Milton Miles and Dai Li. Via Osprey Publishing

REVIEW: The Rice Paddy Navy

Osprey Publishing; November 2012; 316 pp.

Before Navy SEALs stormed mansions in Pakistan, the notion of sailors waging war on land sounded ludicrous to many. So when Gen. George C. Marshall learned that Navy captain Milton Miles intended to train an army of Chinese guerillas to disrupt Japanese army operations in China and create a massive intelligence and weather monitoring network to assist naval operations in the Pacific, he thought Miles was insane.

In The Rice Paddy Navy: U.S. Sailors Undercover in China, freelance reporter Linda Kush tells the story of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), a covert partnership between the Navy and the Nationalist Chinese Secret Service under Gen. Dai Li. It’s a tale of espionage, gadgetry, treachery and backroom dealing starring a colorful cast of characters including Chinese gangsters and pirates, a Vietnamese princess, secret societies and assassins.

It began after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Americans had been caught off guard in no small part because the Japanese had used the weather to hide their fleet. The Japanese had weather stations all over the Pacific and China. In comparison the allies were fighting blind.

To rectify this the Navy dispatched Miles to China to set up a network of weather and signals-intercept stations. They would be the Navy’s eyes and ears. But many of them would have to be behind enemy lines. To make this possible, they would need the support of the Chinese. Specifically, they would need the support of Gen. Dai Li.

Dai remains a mysterious and controversial figure. Nicknamed the “Himmler of China,” Dai had strong ties to the fascist Blue Shirt Society and the Green Gang, the powerful crime syndicate that ruled Shanghai and aided the Kuomintang in the 1927 Shanghai Massacre.

Miles had read this and more in State Department reports, and approached Dai with caution. In spite of his misgivings, Miles quickly came to respect Dai for his straightforwardness and intelligence and his apparent respect for his subordinates. Dai in turn appreciated Miles’ fondness for China and his support for its sovereignty. Miles was possibly the only foreigner Dai ever truly trusted and the only one to ever enter the Chinese general’s inner circle.

Together the two officers set up a camp that would become SACO headquarters near one of Dai’s luxurious estates, known henceforth as “Happy Valley.”

Using a range of published and unpublished sources, Kush brings to life the adventures of this unlikely band of American sailors and Marines and Chinese spies and guerillas. She shows how the Americans and Chinese SACOs clashed and often misunderstood each other but still managed to work together. She contrasts this to many other U.S. and British officials — the “Old China Hands” — who tried to direct the Chinese rather than work with and among them, as SACO did.

Miles is the star of this tale. His battles with military bureaucrats occupied a large part of his time. He fought off constant accusations that he’d gone native. Miles consistently argued for keeping faith with the Chinese and respecting their sovereignty. Other notable SACO members included Phil Bucknew, one of the founders of the Navy SEALs and the first commander of SEAL Team One, and Dr. Henry Heimlich, inventor of the famous lifesaving maneuver.

Kush also takes some time to delve into Dai’s psyche — and like many historians is not sure what to make of the general. She doesn’t try to fight off all the charges against Dai, including the executions he carried out and his ruthless punishment of dissent. But she suggests that many of the stories about his brutality are embellished, perhaps even spread by himself to inspire fear in his enemies.

The book is not flawless. At times it can feel repetitive. There’s also a lack of citations where you’d really like them, especially in the latter half of the book where there are suggestions that the Chinese Communists and the Japanese — otherwise natural enemies — were directly cooperating to kill Dai and disrupt SACO. In particular, Kush’s cites no sources in her description of a July 1945 incident in which three Japanese and one Communist Chinese agent all allegedly participated in a raid to kill Dai and Miles.

There is also a point were Kush asserts that Douglas MacArthur banned the Office of Strategic Services — the predecessor of the CIA — from working in his battlespace because he saw little use for espionage. In truth it’s well documented that MacArthur made extensive use of friendly guerillas and agents on Pacific islands. He simply preferred to rely on his own Allied Intelligence Bureau rather than the OSS.

Still,The Rice Paddy Navy is a fascinating and valuable study of espionage and unconventional warfare.