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China and US military cooperation during World War Two

David M. Finkelstein, vice president of CNA Corporation Photo:

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the victory of the world’s anti-fascist war. And 74 years ago, for the first time in history, the US tied its own national security to the fate of China, and China’s survival depended on assistance from overseas especially from the US, said David M. Finkelstein, vice president of Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) Corporation and a retired US Army officer, at the Beijing American Center on Monday.

China and the US formally became allies after Japanese army attacked the Pearl Harbor, but “American sentiment was clearly with China” even before the Pearl Harbor, he noted.

Although there was little that the American government could do to help China in its fight against the enemy throughout 1930s because of the Great Depression, pacifist attitude and isolation, as well as America’s small army force in the 1930s, many private Americans created charities to send money to Chinese people.

By late 1930s, many private charities were established in the US, and by 1940s all these charities combined into one organization called “United China Relief”, aimed at raising money for China and making the Americans aware of Chinese people’s brave fight.

“The message was very simple: China is fighting alone; China is fighting against depression; China needs America’s help,” Finkelstein said.

In 1941 President Roosevelt signed the Land Lease Act which authorized the US government to transform military equipment and also provide military training to China. In October 1941, the first 50 Chinese pilots came to be trained in army field in Arizona and Texas. Under the program, the US government also sent 100 P-40 fighters to China. What was more important was that this program allowed the American pilots to go fight for the Chinese air force, which was the first time in American history to allow military personnel to resign from the US army and fight for a foreign country.

“So even before the Pearl Harbor, 90 pilots and 180 ground support personnel were on their way to China to form the Flying Tigers,” Finkelstein said. According to the official US Air Force of World War Two, the Flying Tiger had very good combat record destroying 300 enemy planes at the cost of 50 planes and 9 pilots. In July, 1942, the Flying Tiger was disbanded as a unit of the Chinese Air Force and went back to the US Air Force. 

After the Japanese army attacked the Pearl Harbor, China and the US became formal allies. 

By the end of 1942, the China Burma India Theater (CBI) was formed following Japan’s invasion of Burma. “This was probably the most difficult and complicated Theater of all the Theaters in World War Two in my view,” Finkelstein said, not only a geographically complicated Theater, but more importantly a “politically complicated Theater.”

While President Roosevelt wanted China to join the major powers after the World War Two, President Churchill did not agree; and in China while there was a Mao Zedong-led Communist Party in Yan’an, there was a Wang Jingwei-led puppet government in Nanjing.

But David who is an expert on China and US relationship during World War Two said if we only focus on the political problems, we will miss the story of how big China and US cooperation was on the military front, and the story of China and US alliance at the human level, and people-to-people level.

Highlights of David M. Finkelstein’s speech on China and US military cooperation during World War Two

Air war

The US and China air war was a big effort. There were three major American air units that operated to support China - the India China Army Transport Command operating out of India flying supplies to China; the 10th Air Force station in India; and the 14th Air Force that was stationed in China itself.

By early 1944, there were approximately 43,000 US army air corps personnel in China supporting that mission. While everybody talks about Flying Tigers, nobody talks about the air transport command. This was critical to the survival of the government of Nanjing. It had the very important and very dangerous mission of flying supplies from India over the Himalayas into China. This was actually the first time in the world military history that a government was kept alive by strategic airlift.

This was very dangerous work for several reasons. First, the aircraft was very small by today’s standard carrying very small loads – 20 to 40 tons per plane based on flying conditions. But because China was desperate for supplies, they overloaded the tons all the time. The second reason this was dangerous was because they had to fly over the Himalaya mountains. At those altitudes, you can only take a lower load, the wings ice over, and they had no radio, GPS, to help them know where they were going. The third reason is that the Japanese planes were intercepting these cargo planes all the time. And finally, the American pilots were very young, and had very little experience, and many of them died because of that.

A report that a US Air Force general sent to the Washington during the war read: We are paying for supplies to China with men and airplanes. We are asking boys to do what was most difficult for men to accomplish. We are paying very high prices for every ton of supplies that go to China. US lost probably 1,500 pilots just flying supplies to China.

Tonnage from India to China Photo:

By the end of the war in 1945, the US air force sent 71,042 tons of supplies over the Himalaya mountains to China. And the US did not do this alone. They required help from the Chinese government and the Chinese people. Because there was no heavy machinery, physical labor was used to build an air field in Sichuan, so that the planes could have a place to land. American air force engineers were sent to help Chinese friends to build these air fields to exact specifications, and even the planes had to be refueled by hand.

China’s citizens were absolutely critical in saving hundreds of American pilots when planes went down. One famous story is how friends in China saved the raiders of the Doolittle Raid.

Even before the World War Two started from America, Chinese pilots were training in the US. By 1943, Chinese American Composite Wing, a unit combing American and Chinese pilot together, was created. It was jointly commanded by both American and Chinese officers.

The American and Chinese pilots were very devoted to each other. One of the American pilots once said about his Chinese friend, “We think the Chinese pilots are so good that we are skating our lives on them. Personally we will go anywhere with them.” And the Chinese pilot has this to say, “We work with the American pilots together like two fingers on the same hand. We are fighting the battles in the same planes, and by helping our brothers we are helping ourselves.”

Ground war

One of the things in my research that surprised me was how big was the effort by the US to train and equip the Chinese ground forces. This big training effort had three purposes: to help Chinese ground forces to take back Burma; to defeat the enemy in China; and to assist in the invasion of Japan that most people believed was going to begin in China.

The training took place in three locations: Ramgarh in India, Kunming, and Guilin. There were about 100,000 Chinese soldiers trained in India, some called X-force originally coming out of Burma after the British were defeated by Japan in 1942; some flowing from China to India to create the New First Army.

Chinese army forces trained in Kunming were known as Y Forces, where Y stood for Yunnan, and were trained by the US army. This initially consisted of 27 Chinese divisions, and eventually became the core of the Chinese expeditionary force under general Wei Lihuang. Together the X-force and the Y-force of Chinese divisions worked together with the American and British forces to take back Burma. Also trained in Kunming were another 36 Chinese divisions called the Alpha Force.

The US army carefully chose the officers who were sent to India and China to train the Chinese forces. Most were combat veterans from North Africa and Italy and Sicily. But to be clear, Americans did not command Chinese forces; Chinese commanded the Chinese forces, and the Americans were only responsible for training. It was not only the Chinese who were trained in Ramgarh, Kunming and Guilin, Americans were also trained there. General Stilwell insisted that all Americans coming to China who worked with Chinese army forces had to take Chinese language class.

There were two things unique about the Kunming training base, as the Chinese units could not leave their defense position and get training all the time. The first was that General Stilwell created a mobile training team which was sent to the battle field if the Chinese unit could not come to be trained. The second thing which Feng found unbelievable about Kunming was that the US army created in Kunming a replica of its own Army Command and General Staff College in Kansas, aimed at teaching Chinese soldiers the lessons of combat that the Americans had learned in North Africa and Europe.

The US army did not just train the Chinese army and send them off to battlefield. Instead, a liaison officer system was created that embedded American officer in Chinese units to provide assistant and advice.

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