The end of World War II brought with it an end to the war in mainland China that had been fought between Chinese and Japanese forces since 1939. During this period of conflict with the Japanese, the Chinese Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Chinese Communist Party, led by Mao Zedong, had maintained a somewhat united front, but following the end of hostilities, civil war once again threatened the country.
American general George C. Marshall was sent to China in December 1945 in an attempt to negotiate a permanent peace between the two factions; however, his failure to do so and subsequent withdrawal in February 1947 signaled an end to mediation efforts and a renewal of war between Nationalist and Communist forces. While engaged in talks on the national level between high ranking members of both sides, Marshall maintained a corps of American officers that operated on a local scale, formed into teams consisting of a Nationalist and Communist representative, an interpreter, a radio operator, and at least one American officer. One of these men was Col. Thomas Loryea Alexander (1893-1975), Chairman of Executive Headquarters Field Teams Numbers Five, Twelve, and Thirty-one.
According to a newspaper clipping in the collection, Alexander, a native of Wagner (Aiken County, S.C.) and 1915 graduate of The Citadel, was a veteran of the 1916 Mexican Border Conflict and had fought in France during World War I. During World War II, he had commanded the 179th Field Artillery during training exercises in Louisiana as a colonel in the National Guard, after which he was given charge of a German prisoner-of-war camp near Durham, North Carolina.
The majority of the one hundred fifty-three items in this collection are letters written daily by Alexander to his wife, Ellen Boykin Alexander (1899-1996), in Boykin, Kershaw County, while awaiting departure at Fort Lawton, Washington, during his sea voyage to China, and while stationed in Shanghai, Peiping (present day Beijing), Shijiazhuang, Kalgan (present day Zhangjiakou), Beidaihe, and Handan. On 20 April 1946 he explained his method of letter writing - "I usually start them in the AM or night before the date and write a paragraph...whenever I get a chance... I like to keep in touch with you through out the day." In the field, mail would only be picked up by plane once a week, and in this case Alexander would write a single long letter, noting when a new day had begun.
The earliest letters in the collection document Alexanderís stay at Fort Lawton and his journey to China aboard the U.S.S. R.M. Blatchford. In addition to describing the climate and geography of the area surrounding Seattle, he also speculated on his upcoming assignment in a letter written on 26 March 1946 - "It seems that we will have something to do with training the Chinese army but havenít learned all about our duties yet. Hope they will be small." Alexander seemed to have learned the full extent of his future duties once aboard ship, for on 3 April 1946 he noted that he was "anxious to get to Shanghi to see what this job is like. It seems that the Nationalist and Communist are at it again. Hope that we can bring them together and stop fighting." The next day he expressed for the first time his desire for Ellen to join him in China as a dependent. This topic would continue to be a major theme in nearly all of his letters.
By 18 May 1946 Alexander had undergone orientation in Peiping and was ready for his first assignment which would be in the Nationalist controlled city of Shijiazhuang. He was cautiously optimistic about success, although he noted in a letter that day how the entire mission had been questioned in both Time magazine and the New York Times - "They seem to think that Gen. Marshall has taken on a bit more than he can handle. It is a big undertaking but if it can be successful it will have a tremendous effect in handling other national problems. If the Nationalists and Communist concede just a little and will adhere to their agreements and promises the job would be fairly simple." He arrived in Shijiazhuang on 23 May 1946 and reported two days later that "little progress is being made by Marshallís group at this time and sometimes it looks hopeless." On the night of 26 May 1946, Communist forces attacked a village seven miles from Alexanderís position, he informed Ellen that his team would "investigate as soon as the Communists member returns." Two days later he highlighted one of the numerous difficulties with his work - "Our Communist general team member slipped off some time ago and has not returned so the investigations have been at a stand still. We have asked for a replacement so we can investigate the battle of a few days ago... No doubt there was method in the Com. memberís departure."
Even though factions signed a truce by 6 June 1946, Alexander still reported ongoing attacks by Communist forces on rail lines, bridges, and communications networks. The situation was no better by 23 July 1946 - "We are still piddling and hoping that some definite lasting agreement can be decided at Nanking. The trouble is neither side makes little effort to adhere to the provisions of any agreement. There are more battles raging now than before. The civilians are the principle sufferers. They lay siege to a town and allow no food or medicines to enter. Consequently many die of starvation. They drop food from planes without parachutes and the weight carries the bundles through the roofs of houses and kills or injures lots of people. If you got hit in the head with one of these 18 inch Chinese biscuits you wouldnít need any more food... I have about 30 recent battles to investigate but half the time the Nationalist wonít cooperate and the other half the communist wonít. The same thing all over China and 90% of the teams are inactive."
On 29 July 1946 four U.S. Marines were killed outside of Peiping. Alexander sought permission from Marshall to investigate the attack, but informed Ellen on the 30th that his request had been denied - "He is afraid we may become involved since none of our present directives cover conflicts between U.S. and Chinese troops. I donít see any objections... and was rather enthused about the job." On 4 August 1946 he followed up with particulars about the attack - "The situation around Peiping is some what tense but our Marines are patroling with considerable armour now and their planes keep an umbrella over them. The Communists have admitted the attack on the Marines. They claim in their propaganda that Chinese Nat. troops were with the column but that of course is false. It was a dastardly trick."
On 8 August 1946 Alexander took over Field Team Five, which was situated in Kalgan, "truly a Communist area which is saturated with all forms of propaganda against every thing including Americans." In his description of the city the following day he noted that, on account of the number of animals and humans, "the fertilizer business is popular." He went on to describe the method of collecting waste by the "middle man" who "we pray... will never miss" - "He has a long basket strapped on his back and sort of a spoon like shovel. In one motion he scoops up the deposits and in a one handed golfing movement to his left shoulder drops it into the basket. The action is artistic and is perfected by practice and perseverance."
By late August it had become clear that the cease fire would not last, and Alexander began making preparations for evacuation from Kalgan. In case he could not leave before a Nationalist attack on the city, he had made alternate plans which he described in a letter of 13 September 1946 - "Am drawing a picture of our compound and asking the Nat. not to bomb it." By the 19th, he had been informed that his team would be evacuated to Peiping but noted that "we... canít get the C.P.s to let us go." He also informed Ellen that he "had to shut my radio off last night and lost touch with Peiping." This event would lead to two American newspaper articles written about Alexander titled "S.C. Man Held By Communists, Col. Alexander of Boykin in ĎProtective Custodyí in Kalgan, China" and "Boykin Officer is Held Captive by Communists," both dated 23 September 1946.
Alexander was finally evacuated to Peiping on 1 October. Upon his arrival he sent two letters dated 2 and 4 October 1946 in which he explained the situation. "My radio was stopped by soldiers with loaded guns and not by mechanical difficulties. However I was on the air again in less than 24 hrs... We felt that we would stand a pretty big siege and had a nice cave prepared we did not... particularly desire to come out... I was never in any danger as far as I know and did as I pleased whenever I wanted to... People worry too much about nothing. I havenít been lost either. I knew where I was all the time and Hq. did too... We had food and everything we needed except cigarettes."
On 21 October 1946, Alexander arrived in Handan and assumed leadership of Field Team Thirty-one. Like Kalgan, Handan was a Communist controlled city, and Alexander felt that he received his new posting as a result of his prior experience. Upon arrival he met with the mayor of the city and the local Communist leaders, which prompted a comparison of the two factions in a letter dated 23 October 1946 - "They [the Communists] usually put their very best men at the top and that is why they are so strong. The National Government is so terribly corrupt, dishonest and incapable. The N.G. leaders throughout China are friends, relatives or fellow crooks... Their generals are all rich men." Alexander found the situation in Handan similar to Kalgan, and was evacuated in a very similar fashion on 28 November 1946.
On 6 December 1946 he returned to the site of his original posting, Shijiazhuang, and could not have been happier. Writing on that date he happily reported, "If it wasnít China I would think I was in Boykin. Nobody knew I was coming but when they found out I was here they came from every direction... The food is superior. The house is very warm and like a home. If I was in Han tan am sure I would be dressed in furs... Iím just hot si totsy with my jacket hanging up on the rack."
Alexander began considering the possibility of departure following James F. Byrnesí resignation as Secretary of State and George Marshallís subsequent appointment to the post in January 1947. Writing on the 7th of that month he expressed his approval of the change - "I believe it is best Marshall did not quit but was given a bigger job. Iím glad for him and I think it is a good move in every direction. He made a statement about China which was good but not strong enough. Someday I will explode and tell the whole truth about this damned country and itís government and the Communists. I know them both intimately but I havenít turned loose yet. Itís not diplomatic over here to do so but Iím learning the truth... I do not know... what the effect of Marshallís leaving will have. The Chinese papers say that P.H.Q. will be closed but most of the time they are wrong." On 11 February he informed Ellen that they had received word to began packing, and Alexander boarded a ship for home on 15 April. Before leaving, in a letter of 6 April, he described a battle between United States Marines and Communist forces at an ammunition dump near Tanggu and made his strongest condemnation of Communism - "5 Marines were killed and 16 wounded. The Marines were chasing them and I hope they catch them all... Am glad America has taken a stand against the Communist... Real Communists have no right to existence or rations."
When not acting in an official role as a mediator, Alexander had ample opportunity to read, sightsee, buy souvenirs, attend banquets thrown by his Chinese hosts, and make whatever contributions he could to projects being run by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA).
In addition to his subscriptions to the Atlanta Journal and Readerís Digest, Alexander finished at least two books during his time in China, John Steinbeckís The Grapes of Wrath and Guenther Steinís The Challenge of Red China. The former he thought exhibited superb composition and literary style, but "about 1/3 of it is unshellaced cussiní of the rawest kind."
When time allowed, Alexander traveled quite extensively. Upon his arrival in Shanghai on 20 April he went to visit a ten-story pagoda that he noted was "cloudy from all the incense smoke." Following the custom he "smoked them with $400.00 (C.N.C.) worth of incense, about 20Ę." In Peiping he visited the Forbidden Palace, the Marco Polo Bridge, the Temple of Heaven, "Coal Hill," and made a side trip to see the Great Wall. When describing the latter to Ellen on 28 April he joked that he "may want to build one like it on the farm." Among the items he purchased and sent home to his wife were an "old Ming dynasty bell," a "100 year old set of chopsticks," an "embroidered fidelity hanging," and a "couple of friendship scrolls." Alexander provided detailed descriptions of his food and of dinner parties thrown by his Chinese hosts. Typical of these was one given by a "Mr. Yong" on 16 June. "In came 4 meats and after that 4 more meats and assorted dishes, bamboo shoots, sharkís fins, boiled green figs, water chesnuts, water lilies, some kind of fruit, then soup followed by rice boiled with fruits, then a noodle soup... The dinners are very formal but at the same time itís o.k. to stand up and pick out something in the common dish with your chop sticks. Then lick íem and help your partners. A little belching is not to be sneezed at."
Colonel Alexander seemed particularly pleased with the work the UNNRA and Catholic missionaries were doing near Shijiazhuang and contributed to their efforts whenever he could. He described the distribution of milk at an orphanage administered by the church (27 May), a visit to a "mission hospital run by Dr. Nie" (26 June), and his personal donation of one to two thousand pounds of vegetables to a refugee camp outside of Shijiazhuang (January 1947).
Following the cessation of hostilities and the establishment of China as a communist state many of Alexanderís acquaintances left the country. A letter written on 14 February 1951 by F.M. Simeon Chang on "Chinese Trappist Mission" letterhead from Winnipeg, Canada, to Alexander updated him on his acquaintances from China. Chang informed him that the members of the Trappist Monastery outside of Shijiazhuang were forced to flee to "the monastery of Our Lady of the Prairies" where they "pitch... into any work as Canadian monks." He thought that Dr. Nie could possibly be in north China, and that General Loh, one of Alexanderís hosts while stationed in Shijiazhuang, had been "captured by Communists in an attack and as far as I know he has been killed." Included with the collection are two undated photographs of Thomas Loreya Alexander while in China.