DeVries in China

A couple weeks ago, I noticed that had added a new database of military records: “U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1940.” I knew my grandpa DeVries had served in the Marines sometime after WWI, but before he got married in 1926, so I typed in his name and clicked the search button. Up popped a whole bunch of records, all with the same name and same enlistment date, 24 Feb 1922. I didn’t know much about his service except that he had been stationed in China for some part of his enlistment. I clicked on the first record and there he was, John H. De Vries, serving in the 39th Company, Marine Detachment, American Legation, Peking China:

"John H. De Vries in China, October 1922"

Cool. Looking at some of the remarks, I guess I was glad his remarks column was blank. But what about all those other records I’d turned up? As it turns out, I was able to reconstruct his entire path through the Marines through these Muster Rolls.

John H. DeVries enlisted on 24 February 1922 at the Denver Recruiting Station, 1705 Lawrence Street. The same day, he left Denver for Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California. He arrived there three days later and entered Company A. At the time, the Mare Island Marine Barracks was the boot camp for all recruits west of the Mississippi.

"Mare Island Marine Barracks (LOC Photo)"

"USAT Thomas (Kentucky Historical Society Photo)"

On 24 April 1922, John finished basic training and was assigned to Guard Company #1 at Mare Island. Less than a month later, he left Mare Island for The Philippines aboard USAT Thomas. He arrived at Cavite Naval Station on 9 June. On 3 July, he left Cavite for Peking (Beijing) aboard the USAT Merritt. The ship arrived at Tangku (now Tanggu) and he travelled by rail to the American Legation in Peking on 14 July.

title="John H. De Vries in China"

John served in China for a little less than two years. During his time there, he qualified first as a marksman, then as a sharpshooter. In the summer of 1923, he briefly moved to Camp Schurman in Peitaiho (Beidaihe). It’s hard to tell what this “temporary detached duty” was about. Jacob Gould Schurman was the U.S. Ambassador to China at the time and Peitaiho is a beach resort town not far from Peking (for years it was Communist China’s “Camp David”). I suspect Schurman was summering at Peitaiho and a detachment of Marines accompanied him there, but this is purely conjecture on my part.

China was in a tumultuous state during John’s service there. Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, China entered the “warlord era,” a time of weak central government and warring factions that didn’t really end until the factions unified to fight the Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War. It was not unusual for U.S. newspapers to carry stories of foreigners kidnapped or killed in China during this time.

"New York Times, 12 July 1923"

On 13 June 1924, John DeVries left Peking by train and boarded USAT Thomas at Chinwangtao (Qinhuangdao) to sail back to the U.S. He arrived in San Francisco on 5 July and re-entered Guard Company #1 at Mare Island the same day. Five days later, was assigned to the Naval Prison at Mare Island. Finally, in September of 1924, he was transferred to the Destroyer Base in San Diego, where he worked as a prison chaser until the expiration of his enlistment in February 1925 (he may have been a prison chaser at Mare Island, as well). A prison chaser typically oversees prisoners on work detail, though the job does occasionally involve chasing down escaped prisoners, too.

"Discharged: Character 'EXCELLENT'"

It was interesting to watch this story gradually unfold as I found more and more muster rolls with John’s name on them. Fortunately, Ancestry’s index was good enough to give me a few key records right off the bat. I was then able to go back and browse through additional muster rolls where I expected to find him (and often did). The very last roll I found was from December 1924 and it was the only one that had anything negative to say. It seems that my grandfather didn’t quite make it back from his weekend leave. On Monday the 8th, he was Absent Over Leave (AOL) from 8 AM to 4 PM. On the 9th, he was given a warning by his CO and returned to full duty status.

I have some pictures John DeVries took while in China. I hope to get a few of them scanned and posted sometime soon.

Update: I’ve scanned most of the pictures and posted them on flickr.