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On Aug. 25, 1945, ten days after the end of World War II, a slender, 27-year-old captain in the Army Air Forces named John Birch was kitted in China by a band of Communists. Sixteen years later, John Birch lives on as the rallying symbol of the archconservative, anti-Communist John Birch Society. Yet Birch himself remains a shadowy figure. Who was he? How did he live? And how did he die?

JOHN BIRCH was born in Landour, India, to a husband-and-wife team of missionaries. When John was two years old, his family returned to the U.S., and he was raised in New Jersey and Georgia. In 1939 Birch graduated from Georgia's Baptist-controlled Mercer University as the top man in his class, leaving behind him a record that is still recalled. "He was always an angry young man, always a zealot," says a classmate. "He felt he was called to defend the faith, and he alone knew what it was." Says a psychology professor: "He was like a one-way valve: everything coming out and no room to take anything in."

In his senior year. Birch organized a secret "Fellowship Group" and set out to suppress a mildly liberal trend at Mercer. He and twelve colleagues collected examples of "heresy" uttered by faculty members (example: a reference to evolution), whipped up support among Georgia's Baptist clergy, finally forced the school to try five men on the charge. Mercer eventually dismissed the cases, but not before admonishing 75-year-old Dr. John D. Freeman, a world-famous Baptist leader, for using a theologically "unsound" textbook. That summer Dr. Freeman quietly retired from Mercer. Says a professor: "It broke him."

Birch went to China as a missionary in 1940, and was caught there by Pearl Harbor. In 1942, as he was trying to find a way to enlist, the war literally dropped in on him. He was taken one night by a native to a man who had fallen out of the sky. The fallen: Lieut. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle. Birch led Doolittle and a group of the survivors of the Tokyo raid to safety, then joined the unit that later became General Claire Chennault's Fourteenth Air Force and began a remarkable career in air combat intelligence. Wrote Chennault later: "Birch was the pioneer of our field-intelligence net."

Traveling up to 100 miles behind enemy lines, Birch radioed back word on prime Japanese targets. He directed the building of three airstrips within enemy territory. For his work, Birch was awarded the Legion of Merit, got a posthumous Oak Leaf Cluster for "exceptionally meritorious service."

Birch was eventually transferred to the Office of Strategic Services and was assigned late in the war to a tiny, scorpion-infested base at Sian in North China. Baptist Birch is remembered as a loner with a somewhat overbearing manner. In his diary, Major Gustav Krause, commanding officer of the base, gravely noted: "Birch is a good officer, but I'm afraid is too brash and may run into trouble."

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