Fourth Marines Band: "Last China Band"

CHAPTER ONE - China Duty

Anyone attending the Sunday band concerts by the 4th Marines Band stationed in Shanghai, China at the beginning of the 1940’s, discovered quickly just how popular the band really was. It played to full houses following church services at the Grand Theater every Sunday morning. These services and the band concert immediately following, was one of the great steps of America’s examples of putting its best foot-forward in Far East relations. They added great class to our presence there for the culture it brought and added to the community. There were plenty of negative aspects to it, but Marines contributed greatly in positive ways in colorful ceremonies, sports, spiritual examples and very greatly with the weekly band concert open to the public. And the public loved it.

Until the Peking (Beijing) Legation Guard Band stationed in North China was evacuated from there to Shanghai in the spring of 1941, the Fourth’s band was a 25 piece aggregation not counting the trumpeters and drummers ( Field Musicians) assigned to the battalions. The combination made it one of the larger field bands in the Corps for a short time, It’s leader during that time was Master Technical Sergeant August Olaquez. When he and others who had completed their usual three year tours of duty on the Asiatic station were returned to the States, the band and drum corps numbered forty eight musicians, it was this group that I called “The Last China Band”, This is the story of it’s last days before it was integrated into an infantry battalion and met its end on the island of Corregidor in Manila Bay 10 May of 1942.

The most memorable concert and church service was on 20 October 1940 with Navy Lieutenant B. F. Trump officiating. We had arrived on the station in the same famed vessel, the USS Chamont, a navy transport ship. PFC Arnold Baker, ‘first chair’ horn had persuaded bandmaster Giffin to let his horn section play special music and somewhat reluctantly allowed it to happen. Baker, PFC Anthony Stankitis, the second chair, with me on third, worked up a great sounding trio of a sweet tune called “In The Gloaming” by Harrison. In a shower room that had wonderful acoustics adjacent to Giffin’s quarters, it sounded great and so we put it on the program to play during church services. After we marched up front in our freshly pressed dress blues, brought ‘em up and played only the first two bars, both Baker and Stankitis were stricken with dry mouths. Both of them! This left Private Donald Versaw playing away at his 3rd horn part and sounding like he didn’t even know what song was to he played. I looked in desperation at bandmaster Giffin who quickly cued in PFC Kenneth Marshall who picked up the melody and the trio quickly changed to a Clarinet and horn duet with an occasional dry toot from the other two.

I can only say I believe that “Reefs” Baker and “Stinky” Stankitis had been stricken with terminal stage fright. It was not like them at all. It would have been more like something I would do being the young, dumb kid I was. The experience did not do well for the horn section and we were never allowed to even think about performing special music at church again. I feel sure the Lord did forgive us though, even if Bandmaster Giffin may never have. The concert that followed did redeem the band however; we played a rousing Barn house march, Harmony Heaven. That alone was surely atonement. After that we played the Overture to Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” and I seem to recall that I tried very hard to be heard playing my part in case the other horn players were still undone. The dessert for the concert was a fantasy number called “Woodland” by Ladeu and, as always, we finished the concert standing to play the Marines Hymn and the National Anthem. It was a concert that I shall never forgot.

During these last months of service in Shanghai, the possibility of war spreading to the Far East increased in likelihood day by day. The English newspaper and radio station continually reported items that reflected the tensions in and around the bulging, refugee-swollen metropolis of Shanghai. There were thousands of people from Europe driven out by the Fascists, Nazis from the conflicts currently in progress there. A whole community of Russian people and its next generation of kids pushed out of their country during the red revolts years before. Then there were literally millions of very poor and desperate folks from all parts of China affected by the Japanese aggression underway since 1937. The International Settlement was then like a small Montenegro and it was a strain on everyone. It was a place filled with people without hope or help and they died by the score everyday. Every morning their bodies were gathered up and taken away. Most died of starvation or the diseases related to it, but some were just murdered. The most common reason for that was terrorism.

The Chinese government hired thugs and criminals to bomb and burn in the Japanese defense sectors, and the Japanese hired others to bomb and burn in the American, British, and Shanghai volunteer sections. The French Concession may have had the least trouble about that but I’m not sure about it.

The Fourth Marines had a golf club. To play the only course available it was necessary to pass through a Japanese defense sector in our trucks to a place called HUNG JAO. A permit had to be arranged for in advance each time. Golf and any other individual sport participation were scheduled for every Wednesday afternoon. It was all called “Organized Grab Ass”. It could be that was a universal thing in the old Corps. We had it in San Diego. The deal was that following noon mess, each Marine or groups of Marines takes the rest of the day and, on their honor, participate in one or more active sports. it was just not proper to take off, go ashore on liberty and do as you might any other day. Anything was okay as long as it was some active recreational sport like, swimming, handball, tennis, and golf perhaps. Just no chess, elbow bending in the nearest gin mill, or the like.

The Marines that played golf did get to observe some of what Japanese forces were doing in part of occupied China outside the city. One of their most interesting reports was watching their progress constructing a prison camp in HUNG JAO. We talked about our chances should the Japanese invade the International Settlement, take it over and toss us all into a “Concentration Camp.”

Someone asked Bandmaster Giffin what he would do if he ever became a prisoner of war and a Japanese guard ordered him to shine his boots. Giffin replied, with a wry smile, “I guess I would just get down there and shine like a ‘bastard”. More talk had to do with what food we might get and of course “fish heads and rice” was always the first guess one would make. Ironically when it really happened that didn’t happen. Sometimes there was rice but rarely any fish in any form.

Note: Arnold Baker returned to the States before the band was lost in the Philippines. He rose to the rank of major in another field and served many years as president of the School Board in one of the largest districts in California.

I arrived at Shanghai during the same month that divine services and concert were conducted at the Metropole Theater. Chaplain, Navy Lieutenant H. R. Markham, was in charge for his farewell sermon and the Band played a program of all Oriental style music. During church services Shanghai’s “Crescendo Society”, a 50 voice choir led by Professor Chao Mei-Pa, performed several selections among which was “Canon Symphonicbus” sung in Latin. The program selected for the band concert by Master Technical Sergeant Levis E. Giffin, began with a march entitled “Pride of the Orient” by Venuto, followed by “Chinese Danse” by Crist. A selection often played by the band followed with ‘In A Chinese Temple Garden” by Ketelbey. This last number was one of my favorites and I enjoyed playing it with the band. It was however soon partially replaced in my recollections with ‘Shina No Yoru” (China Night), a song popular with the Japanese, but still kindles warm memories of service in China.

Shanghai Race Course and Park Hotel, Location of Grand Theater Sunday Concerts


I know of no reason why the site of band concerts and church services were moved to the Grand Theater opposite the great Race Course and now The Peoples Park. It was a much larger theater. From the first concert the band played there, after I became a member, it was always filled. It was a newer more modern venue as evidenced by seats fitted with headphones on which could be heard translations in Chinese. It is doubtful that the excellent lounge just off the foyer, and always open for business, had anything to do with the selection of the place. The fact that a short period following rehearsals before performances was convenient for those who needed a bit of “hair of the dog” treatment, probably had nothing to do with it either. I found a touch of a little Scotch and Soda did lubricate the valves of my French horn well and made it sound better. I thought it did, at least to me. It could have been that the Grand Theater was rather unique in some respects. No more so perhaps than the rifle range operated by the Shanghai Volunteer Corps and where Marines fired small arms for annual qualifications and matches. it was the only rifle range I ever heard of where beer and wine could he purchased from a cart on the end of each firing line. Now I am positively sure that all Marines who were ordered to fire the range were absolutely forbidden to visit the cart at any time. The facility may have been made available for those people born drunk but had to drink booze to get sober. I’ve always thought that I would have been a better shot if I could have had one or two before trying to screw myself into one of those rubber-man killing, contortionist breaking, shooting positions with a 1903 Springfield service rifle.

Sorry to have digressed here, because it is well to recall and record that band concerts at the Grand Theater were indeed some of the most grand events of being a bandsman then. The pride I had to take my place in the horn section of that great stage, was almost as great as that I felt when our drill instructor Sergeant Bob Pender said, You now can be called A MARINE! less than a year earlier.


Full Text of THE LAST CHINA BAND Please Click Below for:
CHAPTER ONE - China Duty Page 1
CHAPTER TWO - The “Clouds of War” Page 7
CHAPTER THREE - In the Philippines Page 21
CHAPTER FOUR - On Corregidor Page 31
CHAPTER FIVE - The Battle is Over Page 41
Return to THE LAST CHINA BAND Introduction Page
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