Jack London, War Correspondent, on the Russo-Japanese War

About the build-up to the Russo-Japanese War.



By Dale L. Walker

WHEN Jack London boarded the S. S. Siberia on January 7, 1904, bound for Yokohama, he could look back on a bittersweet year in his young but auspicious career. He had published nine excellent short stories the year before and three books, the most remarkable of which, The Call of the Wild, sold 10,000 copies on its first day of issue and was to catapult the handsome San Franciscan into world renown. He had, moreover, rushed to completion a new novel, among the most important he would ever write, The Sea Wolf. All this was sweet; the bitter lay in his separation from his wife and, thereby, his two baby daughters. His services as war correspondent for the forthcoming conflict between Japan and Russia had been sought by Collier’s, the New York Herald, Harper’s Magazine, and the Hearst Press. The latter had made the best offer and going off to war had definite advantages for him: He would be well paid, might find the raw material for a book, and could for a time find some solace in being an ocean distant from his growing domestic problems.

The as-yet-undeclared war had been brewing for some time and there could be little doubt that it would soon formally erupt. The Russians, having completed their trans-Siberian Railroad, had extended its line southward from their maritime provinces across Manchuria to Port Arthur, building a great naval base there to sustain their Pacific fleet. Inoffensive little Korea, the Hermit Kingdom of old, had become the focal point of a struggle between Imperial Russia and Japan, the first oriental nation to modernize and one which had proven its military capability in 1895 with a lightning victory in the Sino-Japanese War.

Upstart Japan proposed to recognize Manchuria as a Russian “sphere of influence” providing the Czar would grant Japan the same recognition in Korea. This idea was haughtily rebuffed: the Russians refused to believe the tiny island nation would challenge a European power.

By the end of 1903, the Japanese began mobilization, moving their highly disciplined army into jumping-off positions, preparing their navy blockade of Port Arthur and a consequent confrontation with the Russian fleet.

The Hearst press, ever watchful for a circulation war (having done so well in the one recently past in Cuba and the Philippines), was anxious to take the ascendancy now. “The Yellow Peril,” Hearst-ese for the Asian sleeping giant, was almost as much a catch-phrase as “Remember the Maine!”

London passed his 28th birthday on the Siberia in good company. Among his fellow correspondents aboard were Frederick Palmer and the renowned war photographer James H. Dunn for the New York Globe, Willard Straight for Reuters, Lionel James of the Times of London, and the celebrated British journalist Ashmead Bartlett, among others.

“Looking more like a steamfitter on holiday than a colleague of the magnificent [Richard harding] Davis,” biographer Richard O’Connor says, Jack London nevertheless intended getting to the heart of the matter: “He carried a camera instead of a walking stick, and proposed to record the sight and smells of war, both on film and paper, at the level of the infantryman’s boots and the cookfires of the cavalry on march.”

It was a laudable ambition, but when the American reporters reached Tokyo on January 25, they learned of the stifling censorship imposed by the Japanese military authorities as well as their transportation ban: While every train leaving Tokyo was packed with soldiers bound on transports on the Sea of Japan, debarkation point for the Korean peninsula, all correspondents were refused travel arrangements.

The Imperial Hotel bar in the capital quickly became a gathering point for the disgruntled newsmen and someone mentioned to London that he should not be disheartened: a Hearst correspondent wrote extensively about the naval battle between Japanese and Chinese on the Yalu in 1895 without ever leaving his barstool!

London was not amused. He had not returned to Japan (he had been there before, in 1893, as a seaman on a sealing schooner) to belly up to the bar but to see a war in the making. Thus, on the 28th, with no fanfare, he slipped out of the capital and found a train south to Kobe where he learned that no steamer would be crossing the Straits until February 3. He traveled on to Nagasaki and Moji, on the Inland Sea opposite the Tsushima Strait, where he obtained passage on a steamer leaving February 1 for Chemulpo, Korea, staging area for the Japanese armies moving toward the Yalu and Manchurian border.

London spent his waiting time taking snapshots in Moji and while doing so was arrested, charged with unauthorized photography. He was grilled for eight hours, moved to Kokura for more questioning, and ended up being “convicted” of some nebulous charge, fined five yen and released. The worst news, however, was the confiscation of his camera.

Outraged, London sent a wire to Richard Harding Davis, still cooling his heels in Tokyo, asking for help. Davis, who despite obvious differences, became a bosom friend of London’s, interceded with the U. S. Minister to Japan, Lloyd Griscom. In the words of Richard O’Connor, Griscom “marched over to the Foreign Office to place the majesty and power of the United States behind the project of recovering a correspondent’s camera.”

Japanese military officials explained to Minister Griscom that the camera was “a weapon involved in a crime” and thus became the property of the state. London had been convicted of espionage and his “weapon”—the Kodak folding camera—was thus forfeit.

Griscom, apparently a man of nimble wit, recorded in his memoirs that he asked, “Does this apply to every crime?” The legal counselor to the Japanese Foreign Minister intoned, “Yes, to every crime of every description.”

“If I can name a crime to which it does not apply, will you release the camera,” Griscom asked. Baron Komura, the Foreign Minister agreed.

“What about rape?”

According to Griscom, Komura’s “Oriental stolidity dissolved in a shout of laughter,” and Jack London got his camera back.

Meantime, London witnessed the midnight movement of troops from Moji across the Korean Strait and, judging war would be declared at any moment, managed on February 8, to secure passage on a coal steamer to Pusan on the tip of the Korean peninsula. As he was about to board, however, the ship was “requisitioned” by military authorities. Undaunted, London found another steamer bound for Pusan, learned it was already at sea, and bought passage of a steam launch to intercept her. He got to Pusan after a night of napping on the sleet-driven deck of the steamer, then found berth on another coastal vessel headed along the southern coast of Korea.

At Mokpo, a Yellow Sea Port on the southwestern coast of Korea, London, along with the other steamer passengers, were herded ashore to fend for themselves while the Japanese War Office once again requisitioned their ship.

The history of war correspondence contains many tales of intrepidity on the part of enterprising reporters overcoming all odds to get a story. Few, however, can surpass Jack London’s open boat voyage on the Yellow Sea, from Mokpo to Chemulpo (Inchon of today) that winter of 1904.

London chartered a native fishing junk at Mokpo and hired three Korean locals for a crew. The Yellow Sea coast of Korea in February is a place of sub-zero temperatures and gale-force winds and the little junk set out northward in 14-below-zero weather. But London had endured 60 below in the Klondike and knew winds blowing across Lake Lindeman in the Yukon and across the North Atlantic sealing lanes. He was no amateur, but even so, must have lost some of his composure on the rickety junk, her mast carried away and her rudder shattered as she managed to limp in for repairs at Kunsan, about 80 miles north of Mokpo, where he enjoyed a hot bath before resuming the voyage.

“The wildest and most gorgeous thing ever!” he recorded with typical London exuberance on this early stage of the trip upcoast. “If you could see me just now, a captain of a junk with three Koreans who speak no English…Made Kunsan at nightfall. You should have seen me being made comfortable — five Japanese maidens helping me undress, take a bath, and get into bed, passing remarks about my beautiful white skin.”

Resuming the voyage northward along the Yellow Sea coast of Korea, London and his crew subsisted six days on a diet of cold rice and fish, gaining what little warmth they could from a charcoal stove aboard which gave off more noxious fumes than heat. The junk inched northward against all odds and at last entered Kanghway Bay.

Robert Dunn, who became a fast friend of London’s, had made his way to Chemulpo a few days earlier, and recorded his impressions of London’s arrival: “I did not recognize him. He was a physical wreck. His ears were frozen, his fingers were frozen, and his feet were frozen. He said he didn’t mind his condition so long as he got to the front. I want to say that Jack London is one of the grittiest men it has ever been my good fortune to meet.”

Jack and his horse named Belle at Jack's campAt Chemulpo, only a few miles westward from the Korean capital of Seoul, London barely had time to recover from his ailments when he learned that the Russian advance had nearly reached Ping Yang (Pyongyang, capital of North Korea, today), nearly 200 miles to the north. He bought a horse which he named “Belle”, four additional pack animals, hired a Korena youth named Manyoungi as body servant (at $17.50 a month), and an interpreter and two mapus (grooms), and struck out to the northward, reaching Ping Yang on March 5, the first correspondent to reach that far north into the war zone.

It was also his first opportunity to send a war dispatch home, a detailed account of the first clash between Japanese and Russian land forces. This report, scrawled on thin rice paper, told of a cavalry encounter at Ping Yang after a detachment of Cossacks on reconnaissance had crossed the Yalu and struck 200 miles deep into Korea.

The story, telegraphed out of Seoul on March 2, said, in part: “The Russians are boldly and fiercely pushing forward their advance south of the Yalu…There has been no attempt by the Japanese as yet to dislodge the daring advance guard of the Russians…The country between Anju and Ping Yang is very mountainous, and campaigning there will be conducted under the greatest difficulties. But as the Japanese are in force here, and a collision cannot be long deferred. How far behind the Russian advance is the main body of the invading army is not known here, but fleeing Koreans declare the invaders are in great force…Ping Yang is in a state of panic so far as the natives are concerned.”

The dispatch is notable for the vast fund of information London was able to gather, down to the precise details on what the Japanese infantryman carried in his kit. A great deal of Jack’s data came, he admitted, from a Japanese lieutenancy named Y. Abe who visited him at his hotel room. The two sat on a straw mat, drank sake, ate pickled onions with chopsticks and smoked an endless chain of cigarettes through the wee hours.

With the Ping Yang skirmish over, London and his entourage headed north again on icy roads toward the Yalu where he saw long columns of troops moving up the road and knew a great battle was in the making. His own progress was constantly thwarted, however, by Japanese officers who appeared greatly annoyed at his presence. He complained on March 12, that he couldn’t move a hundred yards without being halted by a guard. It was also on the 12th that he learned “that all other foreigners and correspondents are being held back in Ping Yang” and that Bob Dunn had gone back “to wake the dead in an effort to get permission to proceed.”

Dunn’s effort notwithstanding, the correspondents were herded back to Ping Yang, thence to Seoul, and held 200 miles from the front.

It was Tokyo over again: the correspondents wandering aimlessly around the capital or whiling away the hours in Martin’s Bar. Frederick Palmer ofCollier’s recalled how London, when the natives would press around to have a look at the “foreign devils”, would nonchalantly remove his upper dental plate, or stick it out on the end of his tongue while the Koreans fell back in horror.

At last, early in May, the Japanese War Office yielded and permitted the correspondents to return to the Yalu where General Kuroki’s columns were preparing to advance into Manchuria. The press corps—swollen now to include reporters and observers from the U.S., France, England, Germany and Italy—were gathered into an isolated center near Antung. Along with London’s early dispatches to the Hearst papers stateside was a story on how the Japanese had outwitted the Russians by establishing a bridgehead across the Yalu under fire:

“At the mouth of the Yalu the Japanese had two small gun-boats, two torpedo-boats and four small steamers armed with Hotchkiss guns. Also they had fifty sampans loaded with bridge materials. These were intended for a permanent bridge across the Yalu at Wiju—The presence of the small navy and loaded sampans let the Russians to believe that there was where the bridge was to be built. So right there they stationed some 3,000 men to prevent the building of the bridge. Thus a handful of Japanese sailors kept 3,000 Russian soldiers occupied in doing nothing and reduced the effectiveness of the Russian strength that much.”

According to London’s reportage, the Russians were “sluggish” in battle, while “The Japanese understand the utility of things. Reserves they consider should be used not only to strengthen the line…but in the moment of victory to clinch victory hard and fast…Verily, nothing short of a miracle can wreck a plan they have once started and put into execution.”

Frederick Palmer remembered that London, during this period of the war, was a loner at the front, loftily isolated form his colleagues with his separate mess tent and servants, “general and private of his army of one, he rode in front of his two pack-donkeys, which jingled with bells, the leader bearing an American flag.”

Palmer thought London too much the novelist to be a good war correspondent, but his judgment may have been tinged by the fact that London, a novice at war reporting, was making a big salary while Palmer represented a magazine which had bid on London’s services and lost.

Novice or not, London had enough news sense to be fed up with the endless capacity of the Japanese to hinder coverage of the war. He asked Hearst to arrange to have him transferred to the Russian side of the battlefront.

But before any change in his status could be made, London struck a native stable worker and became so entangled with Japanese military authorities it took the leverage of President Roosevelt to free him.

London biographer Richard O’Connor suspected Jack of adopting a condescending attitude toward both the Japanese and Koreans, more or less along the lies of Kipling’s sahibs toward the Indian natives. Correspondent Edwin Emerson went further, writing that “London, according to his own professions, loathed and abominated the Japanese, and who has learned to appreciate their dominant trait of hiding their own feelings, cannot but realize that a man coming to them with such a disposition need never to get anything out of them.”

In any event, told by his mapu that a certain Japanese groom was stealing fodder belonging to London, the headstrong Californian marched to the stable area and confronted the groom. When this man spoke insolently in denying the charge, London socked him.

Major Gen. Fuki, Kuroki’s chief of staff, placed London under arrest forthwith and while London’s colleagues tried to intervene on his behalf, the Japanese held firm.

It was Richard Harding Davis, once again, who came to the rescue, sending urgent cables to the U. S. State Department and to his old friend from Cuban days, now President, Theodore Roosevelt. It appears Roosevelt made strong representations through the U.S. Ministry in Tokyo and in a few days, London was released.

Kuroki insisted, however, London leave Korea immediately.

In Yokohama, London booked passage on the S.S. Korea bound for San Francisco. Dick Davis came down to see him off.

“When I landed in Yokohama,” London said on July 1, after his return home, “I soon found that there were two ways to play the game — either to sit down in Tokyo as the Japanese wanted me to and eat many dinners, or go out on my own resources.”

We did see part of the battle of the Yalu from the outer walls of Wiju,” he said, but added, “From then on the Japanese treatment of the correspondents with the first army grew stricter — When I left Yokohama homeward bound, all the other correspondents patiently playing the game according to Japanese etiquette, were still publicly dining and privily blaspheming Tokyo.”

He assessed the situation in the San Francisco Examiner, saying: “granting that no revolution arises in Russia and there is no interference of outside powers, I cannot see how Japan can possibly win.”

No revolution would occur in Russia until 1905, but it was precipitated in part by the disastrous defeat of the Russian army and navy at the hands of the Japanese.

The battle London had witnessed from Wiju on May 1, was a prelude to a larger action involving 40,000 Japanese under Marshal Kuroki and 30,000 Russians under Gen. Sassulich. After four days’ skirmishing, the Japanese crossed the Yalu on April 30, and on the following day attacked, driving out the defenders with a loss of less than 900 killed and wounded while inflicting 4,000 casualties on the Russians, taking over 500 prisoners and capturing 48 guns.

The Yalu, in turn, was a prelude to the pivotal battle of Mukden on the following February 21, in which 300,000 Japanese troops on a 47-mile front, encircled the city and forced the Russian army under Gen. Kuropatkin to retire after suffering 90,000 casualties.

The coup de grace for the Imperial Russian forces occurred in the Tsushima Strait on May 27-28 when the Japanese Admiral Togo annihilated a decrepit Russian fleet in the greatest naval battle—at that time—since Trafalgar.

The war drifted on through July, 1905, until Czar Nicholas II agreed to accept the mediation of President Roosevelt of the U.S. Peace negotiations opened in early August in Portsmouth, N.H., and by the end of the month, Russia had surrendered her lease of the Kwantung peninsula and Port Arthur, evacuated Manchuria and recognized Japan’s sphere of influence in Korea.

The treaty was signed on August 23, 1905, and the revolution Jack London mentioned as a factor in the outcome of the war, was by then eight months in progress.

He did not know it, but Jack London had been present for the curtain falling on the Golden Age of war correspondence. After the Russo-Japanese was with its stifling restrictions on the movement of reporters and even stricter censorship on what they wrote, a new era of more managed reportage dawned. So much so by the time of World War I that Sen. Hiram Johnson of California would say: “The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

London, in leaving Japan for home, told his friend Bob Dunn, “I wasted five months of my life in this war.” but in truth, his time had not been wasted. From his experiences in Korea he wrote a portion of his brilliant 1915 novel, The Star Rover; his dispatches from the war—fragmentary though they were—proved to be among the best reportage of the war; and, the open boat voyage on the Yellow Sea added greatly not only to the London legend but to the entire saga of war correspondence.


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