Japan Strikes: 1937


The last months in Peiping brought the solace of home and family, offset by living under Japanese occupation. Only with the greatest difficulty could his new Japanese-speaking assistant, Captain Frederick Munson, convince him it was necessary to pay an official call on General Okamura if the military attache’s office was to function. Stilwell grudgingly agreed but announced he would not go in uniform; and when argued out ofthat position, balked at wearing a sword; and when persuaded of this formality, had no reserve left but to refuse positively to go in breeches and boots, the inseparable accessories of the Japanese officer. Grimly in military slacks he marched off to tea with China’s conquerors and managed to get into an argument on the innocuous subject of the temple deer at Nara.

Drawing up a balance sheet of Japanese qualities, to relieve his feelings in private, Stilwell allowed them six good qualities—industriousness, bravery, perseverance, organization, discipline, patriotism—as against twenty-six bad, ranging through arrogance, cynicism, truculence, ruthlessness, brutality, stupidity, treacherousness, lying, unscrupulousness, immorality, lack of balance, and hysteria. Almost any foreigner having to accommodate to the Japanese in China during these years would have shared Stilwell’s sentiments, although he might have been less facile in expressing them. To maintain correct relations under the provocative insolence and swagger, and worst of all the stream of bland, inside-out distortions of fact, was mortifying to the soul. Even Sir Robert Craigie, British ambassador in Tokyo, while on a visit to Shanghai described himself as so “utterly weary of the policy of appeasing Japan” and so “nauseated by being polite to the little blighters” that he felt constantly humiliated and “emotionally and even maybe mentally upset.” He suffered a recurring dream in which, wearing the gold-braided uniform of a general, he commanded a landing party near Tokyo and was suffused by a tremendous joy at the order to go “all out in retaliation against the dirty little bastards.”


What really tortured Craigie and Stilwell and many others was the passivity of their own countries in face of Japanese aggression. Frustration was acute as despotism advanced and the democracies threw it chunks of appeasement to buy themselves the illusion of safety. Stil well, in addition, faced his own depressing professional prospects. The first star of a brigadier general, which made all the difference in a military career, appeared to have receded beyond his reach. In another year he would have passed five years in grade without a promotion, which, combined with more than thirty years in the Army, made retirement mandatory. Ten officers who had graduated with him at West Point, including two junior to him, were already generals. Though he had friends and advocates working for him, writing letters to the War Department, and although their pressure had succeeded in having his name put on the eligible list, McCabe’s disparaging efficiency reports were a nearly insuperable block. Assigned by his new orders to an unpromising job, he believed “they’re trying to put me out to pasture” and saw his career ending in undistinguished desuetude among the retired colonels.

The time came for departure on May 1, 1939. Discouragement was in the air. Far away in Chungking the winter fogs had lifted, enabling Japanese terror bombing of the undefended city to begin. America was still selling scrap to Japan. No sign of help for China was in prospect. In nearly two years since Marco Polo Bridge, the improved, concerted military assistance that Stilwell had hoped for had not evolved. On their last day in China, on board the river boat from Tientsin to Taku, the Stilwells, joined a friend, Mrs. Edmund Clubb, wife of an embassy official, who too was going home. As they opened a lunch basket to picnic on deck they saw floating by the body of a man clutching a drowned child still attached by a rope to the piece of wood used by houseboat families as a life preserver. It had been inadequate. As a symbol of everything sad and wrong in China, the sight of the dead bodies in the river at that particular moment was unbearable. Wordless, the group picked up their lunch baskets and went down below deck.

In America three days before, Stilwell’s fate was entirely changed by an unexpected development: over the heads of thirty-four senior officers George Marshall was appointed Acting Chief ofStaff, to succeed to the full position September i, taking over an Army that then ranked, with reserves, nineteenth among the world’s armed forces, after Portugal but ahead of Bulgaria. With conflict approaching, Marshall’s urgent concern was to replace the Army’s dead wood. One of the first two names he sent up for promotion to brigadier general was that of Joseph W. Stilwell.