John Birch (missionary)

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John Birch
John Birch.jpg
Captain John Birch, U.S. Army Air Forces
Birth nameJohn Morrison Birch
Born(1918-05-28)May 28, 1918
Landour, British India (now in Uttarakhand, India)
DiedAugust 25, 1945(1945-08-25) (aged 27)
Killed by Chinese Communist soldiers in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, China
Allegiance United States
Service/branch United States Army
Years of service1942–1945
Battles/warsWorld War II
AwardsArmy Distinguished Service Medal
Legion of Merit (2)

John Morrison Birch (May 28, 1918 – August 25, 1945) was a United States Army Air Forces military intelligence captain, OSS agent in China during World War II, and a former Baptist minister and missionary. Birch was killed in a confrontation with Chinese Communist soldiers during an assignment he was ordered on by the OSS, ten days after the war ended.[1][2] He was posthumously awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal.

Birch was well known throughout China and the Chinese gave him the name "Bey Shang We" (Birch Captain).[2][1] He also was known by the Chinese communists[2] who he believed had done very little to oppose the Japanese in China during the war.[2] He believed Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists intended to take over China after the war (1949)[3] and move into Korea (Korean War, 1950–53).[4][2]

The John Birch Society (JBS), an American anti-communist organization, was named in his memory by Robert H. W. Welch Jr. in 1958.[1] Welch considered Birch to be a martyr and the first casualty of the Cold War. Birch's parents joined the JBS as honorary Life Members.

On December 14, 2016, the U.S. Congress "awarded the Congressional Gold Medal collectively to the members of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in recognition of their superior and major contributions during World War II".[5]

Early life[edit]

Birch was born to Presbyterian missionaries in Landour, a hill station in the Himalayas now in the northern India state of Uttarakhand, at the time in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. His parents, Ethel (Ellis) and George S. Birch who were college graduates,[1] were on a three-year period missionary service in the country, working under Sam Higginbottom.[6] In 1920, when he was two, the family left India and returned to the United States due to his father having malaria.[7] John Birch was the oldest of seven children.[7]

In the States, his parents left the Presbyterian Church, and Birch was raised and baptized in the Fundamental Baptist tradition. He lived in Vineland, New Jersey and Crystal Springs and Macon, Georgia.[1] He graduated from Gore High School[8] at the head of his class in Chattooga County, Georgia.[1] Afterwards, he enrolled at Georgia Baptist–affiliated Mercer University in Macon.[1] "He was always an angry young man, always a zealot", said a classmate many years later, saying that Birch "felt he was called to defend the faith, and he alone knew what it was."[9] In his senior year, he joined a group of students who opposed liberal tendencies at the university. They brought charges of "heresy" against some professors, such as holding the theory of evolution, and the university held a day-long hearing in the chapel. Defenders of the professors posted a sign on the door: "Do Not Enter: Spanish Inquisition in Progress". The charges were dismissed, but the incident made Birch and the group unpopular on campus, and he later regretted the "teacher episode." He graduated in 1939 magna cum laude with the highest grade average in his class.[10]

Missionary work[edit]

Birch decided to become a missionary when he was twelve years old. After college, he enrolled in J. Frank Norris' Fundamental Baptist Bible Institute[1] in Fort Worth, Texas. Birch completed the two-year curriculum in one year and at the head of his class in June 1940.[1] Afterwards, he was sent to China by the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship[1] (now the World Baptist Fellowship). In July, he arrived in Shanghai, which was in Japanese occupied territory (Second Sino-Japanese War),[1][11] and began an intensive study of Mandarin Chinese. A few months later, he was assigned to Hangzhou which was also occupied by the Japanese; Japan invaded China in 1937.[1] In October 1941, he left Hangzhou for Shangrao in "Free China" and following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he escaped being arrested by the Japanese.[1] He then volunteered to serve as a U.S. Army officer in China.

U.S. Army[edit]

World War II[edit]


Claire Chennault in his Kunming office, May 1942. He wears a US Army brigadier general's star and Chinese air force insignia.

In April 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his flight crew bailed out over China after the Tokyo raid, the first surprise attack on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their B-25 bomber was the first aircraft of sixteen B-25s flown off the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) for the raid. After bombing Tokyo and out of fuel during their one-way flight, Doolittle and his four crewmembers bailed out over southeastern China in mountainous terrain as planned.[1] They were rescued by Chinese civilians and smuggled by river safely out of Japanese lines by a sampan in Zhejiang Province by Birch who was informed of their being hidden in the riverboat.[2] When Doolittle arrived in China's wartime capital, Chungking (Chongqing), he told Colonel Claire Chennault, commander of the Flying Tigers (First American Volunteer Group-AVG, of the Chinese Air Force), about Birch's help, Chennault said he needed a Chinese-speaking American who knew the country well. After later talks with Birch who helped in the urgent finding and recovery of most of the Doolittle Raiders in China, about his experiences in China, Chennault who was now a brigadier general, commissioned Birch as a second lieutenant at Chungking on July 5, 1942[1][2] to work as a field intelligence officer for him. Birch had first wanted to serve as a chaplain.[2][12] The AVG was disbanded on July 4, and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces; Birch became a member of the 23rd Fighter Group which took on the AVG's nickname "Flying Tigers" and the Curtiss P-40 Warhawks shark teeth nose art.[1]

Birch served with the China Air Task Force under Chennault, which became the Fourteenth Air Force in March 1943. He operated alone or with Nationalist Chinese soldiers, and often risked his life in Japanese held territory in China. His many activities included setting up formidable intelligence networks of sympathetic Chinese, supplying Chennault with information on Japanese troop movements and shipping during which he would brazenly hold Sunday church services for Chinese Christians.[2] He set up radio intelligence networks, rescued downed American pilots, and had two emergency aircraft runways built.[2] He received the Legion of Merit from Chennault on July 17, 1944.[9] Urged to take a leave of absence, Birch refused, telling Chennault he would not quit China until the last Japanese did.[11] In 1945, Birch was now a captain and was seconded to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the U.S. wartime intelligence service in World War II.[2] At first, he criticized the OSS, wanting only to work for Chennault.[2] V-J Day, August 14, signaled the end of formal hostilities, but under terms of the Japanese surrender, the Japanese Army was ordered to continue occupying the areas it controlled until they could be surrendered to the Nationalist government, even in places where the Chinese Communist-led government had been the de facto state for a decade. This led to continued fighting as the Chinese communists sought to expel all Japanese imperial forces, which it perceived to include U.S. personnel, who were then openly collaborating with the remaining Japanese forces.

In his diary, OSS Major Gustav Krause, commanding officer of one of three air bases in China and now in command of Captain Birch, noted: "Birch is a good officer, but I'm afraid is too brash and may run into trouble."[13][2]


After the formal Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, the OSS agents in China were ordered to northern China to take the surrender of Japanese commanders at their installations.[2] The Chinese Communists, who controlled much of the mountainous area, were supposedly allies with the United States, but were not allowed to accept the surrender.[14]

General Wedemeyer arriving in Chungking, 1944.

On August 20, Birch left Hsian (Xi'an) in command of a group consisting of two American soldiers, a civilian OSS operative, five Chinese officers, and two Koreans who spoke Japanese, for Suchow (Suzhou), where a Japanese facility and airfield was located.[1][2] His mission under direct orders from Lieutenant General Albert C. Wedemeyer, who was in command of U.S. forces in China, was to go to Shandong Province to seize Japanese documents and to obtain information on airfields from which American prisoners of war (POWs) could be flown.[1][15] Birch and his group traveled by foot, by Chinese junk, and by foot again until they reached Kweiteh (Shangqiu) along the Lunghai railway (Longhai railway).[1] On August 24, after spending two nights in a nearby village, Birch's group boarded and left by train at Kweiteh with a Chinese general and his orderly who was to escort them to Suchow where Birch was to meet with a Chinese general.[1] Halfway and forty-five miles to Suchow, the train was stopped at the Tangshan, China, railway station, where they were informed that the line ahead had been sabotaged.[1] Birch and his group continued on for ten more miles until it could not proceed because of missing track rails. A Japanese patrol arrived with replacement rails by handcar and repaired the track. Birch sent the train back to Tangshan and his group spent the night in a nearby village which had been ravaged and men killed by Chinese communists.[1]

On the morning of August 25, Birch took over the handcar and continued on with his group and the Chinese general and his orderly to Suchow. Over a mile down the line they ran into a group of 300 armed Chinese communists.[1] Birch and Lieutenant Tung, who was his aide on the mission, were told to surrender their weapons and the group's equipment, which included three radios.[1] Birch, who was wearing his Army uniform, identified himself and refused to turn over his weapon; after arguing with their commander, they were allowed to proceed.[1] Along the way again, Birch's team encountered a group of communists who were ripping up tracks and cutting down telephone poles.[1] With Lt. Tung's help in speaking with the communists, the group was able to continue on by handcar and passed through another group of Chinese communists.[1] When they arrived at the Hwang Kao railway station, which was occupied by Chinese communists,[2] Birch and Lt. Tung met with the communist military leader there, who was surrounded with about twenty soldiers.[1] Birch identified himself and refused to give up his sidearm to the communists.[1][2] Lt. Tung, who was unarmed and tried to help Birch talk with the communist leader, was ordered shot.[1] He was hit in the right thigh, and then clubbed in the head with a rifle butt.[1] Afterwards, Birch, whose pistol was still holstered, was ordered shot; he was hit in the left thigh.[1] His ankles and hands were then bound, and while kneeling, he was shot in the head.[1][2] Birch's body was then bayonetted and both bodies were thrown in a ditch.[1][2] The rest of Birch's team were taken prisoner.[2] When it was clear, Chinese farmers took both bodies to the Chinese hospital at Suchow, where an autopsy was completed on Birch.[1][2] Lt. Bill Miller, whose group was to have met up with Birch's group at Suchow, arrived on August 29.[1] After learning about Birch and Tung, Lt. Miller immediately interviewed Lt. Tung, who lost his leg and an eye;[1] the autopsy report revealed Birch was shot in the leg, had his hands and ankles tied, was shot in the back of the head, and was bayonetted.[1] Lt. Tung revealed to Miller that after he heard the third shot he was thrown in the ditch next to Birch.[1] Two weeks later, the prisoners were released.[2][15]

Captain Birch and two American pilots who had died in a plane crash at the Suchow airport were interred in side-by-side crypts.[1] A Roman Catholic service was held in the cathedral in Suchow by Italian Jesuit priests[1] and 24 Chinese coolies carried the three American flag-draped coffins in a procession to the burial site on a slope of Hung-lung Mountain at the south side of Suchow,[1] in East China. Final rites were given at the graveside by a Chinese Christian minister.[1] Lt. Miller, who was a friend of Birch, was in charge of the funeral, and military honors were conducted by Chinese officers and Japanese soldiers.[1][2]

Birch was the fifth of five OSS combat casualties in China.[15]

Military awards[edit]

U.S. Senator William F. Knowland attempted unsuccessfully to obtain posthumous awards for Birch, including the Distinguished Service Cross and the Purple Heart, but these were not approved on the grounds that the United States was not at war with the Communist Chinese in 1945. Captain Birch received the following military awards:[11]

John Birch Society[edit]

Birch is mainly known today by the society that bears his name. The John Birch Society was established in Indianapolis, Indiana, during a two-day session on December 8 and 9, 1958, by a group of twelve led by Robert W. Welch Jr., a retired candy manufacturer and conservative political analyst from Belmont, Massachusetts.[1][17] In 1954, Welch authored the first book about Birch titled The Life of John Birch: In the story of one American boy, the ordeal of his age.[18] He organized the JBS to promote less government, more responsibility, and a better world.[1] Welch named the new organization after Birch, saying that Birch was an unknown but dedicated anti-communist, and the first American casualty of the Cold War.[19] Jimmy Doolittle, U.S. Army, Retired, who met Birch in China after Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, Japan, said in his 1994 autobiography:

[Birch] had no way of knowing that the John Birch Society, a highly vocal postwar anticommunist organization, would be named after him because its founders believed him to be the "first casualty of World War III." I feel sure he would not have approved.[20]


  • Birch's name is on the bronze plaque of a World War II monument at the top of Coleman Hill Park overlooking downtown Macon, Georgia along with the names of other Macon servicemen men who lost their lives in the military.
  • Birch has a plaque on the sanctuary of the First Southern Methodist Church of Macon, which was built on land given by his family, purchased with the money he sent home monthly.
  • "The John Birch Hall", a building at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas, was named after Birch by Pastor J. Frank Norris.[21]
  • "John Birch Memorial Drive", a street in Townsend, Massachusetts, is named for him.[22]

Birch is buried in Rose Hill Cemetery in Macon, Georgia.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at James & Marti Hefley (1980). The Secret File on John Birch. Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. ISBN 0-8423-5862-5.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w McGowan, Sam, WWII History Magazine. "For God and Country: The Story of John Birch". Warfare History Net. Retrieved March 11, 2021.
  3. ^ US Dept. of State, Historian
  4. ^ Desert News, China enters the Korean War
  5. ^ Public Law 114–216––December 14, 2016, 130 Stat. 1391 The Office of Strategic Services Society
  6. ^ Thomas Mallon (11 January 2016). "A View from the Fringe". The New Yorker.
  7. ^ a b Welch, Robert H. W. (1960). The Life of John Birch: In the story of one American boy, the ordeal of his age. Henry Regnery Company (US). ISBN 0-88279116-8.
  8. ^ "Chattooga County Historical Society, Old Gore High School".
  9. ^ a b "Who Was John Birch?". Time. April 14, 1961.
  10. ^ Lautz (2016), pp. 55–60.
  11. ^ a b c "BIRCH, John Morrison".
  12. ^ Doolittle, James (1991). I Could Never Be So Lucky Again. Bantam Books. pp. 277–279. ISBN 0-553-07807-0. Chennault commissioned him as a first lieutenant on July 4, 1942, the official birthday of Chennault's 14th Air Force
  13. ^ Manchester, William (2013). The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972. RosettaBooks. ISBN 9780795335570., Ch. 13
  14. ^ Zachary Keck, "The CCP Didn't Fight Imperial Japan: the KMT Did," The Diplomat, September 4, 2014
  15. ^ a b c "OSS in Action The Pacific and the Far East". National Park Service. Retrieved 2021-04-14.
  16. ^ "World War 2 - China War Memorial Medal".
  17. ^ History
  18. ^ Henry Regnery Co., Chicago, 1954, 1st printing
  19. ^ Schoenwald, Jonathan M. (2002). "3 – A New Kind of Conservatism: The John Birch Society". A Time for Choosing: The Rise of Modern American Conservatism. Oxford University Press (US). ISBN 0-19-515726-5.
  20. ^ Doolittle, James Harold; Glines, Carroll V. (1991). I could never be so lucky again : an autobiography. Internet Archive. New York, N.Y. : Bantam Books.
  21. ^ Stokes, David R. (2011). The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America. Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press. p. 325. ISBN 978-1-58642-186-1
  22. ^ "Maps". Bing Maps. Microsoft Bing. Retrieved July 1, 2011.
  23. ^ Historic Macon Foundation, Rose Hill Cemetery


External links[edit]