David D. Barrett

David D. Barrett
David Dean Barrett
Colonel Barrett with Mao Zedong
Born 1892 (1892)
Central City, Colorado
Died February 3, 1977 (1977-02-04)
San Francisco, California
Allegiance United States
Years of service Thirty-five
Rank Colonel
Commands held U.S. Army Observation Group to Yenan
Awards Legion of Merit

David Dean Barrett (1892 – February 3, 1977) was an American soldier, diplomat, and an old Army China hand. Barrett served more than 35 years in the U.S. Army, almost entirely in China. In that time period, Barrett was part of the American military experience in China, and played a critical role in the first official contact between the Communist Party of China and the United States government. Notably, he was commander of the U.S. Army Observation Group, also known as the Dixie Mission, to Yan'an, China, in 1944. His involvement in the Dixie Mission cost him promotion to general from colonel when Presidential Envoy Patrick Hurley falsely accused Barrett of underminding his mission to unite the Communists and Nationalists.


Early life

David Barrett was born in Central City, Colorado, in 1892. At age 23, he graduated from the University of Colorado, and proceeded to teach high school English for the next two years. At the outbreak of the First World War, Barrett immediately enlisted only to remained stationed stateside as a second lieutenant in Utah for the duration of the war.

Upon the war's conclusion, Barrett chose to make the military a career and was rewarded with a position on a troopship to join the American expedition to Siberia in 1920. Barrett never made it to Siberia. Instead, his ship was diverted to the Philippines, where he served for four years. It was in the Philippines that Barrett learned of an army program to trained officers in various foreign languages. Barrett signed up for a chance to travel to Japan to learn its language, but found all vacancies filled. He was then directed to the next alternative and was sent to Beijing.[1]

Pre-war life in China

Barrett arrived in Beijing in 1924 and assumed the post of Assistant Military Attaché for Language Study. The process by which Barrett learned the Beijing dialect consisted of daily practice with Mandarin teachers of approximately five hours, followed by an additional two hours of personal study. Barrett called his time with the teachers a joy and the dialect spoken in the former imperial capital, "the most beautiful Chinese in the world."[2]

Part of Barrett's education involved the use of the Chinese Classics, such as the Confucian Analects, and I Ching. Later in life, he instantly impressed and earned a greater respect and appreciation from Chinese for his ability to quote passages from the Classics. Barrett augmented his education with trips into the countryside to practice conversation with the less urban Chinese. In 1927, he was transferred to the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment headquarters in Tientsin. The executive officer of the regiment at the time was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Marshall, the future Secretary of State. Battalion commander of one of the two battalions stationed in Tientsin, was then Major Joseph Stilwell.[3] Barrett encountered the two again a year later at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

The three short years he spent at the school and in the United States was an anomaly in a career that was spent almost entirely in China. By 1931, he was permanently assigned at the Fifteenth Infantry in Tientsin as a regimental intelligence staff officer. From this position he watched the Kuomintang suppression of the Chinese Communists, who, in Barrett's opinion, were irresponsibly and wrongly designated as bandits by the KMT.[4]

Barrett's tour of duty in Tientsin ended in 1934. Two years later, he was assigned to be an Assistant Military Attaché to the American Legation in Beijing. His executive officer in Beijing, and acting Military Attaché, was Joseph Stilwell, then a full colonel.

Stationed in Tientsin and then Beijing, Barrett had a front row seat to watch the growing Japanese encroachment on China. The most notable event that Barrett personally witnessed was the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937. On the day after the start of the conflict, July 8, Barrett was among one of the first foreign observers on the scene. Later the same day, Barrett returned with Stilwell, where both men were fired upon by Japanese troops.[5] It was, Barrett noted, the first and last time he ever heard a shot pass him in anger.[6]

Due to his position in the American Legation in Beijing, Barrett moved with the Nationalist government as it fled the approach of the Japanese. First to Hankow, where Barrett often drove out to the frontline to observe the fighting between the Chinese and Japanese forces. By 1938, Hankow fell and the Nationalists again retreated, this time to Chungking. It was in Chungking that Barrett remained until 1943.

Second World War career

Barrett remained in the capacity of Assistant Military Attaché until May 1942, where he assumed the post of chief attaché inherited from General John Magruder. However, any sense of accomplishment for the post was stymied by the build up of a major American military presence in China. It was because the position of attaché was attached to the embassy, and so Barrett was removed from much of the military planning and operations executed by the regular American military, whose presence was constantly growing in the capital. Another problem was the habit of Nationalist officials to bypass Barrett and communicate directly with the American military personnel.[7]

Barrett remained in the position up through the summer of 1943. Under the belief that he would never gain promotion to general officer, he requested a transfer out of the embassy detail. His wishes were granted and he found himself assigned to assist in the American creation of a Chinese field army at Kweilin in the Kwangsi Province in southern China. Due to supply failures and political entanglements, the army never advanced beyond the establishment of a headquarters.[8] It was from this post that Barrett was plucked out and sent to command the observer group to Yan'an.

Command of the Dixie Mission

On March 24, Barrett received an order to proceed to Chungking for temporary duty, unaware of the plans for the observer group to Yan'an. Not until he met John Service four days after his arrival in Chungking, did he learn he was to assume command of the mission. At the time, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek had not yet provided his consent to the mission and Barrett waited a month in Chungking before being ordered back to Kweilin. He remained there until the start of July, when the success of Vice-President Henry Wallace's mission to Chungking signaled a green light for the mission.[9]

Col. Barrett, Maj. Ray Cromley, Maj. Melvin Casbert, Capt. John Colling, Capt. Charles Stelle, Capt. Paul Domke, 1st Lt. Henry Wittlesey, Staff Sgt Anton Remeneh, US Embassy 2nd Secretary John S. Service and political attaché Raymond Ludden arrived in Yenan on July 22, 1944. While Service handled political discussions, Barrett was in charge of working out a cooperative military strategy.[1]

Barrett remained in command of the Dixie Mission up into November, 1944, when he was removed to help Ambassador Patrick Hurley in negotiations to unify the Nationalists and Communists, as well as help plan potential American-Communist cooperative plans at the theater headquarters of General Albert C. Wedemeyer. While serving as a courier and representative for Wedemeyer's chief of staff, General Robert B. McClure, Barrett was sent on two missions to Yan'an to speak with Communist leadership. The last discussion involved the possibility of a joint Communist-American military mission involving several thousands of American troops. As this plan, developed by McClure hurt Hurley's attempts to bring the Communist into a joint-government plan, Hurley accused Barrett of sabotaging his negotiations. Hurley stopped a promotion in motion to make Barrett a Brigadier General and had him removed to a small corner of the China theater for the rest of the war.

Post-war life

After the end of the war, Barrett was assigned to be the military attaché to the Nationalist government after it had fled the mainland in 1949. This was his last post before retiring from the U.S. Army.

As a civilian, Barrett served as a professor at the University of Colorado. He was instrumental in establishing a modern Chinese language course there and lectured in the modern history of China and occasionally in Shakespearean studies.

See also


  • David D. Barrett, Dixie Mission: The United States Army Observer Group in Yenan, 1944, Berkeley, California: Center for Chinese Studies, U of California, 1970.
  • John N. Hart, The Making of an Army "Old China Hand": A Memoir of Colonel David D. Barrett, Berkeley, California: Center for Chinese Studies, U of California, 1985.


  1. ^ Vladimirov, Peter, The Vladimirov Diaries, Yenan, China: 1942-1945, Doubleday & Co (Garden City: 1975), p. 235, 254. This source is edited in a way that suggests strong political bias introduced decades after the original writing.
  1. ^ Hart, 1-2.
  2. ^ Ibid., 6-7.
  3. ^ Ibid., 8-9.
  4. ^ Ibid., 13-14.
  5. ^ Frank Dorn,The Sino-Japanese War, 1937-41:From Marco Polo Bridge to Pearl Harbor (New York:Macmillan Publishion Co., 1974),4.
  6. ^ Hart, 21.
  7. ^ Ibid., 30-31.
  8. ^ Ibid., 33-34.
  9. ^ Barrett, 25-26.

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