Smashed railroad bridge near the city of Kweilin, China.
Type 97 tank crew man of the 3rd Tank Division relaxing after successful operations in China during operation Ichi-Go (June 1944)
As victory in Europe appeared increasingly inevitable in the early months of 1945, the Allies began to focus greater military resources on the war against Japan. Throughout the spring of 1945 Allied forces drove the Japanese from Burma and dislodged Japanese forces from key islands in the central and southwest Pacific. With its sea power shattered and its air power outmatched, Japan’s only remaining resource was its relatively intact ground force. Although the land campaigns in Burma and the Philippines had been disastrous for the engaged Japanese forces, those and other outlying garrisons represented only a small percent of its ground troops. The bulk of Japan’s army of over two million men was on the mainland of Asia, primarily in China.
Suffering from the travails of a civil war that had begun in 1911, and from pervasive economic problems, China had lost much of its enthusiasm for the struggle against the Japanese. Since 1937, when the Sino-Japanese conflict became an open war, China’s best troops had been repeatedly defeated and its richest coastal and riverine cities captured by the Japanese. From the beginning of World War II, Allied planners believed it would be essential to assist China in its war against Japan, but had not regarded it as a decisive theater. Unable to deploy ground forces for operations there, the United States provided air and logistical support, technical assistance, and military advice to the Chinese army for its continuing struggle against the Japanese.
Although the ultimate goal of the Allies was the complete expulsion of the Japanese from Chinese soil, that proved a difficult task for both political and economic reasons. Chinese military forces belonged to two hostile camps, the Nationalist army of the pro-Western Kuomintang government commanded by Generalissimo Chiang Kaishek, and the Communist “Red” Army of Mao Tse-tung. A latent civil war between the Nationalists and Communists had sharply limited efforts to protect Chinese territory from foreign aggression. Although the two factions had agreed to fight the Japanese instead of each other, the ensuing alliance was at best an uneasy truce. Attempts to coordinate their efforts against the Japanese were markedly unsuccessful. By 1945 Chiang’s army was centered at the emergency capital of Chungking, 900 miles to the west of coastal Shanghai, and Mao’s forces were based 500 miles north of Chungking in equally remote Yenan. The Allies provided material assistance to the Nationalist army, but dissension among the Nationalist factions made it impossible for Chiang Kai-shek to consolidate his military forces in an effort to combat both the Communists and the Japanese. In fact, both the Communists and the Nationalists held the major part of their armies in reserve, ready to resume their civil war once Japan’s fate had been decided elsewhere.
Severe economic problems made it difficult for Chiang Kai-shek to sustain his army in the field. China had no industrial base to support the prolonged war, and the Japanese occupation and blockade had made it increasingly hard for the Allies to ship supplies into the country. For logistical support, the Nationalist army depended on the limited Allied tonnage flown over the 14,000-foot Himalayas mountain chain, the so-called Hump, from India into southern China. Previously, those supplies had been delivered by road, but the fall of Burma to the Japanese in 1942 closed that route. No large-scale offensive could be mounted as long as the supply situation remained critical. Early Allied plans for the China theater thus concentrated on supporting Nationalist forces with advice, training assistance, and critical supplies and on establishing air bases from which to conduct strategic bombing attacks against Japan. Eventually, Allied leaders hoped to seize the ports of Hong Kong and Canton, some 700 miles southeast of Chungking, allowing them to establish a maritime supply line to China.
U.S. leaders initially expected little from the Chinese Army. Theoretically, Chiang’s army was the largest in the world. In reality, it consisted mostly of ill-equipped, inadequately trained, poorly organized, and ineptly led units. Many soldiers suffered from malnutrition and clothing shortages. Although an administrative system that was primitive at best prevented western observers from making any useful estimates of the precise size and capabilities of the somewhat amorphous mass of troops, clearly it had been unable to halt an enemy advance or fight a modern war since the very beginning of the struggle. Mao’s forces, if better motivated, were even less well equipped and, by 1945, were focusing most of their efforts at establishing guerrilla and clandestine political organizations behind the Japanese lines, rather than opposing them directly.
Command problems also plagued the Nationalist forces. All operational plans and decisions originated from Chiang Kai-shek’s headquarters in Chungking. But the Generalissimo had little contact with his troops and was often completely out of touch with battle situations. Nevertheless, he generally refused to allow his field commanders to adjust their forces in response to local combat conditions without his personal approval. Unable to coordinate large-scale operations, the Chinese generals normally committed their units in a piecemeal fashion, accomplishing little against the Japanese. Mao’s forces were not much better as their decentralized organization limited their ability to conduct conventional warfare. China’s only indigenous protection lay in the size of the country and the lack of a well-developed transportation network, which imposed severe handicaps on the invaders.
Japanese military forces occupied the eastern third of the country and controlled all of the seaports and main railroads and highways. General Yasuji Okamura commanded the undefeated, veteran China Expeditionary Army, consisting of 1 armored division, 25 infantry divisions, and 22 independent brigades—11 of infantry, 1 of cavalry, and 10 of mixed troops. General Okamura divided those forces into three separate groups: The North China Area Army occupied the north China plain from the Yellow River to the Great Wall and kept watch, along with the large Japanese army in Manchuria (Kwangtung Army), on the Soviet forces in the Far East. To the south, the 13th Army held the lower Yangtze River valley and the coast north and south of the port city of Shanghai. The 6th Area Army was immediately west of the 13th Army and extended south to Canton and Hong Kong on the coast. The 6th Area Army, which contained the elite of the Japanese units, operated against the Chinese and Americans in central China. Despite the large number of units, the size of the country and the absence of a more developed transportation net immobilized much of the Japanese army and limited the extent of its operations. With most of its troops committed to pacification or occupation, and without strong air support or an adequate logistics system, the Japanese operated only with difficulty outside of their lodgment areas.
On 18 October 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recalled the U.S. commander of the China-Burma-India theater and chief of staff to Chiang Kai-shek, Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell, to the United States. Stilwell, in command since March 1942, had long been at odds with the Generalissimo. The American general’s low opinion of Chiang and his troops was well known, keeping the relationship between adviser and advisee perpetually strained. Not surprisingly, when President Roosevelt had suggested that Stilwell be given command of the Chinese forces in August 1944, the Generalissimo adamantly rejected the proposal. Stilwell’s recall decided the resulting political and military deadlock in favor of Chiang, but the Generalissimo’s troubles were far from over.