Operation Beleaguer, the last intervention of the United States Marines in China

Setting an end date for World War II is not easy because the multiplicity of fronts meant that the fighting ended later in some places than in others. If in Europe they ended on May 2, 1945, in Asia they lasted until the surrender of Japan on August 14, not counting the resistance that some scattered forces continued to offer for a few days in both cases.

Worse was in China, where the conflict had overlapped with the Second Sino-Japanese War and the civil war that pitted nationalists against communists, leaving a complex three-way conflict. The US tried to mediate by sending a military contingent, in what was dubbed Operation Beleaguer.

What had been called the China Front included not only the territory of that country but also Korea and part of Mongolia, the result of the respective Japanese invasions. If a few years earlier they had already established a puppet government in Manchuria with its capital in Manchukuo, signing a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union, the inability of the Chinese Republic government to stop the enemy advance led it to take refuge in Chongging while the Mao’s communists did the same in Yenan.

Japanese occupation of China, 1940/Image: Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons

However, when Tokyo formally entered World War II, it found it difficult to cope with the potential of the Allies, and having to keep more than a million and a half soldiers on Chinese soil weakened other fronts. With international help, the Chinese finally drove out the invaders; and, when the US detonated its atomic bombs, the Soviets joined this dynamic by breaking their pact, sweeping the Japanese out of Manchuria and reaching present-day North Korea, where they stopped because the Americans had already landed in the South.

At the end of the war, China had recovered Manchuria, Taiwan and the Penghu Islands, the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government was recognized worldwide and the republic entered the United Nations Security Council. But internally it was still far from achieving peace because the US military aid had strengthened the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and now it also had the Soviet aid, so that the civil war that had shaken the country, suspended to fight against the enemy common, it was reactivated.

The problem was that between the opposing camps of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong some 630,000 Japanese (and Korean) military and civilians were trapped pending repatriation, and the government lacked the resources to take care of that transfer. That was what led US President Truman to offer to send an intervention force that, collaborating with the local forces, would put an end to the last pockets of Japanese resistance in China and return the soldiers to their countries. He also assumed the commitment not to intervene in the conflict between nationalists and communists, remaining neutral.

For what was baptized as Operation Beleaguer (Operation Besieger) fifty thousand men were assigned, coming from different bodies that had been training to invade Japan and were now available after it had surrendered. They were the marines of the III AC (III Amphibious Corps), the Task Force 78 from the 7th Fleet, the 14th Air Force, and the 33rd and 96th Civil Engineering and Construction Battalions (US Navy Construction Forcepopularly known as seabees), which were mobilized in barely two days.

The direction of the operation was assigned to Major General Keller E. Rockey, who had headed the V Division on Iwo Jima, although he was subordinate to the supreme orders of Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, who had been Chief of Staff of the Commander Supreme Ally of the Southeast Asia Command (Lord Mountbatten) and now he was with Chiang Kai-Shek replacing General Joseph Stilwell. A staunch anti-communist, he sought to provide material, weapons, and logistical aid to the Nationalist government, informing Truman that he did not see an agreement between the two Chinese factions possible and requesting the sending of seven divisions, which he was denied.

At first things went well. The US troops, which completed their deployment on September 19, were enthusiastically received by the Chinese population and local authorities, who cooperated vigorously to dislodge the Japanese from their last strongholds in Hopeh (present-day Hebei) and Shandong provinces. Even the communists joined in, thus achieving the surrender of the fifty thousand Japanese in the Tiensin garrison, most of whom were held in coastal camps awaiting deportation while others were kept on site as casual labor.

General Wedemeyer conversing with the Chinese military/Image: public domain on Wikimedia Commons

However, things soon went wrong, in little more than two weeks, when the marines and the communists had their first armed confrontation: a detachment of engineers sent to repair a road was fired upon, suffering three wounded. The Americans thus found themselves in the always difficult position of the contingents in their situation of armed neutrality: those stationed in a foreign territory in conflict, with limitations to apply their force (they had orders not to intervene in the internal conflict and shoot only in defense own).

The picture was worse in the other province, Shandong, since the communists were clearly in control there and managed to surrender the Japanese without help, which is why they not only refused to collaborate with the Americans but also vetoed their landing in the main port for it, that of Chefoo. The marines had to land in planes between October 11 and 16, taking advantage of the Qingdao airport, a city described as “a nationalist island in a communist sea«. Shortly after the confrontations began, although they were not battles per se but skirmishes.

US F4U-4 Corsair aircraft in Qingdao/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

Thus, there were attacks on the military railway in Kuyeh, the arrest of patrol soldiers in Peitaiho, the death of the first marines in an ambush in Anping, the attempted assault on an ammunition warehouse that cost new fatalities… In both provinces , the communists fought with guerrilla tactics, benefiting from their knowledge of the terrain and taking advantage of the adversary’s weaknesses: insufficient US air coverage (caused by a typhoon that advanced from Okinawa towards China) and the drastic decrease in the number of nationalist troops, since Chiang Kai-Shek had sent his troops from Hopeh and Shandong to secure Manchuria, relying on the marines.

The situation changed, then, with respect to the original plan. The part related to the transfer of Japanese and Koreans was fulfilled, first directly by the US and then by the nationalist government, ending in the summer of 1946. From there, the latter demanded the delivery of the weapons material seized from the enemy and expressed their displeasure with the US policy applied in what was called Operation Dixie: an attempt to maintain diplomatic relations with the communists, begun in 1944 but prolonged until 1947 due to suspicions caused by the corrupt Kuomintang administration and confidence that Mao would lead a gradual change, moderate.

Thanks to the Dixie Mission, General George C. Marshall wrested from the entire Chinese political arc a compromise, the Double Ten Agreement: the creation of a CCPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) that put an end to the one-party system, it opened the Senate to all and promoted free elections, even attracting the Communist Party. Unfortunately, Chiang Kai-Shek did not put it into practice, the situation deteriorated, there were murders of opponents and everything came to nothing, leading to confrontation again. The government, confident in its material and human superiority, pounced on the communists, who undertook the Long March to Manchuria, where the Soviets allowed them to reorganize.

The Dixie Mission crashed, then, against the reality of the civil war and its defenders would later be harshly criticized, if not accused of being pro-communists. Truman ignored Wedemeyer’s report recommending turning to the aid of Chiang Kai-Shek and refused to send him any more support, preferring to wait and see which way the scales tipped. In fact, and faced with some popular pressure, starting in the spring of 1946, he began to withdraw troops from China, also taking over from Rockey and naming Major General Samuel L. Howard in his place.

Howard had the heavy taint of being the highest-ranking US Marine captured in World War II (in the fall of Corregidor, for which he lived through the ordeal of the Bataan Death March), but he credited experience in China because before Before serving in the Philippines, he had commanded the 4th Marines in Shanghai. He arrived in Tianjin and was in charge of organizing the march of the last US contingent in China, the 1st Infantry Division, which left in June 1947; other bodies had done it before.

The final cost of Operation Beleaguer was thirty-five dead (thirteen infants and twenty-two aviators) plus forty-three wounded. It doesn’t sound like much, but surely their families wouldn’t agree with it, after all, there were protests in the US against that campaign, arguing that it was an internal matter for China or, worse still, that thousands of marines had died. fighting against fascism and now they were defending a dictatorship. Regarding the Chinese casualties, there is a lack of data, but those that followed these events in the civil war were enormous and it is estimated that they were around two and a half million, including civilians (to which should be added several million more from the war period and of the initial stage between 1928 and 1937).

The People’s Liberation Army entering Beijing in 1949/Image: Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons

Because, meanwhile, the communists went on the counterattack and began to prevail. The desperate democratizing measures promoted by the government were already useless in the face of the economic management disaster, with overflowing inflation, and an evident loss of image in the face of the rival, who appeared as a despised conciliator and defender of the CCPCC. The republic was disintegrating due to its own mistakes.

After a hard offensive, Mao’s forces gained the upper hand in the fall of 1948, just as Wedemeyer feared, proclaiming the People’s Republic the following year and starting the revolution. Chiang Kai-shek resigned in January 1949, and Li Zongren took his place, albeit to no avail. The nationalists had to flee and went into exile on the island of Formosa, originating the current Taiwan; the conflict is still latent eighty years later.


Sources

James R Compton, Marines and mothers. Agency, activism and resistance to the American North China intervention, 1945-1946 (at Marine Corps University) | michael parkinOperation BELEAGUER: The Marine III amphibious corps in North China, 1945-49 | George B Clark, Treading softly: US Marines in China, 1819-1949 | Henry I Shaw Jr. The United States Marines in North China, 1945-1949 | Ruben Almarza Gonzalez, Brief history of contemporary China | Wikipedia