The Seventh Fleet in Chinese Waters
The Seventh Fleet in Chinese Waters
Dr. Edward J. Marolda
Naval Historical Center
Standard accounts of the Korean War conclude that the advance of U.S.-led United Nations forces across the 38th parallel in September 1950 was the primary stimulant for the massive Chinese Communist intervention into the conflict two months later. I have no argument with that well-founded interpretation. I would contend, however, that actions taken by the United States on the Chinese maritime frontier, months before the Chinese ground advance into North Korea, laid the foundation for that attack by contributing to Peking's perception that the United States was not simply restoring the status quo ante in Korea but mounting a broad offensive against the Communist mainland regime.
I should stress that there were factors, other than the activities of the Seventh Fleet, working on Communist perceptions, including renewed U.S. material assistance to the Chinese Nationalist armed forces and the growing interaction on Taiwan of prominent American and Nationalist military figures. The lack of time precludes their treatment in this paper.
Most of you will recall that the Communists, under Mao Tse-tung, had been engaged in a bitter and protracted civil war with Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists during the late 1940s. This phase of the conflict lasted until 1949, when the Communists wrested all of the mainland from the Nationalists and forced them to flee to the large island of Taiwan and other islands off the coast of China.
The civil war did not end at this point as is generally suggested. The conflict entered what I characterize as the "maritime phase," which lasted throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. As the civil war ran its bloody course on the mainland, the Truman administration endeavored to disentangle the United States from the Chinese fight. Thus, even though the administration refused to recognize the openly pro-Soviet government of the People's Republic of China (PRC), established in Peking on October 1, 1949, it also moved to cast off its ties to the Nationalists and Generalissimo Chiang. In December 1949, the National Security Council (NSC) affirmed a policy that American forces would not attempt to prevent the Communist seizure of Taiwan. Then, on January 5, 1950, Truman announced to the world that the United States was adopting a "hands off" policy with regard to further political and military support for the Nationalists.
Truman's Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, felt it important to avoid the permanent estrangement of Peking. He took the long view in this regard. He concluded that in twenty year's time China's traditional fear of Russian encroachment on Chinese sovereignty and a continuing need for Western trade would inevitably motivate a Sino-American rapprochement.
Thus, there were clear indications in the first half of 1950 that the United States would not openly oppose Mao's consolidation of power and seizure of all remaining Chinese territory.
The Communists had frequently expressed the intention to complete their victory in the civil war by destroying Chiang's surviving armies and seizing the offshore islands, the Nationalists' last refuges on Chinese soil.
Certainly, Mao's armies had the ability to carry out waterborne invasions, as they demonstrated during the first half of 1950. Possessing large numbers of ground troops and coastal junks, the Communists attacked Nationalist offshore positions from one end of the coast to the other, almost simultaneously. Stretched thin by this tactic, the Nationalist air and naval forces were further hampered by the Communists' use of the night and inclement weather to mask their waterborne invasion and reinforcement movements. In short order, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) expelled the Nationalists from strategic island groups in proximity to Port Arthur and Dairen, Swatow, Canton, and Hong Kong.
An even greater disaster befell the Nationalist cause when they failed a major test of strength with the Communists over the large island of Hainan off China's southern coast. This battle would be especially relevant to later conclusions regarding the Communists' ability to mount major amphibious operations and the Nationalists' inability to defend against them. Between April 16th and April 30th, Communist general Lin Piao's 4th Field Army landed on the island and outfought the 160,000-man Nationalist garrison, capturing 100,000 of the defenders and forcing the evacuation to Taiwan of most of the remainder.
The loss of Hainan was a shock to the Nationalist war effort and prompted increased concern for the defense of Taiwan. Nationalist morale was severely shaken. Robert C. Strong, the U.S. Charge d'Affairs in Taipei, reported that many Nationalists now believed that Taiwan's days were numbered. The CIA predicted the fall of the island to the Chinese Communists by the end of 1950.
The world's focus now switched to the Chou Shan Islands, which guarded the approaches to the strategic port of Shanghai and the Yangtze River mouths. On May 10th, fearing a repeat of the disastrous Hainan affair, Chiang ordered the withdrawal to Taiwan of the 80,000 to 100,000-man garrison, 25-plane air force contingent, and 7-ship naval force. The move was executed with dispatch.
Rear Admiral Carl F. Espe, the Acting Director of Naval Intelligence, concluded that the successive evacuations had had a "devastating effect on morale."1 The U.S. Charge d'Affairs and the naval and military attaches in Taipei now concluded that "Taiwan will probably fall to the Communists sometime before the end of July."2 Although Espe thought the attaches' estimate too pessimistic, he observed that "there seems to be little doubt that Taiwan will in due course fall into Communist hands."3
The Communist drive to seize Taiwan had by then reached fever pitch. U.S. naval intelligence reported advanced preparations by the Chinese Communists for an amphibious attack, labeled appropriately "Operation Taiwan." Walter McConaughy, the U.S. Consul General at Shanghai, reported that the liberation of Taiwan was being trumpeted publicly by Peking as the nation's paramount immediate mission and one on which they were staking the reputation and all the resources of the new regime.
In what would prove to be a prophetic observation, McConaughy reported to Washington that "there would seem no avenue left for Communist retreat. Either they gain Taiwan, or, goaded by bitter humiliation and by Kremlin propaganda, they must keep it ever before the Chinese people as China's great irredentist issue and perpetual cause for anti-American vehemence. Well to remember that Taiwan Irredentism is not Communist monopoly but popular Chinese national issue."4
By the late spring of 1950, the Chinese Communist armed forces were prepared to carry out the assault on Taiwan, their most ambitious maritime operation yet. The Communists assembled 5,000 vessels for the invasion by commandeering freighters, motorized junks, and sampans and refloating ships that had been sunk in the Yangtze River during the fight for the mainland. Further, they gathered and trained over 30,000 fishermen and other sailors to man the flotilla.
Since the previous year, General Chen Yi's 3rd Field Army, which was responsible for the assault, had been positioned on the Fukien coast opposite the large island. The Communists trained their troops extensively in amphibious warfare and applied the lessons learned from the Hainan and other island seizures. Despite an outbreak of the Asian blood fluke disease, which reportedly felled thousands of soldiers, preparations proceeded apace for the cross-channel attack. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson later revealed that between June 10 and June 24, 1950, the strength of the field army swelled from 40,000 to 156,000 men. Also prior to June 25, elements of Lin Piao's 4th Field Army moved from south China to the Shanghai area, where they were positioned to serve as a strategic reserve for Chen Yi. Historian Allen Whiting, author of the seminal work, China Crosses the Yalu, relates that by late June, Peking's exhortations to men in the units stationed opposite the island paralleled in fervor those broadcast to the troops before the Hainan invasion. In short, the Communists were now ready to launch the attack on Taiwan and win final victory in the civil war.
That attack would never come. For, on June 25, 1950, infantry and armored forces of the North Korean People's Army smashed their way south into the Republic of Korea, touching off an international conflict. That evening and again the following evening, President Truman gathered his chief political and military advisors around him at the Blair House, across from the White House in Washington, to consider the American response to the attack. After little deliberation-- and I stress that--he directed the dispatch of a message to the Pacific theater ordering the U.S. Seventh Fleet to deploy to prevent a Communist invasion of Taiwan and at the same time insure that the Nationalists would not use the island as a base of operations against the mainland. Quite simply, he sought the military neutralization of the strait, aligning the United States politically with neither of the Chinese antagonists. He announced this action on the 27th.
Truman regarded the outbreak of fighting in Korea as the hostile advance of international Communism. He feared that the Communist bloc, directed by Joseph Stalin from Moscow, had aggressive intent not only toward Korea, but Japan, the nations of Southeast Asia, and American-occupied Okinawa. In addition, by June 1950, Truman had been persuaded, as a result of his own Cold War experiences, and by the arguments advanced for several years by General Douglas MacArthur, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and others in the defense establishment, that Taiwan was vital as a barrier to the advance of Soviet power and international Communism and a key link in America's Far Eastern defensive perimeter.
Because of overemphasis on the geopolitical and strategic aspects of the Taiwan problem, neither Truman nor his chief advisors adequately considered the political consequences of the fleet mission in the strait. The action again involved the Truman administration in the Chinese civil war, from which it had only recently, and with great difficulty, distanced itself. Significantly, the decision to deploy the fleet off China ensured the hostility of many Chinese who, regardless of political persuasion, traditionally opposed foreign interference in Chinese affairs. Those who might not have supported the Communists were exercised over the offshore presence of the American fleet, which prevented the unification of China and resolution of the cataclysmic civil war.
The Communist reaction to Truman's decision was immediate and bitter. Mao declared, with typical Communist verbal passion, that the move revealed the "fraudulent" nature of Truman's earlier statements about not intervening in the civil war and exposed the "imperialist face" of the United States.5 Zhou En-lai stated that the fleet deployment represented armed aggression against the territory of China. As an indication of the depth of feeling over the issue, Zhou observed: "The fact that Taiwan is part of China will remain unchanged forever."6 For the next two decades, Peking would virtually rule out any hope of Sino-American accommodation because of the confrontation over Taiwan.
Giving substance to the President's order, by dawn on June 27th, an aircraft carrier task force, the cutting edge of American naval power in the vast Pacific Ocean, was steaming at flank speed toward the Strait of Taiwan. The Seventh Fleet units had sortied from their base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. The naval force was led by Rear Admiral John M. "Peg-leg" Hoskins, acting Commander Seventh Fleet in the absence of Vice Arthur D. Struble, then in Washington. The aircraft carrier Valley Forge--the only aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific--her two escorting destroyer divisions, two submarines, and several logistic ships steamed past Taiwan on the 29th of June. Hoskins sent 29 fighters and attack planes from the Valley Forge roaring northward through the strait to alert everyone that the U.S. Navy had arrived.
The Seventh Fleet force steered past the Nationalist stronghold and dropped anchor at Buckner Bay, Okinawa, roughly mid-way between Taiwan and Korea, at the end of June. The scarcity of U.S. naval forces in the Western Pacific demanded this deployment; the major units of the Seventh Fleet could not operate in the Korean arena and defend the Taiwan Strait simultaneously. They just didn't have the strength.
Planners in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations estimated that a Communist junk flotilla would be able to transit the strait in one day, at a four or five-knot speed of advance. For this reason and because of the multitude of targets presented by a large fleet of junks, they believed a sizeable body of enemy troops might reach the shore of Taiwan without being intercepted. And everyone agreed that if any significant Communist forces landed on the island, the jig was up. Nationalist resistance would collapse. Morale was clearly eroded.
Operating from Buckner Bay, the Seventh Fleet would take a day to arrive off the west coast of Taiwan. Naval forces in Korean waters would not be available for at least two days. That, of course, assumed they were not involved in heavy combat operations or engaged in evacuating U.N. forces from Korea, very real possibilities in 1950 and 1951.
In this circumstance, early warning and interception of an invasion force was absolutely vital. Accordingly, steps were taken to establish U.S. air, submarine, and sea patrols of the strait. Operationally, this could only be accomplished through the use of the anchorages, ports, and shore facilities of Taiwan and the nearby Pescadore Islands. Cooperation with Nationalist authorities was implicit.
To improve coordination and communications for the prospective air patrol, during the second week of July Admiral Struble and the commanding officers of two units, Patrol Squadron (VP) 28 and Patrol Squadron 46, conferred in Taipei with top military leaders of the Nationalist armed forces.
On July 12th, the Secretary of Defense designated Rear Admiral Harry B. Jarrett the Senior Military Attaché in Taipei and the officer in charge of a liaison group, and augmented his staff with three officers from each of the U.S. military services. The group's mission was to serve as a link between the Seventh Fleet and the Chinese government.
The operation plan for the Taiwan Strait patrol, also developed at this time, authorized an action that American leaders had avoided since 1949 because they feared it was provocative--stationing U.S. naval vessels at ports in Taiwan. Chiang, obviously pleased at the recent turn of events and the developing U.S.-Nationalist relationship, observed to Struble that he had a "special regard for and real friendship with each U.S. naval commander in [the] Far East" and "admired Navy particularly because they always willing come to help of friends in need."7
On July 16, patrol aircraft of Fleet Air Wing 1 began reconnaissance missions in the strait. On that day, VP 28, which flew nine P4Y Privateers from Naha, Okinawa, inaugurated a daily surveillance of the northern part of the strait and along the nearby China coast. The following day, VP 46, with nine PBM-5 Mariner flying boats, kicked of f patrols of the strait's southern sector from the Pescadore Islands, where seaplane tender Suisun deployed on the 17th. Routinely, patrols were only flown from land bases or secure anchorages during the winter months. Throughout 1950 and 1951, one seaplane and one land-based squadron carried out the round-the-clock patrol of the strait.
The emergency nature of the 1950 patrol was clearly reflected in the way it was set up and carried out. Lieutenant Commander Maurice F. Weisner, the Commanding Officer of VP 46, and a future Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet, related in a post-mission report that the patrol units had a difficult time operating in the strait. Day and night, in foul weather and good, his PBMs flew 14-hour circuits just off the "deck." During the winter monsoon, winds of gale-force strength were common.
In the difficult patrolling environment of the Taiwan Strait, foreign policy requirements sometimes took a back seat to operational necessity. On August 29, Commander Seventh Fleet directed that all American aircraft "exercise particular caution not to violate Soviet or Chinese territory or territorial waters."8 Despite this injunction, Weisner observed that to accomplish the reconnaissance mission, "we got the pictures of the whole coast and forgot [about] the twelve mile limit."9 Intrusions into Chinese air space would not be uncommon in this period.
During this first operation, in July 1950, MacArthur approved Struble's recommendation that the patrols be publicized. The U.S. interest in the inviolability of Taiwan, first demonstrated by the June 29th surface passage and aircraft flyover of the strait was to be made absolutely clear. For deterrence to work, this was considered an essential measure. But it also highlighted the American fleet's presence in waters the PRC considered its own.
Not released to the public was the information that the submarines Catfish and Pickerel had sortied from the U.S. naval base at Yokosuka, Japan, on the 18th and 19th of July. The two submarines were directed to patrol the strait, approaching no closer than 12 miles to the mainland coast and 6 miles to Taiwan. For the next ten days, the boats patrolled submerged during the day off Amoy and Swatow. A Chinese Communist radio news broadcast that 1,500 junks were enroute from Swatow to Amoy initially caused concern, but the report proved to be bogus. Finally, on July 30 Pickerel and Catfish ended their patrols and proceeded to Yokosuka. Once in Tokyo, the commanding officers of both submarines reported on their missions to Admirals Struble and C. Turner Joy, the latter Commander Naval Forces, Far East.
American fears of a Communist invasion were intense during July and August. On July 17th, the CIA concluded that the Communists could launch a successful amphibious assault on Taiwan despite U.S. opposition. Soon after, crewmen on a British merchant ship spotted a large concentration of junks in the strait. When a VP 28 P4Y Privateer was sent to investigate on the 26th, two hostile fighters attacked the patrol plane, which made good its escape. The following day, Far East Command officers in Taipei learned that a Nationalist agent on the mainland had attended a meeting at which Communist leaders discussed an assault in the near future on Quemoy.
In response to this perceived invasion threat, the JCS had already directed Commander in Chief, Far East, to mount another naval show of force in the strait. The JCS felt that the presence of 7th Fleet elements in the strait, even for a short time, would be an effective demonstration of U.S. resolve and serve as a deterrent.
On the 26th of July, Admiral Struble dispatched to the strait Rear Admiral Charles C. Hartman's surface task group, comprised of the cruiser Helena and the three destroyers of Destroyer Division 111. On the 28th, Hartman's group reached the northern end of the strait and began a sweep southward. The cruiser Juneau joined the force on the 28th.
On August 4, Admiral Struble established the Formosa Patrol around the ships of the group, which were to operate from Keelung, Taiwan. Hence, for the first time since the evacuation of the mainland naval base at Tsingtao in May 1949, U.S. naval forces were based at a Nationalist port. The Formosa Patrol Force (Task Force 72)- later the Taiwan Patrol Force--would operate in the strait for the next two decades of the Cold War.
The presence of the Seventh Fleet in the strait and the uncertainties surrounding the war in Korea did deter Peking from an invasion attempt. The Communists feared what they thought were strong forces arrayed against them. One Nationalist spy reported, after attending a high-level meeting of Communist officials, that they were concerned their invasion fleet would last only a few hours against the Seventh Fleet and the U.S. Air Force.
In the July 7, 1950, issue of the Communist publication World Culture, an unnamed author described a new, unfavorable balance of forces in the strait. He related that "before June 27, the problem of liberating Taiwan pitted the strength of the PLA against the Chiang Kai-shek remnants, with the help of the American imperialists [no committed military forces] occupying a background position." After Truman's declaration, however, "the problem of liberating Taiwan pits the strength of the PLA against the American imperialists [at a minimum the Seventh Fleet], with the Kuomintang bandit remnants moving into the background."10 This was a subtle indication that Peking appreciated the changed military situation. It is significant that neither the author nor Zhou En-lai, who made relevant public statements during this period, called for the immediate "smashing" of the American imperialists or for immediate invasion.
The possible consequences for the PRC of a U.S.-Communist confrontation in the strait were sobering. Of course, there was a strong possibility that the American fleet would destroy the invasion flotilla, with all the negative domestic and international ramifications that would entail. Open warfare would put China's industry and transportation system, concentrated in the coastal areas, at great risk from U.S. naval and air attack. Further, the United States might conclude that the operation was a joint venture of the Sino-Soviet bloc, and the Chinese were concerned about hazarding their relationship with Moscow. In short, after June 27, 1950, "political and military indicators evidenced a postponement of the Taiwan invasion for as long as the United States Seventh Fleet continued to shield Chiang's forces.11
The outbreak of war in Korea and the unexpectedly strong reaction of the United States and its U.N. allies to the North Korean attack also counseled caution on Mao's part. While Peking continued to devote primary attention to Taiwan and not Korea in the period from late June to the end of August, as reflected in media coverage, the Communists were aware of the dangerous situation in northeast Asia. They appeared to adopt a stance of "watchful waiting" as events unfolded in Korea.
The deployment of Chinese Communist forces during this period also supports the conclusion that the Seventh Fleet and the evolution of the conflict in Korea deterred an assault on Taiwan. In late June and early July, 30,000 men of Chen Yi's 3rd Field Army, which was slated to attack Taiwan, moved north to the Shantung Peninsula. Others followed during the remainder of July and August. Thus deployed, these forces were ideally located to support operations in Korea, defend the central coast, or return to invasion preparations. Significantly, only a segment of Chen Yi's field army continued training for the maritime operation. On July 16, 1950, the Chinese general stated that "while we intensify preparations to liberate Taiwan, we must not neglect our task of national economic recovery." To quote historian Whiting, "this minor shift of emphasis implied a major change in policy.12
During this period of great volatility, important figures in the American military establishment publicly expressed views that could only inspire Chinese Communist hostility. General MacArthur, in a paper he intended to be read for him at a Chicago gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, spoke of a U.S. island defense line in the Far East from which "we can dominate with air power every Asiatic port from Vladivostok to Singapore." In this defensive chain the general included Taiwan, on which "at the present time there is...a concentration of operational air and naval bases which is potentially greater than any similar concentration on the Asiatic mainland."13 His text could easily have been interpreted by Peking as support for offensive action from the island as well as defensive action.
At the same time that the general's words were leaked to the press, Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews, who idolized MacArthur, suggested how the United States might deal with the current international crisis. On August 25, on the occasion of the Boston Naval Shipyard's sesquicentennial, Matthews called on the United States to become the "first aggressors for peace." As sailors scrambled up the rigging of USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," the secretary laid out his prospective approach: "To have peace we should be willing, and declare our intention, to pay any price, even the price of instituting a war to compel cooperation for peace....It is a cause to which we will be compelled to dedicate our total and ultimate resources. From no other course can there be effected the salvation of the free world."14
Matthews' prescription for world disaster and General MacArthur's observations were quickly and publicly disavowed by Truman.
Peking, however, was not comforted with the knowledge that the civilian head of the U.S. Navy and the commander of U.S. forces in Northeast Asia ascribed to such world views. In fact, the Communists referred to the speeches as evidence of American aggressiveness, the President's disavowals notwithstanding. Whiting concludes that "Peking seems to have interpreted the pattern of U.S. political statements and actions during these weeks as a direct challenge to which a firm response was dictated both by national interest and by Communist ideology.15
The trend of U.S.-Chinese interaction was not to Mao's liking. At the end of September, the authoritative Communist publication Jen Mm Jih Pao asserted: "We Chinese people are against the American imperialists because they are against us. They have openly become the arch enemy of the People's Republic of China by supporting the people's enemy, the Chiang Kai-shek clique, by sending a huge fleet to prevent the liberation of the Chinese territory of Taiwan, by repeated air intrusions and strafing and bombing of the Chinese people, by refusing new China a seat in the U.N., [and] by rearming Japan for the purpose of expanding aggressive war. Is it not just for us to support our friend and neighbor against our enemy?"16
There were increasing signs that Peking intended to intervene in the Korean War. Chinese soldiers were captured deep in North Korea. Also ominous, on November 5th, a PBM patrolling in the Taiwan Strait disappeared. This was preceded by intelligence supplied to U.S. officials by the Nationalists that the Communists had issued orders to their forces to "take offensive action against US PBM Mariner."17 On November 6, the U.S. Charge in Taipei concluded from Nationalist-supplied intelligence that the Chinese Communists planned to "throw the book" at United Nations forces in Korea.18 On the November 25th, they did.
In brief conclusion, it is difficult to avoid a connection between the American activities in the strait and on Taiwan, which appeared to the leaders in Peking as a serious threat to the PRC, and the Chinese Communist advance across the Yalu.
1. Acting Director, Office of Naval Intelligence, memo of information, ser OP-322F1E of May 26, 1950, box 3, CNO File, 1950, Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center.
4. Consul General at Shanghai to SECSTATE, Jan 5, 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States. 1950 (Wash: GPO), Vol.VI, 264-69.
5. Quoted in Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tuna (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), p.244.
6. Quoted in China: U.S. Policy Since 1945 (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, 1980), p.91.
7. Msg, Charge in China to SECSTATE, Jul 10, 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States. 1950, Vol. VI (Wash: GPO), p.373.
8. Msg, COM7FLT to CTG7O.6/CTF77, 290008Z Aug 1950, Record Group 9, box 57, Incoming Navy, MacArthur Archives, Norfolk, VA.
9. CNO, "Interview of Lt. COMDR M.F. Weisner, USN Commanding Officer, VP-46," Feb 21, 1951, Post-46 Command File (Chronological), Operational Archives, Naval Historical Center.
l0. Quoted in Allen S. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu: The Decision to Enter the Korean War (NY: Macmillan Co., 1960), p.63.
11. Ibid., p.68.
12. Ibid., p.65.
13. Quoted in Secretary of State to Certain Diplomatic Offices, Aug 26, 1950, FRUS. 1950, Vol. VI, pp.451-53.
14. New York Times (Aug 26, 1950), pp.16.
15. Whiting, China Crosses the Yalu, p.95.
16. Quoted in Ibid., p.106.
17. Msg, ALUSNA Taipei to COM7FLT, 180150Z Sep 1950, Record Group 9, box 56, Navy Msgs, MacArthur Archives, Norfolk, VA.
18. Karl Lott Rankin, China Assignment (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964), p.65.
List of Topic Discussion Papers
- Colloquium on Contemporary History Project
- MacArthur and the Chinese Communist Intervention
- General George E. Stratemeyer and the Air War in Korea: Fall 1950
- The Epic of Chosin
- General Discussion