An old army buddy of mine used to say that when he had trouble at work and was worried about being able to support his family and when life was beginning to be a little too much, he would pick up a copy of The Sand Pebbles by Richard McKenna. Soon, he’d be transported to the deck of the USS San Pablo, during the 1920s, steaming up the Yangtze River in the heart of China and suddenly everything was right.
McKenna was a sailor in the US Navy for 22 years (1931 to 1953). He enlisted at the age of 18 and was assigned to the “China fleet,” patrolling largely between Guam, Okinawa, and Japan. He served through World War II and the Korean War. After finally retiring, he went to school on the GI Bill and started to write. His first and only novel was The Sand Pebbles, which turned out to be a bestseller and a critical triumph.
The story was inspired by tales he’d heard from veteran sailors concerning the gunboats of the 1920s that patrolled the rivers of China, enforcing unfair foreign claims on Chinese sovereignty. The protagonist was Jake Holman, a poor boy from Grover, Utah who became a respected member of the “black gang” operating the steam engines powering the ships of the time. His unlikely love interest was Shirley Eckert, a Christian missionary to China. But unrest was growing and China was changing, explosively, rejecting foreign rule. The members of the crew of the San Pablo (AKA the Sand Pebbles) engaged in danger and battle and conflict.
The book was purchased by Hollywood to be made into a major motion picture starring Steve McQueen as Jake Holman and the luminous 19-year-old Candice Bergen as Shirley Eckert. After so many years of serving his country and collecting great military stories to share with the world, Richard McKenna passed away in 1965, a few months before The Sand Pebbles was released in theaters in 1966.