After relaxing a few months in Alameda, it was inevitable that we would return to the combat area in the Western Pacific. The Gardiners Bay was replenished with supplies of all kinds for its next tour of duty off the coast of China. We left for Westpac late in the spring of 1955. After a short stop in Hawaii, the balance of the crossing was uneventful. The ship had spent several years supporting patrol and air-sea rescue operations off the coast of China. As a mobile unit, it was possible to be dispatched to any part of the area on short notice. The Korean War had been in progress for several years, and was a combat zone. We were headed for the heart of the fresh conflict between the Communist Chinese and the Nationalists, headed by Chiang Kai-Shek. The site of this conflict was the Strait of Formosa. That is precisely where we were headed.
Our first stop was in Chi-lung, a port city on the northern tip of Formosa, now called Taiwan. A map and a short history lesson will make our visit come into a clear focus. Following WWII, the United Nations recognized only one China. In 1955 we were 10 years downstream from that UN agreement. Political diplomacy had been established with only one China. Military assistance was given only to one China. The United States, and all other non-Communist countries were committed to protecting one China. That one China was Nationalist China, also known as the Republic of China (ROC). When the communists consolidated power in China, they pushed the Nationalists off the mainland. Chiang moved a million of his supporters onto the islands offshore from the mainland, with the bulk moving to Taiwan. It was an island safely detached from the rest of the Asian continent by the Strait of Taiwan, a distance of about 100 miles. Chi-lung may be seen in the upper right corner of the following map. The Pescadores can be seen in the lower middle, while the Island of Quemoy is in the left-center of the map eight miles from the mainland.
From 1949, when Chiang was deposed, the Communists under Mao Tse-Tung issued regular threats that they were going to take control of Taiwan. In response, Chiang stated that the Nationalists were going to return to the mainland to resume their rightful leadership over all of China. Both sides to this conflict had been issuing these threats on a regular basis for six years to date. At the same time, the American press issued regular reports that Nationalist gunboats conducted raids on the mainland of China, shelling targets and renewing the hope that Chiang would rise again. From June 1950, the US Seventh Fleet was ordered to prevent any attacks on Taiwan, and simultaneously was blockading Taiwan from attacking the mainland. In February of 1953, the blockade portion was lifted, releasing Chiang to do his thing. From that time forward, Chiang was preparing for his return.
Much of the shooting war started during our previous tour to the area. Following removal of the Taiwan blockade, in August 1954 Chiang moved 58,000 troops from Taiwan to Quemoy, and another 15,000 to Matsu. This threatening move provoked Mao, who started an artillery bombardment of Quemoy in September. He followed this by bombing the Tachen Islands. In November the Communist Chinese sentenced 13 US airmen shot down in the Korean War to long prison terms, causing the US to threaten the use of atomic bombs in the area. The communists also seized Yijiangshan Island, 200 miles north of Taiwan, completely wiping out the Nationalist forces there. Fighting was occurring along many of the offshore islands as well as along the coast of mainland China. This was the scene we were entering in the summer of 1955.
We stopped first in Taiwan because it was the political and diplomatic nerve center for the one China policy, the home of the Nationalist Chinese. We were acknowledging their political, diplomatic, and economic position of prominence in the world. On arrival in Chi-lung, I was asked to escort the Mayor to the ship for an official visit. Little did I appreciate that he was representing three billion Chinese. All these years I thought it was because I was the lowest ranking officer in the food chain. Somehow I missed the honor, but I did capture the 1955 event on film as shown below. From my perspective, the highlight was riding in the Captain’s Gig without the Captain being present.
It’s not a great picture, but I have come to appreciate exactly how many times three billion Chinese, when laid end to end, would wrap around the world. That’s me below the mayor, making sure he doesn’t fall back down the ladder. Following this brief official visit, the Captain chose to accompany the mayor ashore in person, relieving me of that honor.
While in Chi-lung, I was fascinated by a coal freighter, which was at anchor immediately astern. It was riding high in the water, as shown by its orange waterline. The ship was loaded almost entirely through hand labor. After three days, it was fully loaded by hundreds of Chinese laborers, and its orange waterline disappeared below the surface. Each barge is seen riding low in the water with its load of coal piled as high as possible. One man was responsible for each barge, which he moved from the back with a single oar. Moving the barges and loading the coal was a slow and arduous process, but China had not yet been mechanized, and laborers were available by the millions. It just took a little longer.
Having paid our official respects in Chi-lung, we had no need to remain in the area. From there we headed toward the Pescadores, a group of islands 25 miles west of Taiwan. The chief population center, Ma-kung, was only a short distance from an anchorage for some of the Nationalist gunboats. I eagerly anticipated seeing the gunboats that had been striking terror in the hearts of the communists on the mainland.
Throughout this tour, patrol planes were reporting all sea-based activity in the area on a continuous basis. The patrols included both land-based planes, and the more versatile PBMs, which could operate from land or protected coves as needed. Their findings were all reported through encrypted messages up and down the chain of command. We were a primary link in this communication network, which turned our crypto shack into the shipboard location that was humming continuously. All officers with secret and top secret clearance spent many hours in the crypto shack. This required knowing how to use the latest encryption machines, including both encoding and decoding. The messages requiring distribution on the ship were circulated using covered clipboards for signatures from the appropriate personnel. While you could work yourself to death in the crypto shack, it was also one of the few places on the ship where you could lock the door and enjoy some peace and quiet.
On arriving near Ma-kung, we anchored in a protected harbor, and tendered ashore for a close-up view of the Nationalist Navy’s gunboats. Two are shown below. As may be seen, they are both high and dry, suggesting that their war will be on hold at least until high tide arrives. The sailors were all collected on the boat on the right, and there were more visible on deck than could be counted. A group of officers from the Gardiners Bay is seen walking along the pier to the shore from their close-up view of these gunboats.
For a nation representing three billion persons, their gunboats did not inspire much confidence, but they were manned with more sailors than you could count. The boats appeared to be junks from the 19th century, which had been adapted to serve their new mission. In spite of their ancient appearance, I was told they were equipped with gray-marine diesel engines, were capable of cruising at 25 knots or better, and were highly maneuverable. Not clearly visible in the photograph were dozens of 50-caliber machine guns, which could be aimed and fired without restriction, regardless of the orientation of each boat. Their sailors should all be given ribbons for working these men-o-war in the open seas. On the Gardiners Bay, we were all awarded China Service ribbons for our operating within the war zone.
Unlike the ships of war, which were riding high and dry, the Nationalists had a supply ship that accompanied them on their missions. It was heavily endowed, and required adequate buoyancy to maintain its structural integrity. It is shown at anchor on the other side of the same pier. As may be seen, it is equally impressive, and displays a decor that complements that of the gunboats.
Based upon appearance alone, it seemed the Nationalists could use all the protection we could provide. Had we not done so, Taiwan might have become part of Communist China. As it is, Taiwan is now one of the world’s most productive and modern economies. They have clearly come a long way since 1955.
In August, the Communist Chinese announced they were releasing the 13 pilots, who they had sentenced earlier to long jail terms. Accepting this as a sign of friendlier times in the Taiwan Strait, our command chose to send us to Hong Kong for administrative and other duties as may be assigned. We left the Pescadores immediately, and headed for the British Crown Colony, leaving the Nationalist Navy to fend for itself.