Operation BELEAGUER: The Marine III amphibious corps in North China, 1945-49


By Maj Michael Parkyn - Originally Published July 2001

"The occupation Marine must be thoroughly indoctrinated with the idea that his task is primarily a military one. He has been assigned a job to do as the uniformed representative of the United States. He is the executor of policy and not the formulator. It is not the job of the military to attempt to sell the people of the occupied country on American democracy-but merely to carry out their assigned military functions in a dignified, fair, and firm manner."

-Maj J. A. Donovan "The Occupation Marine," Marine Corps Gazette, April 1946

On 14 August 1945, the sailor walked through Times Square, dixie cup pushed far back on his head. He looked at the nurse to his right and acted on impulse. With his right hand he grasped her waist, spinning her toward him. As she arched backwards, he cradled her neck in the crook of his left arm and kissed her as if he were making up for a lifetime put on indefinite hold. Life Magazine's Alfred Eisenstaedt saw the nurse's surprise in her limp arms and the crowd's approval in the shocked stares they directed toward the embracing strangers. With the press of his camera's shutter release, Eisenstaedt created a lasting symbol of the joy felt across America at World War II's end.

Eight thousand miles away on Guam, the 50,000 Marines of III Amphibious Corps (III AC) felt no such jubilation and carried little hope of liaisons with nurses. While the Marines trained for the invasion of the Japanese home islands-code named Operation DOWNFALL-the war ended abruptly. But before the Marines had a chance to celebrate, they received a warning order to prepare for operations in the vicinity of Shanghai, China. Their new mission, Operation BELEAGUER, would not end until 16 May 1949, when the last elements of III AC disembarked at San Diego. During the course of the operation, 12 Marines would be killed and 42 more would be wounded in clashes with Communist forces; 22 Marine aircrew in 14 aircraft would perish during the same period.

Using four of the six principles of military operations other than war (MOOTW) as described in joint Publication 3-07, joint Doctrine for Military Operations Other Than War, an analysis of Operation BELEAGUER will demonstrate that the Truman administration's failure to develop a coherent policy in China hindered the Marines' ability to develop a concise set of objectives. Poorly defined objectives, in turn, decreased the effectiveness of III AC's security efforts. Lacking in security, the Marines in North China would be unable to develop a useful set of restraints for application of force. This would negatively impact the legitimacy of their efforts. However, in spite of their frustrations in North China, the Corps would achieve success in every measurable way and validate a postwar raison d'etre in MOOTW.1

American Policy Toward China
President Truman's initial stance on China was based on President Roosevelt's. China, a member of the Big Four "partly as a courtesy and partly to have an Asian anchor to [Roosevelt's] global design ... was an underdeveloped country in the throes of civil war."2 However, Truman's China policy of 15 December 1945 stated "that a strong, united and democratic China is of the utmost importance to the success of this United Nations' [U.N.'s] organization and for world peace.".3 This policy was, according to author Yu Shen:

In conflict with itself in its definition of American goals in China. On the one hand, the Truman administration wanted the war with China to be stopped and the Chiang government to be reformed. On the other hand, it pledged American support for Chiang Kai-shek and his government at the cost of peace if necessary.4

In retrospect, Truman asserted that China was not even a functioning state. In his memoirs, President Truman stated:

But the truth is that in 1945 China was only a geographical expression. Not since the Manchu Empire broke up in 1911 had there been in China a central government with authority over all the land.5

As Secretary of State Dean Acheson explained in a statement before a joint Senate Committee on 4 June 1951, the United States was, in 1945, attempting to nation build:

Now, I do not say recreate a nation; I say, advisedly, create a nation; because for almost an indefinite period in the past there had not been, in our sense, a nation in the territory which we call China . . . [t]herefore, the question which had to be faced was how to create that nation and how to create the authority of the nation in that area.6

Without the benefit of hindsight, the Truman administration proceeded to support the Nationalist Government as if it were returning to power, not arriving at it for the first time. Due partly to rapidly growing fears of Communist aggression and partly to ignorance of China left over from the Roosevelt administration, Truman committed to building a strong, united, democratic China. The burden of simultaneously remaining neutral in order to further peacekeeping efforts while supporting the Nationalists would fall upon the shoulders of III AC Marines.

Development of Objectives and Their Impact
In keeping with his interpretation of this policy, the Commander, LJ.S. Forces China Theater, (USForChina Thtr) GEN Albert Wedemeyer, asked the Joint Chiefs of Staff UCS) for seven American divisions to create a barrier force in order to discourage Soviet expansion in North China and Manchuria. Because of the requirement to occupy the Japanese home islands, the JCS could only offer the III AC to assist the Nationalist Government in reoccupying North China and repatriating Japanese troops.

On 20 August 1945, GEN Wedemeyer issued USForChinaThtr Operations Directive No. 25 to the U.S. units under his command. This directive contained three objectives, none of which focused on the Communists or their impact on American goals in China:

  1. To assist the Nationalist Government in occupying key areas.
  2. To receive the enemy surrender and repatriate Japanese troops.
  3. To liberate and rehabilitate Allied internees and prisoners of war.

The single significant restraint imposed in the order reflected the Truman Administration's contradictory China policy. GEN Wedemeyer tasked his leaders to "avoid participation in any fratricidal conflict in China."7 This mandate, intended to lend the appearance of neutrality, would be hard to achieve given that the Marines were being tasked to assist the Nationalist Government.

With these vague and potentially conflicting objectives, MajGen Keller E. Rockey, commanding III AC, brought the first Marines of a 50,000-- man force ashore in China on 30 September. (See Figure 1). Marines kicked off the operation with the benefit of legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese citizens. The assistant division commander of the 1st Marine Division, BGen Louis R. Jones commented, "Until long after dark, groups of Chinese lined the riverbanks, gathered . . . outside their . . . houses to cheer each boatload of Marines."8

III AC's Marines also enjoyed legitimacy in the eyes of the Communists. When 1st Battalion, 7th Marines (1/7) went ashore on 1 October 1945 at Chinwangtao, they discovered the town was occupied by former Japanese puppet troops who were fighting with Communists. LtCol John J. Gormley, commanding officer 1/7, noted that "all factions, civilian and military, were anxious to cooperate with our troops."9 Gormley replaced puppet troops with Marines, prompting the Communist commander to disclaim any designs on the area without full American cooperation. However, within days, Rockey would be forced to deal with the vague nature of the objectives in a countryside intermingled with Japanese and Communist forces. (See Figure 2.)

The Marines had their first clash with the Chinese Communists on 6 October. Engineers and a 1 st Marines rifle platoon attempting to clear roadblocks 22 miles outside of Tientsin were fired upon by approximately 50 Communists. Three of the Marines were wounded, but the detachment returned to Tientsin safely. Two days later, a rifle company from 1st Marines and a tank platoon removed the roadblocks from under a cover of carrier-based aircraft. This established a pattern that would be repeated until the Marines left China for the last time-Chinese Communists attack with small arms; Marine defense with small arms; Chinese withdrawal; Marine response by employment of supporting arms.

Fortunately for the Marines, the Japanese were more cooperative than the Chinese Communists. When Nationalist forces were unable to assume guard duties over key terrain in North China, Marines and Japanese soldiers divided the load until the Chinese Nationalists arrived. In this spirit of cooperation, due largely to the legitimacy won by the Marines in 4 years of war with Japan, over 500,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians were eventually evacuated from China.

III AC's conduct prompted MajGen Eiji Nagano to send a letter to MajGen Lemuel C. Shepherd on 15 December 1945 in which he wrote,

Exemplary conduct and actions on the part of your soldiers inspired our minds with respect and wonder ... every Japanese in Tsingtao City feels grateful to you for your fair and square dealings. This is the last thing that we expected of your Marines of the Okinawa Battle fame.10

The Marines had, through the use of restraint, enhanced the legitimacy they enjoyed at the outset of Operation BELEAGUER.

Again, the Chinese Communists, employing small arms, attacked. On 14 November 1945, as MajGen DeWitt Peck, commanding general of Ist Marine Division was inspecting 7th Marines positions along the Peiping-Mukden rail line, Communist troops in a village 6 miles north of Kuyeh (See Figure 1) fired upon his train. After ordering his escort platoon to return fire, MajGen Peck radioed MajGen Rockey to request permission to call in an airstrike on the village if necessary. Corsair pilots of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing provided support that afternoon. Unable to spot any hostile activity in the village, the Corsair pilots made simulated strafing runs over the village with the intent of sending a message to the Communists without endangering villagers. (See Figure 3).

When MajGen Rockey later indicated to GEN Wedemeyer that he would have authorized a strafing mission if fire continued from the offending village, Wedemeyer replied:

If American lives are endangered by small-arms fire received from village about 600 yards north of Loanshien as indicated in your radio classification 0368, it is desired that you inform the military leader of responsible authority in that village in writing, that fire from that particular village is endangering American lives and that such firing must be stopped. After insuring that your warning to said military leader or responsible authority has been received and understood, should firing that jeopardizes American lives continue, you are authorized to take appropriate action for their protection. Your warning and action should include necessary measures to insure safety of innocent persons.11

These orders could easily prevent Rockey's Marines from providing for their own security. Far from allowing a restrained response, Wedemeyer's orders denied the Marines the ability to apply their skills in close air support. This stripped the Marines of their most powerful supporting arm. It is worthy of note that the Corsair pilots supporting MajGen Peck exercised considerable restraint, not because they were prohibited from doing more, but because they realized it was the most prudent course of action to take under those circumstances.

GEN Wedemeyer was not blind to the potential dilemmas Marines could face while trying to accomplish their missions. On 20 November 1945, he recommended the removal of all U.S. forces in China or the clarification of American policies causing the employment of the Marines in order to allow development of a clear set of rules of engagement (ROE).12

Marine officers agreed wholeheartedly with GEN Wedemeyer's assessment. Feeling that the directives under which they operated were "ill-considered and ambiguous in meaning," the Marines felt that they were being placed in a dilemma by "instructions that at once made them neutral and partisan in China's civil strife."13

The dilemma hit home again when two Marines of the Ist Battalion, 29th Marines were shot by Chinese Communists on 4 December. The battalion executive officer attempted to respond appropriately-he ordered the emplacement of a 60mm mortar within range of the village in which the shooters were hiding and gave the villagers 30 minutes to surrender them. The deadline passed with no results. In response, the mortar's crew fired 24 white phosphorous rounds outside the village walls. When news of the incident reached the United States, the press criticized the Marines for firing into an unarmed village. In the end, the incident cost the Marines one dead, one wounded, and a portion of the legitimacy they enjoyed in the eyes of the American people.

MajGen Rockey attempted to solve the dilemma for the aircrews of the Ist Marine Aircraft Wing by giving them a working ROE to counter the sporadic ground fire they encountered. On 6 December 1945, he issued an order allowing his pilots to return fire when:

  1. The source was unmistakable.
  2. The fire from the ground was in some volume.
  3. The target was in the open and easily defined.
  4. Innocent people were not endangered.

According to Benis Frank and Henry I. Shaw, Jr. in Victory and Occupation: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume V, the restrictive nature of Rockey's orders was an accurate reflection of the directives that reached him from higher headquarters.14

III AC Special Order 226-45, dated 6 December 1945, expanded the Marines' mission. It tasked the Corps with protecting coal laden trains from Communist forces. It stated:

It is desired that you take the necessary action to protect the port of Chinwangtao and the rail line and rail traffic to Chinwangtao to the extent necessary to permit the movement to and outloading from Chinwangtao of at least 100,000 tons of coal per month destined for Shanghai.15

For over 9 months, the Marines would rely on their legitimacy to make up for the poor security conditions brought about by the dispersal of their forces along the rail lines.

The Marines' legitimacy had limits-- during the execution of this mission, Marine bridge guards were attacked on four occasions, and one train was attacked. In a mood that would be felt in future military operations other than war (MOOTW) operations, many Marines became bored with the dull routine and frustrated at their inability to counter the attacks made against them. They wanted to go home, a desire that was conveyed in letters to the States and into the media.

Writing to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, MajGen Rockey conveyed the frustrating nature of the Marines' objectives in China. To Gen Alexander A. Vandegrift, he lamented:

As to instructing the Marines as to `why we are here' . . . I find myself at a loss. I quote from General Geiger's letter: `Instruct your commanders that further reductions depend on the mission of the Marines in the Pacific and the recruiting rate. Both are inter an bles and not susceptible to exact determination by future months.' The underlining is mine. It won't be the first time the Marines have served under an intangible mission, but how to explain an intangible mission?16

The intangible went on. In January 1946, at GEN George C. Marshall's suggestion, the Marines at Tsingtao assisted the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in their efforts to provide humanitarian relief to the Chinese.17 This second expansion in mission came without any formal order. It marked the first postwar Marine participation in humanitarian operations, one which would immediately enhance the Marines' legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese, though it would later expose them to attacks by Communist forces. As with the rail guard mission, the Marines ensured success of the UNRRA effort, but suffered attacks from Communist forces in the process.

In response to the executive headquarters needs for fill shortfalls in truce teams, GEN Marshall directed the assignment of Marines to the teams until suitable Army replacements could take over. On 11 March 1946, III AC issued a special order directing the formation of six liaison teams that would, for the next 3 months, prevent armed conflict from occurring between Nationalists and Communists. The Marines, working in small groups, successfully separated intermingled Communist and Nationalist groups, while preventing a disruption of the cease-fire agreement then in effect between the Communists and the Nationalists.

On 10 June, with none of the original objectives met and one of two new missions still underway, III AC was deactivated in a diplomatic effort to pressure the Soviets to withdraw from Manchuria. The drawdown was also intended to hasten the Nationalists' assumption of Marine duties and, to a lesser degree, to allow the postwar demobilization of Marine forces, now a year overdue.

By the next fall, the repatriation was complete and the rail guard mission was passed to the Nationalists. On 18 September MajGen Rockey passed command to the remaining forces, now known as the 1st Marine Division, to MajGen Samuel Howard. In an attempt to define his objective to the Marines and the Chinese, Howard said:

The U.S. [M]arines have no part in the establishment of our nation's policy. We are an organization whose traditional duty is to support and uphold that policy and to protect American lives and property in any part of the globe. We are in China to carry out the directives of our State Department or those of General Marshall. This we propose to do.18

The UNRRA mission would continue until March of 1947, at which time it too would be deemed complete. The Ist Marine Division would depart China in June 1947, further reducing the Marine presence, now known as Fleet Marine Force (FMF) West Pacific, to 5,000 men. With that strength, they successfully protected American property and lives, partly through the employment of airmobile platoons, until the Communist takeover in 1949. The last elements of FMF West Pacific arrived in San Diego on 16 May, bringing to a close the Corps' first postwar MOOTW operation.

A National Failure, a Military Success, and the Force-in-Readiness
America's attempt at nation building in China ultimately failed, mainly because of Nationalist leadership. In a letter to President Truman dated 5 May 1949, acting President of China, Gen Li Tsung-jen wrote:

It is regrettable that owing to the failure of our then-government to make judicious use of [American] aid and to bring about appropriate political, economic, and military reforms, your assistance has not produced the desired effect. To this failure is attributable the present predicament in which our country finds itself.19

For the Marine Corps, the story was somewhat different. Although Operation BELEAGUER lacked the tangible end states previously seen on Okinawa and Iwo Jima, the III AC and its successor organizations had served, in the words of Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal, as "the balance of order in China."20 Among their accomplishments, the Marines:

  • Repatriated over 500,000 Japanese soldiers and civilians.
  • Allowed Nationalist forces to gain control of key infrastructure nodes in Northern China.
  • Ensured the continued flow of coal on Chinese railways.
  • Assisted U.N. relief efforts.
  • Participated in successful truce teams.
  • Protected naval facilities, American citizens, and proerty.

However, the accomplishments listed above came at. the expense of 34 killed in action (KIA) and 42 wounded in action (WIA) (see Figure 4), and in spite of a confused foreign policy with its attendant conflicting objectives. Because of this, Marines frequently found themselves thrust in harm's way without being able to access the supporting arms that traditionally protected them, and without proper security. The restraints on use of force were in turn so great that much of the hard-won legitimacy enjoyed by the Marines was lost when the Communists realized that the III AC would not use their supporting arms.

Realizing that the Corps was likely to see more MOOTW than global war in the coming years, Marine leadership promoted the Marine Corps' "force in readiness" as an asset for U.S. and even U.N. use. MajGens Gerald Thomas and Merritt Edson "saw this as a readymade mission for the Corps . . . [believing] that USMC participation in this potentially important role would guarantee the existence of the Corps."21 In aurguing the case for an integrated Marine air-ground team to the JCS, Gen Vandegrift echoed this sentiment, stating:

A sea-based amphibious force prepared for such a major war contingency could also perform more limited military missions, including service with the United Nations peacekeeping forces, because it could be quickly deployed and did not depend on fixed land bases.22

Apparently, neither Thomas, Edson, nor Vandegrift used any reference to the III AC's experiences in North China as an example of the Corps' peacekeeping capabilities. The irony of this omission became obscurity for III AC's Marines when North Korean forces invaded South Korea in 1950.

Operation BELEAGUER marked the end of a decades-long Marine presence in China but represented a postwar beginning for American foreign policy and the Corps. In Operation BELEAGUER, America debuted in the first of a series of sometimes frustrating MOOTW missions which, through the III AC's experiences, first validated the Corps' charter to serve as America's force-in-readiness. Far from being the "creep" in mission creep, the Corps' MOOTW experience is central to its current definition. As such, it should be an anticipated mission for our forward deployed Marines when, in the moment of America's next victory, our sister Services again celebrate in Times Square.

1. The principles of unity of effort and perseverance were not limiting factors in Operation BELEAGUER. Because III AC trained, deployed, and operated together, its ability to achieve unity of effort is not discussed. Also, because the United States continued to support the Nationalist cause even as the Communists took control of the Chinese mainland, the principle of perseverance is also not discussed.
2. Kissinger, Henry, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 421.
3. Myers, Ramon H., "Frustration, Fortitude, and Friendship: Chiang Kai-shek's Reactions to Marshall's Mission," in George C. Marshall's Mediation Mission to China: December 1945-January 1947. Ed. Larry I. Bland (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Foundation, 1998), p. 151.
4. Shen, Yu, "The CCP's Views on the Marshall Mission: A Historiographical Study," in George C. Marshall's Mediation Mission to China: December 1945-January 1947. Editor Larry I. Bland (Lexington, VA. George C. Marshall Foundation, 1998), p. 259.
5. Truman, Harry S., Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, Volume Two: Years of Trial and Hope (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1956), p. 61.
6. Department of State, American Policy in China (Washington, DC: GPO, 1951), Department of State Publication 4255, p. 3.
7. Frank, Benis M. and Shaw, Jr., Henry I., Victory and Occupation: History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II, Volume V (Washington, DC: United States Marine Corps, 1968), p. 533.
8. Shaw, Jr., Henry I., The United States Marines in North China 1945-1949, 2d rev. ed. (Washington, DC: United States Marine Corps, 1962), p. 2.
9. Ibid., p. 3.
10. Frank and Shaw, p. 581.
11. [bid., p. 586.
12. Ibid., p. 572.
13. Ibid., p. 573.
14. Ibid., p. 578.
15. Ibid., p. 575.
16. Vandegrift, Alexander A., as told to Robert B. Asprey, Once A Marine (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964, reprinted by the Marine Corps Association, Quantico, VA, 1982), p. 311.
17. Frank and Shaw, p. 600.
18. Moskin, J. Robert, The U.S. Marine Corps Story (Third Revised Edition: Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1992) p. 416.
19. Department of State, American Policy in China, p. 48-49.
20. Millis, Walter, Ed., The Forrestal Diaries, (New York: Viking Press, 1951), p. 179.
21. Hoffman,Jon T., OnceA Legend: "Red Mike" Edson of the Marine Raiders (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994), p. 344.
22. Millett, Allan R., In Many a Strife: Gerald Thomas and the U.S. Marine Corps 1917-1956 (Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1993), p. 250.