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Late in October 1949, Mao Zedong was on the verge of wiping out his enemy. For months, his Communist troops had been racking up victories against Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, China’s leader since the 1920s, including the capture of Beijing, Nanjing, and Shanghai. Chiang’s Nationalist forces retained firm control of only two pro­vinces—Sichuan in the southwest and Fujian on the southeast coast—and were focused chiefly on the island of Taiwan, which Chiang was fortifying as his last defense.

“As long as we have Taiwan,” Chiang Kai-shek observed to an aide, “the Communists can never win.”

Mao’s People’s Liberation Army made its next target Kinmen Island, which lies in the South China Sea about eight miles off China’s southeastern coast, directly on the route to Taiwan. The Communists estimated there were 12,000 Nationalist troops at Kinmen, but these were the tattered remnants of units that had survived disastrous defeats in central China, along with green recruits from villages in Sichaun and Taiwan—a trifle for Mao’s 13,000 battle-hardened veterans.

Around midnight on October 24, some 9,000 PLA troops began to cram into the wooden junks that would carry them across the sea to what they fully expected to be an easy and glorious triumph. But a battle that was to have marked the beginning of the end for Chiang instead turned into disaster for the Communists. Overconfidence, poor planning, and horrible weather were about to sabotage what Mao had hoped would be his crowning moment.

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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