History Friday: The U.S. Marines in China

Starbucks Pacific Century Place
Watching the smokers suck cancer sticks
1023 hrs.

One of the forgotten bits of the history of the U.S. in China is the story of the role the U.S. Marine Corps played in the unstable years between the Nanjing Massacre in 1927 and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the U.S. into the war.

Apart from the guard detachments at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, there were several isolated detachments around China and a full regiment – the 4th Marines – in Shanghai, all stationed to protect U.S. diplomats and civilians against warlords, bandits, the Japanese Army and Kempei-tai. The thought of large formations of US troops in China is stomach-churning today, but the country was a cauldron in the last decade before World War II, and most of the European powers stationed troops in the mainland to (at least ostensibly) protect their citizens and interests.

The story of the Marines in China during that period is largely unknown. I fancy myself something of an amateur military historian, but I found out about the “China Marines” through my reading of W.E.B. Griffin’s “The Corps” series of novels.

Intrigued, I went looking for other sources. Eric Niderost has a highly readable overview on History.net, taken originally from his article in World War II magazine. The History Department at the University of San Diego posts an article that forms a good companion to the Niderost piece.

If you want to go deeper, there is a superb China Marines section of B.J. Omanson’s Scuttlebut and Small Chow site entitled “History and Lore of the Old Corps.” Apart from some excellent articles, Omanson sports some excellent links and a list of relevant books.

Finally, there is the China Marines site, which is both brilliantly designed and deeply researched. The images and maps alone are worth your time.

What intrigues me about this period of history was the way the Marines and the everyday Chinese interacted. Putting young Americans in strange situations always brings out the best and the worst of us, and watching the way my father’s generation reacted to China is as instructive as sitting here in Starbucks and watching the way our contemporaries manage that stroll across the bridge between two unrelated but intriguingly similar cultures.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
This entry was posted in History Friday. Bookmark the permalink.