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The Last China Band

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

  • Johnny Sparks

    Never before,,have so few,,,done so much,,for so many ,,with so little,,for so long,,
    I think they can do Anything with Nothing Forever.
    Commandant of our Marine Corps said That……. About You.
    I Tend to Agree.

  • Johnny Sparks

    OOOOOOOOOOOOooRRRRrrrrrrAAaaaaaaaahhhhhhh Marine Corps
    Semper Fidelis

  • Johnny Sparks

    How can i Help,, is my e-mail hit me with it ,,,,, i will see what i can do.,,Peace out

  • Johnny Sparks

    My Daddy was a China Marine in Manchuria,, Training Chinese to fight Japanese..
    For their Freedom,,,While Island Hopping on Bataan ,, He and 50 thousand Marines were captured ,, Japanese murdered 45 thousand on the forced march that followed,,
    I can Never Express my Deepest emotions for these Men,,Marines are a rare and Honorable bunch,,My Respect and Gratitude will always be one of Pride in the Corps

    Daddy got both his hands broken for stealing rice to feed his sick and dying Friend
    One day The Marines came and got may daddy and all the survivors..
    For That and the Many other acts of Heroism built into the foundation of the Corps.
    i gotta say, Semper Fi
    God Bless America.

  • Rodger Clemons

    My father, Aaron Lee Clemons, was with the 4th Marines in China. He, along with his brothers in arms suffered at the hands of their captors for 31/2 years. He never spoke of it, he never recovered, I’m not so sure that he actually ever “came” home. Oddly, after I joined the Marines in 67 I was with 1/4, (RVN 68-69). Thank you Master SGt Versaw for your service, and from a son of one of your brothers, Semper Fi.

  • Harris5524

    It’s interesting that they didn’t include anything about the Hawaii band returning to China in 2011.

  • Harris5524


  • China Marine

    Great post, thanks.

    Please start a Linkedin page so those of us Marines still in China can contribute without worrying about having to access FB from the Mainland. 

  • Anonymous

    Did he get his medal?

  • Steven Morpus

    God bless you “Top” Versaw, and your fellow Marines, then and now.