Operation Beleaguer

China Marines — the Final Chapter

EGA BlackDuring World War II, China was a battlefield with three opposing armies: Nationalists, Communists, and Imperial Japanese.  When World War II ended in 1945, more than 650,000 Japanese and Korean military personnel and civilians were still in China and in need of repatriation.  There is an interesting prequel to this event.

In 1912, Imperial China was overthrown and replaced by a Republic under President Sun Yat-sen.  The Republic had a short lifespan, however.  General Yuan Shi-Kai (commanding the New Army) forced Sun from office and proceeded to abolish national and provincial assemblies.  In late 1915, Yuan declared himself Emperor. This too was a short-lived government. Overwhelming opposition to imperial rule forced Yuan from office in March 1918.  He died a few months later.

Yuan’s abdication created a power vacuum in China —one almost immediately filled with local or regional warlords.  Whatever China’s skeptics thought of government in 1918, negative popular opinion grew steadily worse over time.  A nation-wide protest movement among anti-Imperialists in 1919 developed out of the government’s weak response to the Treaty of Versailles, which ceded Chinese territory to Japan —the consequence of which made China a victim of Japan’s expansionist policies— aided and abetted by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  These protests sparked a sudden upsurge in Chinese nationalism, the creation of populism, and a move toward radical socialism.  It was the birth of China’s “new culture movement.”

Repudiating western political philosophy, the Chinese became even more radicalized, inspired as they were by the Russian Revolution and the tireless efforts of Russian agents living in China at the time.  The result of this was the growth of irreconcilable differences between the political left and right —a condition that dominated Chinese political history for most of the rest of the twentieth century.

In the 1920s, former-President Sun Yat-sen established a revolutionary base in south China.  His mission was to unite China’s fragmented society.  Influenced and assisted by the Soviet Union, Sun formed an alliance with the Communist Party of China.  Sun, who passed away in 1925, was eventually replaced by one of his protégés, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang seized control of the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) and having brought most of south and central China under his rule, then launched a military campaign called the Northern Expedition.  It was Chiang’s intent to secure the allegiance of northern warlords.  In 1927, Chiang turned his attention to the Communist Party, pursuing them relentlessly in a campaign history recalls as the “White Terror.”  In addition to killing off as many communists as possible, he also rounded up political dissidents  —killing as many of them as he could find.

Communist leader Mao Zedong led his followers into northwest China, where the established guerrilla bases in Yan’an.  A bitter struggle between Chiang and Mao even continued through the 14-year long Japanese occupation of China (1931-1945).

During this period, Chiang and Mao nominally formed a united front to oppose the Japanese, the so-called Second Sino-Japanese War, which became part of World War II.  In reality, Mao made every effort to avoid contact with the Japanese during World War II —even despite the fact that he was regularly receiving US-made military equipment.

At the conclusion of World War II, Chiang and Mao wanted nothing to do with repatriating Japanese soldiers to their homeland.  US President Harry S. Truman therefore ordered the Navy and Marine Corps into China.  Their assigned mission was to (1) accept the surrender of Japanese forces, (2) arrange and affect their shipment back to Japan (or Korea), and (3) assist Chinese Nationalists in reasserting their control over areas previously occupied by Imperial Japan.  After four years of a bloody Pacific War, US Marines were handed another combat assignment.

K E ROCKEY 001
LtGen K. E. Rockey USMC

In China, 1945-49

The US 7th Fleet and III Amphibious Corps (III AC) were assigned to duty in China.  By presidential order, Marines were prohibited from taking sides during the Chinese civil war.  They were, however, authorized to defend themselves against any hostile assault. Major General Keller E. Rockey [1] commanded III AC.  He answered to the China Theater commander, Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer [2], U. S. Army.

In Hopeh Province

The 1st Marine Division occupied positions in the vicinity of Tang-Ku, Tientsin, Peking, and Chinwangtao; the 6th Marine Division was assigned to Tsingtao.  The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing established air base operations at Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Peking.  General Rockey was assigned to command the Shanghai Corps region as an additional duty. III AC began its relocation to China on 15 September 1945.  The 3rd Marine Division at Guam and the 4th Marine Division in Hawaii were designated as area reserve forces.  The operation was designated BELEAGUER.

The Marine’s arrival in China was met by joyful crowds of Chinese civilians.  Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, then serving as the Assistant Division Commander, 1stMarDiv immediately met with port officials in Tang-Ku to make arrangements for the surrender of the Japanese garrison.  Scenes of elated Chinese, anxious for liberation from Japanese control, was repeated wherever the Marines came ashore.

On 1 October 1945, Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley at Chinwangtao was faced with desultory fighting between Chinese Communist (Chicom) and Japanese Imperial troops, who had yet to be disarmed.  Gormley, commanding the 1stBattalion, 7thMarines (1/7) ordered the Japanese troops with withdraw from the town to a bivouac he designated and then detailed his Marines to establish a buffer-zone on the outskirts of the city.  Initially, the Chicom seemed satisfied, but cooperation between the Marines and Chicom didn’t last very long.  Before the end of October, Chicom elements began sabotaging railroads leading into Chinwangtao and ambushing American held trains.  Eventually, Chinwangtao became a major center for communist resistance to American peace-keeping operations.

Japanese Imperial soldiers had also had their fill of war.  They were ready to return home, so most Japanese military personnel surrendered to the US Marines within days of their arrival in China.  On 6 October, General Rockey accepted the surrender of 50,000 Japanese at Tientsin. An additional 50,000 Japanese surrendered to General Lien Ching Sun, Chiang’s personal representative, four days later.  The Marines assigned all surrendering Japanese to bivouac or barracks near the seacoast.  Because the number of American personnel was insufficient to the task assigned to them, some Japanese Imperial troops were re-armed and utilized as area guards until they could be replaced by Chiang’s Nationalist forces.

Trouble began on 5 October when a Marine reconnaissance patrol traveling along the Tientsin-Peking road found 36 unguarded roadblocks.  An engineer section and a rifle platoon were called up to dismantle the obstructions and restore the highway to usefulness.  The next day, at a point about 22-miles northwest of Tientsin, these 35-40 Marines were attacked by an estimated 50-60 Chicom soldiers.  A brief firefight forced the Marines to withdraw with their wounded.  Another detachment of Engineers was sent back the next day to complete the removal of roadblocks —this time accompanied by an infantry company reinforced by tanks and on-station air support.  The road was reopened and, from that point on, Marines were detailed to provide a regular motorized patrol of the vital roadway.

In Peking, the 5th Marines who established themselves in the old Legation Quarter, co-located Brigadier General Jones’ advance command post.  A rifle company was placed at each end of the Peking airport.  The 1st Marines and 11th Marines under overall command of Colonel Arthur T. Mason set in at the Tientsin airfield.  The Taku-Tang-Ku area was garrisoned by 1/5.  Battalions 1/7 and 3/7 (with necessary attachments) were assigned to protect the Tang-Ku-Chinwangtao railroad.

C A LARKIN 001
Maj Gen C. E. Larkin USMC

1stMAW units under Major General Claude E. Larkin established control over the Tientsin airfield.  Flight echelons were assigned to airfields at Tsingtao, Peiping, and Tientsin.  However, due to adverse weather conditions in Japan, Marine air operations were initially limited between 9-11 October 1945. The first extensive use of airfields under American control was made by Chinese Nationalist forces.  Between 6-29 October, fifty-thousand Chinese Nationalist forces were airlifted to Peking from central and southern China by the 14th Army-Air Force.

The Chicom 8th Route Army observed these movements with interest. Communist raids and ambushes against the Marines soon became a regular occurrence.  President Truman had set the Marines down in the middle of a fratricidal war with ambiguous instructions to abstain from participating in the civil war, while at the same time “cooperating” with Nationalist Chinese forces.  It was a very thin tightrope, but in time, President Truman made things even worse.

In November 1945, Chiang Kai-shek began preparing for a campaign to take control of Manchuria.  General Wedemeyer, who also served at Chiang’s military advisor, warned him to secure his hold on the vital provinces in northeastern China before entering Manchuria because military operations there would require an overwhelming force. Disregarding this advice, Chiang pulled his Nationalist troops out of Hopeh and Shantung, leaving them unprotected from Chicom guerrillas, who quickly seized control.  Chiang’s operation into Manchuria was the beginning of his end on the mainland.

In Shantung Province

A much larger Communist force controlled most of the countryside and coastal regions in Shantung.  Tsingtao remained a Nationalist stronghold, but they were little more than an island in a Communist sea.  Japanese guards controlled the rail line leading from Tsingtao.  Until Nationalist troops were able to relieve them, there was no hope of rapid repatriation.  Shortly after General Rockey accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in Tientsin, he departed for Chefoo, more or less as an advance party for the 6thMarDiv. General Rockey wanted to investigate conditions at that port city.  Upon arrival, Rockey discovered that Chicom elements had already taken control of the city. Moreover, the Communists were determined not to cooperate with the American Marines.

Prior to General Rockey’s arrival, Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commanding the US 7th Fleet, messaged the Communist commander requesting that he withdraw his men.  The Communist-installed Mayor demanded terms that were unacceptable to Admiral Kinkaid. Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, Commander, VII Amphibious Force, recommended that the landing of 6thMarDiv be postponed.  General Rockey agreed.  The 6thMarDiv came ashore at Tsingtao on 11 October.

6MARDIV 001On that very day, 6thMarDiv’s reconnaissance company preceded the main body and moved through the city’s streets lined with flag-waving citizens to secure the Tsang-Kou airfield, located ten miles outside the city.  On the following day, Marine observation aircraft landed at the airfield.  On 13 October, a Communist emissary arrived in Tsingtao with a letter for the Commanding General, 6th Marine Division —Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd [3].  In this letter, a Chicom official offered to cooperate with the Marines to destroy the remaining Japanese Imperial Army and the rest of the “traitor” (Nationalist) army.  The official expected that in return for his cooperation, the Marines would not oppose his forces.  General Shepherd’s response included a reaffirmation that his Marines were not present to destroy either the Japanese or any Chinese force.  Shepherd also clearly stated that a Communist occupation of Tsingtao was undesirable because the city was peaceful.  Moreover, he would not cooperate with Chicom forces and assured this official that should it become necessary to employ his Marines against anyone, they were capable of coping with any situation.

The 6thMarDiv was fully disembarked by 16 October.  A formal surrender of the 10,000-man Japanese garrison at Tsingtao was affected on 25 October 1945.  Again, despite their surrender, Japanese troops were retained to help defend Tsingtao against Chicom aggression.  Clashes between Chicom and Japanese Imperial troops was a frequent occurrence.  Marine Aircraft Group 32 (MAG-32) commenced regular reconnaissance missions on 26 October. MAG-32 landed at Tsingtao on 21 October, soon joined by MAG 25.  MAG 12 and MAG 24 took possession of the Peking airfield.  Major General Louis A. Woods replaced General Larkin as air wing commander on 31 October.

Combat ensues

On 14 November 1945, Chicom elements attacked a train carrying General Dewitt Peck and a component of the 7th Marines near the village of Ku-Yeh. An intense battle lasted for more than three hours.  Chinese fire from the village was so powerful that the Marines were forced to called in air support.  Unfortunately, since Marine aircraft could not clearly distinguish the enemy’s positions, and because of the risk to civilians, permission to fire was not granted.  In time, the Chicom forces withdrew and as there were no Marine casualties and the train proceeded.

General Peck’s train was ambushed again the next day.  This time, Chicom forces had ripped up 400-yards of the track. Workers sent to repair the line were killed or wounded by land mines.  Since repairs would take longer than two days, General Peck returned to Tangshan and boarded a flight to Chinwangtao.  In the minds of the Marines, what was needed in this area was a strong offensive by Chinese Nationalists.  Commanding the Northeast China Command, General Tu Li-Ming agreed to drive back Chicom forces in order to keep the Marines from becoming involved in the conflict.  In return, General Peck agreed to assign Marines to guard duty at rail bridges between Tang-Ku and Chinwangtao —a distance of 135 miles.  The problem was that the 7th Marines were already under-manned. General Shepherd transferred the 29th Marine Regiment to Tsingtao to serve under the operational control of the 7th Marines.

On 7 July 1946, China’s communist party issued a statement condemning US policy toward China.  Within a short time, Chicom troops launched two minor attacks against the Marines. The first occurred on 13 July when a Chicom unit ambushed Marines who were guarding a bridge fifteen miles outside Peitai-ho.  The Marines were overwhelmed and taken prisoner.  After some negotiation with American officials, these Marines were released unharmed.  Then, on 29 July, a small convoy was ambushed near the village of An-ping by a sizeable well-armed force of uniformed Chicom soldiers.  The ensuing battled lasted approximately four hours.  Marine aircraft were called in to provide support to the beleaguered Marines and a relief force was also dispatched.  The Marine commander intended to encircle the Chicom force, but the reinforcing unit failed to arrive before the Chicom force has withdrawn.  Four Marines were killed, including the platoon/convoy commander, Lieutenant Douglas Cowin, Corporal Gilbert Tate, and PFCs Larry Punch and John Lopez. An additional twelve Marines were wounded in the action.  This was a serious incident and a signal for the Marines that peace in China would be next to impossible to obtain.

Six miles northwest of Tang-Ku, Hsin-ho was the location of a 1stMarDiv ammo depot.  On the night of 3 October 1946, Chicom raiders infiltrated the depot intending to steal munitions.  A sentry from 1/5 discovered the intrusion and opened fire on the infiltrators.  A Marine reaction force responded immediately but was ambushed.  A firefight of some 40 minutes resulted and, once again, the Chicom raiders withdrew before additional reinforcements could arrive.  An investigation conducted immediately after the incident discovered the body of one Chicom raider and revealed that several cases of ammunition had been taken [4].  One Marine was wounded during this engagement.

Another engagement at Hsin-ho occurred on the night of 4-5 April 1947.  A company size Chicom force initiated a well-planned, well-coordinated attack on three isolated ammo-storage areas within the Depot.  A small guard force attempted to defend the depot but was overwhelmed. Within the guard detachment, five Marines were killed, eight more were wounded, and the Chicom force successfully intruded the depot and hauled away a considerable store of ammunition.  Marine reinforcements were delayed by the clever placement of landmines, preventing a rapid deployment of combat/reaction forces. An additional eight Marines of the reaction force received serious wounds.  Nationalist Chinese assumed control of this ammunition storage site at the end of April.  The second engagement at Hsin-ho was the last hostile engagement between Chicom and Marine forces in China.

President Truman’s attempt to reconcile Communist and Nationalist parties, to achieve peace and promote economic recovery, was an utter failure. It was not Truman’s last failure. He would fail again in 1950 —and 38,000 more Americans would die in the Korean War.  Not even the formidable George C. Marshall could save China from herself.  Nevertheless, the “Committee of Three [5]” began a series of meetings on 7 January 1946.  A cease-fire was proclaimed, and yet, for the Marines in China, there was never a time when a guard detachment considered itself “safe” from Chicom ambush or assault.

Only half of the estimated 630,000 Japanese and Koreans in China had been repatriated between March-April 1946.  Chiang Kai-shek demanded the stores of weapons and ammunition that had been taken from the Japanese prisoners, but General Wedemeyer refused Chiang’s request until Nationalist forces had officially assumed control of the repatriation program.  As this work continued, Marines were assigned to guard duty watching over the Japanese and Koreans embarking aboard ships to take them home.  There was one other mission the Marines performed: that of protecting American lives and property in China, which is precisely what the Marines had always done in China.

Even though President Truman had tasked the Marines with a nearly impossible mission, he almost immediately began a general demobilization of the Armed Forces.  Marines serving in China were eligible to return home for discharge under Operation Magic Carpet.  This sudden reduction in force left the China occupation force in a quandary: how to achieve their objectives with far fewer troops.

Truman’s decision and timing placed the Marines in a dangerous situation.  General Wedemeyer was notified on 13 December 1945 that the 6th Marine Division would be deactivated.  Major General Shepherd was ordered back to the United States.  He was relieved by Major General Archie F. Howard [6], who was soon ordered into retirement.  Including grunts and air-wingers, there were not enough Marines left in China to man a regiment: 1/29 was disbanded; the third battalion of each infantry regiment was deactivated along with the last lettered battery of each artillery battalion within the 1stMarDiv.

The Fourth Marine Regiment, the historic backbone of the China Marines would be the only regiment in the Corps left intact with three infantry battalions—it was only a temporary reprieve.  1stMAW deactivated the Headquarters and Service squadrons of MAG-12, which also lost VMFN-541, and VMTB-134.  Control of the south end airfield at Peking was turned-over the US Army Air Force.

On 1 April 1946, the 3rdMarDiv was redesignated as 3rdMarine Brigade.  Of the remaining 25,000 Marines in China, most were young, inexperienced replacements. With their back to the wall, Marine leaders immediately began training them for possible combat.

Control of the Chinese theater was reassigned to the Commander, US 7th Fleet.  While still facing the possibility of hostile acts by Chicom forces, the Marines were ordered to begin their withdrawal from China in the summer of 1946.  The process of organizational shrinkage continued: 3rd Brigade Marines merged with the 4th Marine Regiment.  III Amphibious Corps was deactivated.  Officers and troops were either reassigned in-country or returned to the United States.  1stMarDiv regiments in China became battalions.  Ultimately, the 4th Marine Regiment was ordered back to the United States —its last organization departing on 3 September 1946.  Battalion 3/4 was ordered detached from the 4th Marines and served as a separate battalion under the operational control of the fleet commander.

Within two years, the Nationalist Chinese forces were on the verge of collapse.  Chicom forces were taking control of China in leaps and bounds.  Accordingly, Marine units were continually shifted to avoid being isolated by Chicom military units.  When the Chinese communists captured Nanking, on 24 April 1949, the Chinese Revolution was essentially over.  The last American Marines to leave China departed on 16 Mary 1949.

In total, Marine ground forces lost 13 KIA and 43 WIA in clashes with Chicom forces.  During this same period, Marine Corps Aviation lost 14 aircraft and 22 aircrewmen.

Endnotes:

[1] LtGen Rockey (1888-1970) commanded the 5thMarDiv during the Battle for Iwo Jima.  He is a recipient of the Navy Cross and three Distinguished Crosses.  Prior to his retirement, he served as CG FMFLant and Assistant CMC.  General Rockey retired in 1950.

[2] A staunch anti-Communist.

[3] Twentieth Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps (1 Jan 1952-31 Dec 1955).  Shepherd served in World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. He was a recipient of the Navy Cross, the last World War I veteran to service as Commandant, the first CMC to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and served as Commandant during the Korean War.

[4] During World War II, President Roosevelt’s lend-lease program was extended to both Chinese Nationalists and Chinese Communists in equal measure.  The apparent hope was that both forces would use this equipment against the Japanese in China.  The Communists, however, stored these arms and equipment in caves located in northwest China, intending to use them against the Nationalist forces at the conclusion of the war.  Chicom raiders wanted to steal US caliber ammunition because it was suited their American-provided weapons.  In essence, American Marines were being killed and wounded by US manufactured equipment, provided to a potentially enemy by a President of the United States.

[5] The Committee of three consisted of General Marshall, representing President Truman, General Chang Chung, representing Chiang Kai-shek, and Zhou Enlai, representing the Chairman of the Communist Party, Mao Zedong.  The purpose of the committee was to establish a framework within which good-faith negotiations could proceed to achieve peace in China.  It didn’t work out that way.

[6] Captain Archie F. Howard served in the Polar Bear Expedition to China 1918-1919.