U.S.S. San Pablo and the Yangtze Patrol

San Pablo docking at Changsha, 1926
Trailing a long plume of coal smoke, the San Pablo docks at Changsha in the film The Sand Pebbles (1966) - filmed in Tamsui, Taiwan.

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The Yangtze Patrol: The Historical Basis

In 1900-01, all China erupted in anti-foreign riots under the leadership of the paramilitary Society of Boxers. The foreign Powers retaliated with a massive military expedition which marched on Beijing, relieved the besieged foreign embassies, and wreaked fearful vengeance on the Chinese, sacking the Imperial tombs among other things. Under the terms of the treaty forced on China after this latest defeat, the western Powers and Japan were permitted to station gunboats on China's major rivers to protect their citizens and property. Under previous treaties which closed previous wars of aggression, citizens of the Treaty Powers living in China claimed extraterritoriality -- "extrality" to Old China Hands -- i.e. immunity from Chinese law. The gunboats enforced this nonaccountability and patently encouraged its gross abuse by their nationals in China. Such injustices which would never be tolerated today -- except in Israeli-occupied Palestine and U.S.-occupied Iraq -- were among the effects of the "unequal treaties" being protested in the Sand Pebbles story; Chinese outrage at this disrespect in their own country helped feed the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) revolution in 1926-28, which forms part of the background to the story. Through China's revolutionary decades -- from the turn of the century until 1950 -- stirring up anti-foreign sentiment made good political sense for warlord, KMT generalissimo, and Communist cadre alike.

The Yangtze Valley

Map of the Yangtze Valley region

Oceangoing shipping could navigate as far as Wuhan (Hankow). Head of navigation was at Chongqing; only small steamers and junks could pass the gorges to get there. The San Pablo's home territory lay between Wuhan and Changsha, and plying the tributaries radiating from Tungting Lake. At the story's beginning, she is undergoing maintenance in Hankow; water tender Frenchy Burgoyne explains, "We only come down to civilization every couple of years for overhaul."

The Early Years

USS VILLALOBOS and ELCANO in China c. 1920

Above are two of the gunboats used to establish the U.S. Yangtze patrol in 1902: USS Villalobos, left, and Elcano, right. Like the fictitious San Pablo, these 2 vessels were captured from Spain in the 1898 takeover of the Philippines -- or purchased from Spain as part of the peace treaty. Another similar Spanish gunboat, the Pompey, was among the trio that established the Patrol, based out of Shanghai after 1903. The 520-ton Elcano had been built at La Seyne, Toulon, France in 1882 for the the Spanish navy as part of a modest reinforcement programme. She featured an all-iron hull, was armed with four 4" and two 3-pdr, and could move at 13 kts. The 350-ton Villalobos was built at Hong Kong in 1896 and was of composite construction (iron plates over steel frame). She was armed with 6-pdr, 3-pdr, 1-pdr and Colt machine guns -- a pair of each; could do 11 kts. Villalobos' dimensions were 138' x 22' x 9'; Elcano's 165' x 26' x 12'. A third ship, the Quiros, was sister to the Villalobos, built by the same yard, Hong Kong & Whampoa Dock Co, the same year. The fictional San Pablo resembles a moldering Quiros, long marooned in a remote corner of China and well encrusted with local customs. Her upper decks were enhanced by an airy, spacious wooden wooden deckhouse for the men's quarters. Click here for a more complete pictorial survey of the former Spanish gunboats in the U.S. Asiatic fleet. All of these gunboats were named after notable Spanish explorer/navigators from the Age of Discovery. All retained their aristocratic original names in American service. The U.S. also captured at Cavite and turned to eventual China service the 1888 iron gunboat Pampanga (country-built at Cavite) and the all-steel 1895 General Álava (Scotch built) and Don Juan de Austria (made in Spain). None of these ships was well suited to gunboat duty in the humid, subtropical climate of Central China. They were small, underpowered, overcrowded, and poorly ventilated. Nevertheless, many of them rendered more than 20 years' service on the Yangtze Patrol, their duties much as described in The Sand Pebbles. McKenna based his story on tales of the Villalobos with her resident shadow-crew of coolies who did the ship's dirty work, leaving the American crew free to play soldier full time.

Out of the Stone Age

Photo of the Yangtze gunboat USS PALOS

In 1914 the U.S. Navy began beefing up its inland China fleet. The old (1897) US-built gunboat Helena (below) first joined the flotilla. Two shallow draft, flat-bottomed, twin-screw vessels were purpose-built for Yangtze duty, joining the squadron the same year. Copying long-standing British practice, the Monocacy and Palos (above) were prefabricated in the States, disassembled at San Diego, shipped out to Hong Kong in pieces, and reassembled there to save the long ocean voyage. After WWI the armed yacht USS Isabel was added to the American flotilla and often served as flagship for the Yangtze operation -- a 26-knot ship, 231' long, armed with two 3" guns, she was a suitable flotilla leader anywhere there was nine feet or more of water for her to hover. Isabel also had luxurious mahogany-paneled lounges and a spacious gourmet galley, more convenient for entertaining than the cramped quarters on the other gunboats.

In 1928, a further generation of somewhat longer patrol vessels issued from Jiangnan Dock & Engineering Works in Shanghai, after being assembled once again from prefab hull sections shipped out from San Diego. These six ships, the Luzon, Guam, Oahu, Mindanao, Panay, and Tutuila, were 191' long x 28' in beam, drew 6'5", and could make 15 kts. At 450 tons, these twin-stack, twin-screw riverboats boasted a tall, blocky superstructure through practically their entire length; their masts were webbed with antennas. They replaced the worn-out, antiquated Spanish boats, nearly all of which were sunk as targets for the Asiatic Fleet in 1928-29. In 1937 the Panay (seen above in 1928) was caught up in the currents of history when an unprovoked and deliberate Japanese air attack sank her in the Yangtze near Nanking. Norman Alley, a Universal newsreel reporter, made a documentary of the Panay attack and sinking. The film is available online in its entirety.

All of these gunboats were swept up in the turbulent tides of war and revolution affecting China, as depicted in The Sand Pebbles. Both the Oahu and the Mindanao were sunk by enemy air attack at Manila in early 1942. Sister ship USS Tutuila (PR-4) was trapped in the Yangtze gorges by the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, and joined the Nationalist (KMT) exodus to inland Chungking (Jongqing) in Sichuan Province. There she huddled near the U.S. Embassy on the south bank of the Yangtze during the furious bombing of China's wartime capital. As a gesture of solidarity, once the U.S. had joined the war, she was turned over to the KMT military, who renamed her Mei Yuan (tr. "American origin"). As happened with most of the military matériel lavished upon Chiang K'ai-shek, the gunboat saw very little fighting. Instead she was hoarded for eventual use against the Communists in the showdown anticipated after the U.S. had beaten Japan for Chiang. The ship was scuttled at Shanghai in 1949 to prevent capture by Mao's victorious forces. Her sister ship the Wake (ex-Guam) (PR-3) had an even more amazing odyssey, being surrendered to Japan in 1941, recaptured by the U.S. in 1945, donated to Chiang to help in his civil war against Mao, and then captured and used by the Chinese Reds in 1949 and after. She thus served four flags under five separate names!

Yet another member of the class, the Luzon (PG-47), after being escorted to Manila through a typhoon during the final days before Pearl Harbor, was scuttled there by her crew, but raised by the Japanese, renamed HIJMS Karatsu, and refurbished as a sub chaser (although retaining her official designation as a river gunboat), based at Cebu. In this capacity she located and helped sink the U.S. sub Cisco (SS-290) with the help of two Nakajima Kate torpedo bombers. Vengeance was not long in coming to the turncoat gunboat, however. The submarine USS Narwhal (SS-167) torpedoed Karatsu on March 3, 1944, blowing off her bows and effectively putting her out of business for the duration. She was towed to Manila for repairs but, as Japanese occupation forces scrambled to ward off Gen. MacArthur's mighty onslaught, they never got around to patching her up. Instead she was scuttled as a blockship at Manila on March 3, 1944. Presumably the wreck was scrapped to open the harbor mouth following the Allied takeover. Click here for a painting of the Luzon in Japanese service.

A China Squadron Photo Gallery

Helena   |  Elcano   |   Monocacy (1914)   |   Panay   |   Flagship Isabel

Truxtun   |   Stewart   |   Pope   |   Pigeon   |   HMS Woodcock   |   HMS Cockchafer

German Gunboats in China, 1900 - 1914

U.S.S. Monocacy

USS MONOCACY - Civil War double-ender gunboat

USS Monocacy was built as a Civil War double-ender paddle wheel gunboat, with vital parts of her wooden hull constructed of iron. The long-lived ship was assigned to the Asiatic Squadron early, becoming a common sight in the China Seas from 1889 on. As seen above, at Shanghai in the 1890s she appeared little altered from her Civil War rig. Monocacy ended her days in Asia, replaced by a new vessel of the same name in 1914 (shown below).

U.S.S. Helena

Painting of the gunboat USS HELENA

USS Helena was built as a coastal and river gunboat in 1897. The Spanish War veteran was assigned to the Yangtze Patrol in 1914; it became a substantial hitch for the big gunboat, working with contemporaries. Displacement: 1397 tons. Dimensions: 250¾'x 40' x 9'  Armament: (8) 4"/40 and (4) 3-pdr guns; Propulsion: Twin VTE, twin screw, 13 kts. Ships in class: Helena · Wilmington

U.S.S. Juan Sebastián de Elcano

USS ELCANO - somewhere in China

USS Elcano was perhaps the most stylish of the ex-Spaniards. You can see something of the grace of the galleons in her pert lines. The iron-hulled ship, built in France in 1882, was purchased from Spain under the peace treaty terms. She had been posted to the Philippines but was not present at Manila Bay and actually took an American prize during the war, a fully-loaded collier from Australia. After acquisition by the U.S., Elcano was thoroughly refitted. In 1902 she was despatched for mopping-up work in the Boxer Suppression, remaining on China station for five years. She was not sent to China permanently until March 1911, but once in the Land of the Dragon, she returned only briefly for Philippine patrol duty during WWI. Thereafter she returned Shanghai and the Yangtze Patrol. Vessel was sunk as a target in 1928. The inscription on this photo says, cryptically, "somewhere in China". Another view

U.S.S. Monocacy of 1914

USS MONOCACY - 1914 replacement assembled in HK

The new Monocacy and her sister Palos were prefabricated in the San Diego dockyard, shipped out to China, and assembled for in-country duty at Hong Kong. They entered service in 1914. Monocacy is seen here in 1916.

The Panay Class

USS PANAY - Model photo from stern

A model of the Panay, a 1928 addition to the Yangtze flotilla, shows the ship's stern quarter and after gun. Some critics have harshly insisted the movie prop San Pablo was not based on Panay. Perhaps not directly, one-to-one; but the resemblances seem rather obvious to your Armchair Admiral -- a long-standing student of naval architecture. There were three pairs of these river cruisers, all slightly different in size: Luzon and Mindanao were the largest, Oahu and Panay the next largest, and Guam and Tutuila the smallest.

The Yangtze Patrol Flagship

Gunboat USS ISABEL, a converted yacht

USS Isabel, a fast yacht commandeered by the Navy in 1917 to serve as a "destroyer," ended her days as the poshest gunboat on the Yangtze. She is seen here at Hankow, dressed over all for the coronation of George VI, 1937. Click here to enlarge.

Mentioned in Despatches: U.S.S. Truxtun

Destroyer USS TRUXTUN, which plays a part in the novel

Among the actual units of the Asiatic Fleet mentioned in The Sand Pebbles is the USS Truxtun (DD-229). With her sister Clemson class destroyers Stewart and Paul Jones, this ship actually patrolled the Lower Yangtze from Shanghai to Hankow in the mid-1920s; there were 20 destroyers in the U.S. Asiatic Fleet, all of which saw duty n China waters from time to time. In the story, Truxtun is part of the treaty powers' fleet covering the foreign concession at Hankow while the San Pablo winters over there. The destroyer provides a squirrely way out of trouble for protagonist Jake Holman at one point in the story. The shot above brings to mind a passage near the book's beginning:
"Near Chinkiang the river narrowed and low green hills humped near the south bank. A pagoda stood on a wooded point. The Paul Jones passed them making thirty knots, with signals fluttering, deck guns manned, and boats swung out. She hailed, saying there was rioting in Zhenjiang. The steamer people made a great fuss slamming and locking the steel gratings that shut the Chinese deck passengers away from topside."         (The Sand Pebbles, First Edition, pp. 18-19)

Model of Clemson class destroyer

Specifications for the Clemson class destroyers:
Dimensions: 314'5" x 31'9" x 9'3"    Displacement: 1,190 tons. Armament: (4) 4", (1) 3", and (2) .30 cal guns; (12) 21" TT. Propulsion: (2) turbine engines developing 26,500 shp, geared to twin screw. Speed: 35 knots. Crew: 101.

Metric specifications:Dimensions: 95.83m x 9.68m x 2.82m    Displacement: 1,190 tons. Armament: (4) 102 mm, (1) 76 mm, and (2) .30 cal guns; (12) 533 mm TT. Propulsion: (2) turbine engines developing 20 mW, geared to twin screw. Speed: 65 km/hr. Crew: 101.

U.S.S. Stewart

Destroyer USS STEWART, stern view, in the Yangtze

A quarter view of the Clemson class destroyer USS Stewart (DD-224) anchored in the Yangtze. Enlarge The Stewart had one of the most adventurous careers of any Asiatic Fleet unit. At the start of WWII she became part of the Allies' weak force in the region, under the command of Dutch Admiral Doorman. Stewart saw more than her share of action against the Japanese in early 1942 until she was badly damaged in the Battle of Badung Strait. She was nursed back to Surabaja for repairs, but the small floating drydock there was hard-pressed to hold her bulk (for more on this little-known phase of the Pacific War, see our article on the cruiser USS Marblehead and the Battle of the Makassar Strait). The Stewart slid off the keel blocks onto her side while in the dock in Feb. 1942, damaging one of her propeller shafts. She was still in this awkward posture when the Japanese marched into Dutch Java, taking over its abundant oilfields to fuel their war effort. The Japanese refloated and repaired the ship. Renamed Patrol Boat No. 102, she sailed for 2½ years under the Rising Sun ensign, with her forward two funnels trunked together in the Japanese style. During this phase of her career she sank the American submarine Harder (SS-257) on Aug. 24, 1944 in Dasol Bay, the Philippines; the Gato class sub was lost with all hands. War's end found No. 102 holed up in Hiro Bay, Japan, near Kure. U.S. occupation forces repossessed the Stewart and after brief repairs, she set out for California. Her engines crapped out near Guam and the U.S. Navy was obliged to tow her all the way to San Francisco. After some months as a dubious war trophy, the ship was designated as a target. In this capacity she was sunk off California in 1946.

U.S.S. Pope

Destroyer USS POPE making speed, huge plume of smoke

Sister of the Stewart, USS Pope (DD-225) also had a heroic and tragic history, although one with a more straightforward plotline. Completed late in 1920, she was posted to China and reported for maneuvers with Squadron 15, Div. 43 of the Asiatic Fleet at Qifu in August 1922. In October of that year she began her career-long homeporting at Cavite. She first served with the Yangtze River Patrol in autumn 1923 and was detailed to that duty periodically through 1931. Her duties included "show-the-flag" cruising along the China coast and courtesy visits to Japan and the local colonial powers: the Dutch East Indies in '36 and French Indochina in '35 and '38.

In keeping with her mission to protect American lives and property, the destroyer's activities were largely dictated by the increasingly aggressive Japanese incursions into first Manchuria and later North and Central China. In 1931 she was evacuating American business people and missionaries from Qingdao; by 1938, she was evacuating U.S. diplomats and citizens from Shanghai. The Allies had removed all their capital ships from Asia in 1923; now they drew down their deployed forces to the bare minimum, with instructions not to antagonize the Japanese. At last the ship returned to Manila in late June 1941. A few days after the Japanese sneak attacks of Dec. 7, she got underway for Balikpapan, Dutch East Indies, making rendezvous with the ABDA Force -- the meager squadron the Allies were able to scrape together to oppose Japan's armed might.

Outnumbered and outmaneuvered, the Allied forces in Asia fought a brave but ultimately futile holding action in the first months of the War, as Japan's volcanic offensive inundated the region. The Pope was heavily engaged in the Dutch East Indies: she made close-quarter torpedo and gun attacks that helped delay enemy landings at Balikpapan. In the Battle of Badung Strait, she initially held back the invasion of Bali. During the Second Battle of the Java Sea, she was ordered to escort the damaged cruiser HMS Exeter to safety, together with the undamaged destroyer HMS Encounter. On February 28, 1942, Exeter and the two destroyers departed Surabaja on the north coast of Java, steering northward.

The following day the little force came under attack by Japanese ships and aircraft halfway to Borneo. A scorching three-hour action pitted the three Allied ships against four Japanese heavy cruisers and four destroyers. Pope fired 140 salvos and despatched every one of her torpedoes, inflicting heavy damage on the enemy. But around 1145 on March 1, 1942 the two British ships were sunk by Japanese shellfire, leaving the Japanese free to concentrate fire on the Pope. A dozen dive-bombers continued making bombing runs until their target disappeared beneath the waves. On March 2, the destroyer Ikazuchi pulled 442 survivors of the departed Allied ships from the oil-slicked waters, where many of them had been floating on bits of wreckage for more than 20 hours.

The carcase of the Pope was found and stripped by looters in the 1960s. The wreck's remains were formally identified in 2008. The ship received two battle stars for her wartime service.

U.S.S. Pigeon

Gunboat/minesweeper USS PIGEON, which plays a part in the novel

In The Sand Pebbles, the crew of the gunboat USS Pigeon is characterized as a surly and combative lot, ultra-sensitive to jests about their ship's name -- indeed, quite willing to tear apart a bar in Hankow to defend their ship's honor. Perhaps combativeness was a good trait in a warship's crew, judging from Pigeon's two Presidential Unit Citations earned in the early days of WWII. The ship's galleried midships main deck and boat deck layout are suggestive of the San Pablo replica seen in the film, although the hull shape is more characteristic of an oceangoing vessel than the San Pablo's.

That is because she was designed as an oceangoing vessel. Pigeon was ordered as a Lapwing class minesweeper during the Great War but not delivered until 1919. After some years in limbo, she was converted to serve as a Yangtze Patrol gunboat, a duty she undertook from 1923 to 1929. Later she became a submarine salvage vessel, but during the early phase of the Pacific War she became a utility vessel, acting as minesweeper, sub tender, antiaircraft gunboat, and tug -- and performing each service with distinction. In the last days before Pearl Harbor, Pigeon escorted several of the larger Yangtze gunboats from Shanghai to Manila, nearly being sunk by a typhoon in the process. Later she proved indomitable in the defense of Bataan and Corregidor. She was sunk by a Japanese dive bomber on May 4, 1942, though her people escaped ashore. Her feisty crewmen had their spirit tested while staying in the notorious POW camp at Cabanatuan for the duration. Their fighting spirit stood the test. Skipper Lt. Cdr. Frank A. Davis took it upon the Pigeons to build a robust underground organization in the camp and to procure food and medicines for those most in need -- deeds for which he was awarded the Navy Cross and the Legion of Honor.

Dimensions of the Pigeon: 187'10" x 35'6" x 9'9" (57.25m x 10.8m x 2.97m)  Displacement: 950 tons. Armament (in China): (1) 11 pdr., (2) MG. (In WWII):  (2) 3"/50 guns, (2) 20 mm MG. Propulsion: 1,400-SHP Harlan & Hollingsworth vertical triple-expansion engine, single screw. Speed: 14 kts (36 km/hr). Crew: 72.
DANFS Entry for the USS Pigeon (AM-47)

H.M.S. Woodcock

British gunboat HMS WOODLARK, which plays a part in the novel

McKenna's novel underlines the close cooperation between treaty power gunboats on the interior rivers of China. This is a mark of distinction from the deep-water sailors of the Fleet, awaiting the big clash with Orange (Japan), while their "river rat" counterparts were used to cooperating with the Japanese. In the story, Jake Holman is friendly with Banger Knox, the engineer of the gunboat HMS Woodcock. Woodcock and her identical sister Woodlark were actual historical vessels, members of the Fowl class (named for species of bird), and near-contemporaries of the San Pablo, having been built in 1897. In fact, this entire class of river gunboats was prefabricated by Thornycroft to assist in Kitchener's 1898 campaign against the Mahdist tribesmen in Sudan. The boats were to have been assembled in country when they got to Egypt; but with Britain's crushing victory at Omdurman, they were no longer needed: there were already plenty of British gunboats patroling the Nile. So they were sent to China instead, and most were operational by the time of the Boxer Rebellion, only two years later. These boats proved very handy and remained on station until the 1928-30 era, when they were replaced by the Insect class boats, built 1915-16. Together with a series of four 85-ton and three 195-ton gunboats, they were named for species of bird. Shown is HMS Woodcock on the Yangtze shortly after commissioning in 1898 (photo © 2004 by David Angove).

Dimensions of the Woodcock: 145½' x 24' x 2' (44.4m x 7.3m x 0.6m)  Displacement: 150 tons. Armament: (2) 6 pdr., (4) MG. Bullet-proof hull, pilothouse. Coal: 28 tons. Propulsion: 550-HP triple-expansion engine, single screw. Speed: 13 kts (24 km/hr). Crew: 25.
Photo album of the Woodcock & Woodlark -- from HMSFalcon.com

H.M.S. Cockchafer

British gunboat HMS COCKCHAFER, which plays a part in THE SAND PEBBLES

One of the British gunboats celebrated in The Sand Pebbles is HMS Cockchafer, which battled a Chinese warlord at Wanhsien in the Yangtze gorges during August and September 1926. Both ship and incident are historic. It seems the warlord, Gen. Yang (an ally of Gen. Wu P'ei-fu), was capturing British-owned steamers in the rapids. Cockchafer, together with HMS Wigeon, sailed into Wanhsien, recaptured several of the half-dozen victims, and released their imprisoned crews. Gen. Yang retaliated by seizing more ships and by holding several of the gunboat's Chinese crewmen ashore, publicly executing one of them in grisly fashion in full view of Cockchafer's crew -- an incident possibly inspiring the murder of Po-han in the novel. On Sept. 5, 1926 a volunteer crew, largely composed of Cockchafers, went into Wanhsien on a disguised merchant vessel and succeeded in recapturing all British merchant seamen and ships held in port. The incident concluded with a one-hour firefight between the three British gunboats and Gen. Yang's forces on land. The recaptured cargo vessels were scuttled.

Cockchafer was named for a large and destructive European beetle (not an abrasively hardened jockstrap), as befit her place in the Aphis or Insect class. Our picture above is of the Cricket, but Cockchafer was identical to her sister. These ships were made for combat against Romania in the Danube in WWI. Built by Barclay Curle in 1915 under the supervision of Yarrows', they were shipped through Murmansk and by rail to the Black Sea to be assembled. All found their way to China around 1920; nearly all survived to fight in WWII, mostly in the Mediterranean. Dimensions: 72.5m x 11.0m x 1.2m (237'10" x 36' x 4'). Displacement: 645 tons. Armament: (2) 6” guns (152 mm). Propulsion: Coal-fired Yarrow boilers. (2) vertical triple-expansion engines shafted to twin screw. Service speed: 14 kts (26 km/hr). Maximum speed: 15.8 kts (29 km/hr).

S.M.S. Vaterland

Gunboat SMS VATERLAND, by Willy Stoewer
A rather pretentious name for such a humble vessel: One of the few purpose-designed river patrol boats
on the Yangtze when commissioned in 1904.

The Germans played an active rôle in patrolling the Yangtze and China offshore waters until 1914, particularly after the Boxer Rebellion and until the outbreak of WWI. They held an important concession (colony) at Qingdao which was taken by frontal assault by a mixed Japanese-British force in late 1914. As on a grander scale the Allies confiscated Germany's great Atlantic liners, in China they captured and reflagged Germany's river gunboats (Flusskanonenboote).

German Marine in China, gunboat VATERLAND, c.1910One such is shown above in an illustration by Willy Stöwer, the Vaterland, lead of a class of two that patrolled the Yangtze from 1904 to 1914. They were built in sections at the Tecklenborg Yard, Geestemünde, and shipped out to Shanghai for reassembly. These were 168-ton boats mounting two 88 mm/40 guns on the ends of the hurricane deck and one 5 cm/30 amidships. Each powered by two Schulz-Thornycroft boilers, the twin-screw vessels were capable of a steady 9 knots with sprints up to 14. It seems likely Stöwer -- a prominent marine artist and personal friend of the Kaiser -- was working from plan drawings or, at best, a model when making this painting. The ships' day-to-day appearance was considerably altered by nearly-permanent awnings spread to ward off the South China sun. At right, a German marine clowns around on the Vaterland, c. 1910.

A third, larger (314 ton) steamer was built for the lower Yangtze patrol based at Xinjian. This ship, the Otter, followed the same general plan but had two stacks and an extra bit of power, for 15.2 knots maximum speed. She carried two 2"/30 4-pounder guns. Otter was also prefabricated at Tecklenborg and assembled for service at Hong Kong, joining the Ostasiengeschwade (East Asia Squadron) in April 1910.

The Vaterland and her sister, the Tsingtau, along with the Otter were placed in the care of a dummy corporation to avoid their falling into enemy hands at the start of WWI. However, when China declared war on Germany on March 20, 1917, they were taken over by the shaky republican government of strongman Yuan Shikai. Vaterland cruised the river as the Li Sui. It is possible she met up with the San Pablo's contemporaries during that time. Chinese gunboats in the hands of a warlord are described in The Sand Pebbles as taking part in the siege of Wuchang by KMT forces -- part of Chiang K'ai-shek's Northern Expedition in Sept.-Oct. 1926. Presumably as the result of a "silver bullet" deal (the commander flipping sides) the gunboats reappear a few pages later, this time lending their puny firepower to the Nationalist side. Our real-life ex-German gunboat was commandered for the Japanese puppet "Manchukuo" navy during the Japanese naval attack on Shanghai in 1932. The vessel was rebuilt, increasing her displacement to 350 tons, and renamed Ji Sui. She was decommissioned in 1942. Her near-sister the Otter had a not dissimilar fate, being renamed Li Zhen by the Chinese and sent to Manchuria as part of their Amur Flotilla. She was bombed and sunk in the Sungari River by Soviet aircraft in 1929; her wreck was scrapped in situ in 1932. The third vessel, the Tsingtau, was successfully scuttled at Canton and thus avoided the indignity of capture.

Enlarge illustration  ·  Model  ·  Quality photo

Seagoing German Gunboats

German gunboat SMS JAGUAR, color illustration by H.Graf
Painting of the Jaguar by H. Graf. Feudal decoration like this was passé by the 1920s.

Germany's largest gunboats in China were the four vessels of the Tiger and Iltis class, the name ship of which is shown here. Two of these vessels came out with the Boxer punitive expedition, and two more when the heavy units of the expedition returned to Germany in 1902-3. In the tense calm that followed the great bloodletting, these were the oceangoing small units that supported the big cruiser squadron stationed at Qingdao. Sister ships of the famous Panther, the 977-ton Tiger and Luchs were 211' long and mounted two 4.1"/40 guns, placed in singles fore and aft, plus six one-pounders. They were built in 1900-01. The earlier Jaguar and Iltis had the exaggerated ram bows of Germany's 1890s cruisers and carried a pair of 15½-pounders on the foredeck and another pair far aft, plus six one-pounders. With Thornycroft boilers and two-shaft triple expansion engines of ~1,400 hp, these gunboats could make 14 knots when in good repair -- and the well-equipped Qingdao navy yard guaranteed a high state of mechanical readiness.

German gunboat deck plans

These gunboats saw duty all over the China coast but were homeported at Qingdao. All German units in East Asia were recalled to that Shandong fortress upon the declaration of war in 1914. Their guns and crews were landed to assist in the defense of the city, with some success. On Nov. 1, as the noose tightened, all the remaining warships at Qingdao were ordered scuttled by Governor Meyer-Waldeck. Tiger, Jaguar, Iltis, and Luchs joined the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Elisabeth, two minesweepers, and four Flusskanonenboote at the bottom of Qingdao's naval anchorage five days before the Japanese frontal assault carried the position. Meyer-Waldeck surrendered the city on Nov. 7, 1914. Captured German sailors and marines had more than five years to cultivate a taste for sushi and saké as they became long-term guests of the Japanese emperor. One can only imagine their bewilderment at emerging into the Germany of 1920, last having seen their country well before the Great War.

Gunboat SMS TIGER, pre-1914 photo
A lionization of the Iltis painted by Willy Stöwer.

Gunboat SMS JAGUAR, reverse painting on glass (Chinese souvenir)
A Chinese export portrait of the Jaguar.

Gunboat SMS TIGER, pre-1914 photo
Prewar photo postcard of the Tiger. Enlargement qualifies as a lionization of the Tiger.


Q: In Shanghai at the beginning of the story, what ship is Holman leaving?

A. "Flagship, Asiatic Fleet" -- in 1926, the armored cruiser USS Pittsburgh.

Novel and Film

The USS San Pablo was the brainchild of author and China sailor Richard McKenna. McKenna served in Yangtze gunboats during the Thirties, but based his fictional warship on an earlier and more colorful breed of China river-rat. After leaving the Navy, McKenna studied writing and published his only novel, The Sand Pebbles, in 1962.

Original cover art for THE SAND PEBBLESA sensitive handling of a complex and multi-faceted tale, rich in period detail and atmosphere, it held a place on the New York Times bestseller list for 28 weeks. McKenna sold the movie rights to Fox for a reported $330,000, but died in 1964 when the epic Robert Wise film was only in gestation. Due to its faraway location, technical demands, and shipbuilding requirement, this was a long-term project -- so long, in fact, that Wise was able to start preliminary work on it, change gears to shoot and release the musical gem The Sound of Music in its entirety, and then jump back into the casting and preproduction for Sand Pebbles. Indeed, it is through this classic movie, starring Steve McQueen and Candice Bergen, that most know the story today.

Throughout, the director, script doctors and production personnel, all were at pains to be true to the novel; many of the film's quirks derive from that deep grounding in the book. Such a rarity for Hollywood! As may be seen from the cover art at left, believed to be by McKenna himself, the ship seen in the movie also conformed closely with the author's intentions. Though many episodes from the 600-page book were left out and others condensed to fit the film's running time, one imagines McKenna would have nodded in approval had he seen the finished product. It manages to capture both the rich texture and sense of place, and the moody existential dilemma that pervades the novel.

For the film, a full-size, steel-hulled replica of the San Pablo was constructed by Vaughan & Jung in Hong Kong (video), costing a quarter of a million 1965 dollars. It was generally conceded by the movie crew that -- McQueen's nuanced and powerful performance aside -- the San Pablo herself was the star of the picture. This ship was not an operational naval vessel, but rather a floating prop that looked the part. Her dimensions were dictated by the location: Danshui Harbor and the Danshui (Tam Sui) River near Taipei, at the northern tip of Taiwan. The shallow river afforded only 3-4 feet of water at high tide, so the flat-bottomed mock-gunboat was built with a mere 2½ feet of draft! This made her swing like a weathercock in any wind. Consequently much time and effort were spent refloating the ship after her many groundings. The vessel was powered by twin diesels under the quarterdeck; the ridiculously tall, old-fashioned stack was built strictly for smoke effects. Coal was burned in a furnace under the stack to provide a plume of black smoke whenever the boat was under way and the cameras rolling.

SAN PABLO replica sweeping past - still from THE SAND PEBBLES, copyright (c) 1966 20th-C FoxAs completed, the ship's dimensions were 150' x 24'6" x 2'6". Like the prototype in the novel, she was capable of 10 kts under power. (Metric: 45.7m x 7.5m x 0.76m; speed 18.5 km/hr.) After filming was completed in 1966, she was sold to an American war contractor to serve as a floating dormitory -- some say floating whorehouse -- for technicians reconstructing sabotaged bridges in Vietnam. In the early 1970s she was purchased by Delta Exploration in Indonesia and renamed Nola D. Little over ten years old, she was scrapped at Singapore in 1975.

Because a full-sized steam engine would not fit in the San Pablo's shallow bottom, an old Liberty ship engine was brought down the coast to Hollywood and re-erected on the Fox back lot. A complete engine and boiler room was assembled around it; all of the engine room scenes were filmed there. It is a tribute to the filmmakers' art that the transitions appear so seamless, the sense that the scenes take place in the same ship so utterly convincing: you would never guess the deck scenes and the engine room scenes were shot months apart in locations 5,000 miles distant. The engine used in the film is now on display aboard the WWII Victory ship Lane Victory in San Pedro, CA (Port of L.A.). It is run at slow speeds on compressed air for the benefit of museum visitors. Apparently the splendid brass gauges and telegraph dial that appear in the movie have been supplanted by more mundane controls appropriate to a WWII cargo workhorse. Most Victory ships, built later in the War, were turbine-powered.

Steve McQueen in the engine roomSteve McQueen prepared for his rôle by studying all the weapons and machinery which he would have to manipulate, familiarizing himself with the Browning Automatic Rifle, the boarding axe, the sailor's duffel bag, the stoker's coal shovel. His obvious physicality, his athleticism and balance are an important part of McQueen's performance. But McQueen went beyond this to attain true verismo, learning just how to run and repair the ship's triple-expansion steam engine. This is one way he got inside the character of Jake Holman, the ship's loner chief engineer, a man so repressed his best relationship is with his machinery -- at least until he meets some of the other characters in the book and begins to grow emotionally. McQueen comes off as a self-assured pro, with naturally athletic body language and the guarded persona of a man with a troubled past. The rest of the crew, brilliantly cast, are no end of fun to watch, even as one cringes at their crude racism and bullying ways.

HOLMAN. You mean being fair only counts between Americans?

BRONSON. Well, white men... I mean, fair's different with slopeheads. They're sneaky. They lie and steal. They're dirty. Their yellow goes clear to the bone. There ain't one in all China with guts enough to stand up and fight like a man. Fair's different with people like that.

          -- The Sand Pebbles, First Edition (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 223-224.

Cruising Tungting Lake

SAN PABLO steaming past coolie-hatted peasants in paddy field

"Boatmen and fishermen turned to watch their passing; brown, stooping farmers straightened to stare; white birds flew up screaming and buffaloes snorted off in terror across green fields. ... Underway or at anchor, the Sand Pebbles ran slashingly through their drills, and they strolled and lounged along the clean teak decks, themselves neat and clean in white shorts, barbered and well-fed and rested, watching the swarming Chinese life all around them on land and water with a comfortable feeling of being in control of things. That was ... how it felt to be a Sand Pebble."

          -- The Sand Pebbles, First Edition, 288.   Enlarge photo

The Ship and the Film: An Appreciation

Movie poster for THE SAND PEBBLES (1966) The vessel that made all this cinematic mayhem possible was designed as a movie set for this one film and performed brilliantly in her one starring rôle. The San Pablo replica was created by veteran production designer Boris Leven in collaboration with director Robert Wise and a marine architect. The replica is truly sui generis, not resembling any of the actual Yangtze gunboats very clearly, but borrowing a pinch of one and a few scoops of another to create an effect that is more visually arresting than any of the actual vessels, and also true to McKenna's description. In size she most closely resembled the Elcano, a bit bigger than the original inspiration, Villalobos. A true riverboat, she had the overhung bulwark of the Monocacy and Panay generations rather than the high seagoing forecastle of the Helena or the yacht lines of Villalobos. The Spanish vessels clearly come out of the age of sail; with a yachtlike counter stern and tall, prominent masts, they hint at the galleons of bygone times. An enclosed bridge and a smallish deckhouse comprised their modest superstructures; but in the novel, the San Pablo is described as being forever banished to the wilds of Hunan Province, so antiquated she is forbidden to come down the Yangtze. In her long residence and to suit the evolving on-board culture, large and luxurious quarters have been built amidships for the naval crew, permitting the coolies to move aboard and occupy the old crew quarters.

Brilliantly, Leven combined a downsized version of the Panay's blocky superstructure with the tall, spindly stovepipe and ventilator cowls described in the book. The result: a ship that looks at once a more formidable fighting unit, and a bit anachronistic, with more elegant proprortions than seen in any of the historical ships. The 1920s was the age of the motorship; even the new turbine liners such as the Bremen and Europa aped the diesel look with their short, squat stacks and racy, horizontal profile. The San Pablo's appearance, by contrast, is aggressively 1890s -- as are the racial and imperial attitudes she embodies. The rake of masts and stack is barely perceptible; their vertical lines matched by the plumb stem. Finally, to comply with McKenna's description, the ship was armed only with one pedestal-mounted 3"/23 cal. gun forward and one 1-pdr aft, two Lewis machine guns on the bridge, and the infamous steam hose in the waist. As seen in the film's battle and "Repel Boarders" drill scenes, the San Pablo was well stocked with rifles, automatic pistols, and cutlasses, too, enabling the captain to gratify his obsession with boarding an enemy, and indulge his flirtation with death.

SAN PABLO steaming into battle on the Chien River: The boom of junks
Action on the Chien: The San Pablo closes on the boom. Enlarge

The film's climax comes in a pitched naval battle. Seeking to rescue American missionaries stranded in a time of unrest, the gunboat encounters a long boom of junks cabled together to deny entry to the Chien River. The San Pablo's well-fed, middle-aged warriors are pitted against the force manning the boom: Chinese peasant militia spiked with firebrand students. Although the tone of book and film is skeptical of imperialism, the battle -- known among Old China Hands as "the Action on the Chien" -- is a thrilling sequence. There are moments that will surely tug at any American's heart; and there are several "hooks" to make the viewer think rather than blindly root for the Yanks. One must remember that Vietnam was escalating into the bloodbath it became at the very time the film was being made. Although the story is presented faithfully to the book, it seems certain that Wise et al. were questioning the wisdom of unleashing a big land war in Asia. The issues of servicemen's overt racism and crude, sexist behavior while on liberty are presented in unforgiving detail in the film. These problems bear on America's ability to sustain a faraway war effort and maintain goodwill with its nonwhite allies. The long-running Okinawa base controversy comes to mind as proof that these irritants are still present 50 years after Vietnam -- 85 years after The Sand Pebbles' period.

Through the entire picture, McQueen portrays a man of torn loyalties -- a loner whose people skills are minimal, whose timing is always a bit off. In a crowning irony, after the bloody fight is over and most of the crew pretty cut up, the missionaries are in no mood to be rescued. Worse yet, the Sand Pebbles' heroics at the boom write the death warrant for the Rev. Jamieson, the story's most outspoken critic of "gunboat diplomacy". The Captain's death wish is gratified. Holman, too, dies heroically, ironically becoming in death the ultimate Sand Pebble -- a role he could never attain in life. One is comfortable predicting that Jake's Last Stand will pass into Sand Pebble legend, to resonate through the presumably brief post-battle phase of the gunboat's career, and perhaps a bit beyond.

The film premiered in 1966 to widespread critical acclaim, although it was not a huge hit. It garnered nine Golden Globes and was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Perhaps it was felt by the Academy that, following The Sound of Music's 5-Oscar sweep the previous year, it would smack of favoritism to shower more Oscars on Wise. It may have been thought that the movie's themes were too controversial, given the strong hangover from the McCarthy era and Hollywood blacklist. These considerations aside, Steve McQueen received the only Oscar nomination of his career for his portrayal of Jake Holman.

McQueen chopping through Chinese defenses in the SAND PEBBLES movie

As Jake Holman, Steve McQueen chops through the woven cable holding the boom of junks together to bar the San Pablo's path. I give him credit: aside from LOTR's Gimli the Dwarf, never have I seen an axe so wielded! The ship's fully enclosed bridge with its armored flaps folded down, based on the Panay and other later China gunboats, can be seen to advantage in the background. Battle flag -- key image in the pre-battle montage -- streams from the foremast over a scene of simulated carnage in this studio publicity still.

Now you can own the whole epic yourself -- The Sand Pebbles' long-awaited re-release was recently consummated. 20th Century Fox Cinema Classics has reissued The Sand Pebbles in a deluxe 2-CD set restoring many scenes cut from the original release, including commentary from director Wise and his cast members. Featuring carefully restored color and digital sound, this is a gem for your collection. The Armchair Admiral gives this release 2 thumbs up. All fans of old ships, things Chinese, and fine filmmaking should enjoy this feature; the score by Jerry Goldsmith has been presented as stand-alone concert music, but works famously as a soundtrack for an edgy story with moments of deep tenderness and ribald humor. This is not strictly an action film: You get a seething brew of politics, rich period atmosphere, beautiful scenery, one of the funniest boxing bouts ever filmed, a mercy killing, and a gory industrial accident. And if that's not enough, there's major male bonding, gut-twisting female degradation, and a helping of romance -- plus a bar brawl, several anti-imperialist demonstrations, and an all-out naval battle. All this with the production values of a big-budget Hollywood feature, with the star power of McQueen, Attenborough, and Bergen, and solid performances by all the supporting players. What's not to like?

HD fanatics will be excited by the film's release in Blu-ray, just out in 2010 (see link below for more on the Blu-ray release.)

All production photos and logo artwork shown are copyright © 1966 by 20th Century Fox. Original gunboat photos are are public domain; courtesy U.S. Naval Historical Center.

U.S.S. San Pablo: Scenes From the Film
All images copyright © 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox

USS SAN PABLO cruising the Yangtze in THE SAND PEBBLES (Fox, 1966)
The San Pablo cruises the Yangtze near Changsha.

A crowd of curious coolies waits for the big-nosed barbarians to muster.

After a hard day on the river, the gunboat ties up to a pontoon in Changsha just before sunset.

McQueen bonding with his engine in THE SAND PEBBLES(Fox, 1966)
McQueen -- lover of machines and racing cars -- was well cast here. "Hello, engine. I'm Jake Holman."

3-in Gun of the SAN PABLO, from THE SAND PEBBLES movie (Fox, 1966)
The ship's 3-in forward gun. Its crew raise faces to ogle the battle flag.

The SAN PABLO at sunset in THE SAND PEBBLES movie (Fox, 1966)
The ship blockaded by pro-Kuomintang sampans in an anti-imperialist action.

The SAN PABLO at night in THE SAND PEBBLES movie (Fox, 1966)

At movie's end, the ship is blacked out to save coal. The captain has a conference with Lt. Bordelles by light of a bean-oil lamp, a detail faithfully reproduced from the book.

The SAN PABLO steams majestically past in THE SAND PEBBLES movie (Fox, 1966)
Quarter shot of the vessel, part of a long "steam-by" sequence that ends the first half of the movie.

  More Stills from the Movie

All images copyright © 1966 by Twentieth Century Fox.

Pertinent Weblinks

Mermaid tattooDragon tattooMermaid tattoo

A dragon tattoo meant that a sailor had been to China; Tungting Lake was said to be full of mermaids.