The deployment of major U.S. Navy and Marine forces to China from 1945 to 1949 is a slice of history that most Americans know little about, but it had a significant impact on the early course of the Cold War in Asia.1
When warships of the U.S. Navy steamed up the Yangtze River to Shanghai in August 1945, after a four-year wartime absence, they found a China in turmoil. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, devastated by Japan’s aggression and brutal occupation in World War II, faced economic, social, and political disintegration. Mao Tse-tung’s communists, longtime foes of the central government, controlled huge swaths of the country and challenged Chiang’s rule.
In the United States, the administration of President Harry S. Truman was concerned in August 1945 that Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s Red Army and Mao’s forces would fill the vacuum in northeast Asia created by the repatriation of Japan’s defeated troops. Soviet forces already had stormed Manchuria and were headed for northern Korea. Under pressure from Moscow, Chiang agreed to Soviet control of major railroads and commercial ports in Manchuria and the basing of Soviet warships at Lushun (formerly the Port Arthur naval base). The day after the Soviets entered the war against Japan in August, Mao secretly directed his forces to occupy cities in northern China and disarm Japanese troops there. For those reasons, and despite the U.S. wartime alliance with the Soviet Union, top American officials distrusted both Stalin and Mao.
Washington therefore instructed Army General Douglas MacArthur, the supreme commander for the Allies, to counter those Communist moves by deploying U.S. forces to southern Korea and northern China. Furthermore, on 17 August the President approved General Order No. 1, stipulating that Japanese forces in China would surrender only to Chiang’s government, and not to the Communists. Few American leaders considered this action inappropriate, given that China had fought alongside the other major Allied nations in the war and the general understanding that the Republic of China was the country’s legitimate government. Admiral William D. Leahy, President Truman’s chief military adviser, and Admiral Ernest J. King, commander-in-chief, U.S. Fleet, and chief of Naval Operations, had generally positive views of Chiang based on their wartime interaction with the generalissimo.
Based on their communist ideology and historical understanding, however, Mao and his lieutenants had an entirely different view of Chiang’s legitimacy and the U.S. military deployment. Since 1927 the communists had been fighting a bloody civil war against Chiang’s Nationalist forces. The communists also believed that China had suffered from hundreds of years of exploitation by foreign powers. Memories of foreign military and naval forces crushing the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, occupying the country’s major cities, and policing its major rivers were fresh in their minds. Mao was also a fervent Marxist-Leninist. He informed his subordinates that “the postwar world has been turned into a state in which American reactionaries are antagonistic to the world’s people. In China this is the same. Thus, our struggle in China is closely connected with the political struggle in the world.”2
The U.S. Navy Returns to China
In 1945, U.S. military leaders generally were unaware of the antipathy toward the West among Mao’s communists. In the late summer of that year Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid’s 7th Fleet transported U.S. Army troops to Korea and after that moved the 1st Marine Division from Okinawa to Tientsin, southeast of Peking, present-day Beijing. A later operation deployed the 6th Marine Division to other locations in North China.
As laid out in Operation Plan 13-45 of 26 August 1945, Kinkaid established five major task forces to manage operations in the western Pacific:
• Task Force 71, the North China Force with 75 ships
• Task Force 72, the Fast Carrier Force, directed to provide air cover to the Marines going ashore
• Task Force 73, the Yangtze Patrol Force with another 75 combatants
• Task Force 74, the South China Force, ordered to protect the transportation of Japanese and Chinese Nationalist troops from that region, and
• Task Force 78, the Amphibious Force, charged with the movement of the III Marine Amphibious Corps to China.To impress Soviet and Chinese communists alike with “displays of strength,” U.S. carrier aircraft overflew ports in Manchuria, Tientsin, and Peking, and the Great Wall of China.
On 16 September Kinkaid, embarked in minesweeper YMS-49, reached Shanghai where he established 7th Fleet headquarters. He also met with the U.S. Army’s top China theater commander, Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer; U.S. Ambassador Patrick J. Hurley; and all the other chief U.S. and Chinese officials and military leaders. On 20 September Kinkaid flew to Chungking, then the Republic of China’s capital, and met with Chiang and his charming and internationally celebrated wife, Madame Chiang. They feted and praised the American admiral and informed him that the U.S. Navy was welcome anywhere in China.
Those festivities notwithstanding, the 7th Fleet did not get much of a breather in the months after the war. Kinkaid wrote to his wife that “the Navy out here is like a five-ring circus. The 7th Fleet has been landing the Army in Korea, the Marines at [Tientsin], another Marine force [the 6th Marine Division] will land at another point at an early date, and we are about to start the movement of several Chinese armies from one point to another.”3
The situation in China became quite tense. The Marines of Major General Keller E. Rockey’s III Marine Amphibious Corps, deployed by the 7th Fleet to Peking, Tientsin, and other population centers in North China, found themselves in a hornet’s nest of political intrigue. U.S. foreign policy required Navy and Marine forces to support Chiang’s legally constituted government, but to steer clear of the internal Chinese conflict—an impossible task. The 7th Fleet deployed Rockey’s Marines to some areas already occupied by Mao’s troops, who did not like the intrusion.
In some cases, 7th Fleet commanders used common sense to carry out their missions while avoiding entanglement in the Chinese civil strife. Kinkaid’s subordinate, Vice Admiral Daniel Barbey, for example, decided that it made no sense to land Marines at the port of Chefoo on the northern coast of the Shandong Peninsula in the face of opposition from local communist forces. Barbey, backed by General Rockey, reasoned that with no prisoners of war or Japanese troops in the area needing repatriation, and the communists managing the civil administration of the port, there was no need to force the issue. Instead, the Navy landed the Marines at Tsingtao on the peninsula’s south side.
The 7th Fleet transported entire Chinese Nationalist armies to North China and Manchuria in support of Chiang’s effort to re-establish government control over all China. The stated reason for the mission was to replace U.S. Marines in North China and Soviet troops in Manchuria with Chinese government troops—as provided for in Allied agreements—take the surrender of Japanese forces, and then transport the latter to Japan. The Americans understood, however, that those actions would prevent the Chinese communists from establishing a foothold in these regions. The communists understood that, too, and blocked the debarkation of Nationalist troops at Hulutao and Ying Kou. The Navy landed the units farther south at Chinhuangtao.
In October 1945, the Navy expanded the 7th Fleet’s area of operations to include the Gulf of Tonkin off French Indochina as far south as the 16th parallel. In late October and early November 1945, U.S. minesweepers cleared the waters around Haiphong. Simultaneously, 28 naval vessels embarked the 23,000 troops of the Nationalist 52nd Army and delivered them to North China. Between March and May 1946, the 7th Fleet transported tens of thousands of Nationalist troops from Tonkin and southern China to the north.4
Recognizing that naval responsibilities in China, and now Indochina, would hinge more on diplomacy than war-fighting in the postwar period, on 8 January 1946 the Navy assigned a full admiral, Charles M. Cooke Jr., as commander 7th Fleet and the following January renamed his billet Commander U.S. Naval Forces, Western Pacific. To carry out their responsibilities, Cooke’s forces normally operated from the ports of Shanghai and Tsingtao with one cruiser division, three destroyer divisions, an amphibious group, and a small number of logistics ships.
Tsingtao, Home of the 7th Fleet
During the first four years of the Cold War, the 7th Fleet called the naval base at Tsingtao home. The port had served as a Far Eastern outpost of the Germany’s navy until a Japanese force seized it at the outset of World War I. On 11 October 1945, fleet ships landed the 6th Marine Division at Tsingtao and shortly afterward the new commander 7th Fleet, Vice Admiral Barbey, established the Chinese Naval Training Center to prepare Nationalist Chinese sailors. By 1946, 7th Fleet commanders regarded Tsingtao as the fleet’s primary anchorage in China, with responsibilities for training Chinese sailors, transferring surplus ships and craft to them, and managing an airfield.
During 1947, Mao’s communist forces became increasingly hostile toward Marines stationed in North China and the naval personnel at Tsingtao. In June, Mao’s troops fired on the repair ship USS Deliver (ARS-23) working to salvage a pontoon that had gone adrift near the port. Supported by covering fire from the Deliver and the destroyer Benner (DD-807)—the purpose of which was to “discourage and drive off rather than injure the attackers”—a landing party from the destroyer Hawkins (DD-873) recovered the pontoon.
Two months later, bad weather forced a Marine pilot to land in communist-held territory near Tsingtao, and Mao’s troops traded fire with a landing party of Marines from the heavy cruiser Saint Paul (CA-73) and sailors from the destroyer Tucker (DD-875) sent to retrieve him. To avoid any escalation of the situation, the Americans destroyed the plane and withdrew. The communists released the young naval aviator but only after protracted and lengthy negotiations with U.S. diplomats.
In December 1947, the communists shot and killed one Marine and captured four others outside the base and only admitted it in February 1948, along with a demand that the United States withdraw its forces from Tsingtao and stop aiding Chiang. Not until April were the captured men and the body of the slain Marine returned to U.S. custody.
Even in the face of such hostilities, Tsingtao had become a busy place by the late 1940s. The warships that operated there included the alternating flagships Eldorado (AGC-11) and Estes (AGC-12); aircraft carriers Valley Forge (CV-45) and Antietam (CV-36); hospital ship Repose (AH-16); and a host of cruisers, submarines, destroyers, amphibious ships, and auxiliaries.
The Nationalist-Communist Struggle
The deployment of the III Marine Amphibious Corps in North China became increasingly untenable between 1946 and 1948. An attempt in 1946 by General George C. Marshall, wartime Army chief of staff, to broker a Nationalist-communist coalition government failed and the hostilities escalated significantly soon afterward. Knowing that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were deploying Nationalist divisions to northern China and providing Chiang’s forces with training and war matériel, the communists retaliated. Mao’s troops ambushed III Marine Amphibious Corps guardposts and convoys, killing and wounding Marines.
In the face of that hostility and because he believed that the United States should openly side with the Nationalist government, Cooke, supported by his naval superiors in Washington, called for increasing the Marine contingent at Tsingtao from 2,000 to 6,000 and retaining the base for the Navy regardless of the course of the Chinese Civil War. Cooke considered the Navy’s presence there as a counter to the Soviet Union’s naval forces to the north at Lushun. In addition, Navy leaders expressed outrage at Mao’s brutalization of his internal enemies—including Chinese Christians—the acceptance of Soviet military aid, and the mistreatment of American diplomats.
The Truman administration, especially the State Department, however, began to see Chiang’s cause as lost, and so rejected the admiral’s proposals. Washington ordered the reduction of Marine forces in North China and eventual withdrawal from China. By the end of 1946, Marine forces had been pulled back from the interior (except Peking) and concentrated at major ports.
U.S. Operational Expansion to Southeast Asia
Through the five years after World War II, the 7th Fleet comamder, operating from China, served in essence as America’s ambassador to Southeast Asia. The Truman administration wanted to increase the U.S. presence in support of governments battling communist movements that surfaced in the Philippines, Malaya, and French Indochina. Navy leaders also wanted to carve out an operational area that was not under General MacArthur’s Far East Command, headquartered in Japan, so they increasingly dispatched naval vessels on port visits to Southeast Asia.
The aircraft carriers Antietam and Boxer (CV-21), light cruiser Topeka (CL-67), and seven destroyers were guests off Manila when the Philippines celebrated its independence from the United States on 4 July 1946. In March 1947, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, chief of Naval Operations, directed Cooke to begin “showing his flag at Singapore and other points in that direction.”5 On 8 November 1947, Task Group 70.7, with the flagship Estes, light cruiser Atlanta (CL-104), and destroyers Rupertus (DD-851) and Mason (DD-852), departed Tsingtao for a planned 30-day cruise to Southeast Asia. The ships, with Cooke embarked, made port calls at Hong Kong, Singapore, Brunei, Manila, Subic Bay, and Keelung on Taiwan, returning to Tsingtao in early December.6
In late 1947, at Washington’s direction, Cooke sent the attack transport Renville (APA-227) to the Netherlands East Indies off the island of Java to host negotiations between Dutch officials and Indonesian independence leaders. On 17 January 1948, the parties signed a document thereafter called the Renville Agreement that, while short-lived, demonstrated U.S. interest in securing the peace in Southeast Asia.7
Triumph of Mao’s Communists
While dubious about the prospects of Chiang’s government and war effort, throughout 1948 and 1949 the Truman administration actually increased military aid to the Republic of China. As a result of the China Aid Act of 1948 and other programs, the United States provided $400 million in economic and military assistance and transferred 165 surplus naval vessels to the Nationalist navy. The U.S. Navy and the other armed services established programs to train Nationalist forces in the use of American-made weapons and equipment.
Cooke’s successor, Vice Admiral Oscar C. Badger, headed the re-established 7th Fleet (identified as the 7th Task Fleet in 1948 and 1949) until August 1949. Badger shared with Cooke a belief in the importance of retaining Tsingtao, whose Naval Training Center had graduated more than 3,000 Nationalist officers and enlisted men by early 1948. That year Badger proposed establishment of a joint U.S.-Nationalist defense force for the base because he considered it time to “stand and hold, come hell or high water” against the Communists.8 The Truman administration considered the idea ill-advised and quashed it.
American support for Chiang’s government did little to stem the communist tide on the mainland. By mid-1949 Mao’s troops had defeated one Nationalist army after another, occupied all of Manchuria and northern China, and stormed across the broad Yangtze River into southern China. Chiang and his remaining followers fled to Taiwan and numerous other islands along the coast.
Recognizing that the victorious communists were unlikely to welcome the continued presence of the 7th Fleet at Tsingtao, the Truman administration finally ordered its evacuation. Badger suggested relocation of the fleet’s facilities and the Naval Training Center to Taiwan, but the proposal became yet another that the State Department rejected. Basically, the Truman administration had decided to wash its hands of the chaotic situation in China. In the spring of 1949 Badger oversaw the redeployment of the Marine defense force in Tsingtao to Guam and Japan and moved all naval personnel aboard warships in the harbor. Finally, on 25 May the 7th Fleet steamed seaward, closing a dramatic chapter in the Navy’s Cold War history.
In July 1949, Mao announced a “lean to one side” (the Soviet side) in the growing U.S.-Soviet confrontation. On 1 October 1949, after conquering the Chinese mainland, the revolutionary leader stood in Peking’s Tiananmen Square and announced formation of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In February 1950, the PRC and the Soviet Union signed a 30-year Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance.
The Dividends of Experience
Hence, what U.S. naval leaders had feared since 1945 had come to pass. But the experience in China had schooled a generation of officers about the nature of the ideological and power struggle with the communists in Asia. They witnessed communist attacks that killed and wounded American Marines and sailors. They better understood the connection between Mao’s revolution in China and Marxist-Leninist movements throughout Southeast Asia. By 1950, naval leaders who would guide U.S. military strategy and operations in the Far East for the remainder of the decade had a clearer appreciation of the threat to American interests.
Moreover, the U.S. military’s efforts in China planted the seeds of later success for the Nationalist armed forces. Chiang’s naval arm did not cover itself with glory in the struggle with the communists for the mainland. And the sailors in some of the vessels the United States and Great Britain had supplied soon defected—taking their ships over to the communist side. But partly as a result of the U.S. matériel and training provided at Tsingtao and elsewhere, in 1949 and early 1950 Chiang’s military began to show some promise.
In 1949 the Nationalist defenders of Quemoy (Jinmen) Island off the port of Amoy (Xiamen) defeated an amphibious assault and killed or captured more than 10,000 communist troops. Mao considered the Quemoy debacle “the most serious loss in the War of Liberation.”9 The People’s Liberation Army then seized Hainan Island off southern China in April 1950, but not until the Nationalist navy and air force had exacted a bloody toll from the invaders. The communists significantly failed to prevent the seaborne evacuation of 66,000 nationalist troops from the island to Taiwan. Those Nationalist successes, qualified though they were, led Mao to postpone a planned 1950 invasion of Taiwan. The outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950 and the 7th Fleet’s deployment to the Strait of Taiwan ended that plan for good.
Except for the occasional headline-grabbing incident or flare-up of hostilities, the hardships and toil of American military personnel in faraway Asia had gone largely unnoticed back in the United States, where the postwar economy was booming and for most Americans life was good. Nonetheless, the efforts of the Navy and Marine Corps in China during those years between World War II and the Korean War better prepared the services and their leaders for their vital role in defense of U.S. interests in Asia during the remainder of the Cold War.
1. Unless otherwise indicated, the information in this article was derived from the following sources: Edward J. Marolda, Ready Sea Power: An Illustrated History of the U.S. Seventh Fleet (Washington, DC: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2011); Gerald E. Wheeler, Kinkaid of the Seventh Fleet: A Biography of Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid, U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996); Edwin Bickford Hooper, Dean C. Allard, Oscar P. Fitzgerald, The Setting of the Stage to 1959, vol. I in The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1976); COMNAVFORWESPAC, Narrative of Seventh Fleet, 1 September 1945 to 1 October 1946, ser 477, 20 February 1947 and 1 October 1947 to 1 April 1948, Post-46 Command File, Operational Archives, Naval History and Heritage Command; Benis M. Frank and Henry I. Shaw, Victory and Occupation, vol. V in History of U.S. Marine Corps Operations in World War II (Washington, DC: USMC Historical Branch, 1968); Odd Arne Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946–1950 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003); Mark A. Ryan et al., Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949 (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2003); Marolda, The U.S. Navy and the Chinese Civil War, 1945–1952, Ph.D. dissertation, the George Washington University, 1990; Joseph A. Sestak Jr., “The Seventh Fleet: A Study of Variance between Policy Directives and Military Force Postures,” Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1984.
2. Quoted in Westad, Decisive Encounters, p. 60.
3. Quoted in Wheeler, Kinkaid, p. 442.
4. Hooper et al, The Setting of the Stage to 1959, pp. 105–110.
5. Sestak, “The Seventh Fleet,” p. 45.
6. COMNAVFORWESPAC, Narrative, 1 October 1947 to 1 April 1948.
7. Hooper et al, The Setting of the Stage to 1959, p. 148.
8. Letter, Turner to Butterworth, 6 May 1948, RG 59, Office of Chinese Affairs, 1945–50, box 13, 213.016 (1948) Tsingtao, State Department Records, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD.
9. Quoted in He Di, “The Last Campaign to Unify China: The CCP’s Unrealized Plan to Liberate Taiwan, 1949–1950,” in Ryan, Chinese Warfighting, p. 78.