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Yangtze Service, 1926-27, 1930-32

Yangtze Service Shanghai is not a Chinese city, but rather a trading post constructed by foreigners in the mid-19th Century to facilitate the China trade. Shanghai is the outlet of the Yangtze River, but this location only became important as an outlet with the development of trade with the outside world. From that point, maintaining the security of foreign interests along the Yangtze became an important security challenge.

Geographically the Yangtze Valley, or drainage area, was estimated at about 650,000 square miles, and its population in the year 1900, one of the most peaceable and industrious on earth, at from 170,000,000 to 180,000,000. The Yangtze was not an outlet, but the outlet, for the commerce of Sze Chuan, which, owing to its size, population, wealth, and resources, may be truly termed the empire-province of China. Commerce was swelled by a great number of navigable feeders, which east of Sha-shih, in the Great Plain, are connected by a vast network of navigable canals, the differences in level being overcome by the ingenious contrivance called the pah. At Chinkiang the Grand Canal enters the Yangtze from Hangchow, and leaves it on the left bank, some miles away, for Tientsin. These natural and artificial waterways are among the chief elements of the prosperity of the Yangtze Valley, affording cheap transit for merchandise, land carriage in China, mile for mile, costing twenty times as much as water carriage.

Nearly a mile wide 600 miles from its mouth, nearly three-quarters of a mile at 1000, and 630 yards at 1500, with a volume of water which, at 1000 miles from the sea, is estimated at 244 times that of the Thames at London Bridge, with a summer depth of ninety feet at Chungking and of ten feet at its few shallow places at Hankow when at its lowest winter level, with a capacity for a rise of forty feet before it overflows its banks, with an annual rise and fall more reliable than those of the Nile, with navigable tributaries penetrating the richest and most populous regions of China, navigable in the summer as far as Hankow for the largest ships in the world, and during the whole year to Ichang, 400 miles farther, for fine river steamers carrying large cargoes, even the Upper Yangtze, that region of grandeur, perils, and surprises, was traversed annually by 7000 junks, employing a quarter of a million of men.

As the outlet of the commerce of the Yangtze Valley, and as a foreign city which has risen on Chinese shores in little more than half a century to the position and importance of one of the great trading centres of the world, Shanghai was called "The Model Settlement of the East".

In the early 20th Century the Yangtze Basin was a magnificent sphere of interest for all the industrial nations for fair, if not friendly, rivalry, and to preserve the "open door" there, and throughout China, a worthy object of ambition. In the weakening of the Central Government, and the disintegration of the empire, treaty rights in the Yangtze Valley, for instance, would be worth as much as the sword could secure.

Shallow draft gunboats of the U.S. Navy sailed China's largest river for over 50 years before being officially organized as the Yangtze Patrol Force in August, 1921. These ships protected U.S. citizens against the bandits and warlord forces in a turbulent China. In the mid-1920's, the internal struggle for power was accompanied by many acts of violence against foreigners. Units of the Yangtze Patrol, reinforced by destroyers and light cruisers from the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, steamed upriver to protect Americans and national interests. Numerous confrontations occurred. When the situation stabilized an uneasy peace returned to the Yangtze valley, and the gunboats resumed anti-bandit activities.

The Yangtze Patrol was reorganized in December 1919, Capt. T.A. Kearney being placed in command. The Palos and Monocacy were active last spring in defending vessels from river pirates and lawless elements, who were holding up and looting steamers and junks, firing on passing craft. Our vessels aided materially in putting an end to this interference with traffic. The Elcano and the Samar assisted in restoring order during the riots at Kiukiang last March. Two of our gunboats were stationed near Chungking during the disturbance in that province. The destroyers Upshur, Rizal, and Elliot assisted in the Yangtze Patrol, being especially serviceable in establishing radio communication along the river. Admiral Gleaves made an inspection trip up the Yangtze in June 1920, going as far as Yochow.

On August 5, 1921, the Yangtze patrol force was organized under Rear Admiral W.H.G. Bullard, United States Navy, as part of the Asiatic Fleet. The mission of the Navy on the Yangtze River is to protect United States interests, lives and property, and to maintain and improve friendly relations with the Chinese people. This has been done very effectively during the past year by a United States naval patrol consisting of the USS Isabel (flagship) and five gunboats, basing on Hankow, 700 miles from the mouth of the river. The force is now under the direct command of Rear Admiral W.W. Phelps, United States Navy.

The Yangtze River, the main artery of China, is navigable for 1,750 miles, floats about 59 per cent of China's commerce, and reaches over 50 per cent of its population of 159,000,000. In 1920 the United States exports to China were valued at $119,000,000 and imports from there at $227,000,000. At least half of this, and probably more, were handled via the Yangtze River. Considering the perpetual banditry, piracy, and revolutionary conditions obtaining in this area, without the protection of the Navy this commerce would be practically nonexistent.

United States naval forces on the river were distributed over its entire length. In summer they were usually at Hankow and above. In winter some were locked up to the upper river with the deeper-draft craft in the lower river. Our forces cooperate with the British, taking turns at guarding certain points, each protecting the interest of the other.

By 1923, due to the chaotic condition now existing in China, and especially on account of the difficulty experienced by the central Government in suppressing banditry and piracy, American gunboats have been unusually active in caring for American interests. Through the tactful and forceful stand taken by the American Navy in these waters, the passenger steamer Alice Dollar was saved from destruction or capture on the occasion of an attack being made by several hundred bandits firing on the steamer. Many junks of oil have been secured and returned to the American owners after being captured by pirates.

The necessity for a boat of not over 4- feet draft, yet of sufficient power to go up the rapids and of a short length that will permit making the turns, required new, specially built boats. The Navy Department has included in its budget for 1924 estimates for the construction of six small river gunboats for use on China rivers. The Navy Department received urgent appeals from the American Chambers of Commerce in China and from the United States Chamber of Commerce for protection of American trade in China. Appeals came also from American shipping for protection of Americans traveling on American vessels in China and from the church in China for more adequate police protection for American missionaries who were in the most troubled and dangerous sections.

In 1926 1926 political turmoil in China was such as frequently to require the presence of United States vessels in order to protect American lives and property where outbreaks occurred. Recently increased activities of Chinese belligerents has caused the Yangtze Patrol to become quite active, and this patrol was strengthened by a force from the Asiatic destroyer squadron. Appeals came from American shipping for protection of Americans traveling on American vessels in China, and appeals also came for more adequate police protection for American missionaries who were in the most troubled and dangerous sections.

While occasions for the employment of actual force had fortunately been few, yet when used force has been prompt and effective, and sufficient only to accomplish the object of protecting American lives. The principal clash occurred at Nanking on March 24, 1927. There can be no doubt that this attack on foreigners, including Americans, was premeditated, carefully planned, well organized, and efficiently executed by organized troops. Nor can there be any doubt that the energetic and prompt action of the naval forces of America and Great Britain in laying down a barrage around Socony Hill, where the consul general and other Americans were congregated, and later in the firm stand demanding the safe evacuation of other foreigners in the city, prevented a possible wholesale massacre.

Conditions in China have improved considerably during 1928. There had been little fighting between the Chinese along the Yangtze Valley. A number of business men and missionaries who had previously evacuated this section of the country have returned to their posts. Our gunboats have proceeded from Hankow as far up the river as Chunking and intermittent traffic by merchant vessels flying the American flag has again become possible.

But by 1930 the Chinese military situation was characterized by a series of critical revolts and extensive bandit and communist activities that have postponed the desired stability of the country for an indeterminate period. These uprisings had been due to the efforts of the Nationalist Party to gain complete political mastery and to bring the various Provinces and military leaders under its direct control. The military activities, requiring the employment and concentration of all available Government troops, left many areas unprotected and open to predatory bands.

The above situation has left the bandits and communist bands more or less free to make raids upon not only cities in the interior but also the larger ports along the coast and on the Yangtze River, requiring the dispatch of our men-of-war to the affected areas. These bands mainly were responsible for the repeated firings upon United States men-of-war and merchant vessels along the Yangtze River, and their activities made necessary the reestablishment of the convoy system and armed guards aboard American vessels. Notwithstanding these precautions, attacks upon convoys, escorts, and individual ships have been frequent, resulting in casualties to both naval personnel and the passengers and crews of merchant vessels.

American lives and interests were under continual hazard in widely separated areas, making it necessary to maintain in Chinese waters a division of destroyers for emergency distribution to affected ports along the coast and the Yangtze River in addition to the regular South China and Yangtze patrols. In the early 1930s severe floods along the entire river valley brought the gunboats and additional ships of the Asiatic Fleet into action again, this time in the humanitarian cause of aiding the millions of Chinese left homeless by the catastrophe.

China, at the close of 1932, was more completely disorganized than at any time since the Revolution of 1911. The Nanking Government now controls only the area adjacent to the lower Yangtze Valley; Manchuria is uncertain; Canton is again estranged; and the country, in the face of the havoc wrought by floods and warfare, is called upon to support the largest number of troops that has ever been under arms in China. Unsettled conditions along the entire length of the Yangtze made it necessary to assign destroyers, usually three at a time, to assist the Yangtze Patrol in its duties.

The summer of 1931 saw the worst flood disaster on record in China. A vast area of central China along the Yangtze River, estimated at 34,000 square miles, was completely inundated. Final estimates stated at least 150,000 lost their lives by drowning, and the property losses reached $500,000,000. The Yangtze Patrol, augmented by destroyers of the Asiatic Fleet, and the Houston, flagship of the commander in chief, cooperated with United States consular officials at Hankow and Nanking, rendering assistance in those areas, and standing by to evacuate United States nationals.

Communism and banditry continued its alarming spread over the central and south-central Provinces of China during the 1931-32 and now constitute the most serious internal problems of China. In addition to the organized communists in these areas, there are large bands of former soldiers terrorizing the country. Their operations were particularly demoralizing to foreign interests along the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze, where, during the low-water period of the past year, navigation by commercial vessels became definitely unsafe, necessitating the continued maintenance of the convoy system and of armed guards in American merchant vessels operating in the middle and upper Yangtze River.

Banditry and communism continued rife along the Yangtze Valley during 1934, where the Yangtze Patrol and armed guards of Marines afford protection to American citizens and their interests. The spread of communism along South China littoral frequently necessitated, upon consular request, the presence of gunboats or destroyers at South China ports for varying periods. Their timely presence had a very steadying effect in these and other seaports. To commemorate the services performed by the personnel of the Navy and Marine Corps during the operations in the valley of the Yangtze River, China, in 1926 and 1927, and 1930 and 1932, a medal known as the "Yangtze Service Medal" was issued to the officers and enlisted men who participated in those operations.

The period for which these medals were issued is from 3 September 1926 to 21 October 1927, and from 1 March 1930 to 31 December 1932, and any officer or enlisted man of the Navy or Marine Corps who served on shore at Shanghai or in the valley of the Yangtze River, China, with a landing force during these periods or part of such periods is entitled to this medal.

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Page last modified: 17-03-2021 18:02:59 ZULU