Christmas in 1945 distant from today

by Don Curto

In the beginning, there was the winter of 1945.

The War was ended. Peace looked like a possibility, if not a probability. This is a sketch, a short story about my trip from Guam, just a few degrees above the equator, to North China, a long way from the equator, home to cold, vicious winds and low temperatures. At some seasons, the area was rife with yellow dust storms. And as a bonus, there were the armed, decidedly unfriendly Chinese communists keeping an eye on us.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
–British author L. P. Huntly

At the war’s end in August, I had been offered an exit from the (U.S. Marine) Corps. I was a new second lieutenant, the reward for amassing a good education and some excellent training.

A Marine Santa gives gifts to Chinese kids in Tientsin, 1945. Marines still play this role, around the world wherever there are Marines…and kids.

A Marine Santa gives gifts to Chinese kids in Tientsin, 1945. Marines still play this role, around the world wherever there are Marines…and kids.

However, I elected to stay in the Corps “for the duration” I had signed for. I was in no hurry to get out, and with the war’s end, I was assured of further education with the G.I. bill. Many of my friends thought it an unwise decision. I thought it good then, and it remains so.

In this story, we’re getting ready to leave Guam, board an AKA and sail for China. We will cross the Yellow Sea, turbulence enhanced by its shallowness (with a maximum depth of about 500 feet) and very strong winds, often gale force. To compare the water depth of the Yellow Sea and our fresh water Lake Superior is a most unexpected statistic. Just offshore from Munising, the deepest spot in the lake is more than 1,200 feet.

I have been assigned to the 12th Marines, an artillery support regiment, and have the least knowledge of this part of the Marine Corps. It’s a damn good thing the war ended and that there are NCOs with real skills.

Tonight’s magic bar closing time is 2300 hours. The battery commander, an already somewhat drunk major, beloved by his Marines for his disciplinary leniency, borrows the bartender’s .45, fires twice and each light bulb is extinguished. The bar is closed.

At 0600 the next day, our group of twelve second lieutenants boards the AKA. This ship is a special attack cargo vessel with limited troop transport capacity. We find our bunks, stay out of the way for the day, gossip and play some cards.

The Navy, with access to refrigeration, does indeed eat well. As there are so few troop officers, we have our own small wardroom, set for dining.

The first dinner menu includes roast beef. There are twelve very astounded Marines when we are asked how we want our beef prepared; well done, medium or rare? The most frequent answer was “on my plate.”

The waitstaff was highly professional. It was astonishing to be eating this way, with a war just ended in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

From Guam, we headed north and west, and not long after leaving port, the word was passed that the Japanese navy had cut loose several floating mines. These were big enough to destroy a ship like ours.

The ship’s command set up observation teams to watch day and night from the bow as well as other points on the ship. With the end of the war, it was against international law to cut these mines loose. The Japanese were very poor observers of this.

The author’s back porch, and patio table. On the left is the snowfall as of December 6, 2013, while the right is the snowfall as of December 20, in the Keweenaw. A different winter, indeed, than the one he recalls from 1945. (Photo Credit: Brittany Broderson)

The author’s back porch, and patio table. On the left is the snowfall as of December 6, 2013, while the right is the snowfall as of December 20, in the Keweenaw. A different winter, indeed, than the one he recalls from 1945. (Photo Credit: Brittany Broderson)

I want to say the watches were for two hours by each of us, but I think they were only for one hour per watch, which was rigorous enough when one considers the unpleasantness of the time and the weather.

After the first warning, a floating mine was discovered. Rules required the ship heave to and destroy the mine. I did not discover the mine, but I was there to aid if needed and to help in its destruction.

The weather is good but the ship rides up and down. The swell goes one way, the ship goes another, and the waves have their own minds. The mine is far enough away to present the perfect description of a “moving” target.

A Navy gun crew fires about fifty or sixty shells from its 20-mm cannon. Close, but no bull’s-eye.

One would think that with all this skilled firepower, we could easily blow up that mine. One would think.

There was a pause in the firing of the very expensive 20-mm shells and a Marine rifleman (I think he was a corporal) came onto the rear of the deck.

He took a sitting position on a “high” spot on the deck. High spot means one that gets up pretty high relative to the ship’s up and down and the mine position. He fired less than one clip and KA-pow-ee, up goes the mine.

Cheering all around, but a couple of grumbles from the Navy gunners. The mine explosions are big enough and close enough to send some rocking waves our way. No more mines on the rest of the trip.

The Yellow Sea is indeed yellow, and shallow. If two or three of us Marines cough or sneeze at the same time, it starts some unpleasant undulations.

As we head north looking for the Port of Taku, our goal is the city of Tientsin from where we look to find entrance to Peking, the old capital. Taku is the entrance via the river. We unload our stuff on shallow draft vessels, ride the very much used and well shot out trains to Tientsin.

We arrive at Taku on a wonderfully cold December morning, 1945. That date seems almost impossible.

Lugging field transport packs, weighing about fifty-five pounds each and carefully watching our large wood boxes with the most precious of our stuff. The impossible name for our first hotel in China is the Imperial, and the equally impossible name for the first elegant hotel in North China.

Breakfast? Steak and eggs. Rare steak, eggs over easy. Honest.

Many more stories begin here with decisions made here. But that is for the future, yet to arrive.

–Don Curto

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