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James M. McHugh was born in Nevada, Missouri, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1922. Following training at Quantico he went to China in 1923 to study the country and its language. His father-in-law, Jacob Gould Schurman, who was president of Cornell University from 1892-1920, was then American minister to China.

McHugh spent over twenty years in China, where he served as intelligence officer for the 4th Marines and U.S. Asiatic Fleet, Shanghai, from 1933-1935, became special Assistant Naval Attache, American Embassy at Nanking, Hankow, and Chungking. He was Naval Attache and Naval Attache for Air from 1940-1943, serving as a special representative of Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, with whom he was a close friend.

For his work in this capacity he was awarded the Legion of Merit. He was officer in charge of the Far East Secret Intelligence and served on the staff of the Fifth Amphibious Corps (G-5), was sent to Guam in 1944 to help plan the attack on Iwo Jima. An attack of malaria led to his recall in 1943; after which he was assigned to Navy Dept., to one of the forerunners of the present CIA.

After retirement in 1946, he was an economic consultant for corporations having interest in the Far East, including Jardine, Matheson & Co. (Hong Kong), and Balfour, Guthrie & Co. (New York).