ELLSWORTH - When you ask people today when they believe World War II ended, most of whom only know of that historic time through textbooks, you’ll get a variety of answers.
Some might say it ended on August 9, 1945, when the second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, others might say it ended on August 14, 1945, when Japanese Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, but the majority will tell you it ended on September 2, 1945 on the deck of the USS Missouri, when General MacArthur accepted the formal surrender of the Japanese Empire.
Ask a member of the China Marines when the war actually ended, and to a man, they would tell you it ended on October 15, 1945, in Tientsin, China, when the United States Marine Corps accepted the surrender of more than 500,000 Japanese troops in mainland China.
Ken Staley, who recently just celebrated his 89th birthday on October 15, 2011, 66 years after that surrender, was there.
A courier with the Third Amphibious Marines, which arrived in China with 50,000 Marine “grunts” as part of Operation Beleaguer at the invitation of Chinese ally Chiang Kai-shek, Staley still remembers his arrival fondly.
“There were thousands and thousands of people standing there to greet us,” he said. “Every one of them smiling and waving little American flags.”
Over the next five months, PFC. Staley saw as much as he could of north China and the capital city, Peking, today known as Beijing.
He remembers China as a very poor, rural country, populated with “mostly children and old people”, a toll left on the country after more than 15 years of war with the Japanese and internal strife with a growing Communist threat.
“It’s very different now, they say,” Staley said last week. “Tienstin, where we were based, was just a little town then-now it has skyscrapers.”
Many of the Marines serving with Staley had been disappointed when they were told that their longtime plans to invade Japan had been changed with the surrender of Hirohito, an invasion planned for years. After the recent long and bloody campaign for Okinawa, where in April of 1945 Staley viewed what he called “the largest armada ever assembled in the history of the world”, they were eager to squash what was left of the Japanese resistance.
But the occupation of China was not without trial and tribulation.
The Japanese, surprisingly, were for the most part cooperative, allowing the Marines to eventually successfully evacuate hundreds of thousands of Japanese troops and civilians from mainland China.
Communist Chinese, on the other hand, were not so cooperative, with 12 Marines killed and 42 wounded in clashes with Communist forces between late 1945 and early 1949, when Operation Beleaguer ended. 22 Marine aircrew members in 14 aircraft perished during the same period.
Staley, who as a newly promoted corporal returned home from overseas to marry, become a mink farmer, grocer, and refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic, raising three children, including daughter Donna Staley Heeres of Ellsworth, didn’t speak of any of that.
Instead, he spoke of the ancient wonders he was fortunate enough to see in his five months in China, which included a number of ancient Chinese temples, being housed in quarters in the Ming Dynasty Palace while visiting Peking, and seeing the Great Wall of China.
“After the Bamboo Curtain came down, no one from the free world was able to see the Great Wall,” he recalled. “Twenty-five years later I was watching TV, and saw photos of all these important people from the U.S. standing on the Great Wall. For a lot of people, that was their first look at the wall ever. But I had already been there.”
As a member of the China Marine Association, Staley and his wife Arlene have attended several reunions of the surviving China Marine veterans, accompanied for the last two years by his daughter Donna and her husband Dave Heeres.
At the end of September of this year, the family attended another reunion, which according to Staley, may have been the organization’s last.
“We’re all in our late 80’s and 90’s now, there aren’t many of us left,” he said sadly.
Which is why his family was thrilled to see the group dedicate a special China Marines memorial this year.
“It’s important that we realize what these men did for the world,” said Donna Heeres.
And it’s important that we all know when World War II really ended.