by Clement V. Kelly
On 4 May 1942, four-striper U.S. Navy Captain Milton Edward Miles arrived in Chungking as Naval Observer Chungking, to establish wartime working relations with Generalissimo Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese. Miles was an old “China Hand”, having spent a good bit of time in the Far East, and was just the man to liaison with the Chinese.
The U.S. Navy needed a source of weather information in China as the weather appearing over western China eventually moved out over Japan and the Pacific. Such information was especially important in planning aviation operations. In May 1942, the first members of what became Naval Group China, arrived in Chungking to set up the first naval communications system and was followed by a group of meteorological experts to begin weather forecasting. Knowing that Chinese support was vital, Captain Miles, now Chief of United States Strategic Services in the Far East, conferred with Lt. General Tai Li, Chief of the Chinese Bureau of Investigation and Statistics of the National Military Council, an implacable foe of the Japanese and of any enemies of the Generalissimo to whom he was deeply devoted. On 15 April 1943, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization Agreement, between the United States and China was signed and SACO became operational, commanded by Lt.General Tai Li as director and with Captain Miles as Deputy Director. Ultimately about 2,800 U.S.Navy and Marine Corps personnel, of whom all had volunteered for secret, hazardous duty, served in SACO, with an amazing record of only one combat death and four accidental deaths.
With the aid of General Tai Li’s Chinese, SACO set up weather observation stations as far west as the Gobi Desert and even in Japanese occupied areas of China, which supplied continuous weather forecast information as well as weather maps to the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet and the 14th Air Force. In addition to this vital service, SACO’s units were tasked with training Chinese guerilla units in weapons training, demolitions, sabotage, chemical warfare, night operations, intelligence gathering, street fighting, patrolling and scouting and the use of naval and land mines. About 50,000 guerillas were trained who soon made themselves known. to the Japanese. Accompanied by their SACO advisors, they destroyed Japanese locomotives and rolling stock, blew up Japanese troop trains, cut rail lines, attacked Japanese held towns and villages and burned Japanese warehouses and supply dumps. By the end of the war, they had killed 23,000 Japanese, destroyed 209 bridges, 141 ships, 84 locomotives and rescued 76 downed American airmen. SACO’s Yangtze River Unit attacked river and rail traffic and ultimately severed Japanese supply lines in central China. The Japanese held the towns but the guerillas dominated the countryside.
SACO soon fell out with the OSS, which was expanding its activities in the Orient as the war in Europe wound down. The OSS felt that rightly they should be doing what SACO was doing and continued to make difficulties for SACO. Also, General Stilwell resented having naval personnel in what he considered his personal army area and was particularly irked as SACO was an independent organization and not under his control. He frequently held up supplies destined for SACO, once for as long as six months. Despite all this, SACO persevered.
SACO set up coast-watching stations along the entire China coast behind Japanese lines and even had two coast watchers on Formosa. They sent information on Japanese maritime movements (naval and merchant ships) to General Claire L. Chennault’s 14th Air Force whose bombers eventually forced the coastwise traffic further out to sea where they became the victims of waiting submarines. The Kunming branch of coast watchers crowning achievement was the discovery of an undetected Japanese carrier task force heading toward the Philippines. Using this critical information Admiral Halsey’s 3rd Fleet carriers surprised the Japanese and destroyed the Japanese vessels in the Battle of Leyte Gulf (25-26 October 1944). The coast watchers soon cleared the Chinese coast of most Japanese coast-wise traffic, forcing the occupying Japanese to use the roads and railways which were subject to attack by SACO trained guerillas. The surrender of Japan did not end the fighting in China as several groups of Japanese refused to surrender and chose death rather than disgrace.
As a collector of World War II medals, I was delighted to obtain one of the scarcest and virtually unknown Chinese awards for World War II when I was in Taipei about 25 years ago. This is the Sino-American Cooperative Organization Medal, established by the Nationalist (Republic of China) Ministry of National Defense in 1974 and manufactured on Taiwan by Hisang Fah Industrial Works. Recipients had to serve an mainland China in the U.S.Naval Group China (SACO) in 1942 to 1945. Many of these medals were presented at the annual SACO Veterans convention in San Diego in 1974. This was another token of esteem from the grateful Chinese for American help against the invading Japanese. SACO personnel would also qualify for the Chinese “Medal in Commemoration of Victory in the Resistance Against Aggression “ (See the article in “Military Trader” of March 2006 “Chinese-American War Medal.”).
The large, heavy (34 gram weight) decoration is colorful and gaudy as Chinese awards tend to be. It is composed of four groups of enameled alternating rays of red, white, blue, white, red, all edged in gold and pointing north, south, east and west, each group separated by a shorter gold ray in the shape of a sword blade. The maximum height and width of the decoration is 58mm, formed by the blue rays which are the longest. In the center is a disc with a diameter of 27mm with a background of the Republic of China flag to the wearer’s right and the United States flag to his left, hung vertically and enameled in their proper colors. Superimposed across the flags are two hands, in gold, clasped in friendship and below the hands are two Chinese ideograms, the elaborate one to the wearer’s right, translates as “America” and the other as “China,” followed by western letters reading SACO, all in gold.
On the reverse, an inscription in Chinese translates “In recognition of the contributions made by those who fought against the aggressors for freedom during the period 1942-1945. Presented by their comrades in arms.”
The suspension ribbon is threaded through a large gold ring and is composed of 5mm wide vertical stripes of blue, white, red, a 2mm wide gold stripe, and then again 5mm wide stripes of red, white, blue.
Undoubtedly, this is one of the rarest awards for World War II and although 2,800 men qualified for the award, only 600 were presented to SACO veterans in San Diego. Like the aforementioned “Chinese-American Medal” the SACO medal was not authorized for wear on the American uniform. The original order, permitting the wearing of the “Chinese-American Medal” (Circular 166, 29 September 1945) was immediately, three days later, rescinded by Circular 169, Section III, from U.S.Forces China. The issue of wearing either medal, by 1974 was moot as it is unlikely that any of the recipients of either medal would still be serving in the U.S. Forces, 29 years after the war’s end.
General Tai Li died in a plane crash in China, on March 17, 1946, so did not live to see his beloved China taken over by the Communists who obliterated his memorial and grave.
His deputy director, Captain Miles, remained in the U.S. Navy and eventually became a Vice-Admiral. SACO was better known to its members and their Chinese allies as “The Rice Paddy Navy”.