The China Service Medal was originally authorized by the Secretary of the Navy on 1 July 1942 to be awarded to members of the United States Navy and Marine Corps who served either on shore in China or on vessels operating in support of operations in the country between 7 July 1937 and 7 September 1939. Many of the recipients of the medal were members of the Yangtze Patrol, originally established to protect American business interests threatened by turmoil caused by China’s various political factions and warlords. (The dangers and challenges facing the crewmen aboard the ships of the Yangtze Patrol were immortalized in the 1966 movie The Sand Pebbles starring Steve McQueen.)
Following the invasion of China by Japan in 1937, however, these vessels also had to deal with threats from the Japanese. The first major incident, involving the sinking of the gunboat USS Panay, took place on December 12, 1937; the Japanese claimed that its bombers and fighters had mistaken the American ship for a Chinese vessel. While never admitting to any wrongdoing in the affair, the Japanese government eventually paid the U.S. more than $2 million as an indemnity for the sinking of the ship, which took three lives with it.
The China Service Medal was re-authorized by the Secretary of the Navy following the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945, with the period of eligibility set to end on January 22, 1946. With this re-authorization, Coast Guard members performing operations in China became eligible for the award, whose eligibility was extended at first to March 6, 1947 and then to its final expiration date of April 1, 1957. Exceptions could be made by the Secretary of the Navy to award the medal to Army personnel (or other components of the Armed Forces of the United States) provided their serviced was “commensurate with and consistent with the services for which the award is made to personnel in the naval service.”