Topping and Rowan Recall Chinese Civil War

Note:This program was recorded and can be viewed in six parts at

The description of “legend” can be overused. The notion of a “legend” begs the question: how do you know when one has crossed over into the terroritory of unforgettable, admireable and heroic? The answer arrived on October 1 when two OPC members relayed their experiences on covering the Chinese civil war. Seymour Topping and Roy Rowan, made that long-ago and far-away event pertinent and relevent to the packed house in the Solarium Room at the 3 West Club. Topping and Rowan are the two surviving American correspondents who covered China’s civil war.

OPC Foundation President William J. Holstein set a cinematic scene for the crowd: The communists and nationalists had not chosen to engage with each other until the Japanese left after World War II. In 1946, Rowan had been in the American military and found a job driving Jeep convoys for a U.N. agency and Topping was still in American uniform as an infantry captain and took a terminal leave to begin working as a correspondent for the International News Service.

From there, Topping and Rowan bandied recollections about like they had happened that morning, which at 91 and 93, respectively, only bolstered their “legend” status. They tossed out dates of when they filed the story (Rowan: December 7, 1947) and word count (Topping: 85-word dispatch to the AP, which scored a scoop of the communists taking of Nanking), which cuts central to the core of a journalist: to other audiences those particulars are too granular, but to this crowd, they tell everything about a good journalist.

Rowan spent more than a year supervising truck convoys never knowing if the U.N. relief he was delivering was to a nationalist or communist village. “We were successful but also under attack,” he said. “We took a bullet through the windshield and decided then and there to pack up and return to Shanghai. I was feeling despondent. I had no job; no prospects. When I arrived in Shanghai, there was a stack of letters for me including a rejection letter from the Columbia Journalism School.” He paused to let the crowd’s laughter settle. “In a gloomy mood, I walked to the then-Palace Hotel. I was standing next to this gentleman, he was drinking straight vodka out of a blue bottle sheathed in ice and asked if I wanted a drink and it turned out he was the Time and Life bureau chief in Shanghai.” And thus began Rowan’s career.

“I got a job, like Roy, in a bar as a correspondent based in Peiking,” Topping said. He covered the war for three years and worked for INS and then shifted to the AP. “Most important, in Nanking, I met the beautiful Audrey Ronning. I courted her assidiously and became engaged before she and her family were evacuated with other diplomatic families when communists closed in on Nanking.”

Topping slept in a cave on a cot in Yenan while he waited to interview Mao, but the interview never happened. He was told Mao was in seclusion, but at that point, Topping hypothesized that Mao was planning military operations in Manchuria.

Topping said that Mao had asked President Roosevelt if he could visit Washginton so they could come to some kind of understanding about the war, but Roosevelt never received the message. “If Mao had gotten to Washington…there could possibly not have been a Korean war or Vietnam war,” Topping said.

Rowan teamed up with photographer Jack Birns and their territory was the entire country of China. Rowan said they’d go out to the airport at 4 a.m. and take off with a former flying ace from World War II, one named “Earthquake Magoolin,” to get around the country. They landed on dirt roads with no orientation as to what they’d happen upon.

Rowan and Birns were in Beijing and had an interview with Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Rowan wrote in his notebook that Chiang Kai-Shek seemed like a sparrow — he was jumpy and nervous and repeated stock phrases like the communists are a cancer. “It was an unsatisfactory interview,” Rowan said. “The big point he made was that Manchuria was safely in his hands; he had 250,000 troops. So Jack and I decided to head to Manchuria a few days later and there the nationalists were in full retreat.”

Holstein asked, “Do you think that Chiang Kai-Shek had no idea what was going on in Manuchuria or did he lie to you?”

“He lied to us,” Rowan said.

Rowan and Birns took many photos of the collapse of Manchuria but it was Saturday morning in Shanghai and Life used to go to press Saturday night in New York. “We put the film on a Pan Am flight to San Fransciso, 40 hour trip minus 13 hours. Life set up a portable film processing outfit at the San Francisco airport; got a courier to carry the negatives to Chicago where a New York editor came out to Chicago and edited the film in a taxi cab. It went to press a day late, but it was a great scoop. There were no other Americans in Manchuria.”