Conquest of a River

DR. ROBERT McCLURE December 1 1946

Conquest of a River

DR. ROBERT McCLURE December 1 1946

Conquest of a River



AS FAR as I’m concerned the world’s greatest diplomat is a Canadian named Don Faris.

You’ve never heard of him? Few people have. Yet I’ve just returned from China, where I've seen him in action as trouble shooter on a fantastic engineering project involving millions of dollars and millions of lives, and it’s my conviction that Don Faris’ diplomacy is one of the major factors in the completion of it.

The project involves the rerouting of China’s vast Yellow River; actually changing its course so that its mouth will be shifted 350 miles. In terms of Canada, it’s as if the St. Lawrence were turned southeast from Montreal so that it flowed into New York harbor; in terms of the United States, as if the Mississippi were turned to empty into the Atlantic in North Carolina instead of the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans.

The course of the Yellow River had to be changed because, after a war and man-made calamity in 1938, it left its old bed and wandered over 30,000 square miles of some of the richest farm land in China to reach the sea. Returning the unruly river to its true course meant closing a 2,000-yard breach in an immense dike. It meant months of backbreaking toil for 300,000 Chinese laborers, and the assembly of millions of cubic yards of construction materials.

The UNRRA official in charge of this undertaking was Col. O. J. Todd, an American engineer who has devoted his life to the study and control of the Yellow River. He is a highly competent engineer, but it is my personal conviction that without Don Faris, his No. 1 man, he would never have advanced beyond the drawing board stage.

Faris actually the Rev. Donald K. Faris of Bradford, Ont., 40 miles north of Toronto is no engineer. He is a Christian missionary in China

Canadian Don Faris worked a near-miracle in China. He had to reconcile Communist and Nationalist before the Yellow River could be chained

now working for UNRRA, and his job wasn’t engineering—it was diplomacy. For the political complications of the Yellow River diversion were just as difficult as its engineering problems. The river at this point is roughly the border between Nationalist and Communist-controlled China, and unless the two factions could be got together on this task, it was hopeless. That was what Don Faris had to do. He succeeded.

Before I tell you more about Faris it's necessary

to explain why the river got off its course, and what its turning will mean to China, and for that matter, to the world.

When the Japanese invaded China in 1937, they soon overran North China down to the Yellow River, and the area around Shanghai and Nanking, the capital. But inland, and between those zones of occupation, lay a vast stretch of uninvaded territory.

In 1938, along about the time that Neville Chamberlain was displaying Continued on page 72

Continued from page 13

his umbrella to the natives of Munich, the Japanese set out under adroit General Doihara to overrun the rich farm land south of the Yellow River. Ten million farms lay in the. area, and they were abundant in their yields of cotton, wheat and tobacco. Particularly the Japs wanted the cotton fields, in order to keep their own mills supplied and to minimize their cotton imports.

I had long admired Gen. Doihara’s astuteness (from a strictly objective point of view, of course). He was then called Japan’s Lawrence of Manchuria, a very original, shrewd soldier and a most capable one. He had crossed the river to occupy Kaifeng, capital of Honan Province, and he conceived a daring plan whereby he believed he could sweep across the farm land with 20,000 men in a sort of Commando manoeuvre and capture Chengchow, an important rail centre 55 miles to the west, and just south of the river. He planned to make it a swift coup, and believed it could be pulled off in a matter of a few days. Therefore he made no provision for supply lines; merely outfitted his troops with enough

equipment and supplies to permit the plunge through to the railway junction. Once he had reached Chengchow, General Doihara would be in a marvellous tactical position to attack Sian to the west and Hankow to the south, at that time the capital. Further, he could be a serious threat to Chungking, and I am certain that had Doihara been successful in taking Chengchow the entire course of the war might well have been changed.

But he never reached the railway junction. Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek determined to blow the river’s dikes between Kaifeng and Chengchow. He was fully aware that the move would inundate 10 million of his country’s richest farms; he was fully aware that the flood waters would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Chinese farmers and their families and threaten the lives of thousands more; he was fully aware that the communication system of his country might be permanently disrupted. But he blew the dikes just the same.

Only 350 Japs Survived

At first there was just a little trickle of water oozing from a gap of 2,000 yards. Then little creeks were formed as the waters gained momentum. Scouts who had reported to Doihara that knee-deep streams confronted his soldiers were compelled to alter their reports within hours to say that the streams had become rivers of silt-laden water which could not be forded. General Doihara was within six miles

of Chengchow when the flood forced him to turn back. And out of his division of 20,000 crack troops only 350 survived !

It was five years before the Japanese could take Chengchow, and by that time the Allies had joined China in the war against Japan. I am morally certain that if General Doihara had taken Chengchow in 1938, the Chinese war would have ended in Japanese victory long before Pearl Harbor. All the troops that Japan had to keep on the Chinese front might well have been fighting against the Americans.

But, though Doihara was stopped, the Chinese paid dearly. Released from its dikes, the Yellow River plunged across country for 300 miles, seeking an outlet to the sea. Instead of flowing northeast into the Gulf of Pohai, it turned southeasterly and lumbered disjointedly through some of the richest farm land in China until it reached the Yellow Sea, not far north of Shanghai.

Even between dikes, the Yellow River is so tremendous you can’t see across it—they bridge it at the narrow places where it is only 334 miles wide. Released from its barriers, it spread over the countryside in a murky stream that looked like thick coffee or a chocolate milk shake. In places it reached a width of 40 miles.

Eight to 10 million farms, covering about 30,000 square miles, were flooded. More than a million farmers died as a result of the flood—they were drowned or they starved when their crops were washed out. Railroads and highways were flooded, and bridges carried away. The flood crossed the route of the Grand Canal, between Nanking and Peiping, and made it useless.

Actually, the Yellow River had followed approximately this course once before. For thousands of years this river, known as “China’s Sorrow,” has been going on great rampages. For five centuries prior to 1852 it had taken the southeast course it resumed in 1938. In 1852, due to natural causes, it switched its course from southeasterly to northeasterly. That was a disaster which paralleled today’s. But, in the intervening century, the Chinese accommodated themselves to the new river bed. They built their railways and roads and tilled their farms as if the river were there to stay, and to keep it in its course they erected miles of massive dikes.

The job Don Faris and his associates faced was to harness the errant waters and to get the Yellow River to flow northeast again. Every Chinese military and political leader, Nationalist and Communist alike, realized after V-J Day that this was China’s No. 1 postwar problem. So important was the job and so high its priority that had not UNRRA been in a position to undertake it, then the Chinese Army and Allied engineers were ready to tackle it.

Faris was hired by UNRRA on the basis of his knowledge of the country, gained in 16 years of missionary work. Born in 1898 on a farm near Bradford, the son of a devout Christian farmer, he derived his inclination to go to the mission fields from his family minister, Dr. J. Fraser Smith, now of Edmonton, who had returned from missionary work in India. After graduation in arts and theology from Queen’s University, he took a stopgap post in a Presbyterian mission field in British Columbia, where he met a nurse, Marion Fisher of Vancouver, the daughter of a minister. He married her when he was assigned by the United Church to North Honan, China, in 1925. He took Marion with him to Honan, where I met him in 1926, a tall, rather quiet man of 28, already bald. I found him

friendly and easily approachable, and 1 saw considerable of him and his wife out there. Their three sons were born in China—Don, now 16, Ken, 15, and Doug, 11. Today they are attending school in Vancouver, where they -are living with their mother.

Fans spent two seven-year terms in China, and then the Japanese bombed Honan in 1939 and moved in. They wanted no foreign influence among the Chinese there, so they ousted him from his station. He went to Cheeloo University at Tsinan in Shantung Province to continue his work for nearly two years. He sent his family home before Pearl Harbor, and when the Japs came he was interned. He was in camp only a matter of months before being repatriated aboard theGripsholm. He reached New York in 1942, and after returning to Toronto joined the RCAF as a chaplain, serving in British Columbia. With the end of the war, Faris went with UNRRA, and because of his knowledge of China was dispatched there almost immediately.

Once on the job, he plunged right into the political problem. After the war she Yellow River’s northeasterly course, the one to which the project would redirect it, was in the hands of Communists. The Nationalists controlled the flooded areas, but all of the stone quarries and the coal mines were in the north in Communist territory.

The Communists, although they recognized the necessity of righting the Yellow River’s course, were not too keen to get the river back in their land just yet because (a) completion of the project would mean terrific prestige for the Central Government, and (b) a river which cannot be bridged presented a major military problem which might inhibit their movements if a war developed between them and the Nationalists.

Hunt for Headquarters

The major weight of the negotiations with the Communists fell on Faris, who was what amounted to administrative officer of the project under Col. Todd. Before any work could begin, he had to talk them into releasing stone and coal. This was a major accomplishment. First, accompanied by Col. Todd, he went to Shanghai, a 36-hour train ride in sluggish day coaches. At Shanghai the two men had an interview with Gen. George Marshall, President Truman’s special representative in China, who arranged for them to interview Chou En-lai, chief of staff of the Communist armies, at Nanking. There, after lengthy discussion, Chou gave his permission for them to travel to the Communist field headquarters to conclude arrangements for stone and coal. But where was field headquarters? It changed from day to day or week to week, and the Communists kept its location secret. Chou En-lai was reluctant to reveal it, finally whispered it in Faris’ ear. The distance was 120 miles over a dirt road from Kaifeng. Faris set out immediately in a weapons carrier.

I might say here that Faris did practically all of the negotiating, because Col. Todd, strictly an engineer, has never had patience with the indifference and unconcern of the Chinese. Many times he has exploded in the face of their exasperating calm, and Faris’ years of experience in China are perhaps the project’s greatest forte.

The Communists agreed to give him access to the quarries. But, they said, they’d permit no coal to be removed from the coal mines. Well, the stone was no good if it couldn’t be removed, and it certainly couldn’t be removed unless there was coal for the trains.

Faris pointed out the great benefits that would be gained by all of China if the river were turned. The Communists insisted that they would not release coal to be used by the Nationalists to haul military supplies to fight, them. Faris, with amazing tact, patience and diplomacy, convinced them that coal would be used only to haul stone. The price was 10,000 tons of UNRRA flour.

So Faris, dust lining his hawk face and clinging heavily to the RCAF battle dress uniform he wears constantly (he doesn’t wear his padre’s collar), climbed back into his weapons carrier to drive through the dirt to Kaifeng. But the deal wasn’t complete yet. There was still the matter of getting the Nationalist Government to detach six trains from its overtaxed railway for work on the Yellow River project. The head of the National railway gave Faris his permission and agreed that no military supplies would be transported on them.

There was a time that it appeared that the trains would never get any supplies to haul, however. First there was a delay in delivery of the 10,000 tons of flour for the Communists. Then there were scarcities of vital equipment, due to the shortage of shipping space. UNRRA sent in two Diesel air compressors for work in the stone quarries but neglected to send any compressed air hose to carry air to the pneumatic drills. Faris, in another of his many trips to Shanghai, conferred with high officers at the United States Army headquarters there and arranged to get the hose and other army equipment from Guam, Guadalcanal and Okinawa.

His RCAF uniform and knowledge of service routine helped him greatly in slashing red tape at such meetings. Every time high brass demurred he would point out that he had seen service, and believed that if the officer would just be good enough to write out a signal and let him take it to the signals officer that it all might be arranged. Then Faris would wait with the signals officer until he sent off the request for equipment, and then he would wait for confirmation, and then he would find out when the material was leaving Guam or Okinawa, and then he would meet the plane in Shanghai, and then he would get the material declared surplus, and then he would get a price put on it by a liquidation commission, and then he would confirm with UNRRA that the price would be paid, and then he would arrange to get it on a train for Kaifeng, and then he would, in all probability, collapse completely. I’m sure, at any rate, that I would have.

He had amazing patience, and I never once saw Faris lose his temper. That, of course, would have heen fatal. Lose your patience with high brass while you’re attempting to cut red tape and the hair on the high brass’ back goes up, he rears up, and he’s a mule.

When the equipment finally reached the gap (including hundreds of 90-foot B. C. fir piles from Okinawa) there was just one more incident to delay operations. One night so-called “bandits” descended on a stone quarry, blew up an air compressor, slashed Faris’ hardwon hose, took all of the explosives and carried 15 United States engineers and Chinese contractors off into the hills. Fifteen days later the Communists received their 10,000 tons of flour and, by an odd coincidence, the captives were returned in perfect health. Yes, you’ve guessed it; Faris returned to Shanghai and arranged with the United States Army to ship a compressor and more hose from Okinawa, and he was at the docks when the ship arrived. He went through the whole rigmarole again and got the equipment

on one of his trains in a matter of hours. By the normal channels—that is, waiting for it instead of taking all the precautions and doing all of the arranging personally—Faris probably would still be sitting on a dike waiting.

At last everything was straightened out, and in March work began. There was feverish haste, for the annual floods began in July, and by then it was hoped to have two thirds of the gap— just under a mile—closed.

Under Faris’ direction were two groups: the Chinese and the western. The westerners were key personnel— accountants, engineers, gang bosses and others. There was, for instance, an old Norwegian sea captain in charge of Chinese barges, an old Dutch railwayman in charge of stone trains; there were a few Aussies and Belgians and even some white Russian refugees; there were U. S. engineers, U. S. ordnance men and, yes, U. S. grease balls, who kept the trucks moving.

The Chinese contribution was the Yellow River Commission, a nonpolitical administrative group, and great swarms of workers. The labor force, recruited by assignment from both Nationalist and Communist villages for 40 miles around, fluctuated between 50,000 and 100,000, split into immense work gangs of 5,000. All told, about 300,000 Chinese labored on the dikes. Chinese quarried the rock, manned the trains, and carried the materials to the working site.

Gradually the dike began to rise. Modern Diesel shovels, bulldozers and pile drivers worked side by side with coolies carrying earth in baskets. At the scene of the break the river bed is 20 feet above the plain. The workers built up the dikes to the river bed and then 30 feet higher. They were 120 feet thick at the base, 60 feet thick at the top, made of clay reinforced with willow branches and cornstalks. Stone was used as a foundation and as a facing on the river side of the dike.

Everybody, including Col. Todd and Faris, lived in mud huts with cornstalk roofs and fed on UNRRA flour from Canadian wheat. The laborers got six pounds of flour and up to 50 cents U. S. funds a day. But only one day’s

ration of flour could be brought at a time from Kaifeng, because if the Chinese had ever seen more there’d have been riots. People in China haven’t seen much food for eight years.

The country around the break in the river is incredibly flat and impossibly dusty. The brown, dry earth seemed forever to be blowing in little gusts. Rains would turn the ground into sloppy gumbo through which the trucks could scarcely plow.

As spark plug and trouble shooter, Faris was invaluable. He had endless patience with the unhurried Chinese, to whom schedules meant nothing. Something after the fashion of an advance publicity man, he would urge the local magistrates to have 5,000 impressed laborers on a dike Tuesday morning and not Wednesday morning. When Col. Todd approached distraction as he observed workers’ indifference, Faris cajoled them and calmed him. He made daily trips of anywhere from 60 to 120 miles in his weapons carrier to the Communist sector to check on work progress there and to line up the impressed labor. He, too, was confronted by the leisurely Chinese attitude. The Communists could see no reason that they should hurry with the dikes. After all, there was no water in sight yet, was there? Faris again was patient, getting the most out of the workmen, and then, late in June, two thirds of the gap was closed just half an hour ahead of schedule!

The floods came in early July. Everyone watched and waited. The pent-up water rose, and some of it came through the breach. But as the muddy floo'd rose, it couldn’t all get through the narrowed breach. By the time the river was in full flow, half the water was pouring along the northeasterly course. For the first time in eight years the Yellow was back in its old bed.

They’re still at work on the dike, and by the end of this winter the breach should be completely closed. With the river tamed, millions will be able to return to their homes, hundreds of thousands of little farms will be able to grow food for China again, and life in the flooded lands will be able to return to its old ways.

Faris, to my mind, is a Canadian contribution to world citizenship. We hoar a lot of talk these days about One World, and it strikes me that Faris is setting an example that other young Canadians might well follow. The Yellow River is a world problem, because cutting the dikes changed the course of a world war. The turning of the Yellow River back again doesn’t clear up the problem; the Chinese must now be rehabilitated in the rich soil which has been useless for eight years. It is a tremendous opportunity for Canada and Canadians to aid in the agricultural rehabilitation of the area. We might well send out short-term agricultural missionaries to teach the Chinese farmer not only how to get his crops back to their 1938 eminence but to bring them up to 1947.

Stock must be replaced, wheat must be planted, cotton and tobacco fields must flourish again, houses must be built, farms re-established. UNRRA winds up next March, and if this is to be One World, then Canada and the United States must be prepared to help a country whose sacrifice prevented floods of another kind from inundating our countries. It isn’t charity; it’s an obligation of world citizenship. China’s rehabilitation is a 20-year undertaking, and young people are needed to provide the Chinese with the know-how. Don Faris has put the match to a largesized torch; his example should be followed. Canada, to me, is the stamping ground of world citizens. ★