Eyewitness to the Battle (II)

One of the most perceptive witnesses of the battle of Shanghai in the fall of 1937 was Best Overend (1909-1977), an architect for a British firm, Lester, Johnson and Morriss. What follows is the second of three installments of his dramatic recollections from the Shanghai battle. It describes the mass exodus from Zhabei, a district in north Shanghai, at the start of the hostilities, as well as the carnage wrought when Chinese airplanes accidentally dropped bombs over the international sections of the city. The photo shows Overend (bottom right) and his friend Bim (top left). Photo courtesy of Overend’s son, Tronn Overend.

The text is an edited extract from Tramp to Shanghai: a young man’s tale before the war, by Best Overend and Tronn Overend available as a free iBook from the iTunes store. The extract was first carried in the June, 2013 issue of Quadrant magazine (www.quadrant.org.au) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Quadrant and Tronn Overend. The modern versions of proper names are given in brackets. 

The coolies started moving long before the fighting started. Fearing another Chapei (Zhabei; referring to fighting in Shanghai in 1932 between Chinese and Japanese forces), the exodus from the Chinese city to the Foreign Settlement continued for weeks. It was amusing in one way. When our pioneers asked for territory in their own right, that piece of mud, Shanghai, was presented as a sort of superior Celestial joke. Now it was to this piece of mud that the Celestial looked for protection. The average Chinese probably appreciated the humour as much as anyone. In the offices there was excitement amongst the Chinese. Crudely printed Broadsheets, in red and black, sold hourly for one cent – about a sixth of a penny – and kept them informed of the progress in the North. At every street corner great bursts of ‘red devil’ crackers mingled with the booming of really big bungers. They put tremendous heart into the population. They also served to spread the news of minor victories. It was a form of wireless, spreading at 1100 feet a second, that is to say the speed of sound. As soon as one corner – usually a newspaper office – commenced with a large one tossed from the editorial window, the next took it up, and so the infernal refrain travelled in to the heart of the country. The amount of gunpowder so joyously expended must have been considerable. And this much at least may be said; it is the only manner in which that material may be used with the fullest of spiritual proprieties. It seemed really great fun, and quite the proper way to run a war.

In Shanghai the situation became increasingly grave. It was a moot point whether, in event of local hostilities, there would be a physical boundary between the fighting areas and the International Settlement. Japan used quite a portion of this latter territory as a war base during the trouble of 1932, and it became increasingly evident she would use it in considerably greater proportions in 1937. It was unreasonable, therefore, to expect the Chinese armed forces not to treat the area as a target. That China exercised this courtesy in 1932 was beside the point. Chinese shells had to land on Chinese soil, so why not the Foreign Concessions? They didn’t expect much help from foreigners anyway.

Refugees from Zhabei streaming into the International Settlement.

For three weeks the stream of refugees from Chapei became a river. Before your eyes, two million people on the move. They headed up river, up creek, up canal, as well as into the International Settlement. Tugs pulled or guided through the massed junks. These were lines of floating carriages stuffed with refugees on shelves at twenty four inch vertical centres. There were no decks as we know them. A stream of rickshaws formed the more usual mode of transport, all piled high with pots and pans and plaited grass baskets bursting with the most intimate of family possessions. Out through the interstices of these masses appeared the twinkling legs of the runner, the worried face of the women, the very elderly, and the subdued refined face of the infant at breast. The word ‘coolie’ has as its origin, KU, meaning heavy, and LI meaning distance. This coolie invasion to the interior was natural. The coastal towns would naturally feel the force of the efficient Japanese bombers first. If it was possible to get far enough inland, by the time the conquering people pushed their sphere of influence to the refuge, they might well be content to conciliate. If there was conscious reasoning, this was the cause of the exodus.

Have you ever seen a deserted city? Use a time machine and come to Hongkew (Hongkou) that night. See the trucks loading outside every shop taking away the stock. The tenants will leave soon after. I got back to my flat just in time to receive a phone call from Bim’s special political branch. Ringing from the deserted Union, his “squad-double” told me of the invasion of the bar by two Nippon marines. I rang Lai – and I was damn lucky to find him – to tell him to keep clear, to wipe off his losses and to stick around where he was. They left within the hour. I went down with Bim, secure in his presence. It was funny to see the bar deserted. Two kittens climbed over the beer barrels and fooled with the ice. The children cried as they left them. We watched, for an hour or so, from the two foot wide verandah on the first floor, while I tried to pick up Lai again by telephone. The automatic exchange reported it out of order, but we all knew what that meant. Alex, complete in uniform and tin hat, had left before everybody else. ‘Shanghai Volunteer Corps (S.V.C.) directed to report for duty in 30 minutes’. After, Bim and I went down North Szechuan Road together and stood at the boundary in the middle of a crowd of Chinese, police and S.V.C. People watched the deserted and dark roadway. Keeping in the shadows, for fear of snipers, the Japanese marines doubled across the road. The blockhouses were manned and the whole district was infested with Japanese specials, with armlets and clubs, operating in groups. We walked for two hours in the dark Chinese roadways. Always there were Japanese marines in full war kit waiting with horizontal fixed bayonets. You got off the footpath to pass. Back at the GardenBridge were two armoured cars and the S.V.C. On the way we called at the Union – evacuated completely of course – so we selected one leather dice box as souvenir. Bim and I cleaned out the remaining whisky. Everything else went within an hour of leaving, stripped except for oddments in bottles. It was blown to glory in the morning.

At twelve midnight, the alleged zero hour, we were at the North Szechuan Road boundary, just inside the gates sitting on shop stallboards. Nothing happened except squads of Japanese marines running across the roadway, official cars coming through without lights, and police on motorcycles shouting orders. There were no Chinese troops visible of course. Trucks of marines were passing. This fighting business, we decided, was a serious affair. Although Tokyo naturally took strong exception, the shooting affray at the Hungao (Hongqiao) aerodrome that same evening was simply explained. An officer and driver, both in Japanese uniform, and in an official car, were driving to the Chinese aerodrome. Any other foreign resident in Shanghai would never have dreamt of doing it, even in daylight. It was a colossal effrontery, or a conscious attempt to see what would happen on a Settlement Road. Or had they been selected for the honour of being the match for the tinder? As the Japanese premier said: “Japan has been known to be victimised”.

Twenty eight Japanese warships came into Shanghai that last day. A display of strength is most often followed by duress. From them, a constant stream of fully armed and equipped marines streamed. They took the place of the refugees, and with them came load after load of ammunition and military supplies, machine guns, lumber, parts of bridges and pontoons. They took the place of the household furniture removed by the refugees. It appeared that the campaign had already been arranged.

The Shanghai newspapers were down to a skeleton owing to a lack of gas to run the machines. But what you didn’t read and hear you saw and smelt. After the bombing of Bloody Saturday August the 14th, the bodies stank along Racecourse Road for three days. Some were in open cheap pine coffins without lids, some in shining and curved black ones with lids, and others just piled in filthy heaps of stench. The hundreds of bodies were white blanched, bellies were distended, and they make odd noises – sighing sometimes, sometimes a throaty rattle – most were naked and all stank like common meat gone bad. Even the Chinese, walking past and milling round in curiosity, held their hands to their nose. When an odour is apparent and unpleasant to a Chinese it is some odour. Fluid crept out from each corpse, or pile of fragments, as they began to fall apart. The explosions had blown the clothes off, leaving scraps tied round the hands and feet or neck, but more often than not there was nothing. There was a rickshaw coolie eighty yards away from a hole in the road in the French Concession. He was dead without a mark and naked as he was born.

Nanking Road after the bombing.

At the corner of the Bund that day the street was a shambles. Outside the Palace and Cathay Hotels, in Nanking Road, slabs of human liver were wiped across the pavement. The indignity of this sort of death. Some were only scraps, or not even that. A foreign girl’s dress hung from the parapet eight floors up. There was nothing in it. A motor car was burnt out as clean as a whistle. It rested, seemingly untouched, on its rims. The thing at the wheel was a skeleton with attenuated flesh; wool skeins draped around the bone cinders. It still grasped the wheel. A closer inspection showed holes in the burnt car’s body from bullets or fragments. The upholstery had incinerated leaving only the spiral springs. This happened in a hot second or so. It was a Lincoln Zephyr.

When the Chinese planes suddenly appeared in the cloud rift that afternoon, the three visible looked as wicked as a set of sliding snakes and as beautiful and as efficient as three sharks. The bombs fell away in a set of four. Slow at first falling, they quickly formed a parabolic arc until they vanished in the enormous cloud of dust and flame that marked the Palace and Cathay Hotels. The dust came over the flat roof of the Police headquarters where we were watching, billiard cues in hand. It filled our eyes and nostrils. We finished our game before we went down to see the damage. We were very close; almost as close as the ones that morning. As always, they were preceded by an enormous barrage of Japanese anti-aircraft shells, a chattering series of roars. Staccato marked the bursting of shrapnel over the area raked. The bangs and puffs of black smoke emanated from the Japanese, the white from the Chinese. All rained bits of shrapnel and shining bullets along the roof tops. Those bombs struck near the Japanese flagship, Idzuma (Izumo), tied up near the Soochow Creek (Suzhou Creek). The first one went off before I knew what was to be expected. The enormous explosion, flame and shattering roar, mushroomed along the river front. I had to hold in horror the window sill to keep myself upright. The others walked steadily and slowly across the river and only sent up great gouts of water and fragments of sampans. The remaining river sampans were round the pieces of wreckage within a few minutes. It was probable that less time was wasted looking for human fragments than was spent in collecting the more valuable pieces of wood. Certainly the Whangpoo (Huangpu) was very quickly swept clean and its yellow tide slid slowly upstream without a mark. It was after that afternoon affair that I hurriedly evacuated my flat, carrying my own bags across the GardenBridge and past the deserted British Consulate. By then, bombs had fallen on both sides of my place and it was rumoured that another attack was expected that night. They came within an hour. (To be continued.)

Categories: Battle

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