A Hostage in Communist China, 1948-49
As Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army swept through China during the Civil War against the Nationalists in 1948 and 1949, it took over Mukden (now Shenyang), a major trade center. The Communists demanded that American Consul Angus Ward surrender the consulate’s radio transmitter. Ward refused. In response, PLA troops surrounded the consulate on November 20, 1948, putting Ward and 21 staff members under house arrest. For months, without communication, water, and electricity, Ward and the other Americans were completely isolated.
The American government ordered the consulate be shut down but Ward was unable to do anything because the Chinese had charged the American consulate with serving as a headquarters for espionage. After the Truman administration withheld recognition of Mao’s government, PLA troops arrested Ward, accusing him and his staff members of inciting a riot outside the consulate in October 1949. In November 1949, as Angus Ward was brought to trial, the American public became intensely angry over the diplomats’ treatment, increasing pressure on President Truman, who was already under severe attacks for “losing” China to the Communists. On November 24, 1949, Ward and his staff were ordered to be deported and finally left China in December 1949. The crisis lasted for more than a year, by which time the already fragile U.S. relations with the Chinese Communists had been damaged virtually beyond repair.
Elden Erickson started his career with the Foreign Service in China in 1947 as a clerk earning $2160 a year. In this 1992 interview with ADST’s Charles Stuart Kennedy, Erickson recounts the hardships and the monotony they had to endure when confined by the Communist Chinese and the tragic end of a beloved Consulate employee.
“They would march us with pistols in our back to the Consulate”
CKSON: I arrived in February and the [Communists] didn’t come in until the first of November. We [i.e., the Chinese Nationalists] had a million troops in the city so it was pretty active and congested. The Communists would move up to the perimeter of the city and then be forced back. It was just a kind of expanding and contracting of the defense perimeter….We had very little confidence in the Nationalist regime. One, because of corruption and also, whenever the defense perimeter would get broader and Chiang Kai-shek thought he could have a major victory, he would come up to take charge and whenever he appeared everything collapsed, every single time. So as far as the Nationalists were concerned we really didn’t have any confidence at all that they would keep the territory.… We were very apprehensive. We were on the roof of the Consulate General when the [Communists] came in. We could see them coming down the main street.
Q: Had the Nationalist Army just plain pulled out?
ERICKSON: They just evaporated. They were nowhere to be seen. We went up to the roof of the Consulate and watched them start taking over the communications building which was about two blocks down. Then they came up to our area. I remember there was an old lady that they just shot and went right on. They saw us looking over the top of the building and they started shooting at us. Of course we then ducked down. They didn’t at that point come into the building.
Q: How had the Consul General prepared for this eventuality?
ERICKSON: We had lots of food in tins and sacks and sacks of flour. Angus [Ward] was afraid that we would get bored so we would have to take these 48 pound sacks of flour from one room to another. And then in a month or two we would move it all up to the second floor. A couple of months later we would move it bag by bag somewhere else. He said it was to keep the mites out, etc. But it was really to keep us busy. As much as we disliked doing that it really was a good idea. But it didn’t make him all that popular….
On November 20 the [Communists] threw a cordon of guards around the Consulate building and around the Standard Oil Compound and Ward’s residence. From then on we could only go with them. To go to the office they would come to the compound and march us with pistols in our back to the Consulate. We would have to show our lunch and they would inspect it, etc. Then they would bring us back in the evening. Only half of us would go each day so no one was isolated.
Q: What were you doing?
ERICKSON: Nothing, but we were showing the flag, pretending to be carrying on normally. We were moving flour part of the time. They always gave us the newspapers. In the beginning the Chinese staff still came to work. We were translating. It was very interesting what was in the press at that time. So we were doing that. And we sent messages the first twenty days, but after that, nothing.….
Q: Were you still being marched back and forth?
ERICKSON: The whole time. But you weren’t sure when they would come or if they would come. Sometimes they didn’t and you just didn’t go. We got very snotty with them. I would make a sandwich to take and would shove it in front of them to take a look at it and say “hsiao palu” (“little Communist”). They were furious but couldn’t do anything with us without instructions.
Q: Were there any anti-American demonstrations?
ERICKSON: Oh yes. Every single day. Singing and parades all along the side of our compound. I still can sing their little chant–without communism there will be no China. Two or three hours every day in the beginning. Another thing that was rather terrifying in the beginning was that every night we were bombed by the Nationalists. That was ironic too. Here we were being bombed by our own planes …
“He committed suicide because the authorities wouldn’t give him anything to eat for the children”
[The confinement] was an eerie sensation. It went on and on. Then they cut off our electricity which cut off our water supply. And we had no fuel. You couldn’t take a bath because there was no hot water. You just put on layers of clothing like the Chinese did. They didn’t take our clothing away. Each week we were permitted to write a list in Chinese of what we wanted and give it to a couple who would come to the gate. But we couldn’t speak to them. We kept ordering needles because our clothes were wearing out. The servants had done all the mending before. So that really became an important thing, to have a needle. Thread was another item. But it was really the cold that I remember the worst. It would get 40 below and that
was really cold. Then the pump would freeze. We didn’t have any running water, of course. We would bake bread and the cockroaches would practically line the bread pans as it was rising. We would bake it with the cockroaches in it and then just slice the sides off….They didn’t get inside the bread.
What did we do? We played bridge. We didn’t have any electricity and nights start very early in the wintertime. We did get candles and that was all we had. We played pinochle five days and couldn’t stand it any longer so started playing bridge. They always let us buy vodka. The vegetables–carrots and cabbage–we got most of the time… meat, from time to time, but it would be full of straw and dirt. However, we would just wash it up and boil it well. We were never hungry. And I think that is important in maintaining at least a modicum of morale. If you are cold and hungry that is a lot worse then being just cold.
Q: Did the authorities ever try taking a person out and threaten to kill them?
ERICKSON: They did the Chinese. They would even accuse them of taking “capitalist” baths. Eventually one night they were all taken away. We never were able to say goodbye. We had no idea, as far as I know, what happened to any of them.…But finally one day they came in December 1949 and said to be ready to go in 24 hours. We could take 20 kilos each. Everything else was to be left behind. Of course we had to take the cats and dogs…. Before that the Communists came one day around noon and said that all of the foreign staff that we had had to leave within the hour. We were not able to speak to them, so they all left. This included people we had lived with for a year. We had grown very close and fond of all of them. We could not even say goodbye to them. All of us broke down and cried, even Angus.
Q: Did you hear whatever happened to them?
ERICKSON: …The Russian, Sibagatoola Muhamedzan, was one of the nicest persons I have ever known. He and his wife used to take children off the street who were starving and I think they had 11 or 12 children they had picked up and were boarding. He was just a maintenance man, a low-paid employee. We heard that when he got out, when he was taken away, he committed suicide because the authorities wouldn’t give him anything to eat for the children and the only way to get stuff for the children was to have him commit suicide. But that was the worst, saddest day of the whole incarceration, when they all were forced to leave the consulate.