On to Corregidor —Part I

“The Government of the United States has decided to withdraw the American Marine detachments now maintained ashore in China, at Peiping, Tientsin, and Shanghai. It is reported that the withdrawal will begin shortly.”

—Franklin D. Roosevelt, 14 November 1941

It was thus that the 4th Marine Regiment concluded its fifteen-year duty assignment in Shanghai —and it came as the dark clouds of war began to close in on the old China hands. The United States and Empire of Japan edged resolutely toward hostilities. Everyone felt it. At this time, the 4th Marine Regiment consisted of only two small battalions of less than 1,000 Marines and U. S. Navy attachments. Should war finally come, the regiment would be in a dangerous position. On this basis alone, the regimental commander, Colonel Sam L. Howard, recommended to Admiral Thomas Hart, Commander of the Asiatic Fleet, that the regiment be evacuated. Over several months, Colonel Howard had diverted a number of Marine replacements to a provisional battalion at the U. S. Navy Yard, Cavite, Philippine Islands. He was not authorized to do this; he simply did it because he was in command —he made a command decision.

4th Marines Departing 001Colonel Howard received his order to evacuate China on 10 November 1941 … the Marine Corps 166th Birthday. On 27 November, Lieutenant Colonel Donald Curtis’ 2nd Battalion made its way to the SS President Madison[1] via the lighter Merry Moller, which sailed down the Whangpoo, past Soochow Creek, where the Marines boarded for a destination not yet revealed to them. On the following day, Colonel Howard led the regimental staff and the 1st Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Beecher, marched smartly through Shanghai toward the SS President Harrison, waiting for them at port. The Harrison made way after 1400 and, once at sea, Admiral Hart ordered the 4th Marines to land at Olongapo (Subic Bay) Navy Yard. The second battalion came ashore on 30 November, the rest of the regiment on the next day. Admiral Hart ordered Howard to get his Marines into the field without delay. Admiral Hart later explained, “We realized these Marines had been cooped up in Shanghai for years where conditions for any sort of field training were very poor; not much time remained.”

The 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 4th Marines began training immediately; the provisional battalion, designated as 1st Separate Marine Battalion and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John P. Adams, organized as both a defense and infantry battalion with only 700 Marines.

Colonel Howard reported to Admiral Hart in Manila on 3 December 1941. Hart placed the Marines under the command of Rear Admiral Francis W. Rockwell commanding the 15th Naval District. His mission: protect the naval stations on the island of Luzon, primarily Olongapo and the Naval Section at Mariveles. But Howard was given a more important mission: get his Marines ready for field operations. Hart told Howard, war with Japan was imminent. How imminent? Colonel Howard informed his staff, “… only a matter of days, if not hours.” Following a meeting with Admiral Rockwell, Colonel Howard deployed his forces and implemented a training program. Senior Naval and Marine Corps officers were informed of the attack at Pearl Harbor at 0257 hours, 8 December, Philippine Islands time. At this moment, Colonel Howard knew that some of his Marines would never see their families again.

Continued next week


[1] SS President Madison was constructed in 1921 by the New York Shipbuilding Company and served with the American President Lines until April 1942, when the ship was acquired for use as a troop transport ship, renamed USS Kenmore (AP-62). The ship was renamed USS Refuge (AH-11) in 1944.

The China Marines —Part IV

1937 Marco Polo Bridge IncidentJapan, utilizing Manchuria as a forward base, began a systematic program of seizing Chinese territory from 1932 onward, so it is no surprise that heavy fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces erupted again early in 1937, or that these clashes became steadily worse. The incident at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Beijing is but one example. The Japanese used the battle that they started as justification for sending more troops to Shanghai. After Japanese soldiers were killed by Chinese civilians, Japan dispatched several of its warships to Shanghai and landed troops into the city. Chinese forces soon arrived to oppose the Japanese.

The 4th Marines was once more deployed along Soochow (today, Suzhou) creek. As before international military units joined forces. The rules of engagement handed to the 4th Marines included the following: “Prevent both belligerents from entering the American sector of the International Settlement by means other than rifle fire.” Amazing.

Believing that the present crisis could have disastrous consequences to American interests in China, the US government ordered that the 4th Marines be reinforced. The Second Marine Brigade under the command of Brigadier General John C. Beaumont sailed from California in August 1937. The Brigade was mainly composed of an anti-aircraft battery and the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 6th Marines. The 4th Marines became part of the Brigade on September 20th.

By the end of October, Japanese forces controlled all of the area around Shanghai, leaving the international settlement surrounded by increasingly belligerent Japanese forces. Japan, with its jurisdiction of territory adjacent to the city began a campaign to undermine the position of the Western Powers. The main concern of the 4th Marines at this point became one of thwarting the Japanese from seizing the American sector of the settlement. Meanwhile, other elements of the international community quietly began a withdrawal from Shanghai. Admiral Thomas C. Hart, then commanding the Asiatic Fleet, believed war with Japan was inevitable and recommended the withdrawal of the 4th Marines from Shanghai. No action was taken on this recommendation, however, until November 1941 when Washington finally consented to the withdrawal of US forces from China.

Most of the China Marines escaped what happened next —albeit, temporarily. When the 4th Marines departed China, they went to the Philippines —and eventually to an island called Corregidor.

1941 Col Ashurst SurrenderNot every China Marine made it out before the Japanese declared war on the United States, however. There remained Marines assigned to Embassy Duty; they were stationed in Peking (Beijing), Tientsin (Tianjin), and Chinwangtao (Qinhuangdao) some 140 miles northeast of Tientsin, which in late November 1941 totaled 189 Marines and a 14-man detachment Navy medical personnel. They were scheduled to depart China on 10 December 1941 but on the morning of 8 December, the North China Marines awoke to find themselves completely surrounded by an overwhelming number of Imperial Japanese Army. Outnumbered and outgunned, Colonel William W. Ashurst, USMC surrendered his Marines while under the impression that the Japanese would abide the Boxer Protocol of 1901. Ostensibly, this protocol gave diplomatic status to Embassy Marines, but no such clause seems to exist. It was a misunderstanding that may have prevented Marines from making an escape from Japanese captivity while en route to Shanghai.

End of series

The China Marines —Part III

1935 Bund, ShanghaiShanghai remained peaceful for the next few years —the 4th Regiment assuming regular guard and garrison duty. During this time, the regiment participated in the Fessenden Fifes (a fife and drum corps created by Sterling Fessenden[1], honorifically regarded as the Lord Mayor of Shanghai) and established close ties with the 1st Battalion, Green Howards —a famous British Regiment whose long service was finally ended with the amalgamation of British army units in 2006. The 4th Regiment thus became the only organization in the Marine Corps to have a Fife and Drum Corps. Marines were taught to play donated instruments by members of the Green Howards.

The 3rd Brigade was withdrawn in 1928. In 1930, the 4th Regiment of Marines was redesignated as the 4th Marines and numbered companies were changed to alphabetic designations: Company A, Company B, and so on.

In January 1932, the international settlement was again threatened —this time by Japanese forces stationed in Manchuria. After their defeat in battle by the Japanese, Chinese forces resorted to other means to oppose Japan’s actions in Manchuria, including the boycott of all Japanese-made goods. The effects of this boycott were most noticeable in Shanghai, which became the center of anti-Japanese feeling. Bloody clashes erupted between Chinese and Japanese civilians in 1932, and this led the Japanese military garrison in Shanghai mount attacks against Chinese nationalist forces in neighboring Chapei (today the Zhabei District of Shanghai). The 4th Marines again deployed to prevent violence spilling over into the international settlement and began making security patrols with civilian policemen.

The 4th Marines were reinforced in February by Marines from the Philippines and by the Marine Detachment aboard the USS Houston. The 31st US Infantry was likewise ordered to China. Japanese and Chinese forces continued to clash for over a month. The conflict ended in early March when the Chinese withdrew from Chapei and with an agreement that each side would return to their former positions, the state of emergency was ended in early June. The 31st US Infantry returned to the Philippines, the 4th Marines resumed its normal routine, but the Commander of the Asiatic Fleet recommended that the Marine Corps bring the 4th Marines up to full strength. A new 2nd Battalion was activated in mid-September 1932 —marking the first time the 4th Marines had had three battalions since 1927.

To be continued


[1] Sterling Fessenden (1875-1943) was a practicing attorney in Shanghai after 1903. He was taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941 and died while interned with Russian captives in 1943).

The China Marines —Part II

22 Co 4th Regt 001The regiment’s first duty was to reinforce Marines assigned to the diplomatic legation already in Shanghai and the prevention of rioting and mob violence within the American sector of the international settlement. Cooperative arrangements were made with the military forces of seven other nations. Responsibility for internal security —which is to say, within the international settlement— went to the American Marines, Spanish, Dutch, and Portuguese units. These included checkpoints and roving patrols in the eastern and western sections of the settlement. The regiment was, however, limited to internal defensive measures—its orders specific to avoid confronting Chinese military units. These orders kept the Marines from manning barricades along the perimeter of the settlement, but machine gun sections were occasionally provided to reinforce British and Italian sectors. There were occasions when British forces opened fire on Chinese, but American Marines were not involved in any of these incidents.

In late March, Brigadier General Smedley D. Butler, a veteran of the Boxer Rebellion, arrived to take overall command of Marines serving in China, which included two battalions of the 4th Regiment and one provisional battalion of Marines from Guam. In early April, Butler’s command was designated 3rd Marine Brigade. Butler gave the 4th Regiment more leeway in accomplishing its mission, specifically ordering them to man perimeter defenses, and prevent any breakthrough by anyone.

Marine Corps reinforcements for service in China began to form in the Philippines, including the 3rd Battalion, 6th Regiment, 1st Battalion, 10th Regiment, and 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment. While this provisional regiment did arrive off shore of Shanghai in mid-April, it was ultimately sent ashore at Tientsin.

The situation in Shanghai improved considerably by May 1927. Military forces were withdrawn from the perimeter and Marines discontinued patrolling within the settlement by the end of that month. Working in unison, American, British, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch forces were able to maintain the integrity of the international settlement. At Tientsin, 2nd Battalion, 4th Regiment was redesignated as the 2nd Battalion, 12th Regiment, the provisional battalion was deactivated, and Marines were either folded into existing units or ordered to other posts and stations at the time.

To be continued