The Army and the Amethyst
By Lt. Col. R. V. Dewar-Durie, RN
This is a story of an army officer who helped in the saga of HMS Amethyst in April 1949, and which has been called the Yangtze Incident. At around midnight ten years ago today, I saw HMS Amethyst for the first and last time. I was in a sampan with Commander Kerans, bobbing about on the Yangtze River. When I arrived in Nanking in early April 1949, where I held the appointment of Assistant Military Attaché to our Embassy, then accredited to the Nationalist government, the atmosphere was pretty intense. The Communist armies were massing along hundreds of miles of the Yangtze river, only a mile away, and the Nationalist bridgeheads on the far bank were being driven in one by one, leaving nothing but the river between us and the advancing Red hordes. The foreign community in Nanking had some cause for apprehension, remembering how, 20 years ago during a civil way, the capture of Nanking had been followed by wild scenes in which at least one Briton was killed on the very lawns of the Embassy. Consequently, the British had decided to keep a naval vessel at hand.
One evening I was called to the phone. "DD" I heard the naval Attaché, Captain Donaldson say. The Amethyst has been shelled at a place called Chinkiang, some 40 miles downstream. A number of the crew have been killed and many wounded. You know the language so come round tomorrow, prepared to accompany my assistant, John Kerans, to the scene, to see what can be done for the casualties. The next morning I reported in battle dress to the Embassy. Kerans and I were given a short briefing and then we collected maps, medicines and a lot of paper money, which I pushed into a haversack. We left in a jeep which, with the Chinese driver, had been loaned by the Australian Embassy, but without warning and within a couple of hundred yards, it died on us. The driver, not for the first time that day, leapt out, tinkered and swore alternately, and eventually we bounded forward again.
The route outside the city had, in spite of being a truck road, a rotten surface, but we made fair progress until shortly after mid-day when, grimy with dust, we reached Chinkiang and stopped. As we did so, a small dapper figure dressed in American style naval khaki uniform came out of a gray stone building near the river, hand outstretched. His English was as impeccable as his uniform, and his name was Captain Mark Meh, the Nationalist Naval Chief of Staff of their sector of the river.
Having been away from China for seven years, I was frankly relieved to find a fluent speaker with whom to negotiate. Meh invited us into a large, barely furnished room and Kerans at once got down to business, but the Chief of Staff's reaction were discouraging. He said that not only was there none of our wounded in town, but that it would be quite impossible for us to get to the ship. "Why?" we asked in unison. Meh signaled to a young Chinese Lieutenant, who explained that he was the Commander of a patrol boat, and that he had only just returned from an exploratory trip to the Amethyst. He said that he had got near her, he had been forced back by fire from the Communist held North Bank. Meh made it quite clear that no boat could now be risked to take us, however much Kerans protested. However, if the river was barred, it seemed possible to reach the ship overland, and approval to try this came by phone from Nanking. We were also told that a United States doctor was on his way to join us.
I asked Meh if we could get some more transport, as obviously, more than a jeep would be needed to carry the wounded. Meh said that he had none but that he would try the Military Headquarters. He then went onto the phone, and after lots of noise such as "awi awi ni na li ah" HELLO, HOW ARE YOU? The old Chinese game of you tell first who you are then I'll tell you who I am. Eventually Meh got down to something like "I am Naval Chief of Staffing Meh calling 4th Army Headquarters, and respectfully request Army General Wang to discuss a matter".
We hung about impatiently until at last two lorries arrived and then a large car, out of this stepped the American doctor Packard, dressed in a wind cheater and wearing a forage cap, whose badges showed him to be a Lt. Commander in the U.S. Navy. Then began a round of hand shaking and introductions, which included his driver, a Master Sergeant Pharmacist whose name I forgot but whose swarthy skin indicated his Italian origin. Kerans rapidly described the situation to Packard, the lorries were revved up and we set off.
The further we drove, the worse the roads became. After half and hour of bumping and swaying over a surface of loose earth and rough granite blocks, we stopped in the center of a cluster of single-storied houses in a place called Ta-Kang. Here we met the Regimental Commander of the area. While the experts discussed our next move, I wandered around watching the soldiers in their khaki uniforms and ski-cap type hats who mingled with the village people, the latter dressed in the universal blue or black cotton outfits. The civilians, for once, possibly restrained but the presence of the soldiers, did not, as was usual in China, all offer advise at once, but stood silent and staring.
The Council of War over, we drove another couple of miles until the road finally petered out a spot called Little Ta-Kang. Here, by arrangement, six Chinese soldiers were waiting for us. They had already commandeered both a wheelbarrow and two men, one to push and one to pull it. From now on we would have to walk and I remember saying to Kerans "Well, this is where the allied navies have to march" to which he replied "Alright Pongo, you show us how. So late in the afternoon, we moved off again, accompanied by our escort and the wheelbarrow. This being of the Chinese type, had a large center wheel some four feet high, and the medicines had to be packed on either side.
We plodded along in single file, on either side stretched rice paddy fields, while a few miles ahead rose a ridge called Ta Hung Shan, or Big Red Hill. Beyond this we were told we should reach the Hsiao Ho, or Little Creek, where the Amethyst lay. The path twisted and turned, sometimes over small water courses, crossed by a single long stone slab and later, as the route rounded the southern slopes of the ridge, it rose and fell abruptly, and my view was often restricted by banks of foliage. As evening drew on our shadows lengthened before us and it got much colder. Conversation in single file is always difficult and soon there were no sounds but the shuffle of our feet, the creaking of the wheelbarrow, and the grunts and heavy breathing of the two coolies.
Soon it quite dark and it was while looking down to see where next to put my feet that I cannoned into the man in front and we all concertinaed."What's up" was the query which went down the line. We were apparently on the outskirts of a village, but our escorts were now in doubt as to where to go. The reported nearness of the creek and the ferry were the deciding factors and we took the right hand fork, passing between several single storied houses. A poor place, I thought, judging from the smells and seeing the chinks of light coming through the latticed windows covered with paper. We continued for about half an hour until I saw dimly the shapes of more small houses and more distinctly the outline of a low tower, beside which the path ended.
One of our escorts called through the door of the hut next to the tower - for a long while no one answered - one can hardly blame the inmate at that time of night, with two rival armies almost in the back garden. But after some butt-beating on the door and persuasive talk by Meh, the occupant eventually emerged, followed by his wife carrying a lantern. This was the man in charge of the ferry and when he learned that we wished to cross the creek to Amethyst he refused point blank and said that the troops at the far side had been changed that day and he didn't know the new password, besides, he wasn't going to risk being shot to pieces and that was that. He added that he knew nothing of any wounded nor had he heard or seen anything of any war vessel. We all crowded into his tiny hut and held council again. We were all very disappointed, especially Kerans, but as the best approach to the Amethyst might still be by this route, we decided to split forces. Meh and I with a runner would return to where the road had forked.
On arriving there, we cast around and found an army post with a telephone. Meh called back to the Regimental Headquarters and learned that the wounded, with 40 soldiers, were walking towards Chinkang. I dispatched the runner to catch up with Kerans with the news. By the time I caught up with Kerans, his party, in single file were slowing down and suddenly came to a halt. Pushing my way to the front, I found Kerans talking to a British seaman and around him, beside a track lay badly wounded men. Packard and his assistant soon took charge and started to treat the wounded men.
The seaman was A. B. Calcott who had three valuable items of news. Firstly that an R. A. F. Flying Boat had touched down and put off a doctor and some supplies, but had to take off quickly because it came under fire. Secondly, that the frigate was now anchored quite close to the bank near where we stood and lastly that a dozen or so more wounded had just been escorted away, a total of 19 all told. Splitting forces, it was decided that Kerans, Calcott, Lieut. Wei and I would board the Amethyst while the other two followed the rest of the wounded to a village called Ta Kang, where we had to leave our vehicles the previous afternoon. While Wei went off to find a boatman, I opened some tins of food which Packard had given us and found we had only cheese and plum pudding, and what could be more sustaining?
As soon as Wei returned we all went down to the river's edge and climbed into a sampan. A few sweeps of a single oar puts us clear of the reeds and into a seemingly vast expanse of water. By then, there was a misty moon and visibility was fair. Anxiously, we peered ahead then " There she is" in front of us, we could just see the long silhouette of the Amethyst. However, just as we looked, our hearts sank. The Frigate was moving slowly, silently she was gliding away from us. Kerans began to fumble for his torch and tried signaling, but to no avail. I exhorted the boatman to row faster, quai, fuai, faici, faiti - Kerans still signaling the fast disappearing ship. It was no use, the Amethyst just faded out of sight and sadly we turned back. I looked at my watch, it was 1:15 A. M. As the sampan made its return trip I couldn't help thinking that we were in rather an unenviable position, floating around between two rival armies. What if the Nationalist sentries mistook us for the first wave of the communist assault? Every minute I expected some nervous soldier to let fly, but nothing happened, not even a challenge. All I heard was the rippling of the water over the creaking of the oar.
On landing, Lieut. Wei insisted that we go to his headquarters. Kerans being more disappointed at our failure to reach Amethyst just when we had been so near, was only anxious to set out at once for Ta Kang, but it would have been discourteous to refuse, so we followed the Lieutenant into a walled farmhouse. After some very welcome cups of tea, we started back with a soldier as a guide.
We arrived at Ta Kang just before dawn. Here, in the dim light was a sorry sight. Around the lorries lay wounded waiting for their turn for treatment, or to be bedded down in the truck. Packard was busy moving among them, injecting, bandaging, or giving blood transfusions (plasma). We soon realized that the two army lorries which had been put at our disposal the previous day would not be enough and so a call was put through to the 4th Army Headquarters, who readily agreed to send more. In fact, it was quite amazing how much help was given, especially if one remembers that everything was done under the shadow of an impending attack by an implacable enemy.
It was after five o'clock before I left in a jeep for Chin Chiang to prepare for the reception and evacuation of the wounded. First we went to the American Mission Hospital where Miss Dunlop, the Principal, agreed to have some food prepared and staff on duty. We then went to the railway station to try and arrange for a special coach to be made available on the next train. At first, the railway authorities were reluctant to do anything, but Kerans remembered a document he had been given in Nanking , signed by the National Naval C-in-C. This did the trick and we got an extra coach hitched on.
During the morning the wounded were brought to the station, which was already seething with refugees, but it was long after mid-day before the train arrived. The wounded were packed in and the bodies of the two who had not survived the journey, the Captain and A. B. Winters [sic], were set apart. The train was bound for Shanghai and as it moved off, Packard was in the middle of a transfusion, so found he had to go too. I last saw him festooned with tubes and bandages.
Reporting by phone to Nanking , Kerans was now ordered to take command of Amethyst and to send the badly wounded First Lieutenant, Geof Weston, ashore, because the Amethyst was now reported to be anchored nearer this time. Kerans was taken out to her in a landing craft and this would be about 2 o'clock. I saw him off and it was a lovely summer day and as I sat on a jetty watching the little boat chugging away round the promontory, and I looked down on the teeming life on the cluster of junks below me, war seemed very far away.
My instructions were to stay in Chin Chiang in case it was decided to scuttle the Amethyst and later that evening I put the heavily drugged Weston on the last train to Nanking . As I drove away from the station I began to wonder how much longer we had before the Reds arrived. Except for soldiers, the streets were silent and empty. Visiting Naval Headquarters later that night, I was continually stopped by patrols with a gruff Chan Chu- HALT. On my last visit at around midnight, I found everyone about to leave, so concluded that H hour was pretty near.
Early the next morning, when I telephoned Nanking, I was told to return at once, for Amethyst was to be kept afloat. Now, on my last visit to the Headquarters, I had arranged to meet Capt. Meh near his lodging by the railway station at eight o'clock. When I arrived there, there was no sign of him, even the green clad soldiers had vanished. As I waited, two American Missionaries drove up, oblivious of the trouble ahead, and asked the way to the Mission. I directed them, with a warning that they might not get out so easily. Apparently, they did not get away for over six months.
There was still no sign of Meh when a Chinese approached the jeep. Captain Meh had been arrested he
When we reached the Nanking Shanghai highway I could see that the National retreat had started in earnest, lorries and yet more lorries, horse drawn carts, and old Japanese tanks all rumbled past, while endless groups of soldiers plodded by in their soft soled shoes. The Congestion was terrific and the dust appalling. At times it was impossible to move at all against the tide of vehicles and men. I wondered whether we might not pass through all this and meet the advanced guards of the communists, but fortunately, we never did. As we drove through the big arched gates of the British Embassy, I could not help felling satisfied that the army had contributed something to the ultimate success of a predominantly Naval occasion.
© 1959 Lt. Col. R. V. Dewar-Durie, RN all rights reserved
Page published Oct. 27, 2007