “massacre” of Nanking leaped by telegraph across China and other outbreaks followed, the missionaries fled to the rivers and gunboats and protection of the Treaty Ports. Eventually twenty-five hundred took refuge in Shanghai and other concessions, and five thousand left the country. Schools, colleges, hospitals, and Y.M.C.A.’s closed down or were taken over by the Nationalists. Later, in the early 1930's, the missionaries began coming back but were never to reach the numbers of the period before Nanking. …

Until their entry into Shanghai the Nationalist advance was generally regarded by the Treaty Ports as “the Red Wave on the Yangtze.” The profound split between right and left in the Kuomintang was not yet known to foreigners. The Hankow government, with Borodin and Bolshevik influence dominant, appeared to be in control. But Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters, if they were to achieve power in their own right, had to have the revenue and loans they could only obtain in alliance with capitalism. Labor troubles, peasant uprisings, and anti-foreign riots alarmed property owners in their own ranks and property owners whose support they needed. Communists working with the Kuomintang, including Mao Tse-tung, were busy organizing rent strikes and anti-landlord demonstrations among two million peasants of Hunan, and Mao was promising that soon all over China “several hundred million peasants will rise like a tornado … and rush forward along the road to revolution.” Chiang needed the support of landlord families. Communist organizers were equally active among the proletariat and labor unions of Shanghai. Chiang was determined that the great metropolis of commerce, banking, and foreign trade must not fall like Hankow under left-wing control. Shanghai was where the break had to be made.

Nationalist forces numbering about three thousand had entered the city on March 22, less by their own military prowess than by virtue of the strike action inside the city and the demoralized flight of Sun Chuan-fang’s forces. Arriving by gunboat, Chiang Kai-shek made contact with merchants and bankers through his former connections and obtained a loan on the security of his assurances. As commander in chief he had already absorbed into his army and given commands to apostate officers of the northern forces, many of them fellow alumni of Paoting Military Academy, whose presence strengthened his hand against the left. Through agents he learned of the plans of the revolutionaries who were collecting arms by night for the coup by which they hoped to capture control. At this point, on April 6, a raid by Chang Tsolin’s police on the Soviet Embassy far away in Peking disclosed documentary evidence of the extent of Soviet penetration, under Borodin’s guidance, of Chinese affairs. Nineteen Chinese Communists, including the leader of the party, Li Ta-chao, were arrested on the premises and subsequently executed by strangling on the charge of treason.

Chiang Kai-shek made a wider sweep. On the night of April 12-13, assisted by agents of the Green Society and police of the French concession, he carried out a bloody purge of the left, disarming and hunting down all who could be found and killing more than three hundred. The revolution was turned from Red to right. Chiang’s coup was both turning point and point of no return. He was now on the way to unity, but he had fixed the terms of an underlying disunity that would become his nemesis. Hankow expelled him as a traitor, but he had the advantage in armed force and established his own government at Nanking.

Chiang was now seen by foreign watchers as no Red after all but, as Secretary Kellogg remarked with pleasant surprise, “apparently a leader of the Moderates.”…

This impression had not yet been made on foreign residents of North China. They visualized, as the Nationalists crossed the Yangtze and continued northward, a repetition of the Nanking “massacre” taking place in Tsinan, Tientsin, and Peking. By temperament an anticipator of trouble, Stilwell wrote in his diary of speculating on the loyalty of his servants, of plans for flight at a moment’s notice to the concessions at Tientsin, and of “a sick feeling of apprehension … for risking wife and children in such a country at such a time.”

Confidence in the northern armies was minimal. Wu was not co-operating with Chang Tso-lin, who had been named northern generalissimo, and the associated war lords were regularly falling out with, or withholding support from, each other. The isth Infantry and other foreign garrisons held anxious conferences on how to ensure protection of their nationals in Peking, and recommended a doubling of the strength of each. In order to hold the railroad open, a total force of twenty-five thousand would be better still, General Castner informed the War Department. He suggested that the next Army transport, due in May, should bring in troops from Manila and take home American women and children from North China. The Japanese moved a brigade down from Dairen to Tsingtao in Shantung, and General Butler, deciding that the situation in the north was now more critical than at Shanghai, brought a full brigade of four thousand Marines to Tientsin.

Equipped with twenty airplanes and a number of light tanks, which none of the other foreign contingents could boast, the Marines were the wonder of Tientsin, much to the annoyance of the 15th Infantry. As they briskly and efficiently went about unloading field artillery, mortars, howitzers, machine guns, sandbags for barricades, trucks, tanks, planes, and piles of supplies, the infantrymen stood watching with studied carelessness and inner rage. Butler warned that he would tolerate no clashes with the Chinese people and that “if a Marine so much as laid a hand on a rickshaw coolie he would be court-martialed.” Nevertheless he spared no effort in his preparations to relieve Peking at a moment’s notice.

In May anxiety heightened as the advancing Nationalists approached Hsuchow, the crucial junction of the main north-south and east-west railways just below the border of Shantung. Dating back to legendary times, the battle for Hsuchow was customarily considered the climax of every change of dynasty. According to an old Chinese saying, “Hsuchow is the place which the generals must capture to control the sky.” It was now held by the forces of the ogre of Shantung, Chang Tsungchang, the man who was “dangerous even to look at” but who in the war had not made a firm stand yet. If Hsuchow fell, Shantung would be invaded; and if Shantung were overrun, the southerners would be at the gates of Tientsin. Should foreign women and children be evacuated now? What plans should be made? How far would the southern effort go? …

The American Legation needed to obtain at firsthand a reliable estimate of the real strength of the southern forces, not to mention of the northern. Reports from missionaries, consular agents, and newspapermen were so unreliable that it was impossible to judge the situation. Though the mission would be dangerous, given the rising mood of anti-foreign fanaticism, an American military man must go in person. The choice fell not on the military attaché, Major John Magruder, or any of his staff, but on Major Stilwell of the isth Infantry. Besides a knowledge of China and Chinese, a record of previous adventurous journeys, and a recognized toughness of spirit, Stilwell possessed a further essential qualification—willingness to go, though he would be leaving behind four children and a wife shortly expecting a fifth.

On arriving in Hsuchow he was to present his credentials in person to the famed and terrible Chang Tsungchang. A former wharf coolie in his youth, nearly seven feet tall, Chang bore the nickname “Three Things not Known”—how much money he had, how many soldiers, and how many concubines. Of the last he was said to maintain a stable of forty-two, including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, twenty-one White Russians, and one bedraggled American, whom he hauled along to his wars in two private railroad cars. He was also known as La pa shih lao , or “Old Eighty-six,” because the height of a pile of that number of silver dollars reputedly represented the length of the most valued portion of his anatomy in action. He supported a luxurious yamen thronged with officers and dined lavishly with brandy and champagne from a Belgian cut-glass dinner service of forty covers, which he boasted had cost fifty thousand dollars. A magnificent carved and lacquered teakwood coffin accompanied him on board a flatcar of his private train. It was his boast that he would return from battle inside it if he failed to conquer, but he returned from Shanghai sitting on the coffin, smoking and slightly tipsy. Under his reign Shantung was plagued by famine in 1927, brought on not by flood or drought but by the Tuchun’s rapacity.

Stilwell caught the evening train for Hsuchow on May 26. With him went Chao, his Chinese servant, without whom, as he wrote afterward, he might not have returned. “Why should Chao poke his nose into danger and risk his life in loyalty to a lao mao tze [old hairy one, a common designation for a foreigner] when all his own countrymen were screaming ‘Kill them'?” Stilwell could supply no answer, but he acknowledged his respect for “a game and loyal little man” who when the situation became nastv could easily have run out, but did not.


As the train rattled across the border into Shantung, Stilwell saw telltale signs of trouble. Carts with safe-conduct flags waited for hire at the stations, an indication that local security was nonexistent. The carts were in fact a racket run by bandits who took squeeze from the cart owners. Villagers with worried faces were mending their mud walls. There was “an ominous quiet when there should have been a hubbub about small things.” As the train progressed, soldiers of the northern army began to be seen, “unconcerned, apathetic … in a jungle of units … no evidence of any organization of positions.” Rolling stock in railroad yards was in “terrible condition … one or two wrecks in every round house.”

“After dark of the next day they reached Hsuchow and found it crowded with soldiers of all arms and ranks. Drunken pings (soldiers) and scowling White Russians of the war lord’s cavalry reeled in the streets. The travellers met surly replies and no room at the inns. Chao suggested the local Y.M.C.A., and they slept at the house of its secretary, Mr. T’ang. Hsuchow, as they discovered next morning, was a “wreck,” washed over time and again by the wave of war. The homeless, evicted by famine or soldiers, were camping where they could, food supplies were giving out, dead bodies were lying in the streets where they had fallen. “We stepped over them with the other passersby and went our way.” Stilwell saw fifteen blind women leading each other around; otherwise no other women but a few old crones were visible in the streets, the rest being hidden away behind closed doors in fear of the soldiers. The refugees, possessing nothing but the rags they stood in and a few clay pots for cooking, “did not beg; they simply sat and looked out with hopeless eyes at an incomprehensible world.” They were fed a meager ration of pressed-cake, the residue after oil is pressed from beans, which in Manchuria, Stilwell noted, is broken up for fertilizer or fed to pigs. Once hard-working and industrious farmers, the refugees had seen “their carts and animals seized for armies, their sons drafted, their grain eaten up by locust hordes of soldiers, their homes pulled to pieces for firewood, their women mistreated, their children perhaps scattered- this is the saddest side of Chinese wars.”…

After trying in vain to see Chang Tsung-chang, Stilwell prowled around the city. “Russky cavalry,” the feared and prized adjunct of a northern war lord’s army, galloped through the streets. They wore dark green, almost black uniforms with yellow leather boots reaching to their thighs, and carried an armory of weapons: pennant-tipped lances in their stirrup sockets; long-barrelled Mauser pistols in wooden holsters; and the da-bao , or Chinese beheading sword, like an oversize machete strapped over the shoulder in a canvas scabbard. Merciless and fierce, men without a country, they were “the toughest eggs I ever laid eyes on.” Besides the cavalry troop of about one hundred, a Russian infantry brigade under General Netchaeff of about three thousand men with four armored trains served with the Tuchun’s forces....

An informant told Stilwell that the northerners would not fight; they were all afraid of the Red Spears. These were bands of resistance fighters drawn from the country people who, made desperate by marauding soldiers, had organized the Red Spear Society to prey upon whatever small groups of soldiers they could handle. They killed without mercy, inflicting wounds that left their victims alive for three or four hours before they died.

Each day food grew more scarce. Chao scrounged and brought in some canned goods. Preparations for a general movement were increasingly evident. Stilwell kept watch at the two railroad stations and yards, counting guns and calibers, recording troop trains, and trying to evaluate from the chaos what Chang Tsung-chang was planning. From the pings he learned that some units had not been paid for five months, some not for a year. Their ration was mantou , rice and water. He picked up the news that Feng Yu-hsiang had taken Chengchow, dominating the western end of the transverse railway. This was both true and important.

After a year’s absence in Moscow, Feng was once more in command of the Kuominchun (National People’s Army), the well-armed and disciplined force of over two hundred thousand that he had built up in Shensi and that figured in Comintern strategy as the northern arm of the revolutionary forces in China. To make junction with this force was the essential goal of the Kuomintang, but whether Feng would opt for the Communist-Left coalition at Hankow or for Chiang Kai-shek was as yet uncertain. …

While Hankow and Chiang Kai-shek were both negotiating for his alliance, Feng as a result of various defaults by the northerners captured Chengchow, causing the northern army in the area to retreat behind the Yellow River, which in turn uncovered Hsuchow. This development decided Chang Tsung-chang to retreat.

Stilwell hurried to the telegraph office to send word to the legation, but he was too late. The office was closed, and the operators had fled. Next day, his fourth in Hsuchow, there was no doubt any longer; the northerners were pulling out. He counted six trains leaving in half an hour. When they were gone, the southerners would flood in, and a foreigner might likely as not be lynched. His object now was to get out with Chao as soon as possible. The Tuchun’s train was in the yards, but they were not allowed on; and when they attempted to push their way on board one of the crowded troop trains, they were thrown off. They tried offers of money in vain, the soldiers being themselves too anxious to leave to yield their places. As the Tuchun’s train pulled out, Stilwell could feel panic rising in the crowd of soldiers around him. “How soon would their officers get them out of this. … Control would now be difficult … everyone is ugly.” The troops crammed on the remaining cars with “latecomers scurrying frantically to get aboard and perch anywhere—on the end-ladders or between the cars. Many will be shaken off. …” As he watched, one man fell under the moving wheels and was left to die, “no doctor, no help of any kind, just a crowd of curious coolies jammed around him.”

Now it was too late to leave with the northerners. What should he do? Walk? Could he reach Feng Yu-hsiang, some fifty miles off to the west? But the Red Spears were in between, and “they will not discriminate in our favor.” To the east, more Red Spears, “and the Russians. I am afraid of the Russians.” The only alternative was to sit still and wait for the southerners “and that scares me as badly as the Russians do.” Mr. T’ang, the Y.M.C.A. secretary, confessing himself a southern sympathizer, advised staying as safer than going.

For two days after the trains left, “the town waited, holding its breath for the next wave to break over it. … One scourge gone, only to make room for another?” The northern rear guard came through, shooting, looting, and yelling and doubling the turmoil at night. After them came “the pitiful remnants of a retiring Chinese army: the sick and wounded, dragging themselves along with only the prospect of death from the Red Spears ahead of them.” Shops shut, mules sold for three hundred dollars, and food was not for sale at all. At night “hell let loose; an engine screeching the alarm, pings yelling and firing field-guns, rifles, pistols. Only a few bullets whizzed our way.” A plane came over and dropped a few bombs. The Russians who had stayed behind in their armor-plated train were the worst. They ran the train, equipped with machine guns and a naval gun mounted on the rear car, up and down the line, “terrorizing the people by-shooting and then stealing everything moveable.” When the country people pulled up the track to block the train, the Russians “just about massacred the village” nearest the break. …

On the morning of June 2 Mr. T’ang reported that the Tang Chun (Party or Kuomintang Army) had arrived. They were behaving well, no beating, no looting, but Chao insisted that Stilwell stay out of sight. Everyone in the neighborhood knew there was a foreigner in Mr. T’ang’s house, and Stilwell wondered when his presence would be reported to the soldiers. He imagined the squad that would come bursting in, yelling for the foreigner, and tried to put his mind on something else. After four days of hiding with nothing to do but draw pictures, he felt desperate. “Must do something; hike south seems to be the only feasible plan.” After another day, when he resorted to jumping over wooden horses for half an hour “to keep from going nutty,” he decided he “must get out of here somehow.” Mr. T’ang was growing cool and might be regretting having given shelter to a foreigner. On the sixth day of hiding Chao at last agreed to take a chance. They walked out and made acquaintance with the Tang Chun pings , “a cheerful gang, mostly boys hardly 16, little runts with narrow shoulders, no weight. … All the pings have been filled full of pro-American propaganda. They think America will actively help them.” The city was hung with Kuomintang flags and welcome signs, shops had reopened, women reappeared in the streets, carpenters were busy repairing damage, but the dead and dying still lay in the alleys. …

Stilwell made up his mind to leave via the south for Shanghai. The northerners had taken with them all the rolling stock they could collect, but word came that a southbound train would be going through next day. Through a crush of frantic people waiting to get on, a wild scramble id a pall of garlic fumes, he and Chao fought their way on board. After three hours of suspense in the station waiting for the train to move and a journey of agonizing halts and delays they came to a stop at 3 A.M. at P’eng Pu, still a long way from the Yangtze and possible foreign warships. Passengers were cleared out, it was obvious the train would go no farther, and they were left standing on the platform in the dark.

For the next thirty-six hours the sickening emotion of fear was to be Stilwell’s companion. Hungry and thirsty and stranded in a strange place, he and Chao did not know whether another southbound train would be coming through and did not dare ask questions for fear of drawing attention. They could not risk going to look for food or drink for fear of missing a train. They feared to wait until daylight brought new crowds and made Stilwell more visible, but they had no other choice. At 6 A.M. some freight cars were pushed onto the southbound track. Among new crowds they struggled on board, while trying to remain inconspicuous, and found places on the floor of an old coal car. Feeling the other passengers’ eyes on him, Stilwell expected at any moment the sudden shout “ Lao mao tze.! ” or the advent of a guard or official who would haul him off for examination. Baking in the heat, the car became “filthy with eggshells, snott, seeds, tea, water, spit, rinds and all the other trash that chinks can throw.” Mixed with “spitting, coughing, belching, nosepicking, sucking and grunting,” this was bad enough, but worse were the whispers and looks cast in his direction. Hunger and thirst increased, but they dared not get off at any of the stops for fear of not getting back on.

Fear materialized in the person of an inspector, “a truculent coolie, dressed in a little brief authority,” who on frisking Stilwell triumphantly discovered and took away his pistol, flourishing it before the passengers as if to unmask a criminal, a spy, an assassin come to kill Chiang Kai-shek. Murmurs rose. “What shall be done with him? Take him off and shoot him.” Disarmed, alone except for Chao, Stilwell felt hostility closing in. At the next stop the inspector got off to report, and the hostility became active. Umbrellas poked into him, tea was spilled on his leg, someone spat on his back. Suddenly the realization flooded over him: “They were trying to make me react. They wanted me to resist,” as an excuse for attack. It could end in murder. “Chao’s warning look proved it; he slowly turned his head back and forth to signal ‘No.’ He was deathly afraid, not for himself but for me.” The prodding and sly tricks and insults continued. With rage in his heart Stilwell contained himself. At a halt the crowd argued whether to “take us off now and shoot us or turn us over at P’u Kow,” the last stop. Catching at the straw, Chao demanded, “Yes, arrest us; turn us over to the authorities at P’u Kow. We demand it. The foreigner has great influence and there will be a great deal of trouble for anyone who harms him.” He was cursed for being a running dog for a foreigner, but before the crowd could take action, the train moved. Chao had found his cue. He demanded to be taken before Chiang Kai-shek himself. “We will make complaints; we will report everything.” The insults and the prodding stopped, but the threat of arrest at P’u Kow abided.

Stilwell decided to give the crowd no time to test its intentions. As the train pulled into P’u Kow, on the Yangtze opposite Nanking, he and Chao jumped off before it came to a stop, and pushing past astonished people, ran for the river, feeling pursuit at their heels but not daring to look behind them. They scrambled aboard a ferry and on the other side walked slowly past suspicious glances in search of lodging. Money persuaded a fearful innkeeper to give them a room where, exhausted and dehydrated, they drank pot after pot of tea. Stilwell was embarrassed to find his hand trembling when he held out his cup for more. Tension did not let down, for word of the foreign devil’s presence brought a crowd gathering in the street, and Stilwell once more imagined capture or lynching. Worry, bedbugs, and fleas allowed him little sleep. In the morning came another trial of the streets, but without interference they reached the station and boarded the train for Shanghai. The journey was hot and tense. On their arrival their eyes met a huge poster on the wall showing a fat and repulsive foreigner prone on the ground with Chinese soldiers sticking bayonets into him, blood spurting out, and a caption exhorting all patriots to kill the foreign swine.

Through the station exit, past the sentries, and across the square Stilwell could see the barbed-wire fence of the International Settlement and safety, one hundred feet away, a matter of thirty seconds. “We crossed the square with 50 pound weights on our feet, passed through the wire … and stood at last on our own side.” A sampan rowed them out to the cruiser Pittsburgh , where at the top of the gangway a Marine was standing guard, and “I, an Army officer, felt like throwing my arms around him and giving him a hug!”

It says much for Stilwell’s military objectivity that the report he submitted on his return gave the southerners a favorable judgment. Their morale, discipline, and confidence were high, he stated, they gave cheerful obedience, did not loot, and were welcomed by the populace, as shown by the reappearance of the women. Their company officers were students of eighteen to twenty-two, determined and convinced in contrast to the “trash” in the northern army, who at the company and battalion level were largely uneducated coolies. Although deficient in armament compared to the northerners, the southern army was capable of beating the Tuchun’s “rabble” in any clash, but he predicted they would not be able to operate beyond Hsuchow for lack of rolling stock. They had brought none across the Yangtze, moving supplies by cart and pack animal, but as soon as they could use the railroad they would roll north with no likelihood of firm resistance. Chang Tsung-chang’s army had no fight in it, except for the Russians. “In my opinion a determined southern attack will mean Chang’s collapse.”

At the legation U.S. Minister J. V. A. MacMurray welcomed the first authentic information on the situation. He listened to Stilwell and read his report with “great admiration” for his “intrepid personal qualities.” General Castner gave his commendation for “the highest type of efficiency, military intelligence, splendid determination and courageous conduct”—and for something more. This man of troubled mind understood the true rarity of Stilwell’s exploit: that “courage in battle when accompanied by comrades is often seen but a much higher courage is required by any individual who attempts what Major Stilwell accomplished—the close contact alone and unaided, with hundreds of ignorant, hostile anti-foreign Chinese troops of two contending armies.” Stilwell was probably the only man with the necessary combination of military knowledge, Chinese knowledge, and that “higher courage” who could have carried out the mission to Hsuchow and returned.



We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this 72-year tradition of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.