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.

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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

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.

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