The Fourth Marines in China, 1927-1941

[cover of the Walla Walla, March 5, 1938]

From 1927 to 1941, a unit of the United States Marine Corps, the Fourth Marines, was assigned to Shanghai, China, where its members were able to observe firsthand some of the events that led to World War Two. The Fourth Marines sailed to Shanghai from their home base in San Diego, California in February 1927 in order to protect American citizens and property in Shanghai's International Settlement. Initially, the threat to the Americans came from a conflict internal to China, but, within a few years, it evolved into one resulting from the tensions between China and Japan.

During their fourteen years in Shanghai, the Fourth Marines were exposed to activities that would not gain the full attention of most Americans until the United States became directly involved in the war. Although the Fourth Marines were a relatively small unit (consisting at various times of between 1,200 to 1,600 men) awash in a sea of 3,000,000 Chinese nationals and tens of thousands of other foreign citizens living in Shanghai, they affected the local economy as well as local opinions of Americans, serving as "unofficial ambassadors" to the local populace. Likewise, their opinions of Chinese citizens and culture were shaped by their experiences in Shanghai.

The traditional role of the Marines has been one of a seagoing assault force, as opposed to one of a permanent ground force. Therefore, the Fourth Marines' prolonged presence in Shanghai was rather unique. Extended periods of military inactivity and relegation to the status of a quasi-police force in a war zone had a strong impact on the perceptions and morale of the members of the Fourth Marines. Their actions and opinions were directly shaped by the role to which they were assigned in Shanghai.

Deployment to Shanghai

The events which initiated the movement of the Fourth Regiment to Shanghai had been set in motion nearly a century prior to their departure from San Diego. Foreign involvement in China, from the Opium War in 1842, to military defeat by Japan in 1895, and through the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (which also involved deployment of United States Marines), had led to a very strong nationalist and anti-foreign sentiment there. Nationalist leader Dr. Sun Yat-Sen led his revolutionary party in an overthrow of the Manchu Dynasty in 1911 and his ideas were especially popular with students and merchants. Following World War One, Chinese and Russian Communists lent their support to Dr. Sun's cause, as did the military leader Chiang Kai-shek. (1)

Dr. Sun died in 1926 and would never see China unified or free of foreign domination, but Chiang undertook military operations in July, 1926 to consolidate Nationalist power throughout China. By the fall of 1926, Chiang's forces had control of the Yangtze Valley and were moving northward toward Shanghai. Foreigners in Shanghai's International Settlement began to fear that Chiang's forces would overrun the settlement, so they appealed to their governments for increased protection. When Nationalist troops overran the British settlement at Hankow in January, 1927, the United States minister to China, John Van A. MacMurray, sent an urgent request to the State Department for 20,000 troops. (2)

President Calvin Coolidge did not want to provoke the Chinese, so, instead of a large body of Army ground forces, he ordered a Marine Regiment sent to China. It was also made clear by Secretary of State Frank Kellogg that the Marines were to be used strictly to safeguard American lives and property and would not be used to protect the International Settlement as a whole. In a cable to MacMurray, Kellogg stressed that "it must be definitely understood that this force is present for the purpose of protecting American life and property at Shanghai." (3) Even though some of the other countries of the International Settlement called for a combined force to defend the settlement, directives from the State Department reiterated the order for the Marines to act only on behalf of American citizens and property. (4)

Shanghai and its International Settlement

Although Shanghai was an important Chinese city with a population of around 3,000,000 in 1927, it was dominated by the presence of foreigners. The policy of extraterritoriality, established in the 1800's, allowed the outsiders to establish settlements and govern themselves, independent of Chinese authority. The International Settlement consisted of approximately 10,000 British and American citizens, with France and Japan maintaining separate concessions. (5)

Condit and Tornbladh stated that:
The International Settlement was a Western enclave in a hostile city of three million
inhabitants. About half of its boundary rested on natural barriers -- Soochow Creek
on the northwest, and the Whangpoo River on the southeast. On the west, the defense
perimeter was pushed out beyond the political boundary to the tracks of the Shanghai-
Hangchow-Ningpo Railroad, the embankment of which made a natural defensive position.
On the south the French Concession offered a measure of protection, but, in the absence
of any agreement with the French or any knowledge of their plans, this boundary also had
to be fortified and manned. To the northeast was the densely populated Chinese quarter
of Chapei. (6)

Shanghai had been dominated by the British since the 1840's. By 1926, they controlled approximately one third of the shipping which passed through the port and their 7,000 citizens set the social tone for the city. Although the British still took the lead in affairs of the city, they were being strongly challenged by the Japanese, who had over twice as many residents as the British and controlled almost one fourth of the shipping by 1926. Japan had already overtaken Britain as the leading trading nation with China as a whole in the 1920's. (7) The United States, by comparison, had a minor role in Shanghai, with only 1800 residents and control of only twelve percent of the shipping. (8)

The International Settlement was not made up entirely of British and American residents, however. A large number of Chinese lived in and operated businesses within the boundaries of the settlement. Yet, the Chinese mayor had no authority there, the British were in charge of law enforcement, and the Americans and the British had their own courts. (9) Also, "the integrity of the International Settlement had been preserved and maintained through the coordinated efforts of British, Japanese, Italian, American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch military units and the Shanghai Volunteer Corps." (10)

MIlitary Role of the Fourth Marines in Shanghai, 1927-1941

The Fourth Marines departed San Diego on February 3, 1927, bound for Shanghai, as ordered by President Coolidge, aboard the transport ship USS Chaumont. After a record setting voyage, they anchored off Shanghai on February 27. The regiment was forced to remain berthed aboard the Chaumont because US diplomats did not want its presence to stir up anti-U.S. sentiment in the city. (11)

Ray Poppelman, a young Corporal at the time, would later state, "We were all eager to get ashore to the International Settlement and French ConcessionÉ. Finally, liberty was granted, providing that twelve Marines stayed together, wearing bayonets and pistols." (12) Although the Marines were able to leave the ship for liberty and drill, the regiment was still not allowed to establish headquarters ashore. On March 21st, a state of emergency was declared because of Chinese fighting around the International Settlement and the Marines were finally allowed to land. (13) The Fourth Regiment was limited to an internal security role and did not come into direct contact with Chinese troops. Brigadier General Smedley Butler arrived in Shanghai in late March and took command of all Marine forces ashore. The Fourth Regiment was then attached to the Third Marine Brigade and General Butler amplified its instructions, giving it more leeway to help in perimeter defense if necessary. (14) Butler also injected some common sense and gained the favor of the men by replacing tiresome foot patrols with motor patrols. (15)

In response to the situation in China, more Marines were sent there as part of a Provisional Regiment, including the Second Battalion of the Fourth Regiment, which had originally remained behind in San Diego. However, by the time this new Regiment arrived, the situation had eased. This led to a scaling down of the Fourth Regiment; on October 4, 1927, the Second Battalion was redesignated as a unit of the Twelfth Regiment and on October 7 the Provisional Battalion was deactivated. By early 1928, the Fourth Regiment had been detached from the Third Brigade and almost all of the Marines except the Fourth Regiment had left China. On February 13, 1930, the Fourth Regiment was redesignated as simply the Fourth Marines. (16)

The situation in Shanghai would remain stable until 1932, giving the Fourth Marines a chance to settle into the city. By that time, they had become, "in effect, a permanent garrison in the International Settlement in Shanghai." (17) Although there appeared to be stability among the Chinese by that time, the Marine presence was still necessary because of growing tensions between the Chinese and Japanese.

In January 1932, hostility erupted between Chinese and Japanese civilians as a result of pressure related to the Japanese seizure of Manchuria the previous September. The Japanese army garrison in the International Settlement attacked local Chinese troops and the Shanghai Municipal Council declared a state of emergency. The Council requested the Fourth Marines to be used to guard the boundaries of the International Settlement. (18)

The Fourth Marines took up position along Soochow Creek, which was the dividing line between the settlement and the Chinese community of Chapei. Reinforcements arrived from the Philippines in early February. The Fourth Marines and their reinforcements continued to patrol the area along Soochow Creek until June, when the Chinese troops withdrew from Chapei and the state of emergency was officially ended. During the time of the emergency, the Marines' position was constantly exposed to fire from both the Chinese and Japanese, but there were no American casualties. (19)

Another opportunity for excitement came from October 1933 to July 1935, when small detachments from the units were used as guards aboard ships of the Yangtze Rapid Steamship Company. These ships had been preyed upon by pirates on their upriver voyages and the addition of Marine guards aboard all but eliminated the danger of pirates. (20)

Steamship duty allowed the Marines to get out of the local environment and see the interior of China. Robert H. Williams, a young Lieutenant at the time, was assigned to such duties and later stated that "It was 'good duty,' as marines used to refer to any duty that was undemanding, watching rural China glide by from the deck of a riverboat." (21) The threat of piracy had diminished almost completely by 1935, and the Marine detachments were withdrawn from duty on the river. (22)

Although open hostilities between the Chinese and Japanese had not taken place since 1932, this ceased in 1937 with a clash at the Marco Polo Bridge in Peiping. The tension spread to Shanghai, where two Japanese military personnel were killed by a Chinese citizen. Japan sent warships to the city and landed troops. The Nationalist Government also sent troops to the area and bitter fighting eventually broke out between the Japanese and Chinese. (23)

This new crisis led to another deployment of the Fourth Marines along Soochow Creek. Their instructions were to prevent belligerent troops from entering the American sector, but were not to use gunfire except as a last resort. Once again, the Fourth Marines were reinforced by Marines from outside China. This time, it was the Second Marine Brigade, under Brigadier General John Beaumont (an earlier commander of the Fourth Marines). The brigade arrived in Shanghai on September 19 and the Fourth Marines were attached to it the next day. (24)

Outright fighting had ceased by that time, but there was still a great deal of tension. Japan had shored up its strength in the area and then began to try to weaken the position of the Western Powers in the International Settlement. The mission of the Fourth Marines then became to thwart any attempt of the Japanese to disturb the American sector. By 1939, war in Europe had caused the other powers to reduce their strength in Shanghai, so there was little hope for their support in case of a Japanese attack. In 1940, the situation became more muddled as Italy (which had troops in the International Settlement) became allied with Japan and the Vichy government ordered French troops in the settlement into neutrality with the Japanese. When Britain withdrew its forces from the settlement in August 1940, the Fourth Marines remained as the only obstacle to Japan's goals in the International Settlement. (25)

By September 1941, conditions were so serious that officials in Shanghai strongly encouraged removal of all naval personnel from North China. Intelligence reports showed that the Japanese would soon make a move to seize the entire International Settlement. Washington agreed to the withdrawal of the Fourth Marines and permission for evacuation was given on November 10. The First Battalion and part of the Headquarters Staff departed aboard the USS President Madison, on November 27. The remaining members of the Fourth Marines departed aboard the USS President Harrison, the next day. (26)

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