China Marine: A Photo Essay
My grandfather Stephen Vitka had no idea what he would experience in his thirty years as a U.S. Marine when he enlisted in Bridgeport in January 1926. The son of a modest, immigrant family from Slovakia, his career would span an era of tremendous technological change, one that could be summarized as “horses to helicopters.” He rode on a horse during his two campaigns in Nicaragua in the late 1920s, and by the time he retired, he had been on helicopters, including shooting caribou during cold warfare training up in Labrador.
My grandfather’s career took him on various battleships (the Texas and Florida) and transport ships around the world, including Haiti and Cuba, then via the Panama Canal to Hawaii, Guam, the Philippines, China, Japan, the Guadalcanal campaign and Korea.
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Imagine how awestruck my grandfather was when he first saw Shanghai, the Forbidden City in Beijing and the Great Wall of China. We are very lucky he took and collected so many photos. I have never counted them, but there are hundreds. Many show scenes of daily life in China, as well as the international presence in Shanghai.
My grandfather was always proud of having served under the legendary Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, the only U.S. Marine to win both the Brevet Medal as well as two Medals of Honor. The Brevet Medal was in those days awarded to Marine officers for actions meriting the MOH, but the Marine Corps for some reason felt the need to make the medals distinct, with the Brevet Medal having the same star pattern as the MOH, but with a different medal and red instead of blue ribbon.
This photographic essay captures one chapter of the revolution in military technology. His tours in China with the 4th Marines in 1927-8 and again in 1930-1 illustrate changes in small arms as well as armored cars, artillery, aircraft and tanks. General Butler and others realized the importance of these technologies, increasingly integrating aircraft in joint air-land operations such as Nicaragua, where marine pilots basically invented close air support. One photo shows the armored cars that Butler and others used whenever more muscle was needed in street patrols.
Many historians who are familiar with the China Marines have considered their deployments in China choice assignments, and rightly so. However, that did not mean it was a harmless time of parades and sight-seeing tours. There were dangers. My grandfather was “Shanghai’d” one day by a Chinese gang, taken to a holding area, stripped naked and left in a locked, dark room for unspecified amount of time. In newspaper interviews he said “I thought I was a goner.” His cries for help were eventually heard by a passing English soldier, who somehow was able to free him, and my grandfather recalled the humiliation of running down streets in Shanghai stark naked.
The 1920s and early 1930s operations by U.S. Marines in China are a fascinating study. Having my grandfather show me these photos as a kid awed me and inspired me to go on to study history in college and graduate school. Besides the fascination with the exotic, a study in counterinsurgency operations and building relations with locals by U.S. Marines in China and Nicaragua also proves fruitful for those who have fought or will be deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere.
Thank you to Dirk Salverian, Don DiLoretto, Stefan Rohal and Owen Conner for their assistance with this article.