When America Threatened to Nuke China: The Battle of Yijiangshan Island
In 1955, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army embarked on a bloody amphibious landing to capture a fortified Nationalist island, only about twice the size of a typical golf course. Not only did the battle exhibit China’s growing naval capabilities, it was a pivotal moment in a chain of events that led Eisenhower to threaten a nuclear attack on China—and led Congress to pledge itself to the defense of Taiwan.
In 1949, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army succeeded in sweeping the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) government out of mainland China. However, the Nationalist navy allowed the KMT to maintain its hold on large islands such as Hainan and Formosa, as well as smaller islands only miles away from major mainland cities such as Kinmen and Matsu. These soon were heavily fortified with Nationalist troops and guns, and engaged in protracted artillery duels with PLA guns on the mainland.
In 1950, the PLA launched a series of amphibious operations, most notably resulting in the capture of Hainan island in the South China Sea. However, a landing in Kinmen was bloodily repulsed by Nationalist tanks in the Battle of Guningtou, barring the way for a final assault on Taiwan itself. Then events intervened, as the outbreak of the Korean War caused President Truman to deploy the U.S. Seventh Fleet to defend Taiwan. However, the naval blockade cut both ways—Truman did not allow Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to launch attacks on mainland China.
This policy changed with the presidency of Eisenhower in 1953, who withdrew the Seventh Fleet, allowing the Nationalists to build up troops on the forward islands and launch more guerilla raids on the mainland. However, the PLA was able to counter-escalate with new World War II surplus heavy artillery, warships and aircraft it had acquired from Russia. The series of artillery duels, naval battles and aerial bombardments that followed became known as the First Taiwan Strait Crisis.
On November 14, four PLA Navy torpedo boats laid a nighttime ambush for the KMT destroyer Tai-ping (formerly the USS Decker) which had been detected by shore-based radar. An ill-advised light onboard the destroyer gave the PLAN boats a target, and the 1,400-ton ship was struck by a torpedo and sank before it could be towed to safety. Later, Il-10 Sturmovik bombers of the PLA Naval Air Force hit Dachen Harbor, sinking the Landing Ship (Tank) Zhongquan. These episodes highlighted that the Nationalists could no longer rest assured of control of the sea, making maritime lines of supply to the more forward island garrisons progressively less secure.
While the PLA unleashed heavy artillery bombardments on the well-defended Kinmen Island east of the city of Xiamen, it more immediately planned on securing the Dachen Archipelago close to Taizhou in Zhejiang Province. However, the Yijiangshan Islands, a little further than ten miles off the Chinese coast, stood in the way. The two islands measured only two-thirds of a square mile together, but were garrisoned by over one thousand Nationalist troops from the Second and Fourth Assault Groups and the Fourth Assault Squadron, with over one hundred machine gun positions, as well as sixty guns in the Fourth Artillery Brigade. The garrison’s commander, Wang Shen-ming, had been awarded additional honors by Chiang Kai-shek before being dispatched to the post, to signal the importance placed on the island outpost.
On December 16, 1955, PLA Gen. Zhang Aiping persuaded Beijing that he could launch a successful amphibious landing on the island on January 18. However, the planning process did not go smoothly: Zhang had to overcome last minute jitters from Beijing on the seventeenth questioning his force’s readiness for the operation. Furthermore, Zhang’s staff rejected a night assault landing, proposed by Soviet naval advisor S. F. Antonov, causing the latter to storm out the headquarters. Zhang instead planned the assault “Chinese-style”—which meant deploying overwhelming firepower and numbers in a daytime attack.
At 8:00 a.m. on December 18, fifty-four Il-10 attack planes and Tu-2 twin-engine bombers, escorted by eighteen La-11 fighters, struck the headquarters and artillery positions of the KMT garrison. These were just the first wave of a six-hour aerial bombardment that involved 184 aircraft, unleashing over 254,000 pounds of bombs.
Meanwhile, four battalions of heavy artillery and coastal guns at nearby Toumenshan rained over forty-one thousand shells on the tiny island, totaling more than a million pounds of ordnance.
The amphibious assault finally commenced after 2:00 p.m., embarking three thousand troops of the 178th Infantry Regiment, and one battalion of the 180th. The fleet numbered 140 landing ships and transports, escorted by four frigates, two gunboats and six rocket artillery ships. These latter vessels began pounding the island with direct fire, joined by troops of the 180th regiment, who tied their infantry guns onto the decks of small boats to contribute to the barrage. By this time, most of the Nationalist guns on Yijiangshan Island had been silenced, though artillery still sank one PLAN landing ship, damaged twenty-one others and wounded or killed more than one hundred sailors.