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Sunday 4 October 2020

He Jettisoned His Car But Kept His Hermes Baby Portable Typewriter: The Extraordinary War Correspondent Yates McDaniel

Last Out Before the Rape of Nanjing,

 First Into Singapore

 and Last Out Before the Fall

‘The sky over Singapore is black with the smoke of a dozen huge fires … The roar and crash of cannonade and the bursting bombs are shaking my typewriter …’

-        C. Yates McDaniel, February 11, 1942. Singapore fell to the Japanese four days later, the beginning of the end of the British Empire. Oddly enough, the British Empire portable typewriter was the name of a version of McDaniel’s own typewriter, a Hermes Baby. The difference being McDaniel’s Hermes Baby kept typing the truth and informing the world of Japanese atrocities.

Yates McDaniel types his story about the fall of Singapore on his Hermes Baby portable typewriter, while sitting on a fallen palm tree on the island of Bangka in Sumatra on February 14, 1942. This photo was taken by West Australian war correspondent Athole Stewart, who nicknamed McDaniel “Robinson Crusoe”. The day before, Yates had photographed his car being pushed into the Port of Singapore by British servicemen, to prevent it falling into the hands of the invading Japanese forces.

On September 22, 1937, Associated Press war correspondent Charles Yates McDaniel reported from Nanjing, “Japan’s threat to rain death and destruction on China’s capital was carried out today in disregard of American, British, French and German protests against unrestricted bombing of a great city … Scores [of poorer Chinese civilians] were burned to death as incendiary bombs lighted tinder-like straw huts along the Yangtze River front. Most of those who died were too feeble or helpless to join the great exodus to the open countryside to escape death from the skies.”

Natalie and Yates McDaniel

       McDaniel and his wife Olga Natalie (née Eills) had two days earlier left their home on the outskirts of Nanjing and moved into the vacated United States Embassy in the besieged city, after embassy staff were transferred to the patrol boat the USS Luzon and moved up the Yangtze to Wuhu. Japanese aircraft, sweeping over central government buildings, had dropped bombs near their home (“in a dangerously exposed area”).  “Mrs McDaniel and I talked it over and decided we will remain so long as there is any vestige of communications with the outside world. Mrs McDaniel is a Japanese-born American girl [she was in fact born in Boston, Massachusetts] who has spoken Japanese from infancy. She also has a broad knowledge of far eastern affairs and is staying with me to help inform the outside world of the heightening crisis here.” McDaniel himself was Chinese-born and grew up speaking Mandarin, so in some ways the McDaniels found themselves ideally qualified to cover Japan’s invasion. But Yates McDaniel had only joined AP two years earlier, aged just 29 in 1935, and such widespread death and destruction wasn’t something he was expecting - or indeed suited - to cover.

       All that changed when in mid-August 1937 Chiang Kai-shek laid siege to the Japanese area of Shanghai International Settlement, leading to the Battle of Shanghai. On August 23, Japanese Army reinforcements succeeded in landing in northern Shanghai. The McDaniels had returned to Nanjing from covering fighting in Tianjin, a port city in north-eastern China, only a week before the September 22 bombing raid on the capital, driving to Shanghai and then hitching a lift at night to Nanjing in an ambulance. It “was forced to run without headlights because Japanese air bombers aimed at it the whole way.”

       Such perils, all for the sake of helping “inform the outside world of the heightening crisis”, might have been, at that time, new experiences for the McDaniels. Yates McDaniel, indeed, by no means exemplified the archetypal war correspondent. He was the son of Baptist missionaries, born in Suzhou, west of Shanghai, on August 28, 1906; a US university-educated, modest, mild-mannered, slightly-built man, a chain smoker. McDaniel first worked as a journalist on Florida’s Sarasota Herald when it was founded in 1925, then moved to the Durham Morning Herald in North Carolina before returning to China in 1929, when Carl Crow started the Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury.

Yates McDaniel as a young reporter

             How he found the derring-do, the bravado to do the things he did – to persistently go “find the war”, to face and deal with both victims and violent antagonists, to write under fire – and to become regarded as the pluckiest journalist among his peers, is difficult to fathom. But as TIME magazine pointed out in March 1942, under the headline, “The Press: From the Horror’s Mouth”, “C. Yates McDaniel is only 35, but his hair is almost white. It should be. [He’s] had enough narrow escapes to earn many a thread of silver. His experiences … entitle him to a snow-white thatch for the rest of his life. For Yates McDaniel watched the collapse of Singapore at close hand [and] filed a dispatch that might well have been the last farewell of a crack reporter.”

Back in Nanjing in September 1937, the American and Chinese friends of the McDaniels’ issued them with urgent pleas to escape “before the storm breaks”. They expected the Japanese to show “no mercy”, yet their commitment to wiring out news stories from the war front remained firm. And so it was to be for McDaniel, as he continued for the next seven years to cover Japan’s ruthless push to conquer the Pacific rim.

          In November 1937 Natalie McDaniel was able to  join an evacuation for Shanghai aboard a US rescue ship. She was eventually reunited with her husband and the pair reached Los Angeles from Hong Kong aboard the President Coolidge on February 3, 1940. But the couple was soon back in the Pacific war zone, both now working for AP. Natalie got out of Singapore ahead of her husband, but while the city was already burning and crumbling (her own words).  She reached Java then Melbourne in Australia, where she waited for Yates to join her.  Natalie opened her AP story from Melbourne on March 8 with the words, “Eight times a refugee from the Japanese, I once again am awaiting my newspaperman husband … Shanghai, Nanking, Hong Kong, Canton, French Indo-China, Tientsin [Tianjin] and then Singapore and Batavia – one by one I’ve fled from their falling walls. After spending weeks too close to the battle zones, this war-ready city seems positively peaceful.” (Natalie lived to the fine old age of 85, and died in St Petersburg, Pinellas, Florida, on December 17, 1992). Unlike her husband, Natalie had already lived an adventurous life, long before she reached Australia. At the age of 5½, in February 1913, she had been kidnapped by her father, Unitarian clergyman, expert telegrapher and stockbroker John Eills (aka Ellis, Delisle and D’Lisle) and taken to Japan. After her mother Harriet tried to snatch her back, a series of court battles in Tokyo in 1916 resulted in her father winning custody (he had gone there knowing Japanese law favoured the father is such disputes). Although the 1920 US census has her living with grandparents in Boston, she in fact remained in Japan. She married Yates McDaniel in Yokohama in April 1934, still using Olga as her first name and Eills as her surname. During the next few years Mrs McDaniel became Japanese-born Natalie, maiden name Ellis, in an effort to put her strange past behind her.

Following Natalie’s departure in November 1937, Yates McDaniel remained in a house owned by the British American Tobacco Company in Nanjing for four days after the capital fell on December 12. A week earlier he and four other American correspondents had been offered a chance to get out on board the gunboat USS Panay, which left on the 11th and was soon sunk by the Japanese. All the correspondents had turned down the offer. McDaniel wasn’t able to get his story of the fall out for five days – and then it was wired from the Japanese destroyer the Tsuga. McDaniel opened it with the words, “The morale of Chinese armies defending Nanking broke suddenly Sunday afternoon. What had been planned as a slow, ordered retreat turned into a wild rout. Nanking had a night of terror.” The aftermath became known as the “Rape of Nanking”.

Oakland Tribune, December 17, 1937
          The American correspondents tried to get out of Nanjing on December 14, only to discover the Panay had been sunk. The next day four of them were able to board gunboats, but McDaniel returned to the US embassy building before finally boarding the Tsuga, bound for Shanghai, on December 16.

       Four years later Yates McDaniel found himself reporting on Japanese atrocities once more, this time as one of the first foreign correspondents to arrive in Singapore. As he had done in Nanjing, he was also among the last to leave that fallen city. His story was the very last news dispatch out of Singapore, wired at 3.45pm local time on February 12. Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, commander of the British garrison, formally surrendered to the Japanese invaders 90 minutes later!

 Yates McDaniel’s photo of a large freighter after being hit by Japanese bombs in the Port of Singapore docks on February 12, 1942.

       Within seven hours, just after midnight on February 13, McDaniel was among 55 male evacuees and a 19-year-old Chinese woman, Doris Lim, who boarded the steamer Kung Wo leaving the flaming Port of Singapore. It was the last vessel off the doomed island outpost. McDaniel finally reached Jakarta in Indonesia (then still Batavia in the Netherlands East Indies) 7½ days later. McDaniel’s camera was ruined, his trousers were filthy, his shoes battered and his shirt borrowed. He hadn’t slept in a bed for 11 days. The Kung Wo was bombed on its way to Java and passengers and crew abandoned ship to reach the island of Bangka – where McDaniel was photographed typing his departure story on his Hermes Baby portable. In the early hours of February 15, McDaniel waded and swam to a ferry launch that took him up the Indragiri River in Sumatra. He crossed “the mountain wilds” to Padang by truck, rail and pony cart and at Emmahaven boarded a British destroyer. McDaniel completed “the 1200 roundabout miles safely through the Indian Ocean”, his notepad a “salt water soaked pulp”. But, amazing as his tale of survival was, what he typed from it was no pulp fiction.

 Hermes Bay portable typewriters were general issue for US war correspondents and military staff. Here is AP’s Don Whitehead using one to write his story of the landing at Anzio Beach in Italy, from a fox hole in February 1944. The US military signed a contract deal for the Hermes Baby before the American-made Smith-Corona Zephyr went into production, just before the outbreak of World War II.

      At Associated Press headquarters in New York City, reporter Don Whitehead cobbled together a lengthy article on the heroism of two of AP’s men covering the Pacific theatre, McDaniel and Clark Lee. It was published under the headline, “Here’s the story of courage and AP men who get war news – Lee, McDaniel flirt with danger”. The story opened, “There’s a bright flame of courage shining out of the gloom of war’s misery, destruction and death … it flares in the dispatches of correspondents watching the convulsions of a world in conflict.” Whitehead described McDaniel as “quiet, scholarly” and “slim, grave, prematurely gray”. Whitehead speculated that, “Perhaps, McDaniel got some of his outward calm from the Chinese children with whom he played as a child …”

Yates McDaniel as a boy in China

Unbeknown to McDaniel, the day after he left Bangka one of the most appalling incidents of the Pacific War occurred on the island – the rape and murder of Australian Army nurses. The Bangka Island massacre, indeed, remained unreported and unknown until 1947.  On February 16, 1942, Japanese soldiers machine-gunned 22 nurses and 60 Australian and British soldiers and crew members who had survived the sinking of Vyner Brooke by Japanese bombers. One nurse and two soldiers were the sole survivors of this outrage.

At the Bomana war cemetery in Papua New Guinea in late December 1943, Yates McDaniel, left, is among comrades paying their last respects to Australian war correspondent Pendil Arthur Rayner, who was killed in a plane crash.

       Yates McDaniel died in St Petersburg, Florida, on March 14, 1983, aged 76. After the war he continued working for AP, becoming the news agency's bureau chief in Detroit before going to Washington DC, where he worked for 22 years before retiring in 1971. He also wrote for The New York Times.


Marty Heyman said...

Great Story!! Like most of your work. Thank you. I cherish my Hermes Baby, by the way.

Bill M said...

The war reporters sere the unsung heroes of the war. If not for them the world would not have known much of what was happening. It is good they had typewriters also because notebook computers and cell phones would have never survived the hazards of war.

I wonder how a new Hermes Baby compared with a new Zephyr. I like the old Baby in my collection better than the Zephyr.

Johnpyyc said...


Thank you for the fascinating story. I am amazed at the close shaves with death and the resilience of Yates McDaniel's Hermes Baby.