China Marines: 1920s to early 30s

The Second world wide war boiled up earliest on the far side of the Pacific, Where China, chaotic and crippled, was squeezed between Soviet communism and Japanese imperialism. China became the main stage outside the Caribbean for the Marine Corps; First, in 1920’s when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist fought the warlords and Communist for control of the country, and again in the 1930s when the Japanese invaded China. In 1928, more than 5,000 U.S. Marines (a fourth of the Corps)—and in 1937, 2,536 Marines—were stationed in China.

Marine ship detachments had gone a shore at Hankow and Shanghai in the fall of 1911, and a battalion of 375 men under Major Philip M. Bannon went to Peking. China’s Manchu Dynasty—shaken by foreign invasion against the Boxer Rebellion and destroyed by the Revolution of 1911—finally abdicated on February 12, 1912. The Marine legation guard at Peking was kept at more than 500 men until May, when the situation seemed to quiet down.

During China’s turmoil, Japan moved in on the wounded giant. Japan had already annexed Korea in 1910; and while European powers were massacring each other in World War I, Japan scooped up Germany’s islands in the Central Pacific, grabbed the German economic monopoly in China’s Shantung Province and pressed demands that “effectively envisaged China’s subordination to Japan’s will.” None of the Western powers was prepared to slap down the Japanese. When China bowed to Japan’s Twenty-One Demands in 1915, a new era opened in Asia. Japan was hungry for a mainland empire, and its appetite would not be suppressed until after Hiroshima—30 years later.

Inside China, the nationalist leaders Sun Yat-sen had himself named the “Provisional President of China” in Canton on May 5, 1921. Less than two months later, the Chinese Communist Party was born at Shanghai—with Moscow’s midwifery. But the Peking government and the provincial warlords still dominated most of the vast country. When Sun Yat-sen asked the United States for help and was rejected, he sent a mission headed by Chiang Kai-shek to Moscow.

After Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek made himself commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army. In March 1927, aided by an uprising of Communist-organized workers, he captured the great port city of Shanghai and then seized Nanking.

Leading the right wing of Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang Party, Chiang on April 12th turned on the Shanghai workers organizations and killed some 300 communist and labor leaders. Six days later, he organized his own Nationalist government in Nanking. His armies defeated the Communist-led troops, and soon Chiang controlled a one-party dictatorship.

This was at time of riots, panic, disruption of trade. There was fighting between the northern warlords and the southern revolutionaries, between the Kuomintang and the Communists, and between the left and right wings of the Nationalist movement itself. Anti-foreign disorders spread. Foreign warships gathered at Shanghai.

Into this danger-fraught situation came the Marines. Small Marine detachments had gone to Tungchow, Peking, Tientsin, Chinwangtao, Canton and especially Shanghai from 1920 to 1926. (One Private First Class in the Peking detachment was the future U.S. Senator “Mike” Mansfield) But the major intervention began in early 1927 when the International Settlement at Shanghai, the great trading center between China and the industrial world, was threatened by civil war and anti-imperialist violence.

On February 9, 1927, four companies of 341 Marines from Guam landed at Shanghai; and a few weeks later arrived 1,228 Marines of the 4th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Charles S. “Jumbo” Hill. They stayed aboard ship at the Stand Oil compound five miles below the city.

The 4th was the only Marine regiment on duty continuously between the two world wars. Activated on April 16th, 1914, it had fought in the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. It would stay at Shanghai for the next 15 years without ever firing a shot and become famous as the “China Marines.” Seven of the China-duty members eventually became Commandants of the Corps: Alexander A. Vandegriff ( who commanded the 3rd Battalion in 1927); Clifton B. Cates; Lemuel C. Shepherd Jr.; Randolph McC. Pate; David M. Shoup; Wallace M Greene Jr.; and Robert E. Cushman Jr. China was a nursery for the Marine Corps leadership of World War II.

When the steel-helmeted 4th Marines marched ashore in 1927, their job was not to solve China’s problems but to help the British and the six other foreign powers present to keep the Chinese out of the International Settlement. This area of the city, completely controlled by foreigners, was dotted with white buildings and hotels and clubs for Occidentals only. It was the target of Chinese anti-foreign resentment.

To reinforce the 4th Marines with men and artillery and aviation elements, Brigadier General Smedley Butler arrived on May 2 with most of the 6th Regiment, commanded by Colonel Harold C. Snyder. Butler took charged of all the Marines in China as the 3rd Marine Brigade. When two additional battalions joined it, the 3rd Brigade number 238 officers, 18 warrant officers and 4,179 enlisted men.

Although the crisis had passed by the time Butler got to Shanghai, he placed the Marines on Perimeter defense alongside the British at Soochow Creek that bordered the Settlement and sent machine-gun armed truck patrols through the city.

In June, with Chiang in control at Shanghai, Butler left the 4th Regiment there and took most of the other Marines north to Tientsin, where he had fought 27 years before. From Tientsin, Marine pilots flew jenny’s on regular reconnaissance patrols over Chiang’s army. In a year and a half three Marine fighter squadrons marked up 3,818 sorties.
The U.S. Army already had 1,800 soldiers at Tientsin and along the railroad to Peking.

The Legation Guard in Peking now totaled 516 Marines, including a detachment of 22 men mounted on Mongolian ponies. These “Horse Marines” were trained and equipped like cavalry to protect Americans. In truth, they were used mostly to climax Marine parades with a galloping dash, their sabers flashing.

The Marines, both in Shanghai and up north, were ordered to avoid conflicts with the Chinese. They filled their days with drilling, athletics and parades. The energetic Butler kept his Marines at Tientsin ready to leave instantly for Peking if trouble should start. Trucks with machine guns, ammunition and rations stood by like fire engines to evacuate Americans from Peking.

The day before Christmas, 1927, a tremendous fire broke out in the Stand Oil Plant on the Hai Ho River at Tientsin. A million pounds of candle grease ignited in two huge warehouses. Within minutes, the marines were on the spot. To prevent a massive explosion, formed human chains and passed gasoline tins out of an adjoining warehouse. By mid-afternoon, 2,000 Marines were fighting the flames. It took four days to put the fire out.

On July 25th, 1928, the United States became the first of the powers to sign a tariff treaty with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Nanking. After Chiang became president of China, the 3rd Marine Brigade was withdrawn in January 1929, leaving 500 Marines in Peking and 1,150 of the 4th Regiment at Shanghai.

Life in Shanghai was comfortable and exotic. Chinese ‘roomboys’ and White Russian girlfriends helped do the chores and counteract the boredom—even on a Marines pay of $21 a month. He could buy a steak for 30 cents, Scotch for less than a dollar, beer for two cents a quart. It was very good duty.

In September 1931, the Japanese struck. Their army invaded Manchuria and seized most of China’s iron ore and much of its coal, electrical power and cement. Japan was out to grab land and resources, to erect a buffer state between itself and the Soviet Union and to forestall American economic expansion in Asia. War with flabby, apparently defenseless China seemed a small price to pay for those goals. But the road led elsewhere.

Although the League of Nations objected to Japan’s aggression, no one came to China’s aid; and Japan ignored League’s protest. The United States declined to join any collective effort to stop Japan, which set up in Manchuria the puppet state of Manchukuo. Chiang Kai-shek, unable to contain Japan, re-opened diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union after a five year break. In March 1933, Japan walked out of the League of Nations. It was the first step toward world war.

Anti-Japanese tension mounted in Shanghai. In January 1932, the Japanese army attacked Chinese soldiers in the Chapel district of Shanghai across narrow Soochow Creek from the International Settlement. The fighting spread and the 4th Marines again took to the barricades facing the creek. To help keep the conflict out of the Settlement, they were soon reinforced by 334 Marines from the Philippines; the Marine detachments from the ill-fated Houston, and the U.S. Army’s 31st Infantry. Stray shots fell into the American sector, and Marines were exposed to fire from both warring sides.

The battle ended when Chinese pulled out of Chapei on March 3; and by June, the emergency was officially over. The Marines returned to garrison and shipboard duty, and the 31st Infantry to the Philippines.

But the early 1930s were terrible years in China. Not only did the world-wide Depression wreck its export trade, but drought and famine swept the land. The peasants were milked for taxes to support the vast military establishments, and the countryside was ripe for revolution. In response, Chiange Kai-shek raised a series of military campaigns against the Communists. In October 1934, the Red Army broke through Chiang’s lines and began its historic Long March of 6,000 miles to Shensi Province in China’s far northwest.


SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan


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