HMS Amethyst's Angel of Mercy
By Jan K. Herman

It was as quiet a day as could be expected on the Yangtze River in the middle of a civil war. HMS Amethyst had just departed Shanghai the previous day and was heading upriver toward Nanking to relieve HMS Consort, a symbol of British presence and protection for British citizens and diplomats in the Chinese capital. Despite warnings that opposing forces occupied the river's north and south banks, the 299-foot-long British frigate steamed on, a white ensign and Union flag flying from her jack staff, no doubt providing immunity to a declared neutral.

Such was the expectation as British gunboats had plied Chinese waters with near impunity since Britain had forcibly opened China to trade and exploitation in the mid-1800s. But the global situation was different now. It was post-World War II China, and the brutal conflict between Nationalists and Communists was now reaching its denouement. Mao Tse Tung's armies had conquered almost all north China and were now poised to cross the Yangtze and finish what they had started more than a decade before invading Japanese troops forced an intermission.

It was approximately 8:30 a.m. on 20 April 1949. LCDR Bernard Skinner, the skipper of Amethyst, had alerted his crew that they were about to pass a reported Communist artillery battery on the river's north bank. Suddenly the ship took small arms fire but an increase in speed soon took the vessel out of danger. Then, just 9 miles farther upriver, in the vicinity of Rose Island, 37mm armor-piercing shells from another Communist emplacement punched their way through the warship's steel hull, inflicting both damage and casualties. One shell destroyed her wheelhouse, jammed the starboard engine telegraph, and mortally wounded a sailor. With the ship's helmsman also injured, the stricken vessel ran hard aground on a mud bank about 150 yards off Rose Island, 40 miles downstream from Nanking.

The situation had suddenly turned harrowing. Even before the guns on Amethyst could reply, more shells hit the bridge killing and wounding nearly all personnel stationed there, including the ship's commanding officer. Aground and unable to defend herself, the ship offered a stationary target for Communist gunners for the next hour and a half.

Chaos reigned below decks as incoming artillery wrecked the power room, disabled the gyrocompass, radio, and knocked out essential electrical circuits. A direct hit then killed the gun crew on the fo'c'sle. As Surgeon-Lieutenant J. M. Alderton and the sick-berth attendant worked feverishly to treat the growing number of wounded, another shell exploded nearby killing both of them instantly. By the time the shelling slackened at 11:30 a.m., 21 officers and men were dead and another 28 lay wounded. Among the mortally injured were the commanding officer, LCDR Skinner, and the Chinese pilot responsible for guiding the ship up the Yangtze.

Although wounded himself, the gunnery officer, LT Geoffrey Weston, now in command, ordered the wounded to be moved to the safest part of the frigate. He also authorized crew members to abandon ship and head for shore--if they could swim. An attempt to evacuate the most seriously injured aboard a small boat met with disaster when enemy fire killed two men. Despite the damage already inflicted, Amethyst's radioman managed to send a signal to all ships in the vicinity, "Under heavy fire, am aground. . . . Large number of casualties." With the frigate's plight now known, HMS Consort steamed down from Nanking to assist, but she, too, came under fire from shore batteries before destroying several of them with her 4.5-inch guns.

The plan was to take Amethyst in tow but Communist fire began taking a toll on the rescuer as well, and Consort was forced to proceed downriver after taking 39 casualties of her own--9 dead and 30 wounded.

For the next 15 hours, the ship's depleted crew worked to back the frigate off the mud bank. After lightening the vessel by throwing equipment overboard, they were finally successful. The ship then quietly ghosted upriver and anchored off T'ai P'ing Island to await assistance from HMS Black Swan and HMS London . When those two vessels arrived, they came under heavy fire, took casualties, and were forced to retire. London had 12 killed and 20 wounded. Seven were wounded aboard Black Swan. Late in the afternoon of 21 April, a Sunderland flying boat carrying an Royal Air Force physician and medical supplies landed in the river, but it, too, drew Communist fire and had to retreat.

With the aid of Nationalist Chinese forces, the most seriously wounded were finally evacuated to shore, where Chinese medical personnel treated them. Nevertheless, many of the British sailors, now hours into their ordeal, some in shock and others having lost significant amounts of blood, required additional care. And time was running out.

* * *

U.S. Navy physician LCDR James Packard Jr., had not planned to get involved in the Chinese civil war. The World War II veteran was assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Nanking as Assistant Naval Attaché. As part of his duties he provided medical care not only for American personnel involved in embassy business but also for dependents and occasionally personnel of other nearby diplomatic missions and embassies. "It was a small community and everybody was close together. I took care of so many of them, especially the English."

Although not on the embassy grounds, Dr. Packard's clinic consisted of only a few rooms, and it was not equipped to handle anything requiring surgery. "In those days I took care of anyone who walked in," Packard recalls. "I didn't do surgery of any kind and told patients I was not going to deliver any babies. In fact, I delivered only two babies while I was in China."

Nevertheless, the Navy physician practiced medicine intensively, at least as far as volume was concerned. "I was busy from the first thing in the morning until about 5 o'clock at night."Dr. Packard's routine was about to get even busier. Rumor had it that a close ally was under attack by the Communists, resulting in many dead and wounded.

On Thursday morning, 21 April, Dr. Packard and his hospital corpsman, HMC C.A. di Giacinto, left Nanking in an embassy jeep for Chinkiang, a town near Rose Island. They carried a precious cargo of sorely needed medical provisions. "We took a lot of supplies--IV fluids, and of course, bandages, and antibiotics." Slowed down by terrible roads, they didn't reach their objective until 3:30 p.m. In the meantime the Nationalists had procured two trucks to evacuate the wounded to the coast once they had been removed from Amethyst.

Another vehicle bearing two British officers joined what was now a four-vehicle convoy, which left Chinkiang and continued on increasingly deplorable roads to where the ship awaited them near T'ai P'ing Island. About 23 miles east of Chinkiang, the relief party reached a small farming village where the road played out and the motor vehicles were abandoned. With the medical supplies transferred to two large wheelbarrows, the relief party, now augmented by several Chinese laborers, pushed on through rice paddies and across fields. About the same time the Americans arrived in Chinkiang, a Chinese army doctor and several orderlies were providing the first medical assistance to the casualties since the initial attack the day before.

When they finally arrived at Rose Island, Dr. Packard and Chief di Giacinto found wounded British sailors "scattered all over and shot to hell," with burns and the kinds of injuries inflicted by shell splinters and secondary missiles resulting from exploding ordnance. The two men treated symptoms of shock, gave morphine, stanched the bleeding with bandages, and administered blood plasma and other IV fluids and antibiotics. It was immediately apparent to the Navy doctor that these men needed to be evacuated to more advanced medical care as soon as possible. That meant moving them to the closest railroad line connecting Chinkiang with Shanghai.

Several trucks had been commandeered and their floorboards lined with hay to accommodate the most seriously wounded, but due to the terrible roads, this effort offered only minimal relief for patients who stoically bore their agony. Chinese volunteers carried the remaining injured in litters. The walking wounded shuffled along under their own power. As Dr. Packard recalls, "We dropped two or three off at a missionary station on our march to the railroad station because they just couldn't stand any more of the marching and live."

When the party finally reached the railroad station about 8:00 a.m. on 22 April after a 3-hour ordeal, large milling crowds only hampered the proceedings. Chinese volunteers and uninjured Amethyst sailors carefully transferred the wounded from the trucks and brought them to the end of the railway station platform where Dr. Packard and nurses provided food and additional medical care. (Chief di Giacinto had departed earlier for Nanking.) With those tasks accomplished, the stretchers were then loaded aboard the eastbound train for Shanghai. Dr. Packard accompanied them on the journey and continued to administer IV fluids and other medical treatment until the wounded reached their destination.

More evidence of the enduring Anglo-American friendship awaited the Amethyst survivors. Having learned of what was now being called the "Yangtze Incident" or the "Amethyst Crisis," the U.S. government offered all U.S. Navy medical assets in Shanghai to the British authorities, including the hospital ship USS Repose (AH-16). Consequently, Repose received casualties from Amethyst, London and Black Swan. On 29 April 1949, the hospital ship steamed to Hong Kong with 77 British casualties and 118 American evacuees from Shanghai.

With his services no longer required, LCDR Packard flew back to Nanking to resume his duties at the U.S. Embassy.

* * *

Negotiations between the British government and the Communists to free Amethyst from her Yangtze captivity dragged on for 3 months without success. Finally, on the night of 30 July 1949, the badly damaged frigate's skeleton crew slipped her anchor cable and made a 160-mile run for the mouth of the Yangtze, dodging enemy fire from both riverbanks. Her success in rejoining the fleet south of Woosong became known after the triumphant frigate flashed the following message: "Have rejoined the fleet . . . . No damage or casualties. God Save the King."

Following LCDR James Packard's return to the U.S. Embassy in Nanking, pressure on the Nationalist capital from the People's Liberation Army grew more intense. In July 1949, the city fell to Mao's forces. As life became more restricted under Communist rule, American personnel were evacuated, the U.S. Embassy closed, and relations between the two nations were suspended. It was not until 1979 that diplomatic relations were finally established between the United States and the People's Republic of China.

Following his China tour, James Packard had several other assignments before resigning from the Navy following 8 years of service. He subsequently went into private practice, worked on the Rosebud Indian reservation in South Dakota, and retired, having served as a physician for more than 50 years.

* * *

Shortly after the Amethyst incident, positive British reaction to Dr. Packard's deeds were directed to the Secretary of State and the doctor's superiors at the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. A letter from British Ambassador to China Sir Ralph Stevenson to Secretary of State Dean Acheson is indicative. "It gives me particular pleasure to express our indebtedness to two members of your Embassy establishment, Lt. Commander J.W. Packard and Hospitalman Chief C.A. di Giacinto whose professional skill was invaluable at this critical moment. Their selfless devotion to the care of the wounded at great personal inconvenience and at considerable risk were worthy of the highest traditions of the service to which they belong. . . ."

These letters notwithstanding, many in the British diplomatic community and in the Royal Navy felt Dr. Packard deserved far more recognition. Could not the British Government--King George VI himself--confer a medal? Indeed, during World War II, decorations for valor flowed freely among the two close allies after Congress passed special legislation allowing for American citizens, under certain conditions, to accept foreign awards.

Unfortunately, since 1945, this legislation had been allowed to lapse. Dr. Packard's admirers discovered that in peacetime an American citizen could only accept a foreign decoration after enactment of special legislation. Ambassador Stevenson pointed out the dilemma. When he inquired as to how an award could be granted, U.S. officials informed him "that the provisions of the United States Constitution prevent persons in the employment of the State from receiving foreign decorations without the assent of Congress. The special act of Congress enabling members of the United States forces to accept decorations from the Allies for war services expired some time ago. I therefore had to content myself with writing Packard a warm letter of appreciation which was published in the United States. . . . I feel there is nothing more to be done in the matter " **

Capt. Kenney in the Office of the High Commissioner for Canada, responded tongue-in-cheek: "It looks as if the only solution is another war and as much as I like Dr. Pack [sic] and would like to see him get well deserved recognition through some decoration, I hardly want to see him get it if it means a world war to bring it to him." *** As World War III never transpired, the impasse was never resolved.

Fifty-eight years after Chinese Communist gunners plunged their frigate into the limelight, several Amethyst veterans, now in their 80s and 90s, made special efforts to find their American benefactor and convey their own belated thanks. This past March, those efforts were rewarded when they located Dr. Packard, now 93, living in Gainesville, FL. Letters, emails, and trans-Atlantic calls have now reunited the sailors and the man who patched their wounds and saved their lives more than a half century ago. Even though the Yangtze Incident has become a mere footnote in history, the ensuing years have in no way diminished the affection these old sailors have for their American angel of mercy. If they could have their way, Queen Elizabeth would correct a historic oversight by decorating the aging U.S. Navy physician in Buckingham Palace.

© Jan K. Herman all rights reserved


Page published Oct. 5, 2007