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The Sino-American Cooperative Organization


This section of my website is dedicated to the 2,500 Americans who fought in China during World War II with Naval Group China, including my father, Ensign Donald J. Leu (1923-2002).



Many people do not realize that China was an important ally of the United States during World War II.  Not only was China a vital ally in the battle against the Japanese, but the Chinese theatre was one of the most critical -- and yet least known -- of the entire war. 


One of the most interesting stories about the Chinese theatre in World War II involves the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, also known as SACO.  SACO (pronounced "socko") was a unique and unprecedented joint military effort between the U.S. and the Chinese Nationalist forces during World War II.  It consisted of about 2,500 Americans, mostly from the U.S. Navy and Marines, who lived, led, trained and fought with tens of thousands of Chinese Nationalist troops in China.  Often stationed behind enemy lines and hundreds of miles from supplies, they were incredibly brave and resourceful.


Many American SACO soldiers totally immersed themselves in Chinese culture:  they lived in Chinese huts, spoke Chinese, ate Chinese food, and began to think "the Chinese way."  Together, the American and Chinese military forces effectively battled the Japanese in China from 1943 until 1945.  This was the first and only time in U.S. history that an American military unit had been completely integrated into a foreign military force and placed under the command of a foreign leader.  SACO was an amazing and unique military unit -- and it was also one of the most effective combat forces in World War II.



SACO Veterans Forum:

I recently created a new page called SACO Veteran's Forum.  If you have any SACO stories or photos that you'd like to share, contact me and I'll post them on that page.

SACO was jointly led by the American U.S. Navy Commander (later Vice Admiral) Milton E. Miles and by China's General Tai Li (pronounced "die lee"), who was, at that time, in charge of China's version of the C.I.A.  These two men forged a friendship that transcended the suspicions held by colleagues and superiors on both sides.  The U.S. portion of SACO, which Miles commanded, was also known as Naval Group China.


An obvious question is:  What was the U.S. Navy doing in China during World War II?  There are several answers to this question: 

  • The U.S. Navy had a long tradition in China of keeping Chinese rivers and ports open to free commerce by using U.S. gunboats.

  • Soon after World War II began, but before the development of the atomic bomb, U.S. naval leaders felt that an amphibious invasion of Japan would be necessary to end the war, and they thought that China would be the best springboard for such an invasion.  Therefore, they had a strong desire to establish good relations with the Chinese leaders.

  • During World War II, the Navy wanted to provide accurate weather information to American submarines and surface fleets operating in the west Pacific.  Therefore, they set up weather stations throughout China during the war operated by U.S. Navy personnel who worked closely with the local Chinese.

  • The U.S. Navy wanted to keep an eye on Japanese ship movements during World War II.  Although Japan controlled few areas of inland China during WWII other than the major cities, they controlled all of the Chinese seaports (this, by the way, led to the construction of the Burma Road, a vital supply line from India to China during the war).  Therefore, the U.S. Navy sent dozens of sailors to China during WWII to act as "coastwatchers," secretly reporting the movements of Japanese ships.

  • General Tai Li wanted Americans to come to China and train Chinese guerrilla troops to fight the Japanese.  A shrewd commander, Tai Li was, of course, also thinking about the long-term benefit of having a well-trained army of Chinese Nationalist troops to fight the Chinese Communists after World War II ended.  The U.S. Army refused to cooperate with the Chinese, as did the O.S.S. (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), since both agencies wanted to do things their own way rather than the "Chinese way."  The U.S. Navy was much more receptive to working with the Chinese as equals rather than as subordinates.

  • The main proponent of SACO, U.S. Navy Commander Milton Miles, had served in China for many years after World War I and had a deep respect for the people and the country.  Miles suggested the idea to his superiors and, eventually, to President Roosevelt who fully supported the idea of SACO.

My father served in SACO during World War II and greatly admired Admiral Miles.  My father also personally knew and respected -- and sometimes feared -- General Tai Li.  Unfortunately, due to wartime secrecy, not much was ever published about SACO, so I'm putting together this section describing SACO, Miles, and Tai Li, and describing how my father became involved with SACO.  I'll be posting more stories and photos of SACO here, so please check back soon. 


Left:  Signing the Sino-American Cooperative Agreement in July 4, 1943.  SACO was a joint agreement between Commander Milton Miles of Naval Group China (left) and General Tai Li (right), leader of China's Intelligence bureau.  For the remainder of the war, Miles and Tai Li worked and fought closely together against the Japanese.  Feared, honest, brutal, and fair, Tai Li was one of the most enigmatic characters in the Chinese theatre of WWII.  They remained good friends until Tai Li's death in 1946.


The SACO "What-the-Hell?" Pennant

This patch from World War II includes the SACO "What-the-Hell?" pennant.  The American SACO commander during WWII, Milton Miles, created the pennant in 1934 when he was a junior officer on the destroyer U.S.S. Wickes in the Pacific Ocean.  Occasionally during tight maneuvers, one of the ships in the fleet would do something unexpected and, during such instances, Miles wanted to send a pennant up the mast saying "What the Hell?"  Miles asked his wife "Billy" (Wilma) to create such a pennant without using obscenities.  Billy suggested using characters like exclamation points, saying that when newspaper writers wanted to use an obscenity, they did the same.  Soon afterwards, Billy created a pennant that included question marks and exclamation points. 

Miles enjoyed using the pennant for the next several years in light-hearted situations.  However, in 1939, two years before the U.S. entered World War II, the pennant proved to be useful in a potentially serious situation with the Japanese Navy.  Miles was skipper of the destroyer John D. Edwards that August and was ordered to Hainan Island, off the coast of China, where the Japanese Navy was threatening a coastal village, including American missionaries.  When Miles arrived at Hainan, he saw several large Japanese naval ships bombarding the village.  The Japanese flagship hoisted a flag warning the American destroyer to leave, which put Miles in a quandary, since his orders were to protect the American missionaries in the village.  After considering the situation, Miles decided to ignore the Japanese threats and hoisted a pennant of his own -- his "What-the-Hell?" pennant.
Upon seeing the American destroyer hoisting a pennant, the Japanese halted their bombardment, giving Miles time to nestle his destroyer between the Japanese Navy and the village.  The Japanese commander was puzzled about the pennant, though, since it wasn't in any of the Japanese code books, but he decided to err on the side of caution and backed the Japanese fleet away from the village.  Milton Miles went ashore that afternoon, gathered up the missionaries, and departed the following morning.  The Japanese Navy, meanwhile, sat offshore, still wondering about the meaning of the curious pennant.
Throughout World War II, Milton Miles' "What-the-Hell?" pennant was the unofficial emblem of SACO and was often found flying at SACO camps throughout China.

Special thanks to reader Dan Cole for sending me this photo.



My Father and SACO

On December 7, 1941, my father was 18 years old and a freshman at Western Washington College in Bellingham, Washington.  That morning, the Japanese attacked the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the next day, my father, like thousands of other young Americans, enlisted with the U.S. Navy to defend America.  However, the Navy needed officers badly and since my Dad had started college, the Navy recruiter suggested that instead of becoming a seaman, he finish two years of college first and then enroll in the Navy's V-12 Officer Training Program. 


After finishing his second year of college in June of 1943, my father entered the V-12 Officer Training Program and was sent to Dickinson, North Dakota, where he finished the Navy V-12 program six months later at what is today Dickinson State University.  The Navy V-12 school was just "all right," according to my Dad, but the best part about living in North Dakota, he said later, was meeting and marrying my mother there.  In February of 1944, my father enrolled in the Navy's Midshipmen School at Northwestern University near Chicago, and three months later, he finished the "90-Day Wonder" program and became an Ensign. 


While at Northwestern, my father learned about a new program with the U.S. Navy called "Scouts & Raiders," (known later as the Navy SEALs), an elite program designed to train sailors in preparing for amphibious assaults, such as the landing at Normandy on D-Day.  The Scouts and Raiders would be the first group to go ashore during amphibious landings and were trained in underwater demolition, hand-to-hand combat, a variety of weapons, as well as using new-fangled scuba gear.  After learning about the Scouts & Raiders, my father immediately signed up for the program, which was located in Fort Pierce, Florida.  The first group of 200-or-so Scouts & Raiders trainees, called "Roger 1," had shipped out of Fort Pierce in early 1944 for duty overseas, and my father was in the second group, called "Roger 2."  He arrived in Fort Pierce in the summer of 1944.


While training with the Scouts and Raiders in Florida, my Dad heard that the Navy needed volunteers for a special assignment in Asia.  He and about a hundred other men signed up for this secret mission.  When the Navy started teaching them Chinese, they figured that they were probably going to China -- and they were right.  In July of 1945, my father sailed on a troop ship from San Pedro, California across the Pacific Ocean and arrived in Calcutta, India.  There, he joined a little-known outfit known as SACO, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization, a joint operation between the U.S. Navy and the Nationalist Chinese military.  Ensign Leu (who would later became a Lieutenant Commander) and about 200 other SACO men drove a large truck convoy on the Burma Road from Calcutta to Chungking, China, arriving in Chungking just as the war was ending, in August of 1945. 


After the formal declaration of peace on September 2, 1945, the situation in China was still very unsettled, however.  In fact, many of the Japanese in China continued to fight for weeks afterwards, so my father engaged in several guerrilla warfare operations against the Japanese troops there, including blowing up Japanese supply depots and railroad bridges and, at times, dressing up as a Chinese "coolie" and infiltrating the Japanese lines.  After things settled down later that fall, my father was placed in charge of training 1,200 Chinese guerrilla troops at SACO's main base near Chungking, an area known as "Happy Valley."  Being the last SACO officer in Chungking, he was then put in charge of closing down SACO's Happy Valley camp.


At the request of General Tai Li, the Chinese Nationalist leader of SACO, my father stayed in China for six more months until March of 1946, training Chinese Nationalist troops for their impending conflict with Chinese Communists, led by Mao Tse-Tung.  In early 1946, when the U.S. Navy was ready to send my father home, General Tai Li offered him a promotion, a house with several servants, and a large salary if he would stay in China to continue training Nationalist guerrillas. 


My Dad, who wanted to accept the position, sent a telegram to my mother back in the U.S., described Tai Li's considerable offer, and asked her if she would like to come over to China and live there for the next few years.  My mother had been living in North Dakota while my Dad was in China and had her hands full taking care of their one-year old daughter and, as my father would recall years later, she wired him right back, "telling me to get my butt home."  Needless to say, my Dad turned down General Tai Li's generous offer and got his butt home.  That was fortunate, because General Tai Li was killed in a plane crash shortly afterwards, in March of 1946, and three years later, China fell to the Communists.  Some historians have argued that if Tai Li had not died in the plane crash, the fate of China might have taken a very different turn, and I think they're possibly right.


My father was very fond of his experience in China and greatly admired the men of SACO.  He spoke often of his experience in China, and having become fluent in Chinese, he passed along many of the words he knew.  To this day, I can speak a few words that I learned from him as a kid, including mama hoohoo ("not too good, not too bad"), ding how ("excellent"), and boo-eow kachee ("thank you").  He didn't return to China until 51 years later, in 1997.  That year, he and my mother visited China with a tour group, and he told me later that it was one of the most memorable trips of his well-traveled life.  During his visit to Chungking on that trip, my father ran into an elderly Chinese man who was, amazingly enough, one of the 1,200 Nationalist troops that my father had trained back in 1945 in Happy Valley.  Although my Dad didn't remember him, the elderly man fondly remembered my father and was so happy to see my father again that he began to cry.


To honor the memory of SACO, I'm devoting this section of my website to this unique group.  I'll be adding more information in the near future, so please check back soon.


       Donald_Leu.jpg (66988 bytes)

Above left:  My father and some SACO buddies at Slapsie Maxie's bar in San Pedro, California, in May of 1945, the night before they shipped out to Calcutta.  From left to right:  Ensigns Jack Gebhardt, Donald Leu, Lloyd Diedrichsen, and Walt Lowell. 

Above center:  My father on a motorcycle in Chungking, China.  As he wrote on the back, "Sometimes the motorcycle and I don't agree on which way to go."

Above right:  My father in 1999, three years before he passed away.



My Father's Brief Brushes with History

My father was a modest man who never "dropped names" or tried to impress others.  Nevertheless, during his service with the U.S. Navy in World War II, he had a couple of brief encounters with men who would later become famous, or at least noted.


In 1943, my father attended the Navy's Officer Training School in Dickinson, North Dakota with a few hundred other recruits, including a cheerful lad named Pierre Salinger.  Pierre later became a prominent writer and was President John F. Kennedy's Press Secretary and spokesman for the White House in the early 1960s.  My father told me that Pierre was a good-hearted fellow who played the piano and attracted the ladies although, according to my father, the portly Pierre couldn't do a single push-up.  Apparently, soon after my Dad met my mother in Dickinson, Pierre tried to butt in and asked her out repeatedly.  However, my mother told me that she didn't care for Pierre and that she always turned him down.  Pierre Salinger died in France in October of 2004.


The next year, in 1944, my Dad began training with the Scouts and Raiders (later the Navy SEALs) in Fort Pierce, Florida.  In April of 1945, a new recruit named Rudy Boesch arrived, and he trained with my father in Scouts and Raiders for a few months before my father shipped out to China.  In 2000, Rudy became a contestant during the first season of the CBS television series, "Survivor."  My father watched that series and was inspired that a former SEAL had made it into "Survivor," but he didn't realize that he and Rudy had actually served in the same unit together.  I didn't realize it either until just a few months ago.  Rudy, by the way, served in the Navy for over 45 years, longer than any other enlisted man in the history of the U.S. Navy.  Although Rudy looks a little like my father, he's a bit more... umm... irascible.



More Information About SACO


1).  Organizations & Reunions

The main website dedicated to SACO is at https://saconavy.net/. This site is a good place to start if you want to learn more about SACO.


The SACO Veterans organization has held a reunion each year since 1954.  I learned about these reunions in 2004 and shortly afterwards attended their 50th reunion, held in Seattle, Washington.  The reunion was a 3-day affair attended by approximately 100 people, mostly SACO veterans and their relatives, and was a lot of fun. 


As of this writing, in 2018, I'm not sure how many SACO veterans are still alive, but I would imagine that the best way to get in contact with SACO veterans is to attend the annual reunion.  If you are seeking information about a SACO veteran or would like to share a story about a veteran, your best bet is to submit a Letter to the Editor to the SACO newsletter.  If you would like to join the SACO Veterans organization and receive the newsletter, please write to the contact below:

  • Regular & Associate Members:  Annual dues are $35 as of August 2018.  For information about becoming a member of the SACO Veterans organization, please contact:  Jack Coyle, 40 Tabor Bluff Ct., Oxford, GA 30054.  Phone:  (770) 788-2454.  Email:  jackwcoyle@bellsouth.net.



Above left:  Photos of the 2004 SACO Reunion in Seattle.  We took an all-day bus tour around the Puget Sound.  Our first stop was here at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton.

Above center:  The banquet during the last evening is always the highlight of the reunion.

Above rightAnd the highlight of the banquet is when a group of SACO veterans or their family members receive a medal from the Chinese (Nationalist) government, commemorating their service in China during World War II.  In 2004, four medals were distributed.



2).  Books

There were two definitive books written about SACO.  These include:

  • "A Different Kind of War" by Vice-Admiral Milton Miles (1967).  This is, by far, the best book ever written about SACO.  Written by the U.S. commander of SACO forces in China, it describes the fascinating history of SACO and contains numerous photos.  This well-written book is out of print, but you can usually find used copies of it at www.abebooks.com for $20 - $80.

  • "The Rice Paddy Navy" by Roy Stratton.  This book describes more of the "nuts and bolts" of SACO.  Originally printed in 1950, it was out-of-print for many years and was extremely difficult to find.  However, 750 paperback copies were reprinted in July of 2004.   You might be able to find used copies of this book online.


3).  Online Roster List

The U.S. government has a very limited number of online roster records for U.S. veterans of World War II.  Amazingly enough, though, and for reasons I don't understand, this includes the Naval Group China (i.e., SACO) veterans.  This website is located at https://aad.archives.gov/aad/series-description.jsp?s=1379&cat=WR26&bc=sl,fd.  Once you're at this website, type in the last name of the SACO veteran you're researching.


This database includes the names of several SACO veterans, their rank, and their location each month during World War II.  However, it is only a partial list and does not include all of the men who served in SACO.



4).  My SACO Veteran's Forum

I recently created a new page called SACO Veteran's ForumIf you're a SACO veteran or know a SACO veteran and would like to share your SACO stories or photos with others, please contact me and I'll post the information on the Veteran's Forum page.  You can write a sentence, paragraph, or even several pages.


You can also contact me if you'd like to post information about SACO veterans you're searching for.  If you send me your request and e-mail address, I'll be happy to post the information on the Veteran's Forum page to assist you in your search.