Feature The China Marines

Find out more about this little known WWII regiment.

The China Marines

A little-known chapter of U.S. military history is the story of the China Marines, who were stationed in Shanghai throughout the latter half of the 1920s stretching right up to 1941.

With the onset of civil unrest and the nationalistic Kuomintang marching on Shanghai the U.S. powers decided to send in troops to protect American interests and citizens.

On January 28, 1927, the 4th Regiment of the United States Marine Corps was ordered to the Far East.

Their mission: to protect the lives, property and commerce of American citizens in the International Settlement of Shanghai.

The International Settlement was an enclave for foreigners, also made up of British, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch communities. Chinese sovereignty was theoretically intact, but in practice the settlements were self-governing and needed independent protection.

Shanghai became a highly coveted tour of duty. With a currency exchange rate of about 20 to 1 the troops lived well. Chinese labor was cheap so the servicemen were well taken care of. They spent their earnings on silk, ivory and other goods, which they often shipped home. They even had their own club, fitted out with several bars, a bowling alley, theater, restaurant, library and ballroom.

But this golden age was not to last. In 1931 the Japanese Army began invading Manchuria. The Chinese retaliated, and fighting broke out between Japanese troops guarding their settlement in Shanghai and Chinese troops at Chaipei, a district to the north of the International Settlement.

The 4th Marines – also known as the China Marines - sprang into action, maintaining a defensive perimeter and protecting the settlements.

Peace returned and for the next six years the China Marines continued their comfortable lifestyle. Shanghai in the 1930’s was an exciting place to be. There were 45,000 foreigners in the International Settlement and another 16,000 in the nearby French concession. By 1932 there were also approximately 25,000 Russians who had fled their country’s Bolshevik Revolution. They included top class ballerinas, musicians, and performers who transformed Shanghai into one of Asia’s premier artistic centers. They opened clubs and restaurants and organized literary discussions.

Chinese and Japanese realations remained tense and the serenity was again disrupted in 1937 with the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War. For several months the Chinese area of Shanghai was controlled by the Japanese Army. The Chinese withdrew in November 1937, though many Chinese residents remained in the International Settlement. While the Japanese military could not seize the International Settlement, they maintained pressure on the remaining foreign delegations through intimidation.

By 1940, with Europe again at war and tensions between Japan and the United States steadily increasing, the situation for the 1000-strong garrison of China Marines become even more difficult. Other foreign nations were withdrawing their troops from the area, while the Japanese military increased their numbers to nearly 500,000 troops. The China Marines began making plans in preparation for the imminent hostilities. Fortunately there were only a few minor skirmishes.

Finally, in November, two weeks before Pearl Harbor, the Americans withdrew their forces from Shanghai. The 4th Marines headed for the Philippines, many of them doomed to be captured by the Japanese and perish in POW camps, an outcome that has forever marked the former China Marines regiment.