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The KMT Retreat to Taiwan
An Unexpected Collapse. A Race Against Time
Author’s note: If you want to watch the original video, one of my favorites, you can below.
The fall of the Kuomintang on Mainland China would spark recriminations and vast discussion back in the United States. The US regime had spent and given so much to the Nationalists - and then in about a year it all vanished. For many months, papers would ask the question “Who lost China?”
Chiang Kai-shek for his part never really owned up to his responsibility in the matter. Who knows how much actual power he had in governing the entirety of Mainland China. The old regime had been corrupt and its army exhausted after years of constant warring. It could not hold out any longer.
The fall of the Nationalists would trigger a massive refugee crisis. Over a million refugees fled to Taiwan with the army. Ten thousand fled across the border to Hong Kong (including my great grandmother), squatting on the side of Mount Davis, leaving the British colonial government to ponder over what to do with them. American photographers would go into the refugee camps and photograph their plight, the major refugee crisis of its day.
On December 10, 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo would fly out of Chengdu to Taipei. They would never return to the mainland ever again — and even today their bodies remain unburied, waiting for the reclamation of the mainland from the “Communist bandits”.
Along with the two Chiangs would come over a million refugees from all over the mainland. They come from all walks of life and have their own reasons for fleeing. Some had worked for the Nationalist government - definitely not a good thing to be at the end of the Civil War - while others are soldiers pressed into service in the waning days of the war, and others are just refugees fleeing the Communists.
Author’s note: You can learn more about the waishengren here in this video
It is 1949 and the KMT’s situation is dire. Over a span of just 5 years, the Nationalists had lost vast stretches of land. Mao and his military command Lin Biao had been winning hearts and minds and battles across the Chinese mainland from almost the very beginning. With the fall of Peking (now Beijing) in 1948, the once-mighty Nationalist armies were no match for the PLA.
Author’s note: If you want to find out what happened to Lin Biao, you can watch this video
In August 1948, it was determined that the Nationalists could not hold out any longer. They had to retreat from the mainland to a defensible location. Taiwan, ceded to the Nationalists after the end of World War II, looked like the best candidate. The island had existing infrastructure built up by the Japanese, abundant natural resources, and most importantly, the Taiwan Strait.
Famously, the Nationalists had a large number of museum items from the National Palace Museum, items that the Emperors of China had collected over the span of a thousand years. The decision was made to move these precious artifacts in November 1948.
Eventually 230,000 items were brought over via boat, the first batch leaving Shanghai in late December. Two boats left without a hitch, but the third boat — desperately trying to leave ahead of the Communists - left many of the artifacts behind when sailors realized that it was going to Taiwan and insisted on bringing their families instead of the museum crates. Four-fifths of the collection was left behind, but many of what managed make it across the strait was highly prized.
Everyone pitched in on the retreat. Nationalist officials reached out to as many scholars and business elites as possible, begging them to join in the retreat.
Chiang Kai-Shek ordered an operation to take all of China’s gold from the Central Bank to Taiwan — 774 boxes of gold in all. This gold would play a future essential role in stabilizing the Taiwanese currency.
An average of 50-60 planes flew fuel, equipment and ammunitions daily between Taiwan and the mainland. The last pilots flew out of Shanghai as PLA troops stormed into the airport.
By the end of the Chinese Civil War, there would be just a few last strongholds in the islands of Taiwan and Hainan. A reporter in 1949 had arrived at a city in Hainan, one of those last KMT strongholds, and found chaos. A people in crisis.
Soldiers and their families took up every possible spot in the area — in churches, public housing, homes and camping on the sidewalks. They had fled here from Guangzhou after the city’s fall. Their stuff was scattered everywhere. There seemed to be nowhere to go.
“Where are we going?” the reporter heard someone ask but nobody had an answer at the time.
Five months later in 1950, Hainan fell. The PLA had staged an invasion from across the small Hainan Strait (also called the Qiongzhou Strait). The last remaining troops and refugees were corralled into the last remaining naval vessels and merchant fleet ships for Taiwan. This desperate retreat was a total fiasco and many were left behind.
Author’s note: I did a video on the fall of Hainan below
It had been so close that the last few men sailing away on those ships could see their comrades gunned down by PLA machine guns and mortars. Almost everything was left behind — those arriving in Taiwan would have nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Then, it had been assumed that they would come back. But they never would.