E.Allen Petersen and Hummel Hummel: A Forgotten Story of Escape and Survival

Of all the true stories lost to popular history, this one is of a remarkable and dangerous escape in the prelude to WWII.
Here is not a passage from a novel, but the true and little-known account of Americans and Russians trying to flee the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1938. It goes like this: “now the city was falling in ruin about us. The Japanese army was driving the Chinese back, and the city was undergoing shelling and aerial bombing. . . . The foreign population was fleeing by ship, the only possible way of escape from the dying city. The larger steamers had long since departed for Manila and Yokohama, their passenger lists overcrowded.”
“A few small coastal vessels whose captains dared not dock for fear of the mobs waiting to swarm aboard, lay anchored in the Whangpoo. The fortunate ones who could obtain passage were being loaded by launches shuttling to and from shore. But these coastal vessels were taking people only as far as Hong Kong. That was far enough for the hysterical ones whose only thought was to leave Shanghai. It was not far enough for us. Hong Kong; overcrowded, with prices soaring, would mean for us only that we would be stranded in another port.” (E. Allen Petersen, Hummel Hummel)

 Looking for a Way to Escape

 Unable to find ship’s passage, osteopathic surgeon, Doctor E. Allen Petersen and his wife Tani, of Japanese descent, began frantically looking for yachts to escape on but berths were already taken, or they had already hoisted sail to flee the soldiers marching on Shanghai. News of the brutality of Japanese troops was widely known. The Rape of Nanking occurred after that city fell to the Imperial Japanese Army on December 13, 1937. Japanese troops raped thousands of women and girls, many found beheaded, slit open from genitalia to stomachs. Mothers and daughters were rounded up for gang rapes, then shot. Fathers were forced to kill sons, then were also beheaded. Atrocities visited upon the city are unparalleled in the annals of human depravity. That is why Petersen and his wife desperately sought to flee Shanghai. (See The Rape of Nanking.)

Petersen recalled how he found his means of escape. “Days passed while the tides of war ebbed and flowed over Shanghai, and daily it became more difficult to live. In desperation I decided to investigate a small junk moored at the French Bund. I had passed her many times but because of her small size I had not bothered to give her a second look. Dozens of native sampans were moored gunwale to gunwale around her, and from these swarming craft there rose a babble of voices. A terrible stench hung over the area caused by a nearby sewer outfall. Yet in these unfavorable surroundings I discovered our dream ship. Leaping from one protesting sampan to another, I finally boarded the little junk. Sandwiched in among the loudah or Chinese boatman and his large family, I surveyed the little ship. She appeared not so small now, as I stood on deck and I decided at once she would be just the craft for our flight to California. From the boat-man I learned that her owner, a Mr. Emmermann, might be willing to sell.”

Short on cash, Petersen bargained with Herr Emmerman and a week and $250 later he bought Hummel Hummel, the junk’s name a German expression meaning “Same to you.” She was thirty six feet bow to stern with a nine foot beam and a two and a half foot draft. Painted black, red, yellow, and white, she had a mainmast thirty feet high, with a “huge blood-red canvas lateen sail.” Dr. Petersen was surprised to discover that neither the mainmast nor foremast had stays—lines running to the hull as support. “A tremendous rudder that extended two feet below the keel hung in a heavy wooden socket and could be hauled up on deck. As for calls of nature, a cross bar sat across the overhung stern, and provided ‘outside plumbing,’ although a modern toilet had been installed below deck.”

 Learning to Navigate Had to Wait until He Was at Sea

 The Imperial Japanese Army drew nearer and nearer, and Petersen with his wife began scrambling to prepare for the voyage. They had to buy ship stores, charts, and navigation books. He would learn how to navigate after they were at sea. Sextants were expensive with the cheapest at ninety Shanghai dollars. At an auction he bought a good sextant for sixteen Shanghai dollars and eighty cents. Another ten dollars got him an old dry-point compass, “better than none at all," he said. There were pots, pans, and dishes, blocks and rigging, extra rope, paint, kerosene, primus stoves. From a journalist named Johansen at the Shanghai Evening Post and Mercury he bought a .45 caliber Webley revolver just in case pirates tried to board the junk in the South China Sea. They bought three live chickens in a crate, hoping for eggs at breakfast, and if that failed, some drumsticks, breasts, and wings.

Taking on Two White Russians as Crew 

Ready to make their getaway, they needed space to clear the glut of sampans and other water craft. Out in Shanghai harbor, Chinese junkmen were friendly and helpful, passing the junk’s mooring line from one boat to another, pulling her along until they were tied up next a schooner flying an American flag. On the schooner they met Nick and Vic, two White Russians (Czar loyalists or those opposing Bolsheviks) who fled the Reds and Russia itself, winding up in Shanghai. Discovering that Petersen and Tani were going to sail to California, they asked to go with them. They were dead serious. They had nothing left in Russia, nor anything in China. They hoped to start a new life in the United States. They didn’t want wages as ship’s crew, but only the opportunity to start over. “They would sleep on deck, eat anything, and work hard if only [Petersen] would take them along." Petersen argued that he couldn’t promise United States immigration authorities would allow them to stay, but he relented. They became his ships' crew.

Bad Weather at Sea

 Out at sea for a week, everybody began to realize that sailing in a thirty six foot junk on open water was unlike anything they had experienced. Pelting rain stung their faces, their feet were swept out from under them by rushing waves, their minds disoriented by grey clouds. They had no sun, and all they could see was high, hilly water surrounding them. Eventually they learned to tie themselves by rope to the boat, after nearly being swept off during heavy seas. In his book Hummel Hummel, Petersen described the situation: “She leaned dangerously when struck by the blasts of wind. With the storm mounting in fury, our chances of capsizing increased, and I gave the order to let out the sea anchor on some ten fathoms of line, then, fighting like madmen, we clawed at the flapping sails, trying to furl them before they were blown to shreds. Working on the narrow wet foredeck of the junk while she pitched and rolled was dangerous, and, during those careless days of inexperience, we had not learned to tie ourselves on our ship.”

After Hummel Hummel had been blown about by some fierce squalls, they finally sailed into calm waters, and one day a “delicately colored butterfly flew onto the mainsail.” They gazed at it in wonder, what urge had carried it by the wind to rest battered on the sail? Would it reach shore before a wave licked at a wing, and soaked it down into the water?" On another day, another week, a swallow fluttered down on deck. Tani, his wife, carried it into the cabin for warmth, water, and food, but by morning it was dead.

At Yokohoma, Suspected as Spies

They could not go on, and needed shelter as well as re-fitting. Although afraid of the Imperial Army approaching Shanghai, they hoped for different treatment from Japanese civilians. Anyhow, they had to take their chances. Yokohama was a needed anchorage as they had to rest there and outfit the junk before turning westward into the Pacific. Petersen described entering the bay: “With the fan-wind holding steady, the junk, white water curling back from her bow, rounded the two lighthouses at the entrance and we raced up the long narrow bay. At two in the morning, we dropped anchor outside of the Yokohama breakwater. We were thirty-three days out of Shanghai." At daybreak, surprised onlookers gawked at them from boats and freighters.

Petersen’s wife, Tani was Japanese and spoke Japanese, and they hoped for the understanding of civilians. Instead of understanding, they were greeted with suspicion.

After weeks of intensive interrogation by government authorities who thought Petersen was a spy, they were finally allowed to leave. They were fortunate in that those were the days before Japan and the United States became overtly hostile and, later, at war with one another. In fact the SS President Cleveland was anchored in Yokohama Bay, as this was before voyages to Japan were suspended out of fear of Japanese submarines.


Before hoisting anchor, they found friends among those not government officials. “A good many people in Yokohama, both Japanese and foreigners, were speculating on the length of time it would take us to cross the 5,000 miles of the Pacific. Estimates ran from three to six months. My plan was to sail across the North Pacific on what is known as the great circle sailing route. This would give me the advantage of the favorable Japan current and the prevailing winds. I did not intend touching any land until we reached California, and my guess as to sailing time was under ninety days.” He called on the navigation officer of the President Cleveland, Mr. Berrick, who provided him information on weather conditions, and gave him navigation charts.

Petersen had wired friends in Los Angeles for additional funds, and when the money arrived he had Hummel Hummel hauled into a Yokohama shipyard where her bottom was recaulked, the hull painted, and wooden fresh water tanks installed.

Back to Sea

On July 12, 1938, they turned Hummel Hummel toward the mouth of Yokohama Bay. A large crowd stood on the sea wall to watch the junk, sails aloft, filled with a breeze, her wake following her out to sea. On the junk Petersen had rigged many flags and pennants, dancing gaily in the breeze. At a spit of land called Nojima Saki, he brought the rudder into the open sea, pointed her at the vast Pacific. He wanted to put quick and great distance between the junk and Japan. After weeks of interrogation, the secret police chief had taken a liking to Petersen, and grimly warned him, “Do not land on Hokkaido, Dr. Petersen. If you do, the world may not hear of you again.” During the rest of July they averaged fifty eight miles a day. In August, they slowed to fifty two miles a day. The junk was not a swift craft.

Near the end of August, he wrote on a slip of paper the junk’s name, her position, his name and home address. Then he placed the paper in a bottle and sealed it, tossing it in the water. A year later a boy in Oregon wrote him a letter letting Petersen know that the bottle had just washed up on the beach.

Meeting a Swedish Ship and Getting Help

Fifty-four days out of Yokohama, they saw a ship in the distance, a mere speck on the horizon. As it drew closer, they raised the American flag. Vic, one of the Russians, stood on the bow, wildly waving an old shirt. Petersen focused his binoculars on the ship, but the crew did not seem to see them; the vessel became fainter, more distant. Then she altered course and turned toward them. As she bore down on them, they made out a Swedish flag, then the name Sveaborg, and finally they heard a woman on the bridge calling down, “Hello there, Dr. Petersen.” She was the captain’s wife, aboard with their two children. Surprised, Petersen learned that the news of Hummel Hummel’s voyage was big in the states, which the ship, an oil tanker, had recently left. The woman explained that at first they thought the junk was a fishing boat blown out to sea as the worst typhoon in thirty years had struck the Japanese coast. Petersen, Tani, and the White Russians counted themselves as lucky. Hummel Hummel’s departure from Yokohama was timely.

Petersen shouted up at the bridge, “Can you give me my position?" Through a megaphone, the captain called the latitude and longitude to him. Petersen said “I could not believe my ears, and he asked the captain to repeat the numbers. Good news, very good news. They were seven hundred miles closer to the states than he had reckoned. That was almost a month’s worth of sailing.

The tanker tossed some lines down to the junk, and they pulled Hummel Hummel toward the huge ship’s side while Vic held the two hulls apart with a boat hook. After all those weeks at sea, finally other human voices, human faces. Petersen “wanted to speak, to say so many things, but words would not come." The captain had the steward lower two gunnysacks of fresh food. The tanker and the junk floated there, many miles of deep, dark ocean to the bottom, where the ocean was heedless to the difference in their sizes.

The crews of each vessel wished one another well and the mid-ocean chat come to an end; the tanker hauled up its ropes, and the two vessels sailed away, each for a different horizon.

West Planter Skipper: Were They Part of Some Movie? 

On their seventy-fourth day at sea, caught in a dense fog, a small coastal steamer, the West Planter, loomed out of the mist. As she steamed by, Petersen called out to ask them for his position. A crewman spoke through a megaphone on the bridge and explained it. They were off Fort Bragg, some hundred miles north of San Francisco. They watched the ship disappear again into the fog, but soon West Planter’s skipper, Captain Danskenen, came about to close on the junk. Then he hailed them. He said that at first, he thought their vessel was part of some movie. He thought the junk was being given a trial run. Then he recalled a Chinese junk in the news. Hummel Hummel had to be the one. Through his megaphone, he gave a detailed explanation of the coastline. The freighters' crew stood on deck to wave goodbye as they parted once again. Some of the seamen took pictures of three bearded men and a pretty Japanese girl.

Harbor at San Pedro, California, and Big Headlines*

Hugging the coast, they sailed past San Francisco, past Big Sur and Santa Cruz, past Santa Barbara, and hundreds of miles later descried Point Fermin and the San Pedro breakwater at Los Angeles.

Outward bound, the oil tanker Topila passed them, her captain calling down “Congratulations!" He told them they were within the Los Angeles city limits. They soon discovered themselves surrounded by a flotilla of speedboats, tossing the junk in their wakes as they crossed in front and behind it.

Inside the boats were reporters and photographers. The reporters shouted questions at them. The camera men took shots of Hummel Hummel, a new American flag flying from her mainmast with a string of signal flags fluttering below it. The junk’s worn sails filled with a fresh wind and left a sharp, frothy wake as she made fast for the breakwater mouth.

In one motor boat, Tani’s happy, laughing family followed them, relieved that they were safely reaching snug harbor.** A year and a half after they decided to flee, eighty-five days in the vast Pacific, Petersen and Tani were home at last. The crew felt an immense relief as the calm waters met them, and as they dropped anchor.

When they stood still on solid ground, their legs kept seeking balance as against a shifting deck.

In Shanghai and Yokohama people had called it suicide. Petersen said they had gained a lifetime of experience but “many a question remained unanswered. What fate had set our feet in the path of war and prepared the way for the junk voyage? I had seen much killing and I wondered why mankind was so intent upon exterminating his own kind."

Epilogue: Petersen, Tani, and White Russians 

 As it turned out, the two White Russians, Vic and Nic, were refused entry into the United States, and returned to Shanghai. But they had compensation, according to Petersen. They were shipped back on a fine ocean liner, and with money in their pockets after seeing the sights of Southern California. Of course, the Japanese had no fondness for any Russian. As for Petersen and his wife, the doctor died at his Sonoma County, California home in 1987. Tani died in 1982.
* Richard Halliburton. Petersen and his crew succeeded a year before Richard Halliburton's tragic voyage to California in Sea Dragon. Their success can be attributed to at at least two factors: Hummel Hummel was not over-loaded with design improprieties as was Sea Dragon, and Petersen barely avoided dangerous weather.

** I am left to think about the fate of her Japanese-American family. Given a celebratory boat ride then, a few years later they were probably interned as enemy-aliens.

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