Nationalist defeat on the mainland hardly ended U.S. involvement in the continuing Chinese crisis. In fact, on several occasions after the republic was established on Taiwan, the U.S. Navy intervened to protect the island stronghold from communists.
Three tiny island groups – Quemoys, Matsus and Tachens – off the mainland coast become the objects of intense rivalry and nearly prompted war. The 130 mile – wide Taiwan (or Formosa) Strait become almost a permanent station of the U.S. Seventh Fleet for over a decade.
August 23, 1958 the communists began a blockade of Quemoy. In the largest military build up since the Korean War, 5,000 airman, sailors and Marines were dispatched to Formosa to reinforce the 4,000 already there. More than 125 U.S. warships were positioned in Formosan waters. Said Vice Adm. Wallace M. Beakley, Seventh Fleet commander, “We have here the largest integrated naval force ever assembled in peace time history … the same number of ships as the Third and Fifth Fleet had in World War II.”
While the Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 77 patrolled the Strait, the Formosa Defense Command (including Marine Air Group 11) helped defend the island. Form this time forth the 3rd Marine Division Based on Okinawa maintained a floating battalion with the Fleet.
A six – Carrier task force, reinforced with ships from the U.S. Sixth Fleet (a Carrier U.S.S. ESSEX and four Destroyers), provided cover for the convoys that began September 7. The first led by the Heavy Cruiser U.S.S. HELENA, flagship of the Seventh Fleet. A second convoy was caught in heavy fire – one cargo ship was set aflame.
U.S. escorts were prohibited from closing within three miles of Quemoy, but sailors were geared to fight if intercepted. “Crews stood ready at battle stations, and ammunition was placed in gun breeches and hoists,” reported an U.S. News correspondent.
Once the communist shelling ceased on October 5, the escorts stopped. But before they did, there were some tense moments at sea. “In August 1958, I was serving aboard the Destroyer U.S.S. MNGINTY which was attached to the 6th Fleet,” William J. Bennett. “The 120 sailors of my ship were joined in this patrol by three other Destroyers.
“We were under orders not to return fire should we encounter hostile activity. Any ordnance that came our way was explained, in advance, as accidental. Accidental my ass. For two days we found ourselves within 25 yards few hundred of rounds of accidentals”. A few hundred machine gun holes were in the superstructure.
“Contrary to the simple-minded politicians and their idiotic pronouncements, I knew that someone was shooting at me. After those two days, the shooting stopped (at least in our direction). We continued to steam up and down for another six weeks. By the time we got back to America, Quemoy and Matsu were dim memories in the fickle American mind.”
The people of Taiwan, however, remember all too well the 44 – day artillery bombardment of Quemoy. The free Chinese fought fiercely: In seven sea encounters, 26 communist boats were sunk and the 12 air battles saw the downing of 31 Red planes. (U.S. Sidewinder air – to – air missiles was used for the first time ever in combat over Quemoy.) But 585 Nationalist troops gave their lives, and more than 80 civilians were also killed.
Though over the armed attempts against the island groups ceased, the Seventh Fleet remained on alert in the Strait for several more years. On March 24, 1962 U.S. sea power assured between the Nationalist and communists, but the crisis quickly subsided.
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