incident at Hsin Ho
5/6 April, 1947
I wanted to begin this essay by a review of what the Chicago Tribune had to say about the Hsin Ho Incident. My Dad kept clippings on various little and big fracases that I seemed prone to getting myself involved in. He knew when he saw the headlines that the First Battalion, 5th Marines was the outfit I was in the process of being transferred to from Tientsin. Unfortunately, this time when I retrieved those clippings from the envelope I stored it in it had deteriorated to the point where it was unreadable. Some four years ago I'd made a copy of it to forward to a professor who had been interested in the incident, but now the clipping has gone the way of all flesh, I'm afraid.
I did, however, find a copy of the North China Marine, Vol II No. 23 (New Series), dated April 12, 1947, Tientsin, China. There are banner headlines Communists Raid Ammo Supply Dump. There are also three large pictures showing Colonel Julian N. Frisbie, Commanding Officer, 5th Marines, and Staff Officers from the 5th Marines S-2 Section (Major Bernard W. McLean and Captain J. M. McNeil) in Peiping inspecting the damage to ammunition sheds and warehouses. There is even a picture of the hole in the road where the Chinese exploded three electrically controlled land mines under the lead vehicle of the Relief Column. Electrically controlled land mines in 1947? Yep, you bet. If any of you readers did the Viet Nam trip twenty or so years later you know that we say lots of those damned things there. There is also the very curious notation that "one tank" had been involved in the melee the night of 5/6 April, 1947. Of course there wasn't a tank, and no one in his right mind could have looked at that M-7 half track and called it a tank. But then, on the other hand, this guy was a reporter and probably didn't know any better. So guess that there was really nothing sinister in the misreporting. Let's see what the paper does tell us.
The article begins: "Although striking in a surprising, well coordinated moonlight attack with superior numbers, at the First Marine Division Ammunition Supply Point, Hsin Ho, Communist forces early last Saturday morning received far more casualties than did the greatly outnumbered defenders--the U. S. Marines...." Well, OK, if you say so. However the word "surprising" hardly fits with what went on. The Ballou (bandit in Chinese), which is how we referred to our opposition had been scouting the dump since at least the previous October. Toward the end of that month they had actually launched a probe, to see, I'd guess, how the Marines would react. Once they learned how they would react they could make their detailed plans for what was to be "Grand Theft, Ammo."
No indication of the number of Marines killed in action is provided, although the article does say that "....All the Marine fatalities were sustained during the first few minutes of the fighting--they were either killed on post or died going to the assistance of those casualties occasioned by the initial burst of hostile fire...." With the exception of a caption on the photos that "....eight [Marines] were wounded in the ambush." there is no mention of Marines wounded in action. Two of the sentries are quoted, a PFC Jacob P. Jereb and PFC Peter R. Stankiewicz, although nothing is said about the fact that Jake Jereb was wounded in the shoulder. Corporal Fred L. Harrington had just come off the 2000-2400 watch, and had hit the sack when the attack began. He then rallied eight off watch Marines who were on their way to reinforce those currently on guard as the "....Communist force reached the barbed wire...."
And that's it. The story was continued on page 8, but unfortunately that page seems to have been eaten by something during the 52 years that the page was in my scrapbook. They just don't make newspaper the way they used to. And that's the end of the story, so far as my copy of the North China Marine is concerned.
So let's fall back on the only quasi-witness to the event. Namely, me. I had only recently joined the 1stBn, 5th Marines (1/5) on a "Temporary Duty" basis from my unit in Tientsin. I'd been in North China since we landed, some 60,000 Marines strong, in October, 1945. I'd gotten to know the Marine who would be transferred to 1/5 in the fall of 1946 as the Battalion Sergeant Major. Early in 1947 he had come to see me where I was stationed in Tientsin and asked me if I'd like to join him in Tangku as the Personnel Sergeant Major of the 1st Battalion. I didn't jump at this for a very good reason, and that is that I was totally unqualified to fill such a position. My office time had been limited to going in for payday twice a month, and that was the way I liked it. But we all knew that all of us would be leaving North China soon, and my outfit was slated to return to the US. And I didn't want that. 1/5 on the other hand was slated to go to Guam, and I preferred to stay overseas. I believed that if I stayed in the Orient that I could wangle my way back to the beautiful German city of Tsingtao on the Shantung Peninsula, which would be the only US outpost left in China after Peking/Tientsin closed down. And that was how it was to work out after some fifteen really good months on Guam. So I agreed to be transferred, strings were pulled, and in March, 1947 I arrived in Tangku to take up my new duties on a temporary basis until the necessary transfer orders could be cut. I was not concerned with the operations of 1/5 except on the most tangential of bases. Muster Rolls, Change Sheets, Payrolls and Correspondence were my daily concerns. I had a full staff of superbly qualified clerical personnel who were kind enough to carry me until I learned the ropes, and a Sergeant Major who made damned sure it went down just that way.
As part of the general orientation to 1/5, the Sergeant Major had driven me around to the various troop compounds, our supply warehouses, and out to Hsin Ho which was several miles away from the remainder of 1/5. Difficulties with the Chinese Ballou (again, in case your Chinese is rusty, "Bandits") were not uncommon, and had not been since the time of our initial landing in China in October, 1945. In July of 1946 there had been an "Incident" at An Ping when a Marine column enroute to Peiping from Tientsin had been ambushed. Marines had been killed and wounded in that "Incident." This type of overt aggression was unusual and we felt at the time a sign that the forces of Mao Tse Tsung were tightening the noose.
The terrain around Tangku needs to be discussed to understand what happened at Hsin Ho. This was salt flat country. Hardly a tree in sight, anywhere. Roads were built above the salt flats, and stood above the landscape like sore thumbs. It was a landscape from hell with few redeeming features. It was so flat that an ocean going vessel plying the waters of the Hei Ho River enroute to Tienstin from a distance of a mile or so looked for all the world as though it were sailing over dry land. In military terms it meant that anything you did in the way of movement would be canalized along the few roads that existed. There usually was only one road to move from point A to B. The foregoing was to have grave consequences for the relief force that attempted to come to the aid of their fellow Marines at Hsin Ho.
It's pretty difficult to summarize the Chinese Civil War in a paragraph or two. As most of you know it began in the 1920s, and would eventually lead to a "Long March" where the Chinese leftists were driven out of South, Central, and most of Northern China by the forces of Chiang Kai Shek. Mao and his boys ended up in the caves of Yenen in the very far north, from whence they continued a running civil war with the forces who controlled Peiping and most of China. Peiping, by the way means "Northern Peace" in Chinese. Peking, on the other hand means "Northern Capital." Thus Nanking becomes "Central Capital" and Chunking "Southern Capital." Or so my Chinese teacher taught me. Never heard anyone refer to a place named "Beijing," and I haven't a clue what that means.
The war years, which for China were 1937 to 1945, showed a sort of accommodation developing between the two parties to the Civil War since Japan was the common enemy. However, according to my White Russian friends in Tientsin, the Japs had been able to buy off both sides, and it was cheaper to buy them off to preclude fighting than it was to do the fighting. At least they insisted that was what happened in Northern China. To say that the situation was a political tangle would be a masterpiece of understatement.
When WW II was over the Marines were tasked with repatriating Japanese and Koreans some of whom had been in China since the Japanese Occupation of Manchuria in 1931-1932. The Japanese Manchurian Army had never been defeated by anyone, and those soldiers and officers were professionals to their boot heels. So when we removed them we took a key piece from the Chinese chessboard which left the original protagonists in full possession of the field. The US had provided the wherewithal to keep Chiang Kai Shek afloat during World War II and sent, among others, General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell to lead Chinese as well as US troops. "Vinegar Joe" detested Chiang whom he saw as the corrupt head of a corrupted regime. Stilwell called Chiang "Peanut" which did not endear him to Chiang, and at the latter's insistence, Stillwell was removed. Stillwell was exactly right. Had I been a Chinaman in 1945 I would have surely earnestly desired that Mao would emerge supreme in his fight with Chiang. That wouldn't make me a Communist, but instead just someone who would prefer not to starve to death as millions of Chinese did under Chiang.
I'd remind the reader here that some skinny little fellow named Nguyen Van Quoc who had cooperated with the US OSI during WW II, would also be asking for US aid. Of course, this was not the first time he had asked for help from the US. The first time had been at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919 when he had petitioned President Wilson to carry out his promise on the big powers freeing their colonies. Nguyen had dressed in formal attire, which must have cost him several days pay from his job as a chef. Most unfortunately, the man who would later change his name to Ho Chi Minh was refused both times he requested help. We Marines would hear much more from the man we learned to call Uncle Ho twenty years later.
The US for years has had a penchant for backing losers, and Chiang would be but another one of those. In the fall of 1945 the former Chief of Staff of the U. S. Army, and one of the most competent of Americans in my opinion, George Catlett Marshall was appointed as U. S. Special Ambassador to China. Marshall took up residence in Peiping and tried diligently to bring Chiang and Mao together. Not even Marshal could accomplish this essentially impossible task, and after a few months he returned to the US to become Secretary of State. And then, Mao, in March 1946, announced that the Chinese Communists had declared war on the U. S. Marine Corps. We felt honored. I guess. In the meantime, Marines had relieved the Japanese who guarded railroad bridges in the "Iron Triangle" between Peiping, Chingwangtao, and Tangku. Within that triangle lay rich coal reserves, and the Marines became the guardians. Not only did Marines man bridges and other critical points along the railroad right-of-way, but they also rode Train Guard. This consisted of a heavily sandbagged caboose, which carried a squad and bristled with automatic weapons. Not often were these cars shot at, and, when they were, the returning cascade of fire soon discouraged the Ballou. But there were occasional casualties among those Train Guards. The Train Guards did not, however, keep the train tracks from being blown ahead, and sometimes behind the train. Engineers and firemen would be dragged from the cabs and their hands chopped off, and sometimes their heads as well. This was a tough crowd that Marines were dealing with. (We'd dance with these birds again in Korea a few years later when they paid us a social call at a place that's entered the History books as "The Frozen Chosin." I happened to be an invited guest at that ball, too.) A number of verses were added to the popular song "Drinkin' Rum and Coca-Cola." One went like this:
Chinee railroad, ride in style,
Take 14 hour to go one mile,
Chinee think too fast indeed,
Blow up track to slow down speed.
Drinkin' vodka, and lime so--da etc.
And "Vie Been Working On The Railroad" was soon heard in EM Clubs throughout North China about as often as the Marine Hymn. Of course the Russians were raising hell, demanding that the Marines withdraw from North China since the last of the former enemy repatriates left in June, 1946. Our excuses for not withdrawing were wearing thin and it was obvious to those of us in North China that Chiang was losing the war big time. And the pressure from Mao and his 8th Route Army was building, and we knew it. Before Marines abandoned Tientsin in the summer of 1947, Communist artillery shells were impacting Marine controlled areas within the city. As Napoleon III had tried to do for Maximilian in Mexico in the 1860s, Marine bayonets had propped up Chiang as long as possible. Now, unless the US wanted to go to war with the armies of Mao, we had to leave China. And World War III was out of the question at the time. Chiang was to leave mainland China shortly thereafter to reestablish his regime on Taiwan, or Formosa if you prefer.
Part of the overt pressure Mao applied was the raid on the 1st Marine Division Ammunition Supply Point (ASP) shortly after midnight on April 6, 1947. It had been known as early as the previous fall that the ASP was kept under periodic surveillance. Patrols around the perimeter of the Dump found on numerous occasions well camouflaged positions from which the 8th Route Army was observing. Even from a distance of a few feet these positions were all but impossible to detect. In late October there had been a brief fire fight which had been interpreted to be a probe by fire on the part of the Chinese. The purpose may well have been to see how the Marines would react, and find out they did. There were no known casualties on either side in this "Incident."
The ASP itself comprised maybe four acres. There was a single perimeter barrier consisting of a sort of hurricane fence about 8' high. Heavy posts had been placed every 15' or so, and the top 18" built at a 45 degree angle inclined to the outside, like a burglar fence. The wire was heavy woven, reinforced by barbed. There were elevated guard posts placed strategically around the perimeter. A walking patrol, plus an occasional jeep patrol reinforced the guard posts. When Marines had first come ashore in October of 1945 the ASP had been established. At that time the problem was that there were Chinese, many of whom were on the verge of starvation, who would steal anything not nailed down. The ASP had the advantage of being some way from a population center and difficult to get to without detection. There was a guard house of sufficient size to house all three reliefs of the guard, with bunks and the usual. The ammunition was stored in sheds and warehouses. These were made of the roughest type of lumber and had obviously hastily been thrown up. At one time there had been two CB Battalions in the area, and it is possible that the ASP was one of their first projects.
The Guard was provided by one of the three rifle companies of 1/5 on a rotating basis, and in turn the companies rotated the duty between the platoons. Guard duty was extremely unpopular, and the Marines hated to be so assigned, simply because it was so boring. There was a sound power line rigged tying all the towers together. When I first joined 1/5 there were stories about one sentry calling another on the sound power and warning, "Get down. I'm going to fire on you." The Guard would drop to his face in the tower and the Marine in the next tower would fire a round which was supposed to pass just under the guardhouse roof. It was considered bad form indeed to hit either the roof or the guard tower. In spite of these diversions, there had been no one injured until an accidental discharge in the Guardhouse had killed one Marine. There were no floodlights and no spotlights, and as a matter of fact no generator. Nights were black, and from November to March, cold. How cold? Temperatures of -35 degrees Fahrenheit were not uncommon in the area. And then in the spring the dust storms began. Without something to cover your mouth you'd breathe in half the Gobi Desert when winds of 40 knots or so blew from the west and northwest. Sometimes at noon during the dust storms the light conditions were about the same that they would have been at late dusk on a normal day. The dust was of the extremely fine variety and got in your ears, nostrils, and every other aperture.
There were two land lines that ran from the Guardhouse to Battalion Headquarters in Tangku, and there was also an SCR 300 which was supposed to be in place in the Guardhouse at all times and activated on the Battalion Tac Net should the land lines go out. It is assumed that there were periodic radio checks by the Battalion Communications Section to make sure that the radio had a working battery. Water was provided in 5 gallon jerry cans. A tour of guard duty was 24 hours, and the new guard would come out in a 6x from Tangku shortly before 0800, the relief made, and the old guard going off would ride back to Tangku in the 6x that had brought their relief out. Initially, the day's guard had consisted of one rifle platoon, one officer and forty-five men. As time went and high point men went home for discharge, the number of men in a platoon dwindled, and early in the morning of 6 April there were only some 35 Marines on station, plus one officer, 2dLt Medlock. The point of all this is that the ASP was established to keep out occasional thieves, not a determined thrust by a major land army which by that time the 8th Route Army was.
There was a plan to bring a Relief Force quickly out to the ASP in case the guard got in trouble. If I remember correctly, "Baker" Company was the designated force. They were to immediately load two platoons aboard jeeps and 6xs, with the company headquarters, and following an M7 Half Track mounting a 105 Howitzer, proceed to the ASP. Again, remember the terrain. You couldn't run wheeled vehicles across the salt pan for a number of reasons. There was only road that connected to the ASP. Any force moving from Tangku would have to follow it. These plans were not just on paper. They were rehearsed at regular intervals to see just how quickly the force in Tangku could respond to problems at the ASP. Really didn't make that much difference, I suppose, but it wouldn't take much in the way of military intelligence to figure out exactly what we were doing.
We had not yet been formally introduced to the 8th Route Army, but had seen their handiwork the previous summer in about July, 1946. Evidently there had been a very big battle north and west of us, and for several days thereafter Kuomingtang (Chiang's boys) had drifted back through us. A very large number of these troops had been loaded, wounded, on ox draw carts, and the carts dripped blood as they moved through the International city of Tientsin. That was the first time I had ever seen a defeated army, and it was a sobering experience indeed. So it was evident that the 8th Route Army would soon be the top dogs in North China, if they weren't already. It was inevitable that we would not end up dancing with them if we stayed in country long enough.
The Ballou had a problem. Beyond the shadow of a doubt the time to have hit the dump would have been at 0300. Sentries at that time of night tend to be the sleepiest. God did not intend for the human animal to be awake and alert at such an ungodly hour. But 0300 would have been too late to brush away the guard, run their ox carts in, load them, blow up any ammo they couldn't steal, and get well out of the camp before daybreak. If they didn't get well free of the ASP by dawn they knew that 1/5 would jump them. Now, this is interesting, I believe. It was obvious that we had the capability of putting attack aircraft over them at daylight, and I've already described the terrain. There was no place to hide on those bleak roads that ran between the stark salt pans. Their intelligence, therefore, must have all but discounted the possibility of air attack. They knew our State Department very well indeed. They were willing to bet a large number of lives that an air attack would not be permitted. And, as we'll see, they were dead right.
Evidently the Ballou knew what they were about. They should have. They'd been fighting for over twenty years and knew exactly how to go about things. Evidence on the ground would indicate that they had moved a sizable infantry force into position, maybe as many as 300 men. At the same time another force was in place along the route the Relief Force would use.
According to Marines who were at the ASP that morning, the first burst of fire was withering indeed. Five men on the off watch jumped in a jeep and charged into the Ballou coming through the wire. All were KIA in or around the jeep. The clearly visible condition of the jeep indicates the reception they received. Several of the guards were wounded, and one killed. The Assault force moved in immediately and cut the wire. They were followed by several working parties of some thirty unarmed Chinese who jogged into the perimeter. The oxen and carts were right on their heels. One of these working parties closed on the guardtower manned by PFC Jacob P. Jereb. Jake had already been wounded, but he cracked down on this party with his M-1 and was credited with killing and wounding a number of them. He then laid doggo until the Ballou had left the Dump.
I know not how 1/5 was alerted. It seems obvious that any group as well prepared as the Ballou were would have located and cut the land lines. Whether the radio net was activated, I don't know. Maybe the sound of the initial intense volume of fire alerted Tangku I simply don't know.
In the meantime "Baker" Company was saddling up in the Tangku compound. They moved out, led by the M7 with 105 Howitzer, quickly and in good order and began to execute the Relief Plan. When they were still a mile or so from the Dump three command detonated mines took out the M7, and machine guns opened up on the Marines in the vehicles. They bailed out, and returned fire, and a savage fire fight erupted that would last until the Ballou were ready to pull out of the Dump.
In the meantime the Ballou began to frantically load ammunition of all kinds onto the carts. There didn't seem to be any one type they particularly wanted and the wagons seemed to be loaded indiscriminately. As soon as one wagon loaded another pulled in its place. With dawn coming shortly after 0600, the Ballou began to withdraw at about 0500, and by 0530 all enemy forces had withdrawn. Prior to leaving the Chinese had built fires at the base of several ammunition piles, and some of these had exploded wreaking havoc with the sheds and warehouses. These explosions lighted the skies for miles around. In the meantime the Chinese were hauling tail to the Northwest.
Come the dawn many of the withdrawing Chinese could still be seen, the closest being within two miles. The ox carts were proceeding slowly, in column, down those narrow, elevated roads. Baker Company had finally been able to close with the ASP once the road block pulled out. The word came down that permission for physical pursuit was not to be given.
Also with the dawn came Corsair aircraft. Those beautiful gull wing angels had saved many Marine lives in the Pacific War, and there they were, loaded with ammunition, right over the birds who had caused 1/5 significant pain the night before. And, as with ground pursuit, clearance to fire could not be obtained from the State Department. I was told that some of the pilots were weeping, they wanted those targets that badly. Heard later that some of the Corsairs buzzed the withdrawing columns, driving men and animals off the road and into the salt pans. But that was the extent of the Marine payback. Totally unsatisfactory.
And that was the end of the Hsin Ho Incident.
Well, not quite. I lied to you. In Washington on April 8th the United States Information Service issued a press release. The Acting Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, had announced that the U. S. did not plan to take any diplomatic steps in regard to the attack on U. S. Marines in China last week. Mr. Acheson said "....it was hardly to be expected that the Chinese government was responsible for the attacks and that the Marines were taking their own steps."
Holy moley Dean baby, we knew that the forces of Chiang Kai Shek didn't run that raid on the ASP. For one thing it was too well organized, and old Chiang couldn't organize a Chinese Fire Drill with 40 pages of instructions. And "....the Marines were taking their own steps..."? Well we would have had the handcuffs been taken off. And who did old Dean figure those nighttime visitors were? It sure wasn't Amyl. And you see, from this and many other incidents the lie was maintained.
Why, the Ballou, or maybe more properly, the Communists of Mao Tse Tsung weren't really our enemy. In Korea 31 months later we'd hear the same argument. Those Chinamen we were dancing with at the Reservoir weren't really sent by Peking. They were "volunteers." But this time, permission or no, the "Marines did take their own steps."
Sequel #1: Some three months later the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marines stood tall while the Silver Star was awarded to PFC Jacob P. Jereb. We were all damned proud of old Jake. And when it came time to name the amphitheater that all the Brigade watched the nightly Hollywood flick in, it was named "Perkey Bowl" after one of 1/5's Marines who was KIA the morning of 6 April.
Now I know that you're going to ask: If Jake Jereb got the Silver Star, and he did, why wasn't he and the other 20 or so men of 1/5 who were wounded that night awarded Purple Hearts at the same time? Well, I can see that you haven't been paying attention.
You see, a personal decoration can be awarded in a situation where the individual has demonstrated great bravery. But the Purple Heart can be awarded only if the wound was inflicted by an Enemy of the United States. And we had no enemy in China. So there. Dean Acheson said so. On the other hand, who was doing all that shooting? Ours not to reason why....
In the spring of 1954, seven years after Hsin Ho, I was a Captain on duty as an Inspector-Instructor when a routine AlNav came across my desk. Now mind you, this was nine months or so after the very unsatisfactory conclusion of the Korean War. The AlNav announced that personnel who had been wounded in action, or the next of kin of personnel killed in action in North China could apply for the Purple Heart. As Pogo used to say, "We has met the enemy, and he is us."
I must say something about the pictures accompanying this essay. As many of you know, we have no Marines who are forbidden to carry a weapon under the Geneva Convention. On the other hand Marines, as do everyone else, certainly need certain services. One of these services refers to great aid that a Chaplain can be to a command. And then, of course, the Medical Doctors and Corpsmen, who are universally loved by Marines because of what they do for us on the battlefield, as does the Chaplain. So many, many years ago some slick talker convinced the Navy that they should provide these absolute necessary services to the Corps.
In 1/5 at the time of Hsin Ho we had two Navy Officers attached. Both were Lieutenants (jg). One was a Catholic Chaplain, the other a Medical Doctor. Both evidently felt that they had joined the wrong outfit. Navy personnel attached to Marines are authorized to wear the Marine uniform, but with Navy insignia. But our two Navy Officers were a little different. The first time I met them I thought they were both First Lieutenants. And it was more than just the fact that they wore a Marine Corps Emblem rather than the Navy insignia. It was more a manner of bearing and attitude that made me think they were Marines. I never once heard anyone complain about these two officers wearing the Marine Corps Emblem. I haven't mentioned the Corpsmen here, many of whom lived in Staff NCO quarters and were good friends of mine. But Marines don't have to talk about Corpsmen because they are uniformly outstanding.
In regards the pictures--they were taken by the Catholic Chaplain, Father Martineau, referred to above. He had gotten out to the ASP shortly after the Relief Column arrived. The withdrawing Ballou were still visible in the distance, and the Corsairs were still buzzing around, as may be seen in one of his pictures. Anyway, someone figured it might not be smart to try to have the photos developed locally for fear some US spook would snatch them up. So the good Father sent them off to Hawaii for development, and he must have ordered a bunch of sets. And that's how I ended up with a set of them which I have husbanded now for some 52 years. My memory is that they cost $1.78 a set. So if you're out there Father, and don't want these pictures used here, say but the word and they're gone like last night's leftovers.
As a matter of fact I'd like nothing better than to hear from the good Father, or anyone else who was with 1/5 that morning so long ago. I know of only one officer who is still alive who was there that night, but I'm sure there are others. I have made some calculated guesses in these pages, and would be more than happy to set the record straight.