David Kerr

World War II was over. It was February 1946, 75 years ago, and the world was in a sort of post-war haze.

However, China was another story. The war between the communists and nationalists was starting again. And on one cold night that month, the USS Sumner, a quirky little hydrographic survey vessel on which my Dad served, was tied up to a dock in Shanghai.

She was providing food relief and a U.S. presence. However, Shanghai was a city on the edge, devastated by World War II and now in the midst of a civil war. The crew was restricted to the ship and the immediate area of the dock. One machine gun was always manned, but after midnight the winter cold had taken hold and the docks were quiet. The only light came from the ship.

My Dad was on the bridge. He did double duty as a quartermaster, as well as a survey technician, and somebody on deck shouted that they saw a little Chinese girl hiding in the shadows of a warehouse. The bridge crew focused their binoculars on where the sailor was pointing. They saw a little girl wearing sandals and a frayed dress. No doubt she was suffering from hypothermia. She was almost certainly yet another of Shanghai’s orphans. 

My Dad, never shy about offering his opinion, said, “She won’t survive the night like that. We’ve got to bring her aboard.” A lieutenant named Joe Gorman, who was officer of the deck, agreed. However, the skipper was up late working, heard the chatter, came on the bridge and said they couldn’t do it. This could be some kind of ploy.

He was a decent man, but it was his ship, things were tense, and he was cautious.

One of the ship’s chief petty officers left the ship and started to approach the little girl. Everyone was quiet. Would she run? He had served in China on a Navy gunboat on the Yangtze River before the war and knew a little Chinese. What happened was a little dance. He’d say something. She would edge closer and then as he moved a little closer, she’d step back. Apparently, she had learned to be afraid of everyone.

After about 15 minutes, they were face to face, and the chief was sitting cross-legged with the little girl. He shouted for someone to get him a coat for her. On the bridge, the captain nodded, and it was quickly dispatched.

Once again, the captain was told she would never survive the night if she stayed out there. The skipper didn’t say anything. He knew what had to be done, but he couldn’t sanction it. He simply said, “Mr. Gorman, I would like to talk to you in my quarters.”

That did it. There were no officers on the bridge. And it was obvious what they were supposed to do.

Two more sailors left the ship to help bring the girl aboard, and the ship’s corpsman and pharmacist mate was standing by. She was dangerously cold, dehydrated and hungry. Thanks to the attention of the ship’s pharmacist’s mate, she made out just fine, and by morning she had a good appetite. But still, what do you do with a 4-year-old Chinese girl on a Navy ship? Like so many things in the Navy, you improvise.

For the next six weeks or so, she and the Navy got along great. The sailors loved her, taught her some English and introduced her to a world of kindness, good food, and homemade clothes, toys and dolls. I imagine many in the crew saw their temporary charge and thought of their own children or the children they hoped to have once they returned home.

However, as kind and thoughtful as they were, they were at sea aboard a U.S. naval vessel with a civilian child who needed proper care.

The captain, who called himself a “good Catholic boy from Boston,” operating outside channels, contacted a Catholic orphanage in Hong Kong. The orphanage agreed to accept the child, and the captain made sure a stop in Hong Kong was added to the ship’s itinerary. Few ships operated as independently as the Sumner. The ship’s company also made sure the orphanage got a sizable contribution. 

The transfer was made. The crew knew it was the right thing to do, but they missed the girl.

It was a sweet story, and as far as I know all the members of that fine crew have passed away. But it’s my hope that there is a lady living in Hong Kong, about 79 years old, hopefully with children and grandchildren of her own, who has a faint recollection of being aboard a U.S. Navy ship and of the wonderful sailors who took care of her so many years ago.

That prospect, however dim the memory she may have, warms my heart.

David Kerr is an adjunct professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University and has worked on Capitol Hill and for various federal agencies for many years.

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