Mar 22

Life as a Dependent

Tuesday, March 22, 2016 12:01 AM

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“I say ‘we’ because don’t tell me wives don’t have [duty], too.”—Mary Smith, wife of Commander Roy Campbell Smith Jr., U.S. Navy

“I say ‘we’ because don’t tell me wives don’t have [duty], too.”—Mary Smith, wife of Commander Roy Campbell Smith Jr., U.S. Navy

Our men and women in uniform are not the only ones who serve their country; the spouses and families of each service member do so as well. John Mason Jr., the former director of the U.S. Naval Institute’s oral history program, interviewed Frances Smalley Mitscher and Mary Taylor Alger Smith to get their side of Navy life in first half of the 20th century.

Mary Smith grew up on the U.S. Naval Academy grounds, where she met her future husband, Roy Campbell Smith Jr., who was a midshipman. They married on 1 August 1912 when he was an ensign. Over the course of their marriage the couple had four children.

In the following oral history excerpt, Mary Smith describes her arrival in China with her four children in June 1925.

 

Mary Smith: So we go out to China that way, you see, very salubriously, as you might say. We went up past the Aleutian Islands and so on, stopped in Japan. I thought there was trouble in China. Here they were talking about it, you know, the communists were beginning and Borodin [Comintern agent Mikhail] carrying on. There was much ado. And so I thought, “Well, perhaps it would be better to get off in Japan.” And we didn’t know what duty we were going to have, he was going to have-—I say “we” because don’t tell me wives don’t have it, too. Maybe not aboard ship, but you know.

Q: You share and share alike.

Mary Smith: You do. After all, you’re yanked here, yanked there, do without. But anyway, I went ashore in Japan along with my friend, Mrs. Baker, and she could afford it, she had nobody with her but one daughter. The hotels would take everything you had. I couldn’t possibly afford that. So then we went on down to Shanghai, and the ship went over to Wusung, the other side of the river. And the lieutenant came down to the dock and gave everybody their orders. We didn’t know if we were going to be China or Manila, up the river, where, what. So my husband’s orders said that he would report the next morning, early, to the USS Rizal[i]. He would go up to Chefoo and take command of the Noa[ii]. Rizal would send a ship’s boat for him at 6:00 or 7:00 o’clock the next morning. This left us rather in a quandary because I had at least hoped he could go ashore and find me a place to live—not find it but help. So, of course, he packed all his stuff. . . . And we went that night—I don’t know how we managed, but we did try and get in touch with the Admiral McVay.[iii] He wanted to know if he could have a delay of 24 hours to see us ashore. The admiral said no. So, all right, the next morning at the crack of dawn, he departs, bag and baggage.

Shanghai Harbor in the 1920s.

Shanghai Harbor in the 1920s.

. . . So anyway, the next day, there we are. What to do? Very agitating. The first thing I have to do is the customs. I could leave the children aboard ship because they were 6, 8, 10 and 12.

I could leave them aboard ship because they always had people, not nurses, but you know, attendants of some sort, women. I had an awful time at customs. . . .

The Bund along the waterfront in Shanghai, where Mary Smith began her search for lodgings.

The Bund along the waterfront in Shanghai, where Mary Smith began her search for lodgings.

Q: Weren’t there any other wives with you at that point?

Mary Smith: Some wife must have gone with me. I don’t remember who. I really don’t remember who. But they were going to Manila, most of them. I don’t remember. None of them got off in Shanghai but me. But I didn’t want to go to Manila, and the ship was up there, you know. What would I do in Manila? It would be just the same basket. So anyhow, I went to Astor House. I couldn’t afford that. Then we went to the Palace. . . . They took me up and showed me this bedroom. The Palace Hotel was within walking distance of the dock where you took a boat back to the ship. See, the ship was on the other side of the river. The Palace Hotel, the bedroom they showed me—you remember those bar doors that went like this?

Q: Yes, yes.

Mary. Smith: In bar rooms, you know. The bedroom had doors like that.

Q: Out to the hall?

Mary Smith: Yes.

Q: No security, then?

Mary Smith: Security? No privacy, no nothing. Anyhow, so I went in and looked. And then I thought, “That’s funny, what is that under the bed?” And I bent down and looked, and it was a coolie asleep under the bed. I thought, “This is the end. I can’t do this. What will I ever do?” So I went downstairs to the desk and I said, “No. Can’t. Coolie.” You know.

And they said, “No, missy, no, no, missy.” So I very gloomily went back to the ship. When I got there, Mrs. Clement was there, and I knew her very slightly. They were at the Academy when we were, you see, but the thing was, we lived on Southgate Avenue. We hadn’t five cents, we had four children, we didn’t foregather with them much. We both liked to read in the evenings, so you see, we didn’t do an awful lot of running around. Today you run around. You’ve got a car, you go here, you go there. Then if you went, you had to walk. You don’t walk all the way down to the Naval Academy for nothing, so to speak.

So Mrs. Clement said, “I tell you.” Mrs. Clement has a brother who’s a missionary here in Shanghai. “Let me call him up and see if he can help.” So Mrs. Clement—the brother’s wife- said she would come down to the dock the next day and meet me, because I had to find someplace. The ship was in there three days. I had to get off or do something. So she met me. Meanwhile, I was panicked, you may imagine. This is a story that Roy thinks is so entertaining, and I said it wouldn’t happen to anybody else, I bet, but me. However, she said she knew a place that I could stay. It was really a Chinese-run boarding house, but Mrs. Doyen, the wife of the famous general during the First World War, lived there[iv]—based there, you might say. The fact that she was there meant that the young wives whose ships were up river would come and stay, and there was a room. I could go there and stay. So it was at least a start.

It was out in French Town in the French concession, and so all right, we get rickshaws and she goes with me. This is panicking, too, because naturally the children were thrilled with rickshaws. The first thing I knew, I had four rickshaws and four children going off in different directions, and I didn’t know what to say. I ran screaming up the street. I finally pushed two girls in a rickshaw and Roy—I forget, but anyhow, so then we went to this place, arrived on the scene.

Mrs. Doyen, whom I had known—my mother, I don’t think, ever knew her particularly, but knew who she was. You know, in those days it was a small Navy. You knew everybody. Anyway, she said all right, and she told me how much it would be. We had two great big rooms, and the windows looked right over a Chinese compound, and it was just as if you took the glass out of that window and had it just like that. Right underneath our window was one of those commune stinkpots that they use instead of bathrooms. Smells were terrific, and right over there is the Chinese compound, and they never go to bed in China. And the children were entranced, fascinated, you can imagine.

Q: For the time being they were, anyway.

A view of Shanghai, circa 1930.

A view of Shanghai, circa 1930.

Mary Smith and her family remained in China until March of 1928, when Commander Smith was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island.

To view more oral histories by USNI, please visit our online catalog:

http://www.usni.org/heritage/oral-history

[i] http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/r/rizal.html

[ii] http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/n/noa-i.html

[iii] Rear Admiral Charles B. McVay, Yangtze Patrol commander

[iv] BGEN Charles A. Doyen, USMC, formed, trained, and commanded the 4th Marine Brigade, but less than a month before the Battle of Belleau Wood, he failed an Army physical and was relieved of command by General John Pershing. He died of influenza on 6 October 1918.