From 1927 to 1941, members of the 4th Marine Regiment were stationed in Shanghai, China, protecting American citizens and their property in the Shanghai International Settlement during the Chinese Revolution and the second Sino-Japanese War.
At a time when the Marine Corps was smaller than the New York City Police Department, China was arguably the most desired duty station in the Corps.
In 1940, 19-year-old Donald Versaw reported to the International Settlement in Shanghai for duty as a musician with the 4th Marines Band. The young Marine, with a passion for photography, took advantage of life overseas.
Many young Marines were oblivious of rising tensions as they enjoyed their time in the region. And although the world was on the brink of war, the 4th Marine Band continued its mission.
On Nov. 10, 1941, Washington ordered its Armed Forces out of China. The 4th Marine Regiment began its exodus on Nov. 27. The next day, in their last performance, the 4th Marines Band joined by the Peking Legation Guard Band and field musicians from the infantry battalions, led the last echelon of troops to the city’s famous waterfront bound for the Philippines.
Every Marine a rifleman
On Dec. 2, the Marines arrived at the U.S. Naval Station at Olongapo, Philippine Islands. Five days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the 4th Marines Band put down its instruments to become the 3rd platoon of Company E, 2nd Battalion. Within days, the Marines found themselves on the frontlines of World War II as the Japanese unleashed their fury upon American installations throughout the Philippines.
On Dec. 28, the regiment, joined by survivors from other units, were ordered to strengthen defenses at Corregidor. It was the last time band members would all be in one place together. For some, it was the very last time they’d see each another again. Less than 24 hours after their arrival, the air raid alarms sounded, and the Marines got their first taste of aerial bombardment on Corregidor. Versaw’s platoon was deployed to the island’s South Shore Road with orders to repel invaders.
For five months, service members held Corregidor until the Japanese made their landing on May 5, 1942. The next day, Marines were ordered to destroy all things of value. They would all become prisoners of war.
The Imperial Japanese Army took more than 140,000 Allied prisoners, and one in four died at the hands of their captors. All prisoners were beaten, starved and put to work under deplorable conditions. No medical supplies were ever provided to help combat the dysentery, malaria, beriberi or any other tropical diseases to which the prisoners were exposed. Versaw was one of 1,487 Marines from the 4th Marine Regiment taken into captivity; 474 Marines didn’t survive long enough to see liberation three and a half years later.
After the war, Versaw continued his service in the Marine Corps as a photographer. In 1950-51 he served in Korea with the 1st Marine Division. He retired in 1959.
Looking back on his experience Versaw said, “I’ve always believed that a greater power was looking down on me and guiding my foot steps. The gratitude I have and the debt I owe for my own survival extends beyond my comprehensions. Among them were people even among the enemy, I didn’t know and never would, that in some small way or another helped me to survive. I must remember to be grateful to all for that, always.”
Read more about retired Master Sgt. Donald L. Versaw.
// By Lance Cpl. Corey Dabney
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