Published in 1947 in the wake of a war that consumed the Pacific, American Agent is the uninspiring title of a remarkable true story. American involvement in the local Chinese resistance to the Japanese was little known at the time, even more rarely reported on, and barely acknowledged by the powers in Washington and Beijing in the decades since. The book itself is a collaboration between two unlikely characters – John Cope Caldwell, the son of Tennessee missionaries, and Mark Gayn, a Washington journalist born to Russian-Jewish émigrés. The story, too, is about collaboration; between co-author Caldwell, an American, and the people of Fujian on the China coast, a population he was born among, whose dialect he spoke and whom he treated as family, in two years of that region’s darkest days.
American Agent begins in 1943, six years into China’s war with Japan and two years after the attack on Pearl Harbour that drew the reluctant Americans into it. Caldwell is in the city of Shaoguan (Kukong) in Guangdong province, on the border of Chinese controlled territory and bound for his destination, the coastal village of Fuqing (Futsing), in what he calls No Man’s Land. Gayn and Caldwell together deftly capture the activity, the chatter, the chaos and the contrast of joyous living in the midst of war. It’s reminiscent of Norman Lewis’s prose or, more recently, Graham Greene, Good Morning Vietnam or Apocalypse Now. “In the restaurant, laughter, wine, silk gowns, faces sweating with the effort of eating, and the babel of a dozen dialects, from Mandarin to Amoy and Hakka.” Caldwell’s destination is deep inside No Man’s Land, which he refers to variously as The Coast, or less often Fujian (Fukien), near the shore where the Taiwan Strait merges with the East China Sea. Fuqing is where Caldwell was born in 1913, and in 1943 his parents are still there, living under threat of Japanese occupation, American missionaries in a small but loyal Chinese Christian Methodist community.
After reacquainting himself with a cast of characters who’ve known him since childhood, Caldwell falls comfortably back into speaking the Min dialect of his youth, and begins his work. He’s there to motivate and deliver news of America’s war effort among a population thus far utterly dominated by imperial Japan, in his words “these plain, good people who for six years had had death for their daily companion.” Indeed it’s Caldwell’s empathy and his humility that distinguish him from other American war heroes of the time. “I was with my people. We were one family, in one world” he writes.
Much of Caldwell’s work throughout the story is carried out from a base in the hill town of Nanping, a town “filled with seventy thousand restless jostling people.” He has found the once-sleepy village swelling and convulsing with spies, itinerant wanderers, pirates and foreign servicemen as a major waypoint between Free China and the front line. He and his colleagues set up offices and printing facilities in a disused alcohol factory, which he comes to call “Alcohol Valley”.
But before settling in Alcohol Valley, Caldwell sets off on a circuit of Fujian province, in search of face to face meetings with village governors, dignitaries and smuggler chiefs, whomever he can, to pass on the news that America is fighting on their side. He is able to offer a commitment from the Caldwell family as well, with the news that his brother, Fuqing-born Lt Morris Caldwell has been shot down over the Java Sea, in a P40 Warhawk fighting the Japanese. He travels to the southern edge of No Man’s Land, to Tong’an and Zhangzhou, within sight of the fortifications in Japanese-held Xiamen (Amoy), where he’s approached by members of China’s secret service.
Returned to the north of the province and settled in Alcohol Valley, the grind of Caldwell’s daily duties quickly takes its toll. His office sets about receiving and collecting news of the Allied successes in the Pacific and Europe, and disseminating it as effectively as possible across No Man’s Land. The task involves dealing with local governors, pirates, smuggler kingpins, the Chinese nationalist censors, bouts of malaria, and Nanping’s 1700-year-old plumbing among the unusual obstacles. Caldwell’s team distributes identification posters for American aircraft and uses contacts in the underworld on the coast to secure the rescue of servicemen shot down by enemy fire over the Taiwan Strait. These powerful smuggling contacts, who he refers to as “the Big Five”, were men for whom “piracy was merely a side line.” They collected “taxes” and managed ports in the lawless void between warring states, allowing business to continue in a region where, to this day, business takes precedence over loyalty to any dynasty or ideology.
As the months in Alcohol Valley wear on, Caldwell’s health deteriorates, and he longs to see his wife and child, waiting back in Tennessee. The situation for the Allies takes a turn for the worse too, and Alcohol Valley becomes a way station for Americans of all types on their escape back to the security of Chongqing (Chungking) and Free China. Meanwhile, Caldwell’s family and their home of half a century are among those who bear the brunt of the shifting frontline around them.
Events in the Second Sino-Japanese War, what we know across the Pacific as World War II, are well documented and highly dramatized in Chinese popular culture. But the personal stories of foreign partners, those complicated tales of outside assistance to local resistance, before the arrival of Mao’s Communists, are inconvenient and rarely told. In American Agent co-authors Gayn and Caldwell tell a captivating first-person tale of one man’s efforts to galvanize the people of The Coast and keep the Imperial Japanese Navy at bay.
Although long out of print, reasonably priced second-hand copies of American Agent are available from various book retailers such as Amazon.com.