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The United States Marine Corps had served with distinction in many parts of the world, but those serving in China in the 1930s faced a unique set of challenges. From 1937 to 1941, as relations between the United States and Japan steadily deteriorated, the ‘China Marines’ became the subject of heated debate between the State Department, the diplomatic corps and the military. The disagreements were in part a reflection of the deep divisions that plagued the U.S. government and the nation at large.

In the final years prior to Pearl Harbor, Marines were stationed in several parts of north and central China protecting U.S. interests as they had done since the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. Perhaps the most famous of these isolated detachments of leathernecks, at least in terms of popular imagination and historical association, was the Embassy Guard Detachment at Peking.

In addition to that assignment, after the departure of the Army’s 15th Infantry Regiment in early 1938, Marines could be found in Tientsin, about 83 miles or so from the capital and the traditional gateway to Peking. An additional 20 were stationed at Chinwangtao, a major port 140 miles northwest of Tientsin where much of the China Marines’ support arrived from the States.

The largest detachment was the 4th Marine Regiment, which had been stationed in Shanghai since 1927. Its assignment was to safeguard American lives, property and commerce, not only in the great city, but in the Yangtze River valley as well.

First called to the area when China was overrun by warlords, by the 1930s the Marines were still performing the same mission as Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang — fighting warlords and Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung in a country that seemed forever beset by chaos. A fervent anti-Communist, Generalissimo Chiang seemed so obsessed at times with destroying Mao that he ignored an even more ominous threat.

In 1931 ultranationalist officers within the Japanese army hoped to expand the borders of their country’s empire at the expense of China, which they saw as weak and unable to defend itself. They staged an explosion along the Japanese-funded South Manchurian Railway near Mukden and used the incident as a pretext to seize Manchuria from China. Still obsessed with his anti-Communist campaign, Chiang did little to prevent the takeover. Other than delivering a few verbal protests, Western governments were silent, and many people believed that it would not be long before the Japanese continued their expansion.

While it did not noticeably raise the ire of Chiang or the interest of Western leaders, the Japanese seizure of Manchuria outraged ordinary Chinese citizens. An active anti-Japanese resistance movement soon sprang up. The center of that resistance was located in Shanghai. Fighting broke out in 1932 between Japanese troops guarding their settlement in Shanghai and Chinese troops at Chapei, a district of the city just north of the International Settlement.

The International Settlement was a foreign enclave that was home to thousands of diplomats, businessmen and their families. Although technically Chinese soil, it was governed by the multinational Municipal Council. The Shanghai Volunteer Corps had been created to protect the settlement, but real security was provided by the troops sent out by their respective home governments. For the Americans, that meant the 4th Marine Regiment.

When the fighting between the Japanese and Chinese nationalists intensified, the Marines helped maintain a defensive perimeter around the foreign delegations and kept the warring parties from entering until the fighting subsided somewhat.

By 1937, however, the relative calm of the previous five years began to fade. In July the Japanese military accused the Chinese of kidnapping one of their privates in Peking. The charge was patently false, and the missing man was found in a brothel, but the Japanese used the incident to launch a full-scale war against China.

Thousands of Japanese troops poured into northern China, quickly occupying Peking and Tientsin and crushing all opposition. Finally motivated to act, Chiang Kai-shek ordered two of his best divisions to Shanghai to try to stop the Japanese. The Chinese leader knew that the city’s foreign community would guarantee a large international audience once battle was joined.

With heavy fighting in Shanghai’s Chapei district, the commander of the 4th Marines, Colonel Charles F.B. Price, met with American Consul General Clarence Gauss and Maj. Gen. A.P.D. Telfer-Smollett, commander of the British Shanghai Area Force, to discuss the best course of action. Price could consult with officials within the perimeter, but the colonel ultimately took his orders from Admiral Harry E. Yarnell, the commander of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. The admiral told Price in no uncertain terms that armed troops from either side would not be allowed into the American sector of the International Settlement and that if any foreign troops tried to breach the perimeter, the Marines were authorized to use force if need be.

The Chinese fought courageously, but they were finally forced to withdraw from Shanghai in mid-November 1937. The International Settlement and neighboring French Concession became small isolated enclaves of Western governance. Despite Japanese control of the city, the Anglo-American portions of the settlement were inviolate — at least for the moment. Protected by its neutrality, the Chinese government was free to operate within the confines of the settlement — a fact that made the Japanese grind their teeth in frustration. Chinese customs, post, radio and telegraph offices and Chinese banks all conducted business safe from Japanese interference. Patriotic Chinese newspapers within the settlement were free to report the war and publicize the plight of ordinary Chinese by exposing Japanese atrocities, which occurred with frightening regularity. Such reports only served to secure increased public support in the West for Chiang and his forces.

Anxious to continue their war of conquest without raising the ire of the international community, the Japanese wanted to seize control of the nettlesome Anglo-American settlement. They knew that any overt aggression might lead to war, so they instead relied on a series of confrontational moves that increased tensions and made life for the foreigners increasingly uncomfortable. On December 12, 1937, Japanese planes attacked and sank the gunboat USS Panay, killing two sailors and wounding many others. Americans were outraged, but strong isolationist sentiments coupled with a quick Japanese apology and generous reparation payments averted armed conflict.

Another crisis had passed, but the basic problem remained: How should the United States respond to Japan’s brutal conquest of China? In 1935 Congress had passed a series of neutrality acts that rigidly controlled American trade with belligerents in foreign wars. Many isolationist politicians in Congress believed that only strict neutrality would keep the United States from finding itself in another war.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt was sympathetic to China, and he got around the neutrality laws by simply ignoring them. He refused to acknowledge that a state of war existed between China and the Japanese empire. It was a legal fiction helped by the fact that no formal declaration of war had ever been made by either side. Roosevelt was therefore free to send arms to China — some $9 million worth in 1938 alone. This was a boon not only to Chiang, but to the American economy as well.

Even within his own administration there were diverse opinions of the president’s actions. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau believed that U.S. interests in China must be protected by a military and economic buildup. He thought that, like the proverbial schoolyard bully, Japan would back down when faced with firmness and resolve. Others were not so sure. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and U.S. Ambassador to Japan Joseph Grew believed a hard line would only weaken the position of Japanese moderates and would ultimately lead to war.

While the debate continued, the Marines in Shanghai were forced to carry on in an increasingly difficult situation. Since they could not openly seize the International Settlement, the Japanese military kept up the pressure on the remaining foreign delegations through intimidation and veiled threats. In December 1937, they announced that they were going to stage a victory parade though the International Settlement. The Municipal Council protested but, with no real support available from the Chinese government, had no choice but to permit the intrusion.

Chinese citizens within the settlement were told to stay off the street, and the municipal police were placed on full alert. As the Japanese parade tramped into the international area, a Chinese man tossed a hand grenade that killed three soldiers and wounded three policemen. A Chinese constable shot and killed the attacker, but the Japanese used the killings as an excuse to search for more ‘assassins’ within the International Settlement. After creating a good deal of unease with these searches, Japanese authorities announced that they wanted to take control of the settlement to restore order. At this Colonel Price protested and warned the Japanese off in no uncertain terms.

As before, the immediate crisis passed but tension in the city increased as everyone prepared for the next emergency. By 1940, with Europe again at war, the situation for the Marines in Shanghai had become even more precarious. The garrison was about 1,000 men. In the past, this force could have been supplemented with reinforcements from the other delegations in an emergency, but the international situation now meant this was no longer the case. There were 750 Italian troops, but their Fascist government’s warm relations with Imperial Japan made any cooperation with American interests unlikely. The French had about 4,000 troops; that force, however, was unreliable following the defeat of France and the establishment of a pro-German Vichy government. That left the British, but after a string of defeats in Europe, all but a small portion of that force was withdrawn from Shanghai on August 26, 1940. If tempers flared, a mere 1,000 Marines now found themselves defending the settlement from the nearly half million Japanese troops operating in the region.

In 1939 Admiral Thomas C. Hart took over the U.S. Asiatic Fleet from Admiral Yarnell. Uneasy about the vulnerability of his badly outnumbered forces, he slowly began withdrawing American naval units from Chinese waters. Eventually all that remained of the once powerful Asiatic Fleet was a handful of gunboats belonging to the Yangtze River Patrol (YANGPAT). Meanwhile, as the Chinese and Japanese carried out their own brutal guerrilla war against one another in the side streets and back alleys of Shanghai, the Marines found themselves acting as a local police force.

On January 3, 1940, Price was replaced by Colonel DeWitt Peck. The new commander was quickly immersed in a bewildering array of military, diplomatic and security problems that would have taxed the ingenuity of King Solomon and the patience of Job. Peck did have a friend and ally in Rear Adm. William A. Glassford, YANGPAT’s commander.

On July 7, 1940, the third anniversary of the incident that started the Sino-Japanese war, the foreign delegations in the settlement were put on full alert. It was feared that the Chinese might use the anniversary to demonstrate or even stage a guerrilla-style attack on local Japanese authorities. Those fears were heightened when it was announced that Japanese General Juzo Nishio would be coming to the settlement on an inspection tour. As part of the visit, members of the council proposed that a reception for the general be held in the Cathay Hotel.

Nishio, however, said he would prefer that the reception be held in some other venue outside the perimeter of the British portion of the settlement, where the hotel was located. The Municipal Council bowed to his wishes and the reception was moved to the Park Hotel, which was squarely within the 4th Marines’ defensive sector. That placed security during this very tense situation in the lap of Colonel Peck and his Marines.

On the day of Nishio’s scheduled arrival, Peck received an urgent call from the settlement’s municipal police asking for immediate assistance. He sent Lt. Col. Eugene F. Collier and 25 Marines from the 1st Battalion to Bubbling Well Road. They arrived to find 16 Japanese men loitering in the area, which was not far from the Park Hotel. Not only were they acting suspiciously, all seemed to be armed, their guns badly concealed under bulging coats.

These men were probably Japanese military and it was clear that the situation called for the utmost tact. Any major confrontation might well have international repercussions. The Marines feigned disinterest at first, lulling the suspects into a false sense of security. Then, at a prearranged signal, the leathernecks pounced on their unsuspecting quarry, and all hell broke loose.

The loitering Japanese were finally subdued, but most remained uncooperative and had to be bodily thrown into a waiting truck for transport to the Marines’ headquarters on Haiphong Road. One of the prisoners spoke excellent English and finally admitted they were with the military police. He claimed they were an advance party detailed to protect the Japanese general.

Legitimate or not, this was a clear violation of the established rules within the International Settlement. When the commander of troops from one nation wanted to enter or cross the sector patrolled by troops from another, permission had to be asked and at least 24 hours’ notice given. A phone call was placed to General Saburo Miura’s headquarters. If Miura, the commander of Japanese military police forces, or his representatives could identify the prisoners, they would be released. If not, they would be charged and put on trial for carrying concealed weapons without a permit.

While things were being sorted out, the Japanese were held in a building that housed an indoor rifle range. The door was guarded by a single Marine. Seeing an opportunity, the prisoners rose as one and started for the door. ‘We are officers of the Japanese Emperor,’ the English speaker declared with as much authority as he could muster, ‘and you dare not detain us!’

The Marine instantly grasped the seriousness of the situation. He could not allow them to escape, but he was not in a position to use deadly force. Instead, he laid aside his rifle — making sure it was out of reach of the prisoners — raised his fists and prepared to stop them. In the wild free-for-all that followed, four of the would-be escapees were knocked down. Three of the four lost some of their front teeth and much of their courage. Although he had been badly outnumbered, the Marine had stopped the attempted escape.

In the meantime, General Miura had arrived at Marine headquarters for a hurried conference with Colonel Peck. The Japanese officer apologized for the incident, and for not notifying the colonel that his men were going to enter the International Settlement undercover. Peck accepted Miura’s apology — or seemed to — and the prisoners were released.

The arrest of the 16 men had uncovered a larger, more sinister plot. While the Marines had been busy dealing with the lurking Japanese military police, seven Chinese men who were also hanging around in the area had tried to avoid observation by other Marines providing security. Alerted by the strange behavior of the seven men, several of Peck’s men gave chase. In an effort to shake off their pursuers, they ducked into a large YMCA building next door to the Park Hotel.

The Marines managed to arrest three of the seven, and took them back to headquarters for interrogation. They were Chinese criminals who hailed from Formosa (now Taiwan), which at that time was a Japanese colony. The Chinese had been captured with revolvers and hand grenades, and they quickly confessed that they had been working with Miura to carry out an assassination of Nishio when he arrived at the Park Hotel. Further questioning revealed that the 16 Japanese agents arrested earlier were to be on hand to assist the Chinese assassins by firing weapons into the air and creating sufficient confusion for the attack to be carried out. If Nishio had been killed or wounded, there was little doubt that the Japanese would have used the incident as a pretext for moving troops into the Anglo-American sectors of the settlement.

It may seem incredible that a Japanese general would have hatched a plot to assassinate a brother officer. But such was the state of affairs in China at that point, and so anxious were the Japanese to shut down the settlement, that such a plot is not completely beyond belief. The difficulty was further compounded because Miura was deeply involved in a variety of criminal activities in the western suburbs of Shanghai that were known as the ‘badlands.’ Bounded by Yu Yuen, Jessfield and Great Western streets, the area had become a notorious center of Japanese-controlled vice. Opium dens, brothels and gambling halls provided a steady stream of kickback income to Miura and a small group of Japanese officers.

What could have been an incredibly disastrous incident had been narrowly averted thanks to a little bit of luck and the vigilance of a handful of Marines. But the situation was still serious — serious enough to prompt the United States to send all Navy and Marine dependents home in December 1940.

In May 1941, Colonel Peck was replaced by Colonel Samuel Howard, who soon came to the conclusion that his Marines — indeed, all remaining American military forces — should be withdrawn from China. Faced with similar challenges of maintaining a minuscule force in the midst of an increasingly hostile situation, Glassford, still in command of YANGPAT, agreed.

The officers brought their concerns to the U.S. consul general in Shanghai, Frank B. Lockhart, who relayed a message to Secretary of State Hull on August 14, 1941. Lockhart began by saying that Admiral Glassford and Colonel Howard had sent a recommendation to the Asiatic Fleet commander, Admiral Hart, that all Marines be withdrawn from China. The consul general went on to say that he concurred with their conclusions without reservation. Not only was the military situation untenable, but Lockhart considered the situation politically untenable now as well.

The consul general explained that the Marines’ functions ‘are now becoming more and more those of a police force, thus increasing the possibility of serious incidents.’ If there was an open break with the Japanese government, the Marines would find it difficult if not impossible to withdraw: ‘Their presence apparently has not been a deterrent to the Japanese in implementing their economic policies in this area. Also the strength of the force would be wholly inadequate in the case of military operations directed against them by an organized force.’

The U.S. ambassador to China, however, wanted the Marines to stay. Clarence Gauss responded to Lockhart’s observations two days later by stating, ‘I do not believe the Marines should be withdrawn from China unless and until it becomes evident to the American Government that relations with Japan have deteriorated to a point where a rupture appears inevitable, when, if the Marines are withdrawn, facilities should also immediately be afforded for the withdrawal of American [citizens] who do not elect to remain on their own responsibility.’

Gauss complimented the Marines as ‘one of the most important factors in insuring the safety of our nationals during past years.’ This was true enough, but Gauss was in Chiang’s capital at Chungking, roughly 1,000 miles from the Japanese-dominated area around Shanghai and had little true idea of the day-to-day challenges faced by the isolated leathernecks.

The debate on the future of the China Marines was being played out in the shadow of much larger international events. In September 1940, Japan had forced the Vichy government in France to allow their troops to occupy northern Indochina and had also signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy. Earlier that same year, Yosuke Matsuoka had become Japanese foreign minister and General Hideki Tojo Japan’s minister of war. The appointment of these two known hard-liners doomed the hopes of moderates within the Japanese government to avert further confrontations with the United States.

On July 24, 1941, about three weeks before Gauss’ response to Lockhart, the Japanese moved their troops into southern Indochina. In response, Roosevelt imposed a heavy trade embargo on Japan. Ninety percent of the emperor’s oil supply was taken away by the president’s action. He hoped that such a drastic step would force the Japanese to withdraw from Indochina as well as slow their expansion in China.

As the world watched and waited anxiously to see what would happen following Roosevelt’s embargo, the debate over the fate of the China Marines continued. Four days after Gauss’ note, the assistant chief of the Division of Far Eastern Affairs in the State Department, a Mr. Adams, wrote in support of Gauss. Discounting the reservations of the military officers on the scene, Adams said Gauss ‘knows his China better than any of the four officers mentioned above.’ Admiral Hart fired back, in the third person: ‘The Commander in Chief favors the withdrawal of all our armed forces.’ That meant all Marines and the few U.S. gunboats still operating in China. In Hart’s mind, ‘in the event of war with Japan they would be quickly contained or destroyed, probably without being able to inflict even a comparable loss on the enemy.’

The State Department finally came around to Hart’s views — but it was an eleventh hour decision that was carried off in the very nick of time. The U.S. Yangtze Patrol, namely USS Oahu and Luzon, left China in late November. The gunboat USS Wake remained behind in Shanghai as a communications station ship for the American consulate. USS Tutulia was upriver, marooned in Chungking, so it was not included in the withdrawal order. USS Mindanao, the flagship — indeed the only ship — in the grandly named ‘South China Patrol,’ was included in the evacuation.

The 4th Marines left Shanghai in stages. The 2nd Battalion, half the headquarters and service company, and half the regimental hospital boarded the liner President Madison on a cold and rainy November 27, 1941. Colonel Howard and the rest of the regiment, including the 1st Battalion and the band, left the next day.

November 28 was a cloudy day, though the sun made a belated appearance. Colonel Howard and his staff led the way, marching on foot with the rest of his command. The 50-piece band was next, smartly playing the ‘Marines’ Hymn’ and ‘Semper Fidelis,’ followed by the rifle companies in heavy marching order shouldering Model 1903 Springfield rifles. Thousands of Chinese lined Nanking Road and the Bund waterfront, many pressing gifts into the hands of departing leathernecks and waving Chinese and American flags in farewell. A chapter of U.S. and Marine Corps history was coming to a close.

The last of the 4th Marines boarded President Harrison for the long voyage to the Philippines. They managed to reach the islands safely, and fought alongside U.S. Army and Filipino units during the epic siege of Bataan and Corregidor. They courageously endured six months of hunger, wounds and hardship before the last of the U.S. forces surrendered in May 1942. Thereafter, one kind of hell was traded for another, when the 4th Marines endured 312 years of torment as POWs.

The departure of the 4th Marines still left 203 leathernecks at the U.S. Embassy in northern China. They were due to leave on December 10, 1941, but the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor altered their travel plans. There was a brief hope — a vain one, as it turned out — that a so-called ‘Boxer Protocol’ would give a measure of diplomatic immunity to Marine guards serving with the American Embassy.

Captain John White, the executive officer of the Marines at Tientsin, got an urgent radio message on Monday morning, December 8, that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. White immediately relayed the news to the Tientsin detachment commander, Major Luther Brown. The Japanese soon demanded that the detachments at Tientsin and Chinwangtao surrender by 1 p.m. that same day.

Major Brown phoned Colonel William A. Ashurst of the Peking Embassy Guard for instructions and was told to surrender. It was a bitter pill to swallow — it is a tradition for Marines to never surrender without a fight — but Ashurst believed his unit could do little else. Brown, devastated and choked with emotion, reluctantly complied. At Chinwangtao, 2nd Lt. Richard Huizenga sent a message that his machine guns were ready and that his 21 men ‘had a chance to stand them off,’ and, ‘Request instructions.’ Orders were orders, however, and Brown told Huizenga to lay down his arms.

The final chapter was a sad one. Ashurst and the rest of the Embassy Guard were soon made prisoners of war, and at Tientsin Sergeant Robert A. Smith’s eyes began to tear as the Stars and Stripes came down to be replaced by the Rising Sun flag of Japan. When the ceremony concluded and the Marines prepared to enter captivity, Smith turned to a nearby comrade and pointed to the circle in the center of the flag’s white field. ‘Look at what’s there now,’ said Smith, ‘a flaming red asshole.’

An era had ended. Why were the Marines allowed to stay so long? Their position was militarily untenable by the summer of 1940, when the British withdrew all their own forces. Some might argue it was hopeless to leave troops there even before that date. But a combination of inertia, isolationism, national pride and the stubborn belief that the Japanese would not risk war had made Washington blind to the situation until it was almost too late. Sixty years on, the issues and underlying causes can be debated, but there is no question that the China Marines performed an impossible mission with the Corps’ customary courage and dedication to duty.


This article was written by Eric Niderost and originally appeared in the November 2005 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!