From USMC to KMT to PLA
The only known photograph of a Chinese M4A2 (Sherman) shows one in PLA (People’s Liberation Army) service on a victory parade in 1949, apparently with a non-standard main gun. The history of this specific tank, with the serial number “012403”, is not fully known. However, the only other confirmed user of the M4A2 in China was the United States Marine Corps’ 1st Tank Battalion, who were repatriating the Japanese after WWII, thus giving some clues as to the origin of “012403”. However, as this article will show, more questions are raised than answered about the history of the M4A2 in China.
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
Prior to the discovery of the photo of “012403”, the only M4A2s in China were thought to belong 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 these were in Formosa, nowadays Taiwan, with 479,000, but Hong Kong and other areas also hosted thousands).
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 – regional instability would be intolerable as it may lead to further war – but also it was necessary for that government to be headed by the KMT because of the threat of communist expansion in the region, especially considering the Soviet invasion of Manchuria (9-20 August 1945) and its subsequent occupation. The existence of so many Japanese nationals with an effective refugee status presented questions of law and order, and therefore the KMT regime’s stability. Similarly, these nationals presented an implicit threat to the KMT because many of them had extensive military, economic, and technical expertises, and could be used as pawns in the civil war by the Communists. This fear was not unfounded, as on at least one occasion the Communists were able to force Japanese technicians to repair tanks to equip the first ever armored division of the PLA. (See Gongchen Tank for more).
The resumption of the Chinese Civil War in 1946 meant that the potential for trouble between the Japanese, CCP (Chinese Communist Party), and the Kuomintang was high. Even without the outbreak of war, such a large number of people would need policing by the military to maintain order. Therefore, repatriations in northern China were highly militarised and done with the supervision of US Marines.
The 1st Tank Battalion in China
Included in the USMC’s efforts in northern China were the 1st and 6th Tank Battalions. The former was equipped with M4A2 Shermans and the latter with M4A3s. Towards the end of WWII, the M4A2 was being phased out of US service because of its diesel engine. Put simply, diesel engines complicated logistics because most other US vehicles were petrol-fuelled, meaning that two types of fuel would have to be supplied if the M4A2 was kept in service. Therefore, it was logical to phase the tank out as soon as possible.
The 1st TB was left with only seven M4A2s after the Battle of Okinawa (April-June 1945), along with some M4A2 wrecks, but was not immediately re-equipped with new tanks. This is because the Battalion was not expected to participate in fighting immediately after the Battle of Okinawa. Instead of being earmarked for participation in the next major part of the war against Japan, Operation Olympic (an invasion of Kyushu scheduled for November 1945), the 1st TB was instead going to participate in the later Operation Coronet, a landing at the Kanto Plain near Tokyo which was scheduled for some-time in 1946. As a result, sending the 1st TB new equipment was not a priority and no immediate plans were drawn up for the re-equipment of the 1st TB. However, these Operations were scrapped due to the surrender of Japan in September 1945, and the 1st TB was scheduled for deployment to China as part of aforementioned repatriation operations in October.
For this, the 1st TB was originally going to be reequipped with new M4A3 (105)s, which were stored among new and old equipment in the 5th Depot in Guam. However, when these tanks were requested by the 1st TB, the Lieutenant-Colonel in charge of the depot claimed he did not have them in his inventory. After protests by the 1st TB, the Lieutenant-Commander of the depot 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 due to the debacle. As a result, the 1st TB’s M4A2s were sent from Okinawa to China instead.
The 1st TB had its headquarters in Tianjin (Tienstin) from October 1945 until May 1947. They made regular convoys of trucks 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.
Robert M. Neiman, the commanding officer of the 1st TB, records in his memoirs that one of these convoys was stopped by a fallen tree in the road (the date is not given, but presumably this is before he went back to the US, working in insurance and lumber industries some-time in 1946). When the drivers tried to remove the tree, they came under fire from unknown assailants (possibly bandits or even Communist guerrillas) forcing them to return to Tianjin. As a result, a platoon of M4A2s (reported as ‘almost half of the available tanks’ by Neiman) was attached to the convoy including one with a dozer-blade. When the tanks arrived at the scene, the tree was still in place, and the dozer tank went to move it. The convoy then came under small arms fire again (believed to be just from mere rifles), but the 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 from China 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 was later given the M4A2s when the new M4A3 (105)s arrived for the 1st TB as replacements (presumably these were for Company B and arrived in January 1947) – consider also that the USMC wanted to phase the tank out anyway. It is unknown, however, whether the KMT ever fielded these M4A2s.
Regardless, at least one M4A2 was captured by the PLA, but exactly when, where, how, and if any others were captured remains unclear.
Number of M4A2s
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. Neiman’s memoirs seem to indicate there to have been no less than a dozen tanks.
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: Rather like the PLA’s T-26 M1937, it is very possible that there was only one M4A2 which made it into the PLA. Other M4A2s that were left for the KMT 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
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, seeing as though there must have been more than one.
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 (indeed, a large ‘if’), 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, “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, which is likely to be the very same tank (see below).
M4A2 ‘012403’ of the PLA
One sole 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 stencilled 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 given the other decorations.
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. Nevertheless, 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.
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.
Close analysis of the photo suggests that the original M34A1 mantlet is in place, thus the most likely conclusion is that the gun is simply a dummy gun for the parade. Having established that the gun is a dummy, with part of the original mantlet in place, this means that the M4A2 Sherman in the Beijing Tank Museum is almost certainly ‘012403’ (see below).
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 but needed scuttling all the same. This may also explain the lack of evidence for the KMT use of the M4A2s. PLA engineers, nonetheless, may have decided and been able to repair at least one M4A2 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 use of an M4A2 Sherman. 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 during the Korean War 1950-1953, seeing as though China would not have come into contact with such a gun elsewhere), but this has since been removed by the museum. 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). The sum of 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. The tank being sourced otherwise, such as through the Lend-Lease programme, is impossible (see below).
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 capabilities 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 then 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 assumption that the museum restored it accurately – to be clear 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 – but this M4A2 seems to be an exception, especially considering that the paint scheme does not match ‘102632’.
As a result, the more likely theory is that the tank is ‘012403’ itself because of the distinctive missing main gun. The upshot of this is that ‘012403’ therefore definitely 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. Further conclusions are difficult to make with such scant evidence. It also remains unclear why this tank, and not others, was repainted into US colors, when other tanks retained their PLA colors.
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. Moreover, the M4A4 Shermans left operational in Burma were taken back by the US as part of an attempt to avoid escalation of hostilities in China leading up to the resumption of the Civil War in 1946.
On the other hand, 4,100 M4A2 Shermans were sent to the USSR, but 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 USSR is, however, reported to have given the PLA weapons captured during the Soviet occupation of Manchuria including small arms and even Japanese tanks.
The KMT was given an unknown number of M4A2 Shermans from the USMC’s 1st TB circa 1947. These tanks were worn out and perhaps beyond 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 was probably captured near Tianjin. This tank has dummy gun stuck in the remains of the original barrel most likely for parade purposes. This M4A2 eventually found its way to the Beijing Tank Museum, probably following Soviet arms sales to the PLA in the 1950s, at which point much materiel captured during the Civil War, including Japanese tanks, were phased out. The tank was inaccurately restored with US colors for an unknown reason whilst at the museum. As such tentative conclusions suggest, further sources on the Chinese use of M4A2s are wanting.
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.