by Willie Lagarde
It was in July 1947 when we finally reached the mouth of the Yangtze river and waited for a pilot to take us upstream to the convergence of the Whangpoo. There was a war going on here and we didn’t know how much longer we would have access to Chinese ports. It had been a rough Pacific crossing for the most part weathering the worst storm of my seagoing experience. I suppose since I was barely twenty one years old I wasn’t as fearful as maybe I should have been but I had seen typhoons before and reasoned this is just another of the same. When I saw the chief cook, a black man, on his knees praying I did become more concerned for my life but just a little.
We lost a part of our deck cargo in the storm. While we were anchored in the Yangtse before starting up the Whangpoo on the last leg of our journey to Shanghai many sampans and bumboats came along side with their bamboo poles and hooks to tie on and offer items for sale. Some of the carvings were excellent, even exquisite and I am sorry to this day I only bought a small statue of a shepherd leaning on a staff.
Proceeding up the Whangpoo I noticed what looked like large rectangular haystacks and was informed by the pilot these were stacks of ice, unbelievably harvested in the winter and still frozen in July. When the skyline of Shanghai loomed ahead it made me realize how little I knew about China. If I didn’t know where I was it could have been any American city, observed from a distance at least. We tied up in the Honkew section of Shanghai to unload our cargo of rice threshers, automobiles and several thousand cotton bales. We also carried dunnage lumber to line the holds for our return trip with a cargo of bulk copra to be picked up in the Philippines. We were in Shanghai for July 4th and an officer of a British ship tied up behind us invited some of us aboard for rum and scotch to celebrate our “friendship” and to say we were forgiven for the revolution. Couldn’t believe that was still on anyone’s mind. He was half loaded on booze already but we went anyway and helped him get fully loaded.
Some of the sights in Shanghai were depressing and one that stays with me over half a century is that of an old woman who fell on the street and lay there until she died three days later. I didn’t see anyone who was concerned and when I inquired about her one of the company agents told me it wasn’t an uncommon event and under no circumstances, get involved. Many Chinese soldiers and customs guards were always aboard and always looking for something to eat. As soon as we tied up sampans hooked on and stayed with us until we left. When any of our cooks appeared by the rail intending to throw garbage in the river immediately bamboo poles with baskets attached to the end were raised from the sampans to catch whatever was thrown. It reminded me of birds in a nest reacting to the return of their mother.
Since I was third officer and on port watch from 8 to 4 it was my responsibility to prevent theft of the dunnage which had been removed from the top of the cargo holds and set on the dock to be loaded back aboard before we sailed. The coolies on the dock were always looking for something they could take which was anything they considered of value. They apparently didn’t consider this stealing like it was theirs by right. When I tried to stop them, literally taking the lumber away from them they fought me for it cursing and grumbling like I was the bad guy.
I was impressed by the slightly built coolies. Just two of them would lift a 500lb bale of cotton suspended by two slings from a stout length of bamboo and run with it down the dock and up a ramp to waiting trucks. Little kids with burlap bags slung over their shoulder would run along side pulling loose tuffs of cotton from the bales and stuffing it in their bags like this was their right Always on the dock were women cooking pots of rice for the workers.
The legal money rate of exchange was 12000 Yuan to one dollar, but the problem was the black market rate was 50000 to one. All business in the city was conducted on the black market rate which means if we converted our money legally we were getting screwed out of 75% of its value. At that time the penalty for Chinese dealing in American money was death and for us it was life imprisonment. The American counsel warned us there was nothing he could do for us if we were caught. A quart bottle of beer costs 50000 Yuan. How did we pay for it, take a guess.
Another depressing sight that I still recall was the LST’s loaded with Nationalist soldiers going down river presumably to fight the Communists who were closing in on the area.. I thought they had the look of condemned men with little or no will to fight. Walking down one of the main streets I happened upon the “New Orleans Bar” It was owned and operated by one Jimmy Lear from a New Orleans neighborhood I was familiar with. He told me he had been a merchant seaman and jumped ship in Shanghai around 1937 after falling for and marrying a Japanese woman there. He seemed to be reasonably prosperous and said because of his Japanese wife he was unmolested by the Jap military during the war.
We had been told by seaman returning from China at that time if you had nylon stockings to sell you could almost name your price. I learned it wasn’t nylon but any article of cotton clothing, new or used that was almost priceless. I no longer had to risk life imprisonment to get a beer. I sold a couple of shirts and once when I ran short of cash in the New Orleans bar I sold the tee shirt off my back. After about ten days in Shanghai we left for Hong Kong and the Philippines. I would see Tacloban on Leyte again where I pulled an unauthorized liberty two years before. Very little had changed. That story for another time.
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