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July-August 2011

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The Fightin' Forecasters: The U.S Navy in China in World War II

The U.S. Navy manned a weather station on Northern China's loess plain in a cave.

Like millions of young Americans in December, 1941, 25-year-old John Klos of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, answered his country's call and enlisted in the armed forces immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Signing up with the Navy, he donned the snappy, square-collared jumper that distinguished that branch of the service from all others. He never imagined that his enlistment would one day land him in a cave in Northern China where, clad in rumpled army fatigues, he would gather weather data for the Pacific Fleet.

After two years in the Navy, Klos had reached the rank of Chief Aerographer's Mate. When asked to volunteer for top-secret, “prolonged and hazardous duty” overseas, he jumped at the chance. But it wasn't until his superior asked if he could distinguish edible ground lice from the poisonous variety and survive on them if necessary that he understood the enormity of his adventure.

It began in Calcutta, India, where he learned the social graces needed to work with the Chinese. The lessons proved useful. He ultimately led four aerographers—three U.S. Navy-trained Chinese and one other American—in the cave-housed weather station on Northern China's loess plain.

The five weathermen were members of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, or SACO, a joint effort of the Nationalist Chinese and U.S. naval intelligence against the Japanese occupation in China during World War II. Their cooperation evolved into a multifaceted operation. In addition to weather monitoring, SACOs spied on Japanese troops and ships, blew up enemy supply depots, laid mines in rivers and harbors, rescued downed American pilots, and trained thousands of Chinese soldiers in guerrilla warfare. Navy aerologists thus found themselves in multiple roles, engaging Japanese forces and training Chinese recruits both as soldiers and weather technicians.

SACO became the first and only American military unit ever to serve under the command of a foreign power during time of war.

An Urgent Need

It was clear from the war's opening shots that weather forecasting would be an essential component of the United States' arsenal against Japan. The Japanese had used a weather front to conceal themselves before the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and would do so repeatedly over the course of the war.

In order to predict the weather in the Pacific, the Navy needed to track it across Asia as it moved east to the sea. Today's storm in Central China would churn up Pacific waters tomorrow. Japan already had a meteorological leg up on the United States with weather stations in its occupied territories from Manchuria to Indonesia. But the United States had none west of Hawaii. To even the score, Navy Chief Admiral Ernest King sent Captain Milton Miles to China to establish weather stations and also to monitor Japanese military activities in that country. King directed Miles to work with the Nationalist Chinese, who would help set up the network.

China's political landscape was very complex when Miles arrived in May 1942. Japan occupied much of the East and was pushing farther into Central China. In unoccupied China, the Nationalists, Communists, and other factions were vying for power, but Nationalist Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the closest thing to a central authority in the country. Everything the Navy hoped to do in China depended on him.

Caption: Chiang Kai-shek on Republic of China (Taiwan) stamp.

Chiang appointed his spymaster, General Dai Li, often called “the Himmler of China,” to work with Miles, an Annapolis-trained officer who had served in China in the 1930s. These unlikely partners appreciated each other's direct, no-nonsense style—a refreshing contrast from the Chinese penchant for dancing around issues and the United States military's famous red tape. As Miles once said, “You didn't have to drink tea with him for two days to find out what he meant”

Dai Li, who had Chiang's army as well as tens of thousands of agents across the Far East at his disposal, agreed to protect the Navy's weather stations, but the Navy had to do something for him in exchange. Dai wanted Navy personnel to train and arm Chinese volunteers to fight the Japanese. Miles agreed to this stipulation.

Miles and Dai built SACO on a foundation of personal trust and friendship, and they engrained these into the organization's culture. Dai was the director, and Miles was second in command, but both had veto power. Some in the U.S. military and State Department protested Miles' number-two position, but it didn't bother President Franklin Roosevelt, who personally approved the SACO agreement. Nor did it bother Miles. After all, he said, it was Dai Li's country.

Like Klos, all American SACOs stopped in Calcutta for weeks of indoctrination before proceeding to China. They learned simple rules of respect: Don't yell or use “pidgin English” to try to communicate. Don't say “Chinaman” or “coolie” Don't call American food “civilized,” or say that the Chinese read from the back of the book. Never show anger or criticize anything directly, as these are unpardonably rude acts in Chinese culture. And no matter what, get along.

Creating a Data Collection System

But the spirit of cooperation could not perform magic in a battered country under foreign occupation, where outsiders with even the best of intentions aroused suspicion. Miles made several false starts in his attempt to create a weather net in China that could produce timely, reliable forecasts for the Pacific Fleet.

The first plan was to tap into the country's existing weather resources for data while the Navy established its own stations. At the time, three Chinese agencies were monitoring the weather: the Central Meteorological Bureau, the Combined Organization of Aviation Affairs, and the Chinese National Aviation Corporation. If these agencies could report conditions to Weather Central at Happy Valley, SACO's headquarters near Chonqing in Central China, SACO meteorologists could compile forecasts and transmit them to the fleet.

Miles met with the agencies in late 1942. The Chinese officials were eager to work with SACO and seemed to understand clearly that designated stations had to send reports every day according to a prescribed schedule, and that SACO had to receive them within 12 to 24 hours for them to be of any use.

Unfortunately, with communication problems hindering the process, reports from Weather Central sometimes were incomplete or late. It was clear that the Navy needed to create its own network of weather stations from scratch, with the help of Chinese nationals.” Then delete: But once Weather Central was up and running the following year, the reports trickled in incomplete, days late, or not at all. Miles' gentle requests for improvement met with few results. It was clear that the Navy needed to create its own network of weather stations from scratch, with the help of Chinese nationals.

But once Weather Central was up and running the following year, the reports trickled in days late, incomplete, or not at all. Miles's gentle requests for improvement were met with empty promises, and appealing to Dai Li changed nothing. It was clear that the Navy needed to create its own network of weather stations from scratch.

Miles began the task of building the weather net. American weather instruments began to arrive in Chongqing by October 1943. They were shipped by sea or air from the United States to Calcutta, then airlifted over the Himalayas, known as flying “over the hump,” to Kunming, China, and finally flown or trucked to Happy Valley. To make sure the equipment wasn't delayed, SACO placed two dedicated supply mates, one in Calcutta and one in Kunming, to see that it got to its next destination.

While the Navy trained aerologists stateside, SACO began to train Chinese and Thai recruits in China, running 12-week weather technology courses in Happy Valley and Lanchow.

As Americans arrived over the hump, SACO paired them with newly minted Chinese aerographers. Teams of two to five men radiated out from Happy Valley with their equipment to assemble weather stations and start taking readings.

Ideally, they traveled by truck, but China's antiquated fleet suffered constant breakdowns due to a shortage of spare parts. The Chinese had to replace broken screws with wires and fashion paper gaskets when rubber ones failed. When such patch jobs were impossible, the weather teams kept going on foot. Local porters carried the equipment suspended from the ends of yo-yo poles balanced on their shoulders.

A few lucky crews got to set up shop in SACO's 18 full-blown military camps, complete with lodging and mess halls. Most, however, erected isolated stations such as Klos's anywhere they could: in caves, urban office buildings, shacks, old Buddhist temples, and chicken coops. They had to set up housekeeping on their own, but they often got help from Dai Li's agents and Western missionaries.

SACO now had its own weather stations, but it was still relying on Nationalist China's radio network to transmit its reports, and that system suffered from the same problems as the trucks. Transmitters were old and in poor repair, and the heavy traffic was more than the system could handle.

SACO's weather chief, Commander Irwin F. Beyerly, began to see why China's weather agencies had failed to make timely reports to Happy Valley. The radio transmitters had short ranges, and each relay station was an opportunity for the message to be delayed, garbled, or lost. And no amount of explanation could make the Chinese radio operators consistently give weather information top priority in an overloaded system.

As a result, SACO was forced to build its own radio network from scratch, in conjunction with Chinese Nationals, just as it had built its weather station network. Each weather post received its own transmitter and operator, supported by powerful relay stations placed around the country where needed. The weather network was finally ready to go.

Caption: U.S. Navy specialists train Chinese soldiers to operate portable radios.

Caption: American and Chinese SACOs collect weather data in the field.

The Weather Net in Action

By mid-1944, SACO had 70 weather stations scattered across China, from the fringe of the Gobi Desert to the shores of the South China Sea. Each station measured weather conditions three times a day and relayed the data to Happy Valley by radio.

The station in Shaanxi Province north of Xian was typical. A crew of six lived and worked in an abandoned Buddhist monastery at the foot of a mountain, guarded by armed Nationalist Chinese sentries.

Each day, they hauled their instruments, radio, and a hand-cranked generator up a mountain path. They launched radiosonde balloons to measure temperature, wind direction, barometric pressure, and humidity in the upper atmosphere, and they took the same readings at ground level. One man's sole job was to transport equipment and crank the generator to power the radio transmitter as the operator sent information to Weather Central.

The transmitted reports were precious intelligence that had to be protected from enemy interception. The Navy used a numerical encryption system for the data, which was already stated in numbers. Consequently, radio operators had multiple sets of numbers spinning in their heads all day.

To gather data behind enemy lines, Chinese SACOs worked with established spy stations. They slipped into the countryside with special instrument kits concealed under their clothing and took clandestine readings, then delivered the data to Navy coast watchers by radio or on foot. And the shared resources worked both ways. SACO spies all over China made their way to the nearest weather station to send their reports to headquarters.

At Happy Valley, meteorologists consolidated all the information from the stations as well as weather headquarters in India and the Soviet Union to plot weather maps and formulate forecasts.

It was a proud day for SACO when Weather Central sent its first complete scanned map and forecast to the Pacific Fleet commander on September 20, 1944. And they kept coming every day until the war was over.

Caption: SACOs with local children overlooking Happy Valley.

Caption: Servants take a break at Happy Valley.

Caption: The Happy Valley compound.

Caption: Chinese construction crew at Happy Valley.

Camp 4: The Crown Jewel

SACO boasted many accomplishments, from a sophisticated spy network to a sabotage campaign that maddened Japanese commanders to a newly trained force of 27,000 Chinese guerrillas.

But more than anything else, Miles loved to brag about Camp 4—a dozen men at the edge of the Gobi Desert in what was then Inner Mongolia at the town of Xamba, Neimongol Province. Located 400 miles north of Tokyo and hundreds of miles west of any enemy weather station, the camp collected data days ahead of the Japanese, as weather patterns swept from the northwest to the southeast.

Just establishing the station proved to be feat in itself. Twelve Americans, accompanied by 80 Chinese interpreters, guards, and drivers, set out from Chongqing on November 18, 1943, in 12 charcoal-burning trucks and finally arrived at the site three months later. The trip included a 35-day wait to cross the Yellow River over the ice, which was not solid enough to bear the convoy's weight when they arrived on December 8.

Caption: Hu Kou Falls in the Yellow River in China.

Because of the delay, the SACOs ran short of food and fuel. A local governor, Gen. Ma Hun Kwei, gave them extra supplies and outfitted each man with an ensemble typical of a Mongolian herdsman: quilted suit, goatskin coat and hat, and felt shoes. Now these pioneer weathermen were ready for winter on the steppes, where the temperature dipped to −30°F.

Arriving at Xamba, they took over a former Catholic mission and immediately erected a radio tower and assembled their weather instruments. Aerographer Robert Sizemore sent his first weather report to Happy Valley on January 30. By then, the radioman was also intercepting enemy messages and relaying them to headquarters.

Day-to-day life at Camp 4 was filled with tedious rituals and monotony, but the work the men were doing was crucial. Each day the men had to test, one by one, the 52 flashlight batteries that powered the transmitter and instruments. Eventually, they had to rely on a hand-cranked generator, with each man taking a turn daily. A month's truck ride from anywhere, they created their own universe. They lived on millet, tiny potatoes, and meat. In summer, there were melons and fresh vegetables, but over the long winter, the only vegetables were those preserved in salt. Eating was one of their few forms of recreation, and they became skilled with chopsticks.

Supplies arrived infrequently or never, forcing them to be innovative. When Miles and Dai flew in to observe the camp, Miles saw how little they had and gave them his own jacket and toiletries, plus the plane's supply of toilet paper. One man received a phonograph record in the mail (which took nine months), but had no way to listen to it. Employing typical Camp 4 ingenuity, he fashioned a record player from a hand drill and a sharpened sewing needle.

Like other SACO camps, they trained Chinese recruits to fight with the Nationalists. The locals were wary at first of the Americans—the first foreigners some had ever seen, but eventually, 373 townspeople and nomads volunteered and learned camouflage, firearms, intelligence, and other skills before joining nearby Column 8 of Chiang's army.

The war, like the rest of the world, seemed far away at Camp 4, but the men kept vigilant watch of the horizon for the enemy, and in May 1945, the radio crackled with a report of an armored column of 600 Japanese within 100 miles of camp. The SACOs rendezvoused with their former trainees in Column 8 to engage the enemy. Lt. Donald Wilcox, who had been a mounted police officer in civilian life and felt at home astride an animal, mounted bazookas on the backs of camels and charged the Japanese in the dead of night. The rockets never hit a target, but the fiery plumes issuing from the creatures and sailing through the dark gave the Japanese a fright. The sight even rattled nerves in the Chinese-American ranks. After a firefight that cost the Japanese 60 casualties and two tanks, they retreated.

But for all its drama and excitement, this rare taste of combat did not overshadow the camp's true mission: to collect and report weather data to aid the great fight in the Pacific.

Playing a Key Role

Although Camp 4 illustrates the kind of hardship these hardworking men endured while working to provide accurate weather data to the U.S. forces, it was by no means alone in its challenges. Many of the stations had to endure difficult conditions and monotony to support the war effort. There is little doubt, though, that the data SACO provided were a crucial part of the fight against Japan. Japan already had weather forecast capability at the start of the war, and it had been absolutely vital for the United States to procure its own to eliminate that advantage. SACO's forecasts helped the U.S. Navy command in the Pacific plan operations and prepare for damaging storms. By late 1944, SACO could even predict the weather in Japan, so the Navy knew when conditions were ripe for Japanese planes to take off from home bases and when they would stay grounded.

Once the United States realized that the Japanese used cloud formations for concealment, SACO's charts gave men on reconnaissance missions, including SACO's own coast watchers, a good idea of where to look.

And it wasn't just the Navy that benefited. SACO assigned a weather expert to Gen. Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers and shared everything that came out of Weather Central with Allied forces throughout Asia.

But as much as Miles would have liked to point to a specific incident in which a weather report made the difference between success and failure in the Pacific, there is no clear-cut evidence. After the system was working, knowing the weather conditions was like knowing the time of day—one of many factors weighed when making decisions.

Though the weather net in China was Milton Miles's original mission, it was only a small part of what SACO became. On July 1, 1945, of the 2,500 American SACOs in China, fewer than 100, along with about 200 Chinese, worked directly in the weather operation.

But it all began with a need to predict the weather in the Pacific, and without the forecasters, the rest of it would never have happened.

LINDA KUSH is a freelance writer based in Boston and has written for the Boston Globe, World War II magazine, History magazine, and the Omaha World-Herald. She grew up doubting her father's yarns about parachuting into China for the Navy during World War II. Thirty years after his death, she discovered that not only were his stories true, but they only scratched the surface of an astonishing tale.

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