Japan Strikes: 1937


Stilwell started out for the front in a group with the British and French attachés and the news photographer Robert Capa, who had covered Spain for a year and was “quite a guy.” Staying on after the Englishman “got mad and bowed out” and the Frenchman fell ill of dysentery and returned, Stilwell can be seen in the pages of his diary: “Moved by night, hard going and guard went astray. Pack transport, coolies, exhausted men curled up to die … Jap plane at 200 feet machine gunning the road. After a few wounded, I suppose. Wild Eagles! … Welcome from Chung. Go forward, sure. The nearer the front the warmer the welcome. Had a talk and chow. They got me bedding. … Bread and cheese for breakfast, by Capa. Mouldy but o.k. Sat around till 9 then off to the front. Hot as the hinges of hell and hard going. Climbed a high hill and got view along Yangtse to Juichang. Just a sea of rocky hills and scrub brush. Could be held indefinitely. … A lot of assorted artillery coming out north of the lake. Why? Kwan and Chang say it can’t be used but back of their present positions it could.”

Back in Hankow there were “barricades and wire everywhere.” Colonel Rouselle, the French attaché, was dead of dysentery. It was the seventh anniversary of Mukden [and the Japanese onslaught on Manchuria], and in Europe the powers trembled through the Munich crisis. “My god what a world. If another war starts in Europe where will we all end up?” Japanese bombers blasted the city daily, unopposed. The Chinese air force on which Chiang Kai-shek had pinned his hopes never became an effective force and had few planes or pilots left to defend Hankow. Shortage of fuel was made shorter by the pervading Chinese philosophy of hoarding equipment for a future crisis. “The Chinese can’t bear to use their stuff,” Stilwell wrote after seeing a battery of 75’$ that had been through the battles of Shanghai and Hsuchow without being fired. “If they put it in, they might lose it and then where would they be after the war, without any materiel?”

Air force personnel was a greater difficulty. Lacking the American’s affinity for the combustion engine, Chinese mechanics treated their machines with little care or respect; lacking expert maintenance, their planes rapidly became useless. Pilots and navigators, drawn from the educated class, represented a group that on the whole was not martial in spirit and had no desire to die in unequal combat with the well-trained, well-equipped Japanese. Those who did become pilots were valiant but reckless and flashy and ill-prepared by the Italian officers whom Chiang Kai-shek accepted from Mussolini early in the 1930’s to train his air force. When Italy withdrew her officers out of deference to growing friendship for Japan, the Italians took with them all the aerial maps they had prepared for their clients, leaving the Chinese, who had left the work to others, helpless.


To take charge of building his air force Chiang Kai-shek in 1937 engaged a remarkable American fighter pilot, Captain Claire Chennault, who had retired from the American Air Corps because of deafness and disagreement. By 1938 Chennault, promoted to colonel in the Chinese air force, had begun a major program of airfield construction and organized an effective warning net by radio, but he had less success with pilots and was soon to recruit a volunteer force of American mercenaries to defend China’s skies. For the present, as the Japanese raided Hankow unopposed, the sirens wailed and the streets drummed with the sound of thousands of running feet seeking the safety of the foreign concession area.


While columns of ragged and bloody wounded straggled in, evacuation of civilians had begun. In the last week forty thousand moved out in boats and junks or overland in trucks and handcarts to Changsha, capital of Hunan. Trainloads of half-starved, tattered war orphans gathered up from the battle zones by a woman’s committee organized by Mme. Chiang were fed and washed and marched in clean blue overalls to river boats for evacuation. The dismantling of factories and equipment for the long haul to the interior, organized by the industrial co-operatives, was under way. The wounded, looking for some designated hospital already dismantled, sat or lay on the pavement, worn out, unable to go farther.

Among the “last-ditchers” of Hankow was Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, whom Stilwell visited in September and found “very charming, highly intelligent and sincere.” Mme. Chiang never made an effort to charm without succeeding, and the American military attaché was worth her effort. He sent her flowers after the interview.