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Japan Strikes: 1937

July 2024
48min read

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

On a lantern-lit Chinese barge poled by boatmen over the dark Pel Hai Lake in the Imperial City, a party from the American Embassy enjoyed a serene excursion under a full moon on the evening of July 7, 1937. In the group were Colonel and Mrs. Stilwell and their daughter Nance; Ambassador and Mrs. Nelson Johnson; Colonel John Marston, commander of the Marine Embassy Guard, and his wife; and Stilwell’s journalist friend John Goette.

Ambassador Johnson had brought his guitar and played his favorite song, Down That Weary Road, as the boatmen paced rhythmically up and down the deck. Light from the boat’s lanterns glimmered in the water, and lit by the moon the softly gleaming white marble dagoba on Jewelled Island rose out of the darkness like the vision of a Buddhist grail. The party felt themselves surrounded by the spirit of ancient Peking, until reality glided by in another boat carrying a group of Japanese officers.

Colonel Marston mentioned that as senior officer of the foreign detachments he had been notified by the Japanese that their troops would be leaving the city that evening for night maneuvers at the railroad bridge at Lukouchiao, twelve miles to the west on the Peking-Hankow line. The Japanese had been holding maneuvers in the area for two weeks, causing worried speculation in the local press. The railway was the only remaining access to Peiping not under Japanese control, and Lukouchiao was a key junction where a shuttle connected with the Peking-Tientsin line. Alongside the railroad bridge a stone bridge eight hundred years old with parapets adorned by marble lions spanned the river on thirty graceful arches. One of China’s most beautiful monuments, admired by the first Westerner who crossed it in the thirteenth century, it was known in his honor as the Marco Polo Bridge.

At eight o’clock on the morning after the boat ride Stilwell’s office learned there had been a skirmish at the bridge. The Japanese, claiming to have been fired on by troops of Sung Che-yuan’s 29th Army garrisoned at nearby Wanping, were now besieging Wanping with mortar and artillery fire to enforce surrender of the “guilty” officers. On Stilwell’s orders the assistant attaché, Major David D. Barrett, drove out with Goette to investigate. The scene was quiet, with only an occasional rifle shot disturbing the calm of a beautiful summer morning, but they found cause for disquiet in the body of a dead Japanese soldier guarded by a platoon. Realizing this would be made the pretext for extreme Japanese demands, they knew they stood in the presence of an Incident. It proved to be the start of the war.

The Chinese garrison commander had refused Japanese terms and for the moment was holding a parley. By the time Barrett returned to the office, Stilwell was already receiving reports of Japanese army units moving in strength through the Great Wall. Despite the show of negotations at Wanping, he and Barrett agreed that the Japanese were opening their definitive move to take over north China. The atmosphere in Peiping was tense; no one knew if there was real purpose behind the skirmish or what Chiang Kai-shek would do. Stilwell drove out to Wanpingon the third day to try to make contact with the Chinese garrison; but as he crossed the last five hundred yards, both sides opened heavy fire. The driver turned the car around without stopping, and “we got out on two wheels.”

Reports reaching Stilwell’s office indicated ten thousand Japanese troops crossing the Wall into Hopei; troop trains were passing through Shanhaikwan at half-hour intervals. To report on the situation as it developed, he organized an intelligence network of the five senior language officers who served under his command as assistant attachés and whom he stationed in various cities. Four of the group had already served with the 15th Infantry, and two, Captain Frank Roberts and Captain Frank Dorn, were in later years to serve under Stilwell again in the Far East. His son Joe, Jr., then in Tientsin with the 15th Infantry, was also enlisted as an informant, as were journalists, consuls, Standard Oil men, and whoever was in a position to extract evidence from the fog of rumor. The larger outlines of what was happening could only be estimated by putting together the hard details: the number of Japanese planes in the air over Tientsin, the frequency of rail and truck movements of Japanese men and matériel, the location of Chinese units, and—most elusive—any evidence of Chinese troop concentration or other clues to the government’s intentions.

Stilwell adopted the unorthodox practice for a military attaché of keeping a file of his radios to G-2 on the table in his office for journalists to consult. His object, he told Barrett, was to make available as much accurate information as possible “so that the world would get a true picture of Japanese aggression as it developed south of the Wall.” Identifying with China, he felt deeply the crisis that gripped her.

The silence from Nanking, Chiang Kai-shek’s capital, was not promising. He was not even there, as far as anyone knew. The Japanese had issued an ultimatum that was to expire on July 18. Chiang Kai-shek spoke at last, from Ruling, the mountain summer resort where foreigners and upper-class Chinese, carried up by sedan chair, escaped the sickening summer heat of the Yangtze Valley. Without voicing a call to action or precluding a settlement, Chiang declared that no further positions in north China could be surrendered and that a settlement with Japan must not invade sovereign rights or territorial integrity. It was a statement that China’s limit of endurance had been reached and that she was accepting the necessity of armed resistance. When Chiang’s words were broadcast in Peiping, bugles sounded and gongs clanged as excited people filled the streets.

A few days of enthusiasm was all they were to have, for the government had made no plan or preparations for the event of national resistance, and the Japanese took over control of Peiping within the week. Stilwell’s temper mounted at their charges of Chinese provocation, claims of “self-defense,” acts of brutality, and at his own country’s lack of response. When Secretary of State Cordell Hull held a press conference without taking a position, Stilwell commented, “Mr. Hull again says we are against fighting. That ought to stop it quickly.”

Sporadic fighting continued outside Peiping, although General Sung Che-yuan’s intentions were uncertain and there were rumors that he had “gone over.” On July 29 Japanese planes bombed Tientsin, concentrating on Nankai University. For four hours their squadrons, taking off in relays from an airfield three miles outside the city, “systematically and unhurriedly” rained incendiary bombs on the university buildings, which, as Japanese headquarters informed the press, had to be wiped out because they harbored “anti-Japanese elements,” namely the students, the most potent agitators of nationalist sentiment. The bombing was designed to destroy the students’ base of operations so that they could not mobilize demonstrations or print propaganda leaflets. Throughout their campaign in China, as formerly in Korea, the Japanese intentionally attacked places of education as the sources of national consciousness.

On the road to the Temple of Heaven the Japanese ambushed a Chinese unit, leaving five hundred to six hundred bodies on the ground, mostly unarmed and many literally blown to pieces, minus heads, arms, and legs. Going out with Barrett to investigate, Stilwell saw thirty truckloads of soldiers killed to the last man, with parts of bodies plastered against the sides of the trucks and drivers dead at the wheels. Villagers said the Japanese had offered to let the troops surrender without arms, and when they emerged from the village, mowed them down with machine guns and grenades. Dead horses were bloated in the hot July sun, and dead men lay in the ditches, “one with his eyes wide open and flies walking on them.” At Tungchow, seat of Japan’s Hopei-Chahar puppet government, the local constabulary, believing rumors of Chinese “victories” around Peiping, mutinied, massacred Japanese and puppet officials, and attempted to hold the garrison. The attempt was smashed when Japanese reinforcements wiped them out and laid the city in ruins.

Within four days all Chinese troops were withdrawn from the Peiping-Tientsin area, leaving the Japanese in control. The lack of a concerted policy or plan of defense and the vain sacrifice of men at Lukouchiao and Tungchow enraged Stilwell. The Chinese had missed so many good opportunities that “you can’t help getting thoroughly disgusted with them.” They could not have defeated the Japanese, he wrote, but they could have’ inflicted heavy losses if action had been co-ordinated and the order to attack ever given.

Though late, the Central Government was pulling together the forces for defense. From the south General Pai Ch’ung-hsi flew to Nanking to pledge the services of the dissident Kwangsi-Kwangtung group after eight years of opposition. To consolidate the alliance he was appointed Chiang Kai-shek’s chief of staff. Provincial war lords of Yunnan and Szechwan rallied to the government. By the end of August all military forces, including the Communists—reorganized as the 8th Route Army—were incorporated in and supposedly responsible to the central command.

A first small but heartening victory that aroused Stilwell’s interest was won at Pinghsingkwan in the mountains of north Shansi by a division of the 8th Route Army commanded by Lin Piao. Using mobile guerrilla tactics from village bases with the support of a friendly population, the division attacked the Japanese at a pass in the Great Wall and wiped out a brigade, capturing its headquarters and provisions. Though only a temporary check, it suggested that the Communists had developed methods worth investigating, and several months later Stilwell spent half a day analyzing the battle of Pinghsingkwan with Agnes Smedley, a free-lance correspondent who had spent months with the Communists in the north.

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 .


Beyond Shanghai, two hundred miles up the river, was Nanking. Drawn in more deeply than they had planned, and sensing the growing danger of becoming overextended, the Japanese determined to end the adventure at the capital. Their statements of the necessity of “subduing completely China’s will to fight” took on a frenzied tone. The Nanking government having “embarked on an anti-Japanese campaign of the most vicious kind,” Premier Hirota told the Diet, it must be “compelled to mend its ways” and to “act in unison for enduring peace in East Asia through sincere cooperation between Japan and China.” Air raids on Nanking, Canton, and twenty cities of east China followed, “in order to conclude hostilities as soon as possible,” according to the Japanese announcement. Chiang Kai-shek, still unswerving, chose to defend Nanking in a decision that was militarily indefensible, since equal time could have been bought, tremendous sacrifice spared, and a firmer stand made behind Nanking than in it. Again his purpose was to engage world attention and possibly foreign involvement because of the presence in Nanking of the embassies.

In Peiping, where streamers from Japanese balloons floated overhead announcing the capture of Chinese cities along with the legend “The Japanese Army Preserves the Peace of East Asia,” Stilwcll faced the professional necessity of getting on with north China’s new masters. To have to ask their permission to visit the front was almost too much for his temperament. “Arrangements generally seemed to go wrong when he was with them,” sighed his friend Goctte. To improve the situation Stilwell asked for a Japanese-speaking assistant and was loaned one of the language officers from Tokyo, Captain Maxwell Taylor, a Leavenworth graduate, then thirty-six, who twenty years later was to be United States Chief of Staff. Warned that he would find his new chief an unusual officer, able but irritable and hard to get along with, Taylor was surprised to find Colonel Stilwell waiting to meet him on his arrival at the railroad station. Appreciating the courtesy and confounding predictions, he discovered a man he liked. He saw Stilwell as a man of emotion and action rather than reflection, a doer who, when he saw something wrong, wanted to correct it right away. He thought Stilwell used bad judgment when in a bad temper but had the soldier’s virtues of bravery and determination.

Taylor could act as a buffer and make arrangements, if not control results. Conducted by a Japanese colonel on a tour of Kalgan after its capture, Stilwell confessed to having been thrown out of General Suzuki’s office for asking embarrassing questions. He steeled himself to the necessity of professional relations, but after a call on General Takashita, his wife Win recorded, Joe was “quite ready to retire.” Peiping under the control of the “arrogant little bastards” was hard to bear. They buzzed the American Embassy in planes at 150 feet “to show us what they think of us.” They forced students to march in parades “celebrating” the fall of Paoting so that the Japanese could take pictures of the enthusiastic support of the population. “They are more insufferable than ever and I have to deal with them and smile.” Duty required that he persist even to the point, to which he was persuaded by Taylor, of giving a lunch for five Japanese officers. Two accepted the invitation but failed to appear, one neither replied nor came, and of the remaining two Stilwell’s only comment was, “The hell with them!”…

Since the Chinese preferred their war to be observed through the medium of official communiqués, Stilwell could not get to the front with them or with the Japanese, and his repeated “blasts” to Washington to exert pressure brought no results. He had to make do with a Japanese-conducted tour of Paoting, where his hosts, according to their own statement, had killed 25,800 Chinese in the course of taking the city. Stilwell could find no damage to the walls or other evidence to indicate that the Chinese had put up a strong, or any, defense. Annoyed at being kept from the active front fifty miles away, he considered himself “practically in arrest the whole time and told them I realized it.” Not surprisingly, he was informed three days later, when another tour was arranged for the foreign attachés, that he was not to be included, “so I guess I am washed up for this war. I am spotted as a friend of the Chinese and a moral leper.” He felt let down, too, and unreasonably nagged by M. I. D. [Military Intelligence Division], “the pack of fools in Washington” with whom his relations were to grow steadily worse in the coming months. Taken altogether, he wrote to his two oldest daughters, then in America, “I have released enough bile since July 8 to float a battleship.”…


Although China’s leaders exasperated him, Stilwell understood that “their moral standards are totally different from ours, therefore their moral strength is not sapped by what to us would be gross national cowardice. … Where we would fight to the last man over an invasion of our territory, they are concerned with the continuance of the race, and to keep Chinese coming into the world they will accept temporarily any form of government they have to. Under it the main stream flows on.” Even so, Stilwell would become exasperated and allow himself tirades about China’s “oily politicians … treacherous quitters, selfish, conscienceless, unprincipled crooks.” Asked by G-2 after the fall of Paoting when the Chinese would stand and fight, he radioed in reply, “Not until they lose their inherent distaste for offensive combat.”

Yet he had confidence in the Chinese soldier as fighting material and believed that if properly led these men could equal any army in the world. Hardy and uncomplaining, accustomed to long hours, scanty food, hard work, sickness and wounds and no pleasures, yet able to “make a joke of the merest trifle and remain cheerful under the most discouraging circumstances,” the Chinese soldier with leaders in whom he had confidence “will go anywhere.” Regarding Japanese culture as artificial and imitative, Stilwell had more confidence in China, especially in the north Chinese. He discussed his theories with Captain Taylor while out on field excursions to identify Japanese troop units. Once, resting beneath a statue of a Buddha after a long day without finding any clues, they looked up to find that three Japanese soldiers had scratched their names and units on the statue’s behind. They watched endlessly for troop trains. Sitting on a hilltop one day, they saw in the distance a slowly moving, elongated object with legs like a centipede’s. It proved to be a train of freight cars being laboriously pushed from both sides by a company of Chinese soldiers. Contemplating its snail-paced progress in silence for a while, Stilwell said, “That’s the spirit that will conquer Japan in the end.”

For those who saw Western democracy threatened by the rise of fascism, intervention to halt the aggressors was the central problem of the time. The Isaiah of this view was ex-Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who spoke out against “amoral drift” and tried to persuade the President of the need for more outspoken guidance of public opinion.

President Roosevelt, though starting out as a supporter of Stirhson’s Far Eastern policy, had since then acquiesced in, without actively initiating, the American withdrawal from involvement with China. In March of 1936 at the London Naval Conference convened to discuss renewal of the Washington Treaties, the United States and Great Britain refused to accord parity to Japan, upon which Japan bolted the conference, and the treaties, already moribund, expired for good. Given Japan’s fanatic mood, Ambassador in Tokyo Joseph Clark Grew urged, and Roosevelt and Hull accepted, the necessity of building a navy “so strong that no other country will think, seriously of attacking us.” But accomplishment was far off, and appropriations for a major building program were not voted until 1938.

Privately Roosevelt told Stimson that he had been profoundly impressed by the seizure of Manchuria because of his recollection of a Japanese fellow student at Harvard in 1902 who had told him of Japan’s schedule, drawn up in 1889, for a hundred-year program of expansion in twelve steps. Beginning with a war in China and absorption of Korea, it was to proceed to war with Russia, annexation of Manchuria, then of Jehol, then a protectorate over north China from the Wall to the Yangtze, ultimately acquisition of Australia, New Zealand, and the islands of the Pacific including Hawaii, and to culmination in a protectorate over all the yellow races. In the stages already carried out, the President saw ominous implications.


In the years after Manchuria, Roosevelt became “even more incensed” by Japan’s conduct, according to Sumner Welles, his closest adviser on foreign policy, and by 1937 was “far more preoccupied” with the threat of Japan than with the threat of Germany. He kept trying to think of ways to halt Japan’s advance. After the attack at Marco Polo Bridge he asked the Navy for some large-scale maps of the Pacific, which he placed on a stand in his office, and he discussed with Welles the possibility of placing an embargo on Japanese trade, to be enforced by units of the American and British fleets. Deprived of access to raw materials, Japan would be forced to pull back and would not, he believed, be provoked to war, because she was so heavily committed in China. But in the isolationist state of public opinion the President realized that a measure involving risk of war would not be permitted by Congress.

With his penchant for private informants, Roosevelt was receiving news of China from one of the most romantic American observers ever to report from that country—Marine Captain Evans F. Carlson, the assistant naval attaché. Later famous as leader of Carlson’s Raiders, a battalion he formed using methods and the motto Gung ho (“Work together”) learned from the Chinese Communists, Carlson was a sincere man of intense convictions and courageous enterprise. He was an American Candide who was able to believe that “mutual confidence obtained between the Generalissimo and the leaders of China’s Communist Party,” because “both had the welfare of China at heart.” Interpreting everything he met in terms of the ideals he was brought up with, he saw both Chiang and the Communists “aiming for representative government.” He could not present a lily without gilding it. Mme. Chiang radiated not only the “consciousness of being an instrument of destiny” but also “the mature graciousness of an inward peace.”

The son of a Congregationalist minister, Carlson had begun his military career as an enlisted man and had served with the Marines in China under General Smedley Butler in 1927–29 and again at Shanghai and Peiping in 1933–35, when he undertook study of the language. Roosevelt met and formed a warm attachment to him beginning in 1935, when Carlson commanded the Marine guard at the President’s retreat at Warm Springs. He was included on friendly and intimate terms in the Warm Springs circle and, on leaving for China in June, 1937 was urged by the President to write to the White House. Reporting the dramatic and tragic days at Shanghai in weekly letters, Carlson wrote vividly of the Chinese soldiers, whom he observed directly at the front. Never had he known a time “when all prominent Chinese were working together in a common cause,” even the “so-called Communists.” The President was so interested that during a month-long hiatus in the correspondence in October he made inquiries of Carlson’s whereabouts. “My Chief loves your letters,” Missy LeHand wrote, and “asks rne to tell you please keep it up.”

At the end of November, 1937, Carlson took off for Yenan in Shensi to find out how real were the legends of the Communists’ guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. As evidence he sent the President captured Japanese documents, a diary, and a furlined uniform. Later, when he came inevitably to write a book, his point of view appeared in the title he gave to his chapter on Yenan, “China’s Fountainhead of Liberalism.” His views, expressed more floridly in the book than to the President, typified one kind of American approach to China. He had undertaken the journey, he told the governor of Shensi, “from the heart. … in the name of liberty.” In his own country people regarded liberty and equality as “inalienable rights,” and he had observed “this same love of liberty and equality” in China, “the same spirit which had animated our own ancestors at Lexington, Trenton and Valley Forge.” This was China filtered through the rhetoric of the American dream, not necessarily the most appropriate framework for policy in Asia.

Although he had invoked the Neutrality Act prohibiting trade with belligerents in regard to the Civil War in Spain, Roosevelt chose not to apply it in the case of Japan and China because it would have worked to the advantage of the aggressor and disadvantage of the victim. Shipment of arms under the American flag to China or Japan was banned, but not the sale. In exercising the discretion allowed him by the act, Roosevelt had begun to move ahead of prevailing isolationist sentiment. …

In a speech at Chicago on October 5 Roosevelt suggested a collective “quarantine” of the forces breeding “international anarchy,” which he likened to the carriers of a disease. The result was a historic boomerang. Declaring that the President was “pointing” the people down the road to war, six major pacifist organizations launched a joint campaign for twenty-five million signatures to “Keep America Out of War.” The A.F. of L. disapproved the speech, Representative Hamilton Fish proposed the President’s impeachment, and a poll of Congress showed two to one against joining the League of Nations in collective action in the Far East. “It’s a terrible thing,” the President said to a friend, “to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead—and find no one there.”…

In China the government, followed by the diplomatic corps, withdrew from Nanking to Hankow, four hundred miles up the river, where Stilwell came in the first week of December, 1937. With the rail routes from Peiping blocked by the battle front, the journey now took eight days, first by sea around the Shantung Peninsula, then via the Lunghai railway line to Chengchow, then southbound to Hankow. Already “quite fed up with everything and everybody,” as Win wrote to her daughters, Stil well boarded the train at Hsuchow in a swarm of refugees: “13 occupants in 8 seats, didn’t dare get up to go to the toilet. Cold … no food, no water.” After two days and two nights he drank the cold tea from a sleeping passenger’s teapot.

For the next eight months Hankow (also known, in a triad with two adjoining cities, as Wuhan) was the capital of unoccupied China. The Generalissimo had his headquarters across the river in Wuchang on the south bank. In Hankow itself the foreign missions crowded into the Western-style buildings of the concessions facing the river, where the U.S.S. Luzon , flagship of the Yangtze River patrol, lay at anchor. The city was a chaos of thousands of people rushing around “like ants on a hot rock,” in Stilwell’s phrase: officials, hangers-on, journalists, profiteers, refugees, welfare committees, and all the hectic influx of war. Devotion and energy mixed with laxity and indifference. As always, the uncaring treatment of the common soldier excited Stilwell’s wrath. “The wounded left in the north station and everywhere. Not wanted, and they realize it and expect it and pay the price of living by dying. … Why didn’t CKS organize a medical service or at least a stretcher bearer service?”

A week after Stilwell reached Hankow, on December 13, 1937, Nanking fell in circumstances dreadful even for China. During the time bought in the trenches at Shanghai no preparations for the defense or evacuation of Nanking had been made, with the result that losses in men and material when the capital fell were enormous. The arsenal was taken intact, as was the Red Cross Hospital with all its precious supplies and the wounded in their beds, as well as the rolling stock in the railroad station and vehicles and stores of all kinds. With no defense lines established to cover the withdrawal of soldiers or civilians, the human loss was as great.

Determined to make an example of the capital that would bring the war to an end, the Japanese achieved a climax to the carnage already wrought in the delta below. Fifty thousand soldiers hacked, burned, bayoneted, raped, and murdered until they had killed, by hand and in person, according to the evidence witnessed and collected by missionaries and other foreigners of the International Relief Committee, a total of forty-two thousand civilians in Nanking. Groups of men and women were lined up and machine-gunned or used alive for bayonet practice or tied up, doused with kerosene, and set afire while officers looked on. Reports by missionary doctors and others. dazed with horror and helplessness, filled church publications in America. Much of the photographic evidence that later reached newspapers abroad came from snapshots taken by the Japanese themselves, which they gave for developing to ordinary camera shops in Shanghai, whence copies made their way to the correspondents. …

Not a few Chinese, including members of the government, believed peace with Japan preferable to ruin, but the majority would not have permitted a surrender or settlement. “CKS can’t quit,” wrote Stilwell. “Called on the country, it responded. Now he must go on.” Japan too had to go on, although dangerously extended and with no definite goal in sight. After Nanking, on December 17, Chiang Kai-shek publicly reaffirmed his decision to continue resistance to the utmost by a strategy essentially Chinese. “The time must come,” he explained, “when Japan’s military strength will be exhausted thus giving China the ultimate victory.”

In reply Japan severed relations (up to now maintained), and frustrated and angry, caught in the fatal entanglement of war without limits, drove on, forced to send more and more divisions until their strength on the mainland numbered more than a million. As time went on, repeated peace overtures were made to Chiang Kai-shek, first through the German ambassador in China, later through an American, Dr. John Leighton Stuart, president of Yenching University, but on terms that would have left Japan in control of the country. …

On December 12 the event most dreaded by the American government—an incident involving American bloodshed—occurred. Coinciding with the fall of Nanking, the Japanese in an excess of arrogance bombed and sank the U.S.S. Panay a few miles above the capital, causing two deaths and forty-eight casualties. … So deliberate was the attack, that it could not seem like anything but a direct challenge.∗

∗See an account of the Panay incident in the April, 1967, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE .— Ed.


Stilwell’s recorded reaction, characteristic of him in fateful moments, was reduced to a minimum: “ Panay bombed and sunk yesterday. Great to-do.” Almost anything might follow, including war. …

Next day tension eased slightly when, as Stilwell put it, “Japs apologize. ‘Very sorry for you.’ Couldn’t see the insignia. The bastards.” He did not mention the Panay again, but it cannot be doubted that the necessary swallowing of this incident by his country added to his black mood at this period.

The Panay touched off nothing, for when there is no will to war, war does not happen, and neither Japan nor America was ready for confrontation at this time. Alarmed at the wild exploit, the government in Tokyo apologized promptly and within ten days accepted in full American demands for indemnities. … Official American reaction was restrained. In the armed services, conscious that American naval forces were inadequate to compel the Japanese to behave, the feeling prevailed that anything that might touch off a showdown should be postponed. Public reaction insofar as it was represented by Congress was not to roar but to shrink. The House immediately took up the Ludlow Resolution, requiring a national referendum before a declaration of war could become effective. Previously its sponsor had been unable to collect the necessary number of signatures to bring the measure before a committee of the whole. Two days after the sinking of the Panay he had more than enough, and the resolution was later defeated only after heavy pressure by the administration and only by twenty-one votes.

A notable result of the Panay affair, in order to remove a further possibility of friction with the Japanese, was the withdrawal from China two months later of the 15th Infantry. Long under discussion in Washington and urged by the Army because of the tight restrictions on the regiment, it was a case, according to one American newspaper, “of doing the right thing at the wrong time.” To the tears of local women the “Can Do” troops marched out, plaved through the streets of Tientsin by the bands of the other foreign regiments and even serenaded by Japanese bugles.

Stilwell’s vinegar was at a high level during the winter in Hankow, “the bunghole of creation.” He was depressed by the climate, “raw, grey, drizzly, chill,” by China’s situation, by the endless frustrations in the way of carrying out his professional task, and by the blank incomprehension at the Washington end. The War Minister had refused permission to visit the front. … Stilwell was galled by the badgering of M.I.D., which, in the hands of a petty despot and pedantic bureaucrat, Colonel E. R. W. McCabe, pestered him with demands for daily operational reports, questioned every expense, issued orders to his staff without consulting him, made demands without relation to the battle situation or even to the normal geography of China, and informed Stilwell that it was “embarrassing to receive so little information” from him. “Bastards in Washington don’t like me,” he concluded with some truth, for there was certainly a quality of vendetta in McCabe’s treatment, although he was hounding other attachés too. He kept a little black book called his “SOB book” in which to record his dislikes.

In Consul Robert Jarvis’ apartment, where Stil well had found living quarters, he felt at ease—“he and I talk the same language. …” He had forgiven Ambassador Johnson, who was always kind, pleasant, ready to talk and to call Stilwell in when visiting personages came. With the government now preparing to withdraw to Chungking and Johnson under instruction to go when they did, he left Stilwell free to decide for himself and thus rated along withjarvis in the category of “good egg.”…

Friends and cordial hours were part of his life, too. Some of the Chinese, especially the mayor, were “delightful,” and he enjoyed a reunion with Feng Yu-hsiang, his road-building client of fifteen years ago, who was in town to join the “dicker” over reorganizing the government to let in the Reds. “The old boy looks well and hopeful. Says they can go on for six months.” Xor were Stilwell’s prejudices inflexible. “The pleasantest people in town are the British Navy people,” he reported astonishingly. Invited to lunch by their Admiral Crabbe, he “enjoyed it” and pronounced his hosts “good eggs. … The French are okay too.” Even the “limey consul” was a good egg. He found his most congenial company among certain of the journalists, usually the more venturesome free lances sympathetic to revolutionary China who, like Carlson, roamed the country “from the heart.” Agnes Smedley and Jack Beiden were of this company. Beiden especially, a great romantic and idealist aged twenty-eight, moody, driven, alternately gay and despondent, “a sad, ragged, torn, incredible character” as a friend described him, became a close companion and valued informant.


In January, 1938, Stilwell finally broke through obstructions, and he was able to go on the first of many journeys that over the next year and a half were to take him to embattled areas in many parts of China. On a bitterly cold trip through Kiangsi and Hunan he found the active front had melted away but there was no peace talk anywhere in the area. The provincial governors talked in terms of three years’ resistance and had begun training programs in guerrilla tactics. The Chinese were sold on guerrilla warfare, Stilwell noted, but munitions and equipment would be a serious problem. When asked by a Chinese officer what his own strategy would be, his reply, “Make use of numbers and attack,” was not welcomed.

Through a friendship formed with General Shang Chen, commander of the 2oth Army Corps in Honan, Stilwell was able to leave again, this time for Kaifeng and Hsuchow, western and eastern ends of the Lunghai line. He was so glad to be leaving the miasma of Hankow that a last-minute message from the War Department suggesting that he go to Lanchow “on the way back” from Kaifeng caused more of a shrug than an explosion. He merely commented, “I wonder if they know where it is.” Lanchow, port of entry for Russian supplies coming across central Asia, was close to the border of Inner Mongolia, six hundred miles northwest of Kaifeng.

In Honan his confidence in the Chinese revived. They were gaining experience, organizing and improving the flow of replacements, and he began to believe that if they could reach the point of taking the initiative and attacking, which might be within the year, “the turning point will be reached.”… Accompanied to Hsuchow by Shang Chen, whom Stilwell considered one of China’s dependable commanders, he was finally able to see China’s army at the front, upon which his pessimism returned. He decided “the offensive is not in them.”…


A talk with a Kuomintang officer, General Liu, recorded with Stilwell’s remarkable gift for catching character in dialogue, distilled for him the attitude of the governing class. Yes, losses had been heavy, General Liu admitted, about six hundred thousand, but that was “really a good thing. … The Chinese soldiers are all bandits, robbers, thieves and rascals. So we send them to the front and they get killed off and in that way we arc eliminating our bad elements.” Asked how much pay a soldier received, he replied eight dollars a month and “if he got any more he wouldn’t fight.” As to the duration of the war General Liu thought at least one year or two. By that time the Japanese would be broken financially, their soldiers would be homesick, and the foreign powers would have entered the war. Actually the more ground Japan occupied the better, because they would be that much more easily absorbed. “In the long run the Japanese will disappear, absorbed by the Chinese as were the Mongols and the Manchus.” Asked what China would do for salt and motor fuel if blockaded, he replied that the more territory-Japan occupied the smaller would be the part left to China, “so we won’t have to move around so much then” and would need less gasoline.

Asked why greater use was not made of the educated class as officers, General Liu replied that “University students and graduates are all cowards. They would run. I know because I am a University man.” Besides, “The Chinese learned long ago to make the lower classes do the fighting. At first the nobles fought but they soon got over that and made the people do it for them.” The English used Indians to fight for them, he pointed out, the French used Moroccans and Annamites, and now the Japanese were using Mongols and Manchurians.

Knowing and talking to the China of General Liu, Stilwell was not prone to see the country as fighting democracy’s battle, the favorite theme of ideologists like Carlson. Of Carlson himself, whom he came to know in Hankow, his opinion was kindly. He was “a good scout, not overeducated … but a solid citizen and a soldier.” … Privately he called him Captain Courageous and was not impressed by Carlson’s glowing reports of the 8th Route Army’s military training methods, which Stilwell told him he had seen in practice under Feng Yu-hsiang fifteen years ago.

Though it was the fashion to say “aren’t the 8th Route wonderful,” Stilwell was skeptical but professionally interested. Through Agnes Smedlcy he became acquainted with Chou En-lai, one of the Communist governing triumvirate and its representative in Hankow, and with Yeh Chien-ying, the Communist chief of staff. He thought the Communists’ political demands for “liberalization of military policy” and “mobilization of the masses” were “very vague—the usual slogans”; but personally, after visiting and dining with Chou En-lai and his entourage, he found them “uniformly frank, courteous, friendly and direct, in contrast to the fur-collared, spurred KMT [Kuomintang] new-style Napoleon—all pose and bumptiousness.” Chou En-lai was handsome and cultivated and a favorite of foreigners. Yeh Chien-ying made the select category of “good egg, like most reds.” Talking to these intense and energetic men, pursuers of China’s old unsatisfied need of revolution and asyet uncorrupted by power, Stil well realized t he “wide chasm” between them and a man like General Liu. He felt sure that if China emerged from the war with Japan, “there will be trouble again internally.”…

Just as Stilwell was about to leave for the Anhwei front to observe the 13th Army under General lang En-po, he was balked by the War Department, which ordered him to go to Lanchow instead, to report on Russian aid reaching China. Furious at the cancellation of a tour that had taken a great deal of arranging and represented the first time in eight months of the war that a foreign officer had been able to get accredited to a unit in the field, Stilwell offered every kind of excuse almost to the point of insubordination to avoid going. He was ordered to comply. The War Department was acting, as it happened, at the desire of the President, who had asked for a report on the nature and amount of arms reaching China through all avenues: Hongkong, Indochina, and Burma as well as overland from Russia. Stilwell was not told this, and indeed the whole Lanchow affair, which brought his resentment to a peak, could have been mitigated like the rest of his troubles with M. I. D. by a simple personal communication. He went off “sick unto death of the interfering bastards in Washington,” and in a mood, as he wrote to Win, to retire, at once or next year, “whatever the family decides.” He passed his fifty-fifth birthday en route to Lanchow feeling that, in view of his relations with the War Department, his career henceforward held little promise.

Stilwell was the first foreigner to visit the Russian air base at Lanchow and bring back evidence to show how far Russia was concerned to help China.

Making his way by train as far as Sian, where he visited 8th Route Army headquarters, and from there to Lanchow by bus and truck, he hunted down clues, bribed employees of the Russian guest house for figures on arrivals, questioned sentries, police, bus drivers, innkeepers, servants, the Governor of Kansu and his secretaries, missionaries at Sian, a Tibetan interpreter, an automobile dealer, Chinese officers, student aviators, and local Mongols. These last, “sturdy, dirty, hard-bitten, weather-beaten, with faces like Sitting Bull,” he entertained to tea at an inn; afterward when encountered on the street they were “all smiles and howdy.” Though his movements were watched and conversations listened in on, he was able to inspect the flying field and ascertain that three hundred Russian planes had been delivered, of which thirty were still at the base for training Chinese pilots. Russian aviation personnel, though physically impressive, with huge appetites consuming four meals a day, were “a sour and surly lot … I never saw one of them smile.” He collected figures on the Russian truck convoys that brought in munitions and fuel, worked out estimates of the monthly deliveries on the basis of distance travelled and turnaround time, and was able to specify types of munitions “though unable to get box markings or broken boxes.” The total was little in comparison with what could be brought in by ship at Hongkong, and he concluded the route was established primarily for aviation fuel and as an emergency inlet in case Canton fell.

By the time he returned to Hankow on April 15, China’s mood had undergone a dazzling change caused by her first real victory, at Taierhchuang in Shantung on April 6 and 7. The whole country went “mad with joy.” The Japanese were not invincible after all; a new hope in resistance swept away pessimism. It was the first cause for rejoicing since the war began.

Taierhchuang was a town on the path of the enemy’s advance to Hsuchow, whose fall would have put the Japanese on the Lunghai line, opening their way to the interior. Under the command of the Kwangsi general Li Tsung-jen, its defense was turned to counterattack, according to a plan of the German advisers, with an army of reinforcements brought up to cut off the enemy in the rear. General Tang En-po’s army, which Stilwell would have been accompanying had he not been at Lanchow, played this role. Thrilled by the phenomenon of reinforcements, the defenders rushed forward to join the attack with “battle cries that shook the skies.” They were able to slaughter the Japanese infantry who had been cut off from their supply of ammunition and fuel for tanks and proved unable to withstand a determined attack without mechanized support. At the end of the seventeen-day battle the Japanese had suffered sixteen thousand casualties and the loss of forty tanks, seventy armored cars, and one hundred motor vehicles besides guns and other arms in their first notable defeat since their creation of a modern army. The Chinese sustained equal casualties.

Like all China’s partisans, Stilwell wanted deeply to find cause for optimism and was moved to write after Taierhchuang when friends now said they thought China would win, “So do I.” At the same time he knew that militarily the Chinese had lost their advantage by failing to pursue. … Analyzing the battle with Stilwell and the German advisers, Pai Chung-hsi was not interested in the lesson of attack. He reverted to the theory of winning by outlasting. “We can afford to lose four men if the Japanese lose one,” he said, adding that Chinese losses would be of “no significance” until they passed fifty million. The Chinese, Stilwell commented, “cannot get the idea of the offensive into their heads.”


Visiting the scene at Taierhchuang, he talked with the commander, Li Tsung-jen. In one of the few recorded views of Stilwell through Chinese eyes, Li described him as “outspoken” in manner, with sympathy for China’s cause but with “great pessimism over the future of China’s resistance.” This pessimism Li ascribed to the “materialist civilization” in which the American colonel had been educated.

Ironically, the success at Taierhchuang confirmed Chiang Kai-shek in his overall policy of the defensive, because the victory seemed to suggest that the Japanese had exhausted their impetus. Within weeks they returned to the attack, broke through the line, and advanced upon Hsuchow, which fell at the end of May. With another Japanese army coming down from the north to cross the Yellow River above Kaifeng, the whole region between the rivers, including Hankow itself, was in danger. In a desperate expedient Chiang Kai-shek called not on China’s armies but on China’s Sorrow—the Yellow River. He ordered General Shang Chen to blow up the dikes at Chengchow behind the Japanese vanguard. Repeatedly he telephoned in anxiety to learn if his orders had been carried out, while Shang Chen delayed until his army could be moved out of the way. Then the dynamite was exploded. Jack Beiden, who was present, reported how, for moments of agony to the watchers, the silt-filled waters flowed steadily on their old course, swirling and bubbling against the broken dikes, then suddenly with a “terrible roar” ripped through the breach and spread over the low ground on a rampage eastward to the sea. Eleven cities and four thousand villages were flooded, the crops and farms of three provinces ruined, two million people rendered homeless, and in that vast and sodden wasteland another fund of animosity was stored up against the government. The Japanese were bogged down, and perhaps three months’ time bought in the process.

China’s battle was making an impression on America. Out of sympathy with her resistance or investment in her affairs, correspondents, missionaries, and other observers concentrated on the admirable aspects and left unmentioned the flaws and failures. An idealized image came through. Generalissimo and Mme. Chiang Kai-shek as “Man and Wife of the Year” for 1937 gazed at Americans in sad nobility from the cover of Time , sober and steady, brave and true. Time ’s owner, Henry Luce, had been born in China of missionary parents, so the worshipful view of the Chiangs was no accident. The missionaries, and behind them the Foreign Missions Conference of North America, the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America, the Y.M.C.A., and China Famine Relief, rallied to the cause of their wards with warmth, energy, and all their considerable influence. The Chiangs’ Christianity at the helm of China was gratifying proof of the validity of the missionary effort. If there was an element of expedience in the case of the Generalissimo, at least Madame and the Soong circle∗ represented modern, Westernized, Christianized China. The church groups rallied to them in self-interested loyalty. They overpraised Chiang Kai-shek and, once committed to his perfection, regarded any suggestion of blemish as inadmissible. “China has now the most enlightened, patriotic and able rulers in her history,” stated the Missionary Review of the World . The same journal presented the Communists, too, in acceptable terms as a group trying to bring about “social reform compatible with the aspirations of all progressive people.”

∗Madame Chiang had been Mei-ling Soong; one sister had married the late Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the other H. H. Kung, the Nationalist Finance Minister; her brother T. V. Soong had also been Finance Minister, and two other brothers were prominent in financial and governmental circles.—Ed.

The picture of “determined oneness of purpose” was necessary not only to the church groups heavily engaged in raising money for China relief but also to the envoys and propagandists of the Nationalist Government who were exerting pressure for American loans and intervention. To acknowledge the deep schism in Chinese society was not convenient. Therefore the Communists were not to be considered irreconcilables but respectable social reformers within the fold. Correspondents were asked by the Kuomintang not to refer to the Communists as Communists. “There are no Communists left in China,” Chiang Kai-shek told a German newspaperman in 1939. Everyone assisted in this illusion, including the Communists themselves, because it fitted the party line of the United Front. Although they did not deny their Marxist ideology, they talked in terms of the “New Democracy” as a stage on the way toward their eventual goal.

The times, dominated by the menace of fascism, shaped America’s view of China and the fervent syllogism at its core: democracy was threatened by the aggressor nations; China was under attack by an aggressor nation; therefore China was a democracy, and her battle was the battle of world democracy. To all men of good will convinced of the indivisibility of the world struggle, this appeared self-evident, and help for China therefore obviously in America’s self-interest. Strategically this was valid, if not ideologically. But strategy is more attractive when dressed in ideology, and people on “our side” are considered to be democrats regardless of their political experience. Americans find it difficult to remember that Thomas Jefferson did not operate in Asia. …

Although China’s friends made extraordinary efforts, American isolationism remained stronger than sympathy. Polls showed only 2 per cent of the public pro-Japanese against 74 per cent pro-Chinese, but the sentiment did not include a desire for involvement. At government level a sense of urgency was growing. The President, anxious to keep China on her feet, was abetted on the one hand by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, who, with a desperate sense of the need to resist fascist aggression, believed support for China crucial, and restrained on the other hand by Secretary Hull, who maintained an unbudging resistance to any “unneutral” gesture, including economic aid, that might involve the United States in the Sino-Japanese conflict. His caution was such that he refused to accept T. V. Soong as economic emissary because he was too prominently anti-Japanese.

When the Treasury’s agent in China, J. Lossing Buck, came to see the military attaché on August 30, 1938, to be briefed on the military situation, Stilwell put forward the argument of Li Tsung-jen that America should aid herself by enabling China to buy arms. As reported by Buck to Secretary Morgenthau, “Colonel Stilwell … feels that the policy of our government should be more positive in the present situation and that help to China in the way of financial loans and military equipment is much better defense for us than only the building of our own defense equipment. A very small proportion of the cost of such defense, if given to China, would be much more effective.” Morgenthau agreed. With strong conviction in the larger cause but less knowledge of China, he thought there was “a bare chance we may still keep a democratic form of government in the Pacific” and strenuously urged the loan to China upon the President. In December, 1938, a loan of twenty-five million dollars was ultimately arranged through the Export-Import Bank.

Despite their successes the Japanese could not end the war and in August, 1938, took the decision to drive toward a new objective—Hankow. Stilwell returned there in August from Peiping, where he had decided on his own authority to spend the summer with his family. This decision had more than ever incensed M.I.D., with whom he was already engaged in a continous quarrel over the assignments of his five assistants. Informed by Colonel McCabe that his return to Peiping in June represented “a serious error of judgment … when major military developments are in progress,” he was ordered in a tone more suitable to a cadet than a full colonel to perform no further travel without permission and to submit for approval “reasons, route, destination and estimated cost in each case.” He was told that the department undertook to direct his and his assistants’ movements because the “coverage, quality and quantity of information received was not (repeat not) satisfactory.” Seven thousand miles from the scene McCabe asserted the department’s right to “assign you or any other officer in China to any mission it deems fit.” In further communications Stilwell was informed that his reports compared unfavorably with Carbon’s to the Navy, that the information conveyed did not justify the sums of G-2 confidential funds spent, and that he should explain the “exact nature and value” of the information obtained by these expenditures. McCabe was evidently trying to goad Stilwell from his post in favor of some more intimate associate of the “attaches’ clique”; if so, he almost succeeded. Stilwell at one point made up his mind to ask for relief and drafted in fierce angry pen strokes a demand for an inspector “to determine the manner in which I have performed my duty under the conditions that have existed since June 1937.” China, however, held him back.

Hankow was now cut off from Peiping by land and could only be reached from the north by ship via Shanghai to Hongkong and from there by plane. When Stil well arrived on August 26, the government had withdrawn and a sense of siege was descending. Remembering the great revolutionary days of Hankow in 1925–26, the Communists wanted to conduct a “people’s defense” of the city after the example of Madrid, which was still holding out after two years of siege. They urged the government to organize an army of 150,000 workers, students, and townspeople, to be led by an elite corps of youths with “the highest revolutionary consciousness.” This project had small appeal for Chiang Kai-shek, who had no desire to see workers’ cadres established under Communist control and did not believe in any case that the Wuhan cities could be held against Japanese assault. …

Stilwell started out for the front in a group with the British and French attachés and the news photographer Robert Capa, who had covered Spain for a year and was “quite a guy.” Staying on after the Englishman “got mad and bowed out” and the Frenchman fell ill of dysentery and returned, Stilwell can be seen in the pages of his diary: “Moved by night, hard going and guard went astray. Pack transport, coolies, exhausted men curled up to die … Jap plane at 200 feet machine gunning the road. After a few wounded, I suppose. Wild Eagles! … Welcome from Chung. Go forward, sure. The nearer the front the warmer the welcome. Had a talk and chow. They got me bedding. … Bread and cheese for breakfast, by Capa. Mouldy but o.k. Sat around till 9 then off to the front. Hot as the hinges of hell and hard going. Climbed a high hill and got view along Yangtse to Juichang. Just a sea of rocky hills and scrub brush. Could be held indefinitely. … A lot of assorted artillery coming out north of the lake. Why? Kwan and Chang say it can’t be used but back of their present positions it could.”

Back in Hankow there were “barricades and wire everywhere.” Colonel Rouselle, the French attaché, was dead of dysentery. It was the seventh anniversary of Mukden [and the Japanese onslaught on Manchuria], and in Europe the powers trembled through the Munich crisis. “My god what a world. If another war starts in Europe where will we all end up?” Japanese bombers blasted the city daily, unopposed. The Chinese air force on which Chiang Kai-shek had pinned his hopes never became an effective force and had few planes or pilots left to defend Hankow. Shortage of fuel was made shorter by the pervading Chinese philosophy of hoarding equipment for a future crisis. “The Chinese can’t bear to use their stuff,” Stilwell wrote after seeing a battery of 75’$ that had been through the battles of Shanghai and Hsuchow without being fired. “If they put it in, they might lose it and then where would they be after the war, without any materiel?”

Air force personnel was a greater difficulty. Lacking the American’s affinity for the combustion engine, Chinese mechanics treated their machines with little care or respect; lacking expert maintenance, their planes rapidly became useless. Pilots and navigators, drawn from the educated class, represented a group that on the whole was not martial in spirit and had no desire to die in unequal combat with the well-trained, well-equipped Japanese. Those who did become pilots were valiant but reckless and flashy and ill-prepared by the Italian officers whom Chiang Kai-shek accepted from Mussolini early in the 1930’s to train his air force. When Italy withdrew her officers out of deference to growing friendship for Japan, the Italians took with them all the aerial maps they had prepared for their clients, leaving the Chinese, who had left the work to others, helpless.


To take charge of building his air force Chiang Kai-shek in 1937 engaged a remarkable American fighter pilot, Captain Claire Chennault, who had retired from the American Air Corps because of deafness and disagreement. By 1938 Chennault, promoted to colonel in the Chinese air force, had begun a major program of airfield construction and organized an effective warning net by radio, but he had less success with pilots and was soon to recruit a volunteer force of American mercenaries to defend China’s skies. For the present, as the Japanese raided Hankow unopposed, the sirens wailed and the streets drummed with the sound of thousands of running feet seeking the safety of the foreign concession area.


While columns of ragged and bloody wounded straggled in, evacuation of civilians had begun. In the last week forty thousand moved out in boats and junks or overland in trucks and handcarts to Changsha, capital of Hunan. Trainloads of half-starved, tattered war orphans gathered up from the battle zones by a woman’s committee organized by Mme. Chiang were fed and washed and marched in clean blue overalls to river boats for evacuation. The dismantling of factories and equipment for the long haul to the interior, organized by the industrial co-operatives, was under way. The wounded, looking for some designated hospital already dismantled, sat or lay on the pavement, worn out, unable to go farther.

Among the “last-ditchers” of Hankow was Mme. Chiang Kai-shek, whom Stilwell visited in September and found “very charming, highly intelligent and sincere.” Mme. Chiang never made an effort to charm without succeeding, and the American military attaché was worth her effort. He sent her flowers after the interview.

Out again to the southern front in October, he observed from a battalion commander’s command post a five-day fight for Teian in the path of the Japanese drive southward from the Yangtze against Nanchang, capital of Kiangsi. “Walked to Wang Lia-chi’s hq, 15 li. Bridges are all burning, road broken every 200 yards or so. Met Wang. Warm welcome. He has been catching hell—50% losses. … No hmg [heavy machine guns]. Small ens [caissons?]. No guns. About 200 rounds apiece. 4 lmgs [light machine guns]. Bridge out. No car. No phone, etc. Slept in the straw.” Colonel Wang at first held a hill position but was forced back into the town; the fight continued within the walls. In the last hours Colonel Wang himself led a night attack through the narrow streets. As described by Stilwell afterward, “The detachment runs into a Japanese machine-gun nest. … The Chinese throw themselves prone on the right side of the street. The Japanese open fire but fail to come out into the open where they can rake the street and the shots carom off the opposite wall and hit no one. Quick action is needed here and the Chinese are equal to it. A squad slips around a building and coming in from the rear puts the machine-gun crew out of action with hand grenades. … Everything by now is in an uproar and Colonel Wang in the darkness loses touch with them. …” For the rest of the night and the next day the fight continued with only a few yards separating the two sides until, as the Japanese advanced in force against the weakened garrison, the position became hopeless. A messenger from the division commander, the only one to get through of six who were sent, arrived at 6 P.M. with orders to withdraw. Under eover of darkness Colonel Wang with sixty-five men rejoined the rest of the battalion and left the field with less than four hundred men of his original fifteen hundred. They had been continuously in action for over five days with little sleep, food, or water. Of his eleven hundred casualties six hundred were dead.

In actions like these Stilwell was forming the judgments that he was to take with him as commander in the Chinese theater four years later. Colonel Wang was brave, but his judgment was poor; he should have stayed out of the town, which, being in ruins, furnished no cover and was absolutely dominated from the hills. In a G-2 report analyzing the war from what he had seen at first hand, he described the needless failures inherent in Chinese defensive tactics.

In open country against Japanese planes, tanks, and artillery, the Chinese, being deficient in these weapons, made only halfhearted defense and readily abandoned positions. In hilly country, however, where concealment was good, they held their ground better, and with only rifle, grenade, and machine gun, slowed down the Japanese advance. The enemy continued to push against the flanks, often thrusting out a salient that invited counterattack, but instead of seizing their chance, the Chinese “always react to protect their rear.” They hoarded their reserves, failing to exert full strength when it could succeed, with the result that numbers were more equal than they should have been, and Japanese initiative and superior equipment turned the scale.

The report concluded on his favorite theme: “The Chinese soldier is excellent material, wasted and betrayed by stupid leadership.” There was a corollary: “Suppose the Chinese soldier were well-fed, well-armed and equipped, well-cared for and well- led … ?”

The Sino-Japanese war came to a climax in the five days of October 21–25, 1938, when the Japanese took not only Hankow but also Canton, China’s last access by sea to the outside world. … Japan expected the captures to seal victory at last. With a million men now on the mainland, and desperate to find some end to the war, she made one more effort to force China into a settlement. A New Order for East Asia based on an anti-Communist bloc of Japan, China, and Manchukuo was announced and the Chinese government invited to join on condition of repudiating its anti-Japanese past and “reforming its personnel.” Now that Japan had control of China’s ports, railroads, and major cities, and of north China, the Shantung Peninsula, the Yangtze Valley, and the southern coast, the Japanese believed the Kuomintang would have to capitulate. …

For Chiang no acceptable future was possible if he submitted. He remained as always impervious to the buffeting of events. Nothing ever changed him. He was welded to the belief that China would outlast Japan and that history must bring him foreign allies. Loosely organized and agrarian, China could sustain herself even though isolated in the far west—at what reduced level or cost in suffering did not matter. A slender egress by road into Burma, hacked out of the mountains by hand labor, had just been opened. Chiang would hold out in Chungking beyond the enemy’s reach until Japan ultimately clashed with Russia or the Western powers. He rejected all terms.

Japan reaffirmed inclusion of occupied China in the New Order and her resolve to “exterminate” the Kuomintang government, which “no longer exists except as a mere local regime.” Chiang Kai-shek publicly reaffirmed on December 26, 1938, the resolve to maintain China’s independence. Except for local punitive campaigns, military advance came to a stop; Japan had no appetite to go farther; the war was left unfinished, the million men remained. …

The New Order confronted the United States with violation of both the integrity of China and equal opportunity in China, the two basic principles of her China policy for forty years. Once again the horrid case arose of circumstances which the country could not in conscience accept and was unwilling to use force to resist. Washington chose the middle course of protest. The New Order was declared to violate the Open Door and the Nine-Power Treaty. Japan expressed surprise that the United States had “failed to awaken to the new actualities in the Far East resulting from Japan’s successful military campaigns in China.” In response to renewed agitation in America for economic sanctions, the Japanese were reported by an experienced correspondent to “have begun to feel that the United States may prove the principal antagonist when the time comes for Japan to make a settlement with China.”


Stilwell did not stay to see the Japanese enter Hankow. He left to join Shang Chen’s headquarters at Changsha in Hunan, pivot of the new defense line. During the next two months, when the situation was in flux, he remained on the southern front, moving from place to place along with military units, hospital staffs, stranded officials, foreign colleagues and newsmen, and all the displaced flotsam that follow a defeat.

Another movement, a huge slow-motion upheaval, was relocating the working capacity of free China to the west. A steady trudging, toiling stream of people carried goods and equipment and themselves out of the area of the invader into the independent zone. Factory machinery, government records, university libraries, the contents of hospitals, arsenals, and offices, were transported in boxes slung on shoulder poles or borne on the backs of coolies or packed in sampans and pulled upstream by straining teams moving foot by foot over the rocks and roadless banks. In the age-old method for moving vessels up the rapids, the great-muscled coolies, bent double against the ropes, slowly hauled the burdens to the free land beyond the Yangtze gorges. A whole textile mill was packed into 380 junks, of which a third sank in the rapids, were raised, repacked, and started on their way again. Some factories were more than a year en route before renewing operation. Faculty and students of the universities, organized into marching sections with foraging squads, police units, and pack animals, walked to new locations in the west and southwest.

Gradually, while keeping track of Chinese divisions, reviewing events with the commanders, struggling for transportation, and trying to find out through the confusion and fog of rumor what was happening, Stilwell made his way southward through Hengyang to Kweilin in Kwangsi. Finding he would have to wait until February for the next vacancy by plane for Chungking, he managed to obtain a place in a car for the journey over the only motor road through Kweichow and over the mountains.

On December 28 in Chungking. China’s wartime capital for the next seven years, Stilwell was to have a personal meeting with Chiang Kai-shek. By now he had been authorized to return to Peiping preparatory to the end of his tour in May, and so his stay in Chungking was short, lasting only from December 19 to 31. It was enough to decide that the remote, provincial, five-hundred-year-old city with its steep streets of steps climbing up from the river, its open sewers and dank fogbound climate in winter, was a “sloppy dump.” The meeting with the Generalissimo and Mme. Chiang lasted for only fifteen apparently agreeable minutes. “Very cordial,” Stilwell recorded. “Both looked extremely well. They were quite frank. Gave me a photo and their blessing.” The signed photograph subsequently occupied a prominent place in Stilwell’s living room in Peiping, perhaps more in defiance of the Japanese than from admiration of the Generalissimo.

Summarizing his judgment of China’s leader in a G-2 report less than a month after their meeting, Stilwell wrote, “Chiang Kai-shek is directly responsible for much of the confusion that normally exists in his command.” The reason, Stilwell believed, was his suspicion of rivals. … In private notes Stilwell added, “He wanted to keep all his subordinates in the dark because he didn’t trust them. … If they all knew nothing they couldn’t very well get together and dicker.” Describing the factors that were one day to become his own frustration, he wrote that the Generalissimo “never assigned good artillery to divisions because he didn’t want to let any get away from him. … He was always thinking of what he could save for later on when perhaps his own position would be threatened.”…

On the last day of 1938 Stilwell left Chungking by air for Kunming in Yunnan, now the main air base of free China and the starting point of the Burma Road. At the Hotel du Lac he spent the evening in dinner and long talk with Chennault with no foreshadowing of the conflict between them that was to come.

The last months in Peiping brought the solace of home and family, offset by living under Japanese occupation. Only with the greatest difficulty could his new Japanese-speaking assistant, Captain Frederick Munson, convince him it was necessary to pay an official call on General Okamura if the military attache’s office was to function. Stilwell grudgingly agreed but announced he would not go in uniform; and when argued out ofthat position, balked at wearing a sword; and when persuaded of this formality, had no reserve left but to refuse positively to go in breeches and boots, the inseparable accessories of the Japanese officer. Grimly in military slacks he marched off to tea with China’s conquerors and managed to get into an argument on the innocuous subject of the temple deer at Nara.

Drawing up a balance sheet of Japanese qualities, to relieve his feelings in private, Stilwell allowed them six good qualities—industriousness, bravery, perseverance, organization, discipline, patriotism—as against twenty-six bad, ranging through arrogance, cynicism, truculence, ruthlessness, brutality, stupidity, treacherousness, lying, unscrupulousness, immorality, lack of balance, and hysteria. Almost any foreigner having to accommodate to the Japanese in China during these years would have shared Stilwell’s sentiments, although he might have been less facile in expressing them. To maintain correct relations under the provocative insolence and swagger, and worst of all the stream of bland, inside-out distortions of fact, was mortifying to the soul. Even Sir Robert Craigie, British ambassador in Tokyo, while on a visit to Shanghai described himself as so “utterly weary of the policy of appeasing Japan” and so “nauseated by being polite to the little blighters” that he felt constantly humiliated and “emotionally and even maybe mentally upset.” He suffered a recurring dream in which, wearing the gold-braided uniform of a general, he commanded a landing party near Tokyo and was suffused by a tremendous joy at the order to go “all out in retaliation against the dirty little bastards.”


What really tortured Craigie and Stilwell and many others was the passivity of their own countries in face of Japanese aggression. Frustration was acute as despotism advanced and the democracies threw it chunks of appeasement to buy themselves the illusion of safety. Stil well, in addition, faced his own depressing professional prospects. The first star of a brigadier general, which made all the difference in a military career, appeared to have receded beyond his reach. In another year he would have passed five years in grade without a promotion, which, combined with more than thirty years in the Army, made retirement mandatory. Ten officers who had graduated with him at West Point, including two junior to him, were already generals. Though he had friends and advocates working for him, writing letters to the War Department, and although their pressure had succeeded in having his name put on the eligible list, McCabe’s disparaging efficiency reports were a nearly insuperable block. Assigned by his new orders to an unpromising job, he believed “they’re trying to put me out to pasture” and saw his career ending in undistinguished desuetude among the retired colonels.

The time came for departure on May 1, 1939. Discouragement was in the air. Far away in Chungking the winter fogs had lifted, enabling Japanese terror bombing of the undefended city to begin. America was still selling scrap to Japan. No sign of help for China was in prospect. In nearly two years since Marco Polo Bridge, the improved, concerted military assistance that Stilwell had hoped for had not evolved. On their last day in China, on board the river boat from Tientsin to Taku, the Stilwells, joined a friend, Mrs. Edmund Clubb, wife of an embassy official, who too was going home. As they opened a lunch basket to picnic on deck they saw floating by the body of a man clutching a drowned child still attached by a rope to the piece of wood used by houseboat families as a life preserver. It had been inadequate. As a symbol of everything sad and wrong in China, the sight of the dead bodies in the river at that particular moment was unbearable. Wordless, the group picked up their lunch baskets and went down below deck.

In America three days before, Stilwell’s fate was entirely changed by an unexpected development: over the heads of thirty-four senior officers George Marshall was appointed Acting Chief ofStaff, to succeed to the full position September i, taking over an Army that then ranked, with reserves, nineteenth among the world’s armed forces, after Portugal but ahead of Bulgaria. With conflict approaching, Marshall’s urgent concern was to replace the Army’s dead wood. One of the first two names he sent up for promotion to brigadier general was that of Joseph W. Stilwell.

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