The Liberation of Fort Bayard

 

The war had been officially over for almost two months when we decided to liberate Fort Bayard. The bomb and the surrender had found me in the Philippines where I would have been quite content to stay for an extended period of time. Manila had been a second home to me, pre-war, so I practically abandoned the Army and moved in with civilian friends. However my command -- an American radio sergeant, a French civilian from Haiphong and two Moi tribesman who were corporals in the French Colonial Army -- became restive and began to make ugly noises. So I reluctantly acceded to the plaintive signals from my headquarters in China and allowed us to be placed on board a plane going back to Kunming.


After disbanding my force, I and another lieutenant, acting strictly on our own initiatives, moved ourselves to a small compound out in the country where we pretended to guard a radio transmitting set-up which had been used, up to the surrender, for contact with an intelligence network in Indo-China. The ex-radio-operators -- two highly educated Chinese girls and one equally well educated half Russian, half Chinese girl -- took excellent care of us and rotated in planning delicious Chinese meals for themselves and for us. At first nightly parties and days spent riding an ugly brute of a moonlight-requisitioned Harley-Davidson over rice paddy walls and up mountain trails kept me well occupied. However a chance encounter with a stubborn mule on a sharp curve eliminated the motorcycle and we soon found it was not our own scintillating personalities but a combination of our radio operators and the Chinese vodka (rice wine produced by a Russian stomping around in rice in his bare feet) which attracted so many people to our parties. Besides we were soon broke and for amusement had to fall back on many hours of lying in our bunks and shooting at a a candle flame at the far end of our room with our .45 automatics. This exercise rarely bothered the flame but did have a dramatic effect on the far walls to the point where we were rapidly running out of rooms.


At this stage the American military establishment in Kunming was in a process of disintegration. Our unit of Military Intelligence was to move to Shanghai but personally I was only interested in being ordered back to Washington where, under the point system, I could get an immediate discharge. Meanwhile, in order to kill time, we decided we ought to liberate something. Even though such liberations were the function of the Chinese Army, they had become quite a fad among the Americans and were often quite interesting. Of course, being latecomers to the field, we couldn’t hope for anything really big, such as Peking or Canton, but we felt we could at least liberate a small city.


Today it is still a mystery how we picked Fort Bayard because I never heard of the place before or since. Probably it was a combination of Chinese vodka, my contacts with the French Military Mission and the fact that our intelligence maps showed an airfield there. It is located roughly 270 miles southwest of Hong Kong on a bay off the China Sea and is the port for the Kwangchow enclave, an area leased by China to France in 1898 for ninety nine years. France’s acquisition of Kwangchow stemmed from its excellent natural harbor and it neighboring coal fields both of which were of importance to a coal-burning navy. As in other treaty ports, the entire administration was controlled by the occupying power until the Japanese moved in at the beginning of the Pacific war.


Although we weren’t even sure that our objective hadn’t already been liberated, we enlisted the support and company of a fellow officer who was able to cut an order directing 14th Air Force to provide us with transportation for a top secret mission to Fort Bayard. One morning before dawn, at a satellite field outside of Kunming, the three of us climbed into a weary and dilapidated C-47 and took off on our mission of liberation. The crew - pilot, co-pilot and crew chief - seemed more resigned than happy and had strict orders to be back at an American airbase by nightfall. We flew over the green, fertile valleys and brown treeless hills of southern China, refueled at Kweilin and arrived over Fort Bayard around noon. We soon located the grass strip and the buzzed the harbor and town to attract attention and show our colors. We were rewarded by a modest stream of vehicles headed out the road to the airfield. A closer examination of the field showed it be very much on the short side but, after two or three dry runs, we stalled in to a bumpy landing and a last-minute 90 degree ground slide which brought us to a shuddering halt beside a large ditch.


Gingerly revving up the the engines, the pilot taxied backup the field and we descended from the plane, shaken but cheerful. About fifty French men and women were assembled to greet us; the men in white clothes and white tops and the women in slightly out-moded but pretty dresses of many colors. They all looked healthy but it was obvious that they had not yet been liberated because we were thoroughly kissed by both sexes. Our pilots, who up to now had been rather grim about the whole affair, evidently felt the weight of responsibility removed their shoulders because the participated enthusiastically in the kissing bee and only took time off to climb back in the plane and radio base that they had landed safely but had developed engine trouble and couldn’t return that night.


We gradually sorted out and, with each liberator in a separate vehicle surrounded by admiring liberees, proceeded into the town proper. The automobiles were distinguished not only by their antiquity and riveted tires but by the small boiler mounted on a rack in the rear of each one. Also on the racks were a pile of charcoal and a Chinese coolie who desperately or leisurely fed the boiler with charcoal depending on whether the car was going uphill or down.


Fort Bayard was a rather nondescript sort of place primarily European in appearance but with definite Oriental overtones. We were taken to the main hotel; a modest building with a sidewalk cafe facing on the main square. Between liquid refreshments we were assigned rooms and proceeded to get organized. We learned that the several thousand Japanese troops in the vicinity had all been pulled into a single area, just outside of town, and had set up an armed camp completely under their own control. They did not bother anybody but, on the other hand, they allowed no one to bother them and no Chinese troops had appeared as yet. Therefore our first order of business seemed to be a gracious acceptance of the surrender of the Japanese commander.

   

Our intrigued airmen showed absolutely no interest this part of the operation and our French friends, although happy to provide us with transportation and point out the way, felt that their country was already sufficiently involved in Europe and that the Pacific was more of an American theater of war. Even we three intelligence officers were beginning to feel that a formal surrender was a rather unnecessary and relatively unimportant ceremony but, bolstered by additional refreshments, a good lunch and the thought of loot in the form of Samurai swords, we decided to get on with the business.


We ran into our first obstacle when we arrived at the gate of the Japanese compound because the sentries, armed with rifles and fixed bayonets, obviously had no intention of letting us in. Our sidearms didn’t give us any advantage in firepower but I did know enough Japanese - mostly derogatory in nature - to keep the guards calling for successively higher-ranking superiors until a captain finally ordered the gates opened and we chugged in. Unfortunately our stoker, probably over-sensitive to loud voices, had deserted his post and we proceeded up to the main building at a steadily decreasing speed.


Awaiting us on the verandah was a Japanese colonel in full uniform, sitting in an arm chair and surrounded by his staff, all armed to the teeth. In a mixture of English, French and Japanese we requested his surrender and specifically asked for his sword and those of his officers. Obviously the colonel had no sense of the appropriate because he informed us, with little humility, that his orders were to surrender only to a military force that could supply protection, food and accommodations for his men. As we didn’t seem to fall into this category, we saw the sweet reasonableness of his argument and, after a rather half-hearted and unsuccessful attempt to get at least one old, second-hand sword,we beat a dignified but relieved retreat in our ancient chariot which, during our parley, had sufficiently rejuvenated itself to get past the gate and out of sight. Then, stoking for ourselves, we returned to our hotel to try to prove that our ignominious defeat had really been a moral victory.


After a few more refreshments we split up into groups to go souvenir hunting. We each had a good supply of cash in Chinese dollars, which felt and smelt like real money having been printed by the American Banknote Co., that had been entrusted to us by our less enterprising confreres in Kunming on a consignment basis. Only two items really came up in the souvenir category; Japanese beer and Scotch whiskey. Cases of the former were easily obtainable and it was amazing how many bottles of pre-war Scotch came out of hiding and were offered for sale.


With the main liberation objectives disposed of we now had time to wash up and get into the clean uniforms we had thoughtfully brought along in case of engine trouble. In the meantime the French had organized and we were each invited to an individual home for aperitifs. We then proceeded in a convoy of boiler-fed vehicles to a nearby Chinese city where the entire second floor of a large restaurant was reserved for the liberation banquet. Aside from ourselves and a few Chinese dignitaries, who did not appear to be very emotionally aroused, the hard core of the party consisted of close to a hundred Frenchmen and their females. There was a dance floor with a four piece orchestra and we would rise to whirl and swirl to pre-war tunes with charming French partners as the banquet progressed. The “Bumps-a-Daisy” was particularly interesting number because of the heavy .45’s we wore on our hips and which accentuated our bumping techniques.


The food, being Chinese, was of course delicious but the pièce de résistance is well worth describing. It was a number of roasted, suckling pigs whose crisp, golden skins had been artistically sliced into little squares so that they could be removed by and eaten with chopsticks. Once the skins had been finished, the piglets were removed and later returned to the table apparently untouched and still in their pink, naked, unborn-looking states. However closer examination showed that all the meat had been cut into cubes, replaced on the carcass and was now ready for the chopsticks.


In casual conversation with the members of the orchestra I found out that they were Filipinos who had been marooned in China by the war and who now wanted all possible news of their homeland. As I spoke a little of their particular dialect, Ilocano, and had lived the Philippines for a number of years, it became old home week and the only pieces they would play from then on were the Philippine National Anthem and God Bless America. This eventually helped to break up the party because the Anthem, although a lively tune, was not exactly designed for dancing and even God Bless America has its limitations. In addition one of my companions, probably unaccustomed to being a liberator, became over-emotional and started shooting lights out with his .45. This caused some confusion but eventually we disarmed him and, after bidding fond and protracted farewells to our dancing partners, we returned to the hotel.


There we were greeted by the now very familiar refrains of the Anthem followed by a snappy rendition of God Bless America. My Filipino friends had anticipated us and were still grateful to their liberators although I suspect the whole affair was beginning to pall a bit on the French, particularly the men. To musical accompaniment we had a few nightcaps and then, as it was about 3 o’clock in the morning, went to our rooms. The orchestra, ever loyal, insisted on joining me in mine and bedded down on the floor. I drifted off to sleep to the soothing sound of God Bless America only to be wakened, in what seemed seconds, by the opening bars of the Anthem. This caused some dissatisfaction among my companions in neighboring rooms and there was heavy pounding on the walls but, cautioning the musicians to keep down in case of stray bullets, we each had a warm beer and returned to sleep. Three more times during the short night this performance was repeated, with increasingly vicious reactions from my fellow liberators, until even the orchestra collapsed and woke with the rest of us at mid-morning.


Without breakfast but with a truck for our souvenirs, we returned to the airfield where we loaded the plane to the sound of music. Our pilots, in view of the short field, were quite concerned about the weight of the souvenirs but, as they rejected any suggestions that we might consume or otherwise dispose of part of their shares, they really had no convincing argument. By this time our French friends, men, women and children, had appeared and we said good-bye again and at length with the orchestra going full blast. Reluctantly we enplaned and, with the now operating motors drowning out the music, taxied to the farthest end of the field. With brakes full on up to the last second and maximum power on the engines, we started with a jerk and wallowed into the air, just clearing the ditch at the end. After circling the now liberated city our pilots, apparently forgetting that they were in a transport plane, exuberantly buzzed the crowd at the airfield and, in the process, reduced the cargo section of the plane to a chaos of flying bodies and bottles.


After cleaning up broken glass and patching our wounds, we thought to celebrate our success with a few beers but each bottle we opened produced little but foam. With typical Yankee ingenuity we evolved a system which not only cooled the beer but eliminated most of the foam. In the center of each of the plane’s windows was a small rubber-edged porthole; presumably to fire out of although why anybody would want to shoot out of a C-47 is beyond me. By jamming a beer bottle in each porthole and asking the pilot to fly at around 12,000 feet, the beer cooled off nicely and then a quick descent to hedge-hopping level allowed us to open the bottles with a minimum of foam. Several repetitions of this procedure kept up our spirits and we arrived back at base tired but with the good feeling of mission accomplished.