The Chinese Commandos

by Les Hughes

© 2003  by author


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Out of a conference held in January of 1945 between Chiang Kai-shek and Generals Donovan and Wedemeyer came the decision to mount a force of twenty Chinese Commando units of about 200 men each. Believing the Commandos would fight more effectively than regular Chinese Army units if veteran American soldiers were assigned to fight alongside them, the task of training, equipping, and 'advising' the units fell to the OSS's Operational Groups. Eventually, nearly 400 OG personnel would be involved in the effort. (A roster I have of personnel assignments to specific Commandos indicates that a fully configured Commando had a complement of about eighteen OSS personnel: a dozen enlisted men and a half-dozen officers; the highest ranking officer being a captain.)

The first five Commandos were drawn from the 1st Chinese Parachute Regiment, which had already undergone nine months of training. The formation of the balance of the Commandos proved to be a problem. Not only was the Chinese Command slow to provide troops, it reneged on a promise to allow OSS to screen candidates from regular Chinese army units. As a result, the OGs were supplied with poorly trained and conditioned Chinese troops, and the training program was delayed and protracted. Even in the face of these and other problems, several of the Commandos were used in operations against the Japanese.

To provide airborne training to the Commandos, OSS established a parachute training school at Kunming. The 4-week training program was delayed by a number of factors, and by war's end only six Commandos had been fully jump trained, while another six were in various stages of training. One of the Commandos, the 1st, conducted the Chinese Army's first airborne operation.

Those Commando personnel who completed jump training were awarded qualification wings. So, too, did the OSS jump school cadre and OGs receive the wings, along with a document from the Office of the Commanding General, Chinese Commandos, Kunming, China, which read: "1. You are hereby authorized to wear the parachute wings prescribed by the Chinese Army for parachute units. 2. It is with great pleasure, this small token of our gratitude is given, for the part played by yourself in the training of the first unit of Chinese Parachutists in the history of China." The wing is rare; the fragile document even more so.

I have found among OSS veterans of the Commandos a variety of the wings: most in metal, but some in bullion and one in cloth. The wings can be found in variety of metals - brass, silver, base metal - and many, but not all, of the metal wings are serially numbered.  However, it is my experience that those that are not numbered tend to be cast and of variable quality. (After the war, high-fidelity copies of the brass version of the wing were made using a copy of a wing from a museum.  These copies are not serially numbered.)  Several vets have described how one could have the wings cast while on leave by providing coins for the metal. These cast wings tend to be of relatively poor quality and not serially numbered, but, given their origin, they clearly qualify as genuine.  The bullion wings I have seen exhibit exceptional craftsmanship and were probably made in India.

There are a number of insignia that, apparently, were unique to the Commandos. There are two basic shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) designs: one with a winged Chinese star above a parachute; the other with both an American and a Chinese star above a parachute, upon which are two Chinese characters (a bare-bones translation being "large flying bird"; the Chinese equivalent, I suspect, of "eagle in flight"). Few variants of the former are to be found (although there are matching cap patches), whereas variants of the latter ranging from printed to bullion exist. There is also a rectangular patch that was worn above the shirt pocket: on the front are the same characters as are on the SSI; on the back is information identifying the wearer.

Additionally, there were isolated efforts to create insignia for the individual Commandos. The senior OSS officer in the 14th Commando sent me a simple embroidered-on-silk prototype he'd proposed. He wrote: "I'm afraid this isn't much of a patch—as I recall it was the first try to assess Chinese seamstresses with the idea of adding in all kinds of wings, parachutes, guns, flags, Chinese and American symbols—the works, later on. Maybe it's just as well the war ended."

The Commandos also wore metal and cloth collar insignia that employ the symbol of an arrow piercing a red disk (presumably, the Japanese sun). The most spectacular Commando insigne that I have seen is a badge that employs this symbolism. The badge, which I acquired from the senior OSS officer of the 14th Commando, is an eagle clutching in its beak an arrow that pierces the disk. The workmanship of the badge is of a higher level that one sees in the para wings. Like the para wings, the badge is serially numbered, implying they were made in quantity; but I've not seen another.

Gilbert Stuart, an Australian mining engineer, was working in Hong Kong when Japan invaded China. Rather than seeking a safe haven, Stuart, an adventurer at heart, threw in his lot with a band of guerrillas. It took the Japanese less than a year to effectively wipeout the guerrilla group, but Stuart survived to organize another, one which was absorbed, along with Stuart, into the regular Chinese Army. Eventually, Stuart rose to the rank of colonel in the Chinese Army—a unique honor for a foreigner—and was instrumental in forming the Chinese 5th Army's Armored Car Detachment and, later, the 1st Parachute Regiment. The incorporation of the 1st Parachute Regiment into the Commandos led to a close working relationship between Stuart and their OSS advisors. After the war, Stuart described his experiences in a book (Kind-Hearted Tiger, Little, Brown & Co., 1964).

In 1975 a collector of airborne qualification wings, seeing on the dust jacket of Stuart's book a portrait in which he is wearing the Chinese para wing, wrote to Stuart through his publisher and expressed an interest in the wing. The response, when it came, was from Stuart's family informing the collector that Stuart had died two years earlier. Subsequently, the collector acquired from the family Stuart's wing and a beautiful matched pair of SSI: one, that of the Chinese Commandos; the other, the CBI patch with but a single, Chinese star. (These SSI can be discerned in the portrait of Stuart on the dust jacket of his book.) I later acquired the patches, which fell outside the interests of the collector. (Stuart's wings, for those who are wondering, bore no serial number; just two lines of Chinese characters that translate: "Chinese Parachute Group" and "Stuart".)