The Chinese-American 1st Provisional Tank Group (1st PTG) was a joint US and Nationalist Chinese unit formed during WWII. This lesser known unit gain little recognition while fighting in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI). While the USAAC was flying critical supplies from India to China over the ‘hump’, the 1st PTG supported the allies effort to reopen the land route through Japanese occupied Burma by securing and rebuilding the Ledo-Burma road.
On 1 October 1943, the 1st PTG was activated at Ramgarh, India and was commanded by US Army Colonel Rothwell H. Brown. It was composed of six provisional tank battalions, all Chinese with the 1st and 2nd Tank Battalions (Provisional) each supplemented by a company-sized contingent of Americans and the others were supported by American advisors and logistical support. The majority of the Chinese officers had been educated in the USA and spoke fluent English. The 1st PTG was equipped with lend leased M3A3 Stuart light tanks armed with 37mm guns and in April 1944 each company began to receive a platoon of 5 or 6 M4A4 Sherman medium tanks with 75mm guns. Some of the Chinese Sherman tanks carried colorful markings.
This Chinese 1st PTG M4A4 Sherman tank has a ‘tiger face’ painted on the mantlet and turret front with a paw and ‘claws’ on the armour plate in front of the driver’s position. The turret top was painted yellow which probably was an aerial recognition marking since it can barely be seen from the ground.
Besides fighting the Japanese, the 1st PTG had to overcome unfriendly, rough terrain and weather while advancing through Burma. Most of the Burma-India region had thick triple-canopy (80-100 feet tall) which often dropped to swift-flowing rivers. The mountains western slopes had vegetation 3-4 feet deep in jungle clearings and numerous patches of 6 foot tall Kunai grass while winter brought chilling cold and heavy ground fog. During the monsoon season in Burma, armor operations were difficult due to the heavy rains and units experienced delays in receiving supplies, fuel, ammo, and spare parts.
The 1st PTG route through Burma
On 23 December 1943, the 1st PTG (minus the 1st Assault Gun Battery) left Ramgarh and arrived at Ledo a week later. On 11 January 1944, Group HQ and the 1st Tank Battalion began a 100-mile, 96-hour road march on the Ledo Road, over the Patkai Range, in a monsoon, to Shingbwiyang, Burma where the Chinese and American forces fought against an impenetrable Japanese roadblock. The 1st PTG followed right behind the engineers which were building the Ledo Road. After arriving at Shingbwiyang, the group spent a month performing maintenance and road reconnaissance in the direction of Taipha Ga in preparation for supporting the Chinese 22nd Division. After determining a safe route and fording the Tanai River, the 1st PTG arrived at Lakyen Ga on 1 March 1944. The 1st Tank Battalion crossed the Kumon range over 6,100 foot Nallra Hikyet Pass, turned south and headed toward Myitkyina.
On 3 March 1944, near Maingkwan, a short distance from Layken Ga, the 1st Tank Battalion made first contact with the Japanese and that night the tankers ran into Japanese assault force. One of the armored bulldozers was the first loss and the Chinese infantry were attacked where fierce fighting ensued. Two of the Chinese crewed M3A3s fell into the Idi River. The Japanese attacked with heavy artillery, 75mm guns, 47mm AT guns, mortars, and MG fire. The remaining tanks were directed into lager with their muzzles aimed outwards. The Chinese infantry took heavy casualties but returned accurate fire. The Japanese force was weaken and it withdrew at daybreak. The two M3A3s were dredged from the river and repaired. Japanese snipers were active as the casualties were evacuated from the area.
On 4 March 1944, while supporting the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) – “Merrill’s Marauders” and the Chinese 22nd Infantry Division, the 1st Tank Battalion assaulted the remnants of the Japanese 18th Marine Division, the unit which captured Singapore and chased Stilwell’s forces out of Burma the previous year. The 1st Battalion captured Maingkwan by March 6 and headquartered in the center of the town.
On 19 April 1944, the 1st Battalion received the first shipment of 12 M4A4 Sherman tanks which were shipped by rail from Calcutta to Assam. The Americans and Chinese crews began training in the operation of their new tanks.
On 28 April 1944, Group HQ, the 1st Battalion, and the medium tank platoon (M4A4s)arrived at Warazup and remain there for about two weeks. During this period, coordinated air, artillery and armored attacks were made against Japanese forces which were organized with heavy AT defenses along the Pangyu Hka (river), Inkawngatawng, Hwelon Hka and at Malakawng. At Hwelon Hka, the 1st Battalion was leading the column and a couple of Japanese tanks fired on the column but they withdrew without further contact.
Between 3 to 9 May 1944 while supporting the 5307th in several villages near Walawbum, in the Hukawng Valley, the 1st Battalion again ran into the Japanese 18th Marine Division. The tankers attacked from the west and the 5307th from the east resulted in the tankers cutting a supply line near Wesu Ga of the Japanese 56th Regiment. The 1st PTG tankers fired upon the Japanese 18th Division HQ at Kumnyen and wiped out 100+ Japanese. The Japanese 18th Division then retreated leaving the valley to the allies. The Chinese and American tankers also captured large quantities of Japanese equipment for the first time.
This Chinese-crewed M3A3 Stuart tank has track grousers for improved traction.
During May 1944, the Chinese and Americans struck heavily defended Myitkyina which held out until August 1944. During the fall of 1944, the route to Bhamo (the second largest city in north Burma) was strongly defended and the city itself was fortified where a siege lasted for 28 days. Bhamo was finally captured on 15 December 1944 after repeated Chinese infantry and artillery attacks. The tanks reached Bhamo after a grueling 100 mile march through mountains and over rivers from the staging point near Myitkyina. Several of the tanks had to cross rivers in water about five feet deep. The 1st PTG tanks arrived one day too late to aid in the capture of Bhamo.
See time segment 10:28 in the film below for the armor advance to Bhamo.
Film: Combat Bulletin No 35 (1945)
This Japanese Type 97 Te-ke tankette was knocked by a 38th Chinese Division bazooka team in December 1944.
Map of the 1st PTG advance from January to March 1945
Soldiers of the US 5332nd Infantry Brigade climbing onto 1st PTG M3A3s and M4A4s near Kabani (a village near Bhamo) in January 1945. The M3A3 hulls are covered with chicken wire for attaching camouflage (most likely clumps of grass). The hull top and rear decks are covered with sandbags and they had storage bins mounted on the rear hull. From this high view, the white turret interior wall can be seen on the nearest M3A3.
The chicken wire and sandbags were protection against Japanese Type 99 (Hako-Baku-Rai) magnetic anti-tank mines.
On 29 January 1945, the American units along with the Chinese 3rd Tank Company (1st Tank Battalion) engaged the Japanese near the town of Kutkai. This was the second time the tankers engaged Japanese armor but this time the Japanese actually took losses. Two Japanese light tanks and one medium tank were knocked out while four Americans were WIA and one M3A3 was damaged. The medium tank platoon and the reconnaissance platoon were directed up the sides of a hill near Kutkai to recon the nearby village. The reconnaissance platoon separated from the M4A4’s and covered the flank. Except for the hills, the terrain was rice paddies and tall grass. While navigating a narrow road on a steep hill, three Japanese tanks camouflaged with brush piles opened fire on the column. The US tanks returned fire and burned one Japanese tank and damaged the other two which were recovered by the Japanese later after dark. The Japanese tank that was destroyed was smaller than the M3A3.
This is my close up of IWM CBI 53293
A pair of 1st PTG M3A3 Stuart tanks. Note that the hull machine gunner and driver of the leading tank are Americans while the rest of the crews are Chinese.
The leading M3A3 Stuart tank had a white star with a hand painted number “33” or “38” beneath it on the center front hull. If the number is “38”, then it might indicate the tank was attached to the Chinese 38th Infantry Division.
Chinese 1st PTG M4A4 Sherman numbered 313 is passing through Hsenwi Burma, February or March 1945.
Another photo of the same 1st PTG M4A4 Sherman in a tank column on the road.
It would be nice to know what the Chinese markings translates to in English.
What is the figure statue behind the right side headlight?
4 March 1945: M3A3 Stuarts of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion on the Burma road.
6 March 1945: 1st PTG Chinese M4A4 Shermans crossing the Nam You (Namtu) river just south of Hsenwi during the advance towards Lashio. The crew is wearing ski-type field caps with KD clothing.
See time segment 1:28 in the below film for 1st PTG tanks crossing the river and travelling along the Burma road towards Lashio.
Film: Invasion Scenes Far East (1945)
A M4A4 forded the river and is driving up south bank covered with wood beams. Note the destroyed bridge and piling in the background.
This is the bridge and highway over the Nam You (Namtu) river today.
A column of 1st PTG M4A4’s. Note that the leading M4A4 has a windshield mounted in front of the driver’s hatch. It was probably handy during the monsoon season.
This 1st PTG M4A4 has only the yellow turret top. The tiger face was either not applied or was painted out. Note that the following M4A4 has a painted tiger face.
Another 1st PTG Chines M4A4 with faded markings.
The 1st PTG supported the Chinese units which assaulted the city of Lashio. A medium tank platoon was attached to the 612th and 613th Field Artillery battalions (75mm Pack Howitzers)near Lashio. The platoon had an additional 6th M4A4 tank and they were all dug in on a hillside. They had difficulty zeroing in on their targets. When they fired a round, the tanks rolled back about 18 inches affecting their firing accuracy. The problem was solved by repositioning the tanks on flat terrain and they then were accurately firing over the Chinese infantry and hitting the Japanese. Near Lashio, the tankers knocked out 13 of 14 Japanese trucks at a gas supply dump and near the railroad station they wiped out over 100 Japanese with their accurate fire. They claimed they were able to fire 12 rounds every three seconds for approximately 20 minutes at a time and then changed their positions. They fired throughout the night and again the next day. They intercepted a Japanese radio boardcast (probably “Tokyo Rose”) where the Japanese thought the allies had “automatic artillery fire”.
After Lashio was captured, the 1st PTG was replaced by elements of the British Army and the group deployed to Kunming, China. In July, the 1st PTG moved to Chanyi, China and remained there for the rest of the war. On 18 December 1945, the 1st PTG was formally deactivated. The group turned over all of its equipment to the Chinese and the US personnel rotated home. Chinese tankers and tanks of the first, second, and third battalions reformed as a new separate armored unit in the Nationalist Chinese Army and later fought in the Chinese civil war (1946-49). The unit was lost near the Marco Polo Bridge in 1949 while fighting Chinese Communist forces. Beijing’s Lugou Bridge AKA Marco Polo Bridge spans the Youngding River about 15 km (9.3 miles) southwest of Tiananmen Square.
Perhaps these Chinese tanks influenced the US 8th Army six years later in 1951 Korea to paint colorful fierce looking tiger faces on their tanks while then fighting the Communist Chinese forces.
M4A4 Sherman cut away
The unique feature of the M4A4 Sherman was the Chrysler A57 multi-bank engine. The hull was lengthened to accommodate the engine which was built up from five 25-hp 6 cylinder Chrysler truck engines. It was the first Sherman version to go out of production and was produced in only one factory Chrysler Defense Arsenal (CDA) from July 1942 to November 1943 with 7499 built. The M4A4 was used for training in the USA and was supplied to the allies through lend lease.
Bestfong Decals 35002 1/35 M4A4 SHERMAN & M5A1 STUART Chinese Army
Bestfong Decals 48022 1/48 M4A4 SHERMAN & Sd.Kfz 221/222/223 Chinese Army
Decal Source: Bestfong English website
14 thoughts on “Chinese-American 1st Provisional Tank Group”
I think the figure on the tank is probably Guan Yu
“Holy Emperor Guan, the Great God Who Subdues Demons in the Three Worlds and Whose Awe Spreads Far and Moves Heaven” to give him his full title 🙂
he’s a popular good luck deity amongst the Chinese armed forces, especially in HK.
I base my assumption purely on the fact that the figure seems to have a beard and some kind of staff.
good article BTW! 🙂
Thank you for that additional interesting information. I agree with you that the figurine is probably him.
Hi there! Such a wonderful short article, thanks!
…the Chinese characters on the first M4A4 means “Assault” in English, while the ones on the last M4A4 picture means “Pioneer”…
Thank you for the translations of the Chinese characters. I wondered what they meant and I cannot electronically translate them from the photos.
I thought they might have been some kind of unit marking.
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My dad, Corporal Donald N Lange, who will turn 100 years old in 2 weeks was a radio specialist attached to the PTG in Burma during the war. He tells the story of their constant “battle” with their Chinese cohorts who insisted on modifying the tank radios to listen to the BBC, thereby making them useless for communicating with each other. Later in the war he was transferred to Nanking China which was still occupied by the Japanese to set up a top secret radio relay which he suspects was for peace talks. Interesting stories from the “forgotten theater”!