The Rice Paddy Navy

Title:                      The Rice Paddy Navy

Author:                 Linda Kush

Kush, Linda (2012). The Rice Paddy Navy: U.S. Sailors Undercover in China: espionage and sabotage behind Japanese lines during World War II. New York: Osprey Publishing

LCCN:    2012277027

D769.64 K87 2012


Date Updated:  April 19, 2016

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

The U.S. Navy conducting intelligence operations in the inner regions of China? Including arming and directing guerrilla bands to fight the Japanese?

As far-fetched as that might sound, such is exactly what happened in World War II, in what was one of the best kept secrets of the war. Although several books have been published about the “rice paddy navy,” Linda Kush’s book is the most thorough exploration of the work of an extraordinary joint venture, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO).

Two conflicts were being waged in China in the 1940s—the struggle against Japanese invaders and the civil war between communist insurgents and the government of Chiang Kai-shek.

The driving force behind SACO was Comdr. Milton “Mary” Miles, who had served for eight years in China in the 1920s and 1930s on river parole boats. (His feminine nickname was bestowed on him by Annapolis classmates, a takeoff on the name of the popular silent screen actress Mary Miles Minter.)

As war threatened, he and other veterans talked regularly about the need for naval intelligence activity in China. The Navy’s primary concern was obtaining weather reports. The United States had no weather monitoring west of Hawaii. The Japanese, conversely, had weather stations from Mongolia to Indonesia. Prevailing winds out of Asia blew from west to east. A storm in China meant heavy waves in the Pacific the next day or so.

Ordered to China during the first weeks of the war, Miles realized that he must enlist the support of Chiang’s spymaster Gen. Dai Li, who was perhaps the second most powerful figure in the government. However, Miles was taken aback when he read reports on Dai from the US Embassy. He was billed “the Himmler of China.” Through an estimated 300,000 agents in Southeast Asia, “he ruthlessly protected Chiang Kai-shek’s political, military and governing interest, executing and imprisoning Chiang’s enemies” through “a Gestapo-like organization known as the Blue Shirts.” According to the State Department dispatches, “he even ordered the execution of his own mother—twice.” (A false claim, as it turned out.)

Miles read these reports with a cocked eyebrow. He knew that many embassy officers were reflexively anti-Chiang, and he decided to make his own judgment when he met Dai in person. Miles made another important decision at the outset. He would not recruit any “old China hands,” the Western businessmen and government bureaucrats who had embarrassed him with their patronizing behavior during his China service. The Chinese painted these persons “with a broad bush as exploitative racists.”

At their first meeting, Dai greeted Miles with “a penetrating smile and a broad, gold-toothed grin.” As they chatted, “Miles searched for signs of the sinister character described in the State Department files.” He found none. Dai readily agreed to Miles’ plan to set up weather stations, send radio transmissions and help train guerrillas. Moreover, Dai said he would provide operating bases. An embassy officer watched in awe. As he cabled Washington, “Commander Miles has gotten off to a flying start and has been taken entirely into the confidence of the Chinese Secret Service. He has seen and done things I never thought any foreigner would be able to do.”

In due course, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization had nearly 3,000 American servicemen (mainly sailors with a few Marines and soldiers) in its work. There were also 97,000 organized Chinese guerrillas, and another 20,000 “individualists”—pirates and lone-wolf saboteurs.

The main training school, dubbed “Happy Valley,” graduated classes of several hundred Chinese fighters every two months. In addition to weather reporting, SACO intercepted and cracked Japanese codes, blew up Japanese supply dumps, destroyed bridges and sank scores of enemy vessels. In a post-war history, SACO claimed the felling of some 26,000 Japanese, while losing only five of its own men.

Miles did have many problems. Foremost was the fact that his contingent was utterly dependent on the Army and its Air Corps for supplies, which had to be flown in via India.

A more serious challenge was posed by Gen. William Donovan and his Office of Strategic Services, designated as the primary intelligence and special operations command during the war. Donovan “badly wanted to get into China,” to the extent he decided to bypass Chiang and Dai Li and send ad hoc teams into the country. Unlike Miles, Donovan relied heavily on “old China hands,” including R. V. Starr who had wide commercial holdings in China in insurance and publishing. The Chinese, of course, were infuriated. When questioned by Miles, Donovan said his men “were in China on personal business.”

A mighty row ensued. At a meeting in Dai’s home, “Donovan repeated that OSS was going to operate in China whether. Dai liked It or not. The party deteriorated into a shouting match during which Dai threatened to kill any unauthorized OSS agents in China, and Donovan threatened to retaliate by killing Nationalist Chinese generals tit for tat.”

When Donovan appealed to Chiang the next day, the generalissimo replied “that China could no more tolerate unauthorized American intelligence operations in China than the Americans would accept the same from the Chinese in the United States.”

In the end, after a bureaucratic war too complex to summarize here, OSS and SACO tacitly agreed to go their separate ways—and Donovan had to do his work without any cooperation from the Chinese.

Miles retired as a vice admiral. On his 60th birthday, Chiang sent him a scroll reading, “Two men in the same boat help each other.”

Reviewed by Hayden B. Peake[2]

The Rice Paddy Navy tells the story of an unusual US Navy intelligence unit, the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), and its operations in China during much of WWII. Two other books have been written about SACO, both by former members of the unit.[3] The first, SACO-The Rice Paddy Navy, appeared in 1950. The second was by SACO’s commander, Captain (later Admiral) Milton “Mary” Miles, who was always known by the nickname given him by his Naval Academy classmates in honor of the silent movie star Mary Miles Minter. Author Linda Kush provides a more substantial view.

By the end of the war, SACO had a complement of 2,500 US servicemen-Navy, Marines, Army-as well as 97,000 Chinese guerrillas and 20,000 pirates. Kush explains SACO’s origins and mission, interservice rivalries, tension with OSS, its relationship with the not always cooperative Chinese, and what its members tried to do.

SACO’s nominal mission was to provide weather data for the Pacific Fleet, to monitor Japanese ship movements along the China coast, and to assess potential landing sites for an eventual Japanese invasion. On his own initiative, Miles also conducted some sabotage and “secret operations.” (p. 253) The Army objected that since SACO’s mission involved land operations, it should have been assigned to the Army. But General Joseph Stilwell, the commander of the China-Burma theater, liked Miles. Furthermore, Miles had served in China, spoke the language, and had established a working relationship with the ruthless head of nationalist Chinese intelligence, Tai Li.[4] The OSS had been denied the right to operate in the Pacific Theater under Mac Arthur’s command. OSS head William Donovan decided to establish a presence in China and persuaded US Chief of Staff General Marshall to also make Miles head of OSS China, which Kush sometimes calls the Office of Special Services in China.

Kush describes how poorly these arrangements worked in practice. Miles continually fought with the OSS, and those ties were soon severed. The OSS, a source of money and supplies for the Chinese, nevertheless expanded operations in the China-Burma theater, though Donovan had his own confrontations with Tai Li. SACO remained to work with the Chinese and accomplished its mission to a degree. In the end though, Miles was viewed by many “as a hostile renegade gone native.” (p. 254) Despised by the new theater Army commander, General Albert Wedemeyer, his authority eroded until SACO was disbanded when the war ended.

The Rice Paddy Navy is an interesting and balanced view of SACO, one of the most controversial military units in WWII.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (19, 1, Winter/Spring, 2013, pp. 96-97) Joseph C. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times and other publications. Most of the reviews [from The Intelligencer, reproduced in this blog] appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times. Joe Goulden’s recent book is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications

[2] Peake, Hayden B. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies (20, 2, Fall/Winter, 2013, pp. 129-130). Hayden Peake is the Curator of the CIA’s Historical Intelligence Collection. He has served in the Directorate of Science and Technology and the Directorate of Operations. Most of these reviews appeared in recent unclassified editions of CIA’s Studies in Intelligence. These and many other reviews and articles may be found online at

[3] Miles, Milton (1967). A Different Kind of War: The Little-Known Story of The Combined Guerrilla Forces Created in China by The U.S. Navy And The Chinese During World War II. Garden City, NY: Doubleday; Stratton, Roy Olin (1950). SACO—The Rice Paddy Navy. Pleasantville, NY: C. S. Palmer

[4] See the extraordinary biography of Tai Li Wakeman, Frederic E. (2003). Spymaster: Dai Li And the Chinese Secret Service. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, and Bob Bergin’s review of the book in Studies in Intelligence (53, 1, March 2009).


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