Qian Xuesen - Wikipedia

In August 1935, Qian left China on a Boxer Indemnity Scholarship to study mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he earned a Master of Science degree after one year.

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In 1945, as an Army colonel with a security clearance, Tsien was sent to Germany to investigate laboratories and question German scientists, including Wernher von Braun.[18][19]

Wikipedia has this blurry picture of him, but I can't see the colonel eagle rank insignia.

enter image description here

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    The caption on the photo on the cited Wikipedia article says he had the temporary rank of colonel, which to me says he was not actually a colonel but should, during his trip, be treated as a colonel with regard to lodging, meals, access to car and driver, etc. – kimchi lover Dec 21 '20 at 9:39
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    The Wiki article you cited sort of answers this: the US army was interested in jet propulsion; Qian was an expert so they recruited him, giving him a temporary or assimilated rank of colonel. – Lars Bosteen Dec 21 '20 at 12:43
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    In any case, is it all that remarkable that someone might reach the rank of colonel in wartime? – jamesqf Dec 21 '20 at 17:53
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    China was an ally of the US during the war, so this isn't particularly surprising. – John Coleman Dec 21 '20 at 21:25
  • As for "eagle" not visible: his temporary rank was Lieutenant Colonel, whose rank insignia would be a silver oak leaf, as per Schewern's answer. – kimchi lover yesterday

There are perhaps some missing pieces here.

  1. He was a temporary colonel.
  2. Non-citizens are allowed to serve in the US military.
  3. China was a US ally.

He was a Chinese citizen living and working in the US with a doctorate from Caltech. He was hailed as a genius, and his work in jet propulsion made him very valuable to the US war effort.

Qian Xuesen was twenty-four years old in 1935, a fresh graduate of Shanghai Jiaotong University, when he used a scholarship to get to M.I.T. A year later, he moved to Caltech to earn his doctorate, and Theodore von Karman, a legendary Caltech professor, pronounced Qian an “undisputed genius.” When the U.S. went to war, he joined American scientists in the study of jet propulsion, and helped produce technology to counter German rockets. Then he joined the Manhattan Project.

Source: New Yorker, The Two Lives of Qian Xuesen

Mr. Qian served on the United States government’s Science Advisory Board during World War II. On the war front in Germany, he advised the Army on ballistic-missile guidance technology. At the war’s end, holding the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel, he debriefed Nazi scientists, including Werner von Braun, and was sent to analyze Hitler’s V-2 rocket facilities.

Source: NY Times, Qian Xuesen, Father of China’s Space Program, Dies at 98

My speculation is his job of debriefing Nazi scientists and inspecting German rocket facilities would involve moving around Europe and working with the US military, and that would be easier if he held the rank of Colonel.

Tragically, after Communists took over China he was accused of being a Communist on the thinnest of evidence and deported. He would go on to develop China's rocket industry.


A colonel was originally a "column" commander. That is the highest ranking officer who will command "pure" columns of say, infantry, cavalry, or artillery.* That would be opposed to a general (or general officer), who is someone who commands "mixed" or combined arms units. In Qian's case, his "column" was rocketry, and he was at the top of his specialty, which is why he was made a colonel, and not some other rank. On the other hand, Leslie Groves who directed the Manhattan Project, was (initially) a (brigadier) general.

The U.S. military will from time to time employ people from outside to fill specialist roles that are deemed "mission critical." This includes foreigners and even former enemies. For instance, Wernher von Braun himself was employed first by the U.S. Army, and later by NASA after World War II. In Qian's case, it helped that he was a citizen of an allied country, China, and that his appointment was temporary, as Schwern pointed out.

*This would be for American, and other non- western European usage, as noted in the link in the first sentence. A commenter pointed out that by about 1800 CE, the western (and in some cases central) European usage was for "columns" to be larger bodies of soldiers commanded by the American equivalent of Major Generals, or what the Americans would call "division" commanders.

  • By the late 18th Century, if not earlier, column commanders were Lieutenant Generals (or national equivalent), three ranks above Colonel. Columns were the antecedent to Corps as developed by Napoleon, hence the same nominal commanding rank. – Pieter Geerkens 2 days ago
  • @PieterGeerkens: Now I am confused. My information is sourced from Wikipedia. I checked on the web and couldn't find any (easy) sources regarding your claims. If you can point me to some good sources, I will delete, or at least modify my post. – Tom Au 2 days ago
  • John H. Gill discusses it in Volume 1 of "Thunder on the Danube" in his preliminary discussion of the Austrian Army of 1809. The Austrians were experimenting that campaign with using a proper corps arrangement in place of columns. Note that the Austrian equivalents for Lt. Gen. are Feldzeugmeister (FZM) and General der Kavallerie (GdK). The Austrian Feldmarschall Leutnant and General Leutnant are actually a rank lower, equivalent to modern Major Generals. French Major General is at the time an office held only by Berthier, not a rank. – Pieter Geerkens 2 days ago
  • @PieterGeerkens: I have elected to retain my answer, but noted your "dissent" in the new last paragraph. Thanks for your help. – Tom Au 2 days ago

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