Japan Strikes: 1937

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On a lantern-lit Chinese barge poled by boatmen over the dark Pel Hai Lake in the Imperial City, a party from the American Embassy enjoyed a serene excursion under a full moon on the evening of July 7, 1937. In the group were Colonel and Mrs. Stilwell and their daughter Nance; Ambassador and Mrs. Nelson Johnson; Colonel John Marston, commander of the Marine Embassy Guard, and his wife; and Stilwell’s journalist friend John Goette.

Ambassador Johnson had brought his guitar and played his favorite song, Down That Weary Road, as the boatmen paced rhythmically up and down the deck. Light from the boat’s lanterns glimmered in the water, and lit by the moon the softly gleaming white marble dagoba on Jewelled Island rose out of the darkness like the vision of a Buddhist grail. The party felt themselves surrounded by the spirit of ancient Peking, until reality glided by in another boat carrying a group of Japanese officers.

Colonel Marston mentioned that as senior officer of the foreign detachments he had been notified by the Japanese that their troops would be leaving the city that evening for night maneuvers at the railroad bridge at Lukouchiao, twelve miles to the west on the Peking-Hankow line. The Japanese had been holding maneuvers in the area for two weeks, causing worried speculation in the local press. The railway was the only remaining access to Peiping not under Japanese control, and Lukouchiao was a key junction where a shuttle connected with the Peking-Tientsin line. Alongside the railroad bridge a stone bridge eight hundred years old with parapets adorned by marble lions spanned the river on thirty graceful arches. One of China’s most beautiful monuments, admired by the first Westerner who crossed it in the thirteenth century, it was known in his honor as the Marco Polo Bridge.

At eight o’clock on the morning after the boat ride Stilwell’s office learned there had been a skirmish at the bridge. The Japanese, claiming to have been fired on by troops of Sung Che-yuan’s 29th Army garrisoned at nearby Wanping, were now besieging Wanping with mortar and artillery fire to enforce surrender of the “guilty” officers. On Stilwell’s orders the assistant attaché, Major David D. Barrett, drove out with Goette to investigate. The scene was quiet, with only an occasional rifle shot disturbing the calm of a beautiful summer morning, but they found cause for disquiet in the body of a dead Japanese soldier guarded by a platoon. Realizing this would be made the pretext for extreme Japanese demands, they knew they stood in the presence of an Incident. It proved to be the start of the war.

The Chinese garrison commander had refused Japanese terms and for the moment was holding a parley. By the time Barrett returned to the office, Stilwell was already receiving reports of Japanese army units moving in strength through the Great Wall. Despite the show of negotations at Wanping, he and Barrett agreed that the Japanese were opening their definitive move to take over north China. The atmosphere in Peiping was tense; no one knew if there was real purpose behind the skirmish or what Chiang Kai-shek would do. Stilwell drove out to Wanpingon the third day to try to make contact with the Chinese garrison; but as he crossed the last five hundred yards, both sides opened heavy fire. The driver turned the car around without stopping, and “we got out on two wheels.”

Reports reaching Stilwell’s office indicated ten thousand Japanese troops crossing the Wall into Hopei; troop trains were passing through Shanhaikwan at half-hour intervals. To report on the situation as it developed, he organized an intelligence network of the five senior language officers who served under his command as assistant attachés and whom he stationed in various cities. Four of the group had already served with the 15th Infantry, and two, Captain Frank Roberts and Captain Frank Dorn, were in later years to serve under Stilwell again in the Far East. His son Joe, Jr., then in Tientsin with the 15th Infantry, was also enlisted as an informant, as were journalists, consuls, Standard Oil men, and whoever was in a position to extract evidence from the fog of rumor. The larger outlines of what was happening could only be estimated by putting together the hard details: the number of Japanese planes in the air over Tientsin, the frequency of rail and truck movements of Japanese men and matériel, the location of Chinese units, and—most elusive—any evidence of Chinese troop concentration or other clues to the government’s intentions.

Stilwell adopted the unorthodox practice for a military attaché of keeping a file of his radios to G-2 on the table in his office for journalists to consult. His object, he told Barrett, was to make available as much accurate information as possible “so that the world would get a true picture of Japanese aggression as it developed south of the Wall.” Identifying with China, he felt deeply the crisis that gripped her.