Review: Raiders of the China Coast

Raiders of the China Coast is the account of a little known CIA operation that trained and managed anti-communist guerrillas and agents on the various islands that were retained by the Taiwanese regime (the “Republic of China”) after the Chinese mainland was captured by the Chinese communists. The author, Frank Holober, spent his life in the CIA and later in several academic institutions teaching about China. The book is one of the few memoirs written by people who personally took part in various CIA covert operations on the “hot” fringes of the cold war and has been vetted by the agency to ensure that no secrets are spilled (the author thanks some in the agency for approving it, and criticizes others for needless bureaucratic obstruction and “security theater”, but he got a foreword from General Robert Barrow, USMC, who had served with Frank (and the CIA) in the 1950s, so it is all good).

The book is mostly a fond look back at the author’s male-bonding days, not a detailed history of CIA covert operations during the Korean war (which is the somewhat misleading subtitle of the book). As the author relates in the first chapter (“Old Haunts Beckon”), the idea of the book came to him after he retired and revisited Taiwan after a gap of 40 years and was reminded of the days of youthful adventure and excitement he had spent there with his CIA comrades in “Western Enterprises Inc”; that nostalgia is clearly the main driver of the book. Which is fine, because while his family and friends (and those of the other adventurers he mentions in the book) will no doubt get an extra-special thrill from reading the book, other readers can also learn about an interesting aspect of the early cold war, about CIA covert operations in general, about the colorful characters who took part in these events, about China and it’s fascinating recent history, and of course, about male-bonding, buddy movies and all that jazz. 

Western Enterprises Inc was the name of the cover operation set up by the CIA to run guerrillas and agents from Nationalist held islands in an attempt to divert Communist Chinese resources from the Korean conflict. Eager recruits were available within the local population of these islands as well as among the various Nationalist forces still fighting on (or hiding out) within Communist China and it was the job of Frank Holober and his fellow CIA officers to organize, train, equip and direct these efforts. The scale of the effort was larger than most people know, but whether it had a real impact on the Korean conflict (its main raison d’etre in American eyes) is very much an open question. General Barrows sums up the greater significance of this effort in his foreword and I don’t think we need to add to this: ” What did we accomplish? Any contribution to the Korean War was modest at best. Any real success was local, mixed with failure, and of short duration. Early on, lofty expectations gave way to lure of adventure. And along with Frank Holober, I sincerely salute the adventurers”

Frank Holober himself says that “the mighty power of the US government resembles the marriage of Aladdin’s genie with the three stooges”. Enuff said.

The author reveals very little about how he himself came to be working for the CIA, but is more forthcoming about several of his comrades, who have the expected colorful names (“One-Eyed Dragon,” “Great White Father,” “Two-Gun Creacy,” “Fat Wang,” “Little Huang” and “Earthquake McGoon”, among others) and personalities to match (their propaganda specialist for example would sit at the bar in his kimono, and nothing but his kimono, ranting about communism and telling stories such as the time he was cured of venereal disease via camel dandruff while on a ride across Eastern Turkestan). Readers will pick up all sorts of details about CIA bureaucracy, Chinese officialdom (frequently corrupt and inept, but not without its heroic characters), local color (including the fact that there was a Chinese opera complete with a good-looking star who was the local celebrity, even on the tiny island of Quemoy) and covert operations (flying across the length of China in aging B-17s and Dakotas to drop agents, weapons and money, including one attempt to pick up an agent using a hook and wire, Dark Knight style).

If you are more interested in conventional history then the buddy antics of this books will likely leave you cold, but the book does have little capsule summaries of Chinese history that are interesting and insightful, though with a distinctly old-fashioned “imperial American” (think Texas-CIA) flavor that may be off-putting to more woke readers. The author clearly knows his Chinese history and culture though, so readers who can see past the old fashioned attitude will learn some useful facts and some pretty cogent analysis.

The basic outlines is simple enough; after the Nationalists were chased out of China by the Communist forces, they retained their hold on several offshore islands (some within hailing distance of the mainland) and because the civil war had not officially ended (for either side), these were not just quiet islands with a few spies, they were the scene of regular guerrilla actions, amphibious assaults, artillery duels and naval operations (or piracy, as the case may be). While I had some vague idea about these events, I had no idea about the scale of the operations (some assaults involved hundreds of troops) or the extent to which interior China remained un-pacified that far into the 50s (in one scene the CIA drops weapons to Muslim  guerrillas loyal to the Ma clique in Qinghai, who are waiting on hundreds of horses and ride more than 50 miles to pick up the weapons after the plane missed the drop zone). Among the fascinating details is one where a British ship captain is captured by ROC pirates (they were blockading several eastern Chinese ports and tried to intercept any shipping heading to these ports, including from British-held HongKong) and is interrogated by an inept interrogator; he ends up learning more about his captors than they learn from him; an interrogation of which William Burroughs would have been proud (one of Burroughs’ ideas was that the best interrogators learn not by asking questions but by answering them).

One problem with the book is that it uses Wade-Giles and traditional English forms for all names, and by now we are so used to Pinyin that a lot of these are hard to understand. Another is the lack of maps (there are a couple, but not enough), which means I had to use Google and Wikipedia while reading it. But these are minor qualms, overall the book is fun to read and full of interesting anecdotes and does have some scattered commentary and analysis, though not enough to justify the subtitle. Those who enjoy late imperial adventure yarns, or are so interested in recent Chinese history that they will read anything, will enjoy this book, but it is not for everyone.

Incidentally, while looking for images for this review, I happened to see something about an artwork created by Taiwan artist Chen Chieh-jen, who happens to be the son of one of the Chinese who worked for Western Enterprises Inc. The blurbs for this art show say

“Almost all of Chen’s recent films have dealt with the impact of global capitalism on individuals, through various systems of exchange. In collaboration with Chinese Arts Centre, AND proudly presented the UK premiere of Empire’s Borders II – Western Enterprises Inc. This video installation, based a number of documents the artist’s late father left behind, painted an intriguing picture of a life lived in Cold War secrecy. It presented a compelling account of his father’s journey and the legacy of the Cold War on the contemporary politics of global trade and neo-liberal economics.

Through Chen’s characteristically charged re-enactments, the figures in the film encounter the ghosts of history and move through the vacuous spaces of struggle, absence and erasure, which echo present-day realities”

I leave the reader to judge if this flavor of “analysis” is superior to the Texas-CIA flavor of the book’s author. But you will have to read the book to judge..

Raiders of the China Coast. Published 1999 by Naval Institute Press.