IN 1943, 23-YEAR-OLD New Yorker Henry J. Heimlich left medical school to enlist in the U.S. Navy, which sent him to China for the duration of the war. On September 13, 1945, he wrote to his sister Cecilia about the quirks of the remote China-Burma-India Theater, and about an experience that laid the foundation for his future in medicine. This is the first time Heimlich’s letter, which has been edited for length, has been published.
Censorship has been lifted today. I feel I have been cheated out of telling you that I am going to write but there will be more to tell when I get home.
I know that you want to know, first of all, where I am. Before you go on, get a good map of China. I am in the town of Shempa (which probably is not on any map). We are right in the GOBI DESERT, an island of green made possible by irrigation from a branch of the Yellow River.
You next want to know what I am doing here. That’s a long story so I’ll start from scratch. If the publicity has broken then you will have an idea when I say that I am a member of SACO. If not, you can read on and learn.
SACO means Sino-American Cooperative Organization. The heads of this outfit are Rear Admiral Miles and General Tai Lee. It was conceived as follows:
In 1940, the Admiral (then Commander) was sent to China to have some mines tested. It seems the U.S. had some good new mines and no one to test them on. Before Miles left the States, the U.S. Navy, State Department, and Chinese embassy warned — “DON’T GET MIXED UP WITH TAI LEE!” When he stepped off the plane at Chungking he was expected and was greeted by some Chinese solders who hustled him off to a hotel room where he was told he was the guest of the man he would soon meet — you guessed it, Tai Lee (shall call him T. L. from now on).
Who is T. L.? You won’t read this name in the papers or the magazines. If you do it will be a casual mention of “China’s Police Chieftain.” He is said to be “an ex-Yangtze River pirate”, “a gangster”, “THE HIMMLER OF CHINA”, “a man who has his enemies murdered.” Officially he is the Generalissimo’s bodyguard, undisputed leader of China’s secret police (Gestapo), absolute chief of all China’s policemen. The Japs, in order to make ruling the occupied territory easier, kept the police forces intact. Unknown to the Japs they remained subject to T. L. and were a source of Jap movements.
Out of this meeting grew SACO, which was developed after Dec. 7, 1941. T. L., through his police, would furnish intelligence to the Navy and would get them to places in China where they could watch shipping off the coast and notify sub marines, get weather dates of value to our ship movements in the Pacific (most important), set up D. F. (direction finder) to follow Jap ship movements. We, in turn, would supply all equipment and materials, would train and equip Chinese guerrilla fighters in schools, lead the trained guerrillas in sabotage and fighting against the Japs, and give them doctors, medicine and medical care, which Chinese soldiers have never had.
There were several fanciful schemes which (just as well) failed just before they were put into action. For example — there was one group, headed by a doctor (the American doctor being a god to Eastern peoples), which was to parachute into Burma and marry Burmese chieftains’ daughters in order to get them to fight the Japs. The most important failure was a group of specialists in all fields of medicine who were to set up a hospital in occupied territory near the coast. They would treat Chinese civilians and soldiers and would have a well-functioning hospital to treat Americans when there was an invasion. The doctors came over for this but were eventually sent to the various camps. I am in Camp 4, having relieved Dr. Goodwin, one of the original group. Every camp (there are 12) was in or near Jap occupied territory. One could see the lights of Shanghai; one was on the coast, another on the Yangtze. Despite the supposed hazards, all camps were well guarded by a ring of guerrillas who knew that if an American got hurt they would be shot. Unusually enough, because of this, casualties were negligible — two men climbed on a wrecked army plane for curiosity and a bomb exploded & killed them; one man had nothing to do one day and wandered into a harbor and was shot in the leg by a Jap patrol and captured.
I’ll interrupt my story to tell why I didn’t write yesterday. Not that it is more interesting than other medical experiences I have had here, it sort of typifies my work.
Yesterday morning at 9 AM an interpreter came to tell me his wife was ready to deliver. I was led into the patient’s room and stopped short. It was a small room, about 12×15 feet, half of it occupied by a mud “kang”. A kang is the Chinese bed in these parts. Most often it has a hollow area through it connecting with a fireplace of mud, and in that way we sleep on warm beds in winter.
In the farthest corner of the kang, the patient was on her knees & elbows with her head down, in terrific pain. One old woman straddled her hips and with her arms around her abdomen was squeezing with all her might. Another was holding her shoulders down and a third was holding her in that position. I got up on the kang to take over and to make them stop tugging, and just as I got up her husband yelled, “The baby’s here” (he insisted on staying in the room). I just pulled the women off her then — sure enough the baby had bounced on the kang in all the dirt and all. I was able to deliver the placenta my way, then tied the baby’s cord. I stayed for “dinner” of millet congee and horrible chopped chicken and eggs with chopped whole garlic.
To get on with my story — Camp 4 was in the outskirts of town surrounded by a high mud wall. We consist of a weather station, radio station and training school. There are about 100 officers and 24 men. We have a D. F. apparatus, which has turned in good information on ship movements (Japanese) & Jap fleet movements on the coast 600 miles away. We had 250 Chinese student soldiers (guerrillas) who were trained in all forms of demolition and close fighting. We armed them with marlins and carbines.
My work was to treat all the American & Chinese in camp officially. Unofficially, there was a lot of antagonism between General Fu, an independent warlord, and our General Chao, a T. L. man thereby representing the central government. Fu had his own forces at the “front” working with ours and we depended on him for many things here in camp. He was very generous in the usual underhanded Chinese way, and the only way we could repay him & keep him working with us was for me to treat his staff and high official friends of his. Out of this group I actually drew most of my interesting and seriously ill patients. I’ve been wined and dined by many people and have received some unusual gifts. All in all I’ve had an interesting and pleasurable time.
Out latest orders are to head for Peiping [Beijing]. There are a few complicating facts which prevent our leaving right away but we hope for final orders any day. As I have already given you a big enough pill to swallow in this letter I’ll say no more.
After the war, Heimlich became a thoracic surgeon. In 1974 he developed an anti-choking procedure that would come to be known as the Heimlich Maneuver. Now 93, he has retired from full-time medical practice and lives in Ohio.
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.