Special thank yous arrive 58 years later

Story by Gary Kirkland (Staff writer Gainesville Sun)

June 30, 2007

Ask Dr. James W. Packard Jr. about his life in retirement at Oak Hammock, and the first thing he'll tell you is at 93, he's the oldest guy who goes to the exercise room.

He'll also tell you it's been mighty nice getting thank yous from a group of British sailors who 58 years ago thought he should have received a medal for his efforts in saving the lives of injured crewmen of the HMS Amethyst. And he smiles as he considers the string of coincidences it took to deliver those messages of gratitude.

Packard is a retired physician who had a long career in private practice in Illinois before "retiring" and going right back to work as a doctor on Indian reservations in North and South Dakota and Montana . He did eventually retire and come to Florida . He made the move to Oak Hammock, the retirement community affiliated with the University of Florida , three years ago. While he readily volunteers, "I don't hear and see so well," he's still active.

-Yangtze Incident-

Packard played a key role in what was known as the "Yangtze Incident" that grabbed headlines in Great Britain and around the world. On April 20, 1949, the HMS Amethyst steamed up the Yangtze River in China to provide protection for British citizens caught in the middle of the civil war between Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army and the Nationalist Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-sheck.

As the ship headed up river, it was attacked by Communist artillery and received heavy damage, the captain and ship's doctor were among the 21 men killed, and another 28 were seriously injured. A rescue effort from two other British ships also proved deadly and unsuccessful.

At the time, Packard was a U.S. Navy doctor assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Nanjing . He was already a veteran of World War II, and hoped to be among those who reached "the Golden Gate by '48" but was still on duty when an urgent message arrived informing those at the embassy that 40 miles away an old ally was in desperate need of assistance. Packard and Hospital Man Chief C.A. Di Gianinto loaded up a jeep with as many medical supplies as they could carry and drove off to help.

-Unaware how dire the situation was-

Packard says when he left, he didn't fully comprehend how dire or dangerous the situation was. While they were escorted by Nationalist troops, he says they were so green they could have offered little resistance if attacked.

The journey took them over rough roads until the roads ended. After joining a couple of British army officers, they continued on foot. It took nearly a day to reach the spot on the river where the battered ship was anchored. He immediately began treating the 19 badly injured men who'd been brought ashore.

"They battered them pretty badly," he recalls, adding, "they behaved beautifully and bravely."

Packard eventually was able to evacuate the men, getting them aboard a train to Shanghai where they were transferred to a hospital ship, the USS Repose. Packard then caught a flight back to the embassy. In a letter he wrote shortly after the incident, he described his experience this way.

"It was one of the most exciting 36 hours I ever hope to spend and there were times when I wasn't too sure they would be my last."

There was still more drama left for the HMS Amethyst and the skeleton crew trapped aboard. After being held captive for three months by threatening shore artillery, the ship slipped its anchor and made a daring dash 160 miles down river to the mouth of the Yangtze, dodging enemy fire from the riverbanks and eventually sending out a radio message that assured its place in Royal Navy history, "Have rejoined the fleet ... No damage or casualties. God save the King."

At the time, the British attempted to honor Packard with a medal, but American military members can't be honored by foreign governments without Congressional approval. But the ship's crew didn't forget.

-The search for Packard-

Turn the clock ahead 58 years and the path to thank yous would follow a twisted route over the Internet, through a Washington law office, to a U.S. Navy historian and eventually to Gainesville.

E. H. "Charlie" Chivers, who served aboard the ship during World War II, says he first learned about the contribution of a "Dr. Packard" after reading an account of the incident written by a British army officer. Now a member of the Amethyst Association, whose membership is the ship's surviving crew, he set out to track Packard down. That's when he sent a note to Cheryl Freeman.

Freeman, a legal assistant with a law firm in Washington , D.C. , had spent some time in Great Britain over the years, and says she enjoys checking on the news as it's covered in the British tabloid newspapers. She does that by reading the Web site www.Anorak.co.uk, which states its mission as "Keeping tabs on the tabloids." She frequently adds postings to the site's politically-charged online forum, Backlash.

"We've had some pretty good rip-roaring fights between the British and me in the U.S. ," she says.

She noticed that one fellow with the online name "Hooky" would often come to her defense. One day she got a note posted by Hooky addressed to her. Hooky is Charlie Chivers' online identity. He sent her a brief outline of the ship's story, the role of Dr. Packard and then made his pitch: "It's been 58 years, we want to find him. Do you think you can help us?"

Freeman says until that note, she'd never heard the story of the HMS Amethyst or the Yangtze Incident, and her challenge was further complicated because Chivers didn't have a first name. He only knew it was a U.S. Navy doctor stationed in China in 1949 with the last name Packard. The doctor's rank was thought to be Lieutenant Commander. Freeman wasn't hopeful, but said she'd see what she could do.

Freeman says she'd once been married to a Navy captain, and had once worked for a general, so she had a little background on how to navigate the military information maze. But call after call came up empty. Finally she reached a source, who also couldn't help, but advised, "If there's anybody who can help you, it's Jan Herman." Herman is an historian with the Navy's medical department in Washington .

Herman remembers the call from Freeman. A U.S. Navy historian, he too had never heard the story of the HMS Amethyst or the role played by the U.S. Navy doctor. On his desk is a large leather-bound series of books called "The Navy Register." It lists the names of every Navy officer dating back to the early 1800s. So, armed with the last name, Packard, and a best-guess estimate of an age, 80s or 90s, he put the phone down and thumbed through the book.

"If she'd said Smith or Jones that would have been the end of the phone call," he says.

-Thank yous-

But Freeman was in luck. Herman found only two officers named Packard, and one didn't seem to fit the age or rank parameters. It looked like James W. Packard Jr. was her man. After relaying that information to Freeman, he asked her to hold again. He went to his computer and searched the Web for a phone number and address.

"Bingo. The name comes up living in Gainesville ," he says.

He passes the number onto Freeman, who makes the call and the Dr. Packard in Gainesville didn't need an explanation about HMS Amethyst. He was indeed the doctor she'd been seeking.

"I still cry that I actually found him," Freeman says.

She relayed the news back to England , and then to Herman in Washington .

"You made a bunch of British sailors very, very happy today," was her message to Herman.

With letters, e-mails and phone calls, those surviving sailors and their family members have since been able to deliver their personal thanks to Packard.

"We are all most pleased to make contact with Dr. Packard after so many years and I was glad to speak to him myself on the telephone," noted Stewart Hett, 80, a retired Royal Navy commander, who was a young lieutenant aboard the Amethyst when it was attacked, and served as second in command after so many of his fellow officers were killed and wounded.

Herman further researched the story and his account will be the cover story in this month's edition of Navy Medicine magazine. As for Packard, he says simply that it's nice to be remembered after all of those years.

"War always leaves a deep impression on you," he says.

© 2007 Gary Kirkland and www.gainesvillesun.com


Page published Oct. 5, 2007