Taipei Air Station - 1966 - - - " What you have in the end are memories"......... Photo Courtesy of Richard Reesh.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Young Soldier Heads to Matsu – 1957

Friends who read this Blog...
We have never written of the Matsu Island Group.  
This is our first Matsu story.

Tom Jones was one of the 18 MAAG Taiwan US military men assigned to duty on Nangan Island in 1957. 

Tom Jones, US Army, on his first overseas assignment, arrives in Taipei to begin work at the MAAG Taiwan Provisional Signal Detachment, in early 1957.


Here, Tom in Tokyo during a stop-over en-route to Taipei, late 1956.

Shortly after being settled in, he was reassigned to a new duty location we've all heard of, but few ever saw or experienced, our MAAG Advisory Team on Matsu (Nangan Island) in the Matsu island group.

Nangan Island, the location of a small group of US MAAG Taiwan personnel in the Matsu Island Group.

Tom's story begins ....

What would you do if you found yourself suddenly unable to communicate with  anyone around you?  

This happened to me when I found myself at sea on a Nationalist Chinese Navy LST.  


Keelung Harbor, 1957, on-board this LST bound for Matsu (Nangan Island.)

I was the lone American on board and, to the best of my recollection; nobody else on the ship spoke a single word of English.

Some of the US MAAG Taiwan Provisional Signal Detachment Antenna west of Taipei.
This all started one day in 1957 when I came to my regular day job at the Army Communications Network transmitter site outside Taipei when the ranking NCO said, “Jones, we need you to go to Matsu (Nangan Island) with a radio truck.” 

I was an indestructible twenty-three year old adventurer by this time and it sounded interesting.  

Matsu and its sister island Quemoy near the Communist Chinese coast were a hot topic in the news, and both islands occasionally exchanged artillery fire with the mainland.  

I understood that the Communists only shelled Quemoy (also called Kinmen) on alternate days so that the farmers could tend their fields.  Matsu (Nangan Island) didn’t have an airfield, or even a dock, so transporting heavy material had to be done by ship.  

When I arrived at the harbor of Keelung, the truck mounted AN/GRC-26 communications unit along with its PE- 95 generator, (one of vehicles above) had already been loaded on the LST.  Because the truck also contained highly sensitive cryptographic equipment, the plan was that I would live in the truck and eat C rations for the overnight trip to Matsu (Nangan Island) in the Matsu island group.

I was about to settled down to an uncomfortable trip when a Chinese Nationalist officer informed me by sign language, that I would not be able stay with the truck.  He gestured to the hundreds of fifty gallon drums of gasoline that were being loaded in the rest of the hold and gestured for me to follow him.  After locking the truck, I followed him up several decks to a private cabin in officer’s country where he “told” me that I would be staying.

Using more sign language, I asked the officer if I could look around the ship and he signaled okay.  I immediately set out to explore the ship from top to bottom.  Because the ship was docked, most of the crew, except for the loading crew, was off duty and the ship seemed almost deserted.  I visited the bridge and looked around the radio room but was really more interested in what made the ship go.  Wandering through the passages and ladders, I made my way to the engine room and met the chief engineer.  We exchanged gestures about the different engines and pumps, and I complimented him on the spotless condition of his engine room but simulating a white glove inspection.  

Now, the problem of not speaking or understanding more than a few words of Chinese didn’t seem so bad after all.  I climbed back up to the main deck and had a “conversation” with one of the deckhands about all the usual stuff – the ship, weather, senior officers, and women. 

Soon it was time for us to leave Keelung, the mooring lines were coiled up, and we headed out into the Straits of Formosa.  There wasn’t much else to see so I headed back to my cabin where I was met by a mess attendant with a tray of food for me.  I really enjoyed the food as, by this time, I had been eating much like most of the Chinese families around our apartment building in Taipei.  In fact, the only time I had any undesirable reaction from food during my stay in Taiwan was while eating at the one local restaurant that was inspected and approved for us.  

            The LST transport,  beached on Nangan Island for unloading.

After a good night’s sleep and another hand-delivered breakfast, I came out on deck in time to see us approaching Nangan Island. 

I had always imagined what an amphibious landing was like and now I was about to experience it first hand – fortunately with nobody shooting at us.  It was not by accident that the tide was going out as we arrived and, after dropping an anchor astern, the LST was beached, the bow doors opened, and the ramp lowered.  

As soon as the drums of gasoline blocking the way were unloaded, we drove the truck and trailer down the ramp, onto the beach, and up the hill to the area occupied by the U.S. Army MAAG Advisors and their support staff.  

 MAAG Taiwan Matsu (Nangan Island.)  MAAG Motor Pool seen in the distance.

Nationalist forces "dug-in" all along this hill.

I don’t think that there were any trees left on Nangan and, except for some rice paddies, there was only sparse vegetation in between all of the Chinese Nationalist military installations, gun emplacements, foxholes, and tunnels.
Previously, U.S. communications from Nangan had been over a channel in the Chinese Nationalist’s communications link with Taiwan.  They ran their American made communications carrier equipment at about 95 volts instead of 115 volts and their communications weren’t very reliable.  

Consequently, the radio truck I was delivering was to provide our own secure US communications, independent of the Chinese Nationalist’s channel we were using.

Imagine the effort looks like a 12 man detail..

Because the radio truck was a new installation on Nangan, it had to be dug into the hillside, and a bunch of Nationalist soldiers were hard at work when we arrived with picks, shovels, and woven baskets to create a bunker for the truck. 

In short order, the radio truck was in place, the antennas connected, and communications with the U.S. command in Taipei was established. 

Motor mechanic, Ed Sharp and his generators.

There were now three PE-95 ten kilowatt generators to supply power for the radio truck, hostel, and officer’s quarters.  Nationalist troops were dug in on the hillside around us and it was interesting to note that at night when we briefly interrupted power to switch generators, the entire hillside went dark.

The "common area" of the Hostel.

My quarters in the hostel building weren’t elegant but functional.  We even had hot showers.  I shared a private room with another enlisted man and we had comfortable single beds.  

One morning I woke up to scratching sound and looked up see a bug climbing up the wall that was so big that I thought it was going to knock my 45 off a its nail.  This was my first introduction to a wood roach that must have been four or five inches in length.  Fortunately, there weren’t any other close encounters of any kind. 

I soon found out how the two kerosene fueled refrigerators in the common area were allocated: one for food, and the other for beer.  Each of us had a shelf for our own beer. 

A young local fellow was our cook, and he had a wide repertoire of dishes. At meals, we could choose between three or four choices on the menu but even stuffed peppers were cooked in a wok with plenty of soy sauce so all the dishes tasted about the same.  Usually we just ordered “Chinese chow.”  

Tom, inside Radio Truck, working on Kleinschmidt teletype equipment.

I was responsible only for maintaining the radio and teletype equipment in the truck and, like the hospital corpsman, was really there in case of a major problem.  

Mainly I did preventive maintenance and repaired an occasional teletype machine.   It was a bad day when I wasn’t finished by 0800.  It was easy to fill the remaining hours of the day. 

I needed to be nearby in case there was a problem with the radio equipment but since almost all of the communications were of an administrative nature there wasn’t a great rush to have things repaired.  

I read a lot of books, took naps, and sometimes a friend and I would strap on our 45s and explore the island.  


Ed Sharp reading the latest paperback book while standing watch over his generators.

Scannel taking a break. You can only read so-much before your eyes get heavy.
Most of the time we were not very busy.

SFC Kennedy inside our truck with our BD-77 wireless equipment.  
I also worked on this equipment.

There were always documents that needed to be destroyed.  
Here one of our NCO's is tending our "Burn Barrel."


A friendly game of volleyball between some of the MAAG Advisors and our Nationalist Interpreters.

Some of the Nationalist military men who worked with us.

There wasn’t any nightlife on the island that I was aware of but one of the enlisted men somehow managed to pick up a case of crabs (pubic lice).  

Many evenings we showed movies in the common area, and all eighteen Americans gathered to watch the 16mm films.  

We were supplied by a regular PBY aircraft flight from Taipei that was met in the harbor by a couple of sampans – one for food and one for beer.  Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cost $3.00 a case.

Editor Note:  The following “Comment” was posted on a previous post on this blog.

An anonymous writer left the following Comment on the MAAG Flight Section Taipei story.
"I'm 98.32% certain that the "MAAG Flight Section" building in the photograph is the one we called the "Flight Shack" or "MAAG Shack," located in the restricted military area of Taipei Sung Shan (or Songshan) Airport (IATA: TSA, ICAO: RCSS; Chinese: 臺北松山機場; pinyin: Táiběi Sōngshān Jīchǎng), the civilian portion of which was officially called Taipei International Airport (Chinese: 臺北國際航空站; pinyin: Táiběi Gúojì Hángkōngzhàn), to and from which I flew 5 or 6 times on a Civil Air Transport (CAT) Consolidated PBY-5A amphibious aircraft, nicknamed "Blue Goose 2," owned by the CIA and crewed by 2 CIA pilots when I served a combat tour with the Matsu Defense Command Advisory Team (MDCAT) on Matsu (Nangan Island) in 1959-60. 

Both passengers and pilots were required to check in (with, I think, US Army personnel) at this building prior to each flight to Matsu, and I think we had to check out with the staff each time we returned to Taipei. 

I never saw any other aircraft parked anywhere near the shack, and assume that all aircraft that boarded or discharged passengers there simply taxied there from some other location at Songshan. I suspect that the shack was used only for internal flights carrying US military personnel to or from locations within Nationalist China. 

Unlike any other aircraft on which I've flown, US military passengers were required to be armed with .45-caliber pistols, and the CIA pilots carried a virtual arsenal in an extremely heavy-looking golf-club bag, including fully automatic weapons (or so I was told by fellow passenger and friend Father John J Dahlheimer, SJ, "Chaplain to the Matsu Complex"). 

Aside from those Matsu trips, all other flights to or from Taipei on which I embarked or debarked used the international (civilian) airport building. 

The original Blue Goose was a PBY-5A owned and operated by Foshing Air Transport (aka Foshing Airlines) under a Ministry of National Defense contract, which mysteriously disappeared see: whole enroute from Matsu to Taipei in October 1958, and I suspect that it too probably loaded and unloaded at the MAAG flight shack. END

Occasionally,  during the night, the Communist Chinese would shell Matsu (Nangan Island) and we awoke with a start when 155mm howitzers emplaced near us returned fire.  

Looking west from Nangan Island.  The closeness of Communist Mainland seen in this photo 

Matsu (Nangan Island)  was only a few thousand yards off the coast of mainland China and, although our location was in defile for artillery fire, there was concern that we not be captured should the Communist Chinese make good their claim to the island.  

M/Sgt Hardwick, Ed Sharp and Tom Jones

Ed Sharp topping-off our outboard motor fuel cans.
Some Nationalist soldiers in the background bathing.

Accordingly, should this happen, we had some 16-foot open boats with 25 horsepower outboards to allow us to go the other way and hope the U.S. Navy’s 7th fleet would pick us up.  

It was pretty naïve to think that these little boats would work in the open sea, but we quickly discovered that they were perfect for other purposes.  

The twenty-five horsepower motors had plenty of speed and power but we didn’t have any water skis.  Instead, an innovative fellow in our group built a surf board that could be towed behind the boat. The lucky rider stood on the back and hung on to a rope connected to the front of the board.  

During construction, inclusion of a keel was overlooked so if the boat made a sharp turn, the passenger on the surf board learned what it was like to “crack the whip.”  I think the colonel was airborne for quite some distance before he hit the water.  

 Our MAAG Aviation Rescue Boat for emergency evacuation

Somebody finally realized that these 16 foot small boats were unsuitable to rescue us from the island, so one day an Aviation Rescue Boat showed up for our use.  It had a four man Nationalist Navy crew and, more important, it had a refrigerator that we put to good use. 

I returned a channel on the boat’s marine radio so that we could communicate with a field radio back at the radio truck.  

Then, when my work was done at 0800, I and other off duty personnel would repair to our yacht.

The Officer BOQ building on Nangan Island

 The barrels atop the structure hold water to provide pressure to the hostel on the right and the BOQs.  

The two units at the right between the “water tower” and the hostel are distillation water purifiers.  

I think the concrete structure on the left was a cistern.

More of Nangan Island 

The Nationalist general in command of the island and his staff held a party for us on July 4th. 

All eighteen Americans were invited as were the interpreters assigned to the dozen or so U.S. officers.  We were all seated at round tables of twelve and, after a multi-course dinner, small glasses were filled with rice wine.  

A Nationalist officer would then go around and offer a toast at each table.  This, of course, was followed by each of the other Nationalist and U.S. Officers.  

Many glasses of rice wine were consumed at the command “Ganbei.”  

On July 5th, most of the interpreters, and some of us, were not functioning very well.

 Tom leaving Nangan Island aboard a PBY flight for Taipei.

I can’t remember how many months I spent on Matsu, but I sure didn’t mind climbing into a PBY for the short flight across the Straits of Formosa and back to the relative comforts of Taipei.

Tom spent the remainder of his Taiwan tour working in the Taipei area.

Thank you Tom for your sharing photos and remembrances of Matsu.