When we were young, and the world was ours

by Don Curto
The following brief stories from China in 1946 were found recently in some files from that time. I have no idea how they survived so many moves.
I was stationed in North China from late 1945 until August of 1946. During that time, I was public information officer for the First Marine Division, and, briefly, junior aide to Lieutenant General Kellar E. Rockey, Third Corps Commander.
I replaced Vince Sardi, Jr. of New York restaurant fame while he was sent off on a food mission. (You see, there is a basis of food for this column.)
Rockey commanded the Fifth Marine Division in the battle for Iwo Jima. Both were great jobs for a kid from Marquette who grew up not knowing the fork was to be placed on the left side of the dinner plate.
0803foo1I was a twenty-two-year-old second lieutenant in the Marines, the very bottom of the officer ladder in rank and field experience. But experience came quickly in those days.
The Tsao Chuang and Lin Ching villages mentioned in the stories are situated in the deep interior of Shantung Province, near a major north-south rail line. Almost all the rails were torn up when I was there. It is quite possible that the village names are spelled and pronounced differently now. Executive Headquarters (headed by General George C. Marshall) Truce Team #22 was billeted in the main and very large compound of the former Chung Hsing Coal Mining Company.
This was secured by Nationalist forces, while the two other, smaller compounds, each about 600 or 700 yards away, were controlled by Communist forces. In those days, we were not supposed to call them Communists, but rather dissidents. I knew very few writers who observed this rule.
There was almost constant firing, including mortars incoming from the other two compounds. One wisely walked close to buildings or followed the inside of the very large wall. Fire was not directed to the large home occupied by the five-man Marine team, but we all knew that bullets not intended for you still can kill you.
There was much injury and death inside this compound as both soldiers and civilians, former coal mine workers and their families, tried to live some kind of life while they waited for salvation, which never came. There were about 7,000 Chinese Nationalist troops and 8,000 civilians in the compound.
There was, of course, outgoing fire from the fortress-like parapets on the top of the wall. The purpose of the Marine team was to try to get the fire stopped, initiate talks between opposing generals and construct an airstrip to be used to bring in supplies and medical needs. None of this was, in the end, successful, as neither the Nationalists nor the Communists had any intention of tolerating the other.
All the area outside this compound was controlled by Communists as far away as Lin Ching, where the Nationalist 19th Army Group forces controlled. As great as Marines are, the five team members, two officers and three enlisted, were outnumbered slightly by the thousands of opposing troops.
Furthermore, we were not permitted to carry arms. I violated this order by carrying a beautiful little .25 caliber Beretta automatic in the watch pocket of my uniform. It was a lethal weapon if you fired at someone closer than three feet, but it provided a sense of comfort, however false it was.
The following story was written on May 15, 1946 and thrown into the great maw, where post-World War II military stories tended to disappear forever.

TSAO CHUANG, CHINA—15 MAY—General Wong, Nationalist commander of troops in the south compound in this village of strife took Sgt. Scott and myself on a tour of this area this morning. We first visited the homes of the coal workers at the east end of the surrounded compound. Hundreds of dirty, ragged people met us with looks of hope on their faces. They looked at us, asking if we could give them some food to ease their aching bodies, if we could ask the Communists to open the gates of this compound so that they could buy food and get some water from the clear springs and wells around the village.
Where one family used to live in the company-constructed homes, five now live in filth and poverty beyond description. They have been surrounded now for four months and have not been able to leave this area. They are dirty with four months of dirt and sick with the smell of their own excrement at their doorstep, but they look upon Americans with a smile, despite their empty stomachs. Their eyes shine with hope. The American colonel will not let them down.
As we walked toward the rooms used by the troops as a hospital for their wounded, we could hear the shots winging overhead, some of them uncomfortably close. Several times mortar shells landed in the compound, but none near enough to us to cause any danger, but people do get killed in this compound.
As we left the area where the mine workers live a young girl came out of a house and stood before us. She opened her coat and showed us her breasts. They had been hit by the shrapnel from a rifle grenade about three days ago. They were red and festered from lack of proper treatment. She was seventeen years old and would probably not see eighteen unless proper treatment is given her wounds. As we left, she smiled, put her thumb in the air and said “ding how.” (good, everything is going to be OK)*
The room where the wounded are kept is an old office formerly used by the Chung Hsing Coal Mining Company. In the first room are about thirteen wounded men. The man on the first pallet of woven straw has been hit in the leg by some shrapnel. He has not had the correct type of treatment or food. His leg is slowly festering and the fat has gone from his body. His appearance reminds me of some of the pictures I have seen from the German concentration camps. The pallet next to him has a small boy who was hit in the left arm by a bullet fired over the wall by the communists. Gangrene has set in and he just lies there and moans softly, turning his head from side to side to keep the flies from his face. I put my hand on his forehead to see if has a fever and he opened his eyes to smile up at me. Nothing came from his lips but a soft moan. Through all the rooms it was the same, wounded men with no treatment and no food, wounded men left to die unless they get medicine and get it soon.
After visiting the “hospital” we met General Wong chi mei, the former puppet general under the Japanese, now recognized by the Nationalist government. He took us to the northwest corner of the compound where a platoon of his former guerrilla forces has fallen out in formation. They were singing some song in Chinese which our interpreter told us was a military song. We passed them and they came to rigid attention, with eyes right. They looked like a group of tough boys. They ranged in age from middle aged men to youngsters about fifteen years old.
Throughout this trip the general kept reminding us that they had been surrounded by the Communists for four months and it was all the Communists’ fault that they now had little food and the sporadic firing was the Communists’ fault, too.

—Don Curto

*In my world, there is hardly a more devastatingly sad sight than a near-child displaying small breasts punctured by shrapnel, clearly infected, and yet she gave us the thumbs up sign.

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