John Morrison Birch was born on March 28, 1918 at a hill station in what is now the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand. It was at the time part of the British colony of India. He was the son of Baptist missionaries. John was raised in New Jersey and Georgia, graduating from Lanier High School for Boys. He attended Mercer University and graduated magna cum laude in 1939.
While still a student at Mercer, John focused on becoming a missionary himself. After graduating from Mercer, he enrolled in the Fundamental Baptist Bible Institute where he completed the prescribed two year curriculum in half that time. He then sailed to Shanghai, where he studied and became fluent in Mandarin Chinese in just a couple of months.
After a few months he was assigned to Hangzhou which was already occupied by Japanese forces in the Sino-Japanese War. After the Japanese attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese sent troops to arrest Birch as an enemy national. Birch and other missionaries fled inland. He initiated new missions in Zhejiang Province.
In April of 1942, Jimmy Doolittle, and other members of the mission, bailed out over China after the Tokyo Raid. Birch was eating in a village restaurant in Chekiang Province one evening when he was approached by an intermediary who led him to Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle and other American airmen. Birch helped to lead the American flyers to safety.
After meeting Claire Chennault, the head of the Flying Tigers, Doolittle recommended that Birch be commissioned in the U. S. Army. John was originally given the rank of First Lieutenant in the Fourteenth Air Force, and asked to locate the remaining airmen. He accomplished this mission and returned to Chungking where he served for a time as a chaplain and interpreter.
John transferred to the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, and moved back and forth through enemy (Japanese) lines. Birch built up a group of informants who tracked Japanese troop movements. This information was used by the Nationalist Chinese in fighting the Japanese. He set up coastal spotting stations, located Japanese airfields and munitions dumps, and called in American airstrikes on these targets. For his excellent work, Birch received the Legion of Merit award in 1944, and was promoted to Captain.
Hostilities with Japan ended on August 14, 1945 although the formal surrender would not be signed until a couple of weeks later. Japanese troops were ordered to remain in place in China until they could surrender to Nationalist Chinese troops even in areas that the Communists had been in control for a decade. The fighting continued as the Communist Peoples Liberation Army fought the Nationalist forces and the Americans whom they believed were now collaborating with the Japanese. Birch had written “I know the big enemy is communism…”
On August 25, 1945, a party of Allies led by Birch was attempting to reach a Japanese POW camp when they were stopped by Communist forces. Birch was arrested and killed by the Communists. He was 27 years old.
He was the first American casualty in what would become the Cold War. Perhaps the most appalling aspect of the incident was that the United States government deliberately hid the truth about the murder. John’s parents, George and Ethel Birch, were only told that their son had been killed. Ethel spent five years traveling the country in order to speak with every man she could find who had served with her son. She was eventually able to get California Senator William Fife Knowland to open the TOP SECRET file on her son’s death.
The murder of Captain Birch had been deliberately covered up by communist sympathizers to obscure the true motivations of Mao Tse-tung’s Communist “agrarian reformers” who were attempting to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. Perhaps if the truth had been known at the time, United States policy might have been different towards the Nationalists and the Communists.
Thirteen years after his death, the John Birch Society was formed by Robert Welch with the permission of his parents.
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Mr. Halliday can be reached at email@example.com
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