Quakers in the World

Quakers in the World

The FAU China Convoy (1941 – 46)

By 1940, the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45) had had a devastating effect on China. The Japanese occupied the seaboard Provinces of the East and South and the northern Provinces were controlled by the Chinese Communists. The remaining part, ‘Free China’, was landlocked, with very restricted supply routes. A thinly spread, but active Quaker community had existed since the 1880s, and helped raise awareness of conditions there.

Neither Britain nor the US was yet at war with Japan but the sufferings of the Chinese civilian population after three years of conflict were increasingly known.  Scope for FAU service in mainland Europe was diminishing, so there were volunteers ready to go to China to help. Funds were also being raised, as seven American organisations, including the AFSC, had combined to form United China Relief.

In mid 1941 agreement was reached for the FAU to send a team of 40 men to provide medical assistance. They were affiliated to the International Red Cross and took on its transport commitments. Their first task was the transportation of medical supplies up the only overland supply route, the ‘Burma Road’, to Kunming in Free China.

The drive was long and difficult. "We are now in the grip of the worst road in the world,” one driver wrote. “With windscreens and doors rattling loud enough over such a surface to drown all other noises and make conversation impossible, we keep an average speed of some 15 miles per hour, with a 150 to 200 yards interval separating the trucks.”

The Burma Road route was lost when Burma fell to the Japanese in April/May 1942.  Most of the FAU escaped into China, the remainder retreating on foot to India, providing medical assistance to other refugees along the way.

The only possible supply route now was by air, from India, over “the Hump” of the southern Himalayas.   Nothing daunted, the Unit regrouped, and established a new base in Kunming, with two broad areas of work – transport and medical. Supplies arrived by air, and the work grew fast.

The transport work focussed initially on the distribution of medical supplies to the Chinese Army and the National Health Authority. It is estimated that the Convoy was responsible for the transportation of over 80% of all medical supplies into Free China.  Much of this was transported from Kunming by trucks which they converted to run on charcoal gas in the absence of supplies of petrol and diesel.

A series of medical teams conducted a wide variety of surgical work from spasmodic but intensive periods of dealing with battlefield casualties to ophthalmic and gynaecological procedures.  Most of their work became concentrated on public health initiatives including extensive inoculation programmes against kala alzar, typhoid and even an outbreak of bubonic plague.  They routinely ran mass delousing programmes and undertook the training of Chinese civilian and military medical staff in nutrition, hygiene, pharmacology and nursing.

Later on in the war other tasks were undertaken. There were reconstruction projects of hospitals and other facilities, notably the rebuilding and reequipping of the hospital in Tengchung, when this was regained from the Japanese in 1944.   Others worked with the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives organisation in the establishment of workshops and agricultural collectives where they established practices in crop rotation and animal husbandry.

The China Convoy was the most international section of the FAU. Over the five years roughly 200 foreigners and about 60 Chinese had taken part. Of the foreigners, the British were the largest group, but there were substantial numbers of Americans, Canadians and New Zealanders, and a handful of other nationalities.  The Chinese members were mainly Christian students from the West China Union University at Chengdu. 200 or so other Chinese also served, in various roles.

As with the FAU overall, the Convoy’s membership was at first exclusively male, but eventually, like the FAU as a whole, women made up over 10% of its number. Mirroring the FAU as a whole, only around half of Convoy members were Quakers, although many others later joined the Society.  They shared a common commitment to pacifism and to doing what they could to relieve the abject suffering of the Chinese people in a society where most civil administration had ceased to function and disease and malnutrition were rife amongst the many millions displaced and made destitute by the war.

The Unit continued to work on re-establishing hospitals until 1946, when they handed responsibility for work in China to the AFSC. At that time the Convoy was operating across the Provinces of Yunnan, Kweichow, Guizhou, Sichuan and beyond - an area greater than the size of France and Spain combined.   Over the 5 years of the Convoy, eight members had died. Several others had suffered injuries or illnesses that affected them for the rest of their lives.

Print this article