Slaughter at Chinju

While Hideyoshi wined and dined the Ming envoys at Nagoya, his commanders in Korea were preparing once again for battle. Their target: Chinju. This strongly fortified southern city, sixty kilometers to the west of Pusan, had remained a sore spot with the Japanese ever since they had failed to take it in November of the previous year. In that battle a disciplined force of only 3,800 Koreans held out for five days against a 15,000-man army from Mori Terumoto’s seventh contingent from Honshu, inflicting such heavy casualties—some accounts put the figure as high as fifty percent—that the Japanese were forced to withdraw. This loss never ceased to rankle the Japanese. It also left an enemy stronghold in uncomfortably close proximity to their defensive perimeter on Korea’s southern tip. There were a number of hawks within the Japanese camp, meanwhile, notably Kato Kiyomasa and Kobayakawa Takakage, who felt angry and humiliated at the unexpected setbacks suffered in the war, and who now urged Hideyoshi to allow them the opportunity to inflict one final attack against the incompliant Koreans, a parting blow to remind them and in turn the Chinese that the might of Japan remained undiminished and would have to be appeased.

It was for these three reasons that Hideyoshi, although ostensibly immersed in negotiations with the two Ming envoys, sent the order to Kato in Korea: attack Chinju. Wipe it off the map.

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News of the planned assault on Chinju soon reached the ears of Ming negotiator Shen Weijing at Pusan, passed to him by Konishi Yukinaga, who claimed that he had tried without success to dissuade Kato from launching such an attack. Shen in turn warned Commander in Chief Kim Myong-won, explaining that the Japanese were out to avenge themselves upon the Koreans for defeating them at Chinju the previous year, for destroying so many of their ships, and for repeatedly ambushing Japanese soldiers who were out working in the fields. Shen assured Kim that the coming attack would be a single act of face-saving aggression, and not part of any renewed offensive to grab more territory. The Koreans should therefore keep clear of Chinju for a time and let the Japanese have their revenge, for then they would be satisfied and would surely return home.

Some among the Koreans were willing to accept Shen Weijing’s advice. Guerrilla leader Kwak Jae-u, the famous “Red Coat General,” said that while he was prepared to sacrifice his own life, he was not willing to throw away the lives of his men in what was clearly a lost cause. Others, however, were determined to hold the city at any cost. Government-official-turned-guerrilla-leader Kim Chon-il was one of the first to enter Chinju at the head of three hundred volunteers (“an unruly mob gathered from the streets of Seoul,” observed Yu Song-nyong), and immediately tried to assume overall command, much to the aggravation of the city’s magistrate, So Ye-won. Others followed: Hwang Jin, army commander of Chungchong Province, with seven hundred men; Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe with five hundred; Vice-Commander Chang Yun with three hundred; guerilla leader Ko Chong-hu, who had seen his father Ko Kyong-myong slain in the Battle of Kumsan, with four hundred. Yi Chong-in, the magistrate of Kimhae, also arrived and assumed a leadership role.

In Seoul, Li Rusong received the news of the planned Japanese attack with understandable consternation and dispatched orders to his generals in the south to take steps to halt the move. From his camp near Taegu, “Big Sword” Liu Ting sent a message to Kato Kiyomasa at Ulsan reminding him that any aggression against Chinju would be an abrogation of the armistice that existed between their two armies, and would lead to further hostilities. Kato made no reply. Liu also sent an aide to Chinju itself to inspect the city’s defenses and offer assurance of Chinese support in the event of an attack.

By the middle of July between 3,000 and 4,000 Korean defenders had gathered within the walls of Chinju, a force roughly equal to the one that had held off 15,000 Japanese attackers in November of the previous year. They were by no means all crack troops, however, and would be facing an army of possibly 93,000, the bulk of Hideyoshi’s remaining invasion force plus reinforcements recently sent from Japan. There was no way the Koreans could stand against such overwhelming numbers, the largest single enemy force so far assembled in the war. “Red Coat General” Kwak Jae-u saw this clearly, and urged his friend Hwang Jin not to throw his life away trying to defend the place. Hwang agreed that Chinju was probably doomed. He had already given his word to Kim Chon-il and others, however, that he would stay and fight. So stay and fight he must. As Kwak Jae-u rode sadly away, knowing he would never see Hwang again, the defenders of Chinju raced to stockpile food and arms in preparation for the coming fight. Then the gates of the city were closed and barred.

In the second week of July a tidal wave of Japanese troops began filing out of the chain of forts encircling Pusan and moving west toward Chinju, looting and burning as they went. Kato Kiyomasa led the operation. This was a bit of appeasement thrown his way by Hideyoshi, in exchange for the two Korean princes he would soon be required to release. Kato was keeping these two royal teens, Sunhwa and Imhae, in comfortable confinement at his fort at Ulsan, and was not eager to give them up. He would have to, however, if negotiations with China were to bear any fruit. As a sop to his honor he was given Chinju instead.

By this time several tens of thousands of terrified civilians had joined the defenders holed up inside Chinju: women and children, the infirm, the aged, driven to take refuge by the violence of the Japanese advance. As this tremulous multitude peered out over the walls on the nineteenth of July, enemy units began arriving and took positions on three sides of the city: Ukita Hideie’s forces on the east, Konishi Yukinaga’s on the west, Kato Kiyomasa’s on the north. A fourth unit, Kikkawa Hiroie’s, could be seen on the other side of the Nam River, cutting off retreat to the south. Still others established an outer perimeter to guard against counterattack, until Chinju was surrounded “in a hundred layers” and looked like “a small, lonely boat in the middle of a sea.”

The assault began the following day, ashigaru foot soldiers peppering the ramparts with musket fire, keeping the Koreans down while their comrades filled in portions of the moat that had previously been dug outside the north wall. With this obstacle overcome, a unit of men advanced to the wall itself and began prying stones out from the base. The effort came to an abrupt halt when a cascade of stones fell down on them, killing some and driving the rest back.

The fighting continued day and night through July 21 and 22, the Japanese taking turns assaulting the walls and then falling back to rest, keeping up an unrelenting pressure on the Korean defenses. Then, on the twenty-third, they began erecting a mound of earth with a blockhouse on top adjacent to Chinju’s west gate, planning to use the elevation to fire their muskets over the wall and into the city. Inside the fortress the Koreans responded by rushing to build an elevated blockhouse of their own. The work was completed in a single night, many of the women within the city working alongside Chungchong Army Commander Hwang Jin in hauling basketfuls of soil and packing it in place. By morning the Japanese and the Koreans faced each other from atop similar elevated platforms, one outside the wall, the other within. In the exchange of fire that ensued, the Koreans managed to destroy the Japanese blockhouse with their cannons and, at least for the moment, put an end to the threat.

On the twenty-fourth the Japanese went to work again on the base of Chinju’s fortifications. The men assigned to the task, this time holding stout wood and leather shields over their heads, advanced to the base of the wall and began prying out the lower course of stones. The Koreans responded with a barrage of arrow and musket fire, but could not penetrate the thick roofs under which the Japanese were sheltered. It was only by dropping heavy stones down on the Japanese that they were finally able to kill some and drive the rest away.

At about this time it started to rain in torrents. It began for the Koreans as a welcome relief, for they were able to snatch a little rest when the Japanese, unwilling or unable to use their muskets in the wet, were forced to call off their assault. (By the late sixteenth century the Japanese had invented a cover for their arquebuses that allowed them to fire them in the rain, but it was an imperfect solution for keeping a wick lit and powder dry.) The downpour, however, soon turned into a curse, for the dampness went to work on the glue holding the Koreans’ composite bows together, rendering some of them useless, and also began washing away the soil at the damaged portions of the walls, weakening them even further.

During the respite the Japanese sent a message into the beleaguered city demanding its surrender. “The Chinese have already given up,” it read. “Why do you dare continue to resist?” Commander Kim Chon-il sent a reply flying back over the walls: “Three hundred thousand Chinese soldiers have been sent to help us. When they arrive you will all be destroyed.” The Japanese scoffed at this bravado, hoisting their trouser legs above the knee and miming effeminate Chinese officials running away.

Inside the city everyone was exhausted and spirits were low. In an effort to boost morale, Kim Chon-il climbed to a high lookout and, peering over the wall, announced that he thought he could see fighting going on in the distance, a sign that the reinforcements Ming general “Big Sword” Liu Ting had promised would soon be arriving to save them. This lifted everyone’s spirits for a time. But it was a lie. The Chinese were not coming, and Kim Chon-il knew it. Turning to his colleague Choi Kyong-hoe he said, “After I beat this enemy I will chew the flesh of Helan Jinming.” Kim, feeling abandoned and betrayed, was likening “Big Sword” Liu to a reviled commander from China’s Tang dynasty (618–907) who, in a well-known episode that forever blackened his name, refused to come to the aid of a beleaguered comrade and thereby ensured his defeat.

From his camp outside the city, Kato Kiyomasa was making preparations for a renewed attempt to undermine the walls. This time he had his men fashion four kame-no-kosha, or “turtle wagons,” heavily built carts with stout wooden roofs. These crude vehicles were wheeled up to the base of the walls, and parties of men went to work with crowbars on the lower courses of stones, prying them out one by one. The Koreans could see what was happening below but were unable to stop it, their arrows and musket balls and stones bouncing harmlessly off the roofs of the wagons. Someone finally had the idea of dropping oil-soaked cotton down onto the contraptions and setting them alight. Kato, calmly perceiving the weakness, promptly ordered more carts built, this time with fire-retardant ox hides nailed to the roof.

While this was going on, Japanese forces were applying pressure at many other places around the city. Five more elevated firing platforms were erected in front of the east and west gates, and a bamboo palisade was constructed along one side, allowing Kato’s musketeers to take up positions close to the walls. Inside the city, Hwang Jin, Kim Chon-il, and Kimhae magistrate Yi Chong-in fought desperately to repel these various advances, but their men were growing exhausting. During a lull in the fighting Hwang Jin leaned over the wall to assess the situation. “The trench out there is full of enemy dead,” he observed. “There must be more than a thousand….” At that moment a Japanese soldier hiding at the base of the wall aimed his musket straight up at Hwang’s exposed head and fired, sending a ball through the Chungchong Army commander’s helmet and into his skull. He fell down dead on the spot. Kim Chon-il replaced the fallen commander with Chinju magistrate So Ye-won, but So quickly proved unsuited for the task. The strain of six days of fighting had left the militarily inexperienced civil official unhinged, crying and riding around aimlessly on his horse, his scholar’s hat tossed carelessly to one side. Kyongsang Army Commander Choi Kyong-hoe, seeing that So’s erratic behavior was adversely effecting morale, intended initially to kill him as an example to the men, but in the press of events merely pushed him aside and replaced him with Vice-Commander Chang Yun. Within hours Chang himself was dead, killed by a musket ball just like Hwang Jin.

On July 27 the repeated forays by the Japanese to pry stones away from Chinju’s fortifications finally succeeded in collapsing a portion of the east wall. Kato Kiyomasa’s men were the first to enter the city. For the Koreans sheltering inside the end had come. They cried out to Kim Chon-il: “Commander! The enemy has breached the walls! What should we do?” There was nothing that Kim could tell them. He did not have enough men to resist the Japanese troops now pouring into the city; everyone was exhausted after a week of battle, every arrow had been fired, every stone had been thrown. And now there was no way at all to escape. Those who chose to die fighting did so with swords and spears and bamboo staves, no match for the muskets and katana of the Japanese. The rest abandoned their positions and raced from one wall to the other, searching in vain for a way to get out. As the Japanese proceeded to tear the city to pieces, Kim Chon-il and his eldest son Kim Sang-gon, accompanied by army commander Choi Kyong-hoe, guerrilla leader Ko Chong-hu, and a few others, retreated to the Choksongnu pavilion on the south wall of the city overlooking the Nam River. After bowing to the north, toward the capital and their king, the men embraced and, with tears streaming down their faces, bid one another farewell. Then they joined hands and threw themselves into the water below.

Yi Chong-in continued to resist until the bitter end, fighting off the attacking Japanese in a rearguard action that took him onto the rocks at the edge of the Nam River. Here he is reported to have seized two Japanese in his arms and shouted, “Kimhae Magistrate Yi Chong-in is dying here!” He then cast himself into the water, carrying the two soldiers down with him.

Chinju magistrate So Ye-won met a less glorious end. Okamoto Gonojo, a samurai in the service of Kikkawa Hiroie, came upon him sitting on a tree stump, injured and exhausted, and cut off his head. It rolled down an embankment and was lost in the grass. Not wanting to lose the prize, Okamoto sent two men down to retrieve it, and later had it pickled in salt and sent to Japan for presentation to Hideyoshi.

At least sixty thousand Koreans lost their lives in the Second Battle of Chinju. Most were killed in the massacre that followed the taking of the city, an orgy of destruction that has been called the worst atrocity of the war. The Japanese under Kato, Ukita, and Konishi had no mercy. They did not leave a cow or dog or chicken alive. In a frenzy of revenge against a nation that refused to be conquered, they pulled down the walls and burned all the buildings. They filled the wells with stones. They cut down every tree. When the destruction was finished Chinju ceased to exist. Since the beginning of the war, the Korean annals would later report, no other place had been so thoroughly destroyed, nor had loyalty and righteousness been so magnificently displayed.

A large number of civilians committed suicide in the wake of the fall of Chinju, many by drowning themselves in the Nam River. The most famous instance involved a local female entertainer, or kisaeng, named Non-gae, then no more than twenty years old. Shortly after the fall of the city, Non-gae went out onto the rocks at the base of the Choksongnu pavilion, where a group of senior Japanese commanders were having a banquet to celebrate their success. When the Japanese saw her beckoning to them seductively, “they gulped down their spit” but no one dared to approach. Finally one of them, reportedly a samurai named Keyamura Rokunosuke from Kato Kiyomasa’s contingent, drunkenly climbed down from the pavilion and out onto the rocks, Non-gae luring him on with an amorous smile. When he reached her she took him in a passionate embrace, then suddenly jumped into the river below, dragging them both to their deaths. This act of defiance and self-sacrifice would become widely celebrated in the decades that followed. In the eighteenth century the Chinese characters ui-am, meaning “righteous rock,” were carved on the face of the rock from which Non-gae was thought to have leapt. A shrine and commemorative stone would be later erected nearby. Today Non-gae is the symbol of the city of Chinju, and her story known to virtually every Korean.

Samuel Hawley taught English in East Asia for many years. His books include Speed Duel, about the land speed rivalry in the 1960s between Craig Breedlove and Art Arfons; I Just Ran: Percy Williams, World’s Fastest Human, about one of Canada’s greatest yet least known sports heroes; the companion volumes America’s Man in Korea and Inside the Hermit Kingdom on George Foulk, America’s representative in Korea in the mid 1880s; and the novels Homeowner With a Gun and Bad Elephant Far Stream. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

This is a great book on a war that few in the West know about. [Equally great, in my view, is Stephen Turnbull’s “Samurai Invasion: Japan’s Korean War 1592 -1598.” Compared to Turnball, Hawley delves a little deeper into the Korean perspective, while Turnball has a wealth of detail on the Japanese. But this is not a criticism of either; I read them both, Turnball first, then Hawley, and in so doing it reinforced many of the key points of the war.]

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