John Birch (missionary)

IntroAmerican military intelligence officer
Was Missionary 
From United States of America 
Birth 8 May 1918 
, India
Death 25 August 1945 
, Xi’an
(aged 27 years)

John Morrison Birch (May 28, 1918 – August 25, 1945) was an American Baptist minister, missionary, and United States Army Air Forces captain who was a U.S. military intelligence officer in China during World War II. Birch was killed in a confrontation with Chinese Communist soldiers a few days after the war ended. He was posthumously awarded the Army Distinguished Service Medal.
The John Birch Society, an American anti-communist organization, was named in his honor by Robert H. W. Welch, Jr. in 1958. Welch considered Birch to be a martyr and the first casualty of the Cold War. Birch’s parents joined the Society as honorary Life Members.

Early life

Birch was born to Presbyterian missionaries in Landour, a hill station in the Himalayas now in the northern India state of Uttarakhand, at the time in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh. His parents, Ethel (Ellis) and George S. Birch, were on a three-year period missionary service in the country, working under Sam Higginbottom. In 1920, when he was two, the family returned to the United States. Birch was raised in Vineland, New Jersey, Floyd County, Georgia, and Macon, Georgia, in the Fundamental Baptist tradition. He graduated from Gore High School in Chattooga County, followed by Georgia Baptist–affiliated Mercer University in 1939 magna cum laude. “He was always an angry young man, always a zealot”, said a classmate many years later. In his senior year at Mercer, he joined a student group to identify cases of heresy by professors, seeking to uphold the Scriptural definition of conversion and other doctrines.

Missionary work

Birch decided to become a missionary when he was twelve years old. After college, he enrolled in J. Frank Norris’ Fundamental Baptist Bible Institute in Fort Worth, Texas. Completing the curriculum in one year, he was sent to China by the World Fundamental Baptist Missionary Fellowship. Arriving in Shanghai which was in Japanese occupied territory in July 1940, he began an intensive study of Mandarin Chinese. After a few months, he was assigned to Hangzhou, an area occupied by the Japanese during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In October 1941, he left Hangzhou for Shangrao in “Free China.” Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, he volunteered to serve as a U.S. Army officer in China.

U.S. Army

World War II

In April 1942, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his crew bailed out in China after the Tokyo raid. They had flown from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), bombed Tokyo, then flown to the Chinese mainland. After bailing out, they were rescued by Chinese civilians and smuggled by river beyond Japanese lines in Zhejiang province. Birch met them by accident and assisted them.

When Doolittle arrived in Chongqing, he told Colonel Claire Chennault, leader of the Flying Tigers, about Birch’s help. Chennault said he could use a Chinese-speaking American who knew the country well and he commissioned Birch as a second lieutenant on July 4, 1942 to work as a field intelligence officer, though Birch had expected to work as a chaplain.

Birch served with the China Air Task Force, which became the Fourteenth Air Force on 5 March 1943, and was later seconded to the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS). He criticized the OSS, wanting only to work for Chennault. He built formidable intelligence networks of sympathetic Chinese informants, supplying Chennault with information on Japanese troop movements and shipping, often performing dangerous field assignments, during which he would brazenly hold Sunday church services for Chinese Christians. In his diary, Major Gustav Krause, commanding officer of the base, noted: “Birch is a good officer, but I’m afraid is too brash and may run into trouble.” Urged to take a leave of absence, Birch refused, telling Chennault he would not quit China “until the last Jap” did; he was equally contemptuous of Communists.

He was promoted to captain and received the Legion of Merit on July 17, 1944, and was approved for an oak leaf cluster in lieu of another Legion of Merit in January 1946. In November 1945, he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Cloud and Banner by the Republic of China. Colonel Wilfred Smith recommended Birch for a posthumous Silver Star but neither the Silver Star nor the Purple Heart was approved based on eligibility for the award.


V-J Day, August 14, 1945, signaled the end of formal hostilities; but, under terms of the Japanese surrender, the Japanese Army was ordered to continue occupying areas it controlled until they could hand power over to the Nationalist government, even in places where the Communist-led government had been the de facto state for a decade. This led to continued fighting as the People’s Liberation Army fought to expel all imperial forces, a category it perceived to include U.S. personnel now openly collaborating with the remaining Japanese forces. On August 25, as Captain Birch was leading a party of eleven Americans, Chinese Nationalists, and Koreans on a mission to gather intelligence in Xuzhou, they were stopped by Chinese Communists in a small town where the Red Army had been fighting Japanese troops. Birch was asked to surrender his revolver; he refused and harsh words and insults were exchanged. Birch was shot and killed; a Chinese Nationalist aide was also shot and wounded but survived. The rest of the party was taken prisoner and released two months later.


Birch is known today mainly by the society that bears his name although Jimmy Doolittle, who met Birch after Doolittle’s raid on Tokyo, said in his autobiography that he was sure that Birch “would not have approved”.

Birch’s name is on the bronze plaque of a World War II monument at the top of Coleman Hill Park overlooking downtown Macon, along with the names of other Macon men who lost their lives while serving in the military. He has a plaque on the sanctuary of the First Southern Methodist Church of Macon, which was built on land given by his family, purchased with the money he sent home monthly. A building at the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, Texas, was named “The John Birch Hall” by Pastor J. Frank Norris. A small street in Townsend, Massachusetts, “John Birch Memorial Drive”, is also named for him.

Military awards

U.S. Senator William F. Knowland attempted unsuccessfully to obtain posthumous awards for Birch which included the Distinguished Service Cross, but these were not approved on the grounds that the United States was not at war with the Communist Chinese in 1945. Birch received the following military awards:

  • Distinguished Service Medal
  • Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster
  • Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four 3⁄16 inch bronze campaign stars
  • World War II Victory Medal
  • Republic of China Medal of the Armed Forces (Grade B, Second Class)
  • Republic of China Order of the Cloud and Banner
  • Republic of China War Memorial Medal
  • “World War 2 – China War Memorial Medal”.