HOW IT BECAME THE OFFICIAL INSIGNIA OF SACO
The story below is quoted from pages 102-106 of
Miles, M. E., 1967, A Different Kind of War: Doubleday & Co, Garden City, NY. 629 p
We had too little equipment to keep us all busy sixteen hours a day. We had no recreation facilities except our walking shoes, and we were eight difficult miles from town. We had no movies. We did not have the power we needed even to generate enough electricity for a good reading light, though reading lights would have been put to little use for we had very little to read. There was no airplane space to waste on such canteen supplies as toothpaste, soap, cigarettes, or candy. Chinese cigarettes contained little real tobacco, of course, but they had to do. And no personal belongings except what each man had been able to carry personally had yet come over the Hump though, judging from what the boys had to say, every possible good and useful thing was packed in their missing trunks and foot lockers. If one listened to Webb Heagy, for example, his delayed belongings were made up largely of pipe cleaners. He had gotten down to his last one before he discovered that pipe cleaners were nonexistent in Chungking and he was compelled, from then on, to launder that last one nightly.
But our classes made excellent headway. It was not long before we had a lot of welltrained—even highly trained—men, all anxious for any kind of action that would help win the war. Under the circumstances, our inability to perform the tasks for which we were being prepared was trying on tempers and nerves. And so, to keep some sort of mental balance, I encouraged foolishness.
The weather had changed to wet and rainy and the crop of mosquitoes was bountiful. The result was that our boys were soon topping any New Jersey mosquito story ever told. Our mosquitoes, for example, were so big that they had circulatory systems of their own. That explained why, if you killed a thousand of them, they all had blood in them. Some of the boys worried, too, about a huge plate glass mirror in Fairy Cave. It would cost, they said, something like $3500 U.S. to replace it if some myopic mosquito happened to shatter it by flying into it by mistake. And, too,
that would be an awful lot of bad luck!
While we were still waiting for our first guns we heard that the Army had flown in a load of hardwood tent pegs, but the boys were thoughtfully magnanimous. The Army, they agreed, really needed those pegs to keep the mosquitoes from flying away with their tents.
We decided on a mascot and drew a big mosquito as our first emblem. We called him “Socko,” in honor of SACO (Sino-American Cooperative Organization).
One day when several of us had gone to Chungking and were at work at Fairy Cave, we caught Webb Heagy standing on the terrace studying the unusual number of planes that were lined up beside the river airstrip far below our hilltop.
“What’s on your mind, Webb?” I asked.
“Some of those planes,” he began, “have Army numbers. Some have C.N.A.C. [China National Airways Corporation] insignia. And some aren’t marked at all. Now you may not believe it, but the ones without any numbers or insignia are mosquitoes that have managed to get into that formation.”
We admitted that the idea was plausible but we felt sure that no proper Fairy Cave or Happy Valley mosquito would be caught dead without its own special insignia.
“How about a ‘What-the-Hell?’ pennant?” I asked, whereupon we solemnly formed the “Whatthe-Hell?” Association, and hoisted a pennant I had brought with me that already had a little personal history of its own.
In 1934, when I had been executive officer of the junior destroyer of our division—the U.S.S. Wickes—we often found ourselves “snapping the whip” when, in maneuvering, ships ahead of us did not precisely follow the orders. It was primarily with this in mind that I asked my wife, one evening, how she would say “What the Hell?” on a pennant.
“Well,” she replied, “when editors are up against the problem of suggesting something they are too moral to print, they fill in with question marks, exclamation points, and asterisks.”
So the very next day I had a special pennant made up—white, with red markings, arranged as follows: ???!!!***.
For several years I used that pennant occasionally for monkeyshines. In fact, I had our signalmen use it enough to acquaint our whole division with it. But then, in 1939, when I was on duty in the Far East again, it served a purpose that had serious attributes despite its nonsense.
I was skipper of the destroyer John D. Edwards and one afternoon in February we were ordered to hurry from Swatow, in Kwangtung Province, to Hainan Island, something more than four hundred miles to the southwest. Our orders told us to see what the Japanese were doing to some American medical missionaries during a landing the Japanese Navy was making there, and we got under way promptly.
In order to make navigation harder for the Japanese, the Chinese had destroyed all the lights and markers along the coast, but we nevertheless went full speed ahead all the way down and sighted the northernmost tip of Hainan Island at dawn. A little later, as the early morning mists grew thinner over the open roadstead of Hoihow (Haikou), we were able to see and hear a good part of the Japanese fleet, from cruisers to small boats, some of which had begun to bombard the city.
Commodore John T. G. Stapler, our division commander, had decided to come along, and when the Japanese ships ran up international code pennants saving, in effect, that we weren’t welcome—to go away—to return to our port—I asked him what he would like to reply. Our orders, of course, were to see about the Americans who were ashore, and in view of what the Japanese signals were now telling us it is not surprising that the commodore was not quite sure just what kind of a reply to make. But we were under way, and unless we decided to stop or to change our course both promptly and sharply, we would soon be in among the Japanese ships.
My signalman was standing by and he may have read my mind. At any rate, he had the “Whatthe-Hell?” pennant bent on under the International Code pennant by the time I gave the order to “run it up.”
Seeing that we were replying, the Japanese lowered their signals and halted their bombardment. Fortunately, we had given them enough time before we anchored to make out our signal and to search for it in their signal books, but not enough time to make sure that the strange new pennant we were flying wasn’t there.
As a result, along came a young Japanese lieutenant, hurrying toward us in a pulling boat.
“You cannot anchor here,” he shouted.
“Well, I don’t like it here myself,” I told him from the wing of the bridge. “I would prefer to be closer to shore.”
“Oh no,” he shouted. “My admiral would not like or permit that.”
“Please inform your admiral,” I replied, “that we prefer to anchor closer to shore.”
He had a long way to go before he could deliver that message so, while he was on his way, we upped anchor and moved in closer. Then, having anchored again, Commodore Stapler and I went ashore to follow our orders and see about the safety of the American missionaries in town.
We did not return until the next day, and by then our chores had been attended to. We now had only to pay a return call on the Japanese, for seagoing manners are not canceled even under such unusual circumstances. After all, our Japanese friends had considerately stopped their bombardment to let us come into the harbor!
As skipper of the “visiting” American destroyer it was up to me to pay an official call on the Japanese flagship, and I did so as smartly as my men and I knew how. Still, I wasted as little time as possible in talking with the officer of the deck and was almost ready to say goodbye when the admiral himself appeared.
“By the way, Captain,” he said in very good English when he had greeted me, “what was the meaning of the pennant you flew as you entered the harbor yesterday?”
“What pennant was that, Admiral?” I asked as innocently as I could, though I edged toward the accommodation ladder at the same time.
“Why, this pennant,” he replied, breaking out a very glossy print showing the John D. Edwards coming out of the haze and plainly flying both the red-and-white striped International Code pennant and the “What-the-Hell?” pennant with its question marks, exclamation points, and asterisks.
“Oh, that,” I nodded. “Well, Admiral, it could be that the Japanese Navy is so busy these days that the boys haven’t had time to keep their signal books up to date. Good day, sir.” And, having saluted him and also the Japanese colors on the cruiser’s stern, over the side I went.
For once my “What-the-Hell?” pennant had managed to serve a useful purpose. It should be added, however, that the incident troubled that Japanese admiral enough to have him set in motion a request for information that actually reached Washington and even penetrated to certain inner offices of the State and Navy Departments. In fact, when I was transferred to Washington a few months later, that Japanese inquiry had been passed down again by easy stages until it actually landed on my desk, together with a print of the picture the admiral had shown me.
“What,” its accompanying memo asked, “is the meaning of this pennant you flew on the John D. Edwards?”
That had been in August 1939, and I promptly started a reply back up the chain of command. The Japanese admiral, however, never received any direct answer to his query. Somewhere along the way, I have been told, my explanation aroused the risibility of some of my seniors and, as a result, what I had to say was “filed.” But now that the war had come and we members of Navy Group China were looking about for an acceptable bit of insignia, the “What-the-Hell?” pennant seemed made to order for our purpose. Consequently, it was then and there adopted, partly,
perhaps, in the hope that because of what we hoped to accomplish the Japanese would somehow come to understand that, in addition to its nonsense, that pennant had its share of serious meaning after all.