OXFORD -- It was a once in a lifetime event, and Jack Coyle of Oxford had a front row seat.
Coyle and his wife, Cean, were VIPs at the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of China, invited by the Military Intelligence Bureau to participate in the festivities due to Coyle's father's service in SACO, a top secret military unit during World War II.
SACO stands for the Sino American Cooperative Organization, a U.S. Naval Group that operated behind Japanese lines in China during the war. Aided by the Chinese government, SACO operated weather stations and intelligence agents, guerrilla columns, saboteurs and 18 training camps in China, Burma and India, according to the organization's website.
SACO's primary mission was to supply weather reports to assist fleet operations in the Pacific. They occupied coast watcher observation posts dangerously close to the Japanese and communicated by hand cranked radios, runners and the occasional homing pigeon.
SACO consisted of 2,964 American servicemen, 97,000 organized Chinese guerrillas, and 20,000 "individualists" who included rival pirate groups as well as lone-wolf saboteurs, according to the website.
SACO rescued 76 pilots and killed 71,000 Japanese, while only three of its members were captured and five killed. Chinese citizens aided the soldiers and protected them.
Coyle's father, Jack T. Coyle, was in the Navy and stationed in Miami when he responded to the call for volunteers for SACO, though he didn't know what he was volunteering for; the unit and its mission were kept under wraps even within the military.
"Dad was very patriotic. It was one of those situations where he thought he needed to," Coyle said.
Recruiters wanted well-educated soldiers for the job. Coyle's father was college educated and a lawyer. The unit included soldiers who went on to become nuclear physicists and Dr. Henry Heimlich, who invented the Heimlich maneuver.
After the war, SACO was immediately disbanded but still kept quiet. After one veteran talked about the operation to the media the Communists destroyed an entire village that assisted SACO in retaliation. So even after all this time, SACO is still not a part of history that is often told.
"Even other veterans I talk to don't know about it," said Coyle, himself a Vietnam veteran and former reservist.
But SACO members and their offspring still gather each year for reunions. Coyle believes it's important to keep the memory of SACO alive, as the group is an unsung hero of the war. Most of the group is now second and third generation.
Coyle was invited to Taiwan for the 100th anniversary celebration by the Military Intelligence Bureau. A delegation of 25 attended, about 14 of them SACO veterans. The government took care of lodging and meals, the only expense to the group being the flight. Once there, "We were treated as royalty," Coyle said. Wherever they went, they received gifts and were applauded. Doctors and nurses were assigned to care for any medical needs of the group and traveled with them at all times, as did a military general and security.
They were given seats of honor at the celebration ceremony,which took place on Oct. 10. "10-10 is like the Fourth of July to them," Coyle explained.
President Ma Ying-jeou spoke at the event, which included a military demonstration and a parade.
"It was very much the utmost honor, not only to represent SACO but also the United States in memory of my father and other SACO veterans. I still get emotional about it," Coyle said.