August will be a busy month for the American population, with gas and food prices going up, the Olympics in China, and the Democratic Convention in Denver. Except for some military veterans, very few will remember that 50 years ago the United States and China were very close to military conflict in the Taiwan Straits over two relatively minor islands (Quemoy, now called Kinmen), and Matsu just a short distance from the mainland of China. In August 1958 these islands were still controlled by the Republic of China (ROC), who had been driven from the mainland in 1949 when the Communist Chinese declared the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). Beginning on August 23rd 1958 the PRC attempted to invade and capture the islands after an intense artillery bombardment. The United States strongly supported the ROC on Taiwan, and President Eisenhower reacted to the attacks by sending our Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Straits to try and control the situation. U. S. troops from Okinawa were alerted in case they were needed to help the ROC. Military supplies were provided to the ROC, including early versions of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile, which the ROC air force effectively used to destroy many Communist aircraft.After the military situation eased and the shelling diminished and then ceased the US provided military support to the ROC, both personnel and equipment, until the mid 1970s. At that time an agreement was made between the US and the PRC that stipulated the United States would not station military personnel in Taiwan. Thus ended our direct military involvement with the ROC.
Now, many years later, the government of the ROC is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the shelling by inviting military veterans of both the United States and the ROC to Kinmento share their experiences during the battles and the period until the 1970s. Over 30 Americans who were stationed in Taiwan at some point between 1958 and the mid 1970s will be honored by meeting with high level ROC military commanders on the island and then attending a luncheon on August 23rd. Eleven American veterans who were present during 1958 will be seated with President Ma Ying-jeou, the newly elected President of the ROC. Oral histories of their experiences while in the area in August 1958 will be taken from the 11 US veterans. The rest of the US veteran group represents the time period from 1959 through the mid 1970s.
Since the end of World War II many military personnel from the United States have spent a portion of their lives providing assistance to friendly countries around the world. In many cases they have grown to appreciate other cultures, possibly learn some new languages, and realize what it is to be able to return to the United States and enjoy the many blessings we have here, even when there are bad times.
So, while you are enjoying your summer, keep in mind those men and women veterans from your community who are willing to volunteer to go to other areas of the world, some dangerous, some not. We should remember them because the citizens of those countries who we assisted have not forgotten and celebrate our having been there.
This article was written by my father, retired Lt. Colonel Howard O. Smith, who served in Taiwan during the mid-60’s, and will be traveling back to Taiwan this August to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Chinese’s bombardment. The People’s Liberation Army of Mao Zedong fired more than 450,000 shells on Kinmen Island and several other smaller islets in a 44-day artillery bombardment beginning on August 23, 1958.
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