Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 42: Our Chinese Ally (1944)


The War Began on Manchuria

The second World War began with Japan’s aggression in China. Many people think of the war between China and Japan as starting after the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937. The fact is that the war really began in 1931 when an explosion on the South Manchurian Railway near Mukden touched off a well-planned invasion of Manchuria.

Japan struck in 1931 because China was becoming united. China’s new armies, however, were neither well enough trained nor well enough equipped to resist Japan. China therefore appealed to the League of Nations, hoping that this would force other countries to share in the crisis.

Instead of taking prompt action to halt Japanese aggression in Manchuria the League sent out the Lytton Commission to investigate what had happened. The commission reported that Japan was guilty of deliberate aggression, but even then, the League took no action which would effectively restrain her. In the meantime Japan had firmly established in Manchuria a puppet state which it called “Manchukuo.”

The “Manchurian Incident” proved that in a real crisis the League of Nations was useless. The consequences have been recited again and again. Hitler rose to power in Germany and was immediately offered bank accounts all over the world. Italy went on an old-fashioned slave-catching expedition in Ethiopia. Fascism was established in Spain with the overt aid of Germany and Italy. The ultimate repudiation of common decency was the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich.

Many Americans were inclined to think that perhaps China’s loss of Manchuria wasn’t so very serious. There was a smug assumption that the seizure of Manchuria would “satisfy” the Japanese for a long time, because they would have to “digest” 360,000 square miles of territory with a great variety of undeveloped resources. Actually the Japanese did not pause or hesitate. The League of Nations had abandoned Manchuria to them. Following up this advantage they relentlessly continued their pressure against China.

Between 1931 and 1936 the Japanese edged their way into North China. In 1933 they annexed the province of Jehol to Manchukuo. They then demanded that the Chinese government set up a “political council” in North China, headed by men acceptable to Japan, and they encouraged local militarists to accept Japanese patronage and to detach their military forces from allegiance to the national government.

The Sian Kidnaping

Though the Japanese appeared almost to have succeeded in severing North China from the rest of China, in that part of the country not yet reached by the Japanese the will to resist was hardening. The feeling that the time was coming for a great national effort spread back again into North China, heartening people with the knowledge that they did not stand alone.

This feeling crystallized in December 1936, when Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was kidnaped at Sian. In 1937 the Chinese Communists had been dislodged from their position south of the Yangtze. Withdrawing in a spectacular retreat known as the “Long March,” they had taken up a new position in northern Shensi, where they occupied a stretch of territory that was economically very poor but strategically very important.

The Communist forces were hemmed in by troops of the national government, among them many thousands who had been withdrawn from Manchuria in 1931, under the command of the Young Marshal, Chang Hsueh-liang. Since 1931 an important part of the Communist propaganda had been the demand for a truce between the Communists and the national government and a united front against the Japanese. The Young Marshal and his troops had been impressed by their arguments, and when Chiang Kai-shek flew to Sian to see why his Manchurian troops weren’t fighting the Communists, they held him under arrest for nearly two weeks while they attempted to convince him that the time had come to resist the Japanese.

Instead of causing further civil war, the incident resulted in the forming of a united front against Japan and a tremendous rallying to the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. The Japanese began to sense a new toughness in the Chinese people and knew that they would either have to back down or shoot to kill.

The “China Incident”

Six months after the Sian kidnaping, on July 7, 1931, at the Marco Polo Bridge outside Peiping, the Japanese made a deliberate attempt at a Putsch as a last alternative to a full-scale invasion of China. They had taken great care to get everything fixed up in advance, and with respect to many of the higher-up Chinese they had good reason to believe that things would stay fixed.

An unexpected factor, however, saved North China long enough to make the fighting spread beyond the proportions of a “local incident” and become a war of national survival clearly understood by the whole Chinese people. This unexpected factor was the Chinese common soldier—the man most underestimated, and often despised, by foreign observers. Even though a number of officers in the right positions had been “fixed” by the Japanese the common soldiers refused to be sold out. In regiment after regiment, division after division, the spirit of resistance flared up among the rank and file; men refused to be marched off to places where they could not fight. Once Chinese resistance had begun it spread like wildfire, and while too lacking in organization to save North China, it delayed the Japanese timetable first by hours, then by days, and then by weeks.

Although Japan intended to restrict the war to North China, the Japanese in Shanghai felt the loss of prestige from the failure of their Putsch in the north. Their navy, largely as a gesture of bravado, tried to take Shanghai, with massed cruisers and destroyers moored alongside the city and pouring a terrible gunfire into it.

Once more Chinese resistance amazed the world. In the attempt to salvage its prestige the Japanese navy lost thousands of men and was finally forced to let the army land troops. These compelled the Chinese to withdraw by threatening to outflank and encircle them. The fighting then moved toward Nanking, the capital.

Out in the open country, the Japanese could fully exploit their superiority in planes, artillery, and motorized equipment. They pressed on so hard that it was impossible for the Chinese to make a major stand between Shanghai and Nanking or at the city itself. They had to abandon their capital. The Japanese ran amuck when they entered it. While the city burned, looting, raping, and the murder of military prisoners and civilians went on for weeks. Not only did Japanese officers fail to control their troops; many of them did not want to, and joined in the atrocities themselves.

So terrible were the horrors of Nanking that their military significance has been overlooked. When the Japanese reached Nanking, they had such an advantage that they probably could have pushed on, split up and encircled most of the best divisions of the Chinese army, and won a victory that would really have crippled China and made a short war possible. The opportunity they lost at Nanking has never been within their reach again.

Trading Space for Time

After the bloody interlude of Nanking, the Japanese columns began to batter their way ahead again. It was now too late to entrap and annihilate the Chinese armies, which were engaged in delaying actions on a vast scale. Their strategy was the same defense in depth which the Russians, with more and better equipment, later used even more effectively against the Germans. The Chinese tactics were to give way at the point of heaviest Japanese pressure, but to close in on the flanks and communications of the Japanese columns or wedges. This was the strategy and tactics which Chiang Kai-shek called “trading space for time.” Its greatest success was in the famous battle of Taierhchwang, when a Japanese mechanized spearhead, trying to thrust too daringly along the Lunghai Railway from the coastal railway system to the Peiping-Hankow line, was cut off and almost annihilated by the Chinese.

In spite of the skill with which the Chinese forced the Japanese to fight their kind of war, the Japanese had one advantage. They had a navy, and the Yangtze River is so deep and wide that ocean-going vessels and large cruisers can steam all the way up to Hankow, in the heart of the country. It was as if America, with no navy, were fighting an invader whose navy could steam all the way up the Mississippi to St. Louis.

Although the Chinese front was never shattered, its flank was repeatedly turned along the Yangtze, and toward the end of 1938 the Japanese navy enabled the land forces to reach Hankow and simultaneously to take the great city of Canton on the coast. These losses deprived the Chinese of both ends of the strategically important Canton-Hankow railway; but they have never lost control of the inland section of the line.

Magnetic Warfare and Guerilla Fighting

A new phase of the war began after the fall of Hankow and Canton at the end of 1938, and lasted until December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. With the Japanese navy in control of the coast and the Yangtze, the Chinese could receive no more supplies by ship and rail except for a very small trickle through French Indo-China which stopped entirely when the Japanese moved into that area in 1940. The Chinese were now limited to what they could get over the truck road from Burma, which they had in the meantime built for themselves, and over the 2,000 mile truck route from the Soviet Union.

During these three years the Chinese fought a new kind of delaying war. You can draw on the map an almost straight line from Peiping through Hankow to Canton, and this is all that is needed for a rough diagram of the Japanese front in China. Wherever the Japanese are to be found west of this line, they are virtually besieged, as they are in the mountainous province of Shansi, and at Ichang on the Yangtze. China east of this line contained, in 1937, almost the whole of China’s industrial production; almost the entire railway system; most of the well-developed coal mines; the richest agricultural production; and more than half the total population. West of this line the Chinese have today less than 10 per cent of China’s former industrial production; some fragments of railway; mining resources that have largely been developed since the war began; and a system of motor roads that is badly hampered by the difficulty of getting fuel, new trucks, and spare parts.

The kind of war that could be fought up to Pearl Harbor, and to a large extent since Pearl Harbor, was dictated by this division of China. West of the line from Peiping to Canton through Hankow begins the hilly country of China, in contrast to the great open plains of the lower Yellow River and Yangtze Valley to the east. It is in the open country that the Japanese get the most advantage out of their motorized equipment and artillery. With command of the air, they are able to detect any Chinese attempt to concentrate a large striking force. In the more hilly and broken country, the Chinese are able to hide their movements and concentrations from Japanese observation planes.

This is the explanation of what Chiang Kai-shek calls “magnetic warfare.” Whenever the Japanese attempt a major thrust the Chinese retreat, without losing contact, until they have drawn the Japanese column far from its starting point. By scattering their defense, the Chinese force the Japanese to weaken their main column by detaching units from it. As the Chinese are very weak in artillery, the ideal moment for them to strike is when they have drawn the Japanese into country where their artillery cannot maneuver advantageously. The Chinese then bring their trench mortars into action; with these and with machine guns and rifles and finally with hand grenades and bayonets, they close in on the Japanese, preventing reinforcement from the rear and at the same time destroying the head of the column. It was in this way that the Chinese won the battles of Changsha in 1941 and 1942 and the Ichang campaign of 1943.

While the Chinese have been able to fight the Japanese to a standstill by these methods, they fight under one terrible disadvantage. They cannot convert a victory into a large-scale counteroffensive of their own, because once they come out to the open country it is the Japanese who have the advantage in mobility, concentration, and overwhelming superiority of fire power. East of the great dividing line, therefore, the Chinese resort to guerilla warfare. The region of guerilla warfare is not really “Occupied. China” as it is often called, but “Penetrated China.” The Japanese occupy many points, and keep communications open between these points. The bulk of the country and the mass of the population are subject to vindictive Japanese raids, but are not under Japanese control and are able to organize themselves. The guerillas have greatly hampered Japanese exploitation of China’s resources, but they have not been able to win back wide territory or strategic points. Final Japanese defeat awaits the strengthening of China’s regular armies.

Some of the Chinese guerillas are irregular troops who form an extension, behind the Japanese lines, of China’s regular forces. Some guerilla regions of Penetrated China remit taxes to the national government at Chungking. Some guerillas are Communists. Others, without being Communists, are on friendly terms with the Communists and borrow experts from them to train their troops and show them how to set up social and economic organization. The important factor, however, is not whether guerillas are in touch with national government organizers or Communist organizers. What matters most is that millions of people are fighting in defense of their country by defending their own homes and their own fields, and are surviving.

After Pearl Harbor

With the news of Pearl Harbor, a great wave of hope spread over China. The Chinese were sure that, even though the Western nations had failed to see that war with Japan was inevitable, at least they were powerful enough to deal summarily with the Japanese once they were involved. Optimism turned into deepening depression as the Japanese overwhelmed Hongkong, the Philippines, Malaya, Netherlands India, and Burma. When the Burma end of the Burma Road was lost, the Chinese no longer had any source of overland supply except from Russia.

Against the increasing disadvantages to China caused by Allied disasters there was an agonizingly slow increase of aid in the air, both in combat planes and in the cargo planes flying front India as a substitute for the Burma Road. Even before Pearl Harbor the policy of the United States had been to aid China as much as we could without being drawn into war. Under this policy a small group of American fliers had been formed in China. These fliers were just completing their training at the time of Pearl Harbor, and piled up an astonishing record in the Burma campaign. They were then reformed into a unit of the United States Army Air Forces, which has since become the Fourteenth Air Force, under the command of General Chennault. This unit was equipped with bombers as well as fighter planes. At the same time Chinese pilots were brought to America for advanced training and equipped with American planes.

With the growth of the American Air Force in China, the tide began very slowly to turn in favor of China. This new turn of the tide became unmistakable in 1943 when Chinese and American planes gave a new punch and decisiveness to Chinese “magnetic warfare” in breaking up the campaign which the Japanese launched against Changteh and into the so-called “rice bowl” area of north Hunan.

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