- 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
The silence from Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, was not promising. He was not even there, as far as anyone knew. The Japanese had issued an ultimatum that was to expire on July 18. Chiang Kai-shek spoke at last, from Ruling, the mountain summer resort where foreigners and upper-class Chinese, carried up by sedan chair, escaped the sickening summer heat of the Yangtze Valley. Without voicing a call to action or precluding a settlement, Chiang declared that no further positions in north China could be surrendered and that a settlement with Japan must not invade sovereign rights or territorial integrity. It was a statement that China’s limit of endurance had been reached and that she was accepting the necessity of armed resistance. When Chiang’s words were broadcast in Peiping, bugles sounded and gongs clanged as excited people filled the streets.
A few days of enthusiasm was all they were to have, for the government had made no plan or preparations for the event of national resistance, and the Japanese took over control of Peiping within the week. Stilwell’s temper mounted at their charges of Chinese provocation, claims of “self-defense,” acts of brutality, and at his own country’s lack of response. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull held a press conference without taking a position, Stilwell commented, “Mr. Hull again says we are against fighting. That ought to stop it quickly.”
Sporadic fighting continued outside Peiping, although General Sung Che-yuan’s intentions were uncertain and there were rumors that he had “gone over.” On July 29 Japanese planes bombed Tientsin, concentrating on Nankai University. For four hours their squadrons, taking off in relays from an airfield three miles outside the city, “systematically and unhurriedly” rained incendiary bombs on the university buildings, which, as Japanese headquarters informed the press, had to be wiped out because they harbored “anti-Japanese elements,” namely the students, the most potent agitators of nationalist sentiment. The bombing was designed to destroy the students’ base of operations so that they could not mobilize demonstrations or print propaganda leaflets. Throughout their campaign in China, as formerly in Korea, the Japanese intentionally attacked places of education as the sources of national consciousness.
On the road to the Temple of Heaven the Japanese ambushed a Chinese unit, leaving five hundred to six hundred bodies on the ground, mostly unarmed and many literally blown to pieces, minus heads, arms, and legs. Going out with Barrett to investigate, Stilwell saw thirty truckloads of soldiers killed to the last man, with parts of bodies plastered against the sides of the trucks and drivers dead at the wheels. Villagers said the Japanese had offered to let the troops surrender without arms, and when they emerged from the village, mowed them down with machine guns and grenades. Dead horses were bloated in the hot July sun, and dead men lay in the ditches, “one with his eyes wide open and flies walking on them.” At Tungchow, seat of Japan’s Hopei-Chahar puppet government, the local constabulary, believing rumors of Chinese “victories” around Peiping, mutinied, massacred Japanese and puppet officials, and attempted to hold the garrison. The attempt was smashed when Japanese reinforcements wiped them out and laid the city in ruins.
Within four days all Chinese troops were withdrawn from the Peiping-Tientsin area, leaving the Japanese in control. The lack of a concerted policy or plan of defense and the vain sacrifice of men at Lukouchiao and Tungchow enraged Stilwell. The Chinese had missed so many good opportunities that “you can’t help getting thoroughly disgusted with them.” They could not have defeated the Japanese, he wrote, but they could have’ inflicted heavy losses if action had been co-ordinated and the order to attack ever given.
Though late, the Central Government was pulling together the forces for defense. From the south General Pai Ch’ung-hsi flew to Nanking to pledge the services of the dissident Kwangsi-Kwangtung group after eight years of opposition. To consolidate the alliance he was appointed Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff. Provincial war lords of Yunnan and Szechwan rallied to the government. By the end of August all military forces, including the Communists—reorganized as the 8th Route Army—were incorporated in and supposedly responsible to the central command.
A first small but heartening victory that aroused Stilwell’s interest was won at Pinghsingkwan in the mountains of north Shansi by a division of the 8th Route Army commanded by Lin Piao. Using mobile guerrilla tactics from village bases with the support of a friendly population, the division attacked the Japanese at a pass in the Great Wall and wiped out a brigade, capturing its headquarters and provisions. Though only a temporary check, it suggested that the Communists had developed methods worth investigating, and several months later Stilwell spent half a day analyzing the battle of Pinghsingkwan with Agnes Smedley, a free-lance correspondent who had spent months with the Communists in the north.