SPARRING WITH DRAGONS: Captain Giliberto-A Yangtze Legend

By Grover, David H. | Sea Classics, August 2008 | Go to article overview
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SPARRING WITH DRAGONS: Captain Giliberto-A Yangtze Legend


Grover, David H., Sea Classics


When Gaetano Giliberto first saw the middle section of the Yangtze River above Hankow, it was the spring of 1927. That date was significant for two reasons. First, it marked the worst flooding that the Yangtze had experienced in many decades, and second, it coincided with perhaps the most violent period in the history of the young Chinese republic.

At the time, Giliberto was chief mate of the 8000-ton oceangoing tanker Yankee Arrow of the Standard oil Company of New York, or Socony as it was often called for the acronym of its name. His ship had come up the Yangtze to the company's major terminal at the port of Hankow, about 600-mi above the mouth of the Yangtze, normally the highest point on the river that could be reached by ocean-going ships. Foreign ships were permitted to trade on the Yangtze through title various treaties which China had unwisely signed during the 19th century; these treaties also permitted the Navies of foreign nations to operate gunboats on the river to protect their merchant ships. Consequently, the river was alive with ships, both merchant and Naval, representing a dozen nations, hostilities between warring Chinese factions had somewhat curtailed shipping activity.

When the Yankee Arrow finished discharging her cargo in Hankow, Standard oil officials, rather than sending her back downriver, now decided to dispatch the tanker 128-mi farther upriver on the crest of the high water to the port of Chenglingki, where the company maintained another facility. With an armed guard of Navy men aboard, the ship went there, escorted by a gunboat, to pick up stocks of gasoline which the company wanted evacuated because the immediate area was so full of belligerent forces. Even though the Yankee Arrow was able to return downriver without incident, conditions on the river continued to be unsettled, and the middle and upper river remained particularly dangerous well into 1928.

Several months earlier, one of Standard oil's small motorships, the Mei Hung, with a Chinese captain in command, had been commandeered by the troops of Chiang Kai-shek at the port of Shasi, and had been taken downriver to Hankow by these soldiers. Risking an incident that might have precipitated an exchange of gunfire, officials of the US Navy decided to rescue the vessel. The gunboat USS Pigeon came alongside the small tanker, and, with the help of her loyal Chinese crew, put lines aboard, and simply towed her away to midriver where she came under the guns of several other gunboats. The soldiers meekly surrendered their weapons and gave up the ship.

Only a few weeks after that incident, at the lower river port of Nanking, a small detachment of American sailors from several destroyers was called upon to protect more than 50 foreign civilians who had taken refuge from rampaging Chinese Nationalist soldiers at Socony Hill, the residence of the Standard oil manager. These people, including women and children, eventually escaped to the safety of foreign Naval vessels on the river by descending a 50-ft wall via a rope improvised from bedsheets.

The violence at Nanking, often called the "Nanking Outrage," became a sensitive issue in SinoAmerican relations for several years, particularly because the Nationalist government, although it subsequently purged from its leadership the Communists who were responsible for the trouble at Nanking, never admitted that its troops were the assailants.

His experience on the Yangtze had provided an excellent lesson for Gaetano Giliberto in how foreign companies could continue to do business amid the hazards of life in China. He liked what he had seen on the river, and in 1928 at age 30 he accepted the offer of company officials back in New York City to go out to Shanghai as an officer of the Socony River and Coastal Fleet.

Giliberto was already a veteran of more than ten-years service with Standard oil Company. After first sailing on small coastal vessels in his native Italy, he had gone to sea on deepwater ships that in time took him to the East Coast of the United States.

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