John Morrison Birch (May 8, 1918 – August 25, 1945) was an American Military Intelligence Officer and a Baptist Missionary in World War II who was shot by armed supporters of the Communist Party of China. Many consider him a martyr as the first victim of the Cold War. The conservative John Birch Society, formed 13 years after his death, is named in honor of him. His parents joined the society as life members.
Early life and initial missionary work
Birch was born in Landour, a hill station in the Himalayas in northern India; both his parents were missionaries. In 1920, when John was 2, the family returned to America. He was raised in New Jersey and Georgia, brought up in the Southern Baptist tradition, with his five siblings (he was the oldest). He received his high school diploma from Lanier High School for Boys, now known as Central High School (Macon, Georgia). He graduated from Southern Baptist affiliated Mercer University in Macon, Georgia in 1939. In his senior year at the university, he organized a student group to identify cases of "heresy" by professors such as the teaching of evolution. While at Mercer, Birch decided to become a missionary, and enrolled in the Bible Baptist Seminary at Fort Worth, Texas. After completing a two-year curriculum in a single year, he sailed for China in 1940. Arriving in Shanghai, Birch began intensive study of Mandarin Chinese. After six months of training, he was assigned to Hangzhou, at the time outside the area occupied by the Japanese fighting in the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 ended that: the Japanese sent a force to Hangzhou to arrest Birch. He and other Christian missionaries fled inland to eastern China. Cut off from the outside world, he began trying to establish new missions in Zhejiang province.
In April 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his crew had crash-landed in China after the Tokyo raid — they launched from an aircraft carrier, but flew from Tokyo to China because of lack of fuel, planning to land as best they could. For several crews, the mission ended badly. Some were captured by the Japanese, and a few perished. Colonel Doolittle and his crew were more fortunate; after bailing out, they were rescued by sympathetic Chinese and smuggled by river into Zhejiang province. Birch was told of the survivors, and went to meet them. He assisted them in getting to safety, and then helped locate and direct to friendly territory other American crews.
When Doolittle arrived in Chongqing, he told Colonel Claire Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, about Birch and his help. Chennault said he could use an American for intelligence duties who could speak Chinese and knew the country well. Chennault commissioned Birch as a First Lieutenant on 4 July 1942 in the China Air Task Force of the U.S. Army.
Birch joined the Fourteenth Air Force on its formation in 1943, and was later seconded to the OSS. He built a formidable intelligence network of sympathetic Chinese informants, supplying Chennault with information on Japanese troop movements and shipping, often performing dangerous incognito field assignments, during which he would brazenly hold Sunday church services for Chinese Christians. Urged to take a leave of absence, he refused, telling Chennault he would not quit China "until the last Jap"; he was equally contemptuous of communists. He was promoted to Captain, and received the Legion of Merit in 1944.
On 14 August 1945, V-J Day signaled the end of hostilities, but China was still in foment with armed bands of Chinese Communist guerrillas throughout the countryside. On 25 August, as Birch was leading a party of Americans, Chinese Nationalists, and Koreans on a mission to reach Allied personnel in a Japanese prison camp, they were stopped by Chinese Communists near Xi'an. Birch was asked to surrender his revolver; he refused and harsh words and insults were exchanged. Birch was shot and killed; a Chinese Nationalist colleague was shot and wounded but survived. The rest of the party was imprisoned but released a short time later. Birch was posthumously awarded a Distinguished Service Medal.