Talking Proud Archives --- Military

Early clandestine maritime operations, Vietnam

September 1, 2014

A few war stories from the men

Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO)


The Chinese had three weather agencies which agreed to provide SACO timely weather. But Communications were unsatisfactory. So SACO set up its own weather net, and trained Chinese and Thais to be weathermen. This photo shows SACO men training Chinese in operating the radios.

Miles wrote about his US Naval Group in the Navy’s Proceedings Magazine, July 1946 when he was at the rank of Rear Admiral. He wrote that while the US was most interested in weather and intelligence, SACO had to set up a series of training camps to train the guerrillas. He wrote:


“The course of instruction in the camps included the care and use of weapons, guerrilla tactics, amphibious tactics, scouting, patrolling, mapping, and general field work. Our students came from the columns of the Chinese Commando Army.” He also said that for the eastern coast, there were 26,000 Chinese pirates with 18-20 small steamers. There were also an additional 25,000 “organized irregulars.”

The photo shows a parade at a review in one of the SACO training camps. They are tough to see, but note the Chinese troops marching behind the color guard, and you see the National ensigns of China and the US with the color guard.

There were two USN hospital ships in the area as well.


The men under Miles’ command served with the Chinese, trained them and fought with them on the front lines. The photo shows Specialist First Class W. Ellsworth “Smitty” Smith, USN, trained as a Seabee, in China during the last months of the war. I’ll return to “Smitty” a little later.

The Americans usually went out with the Chinese units since the best advice they could provide would only come if they were in the field with the Chinese. Sabotage units conducted raids against Japanese forces and installations. Admiral Miles wrote this about an event that occurred, I believe, in 1945:

“A young naval officer, Ensign John N. Mattmiller from Commander Halperin's Unit Six, learned that a Japanese freighter of about 1,000 tons had put into Amoy Harbor for repairs. With four Chinese guerrillas he commandeered a junk, got hold of a supply of explosives, and set out under cover of darkness to sink the freighter. Mattmiller used the swimming abilities of his trainees. In a secluded part of the Amoy Harbor shore line they stripped, tied the explosives charges around their necks, and swam out to the freighter. In darkness they moved around the ship, placing magnetic mines and charges of the soft ‘Comp C’ explosive on the hull, the rudder, and the propeller. Then they swam back to the junk.” The ship was seen the next day lying on its side. They then mined the river estuary.

Lt. Commander Halperin was Robert Herman “Buck” Halperin, USN, a former football player with Notre Dame and Wisconsin, and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the NFL. Once WWII broke out, he joined the Navy and was put onto a secret program in the first class of what became known as Navy Scouts & Raiders. War correspondent William H. Stoneman wrote of Halperin:

"His job is to mark beaches for the assault, infantry, a daring, intricate job, calling for as much brain as courage, and barrels of both."

Her served in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. As commanding officer of US Naval Unit Six he and his SACO men served behind enemy lines in Fujian Province.

In the book
Race to the Sea: The Autobiography of a Marine Biologist, by Dayton Averson. Averson was also in SACO, in the same unit as Mattmiller, and provides some great insights into the SACO operation at Camp Six. Aversion was trained in Morse code, Japanese Morse code intercept, and radio direction finding (RDF), and was told he would be working on a secret mission.

After attaining the rank of petty officer, he was put on a train to Chicago, then to a top secret radio intelligence facility in Wisconsin. He then learned he was being shipped to a “special navy group in China.” He was not to discuss anything with anyone. After some stops in Washington and a few family visits, he was given “a set of green khaki work clothes, several pairs of dress khaki pants and shirts, army shoes and socks, and a standard GI knife.” He was allowed to keep his Navy dungarees but was told to ship all the rest of his navy uniforms home. Then he got some knife, hand-to-hand combat, and small arms training and tight a few words of Chinese. He was told he would be doing work other than RDF. He was told to inform the family it would not hear from him very often.

He ended up at a base camp in Kunming, China in far southwest China. Kunming had become a training hub for the Chinese Nationalist Army. He was then told of his mission. He was to establish a RDF unit at a new camp just opened about 45 miles from the coast of China, in the mountains, behind enemy lines, called Camp Six. There was also a plan to et up a weather station there. Alverson was told he was going alone, not with his colleagues with whom he had been traveling. He hopped into a jeep the next day, went to a nearby airfield, met a couple other guys from the general communications group, boarded a C-46 transport and was told by the skipper they would fly “about 800 miles over enemy territory with no fighter escort.” Aversion was given a Thompson submachine gun. They landed at a 14th AAF airfield at Changting. This was the only 14th AAF field the Japanese had not closed. Actually, the pilot had to abort his first landing attempt when he spotted two Japanese Zeros landing at the field --- the skipper had the wrong airfield, so he had to give his C-46 everything it had to climb rapidly and somehow make it over the mountains. He then found Changting and landed safely!

His description of the travel to Camp Six is a real eye opener: met at the airport by two SACO-trained Chinese guerrilla officers, then put on a bus winding up and down mountains, sometimes having to get out and push the bus up the hills, through lots of villages, then a hike on a trail to a river, then on a sampan, over some impressive rapids to Changing, where he was met by several SACO-trained guerrillas; back on the river, clearly heading downstream toward the western Pacific to the River of Nine Dragons, into a village, then into a smaller sampan and back on the river, over some more rapids and to the river bank. (Editor’s note: Not sure why he is referring to this as the River of Nine Dragons, which is a name also used for the Mekong River. As best I can tell, he is talking about the Jiulong River)


There he was let out, met by some khaki-clad Americans, taken up a steep trail and there she was, Camp Six, situated next to a river and rice paddies. The camp was bamboo fenced, about 100 by 60 yds, an ancient temple, a few other buildings for enlisted, officers, and a four “hole” toilet facility. They used a bamboo piping system to bring water into the camp. It took him six days to get here from Changting. There were about 20 Americans, 18 Navy and two Marines. The photo shows Camp Six in August 1944, shortly after construction.


Aversion said, “Camp Six was on of a series of navy facilities built in a no man’s land between Japanese coastal forces and those that occupied much of central China.” You can see their locations marked by number; my count is 14. Note on the map the grey-dotted areas showing Japanese holdings. The SACO camps were either within enemy lines are just behind them.

Averson wrote further:

“In cooperation with Chiang’s forces, the US Navy had managed to establish guerrilla units from north of Shanghai to south of Hong Kong. In west China, the Navy worked with Chiang’s forces in Kunming and Chunking and, to the north, in the Gobi desert. The number of Americans in each camp was small. In total, there were perhaps six hundred to eight hundred SACA American navy men scattered behind Japanese lines, training Chinese guerrilla forces, monitoring the weather, collecting intelligence data, rescuing downed pilots, and harassing Japanese forces wherever possible. In addition, the SACO units deployed coast watchers that spied on Japanese garrisons and reported troop movements and shipping activities in the major Chinese harbors.”

He set up a RDF facility, operated it, and sent his bearings back to Chunking, always with his carbine and a .45 pistol at his side. He helped train the Chinese with their weapons, shooting, breaking them down, cleaning them, and reassembling them. Others trained them on the use of explosives. There were rumors the Japanese intended to come up and get them, but they would have to come a fairly long distance upstream, a costly endeavor. There was a large contingent of SACO Chinese soldiers guarding the area.

Alverson would later learn one of his colleagues, a fellow radioman, Alfred W. Parsons, was captured while spying on coastal activities. He was sent to a small island with Chinese Captain Lin in the estuary to observe Japanese activities in Amoy Harbor. After the war, Alverson found out that Parsons had been interrogated, beaten, then transferred to a prison camp on Formosa where he was again beaten, tortured and confined. He was then sent to the Tokyo POW Camp Shinjuku Tokyo Bay Area 3 prison camp in Japan and experienced the same routine.

There were two Marines in Camp Six. They led more than 100 Chinese guerrillas to the south and attacked a number of Japanese facilities, killing and wounding several dozen enemy.

One last Alverson memoir. You will remember Ensign Mattmiller. He was also at Camp Six and asked Alverson for some help training Chinese swimmers how to use explosives and destroy enemy ships. The Chinese had to tie five-to-ten-pound rocks to their wastes using a slipknot. They were then told to swim across the River of Nine Dragons and back, about 120 yds. round-trip. Matt miller and Alverson swam with them to help if someone got into trouble. If they did have a problem, they could pull on the rope and jettison the rocks.

SACO had many agents covering a wide area, some of whom got into the court of Hirohito and secret Diet meetings, along with Japanese headquarters. Communicating the take was hard, and often required using Americans dressed as coolies to operate as runners. The Americans directed 14th AAF fighters against a multitude of targets. US submarines would surface three times a day to get intelligence on Japanese shipping and naval movements. They helped rescue downed airmen and briefed aircrews on the best places to put down if they ran into trouble. Almost all SACO work was done behind enemy lines and close to Japanese forces.

Miles set it up at Hankow (now Wuhan), on the Yangtze River about 420 miles west of Shanghai. I want to highlight the Yangtze Raiders, designated by SACO as Unit 13, Lt. Joseph E. Champe in command. In his book
History of United States Naval Operations in WWII: The Liberation of the Philippines, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote about them. Champe and his team of five men set up shop 50 miles south of the Yangtze River in July 1944. His men trained some 500 Chinese in guerrilla operations.

In December 1944, in the cold of winter, his men headed out and by mid-February came to a lake near the Yangtze. It ruined out they were surrounded by 2000 Japanese troops and 8,000 “puppet” troops, a few shown here in Shanghai in 1941. The “upper” troops were members of Chinese collaborationist armies, many of which were located in northern China. The Japanese knew Champe’s men were where they were. The Chinese guerrilla commander sent out a squad to create a disturbance which drew off enough Japanese to create a gap in their main body. The rest of the guerrillas snuck through that gap, blew up bridges, cut telephone and telegraph lines and harassed the Japanese forces. In March, a second Yangtze team overcame Japanese guards and destroyed their warehouses. There were also three Yangtze Raider teams of saboteurs, teams of three men each. One of these blew up an ammunition train in April 1944, smart enough to wait for the reconnaissance train to pass in order to blow up the tracks needed by the ammunition train. The explosion blew off the locomotive and seven cars. Another team sank two steamers using a clever explosive installation design of Champe’s.

I also want to highlight the coast watchers. SACO began training Chinese coast watchers in June 1944. The coast from Shanghai to Hong Kong is about 800 miles. SACO divided that sector into five intelligence divisions, or nets. Each net had 5-12 Chinese coast watchers and guerrillas equipped with small radios. I have read that the teams also included two USN men. However, these teams moved around a lot, and It was tough to hide Americans in these locations, so I’m not 100 percent sure USN men were always with the Chinese.

Miles said they “wore Chinese clothes and sandals but ate sitting on their heels and walked with the jounced cadence common to the Chinese with their spongy yo-yo poles. “I have learned the Chinese needed the Americans as they had a tough time identify ships without US help. In his book
History of United States Naval Operations in WWII: The Liberation of the Philippines, Samuel Eliot Morison wrote that USN men were with the Chinese starting in fall 1944. The headquarters for tracking Japanese shipping was at Changchow, about 25 miles inland.


This is an interesting story about then Commander E.B. “Gene” Fluckey, who commanded the USS Barb (SS-220). His group had worked against a Japanese convoy off Formosa but could find no more targets. SACO had been reporting the Japanese were using Lam Yit Bay, about 80 miles northeast of Amoy. SAC also said the Japanese were moving their shipping close to shore in shallow water in daylight. After thinking this through, Fluckey his submarine along with a group of junks, through some very shallow waters. Then one SACO coast watcher, Sgt. William M. Stewart, USMC, reported 11 Japanese transports anchored two miles south of his location. Stewart sent a couple pirates out to see what was going on. In the mean time, Fluckey maneuvered into position through suspected minefields and found the transports anchored in three columns over two miles. He ordered his crew to fire a spread of 10 torpedoes at what Fluckey called “the most beautiful target of the war.” He hit at least eight, sinking one (other sources say four), setting fires to many others, and then rushed out to deeper water where he could submerge! Fluckey, nicknamed “Lucky Fluckey,” received the Medal of Honor and four Navy Crosses as one of the top USN submarine commanders of the war. He rose to the rank of Rear Admiral. I have found a source that says Fluckey would not admit to receiving SACO intelligence, though Morison wrote that instead he intercepted SACO coast watcher messages to HQ at ChaNgchow and from there to Chungking. He did intercept the report that set him up for these kills!



I would like to return to Navy Specialist First Class W. Ellsworth “Smitty” Smith for a final SACO story. He provides some interesting insights in his letters. Smitty said in July 1945 LCdr. Robert J. Schoettler, USN, was sent to Kunming to recruit a group for the SACO Intelligence Unit, his group called “PACT Shot.” PACT Shot was tasked to get into Japanese occupied territory on China’s east coast, and prepare hydrographic surveys of the coast in preparation for Allied landings in Fukien province. The group, all Navy, was flown from India over the Himalayan Hump to Kunming, then traveled by foot and truck over the Ledo Road to set up their training facility at Camp Gibbins, south of Kunming, in August 1945. The photo is a photo of the group at Gibbins. There were 50 of them.

SACO people trained them. General Tai Li’s troops guarded them. They were then to fly to Kienow, but encountered storms. Six planes had to turn back, one was lost with the crew successfully bailing out, and the other, on which Smitty was aboard, ran short of fuel. His pilot managed to land at a Japanese airstrip. It was now August 31, 1945. The Americans were awaiting Japan’s surrender in China. The Japanese at the airfield apparently did not recognize the surrender or did not know about it, so they moved against Smitty’s colleagues heavily armed. The senior officer in charge, Lt jg Frank McKenzie surrendered and all were taken prisoner except Smitty and two others. Smitty was armed. After quite an ordeal, these three too surrendered though Smitty insisted on keeping his weapon pointed at a Japanese officer, to which the Japanese agreed. In any event, they were able to get their C-47 refueled and fly out. I am not sure why the Japanese let them go except to say there was a Chinese guerrilla force approaching.

The entire PACT Shot united in Kienow and went on the Min River towards Fuchow in local sampans piloted by Chinese with the Americans hiding below deck. Many of the SACO groups were ordered to make their way to collection points and were then flown to Shanghai to prepare to return to the US.


But the PACT Shot Group was told to survey areas around Foochow to Amoy, both in Fuian Province, China, the area across the strait opposite Formosa, now known as Taiwan. You will recall how admiral King envisioned an Allied landing here to attack the Japanese inland. Now it was being surveyed again with the idea in mind that Chiang Kai-shek and his people might have to leave China in a hurry.

This is an interesting requirement. At the end of the war, Japanese forces surrendered and at the time they held Formosa. Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC claimed Formosa as a Chinese province. In 1949 the Communists overthrew the ROC and Chiang’s government, military and some 2 million Chinese fled the mainland to Formosa, an island inhabited by many thousands Japanese. American military and State Department planners had, as early as 1943 or so, realized Chiang would lose a civil war to the Communists and an exodus to Formosa would clearly be a possibility. The problem was it was
verboten to talk of the possibility of Chiang’s downfall.

There are SACO stories all over, and I could go on and on, infatuated by each, and proud of the men who served. But I really must press on.