Those Rough-and-Ready Gunboat Marines

By Blagman, Jack | Sea Classics, August 2006 | Go to article overview

Those Rough-and-Ready Gunboat Marines


Blagman, Jack, Sea Classics


Proof that the most elite of all Leathernecks were the Marines of the Asiatic Fleet who served in Marine detachments aboard US Navy gunboats is the fact that nine later became Marine Corps commandants

BACKGROUND

Since the 1850s, America has had economic and cultural interest in China. Those interests grew over time as businesses and missionaries poured into China. Over the decades that followed, American presence spread from the coastal cities to the interior. The numbers of businesses that profited increased. Missionaries by the hundreds, from many branches of Christendom, viewed China as an enormous challenge and opportunity for conversion. And America was but one of many imperial countries that found deep economic and social interests there; England, France, Germany, Japan, Italy and others all rushed to claim their share of the wealth and prosperity; and incidentally displace centuries of culture and economic stability.

By 1900, Chinese resentment against foreigners was so great that an outraged uprising took place in the north. Missionaries were slain, churches and foreign businesses were burned. The imperial countries, fearful of loss, indignant that the Chinese dared to protest their ennobling presence sent warships and armed forces to harshly and savagely suppress any protest. The Peace Treaty that followed pauperized a shaky Qing monarchy and set the stage for further exploitation... and a seething, internal discontent. By 1911, a rebellion took place that ousted the monarchy. The government was fatally weakened and decentralized, setting the stage for disruption and civil war. The breakdown of authority allowed bandits and warlords to amass large armies that controlled many sections of China. In 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the founding leader of the National People's Party died. His death precipitated a power struggle erupting into a civil war with strong anti-foreign overtones. China, especially outside the major coastal cities, was a dangerous place for foreigners.

GREATER AMERICAN MILITARY PRESENCE

In 1926-1927, as the civil war grew, Nationalist forces advanced toward Shanghai. American citizens, fearful for their safety, remembering the Boxer nightmare, were deeply troubled about what the Nationalists would do.

They were just as uneasy about the strong communist faction within the Nationalist forces and requested protection from the Government-As part of the Boxer Treaty Settlement, the United States kept Marines as legation guards. But the small contingent was only enough to protect legation property, at best. As conditions became more unsettled the American Commander-in-Chief of the Asiatic fleet transferred Marines from Guam and the Philippines to China. The first force (two officers and 135 enlisted men) left Guam in December 1926, disembarking at Chingwangtao. Soon thereafter, twelve more officers and 160 enlisted (plus three additional officers and 85 enlisted men from the USS Asheville) were formed into The Expeditionary Battalion, US Asiatic Fleet. As conditions became more critical, the 4th Regiment along with the Expeditionary Battalion landed in Shanghai in March 1927. The entire force was commanded by Brig. Gen. Smedley D. Butler. They were assigned billets and given patrolling duties in designated areas of the International Settlement. By April 1927, Marine forces in China including the Legation Guards at Bejing, stood at 271 officers and 4843 enlisted men. The 4th, nicknamed the "China Regiment" was to remain in Shanghai for 15 years.

MARINES IN CHINA

As the turbulence and lawlessness continued, more Marines were sent to China. The 6th Regiment (less the 3rd Bn.) boarded the USS Henderson at San Diego arriving in Shanghai. (The 6th was to do two hitches of duty, the first from May 1927 to January 1929 when they were stationed at Tientsin; the second in 1927-1928 when they served with the 4th Marines in Shanghai). Note: There were other Marine forces stationed in China - artillery, a tank platoon, an engineer company, even one squadron of airplanes - but, for the purposes of this discussion, we make reference only to Gunboat Marines, those assigned to vessels that patrolled the rivers and waterways. …

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