180 Relative   /   List of Ed's writings and art
Ed Bookhardt Pt.2 180-01T
January 2009
Uncle Buck, an ASIATIC FLEET Sailor
See the companion piece to this story
The Black Gang
This is a bit of nautical lore of long ago. It covers the naval career of my uncle. His nickname was “Buck.” I always liked the masculine sound of that name and though I seldom saw him as a child, I grew very fond of him as I matured. 
Heber C. Bookhardt [China 1920s]
He was a man of average height and build with thin jet-black hair. Quiet and solemn, he emanated a certain aura of mystery and intrigue. His cold dark eyes reflected a deep inner sadness, perhaps hiding events in his life which he did not wish to reveal. Uncle was an Asiatic Fleet sailor.

World War I call-up

With the mobilization of the Armed Forces following the Declaration of War in April 1917, it was very easy for a young man to enlist in the Services as over four million Americans were called up to serve in World War I. At age fifteen, Uncle caught up in the patriotic frenzy and lure of the unknown, ran away from home to join the Navy.

In October 1917 he was accepted for enlistment and underwent recruit training in Norfolk, Virginia. Following "Boots", he had several assignments; first was aboard the original Battleship USS New Jersey BB-16. The New Jersey was being used primarily as a training vessel, operating in and around the Chesapeake Bay. Following seamanship training he was assigned to a converted German merchant vessel.

It should be noted that prior to officially entering the war, the United States quarantined more than a hundred German merchant ships to American ports. Upon declaring war, the majority of those ships were commissioned into U.S. Naval service. Renamed and refitted, they were manned by United States Navy crews. Most of them were used to carry troops, munitions and supplies to Europe.

Uncle was a crewmember on one such vessel which was sunk in the summer of 1918 by U-boats in the North Atlantic. He was among a small number of the crew which survived by clinging to the bow section that had remained afloat when the ship was blown into two pieces. The ship may have been the Ticonderoga or Neuse, but I could not confirm the name. In August 1919 he was discharged as a Seaman.

Uncle Buck re-ups

Seeking a naval career, Uncle re-enlisted the following year. Now 18 years of age he was assigned to the USS Truxtun DD-229 a "four-stacker" destroyer. He became a Cook’s apprentice and during his long tour of duty on the Truxtun, advanced to the Petty Officer ranks.

Life in the Asiatic Fleet

The Truxtun along with other destroyers of Division 43 left Newport in early 1922 traversing the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Suez Canal and Indian Ocean they joined the Asiatic Fleet off Chefoo on the North East Coast of China in September.

USS Palos, Isabel and Truxtun [far left] at Hankow, China 1925
For the next 8-10 years the Truxtun served in the Far East patrolling the China coast and other related assignments. During harsh winters the fleet would winter-over in the Philippines. In 1925-27 the ongoing bloody conflicts between various Chinese Warlords escalated. There was little regard for foreign nationals or property…rape, slaughter and pillaging was rampant. To “show the colors” and help protect American interests the Truxtun was assigned to the dangerous and arduous task of patrolling the Yangtze River and its ports for the next two years. 

Sheer distance and the primitive communications of the time isolated those serving in those remote areas of the world. The life-style of the sailors in the Far East was lonely, austere and not particularly disciplined. Alcoholism and drug addiction took its toll on many crewmen that frequented such ports of call as Nanjing, Hangzhou, Tianjin, Xiaman, Hong Kong, Hankow, Zhanjiang and Shanghai. 

A British Newspaper of the time, referred to the International settlement in Shanghai as, “Sordid, degrading, a pit of unimaginable sin, debauchery and unfit for humanity.” Yet, many sailors preferred the life-style, the less disciplined duty in the Orient and the many pleasures their meager salaries brought. The term “Asiatic” used as slang in military circles reflects on the physical and mental debility associated with extended exposure to such duty. Uncle acquired his share of those demons.

Navy life and marriage

In 1928 after 6 years in the Orient he returned Stateside for shore duty. While assigned to the Naval Station, Pensacola, Florida he fell in love and married. By coincidence, my father finished his "Kiddy Cruise" on the USS Vestal AR-4 about the same time.  Father had been a Fireman in the Vestal’s "Black-gang". Returning home to Daytona Beach, Florida my father met and married my mother. Both marriages were rocky and short-lived.

In 1932, Uncle Buck was reassigned to the Far East, picking up the USS Houston CA-30 a new cruiser departing the States to become the Flagship of the Asiatic Fleet. Distance, separation and his wife’s inability to cope with Navy life, led her to seek a divorce. They had one child, a daughter whom he adored. The pending divorce so devastated Uncle that he again surrendered to the weaknesses of the past.

In 1935 at the depths of the Great Depression and only a couple of years shy of a Navy pension he took his discharge. He had rationalized that his leaving the Navy would make a difference in saving his failing marriage. His desperate attempts to reconcile proved fruitless. He never saw his love again and only saw his daughter once after she reached her majority. A sad and broken-man he disappeared, becoming one of the millions of homeless faces caught up in the poverty of the times.

The Bonus Army marches on Washington

Stepping back in time for a moment... In the 1920’s while uncle was serving off the China coast, the United States was enjoying a robust economy and life in general was prosperous. Congress at the time enacted $400 bonus certificates for WW I veterans, with a payment of $I, 000 upon maturity in 1948. Then came the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the country sank into deep financial woes and the Great Depression ensued. With no jobs, no money and no hope, tens of thousands of veterans called the "Bonus Army" march on Washington. 

Camping out near the Capital they demanded the bonus. As their numbers grew and civic unrest escalated, the Secretary of War ordered the Army Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur to rout the squatters. It escalated out of control as MacArthur ignored direction from the White House to desist. It was a political and social blunder causing great upheaval. Congress, responding to the outcry, passed a bill authorizing immediate payment of the full bonus. President Roosevelt twice vetoed it. In 1936 Congress overrode the veto and the "Great War bonus" became law. Immediate payment to all veterans was authorized.

Uncle Buck comes home

It was mid-summer 1936. I was playing Cowboys and Indians, with Little Brother in the front yard. Having just holstered my pearl-handled six-shooters after drilling the bad guy for the ump-teenth time, I was trying to convince him to lie down and play dead. I was making very little headway when a strange man arrived in a Model A Ford. Other than photographs in his Navy uniform it was the first time I had seen my uncle and did not recognize him. Having received his war bonus, a large sum of money for those depressed times; he simply appeared that sunny afternoon. 

I remember vividly his coming up the sidewalk smiling; his arms were filled with brightly wrapped packages. I raced into the house to tell Grandmother and then peeked through the living room curtains at the approaching intruder. He stopped and spoke to Little Brother who shyly turned and ran for the porch ahead of him. Grandmother looked through the front screen door turned ashen, gasped and dropped a pan of bread dough she was preparing. Quickly brushing her floury hands on her apron front she bolted through the door. In shrill garbled screams she kept repeating, "Heavenly Father, it’s my precious Buck! Dear, dear God, it’s my boy!" They embraced -  holding each other among the packages, which were now scattered across the porch. Little Brother oblivious to the significance of this reunion began picking up the gifts one by one and shaking them!

For a six-year old, the many stories and images of this elusive man, this sailor, came rushing forth. I was filled with awe and boyish excitement. Without thought or reason I dashed to my room digging frantically in the toy-box. There it was; chipped and worn, the pot-metal battleship from some Christmas past. I wiped it off on my shirt and raced back to the porch.

Hesitantly, I peeked up at the man from behind Grandmother’s skirts and then carefully as if it were some sacred offering raised the toy. Looking down he smiled, his deep sad eyes pooled then glistened as tears formed and rolled down his gaunt hollow cheeks. Trembling, he gently lifted the ship from my tiny hands…

In the sheltered cove of his mother’s arms, the wayward Sailor was home from the sea...
Commander Ed Bookhardt, US Navy, Retired is a former SeaBee with 30+ years active Navy service who worked his way up through the ranks from Seaman Recruit to CDR.            He writes good stories.

More by Ed

Memorial Weekend  2008: Stones Of Gray
Saigon Christmas
Sid note:

I always like to "look up" stuff I didn't know anything (much) about that is referenced in something I read (paper or internet).

All I knew about the the USN and China in the era of this story was the movie THE SAND PEBBLES (starring Steve McQueen).  Do a look up

Here are a few REF LINKS... for those who want more.

  • The Asiatic Fleet - Info.com
  • Thomas Truxtun - Info.com
  • Thomas Truxtun - Wikipedia
  • USS Truxtun (DD-229) - Wikipedia
  • United States Asiatic Fleet - Wikipedia