June 19, 2006
The Lore of the Corps: China Service Medal has a unique history

By Robert F. Dorr and Fred L. Borch
Special to the Times

The China Service Medal was created in 1940 for sailors and Marines who had served in China in the late 1930s. It is unique among American medals because the Navy resurrected it after World War II for a new generation of Americans who served in China, Formosa (now Taiwan) or in the Matsu Straits between 1945 and 1957.

“It was meant to honor service at a difficult time,” said Dr. Charles P. McDowell, an expert in American decorations and medals. He said the medal was established in August 1940 “to commemorate the services of sailors and Marines who had been on Chinese soil or had been onboard any vessels in Chinese waters in support of military operations” between July 7, 1937, and Sept. 7, 1939.

The opening qualifying date — July 7, 1937 — marked the start of the undeclared war in which Japan invaded China. On that date, Japanese and Chinese troops clashed near the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peking (now Beijing).

The closing date for the medal — Sept. 7, 1939 — was the last day before President Roosevelt proclaimed a limited national emergency in the U.S.

The medal was designed by George H. Snowden, a sculptor who had been educated at Yale University and at art academies in Paris and Rome.

The medal is 1 inches in diameter and is made of bronze. In the center of the front of the medal is a three-sailed Chinese junk on top of scroll waves. The vessel is circled by the words “China” and “service” in Asian-style lettering.

Snowden selected the junk for the medal, McDowell said, “because it is a common sight in Chinese inland and coastal waters and symbolizes the geographical area.”

On the reverse of the medal, a bald eagle faces to the left. It is perched on an anchor, the flukes of which are to the right. The eagle is holding laurel, which symbolizes achievement.

The China Service Medal issued to sailors has the words “United States Navy” above the eagle; for Marines, the medal has the words “United States Marine Corps.”

The fabric is gold with red stripes on either side. The colors were selected because they were considered popular Asian colors.

A Navy Department general order issued in 1942 identified more than 40 vessels whose service after July 1937 qualified for the medal. Hundreds of naval personnel received the medal in the early 1940s for service they had completed. Among the recipients were sailors aboard the gunboat Panay, which was attacked and sunk by Japanese planes Dec. 12, 1937.

In 1947, the Navy resurrected the China Service Medal by establishing a second period of qualifying service. After Sept. 2, 1945, any sailor, Marine or Coast Guardsman who served ashore in China or was attached to any vessel supporting in China was eligible. Interestingly, the Navy order expressly stated that the secretary of the Navy also could award the medal “to personnel of the Army or other components of the armed forces.”

This makes the China Service Medal unique because its first period of eligibility is restricted to naval personnel, while the second applies to all in uniform.

Robert F. Dorr, an Air Force veteran, lives in Oakton, Va. He is the author of “Chopper,” a history of helicopter pilots. His e-mail address is robert.f.dorr@cox.net. Fred L. Borch retired from the Army after 25 years. He is the author of “Kimmel, Short and Pearl Harbor.” His e-mail address is borchfj@aol.com.