Recent events in China suggest that the country’s leaders are being duplicitous, but that’s really nothing new.
When U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrived in China a couple of weeks ago, he was surprised to see China’s latest alleged stealth fighter, the J-20. Military officials had completed test flights of the prototype jet before Gates’ plane landed. In later meetings, Gates pressed Chinese President Hu Jintao on whether he knew the flight had been scheduled. Seeming surprised, President Hu claimed that he knew nothing about the test coinciding with Gates’s visit.
That claim seems suspicious. The Chinese Communist Party controls the appointment of every position within China, even down to the lowliest civil servants. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) serves the party, not the other way around.
China looked to humiliate the US by showing off the J-20. By controlling a significant portion of our debt and manufacturing (which we outsourced), they are in a perceived position of strength. If China’s leaders are playing fast and loose with the truth–that’s nothing new, especially to veterans of the Korean War.
“Some people don’t even realize we were at war with China,” recalls one Marine veteran. But for those who fought during the Korean War, the memories of hordes of Chinese soldiers attacking their positions are forever seared in their mind’s eye as if branded there. Those who saw the worst of it, fighting deep in North Korea in the Chosin Reservoir, still carry scars inflicted by the Chinese. For many of the men who faced twenty to one odds, temperatures that dropped below -30 F, a lack of food, the mere sight of snow puts a tingle in their once black and frozen feet.
Sixty years ago, China attacked the United States at the Chosin and across the top of the Korean peninsula. At the Reservoir, at least 135,000 Chinese soldiers launched a massive surprise attack which initially nearly trapped the legendary 1st Marine Division. On the western side of Korea, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers handed the Eighth Army a routing defeat, the likes of which was not seen since the Civil War.
Yet, the Chinese claimed the American soldiers weren’t fighting the People’s Liberation Army at all. In a farcical play on words, Mao Zedong claimed that the hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops whom he ordered into Korea were simply “volunteers.”
That was hardly his only duplicity. Mao lied to his own troops–sending wave after wave of fighters to be slaughtered. Many of the Chinese soldiers, former American Allies who fought for Chiang Kai Shek, were poorly supplied, often lacking rifles, cold weather gear and food. It was a perfect chance to consign these former Nationalists to their deaths. Mao’s special execution squads were set up in the rear for any Chinese soldiers who hung back.
On another level, the Chinese army also used duplicitous tactics in their battles with America and its allies.
On November 29, 1950, at the Chosin Reservoir, the U.S. Marines of George Company were assembled into a ragtag force known as Task Force Drysdale. As the last Allied forces in reserve in the Chosin, the task force was ordered to break through a Chinese division of troops “at all costs” and to secure one of the most important hills in North Korea, East Hill. It was a suicide mission.
Rocco Zullo, a charismatic, six-foot-three Marine sergeant, who won a Silver Star at the bloody WWII battle of Peleliu, helped lead the convoy up the road. Taking out bunkers with a rocket launcher and later grabbing a machine gun, Zullo provided covering fire for his Marines. He stayed on the gun for hours as the trucks pushed forward through one Chinese roadblock after another, while he administered a steady drumbeat of death. Half the convoy was killed or captured by the Chinese, but Zullo and his Marines pressed on.
Finally, the Marines and what was left of the convoy of trucks and tanks cleared the last enemy roadblock. Still manning the .50, Zullo spotted a beautiful sight: tents that he believed belonged to U.S. troops.
Abruptly, several individuals clad in Marine uniforms emerged from the tents and approached the convoy. Zullo turned to George Company’s commanding officer. “Captain, what’s our next move?”
Right at that moment, small arms fire erupted from the tents, and the muzzle flashes illuminated Chinese faces cloaked in Marine green uniforms. Machine-gun and rifle bullets tore through Zullo’s side, leaving a hole the size of a grapefruit. Blood gushed from his guts like a geyser.
In defiance of any code of war, the Chinese had dressed in U.S. Marine uniforms in order to ambush the Americans.
After Zullo was shot, the Marines he was leading carried on and secured their objective on East Hill. Despite 20-1 odds, the tiny depleted company held off an entire enemy regiment – a feat usually reserved for a division of troops. Given up for dead, Zullo was placed in a makeshift morgue. But later, Marines from another company discovered that the sergeant still lived. He was taken into surgery and eventually recovered from his wounds after spending years in VA hospitals. No one from George Company knew Zullo survived until the Company’s first reunion thirty five years later!
These Marines survived and–at least temporarily–overcame their enemy despite Chinese duplicity, but to them the memory of Mao’s China still lives on.
If the Korean War teaches us any lessons, one of them could be “We can’t trust China.”