Interview with Cpl Leonard Dombroski
Leonard Dombroski enlisted in 1937 and within weeks of graduating from Boot Camp was pulled out of his first West Coast assignment and shipped to Shanghai aboard the USS Chaumont with the 6th Marines. After the 6th returned to the States in Feb 1938, he elected to stay on with the 4th Marines until winter 1938/39 when he volunteered to serve with the Marine Detachment at the US Embassy in Peiping (Peking). He left Peiping in 1940 and the Marine Corps in 1941. At the outbreak of WWII he returned to military service with another branch, proudly receiving campaign medals for all the major theater of operations. These are a summation of his words:
On board the USS Chaumont
Oh, the ride on the Chaumont was awful. I was seasick all the way to Pearl Harbor, but after that no more. We only had one afternoon in Hawaii for leave before we continued on to China. The ship was very crowded. They gave you only one bucket of water to wash up with. Space was so tight that when you turned over in your bunk you would hit the guy next to you. I think the bunks were four or five high. I choose to just go up and sleep on the deck. One night I woke up in the rain and water was sloshing all around me but I thought what the heck I can’t get any wetter so I stayed on the deck. That was the only time that happened. There was not much to do on the ship. I think they made us stand watch us just to keep us busy.
Shanghai: Overlooking the famous Bund
You know they called us the “pogey-bait Marines” because they said we came over with a lot of candy bars and no soap. I never saw a candy bar on the entire trip and had plenty of soap. I spent 11/2 years in Shanghai. I liked the city. It was beautiful. It was more American then Peking…the clubs were very nice, although the good ones you couldn’t go into, only the officers. The international section was crowed with lots of refugees, lots of people begging, doing things like giving shoe shines for a little money. Many of them slept in the streets…many died in the gutter. The French section was larger and really nice. I didn’t go out much while I was in Shanghai, because I didn’t have much money and I didn’t dance. Maybe sometimes I would go the Privates Club or maybe sight-see or visit a park. In the French section of the city they had beautiful parks. There were also nice movie theaters. Some guys had Russian girlfriends. There were two Eurasian girls living near our billets and one day we asked them “what are you” (nationality). They said "We are Chinese and Sailor. " They were beautiful.
When we arrived they billeted us on the second floor of a cotton mill. Each morning a parade of Chinese priests, or something came by our billet clanging gongs and making one hell of a racket before reveille…so one day some of the boys filled up all the fire buckets with water and waited on the roof early in the morning and dumped the water on the parade when they came by…they really let them have it! The parade found another route after that.
A week after we got to Shanghai we went to the Soochow Creek. We would stay on the Creek a couple of weeks at a time then rotate back to our billets. While on the creek we would be billeted by squads. Each time we did our duty we went to a different location. Most of the time there was not an officer or Sgt with us, only a Corporal. Only occasionally would an officer come by. A long the creek in selected locations barbed wire was strung, mainly at bridges and along roads. We had sandbagged emplacements and some trenches.
Along the Creek
We never hid or crept around, we moved in plain sight unless fired upon. We wore helmets, but later campaign hats after the fighting moved away from our sector. I carried a BAR my entire time in Shanghai but I never fired it. In fact until the USS Panay we were not allowed to load our weapons while on patrol. After the Panay we were allowed to load our weapons and fire back if fired upon. Every time you went on patrol you would find someone dead from hunger or disease. If you found a dead body you would inform the Duty Officer and he would call the Municipal Government who would send a trash truck to pick them up…I guess they didn’t think much of these people.
On patrol in the International Settlement
I had a few close calls. When we patrolled we went just two of us. One time at night me and my buddy were marching and we met two policemen at a corner under a street lamp. Someone across the creek opened fire on us and we fled into an abandoned garden. The shots were bouncing off the metal gate of the garden. I guess that protected us.
Another time under the same damn light somebody started firing at me and my buddy. Well the Marine I was with made it into the garden, but I guess I was little slow maybe because I was carrying the BAR so I had to use a curb for cover. Their shots went on a high curve above me so I guess I was safe as long as I stayed there. I couldn’t move. I never did know who was firing at me.
A typical sight along the Soochow
Sometimes I would see bodies of dead Chinese floating down the creek in the river…I got a bayonet from a dead Chinese soldier in the creek. To me the creek never smelled, but once there was a barge filled with caskets waiting to move up river and that stunk to high heaven. Eventually, the Japanese pushed the Chinese away from the city. But before they retreated the Chinese burned Chapei (a portion of Shanghai) and poisoned the wells. Sometimes the Chinese would try and bomb Shanghai from the air and the Japanese AAA would open up and their spent shells would land in our area.
Japanese Sailors with a Policeman
You know we had to stay out of the fighting between the Chinese and Japanese, but once on the other side of the Soochow a Japanese soldier with a bayonet on his rifle marched a Chinese prisoner of war with hands tied behind his back to a spot across from our position. He had the Chinese soldier turn around and face him and he just bayoneted him right in the stomach. I think he did that in front of us to show off. I guess that is where I began to hate the Japanese.
A Japanese Sentry
Another time a Japanese manager of a mill near our position, who was also reservist came out in uniform and he tried to run a fire hose from our section across the Soochow creek to bring water to a Japanese controlled area. Well this Marine Sgt took a fire ax and was going to cut it, so the Jap officer had a man point a rifle at the Sgt….the Sgt in turn pointed at a machine gun that was pointed down at the Jap. I guess the Jap officer thought better of it and the Marine proceeded to cut the hose.
Taking a Chance
One time I was sitting on top of a sandbag emplacement so I could take pictures and a Lt came by and said “Damn it do you want to get yourself killed.” And I said “I don’t care if I do.” He ignored me and walked away and I kept taking pictures. I had dysentery then…most of us did, I dropped from 165 to 135 pounds. We were not good to anybody in that condition. If they took us off the line there would be no one left. There were flies everywhere on the Soochow, that’s how I think I got dysentery.
A Marine observation post on top of the Shangahi power plant
One time I was a block away from our observation post watching some Jap artillery firing at Chinese positions at a bend in the creek. They hit a cemetery and the caskets went flying all over the place. Well the Japanese moved up their range and punched three holes in the building of our observation post. I was a spectator for that one.
A Second Close Call
And then one round of some type went through a pole we were using to hold up a shelter from the sun. But no one was terribly bothered by that.
The last time we were on the line the Italians were next to us. We got along fine with them. We would share our food. A mess truck with a flatbed would come by with soup or stew and later with containers of hot water and soapy water so we could clean our mess kits. For the Italians troops a man on a bike would come with wine, a roll of sausage, and a stick of hard bread and hand it out to them…they would share it with us.
Our officers were pretty good, but I did not have much to do with them. When a Jap officer tried to come into our section the Capt kicked him out. Only met one bad officer in the Corps …in Shanghai and little officer, the son of an Admiral…he was to short to get into the Academy but got in because of his father’s rank…he took us out on a summer road hike…one guy was Polish and had a big nose which got all red from the sun…the little officer said “hey tomato nose”…the soldier said “what shorty.” There was nothing the officer could do about that.
The .03 was a darn nice weapon, if you missed your target it was not the rifle’s fault. At Boot camp I was issued my .03 and I had it the whole four years of my enlistment. I arrived in China with it, but then got issued the BAR. When I went up to the creek I would leave the .03 behind in the barracks. Back then you had to know your rifle number always. Sometimes a Sgt would ask you what it was. Before I left for China I was issued my “web gear” as you call it, but got our helmets when we got to Shanghai. Yes, I hated the helmets…they were worthless: if you hit the deck it usually fell off. They told us not to wear the chin strap under our chin as if there was a near miss the helmet would snap your neck from the concussion. Instead they taught us to wear the strap behind your head. The summer after the fighting died down we were issued pith helmets. Grenades, we kept them in our emplacements with the primer separate from the grenade because they were tricky and they could go off just from the heat of your hand. When we were not using them we buried then in a box at our billet then dug them up when we wanted them. I never saw a field telephone the whole time I was in China. The Marines always got lousy equipment. Even our ammo was dated from WWI. I didn’t get a Soochow Creek medal….now wished I had…but I was not making that much money at the time.
After the 6th left I joined the 4th Marines. China duty tours were 30 months long. While I was in Shanghai I saw on the bulletin board an announcement that we could volunteer for duty with the Marine Detachment in Peking. I did and left on the USS Henderson for Peking. Duty in Peking was good…there was a lot to see, but after you saw it all there was not much else to do. The people in Peking were not as friendly as the people in Shanghai. No one but the merchants smiled. As for our schedule of training, in the morning would be troop drill…in the afternoon you were in athletics of some type. I did handball or swam or rode a horse …our evenings were free…
Guard Post # 1
I did not like guard post #1 you had to be real military….In the winter you really had to bundle up on guard it was cold. You could always tell who was coming off post guard #1 as their noses and cheeks had cuts, scars from the blowing dust that cut the skin. I liked the guard post in the Quartermaster area it was much more relaxed. Once at night in the QM section a Jap soldier got drunk and got in…he was trying to get over the wall when a Sgt shot him…hit him on the side and the bullet went out his front…blew him over the wall. He ran up the Tartar wall and a Marine guard on the wall post stopped him and told him to get your hands out of your pockets…he did not so the Sgt gave him a butt stroke in the head…that did it…took him to the hospital and he pulled through a angry Jap Col came around asking all kinds of questions
Peiping under the Japanese Occupation
Peking was a solemn place. Sometimes you would see squads of Japanese soldiers around the city. When we went out on liberty we always were in uniform cause the Japs hated the English and if we wore “civies” they thought we were English. Once at the Japanese restaurant one of the “girls” came to us and said you better get out of here cause a guy is calling the police (Jap police) to take us away. He thought we were English. So we always wore our uniforms on liberty. We were told not to antagonize the Japanese.
Every Saturday we would have a parade. The US Ambassador called us “His Marines” and would show us off every change he got. He was a real nice guy. It was with him that I saw Macarthur…he inspected us. He looked at us like we were dirt. I saw him again on the PI…I didn’t like him…
Riding Donkeys at the Firing Range
The Marines had a firing range outside of Peking. We would go out there once a year for a week each summer. We lived in tents. The range was surrounded by farms. I made sharpshooter there….I missed expert by three points. Sometimes we would ride ponies around the countryside. The ponies were so tame they would follow you around like dogs.
Ice skating at Beihai Park
For liberty in the winter I would go to Central Park to ice skate. Sometimes there we would harass the Japanese girls…would stake at them full speed and stop hard spraying them with ice…the girls would laugh. I think they like that. Once we went by truck to the famous “Marble Boat” for a picnic…the Marines brought along beer and one got so drunk he jumped off the boat in his uniform into the lake. I was a member of the Privates Club and would go there sometimes.
End of the day
At the end of my 30 months I wanted to leave China and see other things so I volunteered to go to the PI. I guess looking back on my tour it was an interesting time to be in China. I had a pretty good time in the Marines.