As Pearl Harbor was being attacked, 203 U.S. Marines in northern China were surrounded and captured by the Japanese. They spent from that day until mid September of 1945 as prisoners of war. At least five of the capruted Marines were our food service brothers.
Some of the more fortunate members of the USMC Food Service
Association served with one or more of these Marine Corps heroes who would
seldom if ever discuss their experience as a POW with fellow Marines.
The five North China Marine Food Service POW’s were Technical
Sergeant/Chief Cook Charles H. Darr; Technical Sergeant/Chief Cook Antonio Leon; Sergeant/Field Cook Benjamin R. Benson; Technical Sergeant/Chief Cook Orin R. Miller and Sergeant/Field Cook George W. Parr . All would serve out the remainder of the war in Japanese labor camps.
Of these five Food Service Marines, CWO-4 Charles H. Darr is the
lone survivor and perhaps our associations most precious legacy from WWII.
For additional information on North China Marine Pow’s follow this link to their exceptional website.
The United States Marines in North China
(a brief review)
US Marines served in China at various times and places from the days of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. During the 1920’s and 30’s Marines were stationed at the American Embassy in Peking (Beijing). They were the Embassy Guard Detachment. In 1938 a unit was sent from Peking to Tientsin (Tianjin) to take over legation guard duty from the Army. A still smaller detachment was sent to Fort Holcomb at Chinwangtao (Qinhuangdao), about 140 miles northeast of Tientsin. This was the seaport through which all shipping for the embassy and the Marines had to travel. In the late 1930’s the Embassy Guard Detachment in Peking consisted of about 300 men, the Legation Guard Detachment in Tientsin about 200 men, with about 20 men at Chinwangtao. (Spellings of Chinese cities are from that time period, not current usage.) In 1937 the Japanese invaded and conquered much of eastern China. While Japan controlled this area of China, various military units of other nations remained. The British, French, and Italians also kept forces in Peking. In November of 1941 the 1200 men of the US Fourth Marines in Shanghai were withdrawn and sent to the Philippines. This left only the men of the North China Marines in Peking, Tientsin, and Chinwangtao, by then totalling only 203 men. They were to depart China on the 10th of December, 1941. In preparation for this move all but their personal gear and weapons had been crated and sent to Chinwangtao to be loaded aboard ship for the move to the Philippines.
On the morning of 8 December 1941 (7 Dec stateside time) each of the units woke to find themselves surrounded. At Peking the Japanese had mortars and machine guns mounted on the Tartar Wall bordering the US compound. Given the number of Japanese, the number of Marines, the lack of weapons, and the distance to any friendly forces, Colonel William Ashurst had no choice but to surrender. Col Ashurst surrendered under the impression the Japanese would abide by the Boxer Protocol of 1901, which, it was assumed, contained a clause granting diplomatic status to the Marines. This meant they would be repatriated with the diplomats at the embassy in Peking and the consulate in Tientsin. (No documents seem to actually have had such a clause. This belief in a repatriation clause may have prevented a mass escape while enroute to Shanghai. See Escapes and Deaths page. Some sources say repatriation of military guard units was the norm at this time and that some nation’s guard units actually were repatriated. The five men of the 4th Marines still closing up business in Shanghai were repatriated from Woosung in June 1942-McBrayer book page 97.) Upon surrender, the small unit at Chinwangtao was sent to join the men in Tientsin. (There were 140 men in Peking, 48 in Tientsin, and 15 in Chinwangtao. The total of 204 men included a 14 man Navy medical detachment consisting of 3 officers and 11 enlisted men.) The Marines in Peking were kept in their compound until 10 January 1942, at which time they also were sent to Tientsin. In late January the entire group of 204 Marines was sent by train to the Prisoner of War camp at Woosung, outside Shanghai. They joined there the approximately 1100 Marines and civilians captured earlier on Wake Island.
From this time until their rescue in September of 1945 the Marines were used as slave labor by the Japanese.(The SS President Harrison, which was to have picked up the Marines, was run aground by its captain. The Japanese salvaged it. Read that story at www.usmm.net/harrison.html ) On 1 or 2 November of 1942 a group of about 70 Marines and civilians was sent from Woosung to the northwest coast of Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands of Japan. There they were imprisoned at Fukuoka camp 3-B. This group included at least 25 North China Marines. This movement took place as is described in Terence Kirk’s book, The Secret Camera. None of the other North China Marine books mention it. The Newell diary mentions an earlier group of about 70 civilians leaving in Sep and then the group of about 70 leaving in Nov. In December the camp at Woosung was closed and the entire group moved to nearby Kiangwan. In August of 1943 a group of about 500 POWs was sent from Kiangwan to camps in Japan near Tokyo and Osaka. This included at least 58 North China Marines. Later some of these POWs were sent to other camps in Japan, mostly in the general Tokyo area. The War Information Bureau report on Kiangwan lists another transfer of 150 men on 11 Nov 1943. The Biggs book also mentions this. No other information is yet available as to who went where. If this transfer actually happened, and is not just confused with the November 42 transfer, no North China Marines appear to have been part of it. In May of 1945 the camp at Kiangwan was closed. Most of the POWs were sent on their way to Japan. Along the way they spent time at Fengtai, near Peking, and then Pusan, Korea. They arrived in Japan at the end of June 1945. Some of the POWs were sent to camps near Osaka. Some civilians were sent to Yamagata, others to Niigata. The majority of the remaining POWs (approximately 450) ended up on the northernmost Japanese island of Hokkaido at the Hakodate camps #2, 3, and 4. There are 100 North China Marines known to have been part of this group.
The events of 6 and 9 August 1945 saved the POWs from death by starvation during the upcoming winter or murder at the hands of their guards. Most of the North China Marines were finally rescued from their camps about mid September. This site is a summary of their story. The pages here try to explain the details. Many of the facts listed above are from the book Behind the Barbed Wire by Chester M. Biggs, Jr.
Official figures below provided by CFIR, Inc
In World War II the United States had approximately 16.5 million men and women in uniform. Of these about 2% were killed. In World War II the US Marines had approximately 669 thousand men and women in uniform. Of these about 3 1/2% were killed. In World War I 3% of US Marine particpants were killed. In the Korean War 1% of US Marine participants were killed. In the Vietnam War 1.6% of US Marine participants were killed. What is my point? The POWs in the Pacific faced death and disease on a daily basis for almost 4 years. They died at a higher casualty rate than any war of the last two centuries. Since returning home they have died at a rate 3 times that of POWs from the European Theater of Operations. Yet many of them came away from that experience with a sense of shame, with a feeling they had not done enough. The Japanese constantly told them they did not deserve to live because they had surrendered. Try to find mention of them in history books, especially the North China Marines. Our government did little if anything to help them adjust when they came home. They did not receive their full back pay until 57 years after they returned home, and then in 1942 dollars and with no interest. (Feb 2010 – Now evidence has arisen they were not given the promotions they were actually due.) Interest was finally paid in 2007-to surviving POWs or their living spouses, only 17 North China Marines were still living. If they made a career out of the Marines and retired after 20 years, their disability pay is subtracted from their retirement pay. This issue is still not completely rectified. Many of them were awarded a Purple Heart on their return to the states. In most cases that award was not entered into their records-or was deleted. Today officials drag their feet on paperwork submitted for those Purple Hearts. In 2004 one North China Marine was recommended for a Medal of Honor for his actions in 1942. There was no action on that recommendation for a full year after it was submitted by a retired Marine general who was a witness to the event. Then the official finding was that since no medal had been awarded at the end of the war there would be none awarded now. Further paperwork was submitted as of October 2007. As of February 2010 there was still no action.
So it is easy to see how these former prisoners might feel the way they do. But there should be no shame. There should be a sense of having served their fellow Americans in a manner few others have, at a cost few others have paid. There should be pride.
These men should be seen as examples of what it truly means to be an American.