Capt Thomas Holcomb studying Mandarin with his Chinese tutor, c.1910-13
(Photo from the Holcomb Collection Alfred M. Gray Marine Corps Reseach Center)
A topic frequently discussed by the U.S. military immediately following 9/11 was how to develop a cadre of linguists capable of supporting operations in areas where its soldiers would now have to operate. In 1909 the Director of Naval Intelligence (DNI) asked a very similar question. Over the next few months he developed a solution resulting in the creation of the Language Officer program. The program was supposedly based upon a British program were officers were embedded into embassy staffs with the purpose of mastering a language in anticipation of supporting future military operations. Although nominally assigned to the embassy these men would live apart, spending their days under the guidance of native tutors. With approval granted by the Secretary of the Navy, the DNI selected Charles Austin for assignment to Tokyo as the first Language Officer candidate. By March of that year the Commandant of the Marine Corps requested two Marine officers be assigned to the Navy’s program for the study of Chinese. In accordance with the Assistant Secretary of the Navy’s approval, Commandant Elliot selected Captain Thomas Holcomb and 1st Lt E.L. Bigler as the first to study Chinese (at the same time a 3rd Marine officer was dispatched to study Japanese). Ironically, Holcomb who was already midway through his second China cruise, had suggested to the Commandant in the fall of 1909 the Marines allow him to study Chinese in order to become a trained military interpreter. In the same request, Holcomb noted the international importance of Chinese affairs at that time and offered a plan to execute the program. With a competent teacher and a stipend of $30.00 per month the student would commit to a series of proficiency test administrated by the State Department’s Chinese Secretary. As it turned out, when the Marines finally committed to the project they issued course guidance similar to Holcomb’s original proposal. Headquarters, US Marine Corps added the men would be under the command of the Naval Attaché to Japan and China, accept a two year period of study, and supplied a course outline that included the requirements for speech, reading and writing.
Within the first few days of July 1910, both Holcomb and Bigler, who joined him from a stateside assignment found native instructors and housing in an old temple in the Western Hill’s, several miles outside of Peking and began their studies. According to Bigler’s military proficiency reports he studied 12 hours a day and made considerable progress. Yet each, despite their diligence at various time privately noted in letters home they struggled with the complexities of the language. Their course curriculum probably mirrored the same subjects as State Department language students took: reading classical Chinese literature, modern literary works, calligraphy and oral translation. Since China was, and remains a country of many dialects, these Language Officers or Language Attachés as they were sometimes called studied Mandarin Chinese which was the language of the ruling dynasty. The study of Mandarin continued even after the end of the Imperial period. Of course Holcomb and Bigler also had translations of Chinese military subjects added to their program. In the colder months both men retuned to Peking to live in the native city further expanding their understanding of both language and culture. When the Chinese Revolution came in October of 1911, both men were pulled off their studies at the direction of the American Minister and sent to gather intelligence in and around Peking for several months. By the end of their study period a report by a State Department official noted both men were considered highly proficient in their ability to read, write and speak Chinese.
Kaun Hua Chih Nan. Printed in Japan, Autumn 1909. This copy of a Chinese language book was kept at the Legation and used by a number of future Marine leaders while studying in Peking. This edition bears the inscription “Capt. W.A. Worton, Captain of Marines.” Worton later added a handwritten note stating the history of this book and who used it. The book contains a description of the grammar and phases to be used at Imperial Court in Peking, as well as proper court etiquette.
For a while the language program seemed to flourish and the Navy made plans to send officers to Germany for language training. But in 1914 the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels ended the program, complaining with war in Europe approaching, the navy was better served if its officers were aboard ships instead of embassies. Somehow Capt Louis McCarty Little who must have just replaced Holcomb, was able to remain in China until he completed his studies in 1916. But with his departure the Language Program ended.
The program resumed again in 1926 with the assignment of a Marine officer to Peking. In time such notables as 1st Lt James McHugh, Capt W.A. Worton and 1st Lt Evans Carlson graduated from the program. McHugh and Worton would go on to provide invaluable service in gathering intelligence prior to World War II, while Carlson would establish the Marine Raider program. McHugh while stationed in Peking even wrote a book on the language entitled “Introductory Mandarin Lessons” which he published in China in 1931.
Charles Price, Jr. at the Quatermasters Compound, Peking
A part from the specialized language program Officers, most China Marines had to make due with either Pidgin English or a smattering of Chinese picked up in bars to deal with the locals. It has been said that children can learn a foreign language far faster than adults. Such was the case of Maj Charles Price’s young pre-teenage son Charles Jr. In the mid-1920’s Charles Jr. was so fluent in Chinese, the Mounted Detachment would take him along with them when they would patrol the countryside. Once when the mounted was returning late from a country ride, the they sent one their men and young Charles ahead to a city gate to convince the guards to hold the gates open long enough for the patrols return. Unaware that Price could understand Chinese, one city guard stated to his compatriots it might be fun to jab Charles’ horse in the rump with his bayonet just to see the boy thrown. Charles, aware of what was to transpire had taught his horse to kick on command and so positioned his horse in front of the man. One well placed kick to the guard’s head allegedly killed the soldier.
A sampling of Language Cards used by the Legation Marines enrolled in the Chinese Language School
While the Marines might benefit from young Charles Price’s language skills for leisurely patrols in the country, the political situation in China in the 1930’s demanded language skills a little more robust. By mid-October 1934 a language school was established, similar to what the Army had in Tientsin so enlisted volunteers could take courses in conversation, writing and recognizing military terminology. The school’s first graduate was Sgt Homer Coppedge in December 1934.
A Marine's box of Language Cards, c. 1934
Of course for those Marines not inclined to enroll in the rigors of a structured language program, there always was a recreational Chinese language course taught by the Legation YMCA. Also the monthly Legation Guard News would print useful Chinese phrases best suited to an evening of drinking and dancing. Although Pidgin English may have been the standard way for most Marines to communicate with the locals a few, through their Chinese girlfriends went beyond just learning how to order drinks, and really maximized their exposure to Chinese culture and the language.
Army Chung Patch. This rare patch was awarded to graduates of the US Army's Language School in Tientsin. Enlisted Marines were authorized to wear this unique patch upon graduating from their own Chinese language school
Courtesy of the John R. Patton Collection
A final note on the study of Chinese, for those that took the time to learn the language China became a far more interesting place. For some the language never left them, even long after they left the Marine Corps. Lt Bigler retired in 1930 as a Major. He lived until the age 92. His grandson remembers the elder man living on his family’s western Ohio farm and dedicating a portion of his day to reading Chinese and practicing calligraphy.