Marines in China 1945-49 – Operation Beleaguer

F7F-3N_Tigercats_VMFN-531_Peiping_Dec1945

A Marine Corps Grumman F7F-3N Tigercat at Peking’s Nan Yuan Airfield in December 1945.

When World War II came to its abrupt atomic end in the summer of 1945, few paid much attention to Mao Tse-tung and his Chinese Communists. They seemed, as John Lewis Gaddis has written, “little more than an obscure group of revolutionaries who engaged in long marches, lived in caves, and lectured one another on their own peculiar understanding of Marxist-Leninism.” Even Stalin was inclined to put them down then, calling the Chinese Communists “Margarine Marxists,” substitutes for the real thing. Though Mao’s enclaves occupied considerable territory, mainly in North China, they were disconnected and concentrated mostly in rural areas, lacking significant urban bases. Mao’s armed forces were small, numbering no more than three hundred thousand, many of whom belonged to scattered guerrilla bands. With the surrender of the Japanese, the Communists saw a chance to consolidate many of these enclaves. They also began to push into Manchuria, where, after their August 1945 blitzkrieg, the Soviets were busy stripping factories of heavy machinery and herding off thousands of Japanese prisoners to work in Siberia as slave laborers. At this point, curiously, the Soviets had friendlier dealings with Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government than with Mao’s Communists. No one yet contemplated a Far Eastern Iron Curtain.

But even as the Communists were racing to establish themselves in Manchuria, with its rich deposits of coal and iron, so were the Nationalists. They were at the same time bent on taking over as much of North China as possible, and established themselves in major cities such as Beijing and Tientsin. The Communists resisted their drive north, which (in the words of the French military historian Lionel Max Chassin) “produced clashes … and, as the situation became more confused, each side accused the other of provoking civil war.” Meanwhile, that fall Chiang asked for American help, ostensibly to aid in the disarming and repatriation of Japanese troops, who numbered upward of two million men. By the middle of October 1945, in an operation largely forgotten today, 53,000 U.S. Marines had landed in China. Though the Americans were eager to accommodate their wartime ally, the poor fighting qualities of Nationalist troops and the entrenched corruption of the government dismayed them. The U.S. was determined to persuade Chiang to include the Communists in a ruling coalition. But strict neutrality was out of the question. The presence of American troops blocked the Communist advance and furthered Chiang’s grand Manchurian design. With the help of the U.S. Tenth Air Force, he was able to airlift three entire armies north. The Communists responded angrily, attacking American troops, who were notably reluctant to become involved in combat.

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The first element of III Amphibious Corps (IIIAC) to come in direct contact with the highly explosive internal situation prevailing in North China was the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. On 1 October, 1/7, reinforced, under Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley, sailed from Taku for the all-weather port of Chinwangtao, rail terminal for the shipment of coal from the Tangshan mining area. Former Japanese puppet troops occupying the town were engaged in desultory fighting with Communist regulars and guerrillas who held most of the surrounding countryside. Because, as Gormley reported, “all factions, civilian and military, were anxious to cooperate with our troops,” the Marine commander was able to stop the fighting. He ordered the puppet forces withdrawn from their perimeter defenses and replaced them with his own men. The local Communist commander disclaimed any designs on the area without full American cooperation. The aura of universal trust was short-lived, however, and before the month was out, the Communists were regularly sabotaging rail lines leading into the city and firing on Marine-guarded trains.

Chinwangtao was only one of many spots where the Marines, in pursuing their assigned mission in China, clashed with the Communists. While open warfare was avoided by both sides, the area of intermittent conflict spread as IIIAC expanded its hold on key cities and vital routes of communication. The first Marine casualties were incurred in a fire fight on the Tientsin-Peiping road.

On 5 October, reconnaissance parties proceeding from Tientsin to Peiping found 36 unguarded roadblocks scattered along the route; jeeps were the only vehicles that could get through. The following day a detail of engineers, guarded by a rifle platoon, was sent out to clear the road. About 22 miles northwest of Tientsin, the engineer group was fired on by an estimated 40-50 Chinese troops, later identified as Communists, and forced to withdraw. Three Marines were wounded. On 7 October, the engineers went out again, this time with a rifle company of the 1st Marines, a platoon of tanks, and carrier air cover, and the road was cleared without incident. A convoy of 95 vehicles of the 5th Marines reached Peiping to join men of the regiment who arrived by rail. Regular road patrols were established to insure that the Tientsin-Peiping road stayed open.

The harassing tactics of the communist Eighth Route Army and its affiliated partisans were all too familiar to the Japanese troops who had guarded the areas being taken over by the Marines were was strong evidence to indicate that the Japanese had a great deal of respect, even fear, of the Communists, and that they were quite willing to get free of incessant forays, ambushes, and sabotage. General Rockey, acting for the Chinese Central Government, accepted the surrender of the 50,000 Japanese troops in the Tientsin-Tangku-Chinwangtao area at Tientsin on 6 October. Four days later, the Japanese forces in the Peiping area, an additional 50,000 men, surrendered to the Eleventh War Area commander, General Lien Chung Sun, Chiang Kai-shek’s personal representative in North China. Most of the Japanese were concentrated in centrally located bivouac and barrack areas to await repatriation, but those who held outlying posts were given orders to remain on guard duty until relieved by recognized Central Government forces or U. S. Marines.

Many of the puppet troops transferred their allegiance to Chiang Kai-shek after the defeat of Japan, and most units were accepted and given official status. Other formations remained unrecognized or went over to the Communists. In addition, the Chiang-appointed mayors of Tientsin and Peiping organized their own armed supporters to back up their powers. It was a chaotic situation and one that pointed up the need for stability, which was provided by the potential strength of the Marines.

By 30 October, all major 1st Division units were ashore and established in their initial areas of responsibility. The Peiping Group, headed by General Jones and built around the 5th Marines (less 1/5) reinforced by 2/11, was established in the Legation Quarter of the ancient capital, with a rifle company at each of the city’s two airfields. The 1st and 11th Marines controlled Tientsin, its airfield, and its approaches. The Taku-Tangku area was garrisoned by 1/5, and the 1st and 3d Battalions of the 7th Marines held strongpoints along the Tangku-Chinwangtao railroad. Corps troops were stationed mainly in Tientsin, with necessary supporting detachments in the field with division units.

Headquarters of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing, under Major General Claude E. Larkin, was set up on 6 October at the French Arsenal near the airfield east of Tientsin. Headquarters and service squadrons of the wing and its air groups (MAGs) arrived in China with their equipment throughout the month, and flight echelons staged into their assigned fields at Tsingtao, Peiping, and Tientsin as facilities were readied for them. A destructive typhoon which raged over Okinawa from 9-11 October damaged much of the heavy equipment of wing units stopping there en route and materially hampered Marine air operations in North China during the remainder of the year.

The first extensive use of the airfields under Marine control was made by the Chinese Central Government. The 50,000 men comprising the Ninety-second and Ninety-fourth Chinese Nationalist Armies (CNA) were airlifted to Peiping from Central and South China by the U. S. Fourteenth Air Force between 6-29 October. The Ninety-second CNA remained in the Peiping area while the Ninety-fourth moved to Tientsin, Tangku, Tangshan, and Chinwangtao. One cause of gradually increasing anti-Marine activity on the part of the Communists is found in the IIIAC war diary’s statement that “movement of these armies was facilitated by our forces, in that lines of communication, which made it possible, were kept open by our guards.”

The scope of Marine rail guard activities increased rapidly after the initial deployment of the 1st Division. First, intermediate stations between the principal rail centers were occupied, then outposts were established at strategic points, and, finally, vital coal and supply trains were guarded. Chinese track repair gangs, fair game for the guerrillas, needed protection if the railroad was to be kept operating. The presence of CNA forces may have made the Eighth Route Army more wary, but it did not prevent frequent Communist incursions into areas where destruction of roadbed and bridges would be most damaging. The III Corps’ first month in China revealed the pattern of future months which stretched into years. Set down in the midst of a fratricidal war with ambiguous instructions to abstain from active participation while “cooperating” with Central Government forces, the Marines walked a tightrope to maintain the illusion of friendly neutrality.

Although the enormous task of processing over 630,000 Japanese military and civilian repatriates in North China fell mostly to IIIAC, the process was well started by the end of October and promised to proceed smoothly so long as the Japanese could reach American-controlled areas. However, the disciplined strength and tactical and technical know-how of the Japanese appealed to both sides in the Chinese civil war and hard-pressed local Communist and Nationalist commanders were wont to detain or attempt to recruit their former enemies as allies. This situation revealed itself first at Tsingtao, destination of the 6th Marine Division, and the planned repatriation port of more than half of the Japanese in North China.

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