I called her Mei Ling. It
wasn’t her right name but it didn’t matter. We were both happy with it. I
saw her first in a small square where Bubbling Well Road ended and Naking
Road began. It was just dusk in Shanghai, I had been standing there at this,
the most pleasant time of day, watching the Chinese in their traditional
long coats as they scurried home. Some were burdened with impossible loads,
some were weaving their way along with their bicycles darting quickly here
and there, looking for every advantage to get home quickly.
The lights in the tall buildings were coming on in erratic fashion casting
irregular patterns on the streets. I left the Grand Theater and crossed
through the traffic to my favorite restaurant on the other side of the
As I reached the sidewalk an ornate rickshaw slid quickly alongside the
curb, From it a vision of ivory loveliness tinged with just the blush of a
rose descended, assisted by a uniformed puller. She stopped for an instant
and her eyes momentarily met mine. I was never the same.
In the scuffle of the countless people hurrying home she vanished along with
the rattling buses and honking autos that made Shanghai a constant
cacophony. I can never remember how long I stood there, It may have been
I walked around the square staring into every face, down Sichuan Road
peering into every cubicle, dodging winos and coke sniffers with their
outstretched hands, then along the Bund to the sullen gray of the Wangpoo
River. She had disappeared.
Hungry, my appetite whetted, I trudged back to the Sun Ya restaurant
salivating for Kungpao chicken and a large order of North China prawns.
Inside the Sun Ya an excited party of Chinese were playing an ancient game,
guessing answers to a set of clues. It had been a long game with a whole pig
gone and a large number of empty wine bottles.
The food in this, my favorite eating place, was usually a spicy, gourmet’s
delight. Shanghai food could be especially tasty, unlike the blandness of
Cantonese fare. “Tai ding how,” the Chinese say.
It was hot in Shanghai in
mid-July although the heat never bothered me. I made my usual rounds. I
liked a Russian bistro where the vodka was chilled and crisp and the Russian
girls, most of them expatriates from Harbin, were friendly and liked
Americans. They were fond of telling me that I only loved them for their
bodies. Of course, that just couldn’t be true.
One night, after a few beers and a few games of Jai Alai at the French
Fronton, 1 fancied the jazz session at Jimmy Winter’s Garden, a popular
watering hole nearby. As the saying goes, “the joint was jumpin” with
standing-room only. Tables were full and if you found room at the bar you
I didn’t mind. I had met a nice Russian girl there one night and could
handle the shoving and elbowing. There was a new trumpet player on hand,
just in from the states who knew where the notes were.
I settled in and started looking the
room over, sizing up the gang of jostling dancers mixing it up on the dance
floor. They were the silk stocking bunch, their long skirts slit up to the
thighs, Chinese style. There was plenty of shimmering, beauty in old
I saw her again in the swirl of the crowd as she turned in the arms of some
Embassy type who was holding her much too tight. When the music stopped my
eyes followed them to their table. She moved with the same fluid, undulating
grace she showed on Bubbling Well Road. Despite the heavy, blue haze of
cigarette smoke that filled the night club, her beauty sparkled. I must be
in love. What other emotion could make me want to give up all the girls I
had ever known.
I didn’t believe in love at first sight but my heart was pounding and a
strange excitement had come over me. I shook my head in dismay and wandered
off to the men’s room. As I stood up to the urinal, the Embassy fellow
walked in and sidled up to the next stall. He threw back his head and in a
near tone of anguish cried, “My God, I’d like to be back in Los Angeles
tonight.” I was from L.A. and I too looked up at the ceiling but only to
The fellow next to me was Mei Ling’s escort. “What part?” I asked. He
started to rattle off his favorite hang outs in L.A. I interrupted him, “Buy
ya a drink?” He looked sideways at me and said, “You from L.A.? You’re on.
We pushed our way back to the table where at last I met Mei Ling. I was
self-conscious, afraid that I was intruding and she might think I had pushed
my way in. She told me later that I had stared at her and I am sure that I
did. I tried to avert my eyes but it was hopeless, I needed to look at her.
Her deep brown eyes seemed to smolder when they looked at me. Somehow I felt
detached and floating. She asked me small questions that were probing and
personal. It didn’t matter; I knew she was interested.
We danced. Every dance. I could smell the faintest scent of perfume
lingering about her, Jasmine and Sandalwood, I thought it was, like a rare
incense that hides in your books and pillows forever. As we danced and grew
closer it intoxicated me and I told her how I felt the first time I saw her.
I was embarrassed but I wanted to know her.
We had danced the night out and her friend wanted to leave as he had to work
the next day. “The U.S. Embassy,” she said. I had guessed right, The last
drinks were being served and the rush started to the door to secure a
rickshaw for the ride home. In the crush of the crowd I lost Mei Ling.
It seemed to be my fate not to be able to hold on to her. I hadn’t asked
where she lived or how I could reach her. I shook my fist at my stupidity. I
couldn’t go out to the Winter Garden and wait for her to show up. jimmy
would think I was a nut. And I couldn’t go down to the Embassy and wait for
Mei Ling to make an appearance. I would have to wait for her. I was sure I
had told her enough for her to find me. Well, pretty sure.
In late August a messenger, in the same livery as the rickshaw puller,
arrived at my door on Ferry Lou and my life changed. Changed to a posh
apartment in the Palace Hotel with resident servants, gourmet Chinese food
catered in from the Sun Ya just around the corner on Nanking Road and, of
course, the exquisite presence of Mei Ling.
Not all at once, not before we talked, sometimes all night about everything
and anything. We took early morning walks to the race course on Bubbling
Well Road and exercised in the old Chinese fashion, We played Ma jong for
copper pennies and drank Rae Liang until we were silly and laughed ourselves
to sleep. we looked in each others eyes and saw the certainty of our love.
A month had passed quickly and we both needed to return to work. Mei’s work
I couldn’t quite figure out. She said she worked for her father in the
import-export business which caused her to travel from time to time on four
and five day trips. At first, I paid no attention to her destinations until
one day, Juichin, south of Shanghai was mentioned.
What could she be doing in a place like that? The communist armies under Mao
had begun their long march from Juichin in 1934 and were now deep in the
interior near Yenan. When I asked Mei Ling about juichin, she brushed it off
as some sort of supply problem and put her arms around me and kissed me.
A few weeks later, she returned from another trip and left her ticket stubs
on a chow table near our front entrance. They were in Chinese. I couldn’t
read them but I knew someone who could. They revealed that her trip was to
Tsunyl, another stop on Mao’s march to the interior of China.
I confronted Mel Ling with my evidence and also that I knew her man-servant,
Lu, wore a .45 pistol strapped to his waist. She rested her hand on my wrist
and gently pulled me toward the bedroom. Inside she guided me to the bed and
sat down letting me sit next to her.
“I didn’t want to tell you anything,” she said. “For one thing it’s
dangerous to know what I’m doing and I don’t want you hurt. love you.” Tears
welled up in her eyes.” My father is a revolutionary and an old friend of
Mao. They are from Hunan and dedicated to China’s freedom.
“I help with supply and money distribution for the Army. Shanghai is a
source of money and a collection center. Chiang Kai-shek’5 organization, the
Kuomintang, and the Japanese allow me to live here because I pass them false
information they think is valuable. They are suspicious of me and if you
look out our front window you’ll always see someone watching from across the
street. Sometimes I send food out to them. I love my country and work hard
for our leader, Mao Tse Tung. He is the only man who can unify the peasants
and make us strong again.”
Her admiration for Mao was on her face, and although we argued long into the
night, my protestations that there had never been a communist nation with
any degree of success, met with copious tears.
We finally fell asleep in each others arms, content to let sleep dissolve
our tensions. Mei Ling began again the next day. Seemingly inexhaustible,
she went on about the heroic exploits of Mao’s armies and their 8,ooo mile
march. In less than a year, with inconceivable hardships, Mao had
consolidated and battle tested his troops.
Chou En Lai, Chu Teh and Lin Piao rose to leadership to help Mao in his
great crusade. I loved Mei Ling for her ardent patriotism but I knew I could
never be a communist.
The conversation made me aware, however, that the activity in Mei Ling’s
house had real purpose. The Amah, Ling Yu, was more than the name implies,
but was a proficient secretary who was fluent in several languages. Lu, who
performed all the physical functions in the household, had all the
qualifications of a black belt and master linguist.
Mei Ling was a graduate of a highly rated university in the Washington, D.C.
area and was a communications expert. There were other men in the hotel, all
cast in Lu’s image and ready for any emergency.
One night, letting myself in through a rear door in the apartment, the door
opened from the inside and a hand grasped me around my throat pulling me
into the darkness of the vestibule. I struggled and managed to strike my
assailant across the face, when from behind, with a powerful rush, two men
flung themselves at my feet flailing sharply at the intruder.
He let go of me, but before he could escape, Lu appeared and with one quick
move pulled a thin wire across his throat in an effective garrote. In the
light of the hall I recognized two men from down the hall.
Lu explained that they were aware of the break in, but not that I would
arrive when I did. They were preparing to disarm this man from the
Kuomintang. Mei Ling urged me to come at safer times, but I wondered when
that would be.
In late September, Mel Ling asked me if I would be willing to make a trip
with her. She hesitated, at first, to tell me the purpose of the trip. “To
the interior,” she finally said. “To a destination near the Yellow River,
south of Peking. I would see the flat alluvial plains that spread out from
the river and terminated near the Western Hills, whose passes were part of
their camel caravan routes of the Gobi desert.
“It would be exciting although a little dangerous,” she admitted.
“How dangerous?” I asked.
“I don’t know, she said softly.” We
will be carrying a great deal of money, about 200 million yuan and be in
Kuomingtang territory most of the time.”
“That’s dangerous,” I snapped. “And I
suppose we go unarmed.”
“No, no, we would never do that in enemy territory,” Mei Ling was firm with
“We will have Lu, and another four men when we leave Shanghai. In the
country, we will be joined by another caravan of men with their trucks and
“Is that enough,”- I queried.
“We’ll be carrying the equivalent of four million dollars, enough to make
anyone greedy.” Mel Ling winced. “I know, but the armies need it. There’ll
be more of these trips in the future and this is our turn.”
Mel Ling’s lips were set in a look I had seen once before. She was
On a Monday in October 1941, we loaded a rebuilt G.M. truck with enough gear
for the trip. We had ammunition for two Browning automatic weapons, one of
which I would carry, and a case of grenades, fragmentation type. I had
permission and time to leave the city and had become almost enthused about
The money was in metal canisters, not in yuan but in U.S. dollars. It was
turning cold, Shanghai had a climate similar to Chicago. We were wearing the
sheepskin clothes of the North and would have no problems of warmth.
Lu would drive and I would ride shotgun with Mel Ling snugly wedged between
us. Our four escorts, all from the hotel, rode in the back with the
tarpaulin secured against prying eyes until we reached the countryside.
About 50 miles out of Shanghai we rendezvoused with two trucks and twenty
men to form our caravan. Lu, Mel Ling and I rode the lead truck with the
rest strung out close behind.
The countryside was its usual odoriferous mess, where the Chinese piled
their waste in huge dung heaps, fertilizer for their fields. The stench
could be pretty rank at times.
After three days on the dusty roads of inner China it had become monotonous,
bumpy and irritating to our sore bottoms. No cam p
fires at night and just enough charcoal was used to make rice and boil water
for tea. The clouds of dust our trucks made in the daytime were like signal
plumes to any enemy.
Mel Ling shared my anxiety about the dusty signals we were putting up. On
the fifth day we could see our destination amid the hills and the blush haze
on the horizon. The road seen with my binoculars, appeared to sink into the
As we drew closer I could see the road was dropping out of sight
disappearing into a deep cut in the land. I asked Lu and Mei Ling if they
were familiar with this part of the country. No one knew anything.
I asked Lu to alert his men in the rear of the truck. The area looked
suspicious, too much like an easy place for an ambush. The contours were too
familiar. We were beginning our descent through the barren cut when Mel Ling
cried out, “Look? Another truck is coming.” I took a quick look through my
glasses and saw a truck with a white flag mounted on its front fender
speeding down the road toward us.
A white flag usually meant a neutral occupant. I waited as the truck came
closer and closer. It was hard to tell who or what was in it. Suddenly it
braked, turning sharply and sliding across the road, blocking it.
The tarpaulin went up to reveal a machine gun mounted on a tripod sheltered
behind several sandbags. I just had time to pull Mel Ling down behind the
windshield when the machine gun erupted, spewing bullets across our
windshield in a crash of splintered glass. Lu leaned out his door firing his
BAR at full automatic. I pushed my door open and opened fire with mine. The
men in the back trucks were piling out and scattering up and down the road.
A mean fire fight had begun.
It was strange that a small contingent would challenge us when they were so
badly outnumbered. Down the road came the answer, Kuomintang troops in
nearly lock step precision exhorted on by a saber waving officer.
I looked around to see what chances we might have if we had to retreat.
Their machine gun began its staccato fire again and I saw Lu stand up on the
running board of the old truck and fire directly into the sandbagged machine
gun. I heard someone cry out and the machine gun stopped.
The Kuomintang were still coming, at quick pace now, and looked as if they
might run right over us. “Mei Ling,” I yelled, “Get out on Lu’s side and
work your way to the rear.”
“No,” she yelled back. “You stay, I stay.”
I was furious at her defiance and pulled the trigger on my BAR again and
held it down.
The Kuomintang broke formation, and still firing, began their charge. From
the sides of the hill a great cry went up and I looked to see from our rear
a horde of men coming down the side of the hill and over the embankments
hollering and brandishing their weapons. Mel Ling was standing and watching,
“The Red Devils,” she cried. “The Red Devils, the Hung-chun are here.”
The Kuomintang coming up the road turned and were fleeing down the road.
“These are the school boys who volunteered to fight for Mao,” Mei Ling was
proud of her explanation. Lu and I were only happy to have done with it,
The young troops looked over the Kuomintang troops and quickly fell into
formation and left. Unfortunately, we had four men killed and several
wounded in the melee. Mei Ling eloquently praised their bravery and the
sacrifices they had made for their country.
We camped near on old canal that night. After dinner a group of men engaged
Mei Ling in animated conversation for over an hour. One of them detached
himself from the group and walked over to where I sat near our small fire.
He spoke in simple but understandable English, “Thank you for your help
today. Mei Ling tells me that she is very fond of you. Our country owes both
of you a debt of gratitude.” He went back to the group and in the morning,
Mei Ling told me he was the legendary Chou En-Lai.
They had taken the money away and now we could go back to Shanghai, We
chafted as we drove back down the dusty roads. I had learned that Mei Ling
was no ordinary woman and that I wanted her courage as well as her love to
be a part of my life.
Two days out of Shanghai we knew we were in trouble again. It was a
Japanese-patrolled territory and the first shots, as we left our morning
camp, had had that .22 caliber ring of Jap Metal. We had learned enough on
this trip to disperse quickly using the trucks as shelter. A pop and then
another pop sprayed metal across the tarps and hoods of the trucks,
“Mortars!” Lu cried. We pushed down closer to the earth and hung on. I
looked around for my grenades and found two of them in my utility bag. Lu
crawled under the truck. “Do you have any grenades,” he whispered. “Here,” I
gave him the two I had.
He crawled back under the truck and a few seconds later I heard the first
one go off, the other followed by a cry. No doubt Lu had hit something.
“Okay,” he yelled. “Let’s go now.”
We moved back aboard the trucks as quickly as we had moved them out.
That day and the next we kept our weapons handy, Mei Ling would stop at
intervals and send some of the men down the road to insure against another
ambush, It slowed us up but we knew it was safer and we would live longer.
There was bad news in Shanghai. The Fourth Regiment of Marines had its
marching orders and I would be going with them. Mei Ling and 1 went away for
a few days to a hidden place in the Chinese city. It was a small Mandarin
Palace replete with a bath as large as a medium size swimming pool, a
magnificent garden and a chef, who Mei Ling imported from Sun Ya’s
restaurant. Between tears and laughter we were happy despite our growing
apprehension. The days and nights were magical with Mei Ling, displaying all
her charms. She wanted to tell me and show me that she loved me.
We knew the situation with Japan was
getting worse but none of us expected them to attack the United States. At
that time we Marines were sure we could beat them with one hand tied behind
our back. That certainly didn’t prove to be true!
Finally, in late November of 1942, we received our orders to evacuate
Shanghai and that’s a day I’ll never forget. Our band turned out smart in
pressed uniforms and we decided we’d put on a parade the Chinese would never
There were good-byes to be said to old friends, room boys, lovers (in some
cases, wives), and a large number of innkeepers, and even some of the
jai-alai players who we had often watched.
November had brought Shanghai its usual garb of chill accented by the strong
smell of burning coal. The long line of green clad Marines stretched along
Bubbling Well Road back to Ferry Loo Road clear to the Headquarters Building
Gate. The Marine Corps stood proud that day. Our brass was polished and the
pennants were flying high overhead on the staffs held majestically.
We all believed the legions of Caesar, Charlemagne or Napoleon could have no
The color guard marched slowly to its place at the head of the column
followed by our commander, Colonel Howard, and his staff.
The colonel turned and shouted, “Sound the forward march.”
Silence fell over the band. “What did he say?” someone asked.
“Sound the forward march,” someone replied.
Master Tech Sergeant Lewis Griffin, the band master, stood there confused
and perplexed. “How do we do it?” he whispered.
Then, probably an ex-field music, spoke up. “You sound attention and then
two tones to represent the human voice calling, ‘Forward March.”
The trumpeter swung around without hesitation and raised his horn to his
lips. The call to attention rang out echoing down the street followed by the
“C” sounding the Forward March. I was that trumpeter. The Fourth Marine
Regiment stepped off to “Glory of the Trumpets” followed by the “Marine
Hymn” and “Semper Fidelis.”
The crowd, made up largely of tearful women, shouted and clapped as we
trooped by. Many pressed gifts into our hands that we had to hide in our
blouses. A lot of us had moist eyes but Marines never cry. It was probably
just the coal dust.
When we arrived at the waterfront, a Chinese came up to me and asked me if
my name was George Francis. I said yes and he grabbed me and gave me a big
kiss on the cheek, I asked him if he wanted to die.
“No, no.” he said, “This girl told me to give you a kiss. She wanted to say
good-bye but couldn’t find you.” I knew it was from Mei Ling.
But, then we were quickly marched onto some small, flat-bottomed barges that
were to take us out to the SS Harrison, an American President liner, that
was anchored in the Wangpoo.
My last view of Shanghai was of a small band standing in the bay of an open
truck. They were belting out some great music. It was led by the future jazz
great Buck Clayton.
Of the some 49 members of the Fourth Marine Band who boarded ship that day,
nine were killed in action, three died in POW camps and 36 survived. A truly
remarkable survival rate when you consider that 18,ooo prisoners of war died
in the camps. I have no idea why we bandsmen were relatively fortunate.