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Terpstra shares memories of secret SACO

Richard Terpstra, of Oxford, was a member of the secret Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO) that operated in China hundreds of miles behind Japanese lines during World War II. Photo by CJC. (click for larger version)
August 27, 2014 - While many American soldiers were fighting on the front lines during World War II, Richard Irving Terpstra was risking his life hundreds of miles behind enemy lines to help bring down Imperial Japan.

The Oxford resident, who will turn 88 next week, was a member of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), a secret U.S. Naval Group that operated in occupied China.

Terpstra spent 14 months as a SACO scout and raider. He spent his time covertly keeping a close eye on enemy movements, gathering intelligence and engaging in acts of sabotage such as blowing up bridges and Japanese boats to prevent them from traveling China's rivers.

"If we did anything, we would go after them, then get the hell out of there," explained Terpstra, who grew up in Walker, a suburb of Grand Rapids, and attended Union High School.

Terpestra, who joined the Navy in 1944 when he was 17 years old, modestly described his duties and experiences in SACO as "nothing dramatic."

"It was just kind of everyday (stuff)," he said. "If something needed to be blown up, we'd take care of it. That's all."

His group operated out of a house along the Min River in Foochow (Fuzhou).

Formally established in April 1943 by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the recognized leader of China at the time, SACO consisted of approximately 3,000 American servicemen, mostly Navy and Marines, plus some Army and few Coast Guard members.

Nicknamed the "Rice Paddy Navy," SACO consisted of all volunteers.

Terpstra was in training at Camp Bradford in Virginia when he heard volunteers were being sought for "secret and hazardous duty" in the Far East.

A desire to play an active role in the war effort and help defeat the "bad guys" motivated him to sign up for SACO.

"If they asked for volunteers, we'd go at it full tilt," he said.

Terpstra did his SACO training at Fort Pierce in Florida. There, he learned about scouting, raiding and demolition. Constructing and setting booby traps, engaging in close unarmed combat, and performing underwater demolition are some examples of his training.

In addition to American troops, SACO also included 97,000 organized Chinese guerrillas and 20,000 "individualists," which ranged from pirates to lone-wolf saboteurs, according to

Together, the American and Chinese members of SACO performed intelligence and guerilla operations.

They established weather stations to supply the American fleet with reports, watched the coast, reported on enemy shipping, intercepted Japanese coded messages, successfully rescued 76 downed Allied airmen and participated in many other military, medical and humanitarian efforts. Whenever they could, SACO members harassed and demoralized the occupying Japanese forces to keep them off-guard and rattled.

Operations extended from the northern Suiyuan Province (Inner Mongolia) in the Gobi Desert southward into Indochina and Siam, and from Tibet in the west to Shanghai in the east, according to the SACO website.

SACO is responsible for sinking 141 Japanese ships and river craft, destroying 84 locomotives, blowing up 209 bridges and destroying 97 depots and warehouses.

As a result of actions by and information from SACO, approximately 71,000 Japanese were killed. Direct SACO actions resulted 31,345 Japanese deaths, the wounding of 12,969 and the capture of 349.

In contrast, the loss of American SACO members was extremely light – three were captured and five were killed.

The Chinese were the main reason why there were so few American casualties. According to the SACO website, "Unknown to most of the Americans was that each was 'protected' by a Chinese, usually unseen, who considered the loss of his charge a great dishonor to his own family and ancestors."

Whenever he went out into the field, Terpstra said he was with a group of Chinese who would do everything, from cooking for him to guarding him as he slept in his tent.

"They were about the best people I've ever met," he said.

A bond of mutual respect, admiration and friendship was forged between the Americans and the Chinese they trained and fought beside. That bond is still strong as ever 70 years later.

Taiwan – the island to which the Chinese nationalists fled after the communists took over mainland China in 1949 – continues to recognize the courage and service of SACO

members by sending high-ranking military officers to the group's annual reunions. These officers regularly present surviving SACO members with medals and citations.

Terpstra recently attended the 60th SACO Reunion held at the Double Tree Hilton in Dearborn. He's been to almost all the reunions.

For his service in SACO, Terpstra said he's eligible to receive a whole list of medals.

But none of those would be as unique, or mean as much to him, as what he wears on one of his fingers – a ring from Chiang Kai-shek.

Following World War II, the Chinese leader had 25 gold and silver rings made and given to American leaders who had supported China. Over the years these rings have been passed down and a select number of SACO members have received them for exemplifying the group's good qualities and working hard to keep the spirit of friendship alive between the two peoples.

Terpstra was presented one of these special rings in 2008. He still wears it with pride.

During the war, SACO's existence and operations were classified as Top Secret. Only the military's top brass knew about it. Its members couldn't even tell their own families where they were and what they were doing.

"We all had taken an oath of secrecy that wasn't lifted for years (until) after we all had been discharged – we all kept our mouths shut until the oath of secrecy had been rescinded, and some guys didn't talk even then," said Terpstra in a 2008 interview.

The oath of secrecy was rescinded in 1975 and SACO's activities were declassified.

Following the war, Terpstra attended Central Michigan University, where he played football for two years.

He went on to spend approximately eight years as a trooper with the Michigan State Police. "I was (Michigan Governor) Soapy Williams bodyguard for a while," Terpstra said.

Eventually, he started his own company.

Today, he resides in the old Thomas schoolhouse on Thomas Rd., owned by his daughter Lynn Grabenstein and her husband Ed.

Serving in the U.S. Navy seems to be a tradition in the Terpstra family.

His son, Richard P. Terpstra, enjoyed a long and distinguished career in the service, retiring as a rear admiral. "I admire him for that," said the proud father.

At one point, he was captain of the USS Dallas, the submarine featured prominently in the bestselling book and movie "The Hunt for Red October."

His grandson, Eric Terpstra, is a doctor in the Navy.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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