A reader writes in:
“I am interested in the subject of the US Army Observer Group in China 1945-1947. In particular I would like any information about Henry Whittlesey, who was a member of that group and ‘went missing’/died and his body never recovered. He must have done something heroic to have Mao have a building dedicated to him with his name on it.
“Would Dr [Andrew] Lam be able to shed light on this given his research in writing Two Sons of China?”
The US Army Observer Group in China, also known as the Dixie Mission, was the US’ first attempt to establish official relations with Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army, who were holed up in the northern mountain city of Yenan (Yan’an). Throughout most of World War Two, the US had been dealing with Chiang Kai-shek and his forces in the south.
Thanks to the miracle of email and the internet, China Daily was able to catch up with Lam – a Yale-trained eye surgeon whose passion is the history of World War Two in China and whose novel, Two Sons of China (Bondfire Books) came out last year and was reviewed in these pages. He happened to be on vacation in Portugal and writes:
Members of the US Army Observer Group, aka “The Dixie Mission”, circa 1944, and their Chinese teammates in Zhongshan “Mao” suits that were gifts of their hosts. provided to china daily
“Henry Whittlesey was a 30-year-old 1st Lieutenant who arrived in Yenan with the Dixie Mission’s first cohort of nine Americans on July 22, 1944. Each member of the group was assigned a specific duty, and Whittlesey’s was to work with the Chinese Communists to facilitate the rescue of downed American airmen who had been shot down or ditched behind enemy lines in northern China.
“In October 1944, Whittlesey was one of the few Americans to accompany a force of Communist guerillas on a four-month mission deep behind Japanese lines. Colonel Wilbur Peterkin and a Foreign Service Officer named Ray Ludden were also members of this group. They traveled east from Yenan on foot or by mule, across Shanxi and Hebei provinces – over a thousand miles in severe winter weather.
“On the return trip, Whittlesey and a Chinese interpreter ventured into a village, unaware that the Japanese had recently arrived and occupied it. Whittlesey and the interpreter were captured. The Communists launched an attack and lost many soldiers in a desperate attempt to rescue them. They drove the Japanese out of the village but were too late to save either man – both had been executed. Whittlesey had been shot in the back of the head and bayoneted in the back.
“In Yenan, the Americans re-named their mess hall ‘Whittlesey Hall’. Henry Whittlesey was later buried in Chengdu. He was the Dixie Mission’s only casualty.”
Lam added that the building the reader is referring to was probably the mess-hall in Yenan. “I do not know of any other building that would bear his name. Perhaps he read somewhere that Mao dedicated it to him, which I suppose might be possible since all the buildings the Americans used as part of the mission really belonged to the Communists,” he wrote.
Some of the best details available of Whittlesey’s final mission and death come from Wilbur Peterkin’s Inside China 1943-1945: An Eyewitness Account of America’s Mission in Yenan (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1992), Lam said.
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