- Historic Sites
Japan Strikes: 1937
In Part Two of her new series on General Joseph W. Stilwell, Barbara W. Tuchman describes the brutal beginnings, at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping, of a war we would all eventually have to fight
December 1970 | Volume 22, Issue 1
Just as Stilwell was about to leave for the Anhwei front to observe the 13th Army under General lang En-po, he was balked by the War Department, which ordered him to go to Lanchow instead, to report on Russian aid reaching China. Furious at the cancellation of a tour that had taken a great deal of arranging and represented the first time in eight months of the war that a foreign officer had been able to get accredited to a unit in the field, Stilwell offered every kind of excuse almost to the point of insubordination to avoid going. He was ordered to comply. The War Department was acting, as it happened, at the desire of the President, who had asked for a report on the nature and amount of arms reaching China through all avenues: Hongkong, Indochina, and Burma as well as overland from Russia. Stilwell was not told this, and indeed the whole Lanchow affair, which brought his resentment to a peak, could have been mitigated like the rest of his troubles with M. I. D. by a simple personal communication. He went off “sick unto death of the interfering bastards in Washington,” and in a mood, as he wrote to Win, to retire, at once or next year, “whatever the family decides.” He passed his fifty-fifth birthday en route to Lanchow feeling that, in view of his relations with the War Department, his career henceforward held little promise.
Stilwell was the first foreigner to visit the Russian air base at Lanchow and bring back evidence to show how far Russia was concerned to help China.
Making his way by train as far as Sian, where he visited 8th Route Army headquarters, and from there to Lanchow by bus and truck, he hunted down clues, bribed employees of the Russian guest house for figures on arrivals, questioned sentries, police, bus drivers, innkeepers, servants, the Governor of Kansu and his secretaries, missionaries at Sian, a Tibetan interpreter, an automobile dealer, Chinese officers, student aviators, and local Mongols. These last, “sturdy, dirty, hard-bitten, weather-beaten, with faces like Sitting Bull,” he entertained to tea at an inn; afterward when encountered on the street they were “all smiles and howdy.” Though his movements were watched and conversations listened in on, he was able to inspect the flying field and ascertain that three hundred Russian planes had been delivered, of which thirty were still at the base for training Chinese pilots. Russian aviation personnel, though physically impressive, with huge appetites consuming four meals a day, were “a sour and surly lot … I never saw one of them smile.” He collected figures on the Russian truck convoys that brought in munitions and fuel, worked out estimates of the monthly deliveries on the basis of distance travelled and turnaround time, and was able to specify types of munitions “though unable to get box markings or broken boxes.” The total was little in comparison with what could be brought in by ship at Hongkong, and he concluded the route was established primarily for aviation fuel and as an emergency inlet in case Canton fell.
By the time he returned to Hankow on April 15, China’s mood had undergone a dazzling change caused by her first real victory, at Taierhchuang in Shantung on April 6 and 7. The whole country went “mad with joy.” The Japanese were not invincible after all; a new hope in resistance swept away pessimism. It was the first cause for rejoicing since the war began.
Taierhchuang was a town on the path of the enemy’s advance to Hsuchow, whose fall would have put the Japanese on the Lunghai line, opening their way to the interior. Under the command of the Kwangsi general Li Tsung-jen, its defense was turned to counterattack, according to a plan of the German advisers, with an army of reinforcements brought up to cut off the enemy in the rear. General Tang En-po’s army, which Stilwell would have been accompanying had he not been at Lanchow, played this role. Thrilled by the phenomenon of reinforcements, the defenders rushed forward to join the attack with “battle cries that shook the skies.” They were able to slaughter the Japanese infantry who had been cut off from their supply of ammunition and fuel for tanks and proved unable to withstand a determined attack without mechanized support. At the end of the seventeen-day battle the Japanese had suffered sixteen thousand casualties and the loss of forty tanks, seventy armored cars, and one hundred motor vehicles besides guns and other arms in their first notable defeat since their creation of a modern army. The Chinese sustained equal casualties.
Like all China’s partisans, Stilwell wanted deeply to find cause for optimism and was moved to write after Taierhchuang when friends now said they thought China would win, “So do I.” At the same time he knew that militarily the Chinese had lost their advantage by failing to pursue. … Analyzing the battle with Stilwell and the German advisers, Pai Chung-hsi was not interested in the lesson of attack. He reverted to the theory of winning by outlasting. “We can afford to lose four men if the Japanese lose one,” he said, adding that Chinese losses would be of “no significance” until they passed fifty million. The Chinese, Stilwell commented, “cannot get the idea of the offensive into their heads.”