- 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
Out again to the southern front in October, he observed from a battalion commander’s command post a five-day fight for Teian in the path of the Japanese drive southward from the Yangtze against Nanchang, capital of Kiangsi. “Walked to Wang Lia-chi’s hq, 15 li. Bridges are all burning, road broken every 200 yards or so. Met Wang. Warm welcome. He has been catching hell—50% losses. … No hmg [heavy machine guns]. Small ens [caissons?]. No guns. About 200 rounds apiece. 4 lmgs [light machine guns]. Bridge out. No car. No phone, etc. Slept in the straw.” Colonel Wang at first held a hill position but was forced back into the town; the fight continued within the walls. In the last hours Colonel Wang himself led a night attack through the narrow streets. As described by Stilwell afterward, “The detachment runs into a Japanese machine-gun nest. … The Chinese throw themselves prone on the right side of the street. The Japanese open fire but fail to come out into the open where they can rake the street and the shots carom off the opposite wall and hit no one. Quick action is needed here and the Chinese are equal to it. A squad slips around a building and coming in from the rear puts the machine-gun crew out of action with hand grenades. … Everything by now is in an uproar and Colonel Wang in the darkness loses touch with them. …” For the rest of the night and the next day the fight continued with only a few yards separating the two sides until, as the Japanese advanced in force against the weakened garrison, the position became hopeless. A messenger from the division commander, the only one to get through of six who were sent, arrived at 6 P.M. with orders to withdraw. Under eover of darkness Colonel Wang with sixty-five men rejoined the rest of the battalion and left the field with less than four hundred men of his original fifteen hundred. They had been continuously in action for over five days with little sleep, food, or water. Of his eleven hundred casualties six hundred were dead.
In actions like these Stilwell was forming the judgments that he was to take with him as commander in the Chinese theater four years later. Colonel Wang was brave, but his judgment was poor; he should have stayed out of the town, which, being in ruins, furnished no cover and was absolutely dominated from the hills. In a G-2 report analyzing the war from what he had seen at first hand, he described the needless failures inherent in Chinese defensive tactics.
In open country against Japanese planes, tanks, and artillery, the Chinese, being deficient in these weapons, made only halfhearted defense and readily abandoned positions. In hilly country, however, where concealment was good, they held their ground better, and with only rifle, grenade, and machine gun, slowed down the Japanese advance. The enemy continued to push against the flanks, often thrusting out a salient that invited counterattack, but instead of seizing their chance, the Chinese “always react to protect their rear.” They hoarded their reserves, failing to exert full strength when it could succeed, with the result that numbers were more equal than they should have been, and Japanese initiative and superior equipment turned the scale.
The report concluded on his favorite theme: “The Chinese soldier is excellent material, wasted and betrayed by stupid leadership.” There was a corollary: “Suppose the Chinese soldier were well-fed, well-armed and equipped, well-cared for and well- led … ?”
The Sino-Japanese war came to a climax in the five days of October 21–25, 1938, when the Japanese took not only Hankow but also Canton, China’s last access by sea to the outside world. … Japan expected the captures to seal victory at last. With a million men now on the mainland, and desperate to find some end to the war, she made one more effort to force China into a settlement. A New Order for East Asia based on an anti-Communist bloc of Japan, China, and Manchukuo was announced and the Chinese government invited to join on condition of repudiating its anti-Japanese past and “reforming its personnel.” Now that Japan had control of China’s ports, railroads, and major cities, and of north China, the Shantung Peninsula, the Yangtze Valley, and the southern coast, the Japanese believed the Kuomintang would have to capitulate. …
For Chiang no acceptable future was possible if he submitted. He remained as always impervious to the buffeting of events. Nothing ever changed him. He was welded to the belief that China would outlast Japan and that history must bring him foreign allies. Loosely organized and agrarian, China could sustain herself even though isolated in the far west—at what reduced level or cost in suffering did not matter. A slender egress by road into Burma, hacked out of the mountains by hand labor, had just been opened. Chiang would hold out in Chungking beyond the enemy’s reach until Japan ultimately clashed with Russia or the Western powers. He rejected all terms.
Japan reaffirmed inclusion of occupied China in the New Order and her resolve to “exterminate” the Kuomintang government, which “no longer exists except as a mere local regime.” Chiang Kai-shek publicly reaffirmed on December 26, 1938, the resolve to maintain China’s independence. Except for local punitive campaigns, military advance came to a stop; Japan had no appetite to go farther; the war was left unfinished, the million men remained. …