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World War II vets gathered in TC remember secret mission behind Japanese lines

Caroline MacGregor
Veterans [left to right] Jim Kelly, Kenneth Brown, Jack Petersen and Charles Miles at the Indigo Hotel in Traverse City.

A group of veterans who took part in a secret military operation in China during WWII were in Traverse City last week, celebrating their 62nd reunion.

The men were part of SACO - the Sino-American Cooperative Organization. It was an effort between the U.S. Navy and the National Military Council of China put together just weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Nearly 2,500 Navy servicemen were embedded in units stationed all over China in an operation known as “Project Friendship.”

There aren’t many vets from “Project Friendship” left these days but last week, some of them were hanging out, enjoying cocktails on the rooftop at Hotel Indigo.

Ninety-seven-year-old Jim Kelly served as a meteorologist.

“This is the last one for this organization. That’s why I’m here,” says Kelly. “I hadn’t gone for a number of years. We’re dying out.”

Kelly attended the reunion with his family – the next generation of sons and daughters, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, grandchildren. They gathered to remember and honor the men of SACO.

The SACO logo.

SACO’s mission provided training and equipment for the Chinese. It also provided weather forecasts and radio intelligence from inside Japanese controlled territory. The secrecy of the mission was vital to protect the men, who often operated just hundreds of yards from the enemy.

Historian Jack Coyle says SACO conducted regular search and rescue missions for crews shot down over China.

“A lot of times the local population of China would find them and bring them back into areas that were occupied by Americans and get them back through headquarters,” says Coyle.

Coyle says the U.S. Navy, in cooperation with China’s military leaders, developed the plans with US Commander Milton E. “Mary” Miles, the leader of SACO.

Charles Miles is the son of Commander Miles. He says SACO soldiers lived with - and relied upon - their Chinese counterparts for survival. 

“The American and Chinese counterparts worked side by side, ate meals together. They didn’t sleep together, they just depended on each other,” says Miles.

Miles says at the time most of the Americans had an “unseen” Chinese protector.

“None of the men knew it at the time. That there was a Chinese assigned to make sure nothing happened to them,” he says. “They were responsible from their ancestral standpoint. It would bring dishonor to their family if something happened. They didn’t realize they were being protected.”

During the entire operation, only three Americans were captured and five killed. Seventy-one-thousand Japanese military personnel died during the SACO mission.

Radioman 1st Class Kenneth U. Brown, now 95 years old, remembers his mission.

“I was sent behind Japanese lines with radio transmitters and direction finders to track Japanese ships,” says Brown. “It was relayed to 14th Air Force. We sunk a lot of subs and ships that way.”

Decades later, Brown finds himself in Traverse City with the some of the last remaining SACO vets, enjoying a sail on one of Traverse City’s tall ships and sharing cocktails at Hotel Indigo.

It’s a nostalgic moment for WWII navy veterans. A few veterans are aware they may perhaps be gathered together for one last time. It’s hard to know how many vets are left.

Before the reunion in Traverse City, Jack Coyle reached out to one of them - an author who was living in England.

“I tried to track him down through the publisher and found out he’d passed away right after the book was published,” says Coyle. “He didn’t even know there was an organization called SACO.”

There are tentative plans for another reunion next year in Taipei.