The Chinese Finger-Trap

Everywhere, Japan was in retreat.

In April of 1945, the Japanese Empire was being pushed on almost every front.  Americans bombers were decimating Japanese cities and industry.  British troops were reoccupying Burma.  U.S. forces were slowly driving Japanese troops out of their positions on Okinawa – all with frightening levels of casualties for Japanese soldiers and civilians alike.

But on one front, Japanese troops were advancing – China.  On April 6th, 1945, the Empire of Japan began their last offensive of the war.  An offensive they hoped would finally end the fighting on a front that had consumed nearly 10 million combatants and taken almost 25 million lives.

A Japanese soldier stands guard at the Great Wall. The Sino-Japanese War rivaled only the Eastern Front in terms of scale; over 25 million Chinese and Japanese died in China from 1937 to 1945. Even more were wounded

Throughout the course of this series, we haven’t commented on the fighting between China and Japan.  That’s unfortunate, because while World War II officially started on September 1st, 1939, it could just as easily have been said to have started on July 7th, 1937.

At the Marco Polo Bridge, the border of China and the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, (invaded and annexed in 1931), Japanese and Nationalist Chinese troops exchanged fire.  The subsequent Japanese reprisals led to the invasion and conquest of Beijing and a state of war between Tokyo and Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government.  What followed was eight years of constant fighting, political intrigue (both foreign and domestic for China), and a bevy of surprising international players.  The cause to support Nationalist China united perhaps the strangest alliance in history – with the United States, Britain, Soviet Union, Fascist Italy and yes, even Nazi Germany providing (at various times) assistance against the Japanese invasion.

“The Shanghai Baby” – a photo of the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in 1937, this iconic image became for many the international symbol of Japan’s invasion of mainland China

If the leaderships of the world’s foremost democracy, imperial power, communist and fascist dictatorships could all support China, it was largely because Japan’s actions were so easy to oppose.

Since the 1880s, in the wake of Japan being forcibly opened up to the West, the concept of “Datsu-A Ron” or “Leaving Asia” gained significant traction among Japan’s cultural and political elite.  But in the decades that followed, the policy of Datsu-A Ron became less about Japan leaving its Asian past behind and more about the need for Asia to reform at the point of a gun – a gun held by Japan.  Datsu-A Ron became the cultural arm of military expansionism, giving the Japanese more of a sense of political and cultural superiority than mere racial superiority over their Korean and Chinese neighbors.

Japanese troops with gas masks – the Japanese made extensive use of chemical and biological warfare in their war with China

If Datsu-A Ron demanded that Japan become masters of Asia by dint of force, by necessity it wasn’t going to be subtle.  As the Marco Polo Bridge Incident expanded into a general war against the Kuomintang government, Japan found that supposed cultural superiority didn’t translate into military superiority.  The Battle of Shanghai, the first major battle in the war, saw the Japanese need to involve 300,000 troops and take 92,000 casualties over the course of three grueling months to defeat the Nationalist Chinese.

Frustration with the scale of Chinese resistance, coupled with the lack of any restraint from Tokyo, led the Japanese to greater and greater acts of brutality against Chinese civilians.  The fall of the Kuomintang capital of Nanking in December of 1937, intended to force a conclusion to the war, instead led to massive international outrage.  The world had already been shocked at Japan’s indiscriminate bombing campaign in Shanghai.  But the actions of Japanese soldiers in Nanking, who went on a nearly month-long orgy of rape and murder, killing an estimated 300,000 civilians, began to rally more than just international condemnation.  Words alone weren’t going to stop Japan.

The Temporary Alliance – Mao and Chiang. While both fought the Japanese invasion, they also were stockpiling arms for the eventual continuation of the Chinese Civil War

The U.S., UK and France gave the Chinese loans to purchase materials.  The Italians delivered a handful of light tanks and fighters.  The Germans insisted their work earlier in the 1930s to help deliver 30 new German-trained and armed divisions would continue (it wouldn’t, but Nazi-Sino relations would continue in some form until 1941).  The Soviets, hoping to pin down Japanese ambitions, gave China the equivalent of $250 million in credit for arms, plus provided 3,600 advisors and pilots, 227 of whom died in combat.

International support likely helped turned the tide of the conflict.  While Japan had seized most of China’s coastal cities, and penetrated deep into the interior with the taking of Wuhan in June of 1938, the advances largely stopped there.  From the Battle of Lanfeng in the summer of 1938, until the entry of the Western Allies following December 7th, 1941, the Chinese and Japanese engaged in 23 large-scale battles, with the Chinese winning 15 of them.

Japan was locked into a military Chinese finger-trap – the harder they tried to force the Chinese out of the conflict, the deeper they found themselves ensnared.

Yes, those are Chinese troops in Nazi uniforms. The Japanese invasion rallied a bizarre coalition of international support of China, including Germany. The alliance finally ended after Germany signed the Tripartite Pact with Japan and recognized the Japanese puppet government in Nanking.

The Western Allies thought they had found a sizable ally in the Kuomintang government.

While Japan was running wild in the early weeks and months of the Pacific War, Chiang Kai-shek’s troops were delivering a victory in January of 1942 at the Battle of Changsha.  With the Kuomintang’s millions of men under arms, and China’s proximity to vital Japanese resources, the U.S. and Britain believed China could be a massive proxy fighter in the battle against Tokyo.  The Allies began supplying the Chinese government with millions in weaponry to take the fight to the Japanese.

Chiang Kai-shek had other ideas about what to do with his new-found largesse.  The Kuomintang had already been involved in a wide-ranging civil war against the nation’s Communists.  The Nationalist Army had survived more by avoiding than confronting Japan between 1938 and 1941, preferring to strike by ambush or guerrilla attacks.  The Army had to remain intact to focus on the real enemy – the Communists.  “The Japanese are a disease of the skin,” Kai-shek said.  “The Communists are a disease of the heart.”

The 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force – the Flying Tigers. The group claimed 296 Japanese planes versus only 14 losses of their own

The fight against Mao Tse-tung and the Communists had been going on since 1927, and while the two sides were technically in a quasi-truce/alliance to focus on the Japanese, both sides were keeping some of their powder dry for the inevitable return to action.  Kai-shek’s unwillingness to press the Japanese to the Allies’ liking proved extremely frustrating to American Gen. Joseph Stilwell, the head of the Burma/China Theater of Operations.  Kai-shek and Stilwell battled often, with mutual disdain.  Stilwell wanted greater operational control over Chinese forces.  Kai-shek wanted simply to provide airfields for Allied bombers and fighters, much like the famed “Flying Tigers” of American pilots who shot down nearly 300 Japanese planes for only 14 losses of their own.  Neither got exactly what they wanted.

Despite granting China a place as one of the “Four Policemen” of the Allies, as Roosevelt initially called the partnership between the US, UK, Soviet Union and China, Kai-shek became a constant source of irritation.  He supported the independence of Indochina from France and India from Britain, going so far as to meet with Gandhi in 1942.  He demanded to be the supreme commander of the Burma-Chinese Front (akin to Eisenhower in Europe) and was finally granted the title to keep him happy.  Kai-shek saw himself as a master manipulator, playing the U.S. and Soviets off of each other to maintain his power in the Alliance.  In reality, neither wished to support him and both sides entertained schemes to depose the Chinese Nationalist ruler.

The United States provided millions of dollars of aid to the Chinese government – largely to just to keep the government in the fight against Japan

By early 1944, China was accomplishing it’s only significant value to the Allied cause – tying down millions of Japanese troops.

Desperate to move troops stationed in Chinese posts to other battles in the Pacific, Japan launched Operation Ichi-Go in April of 1944.  400,000 men, supported by 800 tanks, would slice across multiple fronts in China.  Ideally, Japan would occupy Chinese airbases housing American bombers and capture Chungking, Kai-shek’s war-time capital.  It was the largest Japanese operation in China since the earliest years of the war and it would produce one major Allied casualty – Gen. Joseph Stilwell.

Ichi-Go demolished most of the Chinese Nationalist units it encountered.  The front all but completely collapsed, along with 300,000 Nationalist troops, 200,000 civilians, and whatever lingering trust the Allies still placed in Chiang Kai-shek.  Roosevelt insisted that Kai-shek turn over command to Stilwell in order to salvage the entire Chinese war effort.  But doing so would require relieving commanders personally loyal to Kai-shek, and after the decades of political intrigue that saw Nationalist Chinese commanders acquire personal power, only to defect to the Communists or attempt to amass a regime for themselves, an army of Chinese troops under direct American command was politically impossible.  Kai-shek insisted in response that Stilwell be relieved of command.  The post of Generalissimo trumped General; Stilwell was gone.

Chiang Kai-Shek, his wife, and American Gen. Joseph Stilwell. Despite Stilwell’s leadership of Chinese troops, he and Chiang loathed one another. Chiang thought of him as insubordinate while Stilwell called him “the little dummy” and “peanut” in private.

Ichi-Go was emblematic of the entire Chinese War – a tactical Japanese victory that produced a strategic defeat.  Japan had swallowed vast amounts of territory and killed or captured hundreds of thousands of National Chinese troops.  But the whole point of the operation was to relieve Japan of the burden of its Chinese occupation.  Ichi-Go only gave them more territory to have to guard.  And China was still far from out of the war.

As Japanese troops began their advance on April 6th, 1945 in West Hunan, they hoped to follow-up on the successes of Ichi-Go, which had only concluded four months earlier after taking up most of 1944.  The goals remained the same as Ichi-Go; try and occupy the war-time capital of Chungking and knock China out of the war.  The results would be markedly different.

The Blood Chit – given to all American air personnel in case they were shot down, the Chit supposedly reads: “I am an American airman. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied military post. You will be rewarded.”

200,000 Chinese troops, supported by 400 aircraft (manned mostly by American pilots) waited in ambush for the operation’s 80,000 Japanese soldiers.  As Japanese troops occupied Hunan, with little resistance, Chinese forces sprung their trap.  The Japanese quickly realized they had vastly underestimated the scale of the Chinese defense and began a hasty retreat.

On paper, the battle was unfolding like many both forces had engaged in between 1938-1941; the Japanese would encounter a larger Chinese force and unable or unwilling to take the casualties necessary to hold their gains, the Japanese would retreat.  But West Hunan was different – this time, the Chinese pursued their opponents.  With aircraft bombing their supply lines, and guerrillas attacking along the route, the Japanese couldn’t disengage and regroup.  Japanese forces were already stretched thin, and the Chinese essentially were pushing the Japanese out of the gains they had made with Ichi-Go.  In two months, the Chinese had undone 10 months of Japanese progress, for minimal losses.

Despite the territorial scale of the victory, relatively few men were lost on either side (at least considering the past battles).  Chinese troops lost merely 7,700 men (including 11 American pilots) while the Japanese incurred nearly 36,000 casualties.  In one broad stroke, the Japanese were back to their original positions as of late 1943 – and in some cases even worse.  The one opponent the Japanese could consistently rely upon beating had scored their biggest territorial victory in years – perhaps the largest in the entire course of the war.

Japan’s last gasp to salvage the war was over.

1 thought on “The Chinese Finger-Trap

  1. Forgotten Ally by Rana Mitter is a pretty good take on the War from the Chinese perspective.

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