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FreightWaves explores the archives of American Shipper’s nearly 70-year-old collection of shipping and maritime publications to showcase interesting freight stories of long ago.

In this edition, from the April 1980 issue of American Shipper, FreightWaves revisits a firsthand account of a surprising story that played a crucial part in U.S.-Chinese relations.

This personal record of the Lykes China maritime negotiations, which led to resumption of maritime trade between the United States and the People’s Republic of China, was written by W.J. Amoss, president of Lykes Bros. Steamship Co.

How China’s Bamboo Curtain was opened

“Ill blows the winde that profits nobody,” said Shakespeare’s Henry VI, but I doubt that those of you who endured hurricane Camille on this coast would endorse that. Nor did we at Lykes find any benefit in the unfortunate events that took place before dawn in the South China Sea on May 15,1961. At least for a long time — nearly 19 years — that appeared to be the result. Now, however, it is clear that our success last year in pushing aside the barriers that diplomacy shied away from, forcing a policy issue between two major nations, grew like a slowly emerging Polaroid from that seeming disaster. The story I have to tell you tonight comes directly from our files.

Captain Otto Wacker, master of the 12,000-ton American vessel Letitia Lykes, was reading in his cabin just below the bridge when the bump came. It was not a crunch or the grinding, smashing noise of steel sliding along steel. This was a slight, soft sound, not followed by an appreciable deceleration. The engine telegraph jangled almost immediately, but Wacker’s instincts, sharpened by 30 years at sea, had already told him: collision. He raced for the ladder leading from the passageway off his stateroom to the bridge. It was still dark; the one red light in the passageway lit a faint path he would have known in blackness. 

By the time he saw the second mate, H.L. Woodward, pressed against the forward windows of the bridge, the engine telegraph was already on stop. The ship was coasting, coming down from 17 knots. The night was dark, no moon; and sunrise, he knew, was 40 minutes away. Wacker’s vision, stimulated by the reading light he had left, was not yet adjusted to the night. 

“What happened? Can you see anything?” he asked the mate. 

“Over there, on the starboard bow, Sir, a trawler, I think, just came out of the dark, no lights. I saw its boom and put the rudder to hard left and engines on stop just at impact.” 

Later, the report sent by courier from Inchon to New Orleans would recount in Wacker’s words the tense moments that passed after the collision. 

“I then rushed to the starboard side and saw a fishing boat caught on our starboard bow. I then put the engines on full astern in order not to drown the small craft by turning her over. Shortly after, I went slow speed ahead in order to keep her afloat in case she had been damaged. I then went on the foc’sle head and saw an extremely old, rusty, and battered craft which was caught on her starboard quarter and listed somewhat to starboard, and her mast was occasionally hitting our starboard bow on the foc’sle head. Her afterdeck on the port side was partly awash. I had a pilot ladder put over the starboard bow and urged the crew of the fishing boat to come aboard. While they were in the process of boarding, we searched them for small arms, and I took three rifles and some ammunition away from them and had them congregate in the recreation room and put a watch on them.

“We had this collision at 5:53 a.m. And by 6:10 a.m., all 13 crew members were aboard, and at about that time a moderate fog set in. At 6:10 and a half, I went full astern to pull away from the fishing craft. And by 6:11 a.m. the craft was clear of the bow and sank at 6:14 a.m. at latitude 28-48 North and longitude 123-14 East in a depth of 40 fathoms of water, which is about 60 miles off the China coast and about 170 miles in a southeasterly direction from Shanghai. 

“I then went back amidships and sent for the captain of the fishing boat. A Mr. Kim Yung Ho, who was a passenger aboard the “Letitia Lykes” and a Korean National, tried to talk to him, but the only thing he could make out was that the captain’s name was Lim Chin Gun, that he was a Red Chinese, and that he would sooner die than go to Inchon.

“I gave the captain my name, the name of the ship, the time and the place where his craft sank, that were bound from Hong Kong to Inchon, and that no lives were lost, and we had heard no complaints from his crew about injuries. 

“At 6:50 a.m, another Red China fishing boat, No. 107, came alongside, and the crew of the sunken vessel was transferred to this boat. 

“I had their guns tied up good in a bundle and lowered last so that there was no chance for them to use them immediately in case they had anything of that nature in mind. 

“By 7:50 a.m., all 13 men of the sunken craft had been transferred and No. 107 cast off, and we continued on our voyage. Our bow had been checked for damage, but none was found. 

“Without any further incident on the rest of the way, we took arrival at Inchon at 11:30 p.m., May 16, 1961.”

Although the collision and sinking was reported to the State Department, nothing was heard from the Chinese until nearly a year later, when a letter forwarded through the international Red Cross was transmitted by Gen. Alfred M. Gruenther, U.S.A. (Ret.), president of the American Red Cross, to Mr. Solon R. Turman, president of Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. Inc. 

Gen Gruenther’s letter to Mr. Turman carries the tensions of that time. It read: 

“Here is a copy of a letter which I received yesterday from the president of the Red Cross Society of China. Naturally, this is a type of case in which the American Red Cross would not become involved. We are, therefore, merely forwarding the letter to you. I shall delay acknowledging receipt of the letter for a few days in case there is anything you would like to have me say.

“Incidentally, our relations with the Red Cross Society of China have been rather difficult ones. There are four Americans still imprisoned in China, and we send Red Cross packages to them each month. I would say that relations between the two societies have been improved during the past five years, but they are still far from friendly.”

The letter forwarded by Gen. Gruenther was of one paragraph. It claimed that Letitia Lykes had run down the Che Yu 116 and was totally to blame. Claim was made for $222,676.80, of which $7,000 was termed “net profit lost during the fishing season.” 

Almost simultaneously, there appeared in the Japanese press the article reproduced at the top of this page. 

Mr. Turman, with advice of counsel, sent a reply to Chiang Chun-Chi, manager of Ningpo Marine Fisheries Co., Chekiang Province, through Gen. Gruenther on April 9,1962. In responding to the claim of fault, the letter stated:

“It is true that on May 15,1961, in about lat. 28-46 N. and long. 123-14 E., shortly before 6:00 a.m., our ‘S/S Letitia Lykes’ and what appeared to be a fishing vessel marked No. 116, said to have been of the People’s Republic of China, collided. 

“We have made a full investigation of this accident and have concluded that the collision was due exclusively to the gross faults and violations of the international rules of the road at sea by your Chinese vessel.

“Under these circumstances, all liability on behalf of our vessel and our company is denied. Indeed, if any claim is pressed by or on behalf of the Chinese vessel, we shall have to counterclaim for our own damages.”

The discomfort of a company doing verbal, if not legal, battle with an all but belligerent sovereign state is apparent from the instructions thereafter given to all Lykes vessels on voyages to the Far East. 

They were to “be alert at all times against possible acts of reprisal, such as seizure at sea, and to navigate their vessels while in waters adjacent to the Chinese mainland in such a manner as to avoid provoking incidents of any kind with vessels of communist China.” 

In February 1979, Lykes Bros. Steamship Co. and the China Ocean Shipping Co. reached an
agreement that paved the way for the re-entry of American and Chinese ships in each nation’s ports for the first time in 30 years. (Photo: American Shipper)

The Washington, D.C., vice president of Lykes, Mr. T.P. Bartle, had informed the Department of State of developments in this case from the beginning. In response to a query about a possible settlement offer, he received a letter from the “officer in charge of mainland China affairs,” Mr. Lindsey Grant, on September 26, 1962. Grant’s letter was classic Catch 22. 

“The Department perceives no objection at this time to an offer on the part of Lykes Bros. to discuss with representatives of the Ningpo Fisheries Co. an amicable settlement, in conformity with customary international procedures for the settlement of claims in marine collision cases. 

“It should be noted that Lykes Bros. would need a Treasury license to conclude any settlement agreement which Lykes Bros. might wish to enter into. The Treasury Department has stated that it would be prepared to license an appropriate settlement agreement on the stipulation that the agreement provides for any payment to Ningpo Fisheries Co. to be made into a blocked account at a bank in the United States.”

Click here to read the rest of the in-depth story and the April 1980 issue.

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