Some people may erroneously assume that John Birch was the founder of the society that bears his name, but he was not. Birch was born in 1918 in India to Presbyterian missionaries. His father had contracted malaria in India when John was two years old and the family returned to the United States. Young Birch attended high school in Georgia and a Baptist college there named Mercer.
Birch was conservative and while at Mercer protested certain professors who taught evolution and was himself highly criticized for it, but he graduated with honors in 1939. His connection to Texas was that he attended a conservative seminary in Fort Worth and obtained a graduate degree there. The seminary was called the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship and had been founded by fundamentalist minister J. Frank Norris, a former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth.
Norris was formerly associated with the Southern Baptist Convention and had once been a supporter of the relocation of the seminary on the Waco campus of Baylor University to its location in Fort Worth. Norris later disagreed with the leadership of the new seminary over theological issues and was motivated to establish his own seminary downtown. It later added undergraduate courses and changed its name to Arlington Baptist College, and subsequently, to Arlington Baptist University. It is still in existence and is affiliated with the World Baptist Fellowship, initially co-founded by Norris.
Birch had felt a call to become a foreign missionary when he was a youth, and around 1940 he and another person set out for China, by then already under the control of the Japanese. Birch was already in China when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. This event and the Japanese presence in China motivated Birch to join the United States Army and contribute to the effort to defeat the Japanese war effort. There Birch studied the Chinese language and became fluent in writing and speaking the language.
The following April Birch was still performing his missionary duties in China when the Doolittle Raid occurred, in which sixteen B-25 medium bombers took off from the deck of the USS Hornet and bombed the mainland of Japan. The initial plan had been for them to complete their mission and fly to friendly bases in the interior of China, not then under Japanese control. However, the Hornet was spotted by a Japanese freight or fishing vessel, the military believed, some two hundred miles east of the intended launch point. Launching early, it was no longer possible to reach the friendly Chinese bases and each of the aircraft, except one, crashed when they ran out of fuel. Fifteen of the planes headed to China. One landed in Vladivostok, Russia where its crew was arrested.
Each aircraft had a crew of eight. Some aircraft crash landed in the water near the Chinese shore while others made it just inland. Two airmen drowned while swimming to shore. One was killed in the crash. The Japanese vigorously pursued the crewmen who survived and apprehended eight of them who were taken to Japan. Three of that group were executed by the Japanese. Another died in prison. Four were eventually released and returned to the United States.
Doolittle’s crew and the rest of the airmen were hidden by the friendly Chinese. Doolittle learned from Colonel Clair Chennault who commanded the Flying Tigers that there was an American missionary who had avoided the Japanese roundup of other foreign missionaries in the late 1930s. Birch had escaped to Shanjjao in Kiangsi Province. Chennault knew of Birch, who was fluent in speaking and writing the Chinese language. Chennault commissioned Birch as an officer, not as a chaplain, and Birch accepted the arrangement on the condition that he could continue his religious efforts with the Chinese people. He continued to hold church services in defiance of the Japanese. Birch was comfortable with radio equipment and for a while did radio communication for Chennault, sending and receiving messages with the Allies. He monitored Japanese activities and became known as the “eyes and the ears of the 14th Air Force.” In the end, almost all of the airmen survived, largely through the efforts of the friendly Chinese people and others who assisted them.
While serving as a missionary in China, Birch had adopted the appearance of a Chinese native, wearing typical clothing and speaking Chinese. He was eating at a restaurant one night in 1942 after the Doolittle Raid and a Chinese man brushed against him and said, “If you are an American, please follow me.” Birch complied and was taken by his guide to a small riverboat where he met and was introduced to Colonel Doolittle. Birch then began to act as Doolittle’s interpreter, which he did, and assisted getting the remaining airmen out of China and safely back to areas under Allied control.
The Chinese paid a heavy price, however. The Japanese Imperial Army began a campaign to try and prevent such attacks from occurring again and to take revenge on the Chinese for assisting. This including sacking towns and villages, executions and other atrocities committed against the Chinese and as many as 10,000 civilians were killed.
Birch continued to perform intelligence assignments for the Allies along with his religious services. He was offered the opportunity to take a leave as the war in the Pacific played out, but he declined. He was said to have vowed to remain in China until the last Japanese solder left. Instead, he died in China, although not at the hands of the Japanese.
The Japanese had surrendered on August 14 or 15, depending on the time zone, and the hostilities officially ended between the Allies and the Japanese. On August 25, Birch was leasing a group of Americans, Koreans and Chinese nationalists to a Japanese prison camp when the group was stopped by Chinese communists near Xi’an. The Communists ordered Birch to give up his weapons and he was killed when he refused. Reports were that Birch and others were shot and then bayoneted by the communists. At the time of his death, he was twenty-six years old.
There is a memorial for Birch in a cemetery in Georgia, but Birch was buried in China, first where he died. Later his remains were removed to Hsuchow and where it is believed they have remained.
Some thirteen years after his death, the John Birch Society was formed as an anti-communist group and is still in existence. Its website states that Birch’s name is used with the permission of his parents, who survived him.
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