From USMC to KMT to PLA
The history of the Chinese M4A2 Shermans is somewhat difficult to trace. Only one photograph exists showing one in PLA (People’s Liberation Army) service on a victory parade, apparently with a non-standard main gun. The history of this specific tank, with the PLA serial number “012403”, is not fully known. However, the only other user of the M4A2 in China was the United States Marine Corps’ 1st Tank Battalion whilst repatriating the Japanese after WWII, giving some clues as to the tank’s origin.
Context: The Chinese Civil War
The Chinese Civil War was a struggle between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalists (the Kuomintang / KMT / Guomindang / GMD) which began as early as 1927. Typically, however, the Chinese Civil War refers to the period of 1945-1949, which led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and the Republic of China in Formosa (Taiwan).
For an excellent introduction to the Chinese Civil War, see “Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950” by Odd Arne Westad.
USMC M4A2s in China, 1945-1947
The only M4A2s known to be in China at any point belonged to the USMC’s 1st Tank Brigade, who were part of a repatriation programme to return Japanese nationals home.
Context: Japanese Repatriations from China
At the end of WWII, an estimated 1.5-1.6 million Japanese were left in China, with 1.1 million being in Manchuria (formerly Manchukuo), and just over 500,000 in other areas (overwhelmingly in Formosa, nowadays Taiwan, with 479,000, but also Hong Kong and other areas).
In the years 1945-1948, a mass repatriation effort was initiated by the United States under Kuomintang auspices to repatriate those nationals back to Japan. This was chiefly because it was in the US’s interests to have a strong, central government in China (more specifically, the Kuomintang) because of the threat of communist expansion. The existence of this many Japanese nationals presented an implicit threat to the KMT. Many of them had extensive military, economic, and technical expertises, and could be used as pawns by any side in the civil war. This fear was not unfounded, as on at least one occasion the Chinese Communists were able to force Japanese technicians to repair tanks. (See Gongchen Tank for more).
However, due to the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War, the potential for trouble between the Japanese, CCP (Chinese Communist Party), and the Kuomintang was high. Therefore, repatriations in northern China were highly militarised and done with the supervision of US Marines. Even without the outbreak of war, such a large number of people would need policing by the military to maintain order.
The 1st Tank Battalion in China
Included in the USMC efforts in northern China were the 1st and 6th Tank Battalions. The former was equipped with M4A2 Shermans and the latter with M4A3s. The M4A2 was being phased out of US service owing to its diesel engine, meaning that the Americans no longer wanted the tank. Diesel engines complicated logistics because other vehicles were petrol-fuelled, meaning two types of fuel would have to be supplied if the M4A2 was kept in service.
The 1st TB was left with only seven M4A2s after the Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945) along with some wrecks, but was not immediately re-equipped with new tanks. This is because they were going to participate in Operation Coronet, a landing at the Kanto Plain near Tokyo, scheduled for 1946, as opposed to Operation Olympic, an invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1945. As a result, sending the 1st TB new equipment was not a priority. However, these plans were scrapped due to the surrender of Japan in September 1945.
The 1st TB was therefore to be re-equipped with new M4A3 (105)s, which were stored among new and old equipment in the 5th Depot in Guam. However, when they were requested by the 1st TB, the Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the depot claimed he did not have the tanks. Eventually, the Lieutenant-Commander was reprimanded by Lieutenant-General Keller E. Rockey, and the base was searched. Sixty M4A3 (105)s were found, but too late to be prepared for deployment to China. As a result, the 1st TB’s M4A2s were sent from Okinawa to Tianjin (Tientsin), China.
The 1st TB had its headquarters in Tianjin from October 1945 until May 1947. They made regular convoys between Tianjin and the 5th Marines’ garrison in Beiping (nowadays Beijing), a journey of roughly fifty miles. These convoys were mail and supply runs, typically carrying drivers only.
However, one of these convoys was stopped by a fallen tree on the road. When the drivers tried to remove the tree, they came under fire from unknown assailants, possibly bandits or even Communist guerrillas, and returned to Tianjin. As a result, a platoon of M4A2s , almost half of the available tanks, was attached to the convoy including one with a dozer-blade. When the tanks arrived there, the tree was still in place, and the dozer tank went to move it. The convoy then came under small arms fire (believed to be just from rifles), but the unknown assailants were sent running by the 75mm guns of the tanks. Several tanks were left there to camp the night, surrounded by some concertina wire with noisemakers attached to them. That same night, the noisemakers were set off and the M4A2s lit up their headlights and fired their machine guns, killing a couple of intruders. From then on, convoys were escorted by tanks, but these tanks were worn-out. Therefore, they were sent out in sections to this camp from Tianjin or Beiping, so that no tank had to cover the full distance in a single run.
The 1st TB was eventually relieved and sent to Guam in January 1947, except for Company B. Company B remained in China presumably until May 1947, when the entire Battalion was sent back to the US mainland (except Company A, which presumably stayed in Guam). The KMT was handed control over the 1st TB’s camp, likely in January 1947, and were later given some of the M4A2s when the new M4A3 (105)s arrived for the 1st TB as replacements (presumably these were for Company B). It is unknown, however, whether the KMT ever fielded these M4A2s.
Regardless, some of these M4A2s were eventually captured by the PLA, but exactly when, where, how, and how many is unclear.
With the 1st TB: In 1944, the average USMC Tank Battalion would have had 46 tanks, but it is unlikely that by 1947 the 1st TB fielded this many. Tanks, especially larger vehicles such as Shermans, are known to have been particularly strained by the Chinese climate, meaning that many would have needed serious repairs. (For an example of the Chinese climate’s effects on tanks, see the Panzer I in KMT service). Seven tanks were serviceable after the Battle of Okinawa, which may give a very rough indication on numbers.
With the KMT: When the tanks were given to the KMT, they almost certainly did not come with spare parts and maintenance equipment. This means that of the tanks left by the 1st TB, only some of them are likely to have been serviceable, and for how long these tanks could be kept running is unclear. Nota bene – There is no evidence that the KMT even used these tanks at all.
With the PLA: With regards to PLA service, it is likely that even less were fielded. Rather like the PLA’s T-26 M1937, it is very possible that there was only one M4A2 which made it into the PLA. The others may have been destroyed in combat, too badly damaged, or in need of far too many repairs to be pressed back into service.
Where, when, and how
In “Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War“, Robert M. Neiman remarks that the Chinese Communists eventually captured the 1st TB’s camp after it was given to the KMT, which he believes explains the M4A2 in the Beijing Tank Museum (see below). However, this may not necessarily account for every M4A2’s loss.
The PLA did not come to control Beiping and Tianjin until January 1949 (as part of the Pingjin Campaign, November 1948 – January 1949), meaning that if the KMT fielded these tanks elsewhere, then the M4A2s could have been captured at any point between May 1947 (when the 1st TB withdrew) and October 1949 (when the Chinese Civil War ‘ended’), and at any possible front.
However, with regards to the only known M4A2 in PLA service (serial number 012403), it is most likely that the tank was captured directly from the 1st TB’s former base(s), like Neiman suggests for the one in the Beijing Tank Museum.
M4A2 ‘012403’ of the PLA
A photo shows M4A2 “012403” of the PLA’s East China Field Army in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, circa October 1st, 1949. The tank is on a local parade for the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China (the main parade took place in Beijing), and the vehicle’s markings reflect this. All PLA tanks around this time appear to have been marked with the large ‘8-1 star’ (typically on the turret), and the six-digit serial number stenciled on the vehicle in white (typically on the hull). It is unclear if the tank was repainted to the common ‘PLA tank green’, but quite probable.
Some of the vehicle’s technical features (such as the radio mount) are hard to see, not only because of the low resolution of the image, but also because the men on the tank obscure them. The tank also appears to have some type of box attached to the rear of the engine deck – likely a locally-built stowage box set, perhaps for fuel cans. This remains a mystery, however.
012403’s Main Gun
Whilst ‘012403’ clearly has a heavy machine gun mounted on the turret rear (almost certainly an M2 .50cal), it does not appear to have the standard main gun. There is something in its place which resembles a gun of a much smaller caliber. Close analysis of the photo seems to suggest that the original M34A1 mantlet is in place, but this is not absolutely certain.
Exactly what this new gun is has attracted some debate, with suggestions including: 1. A second M2 .50cal machine gun in a non-standard mount. 2. A 20mm gun of some sort. 3. A Ha-Go’s 37mm gun. 4. A dummy gun for parade purposes. Again, the quality of the image makes it very difficult to suggest any of these with any degree of certainty.
The most likely conclusion is that the gun is simply a dummy gun for the parade. This is based on the assumption that the M4A2 Sherman in the Beijing Tank Museum is ‘012403’ (see below). This tank seems to have been inaccurately restored, meaning that the US colors it is painted in are not original. The tank is distinctively missing its main gun, but retained the original mantlet, meaning that if this truly is ‘012403’, then the 1949 photo shows a dummy gun, as opposed to a new armament being fitted.
It is unclear why the main gun might have been modified. It is possible that the gun was damaged during a battle, whether in service with the USMC, KMT, or PLA. However, more likely is that ‘012403’ may have had its original main gun removed by the KMT and taken as a spare part, or destroyed by the KMT to prevent the PLA from capturing and reusing the vehicle. ‘012403’ may never have actually been operational with the KMT at all, because when the USMC left it behind, it could have been wrecked beyond their repair capabilities. PLA engineers, nonetheless, may have decided and been able to repair the tank and replace the missing main gun with something – as mentioned, most likely a dummy gun.
Standard M4A2 Specifications
|Dimensions (L-w-H)||5.84 x 2.62 x 2.74 m
19’2” x 8’7” x 9′
|Total weight, battle ready||30.3 tons (66,800 lbs)|
|Crew||5 (Commander, Driver, Assistent Driver/Bow Gunner, Loader, Gunner)|
|Propulsion||General Motors 6046 twin inline diesel engine; 375 hp (280 kW)|
|Transmission||Spicer manual synchromesh transmission, 5 forward and 1 reverse gears|
|Maximum speed||22–30 mph (35–48 km/h)|
|Suspension||Vertical Volute Spring (VVSS)|
|Armament (Standard)||Main: 75mm Tank Gun M3 Sec: 1x Browning M2HB 50. cal (12.7mm), 2 x cal.30 (7.62 mm) Browning M1919A4|
|Number in Service||Unknown|
Artist’s rendition of the M4A2 ‘012403’ of the PLA’s East China Field Army in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, circa October 1st, 1949.
The only known photo of the Chinese M4A2s. This one is in PLA service in Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, circa October 1st 1949. Source: xdza.gov.cn
M4A2 in the Beijing Tank Museum
There is an M4A2 on display in the Beijing Tank Museum, which is missing its main gun. This tank used to have a barrel of an M4A2(76) fixed in place (probably captured in Korea), but this seems to have since been removed. It is also painted in US livery, but the markings do not match ‘102632’ of the 1st TB in Tianjin. The tank was also fitted with a T6 flotation device, as evidenced by weldpoints across the tank (see photos). These details indicate that the tank has been inaccurately restored.
Regardless, it is certain that this is one of the M4A2s left behind by the 1st TB. Again, Neiman remarks that the Chinese Communists eventually captured the 1st TB’s camp after it was handed over to the KMT, which explains where this M4A2 came from. No M4A2s are known to have been fielded in Korea by the US, thus ruling out the idea that it was captured there like other vehicles in the museum such as the M26 Pershing, M4A3E8, M24 Chaffee, M36 Jackson, M19 GMC, among others.
If the US colors were original, it would affirmatively indicate that the KMT never used the tank, and that it could have been beyond their repair capabilites and scuttled. When the Beijing museum restores tanks, it is known to usually keep the tanks in the colors of their last user, even if the exact scheme is slightly wrong (for example, some PLA Type 58s were painted in anachronistic three-tone camouflage). Therefore, it could be argued that this tank was never used by the KMT because it retained its US colors. The upshot of this hypothesis is that the original main gun may have therefore been taken by the KMT as a spare for serviceable vehicles, or even destroyed as part of a scuttling effort. As mentioned, this could well be the case for ‘012403’, too. However, this hypothesis rests on the flimsy evidence of assuming the museum restored it somewhat accurately, which does not seem to have been the case.
This tank could be ‘012403’ itself because of the distinctive missing main gun. The upshot of this is that ‘012403’ therefore had a dummy gun placed into the remainder of the original barrel for the parade as opposed to being fitted with a new main gun. However, if this tank in the museum really is ‘012403’, then it seems odd that the tank would have been repainted into US colours, in contrast to other vehicles in the museum, such as the Chi-Ha tanks, M3A3 and M5A1 Stuarts, which retained their PLA colors.
Further conclusions are difficult to make with such scant evidence, but it is the author’s conclusion, based on the sum of current evidence, that this tank is ‘012403’, which has merely been restored (albeit inaccurately) to look like a US service tank.
M4A2 on display in the Beijing tank museum. Source: flamesofwar.com
Different view of the above, with evidence of a T6 flotation device having been fitted, as highlighted in red. Source: the.shadock.fr
Different view of the above, at an earlier point in time. The vehicle also has evidence of a T6 flotation device on the rear right side Source: the.shadock.fr
The same M4A2 as above, but with the 76mm barrel added. It is believed that this was part of an inaccurate restoration using a gun captured in the Korean War. Source: “The Tank Division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1945-1949” by Zhang Zhiwei.
M4A2 ‘102632’ of the USMC’s 1st TB in Tianjin, date unknown. Note that the markings do not match the M4A2 in the Beijing Tank Museum. Source: com-central.net
M3A3 Stuart in the Beijing Tank Museum, which retained its PLA colors. Source: Beijingman.blogspot
M4A2s cannot originally have come to China via Burma as part of the Lend-Lease programme to the Kuomintang, because no M4A2s were included in this.
On the other hand, 4,100 M4A2 Shermans were sent to the USSR, however, it is unlikely that this is where the PLA got any M4A2 from, as the USSR did not deal arms to the Chinese Communists until 1950, due to Soviet policy on the Chinese Civil War.
The KMT was given an unknown number of M4A2 Shermans from the USMC’s 1st TB in 1947. Some of these were likely to have been beyond the KMT’s repair capabilities, meaning that the KMT might have never even used them. A single M4A2 is known to have been in PLA service – ‘012403’, which has a non-standard main gun. It is likely that this main gun is merely a dummy stuck in the remains of the original barrel. The M4A2 in the Beijing Tank Museum was inaccurately restored, and is therefore very likely to be ‘012403’, because it is also missing the barrel of the original main gun. If this is true, then it proves that the main gun of ‘012403’ was merely a dummy for the October 1949 parade, and was not a newly fitted weapon.
Links, Resources & Further Reading
“The Tank Division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1945-1949” by Zhang Zhiwei
“MacArthur in Japan: The Occupation: Military Phase: Volume I Supplement (Reports of General MacArthur)” by Douglas MacArthur
“Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950” by Odd Arne Westad
“Tanks on the Beaches: A Marine Tanker in the Pacific War” by Robert M. Neiman
The author extends his thanks to Adam Pawley, Leigh Cole, and Stephen Wisker for their help on sources on the USMC’s 1st Tank Battalion, and Saúl García for comments on the technical features of M4A2s.