China Marines: January 1936 – November 1941

In January 1936, Japan walked out of the Second London Conference on naval strength and in November signed a treaty with Nazi Germany. The following month, Chiang’s own military colleagues kidnapped and held him until he agreed to end the civil war against the Communists and fight the Japanese. Ironically, the man who saved him from assassination and negotiated for a common front against the Japanese was his Communist enemy, Chou En-Lai.

At the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking on the balmy summer night of July 7th, 1937, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed, and the Second Sino-Japanese War began. The Chinese Twenty-ninth Army manned positions in Peking against possible Japanese attacks. As a cavalry squad approached the Chinese at the barricades they opened fire. The mounted men were not Japanese but U.S. Marines—the Horse Marines. One Marine was wounded, and the rest ducked into a side street until the mix-up was untangled. That was the only fighting in Peking its self.

After the Japanese marched into Peking on August 8th, Chiang Kai-Shek and Chou En-Lai finally agreed on a united front. The Red Army became the Eighth Route Army of the National Revolutionary Army.

The Japanese fired on American hospitals, churches and schools across China. They sank the gunboat U.S.S. Panay patrolling the Yangtze River, and kill three Americans and seriously wounded 11. President Roosevelt had urged a “quarantine” against aggressors, but Americans still sold shiploads of scrap steel to Japan. The Russians were supplying China with war supplies, planes and pilots.

For the China Marines in that summer of ’37, training was stepped up: conditioning hikes with heavy packs, rifle practice and weapons drill and parades out to the Race Course. On August 12th, when fighting between the Japanese and Chinese approached Shanghai, Colonel Charles F. B. Price sent his two battalions of the 4th Marines to the south bank of Soochow Creek. Lieutenant Colonel William H. Rupertus’ 1st Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel Roswell Winans’ 2nd Battalion sandbagged 58 strongpoints and positioned automatic weapons to provide interlocking fields of fire. Captain Wallace M. Greene Jr.’s E Company was formed into a special ‘riot company’ to deal with disorders and looting. Most of its 90 Marines were organized into four-man ‘fighting teams’—the forerunner of the Marines’ four-man fire teams of World War II.

By the fourteenth, “Bloody Saturday,” the fighting grew intense. Thousands of Chinese refugees crowed across the creek into the Settlement. Chinese bombs, aimed at Japanese ships in the Whangpo River, killed some 500 Chinese. Japanese anti-aircraft fire sprinkled Marine positions. An anti-aircraft shell killed one and wounded 18 aboard U.S.S. Augusta.Two Companies of Marines arrived from Cavite; and the 6th Marines and the headquarters of the 2nd Marine Brigade, commanded by Brigadier General John C. Beaumont, arrived from San Diego. There were now 2,536 Marines in China. Colonel Thomas S. Clarke’s 6th Marines—Lieutenant Colonel Alphonse de Carre’s 1st Battalion and Lieutenant Colonel Cate’s 2nd Battalion—rotated with the 4th marines on the line.

On October 25th, when the Japanese established an amphibious beachhead north of Shanghai, the massive battle reached a climax. The Chinese began an orderly retreat; and by the end of the month the fighting was over. In Mid-February, the 2nd Brigade and 6th Marines left; and once again the 4th Marines were alone on guard in Shanghai.
The Japanese conquered the capital in the infamous ‘rape of Nanking’; and the National government fled to Chungking, far up the Yangtze River. Within the year, the Japanese occupied Hankow and Canton. The Chinese armies were cut off, except for Russian supplies creeping in through Central Asia.

Duty in Shanghai during the emergency proved especially important to two Vermont-reared Marines who in World War II would command the Corps’ first two Raider Battalions. Major Merritt A Edson, veteran of the Coco River patrols in Nicaragua, studied Japanese amphibious tactics at close range. And Captain Evans F. Carlson came back to Shanghai for the third time, specifically to study the Chinese language. He learned a lot more. The American journalist Edgar Snow, whom Carlson had met in China in the 1920s, encountered him to go and observe the Chinese Communist armies in Yenan. Getting permission from Chairman Mao Tse-tung on December 7th, 1937, Carlson was the first foreign military officer to visit the Chinese Communist armies. In Shanghai Province, he hiked with a small detachment 200 miles through bare, treeless mountains in freezing weather. He studied guerrilla warfare and how the Chinese Communist used surprise and feints, stayed constantly in motion and fought only when they felt strong enough to win. He became an ardent devotee of the smart, tough, Spartan guerrillas. Of the Japanese army, he said ‘Its effort to conquer Shansi was about as effective as an attempt to plow the ocean.’ When he returned to Shanghai, Carlson reported what he had learned to the Naval Intelligence and wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, as the President had asked him to, FDR had come to know Carlson when he commanded the Marine Guard at the Little White House at Warm Springs, Georgia.

The skinny six-foot Marine had talked with Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse-Tung in Chinese, slept in a Yenan cave and in 1938 traveled for three months in the remote areas of China and Inner Mongolia where the Communist were fighting the Japanese. After that experience, he tried personally to convince Chiang Kai-shek to send more help to the under-equipped Communist: and he began to make public statements to make public statements warning Americans of war with Japan and trying to rally American support for the hard-pressed Chinese. This intense son of a New England preacher was already widely regarded as a maverick. He returned to the United States, resigned and wrote and made speeches about what he had seen in China. He went back to China as a Civilian in 1940, became convinced war with Japan was imminent and rejoined the Corps in April 1941. Sent to England, he studied the methods of the British Commandos, a mission that helped give birth to the Marine Raiders.

Once World War II began in 1939, the Marines in China were increasingly isolated. By summer of 1940, the British, French, and Italians in Shanghai were no longer effective partners there.

Major Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller had one potentially dangerous brush with the Japanese in Shanghai. In 1933, he had commanded the 50 man Horse Marines in Peking. One night in 1940 back in China, 80 Japanese soldiers invaded Shanghai’s International Settlement and rounded up 200 Chinese. Puller took 22 Marines, hurried to the spot where the Chinese were being held, ordered his men to set up two heavy machine guns and drew his pistol on the Japanese officer. The Japanese left without prisoners.

In January 1940, the United States finally restricted the shipment of war supplies to Japan. In September, after France fell to Hitler, Japan seized northern Indochina; when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Japan took over the rest. The United States froze Japanese assets in the States, embargoed petroleum exports to Japan and November 26 told Japan to get out of China and Indochina. These measures were intended to drain Japan of oil and to halt he conquest of the Asian mainland. In fact, they turned Japan’s aggressiveness southward and led directly to the Attacks on American, British and Dutch holdings in the Pacific—and the raid on Pearl Harbor.

As the Japanese tighten their hold on China and formally joined the Axis Powers, war between Japan and the United States appeared increasingly likely. Thomas C. Hart commander of the American Asiatic Fleet, urged that the 4th Marines be pulled out of China. Finally on November 10th, 1941, orders arrived from Washington to evacuate the regiment. The 1st Battalion sailed for Subic Bay on President Madison on November 27th, and the rest of the regiment rushed to sail the next day aboard President Harrison. The Japanese tried to block the evacuation. But the Marines loaded President Harrison by lighter; and 9 A.M. on the 28th, the remainder of the regiment formed behind its band and marched down Bubbling Well and Nanking roads to the dock on the Bund. A cheering crowd lined the route. A lighter took the Marines downstream to the ships. At 2 P.M., Harrison weighted anchor. It was the end of the pre-war China Marines.


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


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