Operation Beleaguer was a major United States military operation led by Major General Keller E. Rockey.
He commanded 50,000 men of the III Marine Amphibious Corps that deployed to northeastern China’s Hopeh (Hebei, 河北) and Shantung (Shandong, 山东) provinces between 1945 and 1949. The main objectives of the operation were the repatriation of more than 600,000 Japanese and Koreans who remained in China after the end of World War II, as well as the protection of American lives and property in the country. Over nearly four years, American forces engaged in several skirmishes with the Communists while the Americans successfully evacuated and repatriated thousands of foreign nationals.
The United States government’s attempt at mediating a peace treaty between the opposing Nationalist and Communist forces was however unsuccessful.
Refer to Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).
During World War II, China was a battlefield with three opposing armies:
- The government, or Nationalist, forces of Chiang Kai-shek;
- The Communists under Mao Zedong; and
- The Japanese.
When Japan surrendered in 1945, over 630,000 Japanese and Korean military personnel and civilians were still in China, and in need of repatriation. Since the Chinese government did not have the resources to repatriate the Japanese and Koreans, President Harry Truman sent over 50,000 United States Marines of the III Amphibious Corps (IIIAC) and the 7th Fleet to northern China with orders to accept the surrender of the Japanese and their Korean former subjects, repatriate them, and help the Nationalists reassert their control over areas previously held by the Japanese. The Marines were not to take sides in the fighting, and were only allowed to engage in combat if fired upon first. Major General Keller E. Rockey, IIIAC, was placed in command of the operation, and Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer was in command of the China Theatre.
IIIAC was preparing for the invasion of Japan when the war ended on 02 September 1945. Within the next forty-eight hours, IIIAC received new orders to ship out to China.
The Hopeh Province occupation force was the first to get underway. Loading of the troopships began on 11 September and was completed on 19 September. Sailing from their base on Guam, the Americans anchored off the bay of China’s Hai River on 30 September. Disembarkation began soon after, and the Americans were greeted by swarms of sampans, whose crews were eager for trade, and crowds of jubilant Chinese on the shore. Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, Assistant Division Commander of the 1st Division, landed at the Tangku docks to meet with local Chinese port officials, make arrangements for the surrender of the Japanese garrison, and to prepare for the dispersal of the Marines across the province. Everything went according to plan: Jones later said that the “Chinese military and civilian authorities were cooperative in the extreme,” and that he and his men had no trouble whatsoever in dealing with the Japanese garrison.
The Americans who went to occupy Tientsin were also greeted by crowds of Chinese who were anxious to be liberated from the Japanese. According to author Henry I. Shaw, Jr., the “streets were packed with Chinese of all classes and European expatriates. Trucks and marching troops literally had to force their way through the happy, flag-waving throngs to reach their assigned billets in the former International Concessions. To many of the men, it seemed that their welcome must have outshone and outshouted ‘any welcome given to troops any time, any place, and anywhere during World War II.'”
The first element of IIIAC to see action in China was the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, although it did not actually participate in the fighting. On 01 October, 1st Battalion, under Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley, sailed from Taku to the port of Chinwangtao. Since “all factions, civilian and military, were anxious to cooperate with [American] troops,” Colonel Gormley was able to stop the fighting by ordering the “puppet troops” to remove themselves from the town’s perimeter defences, and by placing his own men along the frontline. Cooperation between the Americans and the Communists did not last long, however. According to Shaw, the Communists were sabotaging railroads leading into Chinwangtao and ambushing American-held trains by the end of the month. Before long, Chinwangtao would prove to be one of the centres for Communist resistance to the American occupation.
Most of the Japanese military personnel in Hopeh Province surrendered to Allied forces within days of the Americans’ arrival in country. On 06 October, General Rockey accepted the surrender of 50,000 Japanese at Tientsin. Four days later, an additional 50,000 Japanese surrendered to General Lien Ching Sun, Chiang Kai Shek’s personal representative in northern China. Most of the Japanese were concentrated in bivouacs and barracks near the coast; however, due to a shortage of manpower, the Japanese in many of their outlying positions were ordered to remain on guard duty until they could be relieved by Chinese Nationalists or by the Marines.
The first skirmish between American and Communist forces occurred on 06 October 1945, along the Tientsin-Peking road, barely a week after the Marines arrived in China. On the day before, a reconnaissance patrol traveling down the road found thirty-six unguarded roadblocks, which made the road impassable to anything larger than a Jeep. Accordingly, a detail of engineers and a platoon of riflemen was sent to clear the road. At a point about 22 miles (35 km) miles northwest of Tientsin, the engineers were attacked by an estimated forty to fifty Communist soldiers. After a brief firefight, the Americans were forced to retreat with three wounded. On the following day, another detail of engineers was sent out with the same objective as before, but this time they were protected by a company of riflemen, a company of tanks, and carrier-borne aircraft. However, the Communists did not attack, and the Americans were successful in reopening the road to Peking. A large convoy of ninety-five vehicles and several hundred Americans traversed the road without incident shortly thereafter and met up with the American forces who had reached Peking via railroad. A patrol was also established in order to keep the Tientsin-Peking road open.
By 30 October, all major 1st Marine Division units were ashore. The Peking Group, under the command of General Louis R. Jones, and built around the 5th Marine Regiment, set up base in the old Legation Quarter, and placed a rifle company at both of the city’s airfields.
Flight echelons were sent to their assigned airfields at Tsingtao, Peking, and Tientsin, as facilities were readied for them, but American air cover was severely limited during the first few months of the occupation. This was mainly due to Typhoon Louise that ravaged Okinawa between 09 and 11 October 1945. A large portion of the wing’s equipment was stopped in Okinawa while en route to China, and it was damaged by the strong winds. The 50,000 men of the 92nd and 94th Chinese Nationalist Armies (CNA) were airlifted to Peking from central and southern China by the 14th Air Force between 06 and 29 October. The 92nd CNA remained in the Peking area while the 94th CNA moved to Tientsin, Tangku, Tangshan and Chinwangtao.
According to Shaw, the arrival of the CNA in Hopeh may have made the Communists’ 8th Route Army wary, although it did not stop it from raiding and ambushing the Americans, or from sabotaging railroads and bridges. Shaw says that “[t]he III [Amphibious] Corps’ first month in China revealed the pattern of future months which stretched into years. Set down in the midst of a fratricidal war with ambiguous instructions to abstain from active participation while ‘cooperating’ with [Nationalist] forces, the Marines walked a tightrope to maintain the illusion of friendly neutrality.”
In late 1945, Chiang Kai-shek, was preparing for a campaign to take control of Manchuria. In November, General Wedemeyer, the commander of the China Theatre, who also served as a military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek, warned the Nationalist leader to secure his hold on the vital provinces of Northeastern China, before entering Manchuria. However, in order to do this, the Nationalists required an “overwhelmingly superior” force. As result, Nationalist troops who had been stationed in Hopeh and Shantung Provinces were sent into battle, leaving large areas of the said provinces unprotected from Communist guerrillas. It wasn’t very long before the Communists had taken control of the areas previously held by the Nationalists. Shaw says that the “Nationalist’s premature Manchuria operation contained within it the seeds of Nationalist destruction, and they ripened in a few short and bloody years into total defeat.”
The situation in Shantung Province was different from that of Hopeh. In Shantung, the Communists controlled most of the countryside and the coast, and they were also stronger in numbers than in Hopeh, where there was a growing Nationalist presence. According to Shaw, “Tsingtao remained a Nationalist island in a Communist sea.” The Japanese held the railroad leading from Tsingtao into the interior.
Immediately after General Rockey accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in the Tientsin area, he left for Chefoo with the 29th Marine Regiment, 6th Division, to investigate conditions at that port. However, when he arrived, Rockey found that Communist troops had already taken control of the city from the Japanese and installed a new mayor. The Communists in Chefoo were not cooperative with the Americans. Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, commander of the United States Navy’s 7th Fleet, sent a message to the Chinese commander requesting that he withdraw his men from Chefoo before the Marines land. Following a conference on 07 October 1945, with the Communist mayor of Chefoo, who asked for withdrawal terms that were unacceptable to the Americans, Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, commander of VII Amphibious Force (VIIAF), recommended that the landing be postponed. Rockey agreed, so the 29th Marines were ordered to land with the rest of the 6th Division at Tsingtao on 11 October, instead of going in ahead.
According to Shaw, on the day of the landing, “the 6th Reconnaissance Company [landed first and] moved through the crowded streets, lined with a cheering, flag-waving throng, to secure Tsangkou airfield,” which was located about 10 miles (16 km) from the city. On the following day, observation planes from the escort carrier USS Bougainville landed safely at the field, and by 16 October all of the Marines had been put ashore and assigned to billets.
The Kuyeh Incident
One of the more notable skirmishes between American and Communist forces became known as the Kuyeh Incident. On 14 November, a train carrying General Dewitt Peck, 7th Marine Regiment, and an inspection party consisting of Marines was fired on near the village of Kuyeh, while it was traveling from Tangshan to Chinwangtao. An indecisive battle ensued. For over three hours the Marines exchanged fire with the Communists, who were positioned around the village, about 500 yards (460 m) north of the railroad tracks. Chinese fire from the village was so intense at one point the Americans called in air support. However, because the Marine aircraft could not clearly identify enemy targets, and because there was a risk of harming innocent civilians, permission to open fire was not given. Therefore, the aircraft flew over the Communists, but they did not actually fire on them. Later that day, a company from the 7th Marines was sent to reinforce the ambushed train. Men of the company found that the resistance had “melted away,” so General Peck’s train proceeded into Kuyeh after nightfall. There were no casualties among the Marines. Chinese casualties, if any, are unknown.
On the next day, Peck’s train was ambushed again in the same area as before. This time, the Chinese had torn up about 400 yards (370 m) of the railroad tracks, and the workers sent to fix them had been killed or wounded by land mines. Since it was expected that repair work on the railroad would take at least two days, Peck returned to Tangshan and boarded an observation plane, in order to fly to Chinwangtao. Even before taking on these new responsibilities, the 7th Marines was short on manpower. As a result, 1st Battalion, 29th Marines, 6th Division, was transferred from Tsingtao to Hopeh and placed under the 7th Marines’ operational control.
Peitaiho and Anping
Another serious incident occurred in July 1946. On 07 July, the Communist Party of China issued a statement regarding their displeasure with the United States’ policy toward China, and shortly thereafter, Communists troops launched two minor attacks against American forces. The first skirmish occurred on 13 July, when the Communists ambushed and then captured seven Marines who were guarding a bridge about 15 miles (24 km) from Peitaiho. After some negotiation, the Marines were released unharmed on 24 July, but in return the Communists asked for an apology from the United States government for invading what they called a “liberated area.” However, the United States responded with a “strong protest” instead.
Five days later, on 29 July 1946, a routine motor patrol (made up from B Battery, 11th Marines and a mortar squad from the 5th Marine Regiment) – consisting of one lieutenant and forty enlisted men, was ambushed near the village of Anping. The ensuing battle lasted four hours. A relief column with air support from Tientsin attempted to trap and destroy the Communists, but it failed to arrive in time. Three Marines, Lieutenant Douglas Cowin, Corporal Gilbert Tate, and Private First Class (PFC) Larry Punch were killed and twelve others were wounded during what was, up to that point, the most serious clash between American and Chinese forces. One other Marine, PFC John Lopez, later died of wounds received in the battle, and two more were injured when they crashed their Jeep while returning to Tientsin for aid. According to Shaw, “the deliberate Communist ambush was additional proof that the chances for peace in China were non-existent. Without regard to their truce agreements, both sides initiated hostilities wherever the military situation seemed to favour them, and ‘each side took the stand with General Marshall that the other was provoking the fighting and could not be trusted to go through with an agreement.
Two small skirmishes occurred at Hsin Ho during the operation. Located 6 miles (9.7 km) northwest of Tangku, Hsin Ho was the site of one of 1st Division’s ammunition stores. On the night of 03 October 1946, a party of Communist raiders snuck into the ammunition dump to steal some of the munitions. However, a sentry from the 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, guard detachment discovered the break-in and opened fire on the raiders. Soon after, a rescue party of Marines in a truck was dispatched to the scene, but it was ambushed and the Marines inside were forced to dismount and form a firing line. The body of one raider was also found. One Marine was wounded.
The second engagement at Hsin Ho occurred on the night of 04/05 April 1947, and it would be the last major clash between American and Communist forces during Operation Beleaguer. A party of Communist raiders with an estimated strength of 350 men made a “planned and coordinated attack” on three isolated points of the dump’s perimeter.
A column of Marines in vehicles was sent to aid the garrison of the besieged ammunition dump, but the lead vehicle of the convoy was disabled by land mines, forcing the Americans to dismount and engage the ambushers. According to Shaw, the Communists closed to within grenade range before being beaten back. Having delayed the American reinforcements, the Communists were able to haul away a large amount of ammunition, and explode two other piles of ammunition. Altogether, the Americans suffered five dead and sixteen wounded, making it “the worst incident in the history of strained relations between the Marines and the [Chinese] Communists.” The bodies of six uniformed Communists were found, and an estimated twenty to thirty wounded men were carried off by their comrades. A couple weeks later, on 21 April, control of the ammunition dump was handed over to the Nationalists.
Refer to the Dixie Mission (1944-1947).
By this time, about half of the 630,000 Japanese and Koreans in China had been repatriated. Chiang Kai-shek wanted the stores of weapons and ammunition that had been taken from the Japanese by the Americans, so he could use them for his campaign to take Manchuria. General Wedemeyer, however, refused to give the Nationalists control of the weapons until they assumed control of the repatriation program, as previously arranged. When the Nationalists did finally take control of repatriating the Japanese, the American forces involved became the supervisors of the effort, with the job of overlooking the processing, staging, and loading out the repatriates onto ships. Additionally, the Marines also continued to furnish guard details for American-manned repatriation ships. Once all of the repatriation operations were finished in the summer of 1946, and when the attempt to mediate a peace treaty proved futile, the objective of IIIAC Marines changed to the traditional task of protecting American lives and property, like the old China Marines.
On 01 April 1946, when the reorganisation at Tsingtao was finished, the remaining elements of the 6th Marine Division officially became the 3rd Marine Brigade. The 1st Marine Division completed its last ordered deactivation on 15 April and the IIIAC staff and units were reduced to skeleton strength. At this point, most of the Marines who had been in China since the beginning of the occupation had been repatriated, and the remaining 25,000 Americans in China were mostly inexperienced and badly in need of training. As result, the American commanders set up a school in China, where many of the Marines received “on the job” training.
Between August and early September, the Nationalists took control of the Tangshan coal fields, which were vital in keeping Chinese cities from collapsing, and the railroad between Peking and Chinwangtao, both of which were previously guarded by marines. As result, General Rockey was able to withdraw from the interior and concentrate his forces within major cities. After the concentration of his forces, Rockey focused on his training program that was meant to maintain IIIAC’s high state of combat readiness, and preparing for departure, which would take place over the next several months. The 7th Marines, reinforced by 3rd Battalion, 11th Marines, were moved to the Peitaiho-Chinwangtao area, while division headquarters, the “special troops” of the 1st Marines, and the remainder of the 11th Marines took up station at Tientsin. Rockey was finally relieved of command on 18 September 1946, and replaced by Major General Samuel L. Howard, who would manage most of the withdrawal.
American forces were withdrawn from Hopeh Province between April and May 1947. After that, efforts to evacuate American and other foreign nationals were centred around Tsingtao, which was under the control of Brigadier General Omar T. Pfeiffer and his men. One infantry battalion, based at Tsingtao, was reserved for operations to protect American lives and property in Hopeh, but it would only be deployed if needed. In the fall of 1948, the economic and military collapse of the Nationalists, predicted by General Wedemeyer, Marshall and others, came about in Manchuria. According to Shaw, “In a few short months, the Communists captured vast quantities of munitions and absorbed thousands of defecting Nationalist troops, who had lost all desire to fight. In the cities of South and Central China, the pauperized populace, led by agitators, became increasingly more dissatisfied with its lot of continuous war and gave strong evidence that it would accept any change which promised peace.”
In total, thirteen Marines were killed and forty-three wounded in clashes with Communist forces during Operation Beleaguer. Twenty-two Marine aircrew members in fourteen aircraft perished during the same period.