The Port Pilot’s Daughter:Swatow, China 1930

In 1984, John Bulkeley was in San Diego reminiscing with an old British friend, Phillip Mountbatten, whose acquaintance he had made during the invasion of Normandy. In the 1940’s, they were both serving as lieutenants in their respective navies, and, as junior officers, they had drunk a few pints of ale together. Forty years later John Bulkeley had become Admiral Bulkeley, and his friend had become Prince Phillip.

After the war, Phillip Mountbatten married Princess Elizabeth, the oldest daughter of King George VI, who would one day inherit the throne. When Princess Elizabeth became the Queen of England, her husband, Prince Phillip, was promoted to the rank of a five-star admiral.

On that day in San Diego, Admiral Bulkeley turned to his old friend and quipped “Say, Prince, in World War II,  you and I were both navy lieutenants, we both married English women, and now you’re a five-star admiral and the best I could do was two stars. Where did I go wrong?”

Prince Philip grinned and fired back: “You married the wrong English woman! ”

Admiral Bulkeley said nothing  but knew that the Prince was dead wrong.

Cecil Wood came to China from London, working his way up from a merchant seaman to a qualified Captain. In 1910, he bought into the South China Pilotage Association, and settled in Swatow as Lloyds of London’s Port Pilot for the British, American, and Japanese merchant ships as well as warships moving in and out of the tricky harbor of Swatow. Situated 200 miles north of Hong Kong, Swatow had once been the center of the opium trade, but at the turn of the century the port-city was famous for its embroidery.

Cecil’s wife, Emily, traveled by ship to Hong Kong, the nearest British Crown Colony, for the birth of their first child, a daughter. The large expatriate community in Swatow considered it one up to have their children born on British soil. In 1913 a severe storm with heavy seas delayed the ship which was to take Emily to Hong Kong for the birth of their second child. So, Cecil and Emily checked into the Astor House Hotel, the sole European hotel in Swatow and the closest resemblance to England available. Cecil assisted with the delivery, as no doctors were available. Heavy seas, foreign soil, and a lack of doctors were the circumstances surrounding her birth: the first set of many complex circumstances placed before the six-pound baby girl they called Alice.

While her father worked as the junior pilot for Lloyds, Alice lived on the small island of Masu, located at the mouth of Swatow harbor. The house, currently a hotel resort, was extremely large, with separate quarters for the 32 servants employed by Cecil Wood at the rate of $5.00 per servant per month. Alice had her own servant, known as “amah”, which is the Chinese term for nanny. Part of her upbringing in this privileged environment was her father’s nurturing of her love for the sea. She often rode out to the ships with him, and was by his side as he escorted the merchant ships and warships into and out of the harbor. Alice, now 82 years of age, recalls this period in her life. She squares her shoulders, closes her eyes, and breathes deeply. As she remembers the vigor in that salt water once more, her face breaks into a radiant smile.

Alice left the house on Masu for boarding school when she was six years old.. The Woods did not send their daughter back to England, as was the tradition for children of the British expatriate community: rather, she attended the Diocesan Girls School in Hong Kong, an Anglican-run organization that accepted not only European girls, but also Eurasian girls. In the 1920’s, Europeans, as well as expatriated Europeans, did not recognize children of mixed-blood as Europeans. Alice’s father was English and her maternal grandfather was German; however, her maternal grandmother, a nurse, was Japanese. Alice’s mother became a British subject upon her marriage, and her three children, for Alice had a brother and a sister, were acquainted with only their British relatives. However, somewhere the Wood children had Japanese relatives.

One day, during her middle school years at The Diocesan Girls School, Alice sat in class wearing her prescribed uniform and her long blonde curls tightly braided and pinned close to her head. The Anglican-run institution considered long blonde curls sinful, so Alice kept hers out of sight. On this day, the teacher passed out a form which the girls were required to complete. One question asked for her nationality, and Alice wrote “English.” The teacher, walking up and down the aisles and watching over her students, stopped by Alice’s desk and read what the young girl had written. She told Alice, “You are not English, but Eurasian.” Alice remembers her reaction to the teacher’s correction:

“To me there was no such country as Eurasia. I was a British subject. At that age, I was pretty cocky, and I was doing well in school. It came as a shock to me, and I knew I was going to face some difficulties. Instead of thinking less of myself, I was even more determined to be proud of my mixed blood.”

This determined pride placed Alice, two years later, in the Head Mistress’ office being scolded for behaving like a “poppy cock,” British slang for a snob. Alice had taken on some “high and mighty ways.” Her father, after hearing about this scolding, wrote his daughter this letter.

“…When you are being scolded, don’t put on an aggrieved or sulky look, that only makes teachers angry. Just listen politely and attentively to what is being said to you, whether you deserve it or not, for you are having an extra lesson for free…Educated gentlefolk do not hesitate to express sorrow, even if they themselves have done no harm nor caused any annoyance, whenever a possibility of having done so occurs.”

Alice deeply admired and respected her father, and his advice was well-received. She changed her ways, and in her last year at the Diocesan Girls School, she was appointed “Head Girl,” a job which entailed keeping the younger girls in line by looking after them and serving as a role model in the example set by her own behavior. “This was a responsibility,” Alice recalls, “that I took very seriously.”

The rhythm of her school days in Hong Kong was interrupted only once. When Alice was ten, the family went to Canada for one year to visit with Cecil’s brothers and their families in the Toronto area. Alice, her older sister, Edith, and her younger brother, Eric, attended day school for the year that the family lived in Canada. Unbeknown to the children, their parents intended to leave the three children in Canada where they could have a finer education in a less constrictive atmosphere while their parents returned to work in Swatow. However, when it came time for them to leave, they could not leave their young children behind, and the family returned to China together.

Upon her graduation from the Diocesan Girls School, Alice applied for entry into the University of Hong Kong, run by the British at that time. Hearing of her acceptance, Cecil wrote to his daughter:


My dear Alice,

Wonderful news this morning. The 13th is your lucky day. The Registrar of the University tells us you have qualified for Matriculation and may join the University without further examination.

God bless you, sweetheart, study hard, for the more honors you get the higher our hearts beat for you and the higher we can hold our heads.

I have asked for you to be entered as a member of the University and for Nip Sawyer to arrange for your board, lodging, and tuition.

Best wishes from mother and father

As Alice came to the end of her first year at university, troubles in the north of China were coming to a peak. Russia had gained control of the railway in Manchuria: the Chinese challenged this control, but that confrontation ended in defeat and humiliation for China. The Japanese military, which was the expansionist force in Japan, arranged a bomb explosion on the tracks of the Russian-held railway. This enabled the Japanese expansionists to gain popular support on the home front in Japan. The Japanese Kwantung Army then seized Mukden, the capitol of Manchuria, followed by a rapid spread-out resulting in the military occupation by Japan of Manchuria. Chiang Kai-shek’s policy was one of non-resistance: he opted to use China’s eternal advantage, her infinite room to retreat, presuming that the occupation of Manchuria would satisfy the Japanese. Alice graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 1934, the same year that Japan announced, in the historic Amau Doctrine, its intention to control all of China.

Alice hoped to attend law school after receiving her undergraduate degree; however, the uncertain atmosphere in China required that she return to her home. In Swatow she worked as the confidential secretary for the manager of Butterfield & Swire, a British shipping firm in Swatow. The political situation slowly deteriorated from 1934 to 1937, when a clash between the Japanese troops and the Chinese army near Peking launched an offensive by the Japanese in which sixty percent of the Chinese armed forces were lost. The Japanese now controlled territory as far south as Shanghai.

Alice’s mother, her sisters, her sister’s husband, and their two children had already evacuated Swatow and were living in Hong Kong due to what appeared to be the inevitable Japanese occupation of Swatow. Both Britain and The United States encouraged these departures rather than face an incident that involved some British or American nationals and thereby involve either of those countries in this Asian war. Cecil was now the senior Port Pilot for Lloyds of London as well as the local marine surveyor for the British Government. He had a firm resolve to attend to his responsibilities. Furthermore, during this period, people with Cecil’s experience in China were important to the British and American military representatives trying to extract information from the chaotic crisis surrounding them. Alice chose not to leave Swatow because of her responsibilities at the shipping firm where she worked. In the former Head Girl’s own words: “My father had taught me responsibility, and I had a job to do.”

Butterfield & Swire, where Alice worked, had their office building on the commercial side of Swatow harbor. The British and American expatriate community of Swatow resided on the town side of the harbor – a picturesque residential area to which the Wood family moved when Cecil was promoted to Senior Pilot. The majority of the residents had already been evacuated, at about the same time as Alice’s family relocated to Hong Kong. The few remaining residents painted American and British flags on their respective roofs to deter the Japanese bombers who were intermittently bombing Swatow. This was thier attempt to remind the Japanese pilots that the Americans and the British were not in this war. Employees used a small launch to take them across the harbor to work in the morning, and return them to their homes in the evening.

One day at work, while sitting at her desk, Alice looked out a large window which overlooked the harbor and saw the Japanese bombers approaching. There were nine of them, and as quickly as Alice spotted them, so did her colleagues. The only woman in the office, Alice quickly realized that all her colleagues were looking at her to see if she thought she could make it to the launch in time to get to the residential side of the harbor. Alice had not only been Head Girl, but also a sprinter at The Diocesan Girls School. Without a second thought, she said “Let’s go.” She and her colleagues ran out of the building and jumped into the small motor boat, which took off immediately, heading for a point mid-stream. One of the bombers, seeing them, swooped low and opened up its machine gun on the passengers. Everyone flattened on the small deck. No one was hurt.

In 1937, a United States Navy coastal gunboat, Sacramento, which cruised under the nickname “The Galloping Ghost of the China coast,” was patrolling the waters off the coast of China. The ship was often called into the troubled spots, rescuing the many American women and children who were being systematically evacuated as the Japanese continued their push southward. When Sacramento, and other American warships, were in the port of Swatow, they anchored in the harbor in front of Alice’s home.

Ensign John Bulkeley was the engineering officer on board Sacramento. On October 12 of that year a British warship, HMS Diana, was to set sail and return to England in a few days. HMS Diana’s officers invited Sacramento’s wardroom to a farewell reception, as well as some of the prominent British civilians living in Swatow. It was on this occasion that Ensign Bulkeley first spotted Alice as she made her way up the ladder to board HMS Diana. They were introduced on a formal receiving line, and, later in the wardroom, they talked at some length. Alice recollects that in conversation with his fellow officers, they deferred to his views. He stood out as a leader. She liked that in a man, and she left the ship that evening impressed by the young ensign.

The ship’s duties brought Sacramento in and out of Swatow over the course of the next year. A romance between Alice and John began that included a lot of tennis at the club when the ship was in, a lot of letters when the ship was out, and a trip to Hong Kong for Alice when the ship was there for an extended stay. Alice recalls that during their courtship they talked endlessly. The war around them dominated their conversation. However, Alice recalls that right from the start John seemed “very interested in me.” As Alice spoke those four words, she lifted her right hand and laid it close to her heart, suggesting an innocent bewilderment at his interest in her.

Intermittent bombings at more frequent intervals – both night and day – were a regular occurrence in Swatow all during their courtship. Whenever Sacramento was in Swatow harbor, John looked after Alice’s safety as best he could. He always arranged a special sampan, a small boat rowed by one oar, to stand by in the water near her office. He assured Alice that she could come to the American warship if she ever felt threatened. Alice never took him up on it. After one particularly forceful raid, John came ashore to check on Alice. She was out during the raid, and returned home by way of a back road so as to avoid the badly bombed main road. When the servant driving the rickshaw dropped Alice at her door, he took off into the country to hide, as had most of the other servants by this time.

Later that afternoon, Alice and John rode bicycles around Swatow, stopping to take pictures of the victims of that raid. They were not the only Westerners taking pictures to document the carnage, in hopes of support for the Chinese people from the West. Further inland, Nanjing, the capital of China, had already fallen into Japanese hands. In fact, from December through March of 1937, the year of Alice’s courtship with John, 340,000 innocent civilians in Nanjing were slaughtered by the Japanese. The Rev. John Magee recorded, on film, the gunning down of innocent civilians by machine gun, to the burying of other innocent civilians alive. More than 20,000 women of all ages, from 10 to 88 years old, were raped. The Tokyo Daily News, in December of 1937, reported a Japanese soldier who had won a contest by beheading 106 Chinese in one day. Before the Asian Holocaust ended, it had claimed 30 million victims.

By October of 1938, a year after they met, the young couple became engaged and began to plan their wedding at Saint Andrew’s Church in Hong Kong, which operated the Diocesan Girls School Alice attended as a young girl. Alice bought her wedding gown and veil, but the date for the wedding depended on Sacramento’s schedule, which was changing as regularly as the Japanese Navy was moving steadily down the coast of China toward Swatow. Cecil Wood liked the American officer a lot, and shared his daughter’s joys and frustrations with planning her wedding, but he was worried about his daughter. Alice also knew that there was certain amount of risk in what she was doing.

Alice remembered distinctly the letter she came across one day at work when she was going through some files at the office. The letter, signed by her boss who was the manager of Butterfield & Swire, was addressed to his boss. It stated that he intended to keep Alice on the job even though she was Eurasian and not pure English or pure Chinese. He clearly understood that the British company had an official policy that they not hire any Eurasians, but he was determined to keep her on the job.

This letter did not shock Alice. In fact. Alice had heard other stories which made it clear to her that it was not only the British who mistreated people of mixed blood. Stories came down to Swatow from Shanghai where some American Naval officers married “white Russians,” which was slang for Eurasian women.. Once the ships departed for home port, these women never heard from their lovers again.. They were left in Shanghai, deserted, literally, shanghaied for services in port.. As the story was told, one of these women took her own life. Alice knew, as did her father, that this romance carried a certain amount of risk. However, Alice hoped that, for her, things would be different.

As worried as Alice and her father were about this issue, the war increasingly became the dominant factor in the scenario. Just like the heavy seas that situated Alice’s birth in Swatow, the Sino-Japanese War changed all the plans that the young couple had been making for their wedding day.

In mid-October of 1938, Sacramento moved into Shanghai Harbor, and anchored near the American Standard Oil facility on the Whangpoo River. This facility was in the International Quarter of Shanghai, and the Japanese, who now had full military occupation of the city, respected this distinction, since they were not at war with those countries – yet. However, on the other streets of the city the Japanese sailors were a known threat to any woman who ventured out of the International Quarter. Chinese civilians living in Shanghai were being terrorized and tortured by the Japanese soldiers, and it was not unusual to see Chinese women raped and murdered. From reports, John knew that on October 12 Japanese troops made a landing just 30 miles north of Hong Kong. However, the British could not respond to the landing, even so close to their own territory, because they had no assurance of American support should war break out.

October 16 1938

Cable from John Bulkeley to Alice Wood

Intend to consummate plans first November if convenient to you. Shanghai or Hong Kong depending on the situation. Can you be ready. Love John

October 18 1938

Letter from John Bulkeley to Alice Wood

I have been following the movements of the Japs very closely at Swatow, and so far have been relieved that no actual landing has taken place. But I am very sure that there will be a landing…and when that landing comes, I don’t want you there. I think we (Sacramento) may be sent to Hong Kong in a hurry….it is sage to count on going ahead with our plans on the first of November. I have reserved a room – double beds too – at the Metropole Hotel..(in the International Quarter at Shanghai)..If you can, catch the first boat to Shanghai…and let me know by cable what ship you are coming on and I will try to meet it. In case I can’t, go immediately to the Metropole Hotel. It is opposite the American Consulate….If we should sail (from Shanghai) suddenly ourselves, I will be sure to cable you. And if you should be forced to leave Swatow by the Japs, you will always have this place waiting for you here.

October 19 1938

Cable from John Bulkeley to Alice Wood

Possibility sail to Hong Kong Wednesday. Desire to carry out original plans there. Letter follow. Love always, John.

October 20

Letter from John Bulkeley to Alice Wood

I have just found out that we are definitely going to stay in Shanghai till about 21 December. So, Darling, I will expect you up here whenever you can get here. If anything goes wrong and I am unable to meet you, you are to go directly to the Metropole Hotel. But I fully intend to meet you.

October 20

Cable from John Bulkeley to Alice Wood

Ship remain in Shanghai. Come as soon as convenient. Cable ship and date arrival. Reservation made for you at Metropole Hotel. Love John

Alice’s boss, Gordon Campbell, was also aware of the uncertainty of the future in Swatow, and gave Alice permission to quit work at the end of October. In this way, Alice was able to sail out of Swatow for Shanghai on the first available ship in early November. She recalls a tearful good-bye to her father, holding her one piece of luggage in which she had carefully packed her wedding gown and veil. But the 25-year-old woman had no idea how any of this was going to turn out.

John did meet Alice at the dock in Shanghai. He quickly escorted her to the safety of The Metropole Hotel, which stood opposite the American Consulate’s office. Upon entering their room with the double beds, Alice was overwhelmed with the aroma of several bouquets of yellow roses, which were, and always have been, her favorite. John explained to her that Captain Allen, the Commanding Officer of the Sacramento, offered to give Alice away at the ceremony in Shanghai, but they first had to complete certain paperwork to make the marriage legal.

As they set about this task on the city streets of occupied Shanghai, Alice and John soon became inundated with paperwork which had to be completed and stamped by several offices before they could get married. The Japanese soldiers who patrolled the sidewalks, streets, and buildings, made this task not only more difficult, but also increased their growing sense of urgency. The Sacramento was on a high alert, which meant John had the duty every other day. In layman’s terms, he had to spend 24 of every 48 hours physically on the ship and on watch.. Days slipped by and the paperwork allowing them to be married was still not complete.

On November 10, Cecil Wood sent a cable to his daughter in the room with double beds at The Metropole Hotel in the Japanese-occupied city of Shanghai. Alone at The Metropole, Alice read the cable. He was deeply concerned about her, and in no uncertain terms, he instructed her to return to Swatow if she was not already married. When John came in late that afternoon from the ship, he read the cable. The couple quickly left the hotel and dashed across the street to the American Consulate to see what, if anything, could be done.

One of the Consulate’s employees reviewed the paperwork the couple had completed, as well as that which remained to be done. The three of them looked at the calendar on the employee’s desk. The next day, Friday, was an official holiday, so all the offices would be closed. The weekend that followed was a three day weekend which meant that nothing could be done for four more days. John and Alice completely understood her father’s command, and they also understood each other. They requested an interview with the Judge Advocate at the American Consulate, and made their plea. Special Judge Nelson Lurton of the United States Court for China married John Bulkeley and Alice Wood on November 10, 1938. The couple immediately sent a cable to Alice’s father, to say that she was now Mrs. John D. Bulkeley.

John and his bride then rode on a launch down the Whangpoo River, which runs through Shanghai, to where the Sacramento was at anchor. Alice and John shared the launch with several young marines, and she recalls that there was an uneasy feeling on the small boat as it made its way down the river. The couple got off at the former Standard Oil dock in the International Quarter of the city. Standard Oil, as well as the other American and British companies, had already evacuated Shanghai. Sacramento was guarding the abandoned Standard Oil facilities which had recently been threatened by some Chinese Guerillas. The large homes which had once housed the executives’ families were empty. The residents had been evacuated, as it was felt to be only a matter of time before the Japanese would occupy this part of the city as well. The Whangpoo River was quiet, and eerily deserted. The couple boarded the ship at the dinner hour, so they went into the wardroom and ate with the ship’s officers. There was no champagne or cake, but John’s fellow officers took a few pictures.

After dinner, Ensign Bulkeley finally told his Alice that he had the duty that night. The groom would have to spend his wedding night on board the ship. Alice recalls that she was not upset about this development. Very little could surprise her at that point. She remembers being completely exhausted from her last few days in Shanghai, and she felt that nothing more could bother her, now that their marriage had finally been accomplished. However, night had already fallen on the Whangpoo River, so it was not safe for her to return to The Metropole Hotel. The officers of the wardroom knew of John’s situation when he boarded with Alice, and, together with John, they put a plan together. A plan which they dutifully carried out.

A few of the officers and John escorted Alice off Sacramento and walked her over to a large, abandoned house which was formerly the residence of the manager of Standard Oil in Shanghai. As they approached the house, Alice saw some marines who were patrolling the area. John and his fellow officers took her around to the back of the house, opened a door, and went down some stairs to the basement of the house. Alice remembers the room as being fairly clean, with cement floors, a small cot, one light, and a tiny washroom. The cot, Alice noted, had clean sheets on it. Someone had made preparations for her, but Alice recalls that “It looked kind of bleak and cold, and I shivered.” She also recalls that none of the officers were joking as they had done through dinner. In fact, everyone was very serious in their manner

Alice stood in the middle of the room wearing the suit she had been married in, holding her pocketbook. The other officers quietly filed out of the room and up the stairs. John, her husband of a few hours, was the last to leave.

“John gave me a great big hug, a kiss, and then his .45 caliber service pistol.” As he put the gun into her hand, he said “You may need this.”

Ensign Bulkeley shut the basement door behind him, and Alice stood there looking at the gun for a while. She had never held one in her hand, never mind fired a weapon, in her life. She put the gun under her pillow, her pocketbook beside the cot, and lay down to go to sleep.

“I could close my eyes and feel safe, knowing that John was out there to protect me. I was so happy to be his wife.”

The next morning a group of officers, including John, arrived at the basement and took Alice back to the ship for breakfast. Ensign Bulkeley had the day off, so the newlyweds rode the launch back up the Whangpoo River and returned to The Metropole Hotel, where they spent the next few days on their honeymoon.. Alice recalls standing with her husband at the window in their room and looking down on the city s below. It was a particularly busy street, with many groups of Japanese soldiers moving up and down it constantly. John had a BB gun in the room with him, and Alice recalls that he took great delight in hitting the Japanese soldiers in the backside with the air pistol, and then watching the soldiers look around to see who did it. Alice reflected on this memory for a moment, and then, with a mischievous smile, she added: “They never looked UP. I don’t know why.”

On a foggy morning just one month later, Alice watched Sacramento slip out of the harbor sailing for New York. The ship was badly in need of an overhaul, and so she was heading for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. In fact, the ship was in such bad shape, that the crew was taking bets on whether or not Sacramento would even make it to New York before her engines gave out. Alice was John’s wife, but she was not an American citizen. To get passage to the States, she would have to wait until John arrived in New York and then send for her. Once there, she could not apply for American citizenship until after she lived in the United States for three years.

After the ship departed, Alice traveled south to Hong Kong to stay with her sister. Through the grapevine in Hong Kong, Alice found out that within a week of their marriage, John had been told by his senior Admiral that he had made a terrible mistake in marrying her, a Eurasian of Japanese and German blood. He was warned that his career in the Navy was in jeopardy. Alice knew how much John loved the Navy and wanted to make it his career. They both knew that this war between Japan and China would soon extend into a war between Japan and The United States. Even worse for her mixed blood, the States might also be dragged into a war with Germany.

Sacramento would reach New York in six months, and in that amount of time Alice felt John could consider the situation for himself and make his mind. He could continue with the marriage and send for her, or let her to remain in China and have the marriage annulled. While Alice was in Hong Kong, waiting for word from John, her father wrote her the following letter:

Dear Alice,

…In the meantime, you should do all you can to fit yourself to meet whatever circumstances this outcome may be, whether good or bad. I do not know what provisions John has made for you. If it is sufficient, I do not think it is wise to seek salaried employment at present. It would be better were you to endeavor to raise your standard of education to fit you to that position you thought to assume and which may, despite the present impasse, some day be yours. And don’t think I have no sympathy. I am full of it, but it won’t help you any however much I talk about it.

If you can afford to do so, enroll at the University for any post-graduate course that would help John in his career and make a determined effort to get high grades. I advise this because for all you know the Naval Authorities may have set up observations on your movement to decide their action when your case comes up for a final consideration. It would be greatly in your favour if you were reported as a post-graduate student at the University, and not an underpaid typist at some petty little firm.

In the meanwhile, while preparing for the worst, refuse to believe that anything very bad will happen. Look on the bright side, keep cheerful, and work hard – damn hard.

With much love,

Your affectionate father

In May of 1939, six months after departing Shanghai, Sacramento arrived to her drydock in New York. John, the chief engineer of the ship that wasn’t supposed to make it to New York, promptly sent word to Alice in Hong Kong. She was to join him in New York as soon as possible. Alice made her arrangements to sail from Hong Kong for San Fransisco on board The President Cleveland. However, she had one more short sea journey to make before she left China. She knew she may never return again. never to return again. She wanted to visit her home one more time. She cabled her father of her desire, and he answered with the following letter.

May 24 1939

My dear Alice,
Your old room is ready for you and if I can’t put up with your cooking, you will jolly well have to put up with mine. I went off to see Captain Nilsen, the skipper of a Norwegian steamship, to try to arrange for a passage for you. He is a good sort. I had a very good time on board, and he will bring you up without charge. You may have to sleep on the deck if his cabins are booked, but otherwise you will be comfortable. The ship will arrive in Hong Kong on Saturday, and will sail for Swatow on or about the third. When you come up bring the best egg beater you can find in Hong Kong and also a smaller edition in a glass jar for making mayonnaise. The damn cook had broken all of our eggbeaters so I had to become an expert with three bamboos tied together. I am working with these sticks just as well as I can.

Make your arrangements with Captain Nilsen and don’t go near the ship’s agents and introduce yourself as my daughter. The old man still has his uses and one or two kicks left yet.

Still merry and bright.

Love to all,

Your father

In the spring of 1939 the Japanese occupied Manchuria, Peking, and Nanking, as far south as the Yangtse River. The majority of the Chinese people had fled inland to relative safety, as the Japanese bombed with the intent to invade and occupy the major treaty ports of Canton, Wenchow,
Ningteh, and Swatow. Cecil, who had previously worked with the Japanese in his role as the port pilot, felt sure that he would receive special treatment from the Japanese when they finally took over Swatow.

Alice vividly remembers her last week in Swatow with her father. “Shrapnel from the bombings often fell over our house and into the yard, but the house did escape a direct hit. Our servants had all fled to the interior of China, so my father and I had to fend for ourselves. On the day I was to leave Swatow, Father brought a bottle of champagne to the ship, and we had a toast to my future in America, and the hope that we would meet again. As the ship pulled away from the dock for the overnight trip to Hong Kong, to my great surprise, on the pier had gathered some of my old faithful servants. They must have heard of my departure through the grapevine and they let off a string of Chinese firecrackers. As the ship pulled away and the lone figure of my father on the pier began to fade, I saw us together at our home, looking over all the precious things we had enjoyed over the years, and wished I could have taken with me, but now lost forever, but most of all, my father.”

As the ship brought Alice out of that familiar harbor for the last time, her eyes rested on the Japanese warships which stood, menacingly, at its entrance. She stood on the deck of the ship, with her suitcase next to her. She took only one item from her family’s once elegant home before she left, which was a baby picture of herself. At their final good-bye, her father handed her a small parcel, which she tucked into her suitcase for safe-keeping. Her inheritance, however, lay in what this young woman tucked into her heart as she sailed out of Swatow harbor.

Three Years Later

In the spring of 1942 the American people needed a hero. The United States was at war in Europe and in Asia, and things were not going well. In the Atlantic, German submarines were extracting a hideous toll on allied shipping. In the Pacific, the U.S. Fleet suffered a devastating blow at Pearl Harbor. The United States was in retreat across the Pacific. A glimmer of hope came with the successful evacuation of General MacArthur, his wife and young son from Corrigidor, a fortress in Manila Bay where the last of American and Phillipino forces would eventually surrender to the Japanese. Lt. John Bulkeley commanded the only PT Boat Squadron in the Pacific. His boat, PT 41, carried the MacArthur family to the safety of an island airfield, from which the General and his family were flown to Australia. Four years later, the movie “They Were Expendable” told the story of this rescue to the American people in gripping detail. However, Bulkeley received his recognition far sooner than opening night of the movie. When the young lieutenant returned to New York City shortly after this assignment, he received a hero’s welcome from the city. The ticker-tape parade stretched fourteen blocks along Seventh Avenue.

“An estimated 250,000 cheering men and women, ten rows deep, lined both sides of Seventh Avenue, and tens of thousands more leaned out of building windows to watch and applaud. Army, Navy, and Marine Units, a score of military bands, and the 1,000 members of the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Red Cross marched along the fourteen block route. A huge white sign, held high, read “All New York Welcomes John D. Bulkeley.”

The New York Daily Mirror carried the story the next day. The picture on the front page featured Lt. Bulkeley in the back seat of the convertible, with Alice beside him. The script under the picture notes that is wife his “proudly smiling.” Alice had just become a citizen of The United States. Upon her arrival to New York, she moved in with her mother-in-law who lived in a four-room apartment in Long Island City. While she rode along Seventh Avenue, her mother-in-law was caring for her 20-month-old daughter and her one-month-old son, John, who had been born with cerebral palsy and other physical defects. Alice’s mother, sister, brother-in-law, niece, and nephew were interned in Camp Stanley in Hong Kong as British prisoners of the Japanese. Her younger brother Eric was in a prison camp in Osaka, Japan. Her father had been interned by the Japanese in Shanghai. She had received no mail from them. She was not even certain that they were still alive.

Alice spoke with a strong British accent, and her new American friends, knowing she was born in China, assumed she had a Chinese father and an English mother. Alice did not correct them. She had been dealing with her Eurasian blood since filling out that form in middle school. Her German blood would also be an issue, as the war with Germany which she and John had foreseen, was now underway. For the sake of her husband and her children, she did not reveal the German and Japanese blood in her to people outside her immediate family for many years. Japanese-Americans were being interned in camps in this country which had just granted her citizenship.

Alice also knew, as she sat in the convertible trying smile for the crowd, that her husband would shortly return to the Philippines and come face to face with the Japanese military himself. She thought she had lost John during her last pregnancy when he was reported missing in action. He later showed up in Australia. But Alice was no fool She clearly understood that her husband would soon be in grave danger again.

One year later, 1943, Alice received a letter from John Liley, a former colleague at Butterfield & Swire in Swatow, who had been interned with her father in Shanghai. John managed to escape, and Cecil asked John, that if he got out, he get word to Alice. John wrote that when the Japanese took over Swatow, they gave Cecil no special treatment as he had hoped. The Japanese first confined all of the 34 remaining Anglo – Americans in Swatow to their houses, and then locked them all up in the British Consulate. Eventually, the Japanese loaded them into the No. 3 hold of a filthy Japanese coaster and took them to Shanghai, where John and Cecil shared a room at the defunct Columbia Country Club. There was a terrible lack of food, with yams serving as the chief staple of their diet.

John Liley’s letter went on:
“Cecil remained surprisingly active for his years, though, I must say, his face revealed the fact that he seemed to be aging considerably, and I suspected that he did at times weep in the darkness. But this, Alice, in any case, is nothing of which to be ashamed. Talking with him reminded me of what someone once wrote about Lincoln – ‘It seemed in his later years as though the knuckles of sorrow had pushed his eyes deep into his sockets.’ He was full of principle, resolution, and fight. All he could learn of his wife and children is that they were in Hong Kong in the Stanley Gaol, and conditions were what one could expect from the Japanese. Your father spoke of you and John at considerable length. Your father and I followed John’s exploits and career over the San Francisco Radio. Needless to say he was more than a little pleased that you are sharing with John a very distinguished Naval career.”

Liley’s letter confirmed for Alice that her father heard about that parade on Seventh Avenue in New York City on the radio, sequestered in his room, interned in Shanghai. At the end of the war, the Wood’s relatives in Canada were able to sponsor her family in Hong Kong to Canada. However, no one was ever able to make contact with her father in Shanghai. Cecil Wood died in Shanghai on March 26, 1943.

The small parcel which her father gave to her upon her own departure from Swatow contained a set of five matching handkerchiefs, hand-embroidered in Swatow. Alice framed each one separately, and gave one to each of her five children. On the back of the frame is a copy of the letter which her father wrote and enclosed with the small parcel he gave his daughter on the last day that they were together.

June 3, 1939

My dear Alice,
It is an American custom to “root for your own home town.” Lest you should have shame for the place where you were born, these exquisite examples of an exquisite art will, I hope, enable you to bear yourself bravely against all contumely of ignorant people. When time shall have given you memories of the yesteryears, I am certain that not least among the gentlefolk whom you have known you will place Ah-Sim, Ah-Kah, Yeong-Kee and his boatmen. Therefore, should China and the Chinese people ever be disparaged in your hearing, tell what you yourself know of them, and take pride in rooting for the place where you were born. Display these handkerchiefs and defy anyplace, anywhere to produce needlework equal to them.

In America the people take you at your own valuation. So, boost yourself, boost your birthplace, boost your nationality and everything else that is yours. But value other people and what they boast of at 5 cents on the dollar.

Your affectionate Father

I interviewed Alice on a quiet Sunday afternoon in the home of her son, Peter, a Captain in the United States Navy. He and his wife, Carol, live in a home on the Lynnhaven River with their two children, Lauren and Chris. Alice visits them regularly from her home in Washington, D.C. Towards the end of my interview with her, I asked what advice she would give to a young woman today.

She looked down at her hands folded on her lap for a moment while she mentally composed her answer. Then, she raised one hand, with her fingers slightly parted, and gracefully swept the expanse of her son’s elegant living room in which she was seated.

“Things mean nothing. These things, I mean, like these – around us in this room. They can all be gone tomorrow. It is what we carry around inside of us that will get us through life.”


Admiral Bulkeley’s 55-year career reads like Pug Henry in The Winds of War – if there was a crisis, Bulkeley was there. Shortly after the ticker-tape parade, Bulkeley returned to his plywood-hulled PT boats in the Pacific, followed by duty in the Atlantic that included reconnoitering Utah Beach for the Normandy Invasion. Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Kennedy, whom Bulkeley had personally recruited for PT boat duty, sent the Admiral to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to keep Castro in line. He is a legend in the United States Navy.

Bulkeley’s personal reputation was that of a man who never took himself too seriously. One day he was shopping on a Naval Base in San Diego, and a young Ensign recognized him, even though Bulkelely chose not to wear his name tag. The Ensign was in absolute awe of the legend standing before him, and mumbled out “Sir, you’ve been one of my heroes all my life!” He smiled, and replied, “Well, thank you, son. But then again, you haven’t lived a very long life!”

Shortly after his seventy-seventh birthday, in 1988, Bulkeley stood in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations with only a handful of guests. After serving in the Navy for 55 years, John D. Bulkeley was being “:frocked,” or promoted, to Vice Admiral, which is designated by the wearing of three silver stars. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Carlisle Trost, pinned the first three-star epaulet on John Bulkeley’s shoulder, and Alice, his wife, pinned on the second epaulet. Then, the Admiral turned to his wife, whom, he declared, “has been my first mate and inspiration for fifty years.” He pinned on her a brooch of three stars centered with diamonds.

Perhaps the Admiral was remembering his meeting four years earlier with Prince Phillip and thinking, with, of course, all due respect to the Queen, ” I don’t think so.”

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One comment

  1. I believe the John Liley mentioned here was my grandfather’s brother. Thanks for posting this moving account.

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