With the surrender of Japan in August, 1945, Harold Stephens, an 18-year-old US Marine raised on a farm in Pennsylvania, was greatly anticipating, like most of his fellow comrades in the 6th Marine Division, returning to jubilant parades back home. However, their superiors had other plans in store:
“We were not loading ships to go home! . . . We were loading ships to go to China to repatriate the Japanese forces. That was the reason they gave, but there were other factors at hand which they didn’t tell us. These we would find out for ourselves much later. All we knew now was that we were going to a foreign land we hardly knew existed, nor did we know exactly why we were going. We made no decisions, and controlled no destinies, not even our own. We were told to pack our gear, and to load the ships. That was all we knew.”
Their destination in China was none other than Tsingtao (Qingdao), where a large U.S. Marine and Navy garrison was stationed from 1945-1948. More than 50 years later in 2002, Stephens recorded his stories from these heady times in the autobiographical Take China: The Last of the China Marines. The book is a fascinating read into a largely overlooked, yet important part of Qingdao’s short yet perplexing history.
When the U.S. Marines landed on October 15th, 1945 in Jiaozhou Bay, Stephens speaks of a reception that likely surpassed many of those occurring at the same time back home in the US: “Each and everyone there that day, without exception, babies included, held small American flags which they waved frantically.”
Over the next 300+ pages Stephens “tell(s) it how it was,” with stories of:
* sipping on Tsingtao Beer at the many lively bars, including Prime Club, Cherry Club and even New York Bar (not the same one pumping music every night on Xianggang Lu), while having to wait in line for a dance with the bar girls, and at the same time avoiding fake liquor
* various platoons of the Marines ‘adopting’ impoverished Chinese children
* physical training while hungover at Laoshan
* learning Mandarin from English missionaries who had spent the previous seven years in a Japanese concentration camp
* coming across “black marketers, dope peddlers, smugglers, derelicts and war profiteers from all over the world,”
* meeting China’s last surviving imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, in the hutongs while studying Mandarin in Beijing
* doing military police duty and chasing Marines out of bordellos – the largest one being called Ping-Pong Wooley’s which was located in a liyuan
* rescuing spy planes on the other side of the Shandong peninsula in an area controlled by Mao and the Communists
* a growing charm with Chinese civilization gained through the study of the language, and accepting its concomitant Sinicization
* and of course, romance.
Stephens found himself caught between falling in love with a stateless White Russian and a Chinese woman, in spite of the fact that, “in 1946, trying to maintain a romance with a Chinese woman was near impossible. Any serious relationship had to be clandestine. Let it be known that a Marine entertained the idea of marrying a Chinese woman and he was on the next boat back Stateside.”
After three years, Harold Stephens and the remaining U.S. Marines left Qingdao in an exit that was a far-cry from the welcoming parade they originally received upon arrival. Another major battle for Qingdao looked like a great possibility (like that in 1914 when Japan seized the colony from Germany) as Mao’s Communist forces surrounded the city, but the Americans left without any major skirmishes. According to the St. Petersburg Times, just before the American Marines evacuated at the end of 1948, there were as many as 3,600 Marines along with a 12-ship task force stationed in Qingdao. Stephens didn’t have such an easy time leaving. Just before the hasty evacuation, Stephens was sent with a crew in two jeeps to rescue some Western nuns at a convent/orphanage in Laoshan. All of his fellow cohorts on the mission were murdered by bandits (his Mandarin abilities had saved his life), while he was captured and sent to an island before making an epic escape by swimming the Yellow Sea to safety in the middle of winter.
Thirty seven years after Liberation in 1949, the U.S Navy once again docked warships in China, their first time back to Qingdao since the evacuation of the 40’s. When U.S. sailors took a shore leave in Qingdao for an evening back in 1986, they experienced a considerably more subdued welcoming, and a much improved Qingdao than that of pre-Liberation days.
Check out some more amazing photos of Qingdao during this time period at this photo archive of Life images. One picture from the list worth noting is what was called Edgewater Mansions at the time. It was originally built in 1936 with major investments coming from the US, and it was Qingdao’s earliest large scale modernistic architecture. This was supposedly where US Marine and Navy officials and their families stayed during the occupation from 1945-1948. Today it is located at 5 Huiquan Lu (汇泉路5号) and is right next to the Donghai Hotel (on Google maps here) near Beach Number 2 in Badaguan and Beach Number 1 at Huiquan Bay. The now blue-green structure serves as pretty much the only major concrete evidence of historical American influence in Qingdao.
Order your copy of Take China: The Last of the China Marines here. Pictures from Harold Stephens in Qingdao during 1945-1948 are viewable on his website. For more information, there are some excerpts from the book to be found here, and you can also view a video from CCTV coverage of Harold Stephens’ recent return to Qingdao. Finally, take a look at one more photo showing the arrival of American Marines in Qingdao harbor in 1945 from the Qingdao Municipal Archives.
By the way, if anyone is interested in helping to translate Stephens’ book into Mandarin, you can email Marcus.
Hal Stephens Official Website
Photo credits @ haroldstephens.net