Okinawa: First Landing (Nov 1975)

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By Paul Berger

It happens every time two or more Marines sit down over a glass of beer. One of them has a tale to tell.

This time the honors fell on Cpl Arthur Scott, who had just returned from the Orient.

"The landing at Naha was a total success," Cpl Scott began. "We ran into no opposition whatsoever.

"It was the 6th of June, and more than 200 men participated. We were all spit-shined, and in our blues with normal arms, and it was hot as a firecracker standing around on deck waiting for the boats to be lowered.

"Finally, all the troops took off for Tomari, near Naha. We splashed along in whaleboats while Commodore Perry brought up the rear in his barge. When we hit the beach, the Marines fell in, and the artillerymen moved their weapons on line. The natives were pretty excited, and I can't say that I blame them. I'd be excited too, if I got my first glimpse of a cannon from the muzzle end.

"As the commodore passed down our ranks, the column was formed. Maj Jacob Zeilin, as Fleet Marine Officer, commanded the entire Marine battalion. He's a sharp officer; should go far.

"First came two field pieces, each flying the American ensign, and under command of Lt Bent. Strolling out front was Mr. Bennett, master of the Susquehanna, and two interpreters. Next came the band from the Mississippi. Behind them was a company of Marines led by Maj Zeilin.

"The commodore followed. You'd never guess how. In a sedan chair! Like a maharaja, no less! He was riding in a sedan chair that had been hammered together by the ship's carpenters, and was carried by eight Chinese, with a Marine bodyguard on each side. Actually, he wasn't just putting on the dog. He knew that he had to impress the natives with the importance of the mission, and he sure was. Painted red, and draped in streamers, I'm sure it was the fanciest vehicle the natives had ever laid eyes on.

"Three officers followed the chair, and then came several Chinese carrying gifts for the prince and the queen dowager. The gifts were guarded by a file of Marines.

"Another group of officers walked behind the gifts, while the band from the Susquehanna and a second company of Marines brought up the rear.

"What with the beautiful weather, the dress uniforms, the weapons, and the bands playing, the parade was pretty impressive. The natives seemed to enjoy the whole thing. Many of the youngsters ran ahead to watch us pass in review the second time."

Of course, this was not a tale of any recent landing on Okinawa, nor was Cpl Scott telling it recently. He was relating his experiences as a member of the Marine battalion that accompanied Commodore Matthew C. Perry on his expedition to establish trade with Japan in 1852.

"I should go back and tell you how we got started on the cruise," Scott continued. "It was November 1852 that we finally left Norfolk after months of preparation. There were ten ships assigned to the squadron, but we left alone on the Mississippi. The other ships were going to catch up with us somewhere along the way.

"We sighted land on December 11th. It was the town of Funchal, in Madeira. We'd had a coupl'a days of bad weather, but other than that it was a fine trip. I found out that steamships eat a lotta coal. In order to maintain a speed of seven knots, the Mississippi used 26 tons of coal a day, and we had to stop at almost every port that could refuel us. We bought between 400 and 500 tons, and picked up 10,000 gallons of water at Funchal.

"Coaling's no simple matter. We spent less than two days at Funchal, and everybody turned to. Everyone but the skipper and the cook was put to work.

"When we crossed the equator, ceremonies were held to initiate the polliwogs. I became a shellback at 11 degrees, 01 minute, west longitude.

"Our next stop was Jamestown, on the island of St. Helena. Ships trading between England and India put in there, and Jamestown has belonged to the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English East India Company, and to England. We resupplied again, and went ashore.

"When Napoleon was dethroned, he built an estate, called Longwood, near Jamestown. He was buried there when he died, and we all went to see his grave. We hadda pay to see it, and then found out his remains had been taken back to France. Big deal.

"Anyhow, we just stayed there one day, and then we weighed anchor for the Cape of Good Hope. The shipboard routine was starting to get on my nerves. Close order drill. Physical drill. Gun drill. If we'da run outta coal, I'm sure the Mariries would'a paddled the thing.

"The next land we saw was Saldanha Bay, and we sort'a worked our way slowly up the channel to Table Bay and spent the night there. In the morning we moved closer to Capetown.

"This turned out to be a bustling city of 200,000. There was good food, water and plenty of supplies there. We stayed for five days, doin' the usual loading, and just lookin' around town. It was a real wild town, what with the trading ships stopping midway in their travels from Europe to the East.

"The next 15 days we spent back in the miserable shipboard routine. We sailed into Port Louis on the island of Mauritius, a volcanic lookin' place. This time a coal ship had been sent ahead to refuel us; a good thing, since there wasn't any to be had locally.

"A few of the officers went ashore here, to pay their respects to the local officials, but we didn't stay long enough to pull any liberty; we headed for Ceylon.

"At Ceylon, we stopped at Pointe de Galle. There was some kind'a order by the Oriental Steam Navigation Company that no coal was to be given to any warships, but we lucked out and got some from the Bengal government. I wouldn't want'a get stuck in Ceylon too long. They had elephants runnin' and stompin' all over everything, includin' people. The colonial government paid a bounty of $1.85 for each elephant tail brought in, and claimed they collected 600 tails in the past year. But I think the elephants were still ahead'a the game.

"One other thing I'll always remember about Ceylon. Coconuts. They grew coconuts all over the place. The green nut is used for food; the ripe ones are dried for copra and oil, and the leftovers are used for cattle food. The husks are made into rope; the leaves into houses, and the shells into utensils. Sap from the trees, called 'toddy,' is fermented and distilled into arrack, a fine but powerful alcoholic drink.

"Five days outta Ceylon we steamed into the Straits of Malacca, where the channels were narrow and tricky. The guys at the wheels started to really earn their pay there. After about 10 days monkeying around those channels, we pulled into Singapore.

"One'a the richest trading cities in the world, Singapore had ships from every country anchored in the bay. We didn't stay long, and I really didn't care much. I thought Ceylon was bad with all those elephants, but Singapore was worse. It's loaded with tigers! Rumor had it that at least one poor soul a day was killed and eaten by tigers. They said too, that the critters liked Chinese better'n Malayans. I didn't want to give the tigers their first taste of an American.

"The next coupl'a. weeks we sailed up'n down between Macao and Hong Kong, and then up the Yang-tse river to Whampoa, near Canton. The other ships of the squadron started to catch up with us, and we were taking on the looks of a real fleet.

"On April 28th, 1853, we headed for Shanghai, but the Saratoga stayed behind to wait for Dr. Williams, who lived somewhere in China, and was going to be the official interpreter when we went to the Lew Chews (Ryukyus). The Yang-tse wasn't intended for ships of our size, and the Susquehanna, the Plymouth and the Supply all ran aground. The Supply thumped on a sand bar for nearly a day before the wind turned for the better and got'er off.

"When we got to Shanghai, the commodore and some officers went to visit the American firm of Russel & Company. We picked up five tons of Chinese 'cash,' which doesn't amount to much in dollars, to be used as money in trading with the Lew Chewans. Then we headed east for the port of Naha on the Great Lew Chew island (Okinawa).

"By May 26th, we entered Naha harbor. The island was real green and lush looking, with the city of Naha sitting near the water at the bottom of some steep hills. The hills were cultivated in terraces, nearly to the top.

"We were all surprised to see the British flag run up a pole as we entered the harbor. It turned out that a Dr. Bettelheim, an English missionary, had been living on the island for five or six years. We found out later that the natives weren't too enthused about becoming Christians, and didn't particularly like Dr. Bettelheim.

"A coupl'a hours after we anchored, two local men came out in a boat. They delivered a card with some Chinese writing on it, and sort'a snooped around to see what they could see. One'a the Chinese on the Susquehanna said the card was an official recognition of our visit, but I'm sure those two guys were spying.

"On May 27th, the commodore sent a boat out to paddle around the harbor, just to let the natives know we weren't gonna sit aboard our ships and rot. One of the officers came back with a report on the beauty of the water and the coral reefs. Of all the wonders of the sea which have furnished food for poetry and fable, this was assuredly the most beautiful,' he said.

"Lt Contee, with Mr. Williams as interpreter, went ashore to visit the mayor of Naha. They invited him to visit the ships. When the mayor showed up, we were all standing by in blues to render honors.

"The oldest man of the group turned out to be the regent, acting for the prince, who was a lad of 11, and was sick. Six or eight official-looking men followed the regent, and about a dozen others tagged along. As they came aboard, we fired a three-gun salute, and they were so scared that a coupl'a them dropped to their knees.

"The Lew Chewans seemed to be dignified people, and wore flashy wrap-around robes with sashes. They had pins in their hair, and wore 'hatchee matchees,' a fez-type hat. The different colors and styles of robes, and different hairpins, seemed to indicate what their social status was.

"They spent about an hour or so with the commodore, just chit-chattin'. I found out later that the commodore had said he would visit the palace on the 6th of June, and that the regent put up all kinds of objections. He said the queen was sick, and the excitement of foreigners visiting the palace would do her no good. He offered to throw a big wing-ding at his house if the commodore would come there.

"But the commodore drove a hard bargain. He said that as a diplomatic representative of the United States, he felt he was entitled to visit the highest official of the islands.

"The Lew Chewans left, and we shot off another three-gun salute, but they must'a caught on fast. They weren't so scared this time.

"We got the word later that the regent had told the commodore it was okay to sound liberty call, and we were about ready for a little liberty. We left the ship with orders to go real easy, and not interfere with the natives in any way.

"We walked the streets and markets of Naha, and all the people were polite and what not, but if you tried to talk to them, they'd just, back off and leave. We did get a drink of water by using arm and hand signals, but that's about all.

"I had guessed right about the clothes. The commoners wore simple, brown cotton or grass cloth robes, and the kids ran around naked.

"Native men attached themselves to each group of Americans, and kept a close watch on everything we did. They even took notes, and seemed to have some sort'a advance warning system to tell the villagers we were coming. By the time we passed a house, it was all closed up. We never saw one woman, and I kind'a got the feeling they didn't trust us too much yet.

"An exploration party was sent out on a five-day march through the boonies to get some dope on the terrain, crops and such stuff. This old Lew Chew man, Pe-ching, escorted the group, and tried to trick them into taking a road that led back to the ships. He sure didn't want any snoopin' around on his island.

"It was getting near time to visit the palace, and the Lew Chewans kept dreaming up more reasons why we shouldn't. A British officer visited once, they said, and that's why the queen is sick now. She got too disturbed over the whole deal.

"But the commodore was a shrewd cookie. He counter-attacked with the idea that if the Queen of England could send a representative to the palace, certainly the President of the United States should be shown the same respect.

"I already told you when I started the story that we took off for the palace on the 6th of June. But, just before we got to the gates, someone made a laststand attempt to keep us out.

"All through the streets, the people smiled, ran happily along, enjoying the music and festivities. The police kept the roads open, and we had no trouble. All of a sudden there was a mob'a people in our path, and they wanted us to make a column left to the regent's house. But we marched right on through, the mob backing out of the way quietly, and there was no trouble.

"Someone must'a thought that shenanigan would work, though, 'cause the gates were closed. No commoners were allowed in the area, by the way. We passed under a big arch, with the Chinese characters 'The Place of Authority" written on it, and were strictly in officers' country. Somebody sent a runner out, and the gates were opened up. We formed ranks and presented arms. The commodore and his officers marched into the palace as the band played 'Hail Columbia.'

"They stayed in there about an hour, but I understand the regent kept trying to talk the Americans into going over to his house for a party. Since nothing was being accomplished anyhow, Commodore Perry agreed to this.

"The trip to the palace was a matter of saving face. The Americans said they would go, and they did. The Lew Chewans said the queen and the prince wouldn't see them, and they didn't. Each group recognized the other as a bunch of shrewdies.

"The parade formed again, and we made the short march to the regent's house.

"The commodore and his officers were treated to a 12-course banquet, but didn't really get much chow out of it. The first eight courses were nothing but soup. The regent brought out jugs and jugs of sake, a rice wine, to keep things interesting while all that soup was being put away. The sake was served in tiny cups, but in great quantity, and by the time the party broke up everyone was in a good mood.

"When the officers started to leave, the regent claimed that he had 12 more courses ready, which would'a been a double honor. Visiting royalty normally gets 12 courses. Toasts were proposed to both nations, and the regent's interpreter, Ichirazichi, talked about his knowledge of the United States. He called George Washington 'a very great mandarin.'

"Ol' Pe-ching, the same guide who led the exploration party, led the parade out of Shuri. Four ponies were furnished for the procession, and a coupl'a officers darn near broke their necks try in' to ride those nags. They finally gave up.

"After all the pomp and ceremony, you'd think the commodore would'a had something important to say, but you know what impressed him most? Cleanliness. And I'm not surprised, after the way we'd been swabbin' his decks. He said he'd never seen a town so clean; not a speck of dirt or even dust was to be found in the houses. The commodore must be more observant than me. I wasn't lookin' for dirt or dust, of course. I can tell you, though, that I hadn't seen any women yet.

"Gifts were sent to the queen, the prince, and to the other officials as soon as we got back aboard ship. The queen got a fancy mirror and some French perfume.

"We went back to regular shipboard routine, with the sailors having boat drill in the harbor, and the Marines holding close order drill on shore. The Lew Chewans turned out by the hundreds to watch us. They probably thought we were a bunch'a nuts, stompin' around but not goin' anywhere.

"The squadron was about to leave, and we went through the back-breakin' business of hauling supplies aboard again. The commodore paid for everything we got, and do you know, those folks didn't want to take any money? The Old Man had to force the money on 'em. They'd never taken money from anyone before, just gave away their goodies like they were rich, which they weren't. This was the first time they'd been involved in international trade, and the commodore was real proud of the way it came off.

"So the CP was switched to the Susquehanna, and the Supply and Mississippi stayed behind to keep up the dealings with the Lew Chewans. It was the 9th of June when we pulled out to explore the Bonin Islands, and then go to Japan to make a deal with the Emperor.

"The landing in Japan was even more fabulous. Some day, when I've got more time, I'll tell you about it."