- 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
On September 24 the Japanese took Paoting, Sung Che-yuan’s headquarters on the Peking-Hankow railway. The fever of savagery bred by their own campaigns burst out in a week’s rampage of murder, rape, and pillage by thirty thousand soldiers. A self-defeating ferocity accompanied them like a hyena of conquest, growing more ravenous by what it fed upon. The Japanese knew that a hostile China must ultimately defeat their aim to become leader of Asia. Throughout their years .on the mainland nothing so maddened them as the constant reappearance of “anti-Japanese” sentiment. Annually they insisted on the necessity of forcing China to be “sincerely” co-operative. Intending to attach China, they found themselves forced to conquer, arousing increasing hatred with each advance and employing increasing brutality in response. At Paoting, in addition to physical terrorism, they burned all the schoolbooks in week-long bonfires as well as the library and laboratory equipment of the Hopei Medical College and a decade’s records of crop statistics at the Agricultural Institute, the basis of its program for improved farming methods.
In mid-August the still-undeclared war entered the Yangtze Valley, not by Japanese design. When the campaign opened at Marco Polo Bridge, Japan had intended to finish off the separation of north China in a campaign of perhaps ninety days. They believed the Central Government would helplessly acquiesce as before or, through extension of Japan’s control over cities, industries, and communications, could be forced to give up and co-operate as a puppet regime. Chiang Kai-shek deliberately precipitated battle in Shanghai, supposedly to harden nationwide resistance by drawing the Japanese down to the heart of China, but more likely in pursuit of the strategy he never gave up, to engage foreign intervention. From first to last Chiang Kai-shek had one purpose, to destroy the Communists and wait for foreign help to defeat the Japanese. He believed battle at Shanghai, the international city with its large foreign investments, would lead to mediation and possibly even intervention by Britain, the United States, and other powers.
He sent his best German-trained divisions from Nanking down to Chapei on the borders of Shanghai, where, as he may have considered, any fighting would be likely to produce an incident involving foreigners or foreign property. The Japanese had a marine garrison in the International Settlement and had filled the river with their warships, whose menacing naval guns were intended not to fire but to overawe the government while in the meantime Japan fastened its hold upon the north. But the challenge of the Chinese advance on Shanghai provoked the bursting sense of mastery of the Japanese. They landed troops and suddenly found themselves thrown back under ardent attack. From then on a battle of suspense and tragedy was fought out under the eyes of the foreign bystanders. In the first week the vigor of the Chinese assault drove the Japanese almost to the river’s edge. With the advantage of nayal guns and command of the air, the Japanese were able to reinforce and counterattack and eventually to land forces to outflank the Chinese position. Under incessant bombing by the enemy’s Formosa-based planes and the shelling by warships in the Whangpoo, the Chinese held their lines for three desperate months in the most visible and publicized and important battle the world had seen since the smashing of the Hindenburg Line in 1918.
The flames and gun smoke that enveloped Shanghai drew world attention if not help. Commanded by Chang Fa-kwei, leader of the famed Ironsides Army of 1927, the Chinese demonstrated a will to fight both to their countrymen and to the world. At a terrible cost in casualties, greater than any since Verdun and the Somme, they were kept in position against the urgent advice of Pai Ch’ung-hsi and others long after their position was hopeless. Chiang Kai-shek had no other military plan at Shanghai than that of the death stand. For prolonging the defense he was to be bitterly condemned and never forgiven by many Chinese. Tenacity was his governing characteristic, and he may have believed that the agony of the defenders must finally move the foreign powers.
The defense of Shanghai made the world China-conscious. One of the most memorable war pictures ever published humanized the war for Americans in the figure of a crying baby sitting alone in the wreckage of a blasted railroad station in the wake of an explosion. Journalists, flocking to the drama and richly nourished twice daily at Chinese government press conferences, reported tales of heroism, blood, and suffering. China was seen as fighting democracy’s battle and personified by the steadfast Generalissimo and his marvelously attractive, American-educated, unafraid wife. In their image Americans saw China strong in will and united in purpose. Once firmly fixed, this impression was unaffected by the military blunder of the withdrawal from Shanghai, or by the fiasco of the air force, which, after trying vainly for weeks to hit the Japanese battleships in the Whangpoo, loosed bombs by mistake that killed two thousand of their own neonle and hit the U.S.S. Hoover .