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The United States 15th Infantry Regiment in China, 1912-1938, by Alfred Emile Cornebise

Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 2004. Pp. 273. Illus., notes, biblio., index. $45.00. ISBN:0-7864-1988-1.

Conventional wisdom has it that the U.S. military presence overseas during the period between world wars was limited to the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. It is fairly well known that the United States had Marines and ships posted in China and several Caribbean countries before World War I and during the run up to World War II. This wisdom ignores the facts the army had units posted to China and the Panama Canal Zone during that period, in addition to garrisons in Germany until 1923, and in the American possessions of Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands. Mr. Cornebise’s book examines the little known and often ignored presence of a U.S. Army infantry regiment posted at Tientsin [Tianjin], China between 1912 and 1938.

The carefully documented book opens with an account of the history of the 15th Infantry from its organization in 1861 through the American Civil War, occupation duty in the post-war South, Indian Wars service throughout the western territories, overseas service in China during the Boxer Rebellion, and then on to multiple rotations to the Philippine Islands. This discussion sets the stage for its long-term deployment to China. The author then proceeds to explain the mission of the 15th Infantry in North China, and then goes on to take a look at the living conditions and events that the troops experienced.

The regiment’s primary mission was to show the flag and represent U.S. interests in China. In this role it joined the military forces of other treaty powers, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan, Germany, and Russia. The regiment performed this mission admirably until the Japanese seizure of northern China in 1937. When China had been in self-inflicted turmoil between 1911 and 1927, the presence of small bodies of foreign troops in Tientsin had provided stability and a shield from marauding bandits and warlord armies vying for control of the city and its surrounding province. So grateful was one village for this protection that its inhabitants subscribed together for a honorary gate that was presented to the regiment. This gate now is at Ft. Benning, Georgia, home of the U.S. Army Infantry School, where it represents the eternal gratitude for protection.

The experience in China was characterized by routine garrison duties such as might be have been experienced at any domestic post. But it had an admixture of exotic location, a constant need to be ready for an emergency, and a “fuller” range of off-duty pursuits available on and off post than might be experienced back home..

The soldiers were regulars. They may have been farm lads who enlisted for the adventure and to escape the routine of following a plow. Many were professional soldiers with experience in foreign armies. A few were American-born Chinese. Some made the Army a career . Many did their term of service and returned home to make a life, one full of tales for their children and grandchildren. A very few married locally and took retirement in China.

For the officers, China offered an opportunity for foreign service that was not otherwise available. Such future prominent officers as George C. Marshall and Joseph Stillwell rotated through the 15th Infantry. A number of other junior officers became generals during World War II.

In 1932 Japan seized Manchuria and made it part of the Japanese Empire. This set the stage for an undeclared war that preceded World War II in Asia. In 1937 Japan’s ambitions precipitated open war with China. That June Japan took Tientsin. The 15th’s mission and location were no longer tenable. In March of 1938 two companies of Marines from the Legation Guard in Peking [Beijing] arrived to take over the barracks and on March 2nd the regiment relinquished its responsibilities to the Marines at the morning guard change. With flags flying the 15th marched through the city to the railway station for the 167 mile journey to Chinwangtao. It embarked on the transport Grant b

Reviewer: Philip R. Abbey   

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