The effective strike had been ordered by Kwantung Army commanders without permission from Imperial Japanese Army headquarters in Tokyo, which grounded any further air raids. Henceforward, the battlefield situation went from bad to worse for the Japanese, who were decimated by waves of heavy armor attacks against which they had little defense, and forced to accept an armistice on August 31.
The very next day, Germany’s invasion of Poland precipitated World War II, an event that promised greater significance than the Nomohan Incident. Soviet forces halted at the Manchurian border, as Stalin concluded a neutrality agreement with Japan, then turned his attention to Europe. Fearing an inevitable resumption of hostilities in the uncertain future, the Japanese began seriously outfitting more Manchukuoan squadrons.
In July 1940, Japan’s Air Defense Headquarters worked in conjunction with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing. At first, only Japanese pilots and ground crews served in Air Defense, but Manchus underwent specialized flight training soon after. A flight school was established on August 30, 1940, in Fengtien to teach both military and civilian pilots. The following January, some 100 cadets, unused to strict discipline and incited by Communist agent provocateurs, murdered their instructors, then fled Manchukuo.
By 1941, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun’s 1st Air Unit at Xinjing had 5 Japanese and 6 Manchurian officers, 14 NCOs of similarly mixed backgrounds, and about 90 pilots. They were joined by a 2nd Air Unit at Fengtien, a 3rd Air Unit Ordnance Depot of 15 Japanese and 30 Chinese officers from the National Government of China Air Force at Harbin, the Aircraft Arsenal Air Unit (supply), and the Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School, which increased the following year to three squadrons. In September and October 1942, the school was issued more than 20 training aircraft. These included the Tachikawa Ki-9, a two-place biplane rigged for blind-flying with a folding hood over the rear cockpit for the student. Powered by a 350-hp Hitachi Ha-13a radial engine, the Spruce, as it was known to the Americans, topped 149 mph, making the Ki-9 a respectable intermediate trainer. Staff officer transport versions featured a glazed canopy.
Another Tachikawa was fitted was a 510-hp Hitachi Ha-13, a nine-cylinder, radial engine, that gave the advanced biplane an outstanding maximum speed of 216 mph. Air Ministry officials were so impressed with its performance, the Ki-55 was occasionally fitted with a single, fixed forward-firing 7.7mm machine-gun to serve as a fighter the Allies called Ida.
The Tongliao Independent Air Unit Flying School was also sent several examples of the Mansyu Ki-79 for advanced training. More immediately significant, the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun received its first modern warplanes. These were the Nakajima Ki-27 and Kawasaki Ki-32, known in the West, respectively, as Nate and Mary. The former, as some indication of Japanese regard for the Manchukuo Air Force, was Japan’s premiere fighter at the time, and had been selected for production primarily for its outstanding handling characteristics, by virtue of which it rapidly assumed ascendancy over all other pursuit aircraft in Chinese skies.
K-27s were superior to their Red Air Force opponents at 1938s Battle of Khasan but roughly handled one year later during the Nomohan Incident by Polikarpov 1-16 Ratas able to outrun them by 12 mph. A weaker airframe additionally prevented the Nakajima from holding up under stress during high-speed maneuvers, allowing the faster, sturdier, if more unwieldy Soviet monoplane to escape in a dive the Japanese warplane could not follow. Moreover, the Ki-27 lacked pilot armor protection or self-sealing fuel tanks, and the 7.7-mm rounds spat by its twin Type 89 machine-guns were weak. Fortunately for the Japanese, Nate was replaced as their leading fighter by Mitsubishi’s more famous and altogether superior A6M Zero in time for the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Dai Manchu Teikoku Kugun received fewer numbers of Kawasaki’s Ki-32. Vulnerable to flak and a sitting duck for enemy interceptors, the sluggish, low-wing monoplane with its non-retractable, drag-inducing landing gear, would have been butchered in any confrontation with the Red Air Force. Instead, an 850-hp Kawasaki Ha-9-llb liquid-cooled, V-12 engine enabled the tough, reliable light-bomber to deliver its 990pound payload over a 1,220-mile range, rendering Mary ideally suited for the antipartisan role to which she was assigned. In the hands of Manchurian pilots, her interdiction of distant enemy truck convoys and supply concentrations often came as an unpleasant surprise for both Communist and Nationalist opponents.
When Manchukuo came within range of USAAF heavy bombers, the Japanese 2nd Air Army assumed direction of the Dai Manshu Teikoku, augmenting it with the 104th Sentai (“Group”), plus the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai (“Squadron”). These units were equipped with the Kawasaki Ki-45, known appropriately as the Toryu, or “Dragon Slayer;” for the many American Superfortresses it claimed since four night-fighter sentais were established to defend the home islands in autumn 1944. One sentai alone scored 8 “kills” during their first engagement with B-29s, going on to destroy another 150.
Reorganization comprised the new Fangfu Air Corps of Manchu pilots manning 120 fighters, mostly Nakajima Ki-27s. With their service ceiling of 32,940 feet, they could not even approach incoming waves of B-29s operating 660 feet higher. More powerful 710-hp Ha-lb, nine cylinder, radial engines were installed to carry the Nates just above the Superfortresses’ operational altitude and boosted maximum speed to nearly 300 mph, but that was still 65 mph slower than the strategic bombers. Even if the old fighters were able to maneuver into firing position, their twin, 7.7-mm machine-guns were outmatched by-per B-29-10,12.7-mm Browning machine-guns firing from remotely controlled turrets.
Yet, odds against the defenders were not as hopeless as they appeared. The Superforts were unable to open their bomb bay doors above cruising speed at 220 mph, giving the Nates a temporary nearly 80-mph speed advantage. But the huge silvery enemy’s real Achilles’ heel was his oxidized aluminum skin, which was prone to fire in the worst way, consuming the entire aircraft, fore and aft. Japanese and Manchu pilots found that hits of even their puny, 7.7-mm rounds just about anywhere along the frame of a B-29 could sometimes set it entirely alight. But getting close enough to do so was made extremely hazardous by combined defensive fire thrown up by the Superfortresses, and many would-be interceptors paid with their lives before they could get within range of their own guns.
B-29s first struck Manchuria three years to the day of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Their anniversary raid was not coincidental but deliberately timed to encourage the more than 1,600 American prisoners of war incarcerated near Mukden. The mission’s tactical objective was destruction of the city’s aircraft factories.
Of the original 108 Superforts that set out with the XX Bomber Command, no less than 17 were forced to drop out, due to unforeseen problems caused by extremely low temperatures. Inside and outside surfaces of canopies iced over, and the big warplanes struggled, not always successfully, to gain altitude in the thin air. These worsening conditions forced another 10 B-29s to haphazardly jettison their payloads over a railroad yard long before reaching Mukden, utterly missing this secondary target, before banking away for home base. When the remaining 80 Superfortresses arrived over the city, flight crews found it entirely obscured by a heavy smokescreen. Undeterred, they unloosed their combined 800 tons of bombs, which fell mostly within residential districts, killing about 1,000 civilians, injuring several thousand more. The primary targeted aircraft factories escaped unscathed.
USAAF commanders had anticipated no enemy interdiction, regarding the Manchukuoan Air Force as nothing more than a propaganda joke, while all Japanese fighters were believed to have been recalled to defend the home islands. But the Americans were to be deceived as much about opposition over Manchuria, as they had been concerning its climate conditions.
As they approached Mukden, Sergeant Shinobu Ikeda of the 25th Dokuritsu Chutai attacked one of the monstrous bombers from behind with his Kawasaki interceptor. Before he could draw a bead on the B-29, a stream of .50-inch caliber rounds found and shattered his canopy and set his right engine alight. Wounded in a damaged airplane on fire and spinning toward the ground, Ikeda eventually regained control of the Dragon Slayer, climbed back on one engine after the same target, and deliberately collided with its tail section. The Superfortress nosed over into a steep dive from which only one gunner parachuted to safety. Like the other 10 men aboard the big bomber, Ikeda perished in the collision.
Another Japanese pilot died when the B-29 he rammed with his Nakajima was consumed in a terrific explosion that fortuitously ejected a pair of surviving crew members uninjured into space. Two more Superforts fell under conventional attacks, one each shot down by Japanese and Manchurian pilots. Three B-29s, trailing debris and smoke, escaped the combat zone, but were so badly damaged they had to be written off. For the Superfortresses’ first raid against Manchukuo, they missed all their targets, losing 7 aircraft and 44 crew members for 1 Japanese and 2 Manchurians killed in action.
Fourteen days later, 40 of the survivors returned to inaccurately and ineffectually raid Mukden, veiled once more under its obscuring smokescreen. Eighty-eight tons of high explosive intended for the earlier targeted aircraft factory yet again fell wide of the mark. This time, a Manchurian Air Force pilot, 1st Lieutenant Sono-o Kasuga, crashed his Nakajima fighter into one of the Superfortresses, which exploded for the loss of its entire crew. Another B-29 was similarly destroyed by 2nd Lieutenant Tahei Matsumoto, a Japanese pilot serving with the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun.
To oppose both December raids on Mukden, the Japanese and Manchurians lost 7 pilots and planes against 12 American bombers destroyed with 121 men killed and captured. Instead of taking heart at the appearance of USAAF warplanes high overhead, Allied POWS had watched in horror, as one Superfortress after another tumbled out of the sky in flames. Pilots of the Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, together with their Japanese comrades in the 104th Sentai and the 25th and 81st Dokuritsu Chutai, achieved a real defensive victory, when, following the December 21 raid, XX Bomber Command terminated all further operations against Mukden as too costly for the negligible results achieved.
Thereafter, the war shifted away from Manchuria and virtual peacetime conditions prevailed there throughout most of 1945. By late summer, however, a buildup of Soviet forces along the Mongolian border made invasion from that quarter evident, and Manchukuo Air Force personnel underwent intensive training for ground-attacking armored vehicles. Between the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force and Dai Manshu Teikoku Kugun, they were able to muster 1,800 aircraft, mostly trainers and obsolete types fit only for self-destruct missions.
Just 50 Nakajima fighters were on hand, without, however, enough fuel to operate them all against the 5,368 Red Air Force warplanes they faced. Manchukuo’s Defense Force comprised 40,000 troops in 8 divisions, insufficiently supplied and poorly equipped. Supporting them were more than 600,000 men in the Imperial Japanese Kwantung Army, but they, too, were threadbare. Their armor consisted of 1,215 light tanks and armored cars, together with 6,700 mostly light field pieces, opposed by 5,556 Red Army heavy tanks and 28,000 artillery.
On the morning of August 9, one-and-a-half-million Russian and Mongolian troops inundated the Manchurian border. Impossibly outnumbered, both the Manchukuo Defense Force and Kwantung Army melted away. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, a revisionist historian at the University of California (Santa Barbara), has shown that this Red Army offensive, not the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, prompted Japan’s capitulation.’ Japanese leaders knew that the Red Army juggernaut would not stop with the easy conquest of Manchukuo, but roll on into Japan itself.
Indeed, Stalin was ready to implement the invasion of Hokkaido long before U.S. commanders intended to put their forces ashore at Kyushu. Despite Emperor Hirohito’s broadcast surrender on August 15, the Soviets refused to halt their offensive, sweeping across northeastern China into Korea, coming to a halt at the 38th Parallel, where they met their American allies. It was also the place where the next war would erupt just five years later, in Korea.
Meanwhile, occupied Manchukuo was handed over to Mao Zedong, who, after a bloody purge of the country’s intellectual and propertyowning classes, used Manchuria as a headquarters for his ultimately victorious revolution.