Operation Beleaguer

'Beleaguer' was the US occupation of the northern Chinese provinces of Hopeh and Shantung from the surrendering Japanese (15 September 1945/16 May 1949).

Among the operation’s objectives were also the repatriation of more than 600,000 Japanese and Korean people remaining in China after the end of World War II, and the protection of US lives and property. The USA also made an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate peace between the Chinese nationalist and communist forces.

Over a period of 3.75 years, the US forces engaged in several small battles with Chinese communist forces, and managed to repatriate very large numbers of Japanese and Korean troops as well as thousands of foreign nationals. The operation ended with the collapse of the nationalist government in mainland China during 1949.

During World War II China had been a battlefield for three groups of opposing armies, namely those of the government in the form of the nationalist forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; of the communists under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung); and of the Japanese. At the time of Japan’s surrender in August/September 1945, there were still more than 630,000 Japanese and Korean military and civilian personnel in China.

As the Chinese government could not undertake the repatriation of these persons, President Harry S Truman sent more than 50,000 US marines of Major General Keller E. Rockey''s III Amphibious Corps and Admiral Thomas C. Kincaid’s 7th Fleet to northern China to take the surrender of and then repatriate the Japanese and their Korean subjects, and aid the nationalist government in its reassertion of control over areas previously held by the Japanese. The marines were to remain neutral, and were to engage in combat only if attacked. Rockey was in command of the US effort under the supervision of Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, commanding the China Theater and also Chiang’s senior military adviser.

The III Amphibious Corps was preparing for operations in Japan when the war ended on 2 September 1945, and within 48 hours received new orders to land forces in China. The corps headquarters and corps troops, together with Major General DeWitt Peck’s 1st Marine Division, were to occupy positions in the vicinity of Tangku, Tientsin, Peking, and Chinwangtao in Hopeh province, and Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd’s 6th Marine Division was to move into Tsingtao in Shantung province. The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was to be based on airfields in the Tsingtao, Tientsin and Peking areas, and the commitment of the entire corps in the Shanghai region was assigned as an alternative mission.

Preliminary orders were issued on 29 August for the launch of 'Beleaguer' on 15 September, with the 3rd Marine Division on Guam and the 4th Marine Division on Maui as the designated reserves.

The Hopeh provincial occupation force was the first to move, the loading of the transport ships being completed on 11/19 September at Guam. The US force anchored off the bay of the Hai river on 30 September, and disembarkation began soon after this. Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, the 1st Marine Division’s assistant divisional commander, landed at Tangku to meet local Chinese officials, make arrangements for the Japanese garrison’s surrender, and prepare the deployment of the marines across the province. Everything went according to plan.

The US forces earmarked for the occupation of Tientsin were also greeted warmly. The first unit of the III Amphibious Corps to see action in its new theatre was Lieutenant Colonel John J. Gormley’s 1/7th Marines, although the battalion did not become actively involved in combat. On 1 October the battalion departed Taku to the port of Chinwangtao, which was the railway terminal for the shipment of coal from the Tangshan mining area. Here Japanese troops were engaged in desultory fighting with the communist forces, which held most of the surrounding area. Gormley was able to halt this fighting by ordering his own men to take over the town’s perimeter defences from what the communists called the 'puppet troops'.

Co-operation between the Americans and the communists did not last long, however, and by the end of the month the latter had started to sabotage the railway lines to Chinwangtao and also to ambush US-controlled trains. Chinwangtao was soon one of the centres of communist resistance to the US occupation.

Most of the Japanese military personnel in Hopeh province surrendered to US forces within days of the latter’s arrival. On 6 October Rockey accepted the surrender of 50,000 Japanese at Tientsin. Four days later another 50,000 surrendered to General Lien Ching-sun, Chiang’s personal representative in northern China. Most of the Japanese were then concentrated in bivouacs and barracks near the coast, but for lack of adequate manpower the Japanese in many of their outlying positions were ordered to remain on guard duty until they could be relieved by nationalist or US forces.

The first skirmish between US and communist forces took place on 6 October along the road linking Tientsin and Peking. On the day before a reconnaissance patrol travelling along this road had discovered 36 unguarded roadblocks, which made the road impassable to anything larger than a Jeep. A detail of engineers and a platoon of riflemen despatched to clear the road were attacked by some 40 to 50 communist soldiers about 22 miles (35.5 km) to the north-west of Tientsin and, after a brief firefight, compelled to fall back with three wounded. On the following day, another detail of engineers was sent out with the same objective as before, but this time with an escort of a rifle company and also a company of tanks under air air shield of carrierborne aircraft. The communists did not attack, however, and the Americans reopened the road. A convoy of 95 vehicles and several hundred US troops passed along the road without incident soon after this, and linked with the US forces which had reached Peking by rail. A patrol was also established in order to keep the road open.

By 30 October all of the 1st Marine Division’s major units were ashore and established in their initial areas of responsibility. The Peking Group, centred on the 5th Marines and commanded by Brigadier General Louis R. Jones, established itself in the old Legation Quarter, with a single rifle company at each of the city’s two airfields. The 1st Marines and the 11th Marines occupied Tientsin, its airfield and its approaches. The area of Taku and Tangku was garrisoned by 1/5th Marines, and the 1 and 3/7th Marines held strongpoints along the railway line linking Tangku and Chinwangtao. Corps troops were stationed mainly in Tientsin, with necessary supporting detachments attached to divisional units in the field.

The headquarters of Major General Claude E. Larkin’s 1st Marine Aircraft Wing were established on 6 October at the French Arsenal near the airfield to the east of Tientsin, and its subordinate air groups and service squadrons arrived in China with their equipment throughout the remainder of the month. The wing’s flight echelons were allocated to airfields at Tsingtao, Peking and Tientsin as these facilities became available. But US air cover was very limited during the first few months of the occupation, largely as a result of a typhoon that ravaged Okinawa on 9/11 October and damaged much of the wing’s equipment while it was en route to China.

Thus the first major use of airfields under US control was made by Chinese nationalist elements. The 50,000 men comprising the nationalists' 92nd and 94th Armies were airlifted to Peking from central and southern China by the aircraft of Major General Claire L. Chennault’s US 14th Army Air Force between 6 and 29 October. The 92nd Army remained in the Peking area while the 94th Army moved to Tientsin, Tangku, Tangshan and Chinwangtao. The arrival of nationalist forces in Hopeh clearly made the communist 8th Route Army wary, but did not stop it from raiding and ambushing the US forces, and sabotaging railways and bridges.

Late in 1945 Chiang was preparing a campaign to take control of Manchuria, which under Japanese control had been the puppet kingdom of Manchukuo. In November Wedemeyer warned Chiang that he should consolidate his hold on the vital provinces of north-eastern China before making any effort to gain control of Manchuria. To do so, however, Chiang would have needed forces considerably greater than he actually possessed in the area, so nationalist troops which had been stationed in Hopeh and Shantung provinces were sent into Manchuria, leaving large areas of the two provinces unprotected from communist guerrillas, and it was not long before the communists had taken control of these previously nationalist-held areas.

The situation in Shantung was different from that in Hopeh. In Shantung the communists controlled most of the rural areas and the coast, and were also stronger in numerical terms than they were in Hopeh, where there was a growing nationalist presence. The 'puppet troops' held the railway leading from Tsingtao into the interior. Until nationalist forces could reach Shantung in sufficient strength to replace the Japanese, there was little hope of rapid fulfilment of repatriation plans.

Immediately after he had accepted the Japanese surrender in the Tientsin area, Rockey left for Chefu with the 29th Marines of the 6th Marine Division to investigate conditions at that port, but on arrival found that communist troops had already taken control of the city from the Japanese and installed a new mayor, and proved completely unco-operative.

Kinkaid asked the communist commander to withdraw his men from Chefu before the marines landed. Following a conference on 7 October with Chefu’s communist mayor, who asked for withdrawal terms that were unacceptable to the Americans, Vice Admiral Daniel E. Barbey, commander of 7th Amphibious Force, recommended that the landing be postponed. Rockey agreed, so the 29th Marines were ordered to land with the rest of the 6th Marine Division at Tsingtao on 11 October instead of going in ahead of the rest of the division.

The 6th Reconnaissance Company landed first and moved to secure the airfield at Tsangkou, some 10 miles (16 km) from the city. On the following day, observation aircraft from the escort carrier Bougainville landed on this airfield, and by 16 October all of the marines had been put ashore and assigned to billets.

On 13 October the communist commander in Shantung sent a message to Major General Lemuel C. Shepherd, commander of 6th Marine Division, in Tsingtao with an offer for co-operation 'to destroy the remaining Japanese military forces and the rest of the traitor army ('puppet army')'. To 'best establish local peace and order', communist troops would be sent into Tsingtao with the expectation that the marines would not oppose them. The communist commander noted that nationalist troops were preparing to enter Tsingtao with US help for the express purpose of attacking the communists. In the resultant 'open conflict', he hoped 'that both our armies continue to maintain friendly relations'.

Shepherd responded that his mission was not to 'destroy' either the Japanese or their puppets, that a communist occupation of Tsingtao was 'most undesirable' as the city was peaceful, and that he would not co-operate with the communists. He also said that were a crisis to occur in Tsingtao, his 'division of well-trained combat veterans would be entirely capable of coping with the situation'.

Shepherd and Lieutenant General Chen Pao-tsang, Chiang’s representative, accepted the formal surrender of the 10,000-strong Japanese garrison of Tsingtao on 25 October. Despite the surrender, though, Japanese troops in certain areas were still required to hold their positions and thus defend against any communist attacks. Clashes between the communists and the Japanese and former 'puppet troops' were frequent in Shantung during October and, at Shepherd’s request, aircraft of the 32nd Marine Air Group began regular reconnaissance patrols on 26 October to check the status of the railway lines and their Japanese guards and to insure adequate warning of any communist move against Tsingtao. MAG-32’s aircraft reached Tsingtao on 21 October, and were soon followed by those of MAG-12, which were flying from the Philippines to their new base at Peking. By the end of October, elements of all the wing’s major units had landed in China: MAG-12 and MAG-24 were based on Peking’s airfields, and MAG-25 and MAG-32 were at Tsingtao together with the wing’s personnel centre.

Major General Louis E. Woods arrived in Tientsin on 31 October to assume command of the 1st MAW from Larkin.

One of the more notable skirmishes between US and communist forces became known as the Kuyeh Incident. On 14 November a train carrying Brigadier General DeWitt Peck and a marine inspection party of the 7th Marines was struck by communist fire near the village of Kuyeh while travelling from Tangshan to Chinwangtao. There followed an indecisive firefight as, for a period of more than three hours, the marines exchanged fire with the communists, who were positioned around the village, about 500 yards (460 m) to the north of the railway line. 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 their intended targets and the risk to civilians, permission to open fire was not given. As a result, the aircraft did not fire on the communists. Later in the same day a company of the 7th Marines was sent to reinforce the ambushed train, but found that the communists had disappeared, and Peck’s train proceeded into Kuyeh after nightfall. There were no casualties among the marines, and the communist casualties remain unknown.

On the following day Peck’s train was ambushed again in the same area. On this occasion the communists had torn up about 400 yards (365 m) of track, and the some of the Chinese sent to repair them had been killed or wounded by land mines. Since it was expected that repair work would take at least two days, Peck returned to Tangshan and flew to Chinwangtao in an observation aeroplane.

The Kuyeh incidents demonstrated the need for a strong nationalist offensive action to clear the railway line, and Peck was authorised to deal directly with Lieutenant General Tu Li-ming, commander of the nationalists' North-East China Command. Tu agreed to drive back the communists and avoid marine positions while doing so in order to keep US forces out of the conflict. The marines, in turn, would help release nationalist troops for the operation by assuming responsibility for guarding all railway bridges more than 110 yards (100 m) long between Tangku and Chinwangtao, a distance of some 135 miles (220 km).

Even before taking on these new responsibilities, the 7th Marines was short of manpower and, as a result, the 1/29th Marines of the 6th Marine Division was transferred from Tsingtao to Hopeh and placed under operational control of the 7th Marines.

Another serious incident occurred in July 1946. On 7 July the communists issued a statement expressing their unhappiness with US policy toward China, and soon after this communist troops twice ambushed US forces. On 13 July the communists ambushed and then captured seven marines 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 a US apology for invading what they called a 'liberated area'. The US response was in fact a strong protest.

On 29 July a routine motor patrol of one lieutenant and 40 enlisted men was escorting six supply trucks from Tientsin to Peking when the convoy was ambushed near Anping by a strong force of uniformed and well-armed communist troops. There followed a four-hour battle. A relief column with air support from Tientsin attempted to trap and destroy the communists, but did not arrive in time to intervene. Three marines were killed and 12 others wounded during what was, up to that point, the most serious clash between US and communist forces. One other marine later died of wounds received in the battle, and two more were injured when they crashed their Jeep while returning to Tientsin for aid.

Two small engagements took place at Hsin Ho, some 6 miles (10 km) to the north-west of Tangku and the site of one of the 1st Marine Division’s ammunition stores. On the night of 3 October 1946 a party of communist raiders infiltrated the dump to steal munitions, but a sentry of the 1/5th Marines' guard detachment discovered the break in and opened fire on the raiders. A rescue party of marines in a truck was despatched to the scene, but was ambushed and the marines were forced to dismount and form a firing line. Before additional reinforcements could arrive from Tankgu, the communists slipped away. Later the Americans found that several cases of ammunition had been taken from one of the storage tents near the compound’s perimeter fence. The body of at least one raider was also found, and one marine was wounded.

The second engagement at Hsin Ho occurred on the night of 4/5 April 1947, and was the last major clash between US and communist forces during 'Beleaguer'. A party of communist raiders, estimated at 350 men, made a co-ordinated attack on three isolated points of the dump’s perimeter. Five Americans were killed in the initial exchange of fire, and the communists broke into the ammunition storage area. Eight more Americans were wounded as the heavily outnumbered guard detachment attempted to defend the dump. The communists used horse-drawn carts and pack animals to carry off captured ammunition, and also set up an ambush on the road to Tangku, from which US reinforcements would have to be sent. A column of marines in vehicles was despatched to aid the besieged garrison, but the lead vehicle of the convoy was disabled by land mines, forcing the Americans to dismount and engage their ambushers. Having delayed the US reinforcement, the communists were able to extract a large amount of ammunition, and explode two piles of ammunition. Altogether, the Americans suffered five dead and 16 wounded, making this the worst incident of its type in 'Beleaguer'. The bodies of six uniformed communist soldiers were found, and an estimated 20 to 30 wounded men were carried off by their comrades. On 21 April control of the ammunition dump was handed over to the nationalists.

Right through 'Beleaguer', the USA wished sought to find a way to achieve peace in China, and on 27 November 1945 Truman appointed General George C. Marshall as his special representative in China to attempt mediation of the differences between the nationalists and communists. The communists' immediate reaction to Marshall’s appointment was favourable, but the basic problem proved insoluble as neither the nationalists nor the communists could overcome their distrust of each other. The nationalists remained convinced that the USSR had obstructed their efforts to assume control of Manchuria in spite of the provisions of the Sino-Soviet Treaty of August 1945, and that the communists were Soviet tools. The communists were suspicious of the nationalists, and believed that their aim was the destruction of the party. The nationalist leaders were unwilling to permit communist participation in government until the communists had given up their armed forces, while the communists believed that to do so without guarantees of their legal political status would end in their destruction.

Marshall managed to achieve some co-operation early in his mission, when both groups agreed to meet with him and form a top-level negotiating Committee of Three. Chiang appointed General Chang Chun as his representative, and Mao, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, appointed Zhou Enlai (Chou En-lai). The committee held its first formal session at Chungking on 7 January 1946, and three days later agreed a ceasefire effective from 24.00 on 13 January. The terms of the agreement were simple: both sides were to cease hostilities and halt all troop movements except those of the nationalist forces into and within Manchuria, where government sovereignty was being reasserted. An executive headquarters was to be be established at Peking following the Committee of Three pattern to supervise the ceasefire agreement, and operational teams (each including a nationalist, a communist and a US officer) would go into the field to ensure compliance.

So far as the III Amphibious Corps was concerned, the ceasefire resulted in a reduction in guerrilla attacks, but during the following months there was no time that a guard detachment could consider itself safe. By March, political and military differences had again riven China and, although a pretence at negotiation continued, clashes increased between the nationalists and communists. Neither side was blameless in the covert renewal of hostilities, but the major share of blame fell to the communists, who definitely violated the 10 January agreement in March and April by moving troops from Shansi and Hopeh into Manchuria. With the assistance of the Soviet occupation forces, which conveniently withdrew when the communists arrived to take over, leaving behind them large stockpiles of Japanese weapons and munitions, Mao managed to strengthen his forces considerably during the ceasefire.

By this time about half of the 630,000 Japanese and Korean personnel in China had been repatriated. Chiang wished the stores of Japanese weapons and ammunition for use in his Manchurian campaign, but Wedemeyer refused to give the nationalists control of the weapons until they had assumed control of the repatriation programme, as previously arranged. When the nationalists finally did this, the US forces supervised the effort with the task of overlooking the processing, staging, and loading those being repatriated onto the ships allocated to the task. Additionally, the marines also continued to furnish guard details for US-manned repatriation ships.

Once repatriation operations had been completed in the summer of 1946 and the attempt to mediate a peace treaty had proved futile, the role of the III Amphibious Corps changed to the traditional task of protecting US lives and property in China. Just as the communists were strengthening their forces for the imminent Manchurian campaign, however, the USA began its post-war reduction of its armed forces. By December 1945, thousands of the III Amphibious Corps' men had become eligible to return to the USA under the point discharge and rotation plan, and increasing numbers would become eligible every month of the new year. Although some replacements (low-point men and regulars) were available from marine units being disbanded elsewhere in the Pacific or from the USA, their number was insufficient to meet the minimum requirements of the units remaining in China.

Between January and April 1946 there were large reductions in the marine numbers in China, so several veteran units were deactivated and repatriated as part of 'Magic Carpet'. On 13 December 1945 Wedemeyer authorised the III Amphibious Corps to disband the 6th Marine Division, which was to be reduced to a reinforced brigade, with its infantry component organised around the skeleton 4th Marines headquartered in Japan. On 24 December Shepherd, who had led the division since its formation on Guadalcanal in September 1944, was succeeded by Major General Archie B. Howard.

In addition to the deactivation of the 6th Marine Division, there was a reduction and regrouping of headquarters and service troops at all levels of command, a disbanding of 1/29th Marines and the third battalion of each infantry regiment, and deactivation of the last lettered battery of each artillery battalion within the 1st Marine Division. The 4th Marines, backbone of the proposed brigade at Tsingtao, would be the only infantry regiment in the US Marine Corps to retain the World War II organisation of three rifle battalions. The 1st Marine Aircraft Wing was to return the headquarters and service squadrons of MAG-12, as well as VMF(N)-541 and VMTB-134 to the USA, and pass control of the southern airfield at Peking to the US Army Air Forces units supporting the Executive Headquarters.

On 1 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 III Amphibious Corps' 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 US commanders set up a school in China to provide the marines with 'on the job' training. On 1 May the China Theater was deactivated, and most of its remaining tasks were assumed by Lieutenant General Alvin C. Gillem, and operational control of the marines reverted to the commander of the 7th Fleet. With the exception of security guard for vital coal shipments from the Tangshan area, the marines had accomplished most of their original missions.

The primary remaining function for the US forces was provision of 'security of areas occupied by, or necessary for the support of, United States installations, property, and personnel'. Rockey was also directed to maintain liaison with the Peking Executive Headquarters for the 7th Fleet.

Between May and June 1946, both MAG-25 and MAG-32 returned to the USA, leaving the headquarters of the 1st Wing, with attached transport and observation squadrons and the fighter squadrons of MAG-24, to provide air cover for the marine infantry. On 10 June, at Tsingtao, the headquarters and supporting troops of the 3rd Brigade merged with those of the 4th Marines. The III Amphibious Corps headquarters were also deactivated on the same day, and most of the corps staff was reassigned similar duties on the 1st Marine Division’s staff. The corps headquarters and service-type units were disbanded, and staff officers and other personnel no longer needed in the theatre were reassigned or returned to the USA.

Preparation for the III Amphibious Corps' withdrawal from China began in the summer of 1946, as soon as the repatriation operations had been completed. On 1 August 1946 the 1st Marine Division directed that US forces in Tsingtao be reduced to a reinforced infantry battalion, and that the 4th Marines be returned to the USA. The 3/4th Marines was to remain in China as a separate unit, in order to protect US and nationalist naval bases at Tsingtao. The 12th Service Battalion was also remain to continue its role of furnishing logistic support for marine activities in Tsingtao, and one company of the 3/4th Marines was assigned to guard the 1st Wing’s facilities at Tsangkou airfield, from which VMO-6 was to operate in the reconnaissance and liaison roles for the 3/4th Marines.

The last elements of the 4th Marines left China on 3 September, and on the same day the 3/4th Marines passed under direct naval command. The deletion of the 4th Marines from the 1st Marine Division’s strength came at the same time that the last marines were being withdrawn from guard duty on the coal trains operating between Tangshan and Chinwangtao. 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 railway line between Peking and Chinwangtao, both of which had been guarded by marines. After 6 September US guards were assigned only to trains transporting US personnel and supplies.

As result Rockey was able to withdraw from the interior and concentrate his forces within major cities. After the concentration of his forces, Rockey focused on the training programme designed to maintain the III Amphibious Corps' high state of combat readiness, and preparing for departure, which would take place over the next several months. The 7th Marines, reinforced by 3/11th Marines, were moved to the area of Peitaiho and Chinwangtao, while the divisional headquarters, the 'special troops' of the 1st Marines, and the remainder of the 11th Marines took up station at Tientsin.

Rockey was succeeded on 18 September 1946 by Major General Samuel L. Howard, who was tasked with the management of most of the withdrawal. The US forces were withdrawn from Hopeh province between April and May 1947. After that, efforts to evacuate US and other foreign nationals were centred on 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 US lives and property in Hopeh, but was to be deployed only if needed.

In the autumn of 1948, the economic and military collapse of the nationalists in Manchuria, long predicted by Wedemeyer, Marshall and others, happened. By December 1948 the ultimate success of the communists had become so obvious that the director of the US Military Advisory Group of Nanking, Major General David Barr, informed the Pentagon that 'only a policy of unlimited United States aid including the immediate employment of United States armed forces to block the southern advance of the Communists, which I emphatically do not recommend, would enable the Nationalist Government to maintain a foothold in southern China against a determined Communist advance…The complete defeat of the Nationalist Army…is inevitable.'

Over the next few months, the communists steadily drove back the nationalists and captured Nanking, their capital, on 24 April 1949. The last Americans left China from Tsingtao on 16 May 1949. In total, 13 marines had been killed and 43 wounded in clashes with the communists during 'Beleaguer'. Over the same period the marines lost 14 aircraft and 22 crewmen.