The Sino-Japanese War of 1937 had begun in a haphazard manner. Throughout the 1930s the Japanese military, imbued with an aggressive “samurai” spirit and rabid ultra nationalism, gained the upper hand in Japanese politics.
On October 27, 1937, the Zhabei district of Shanghai began to burn, an enormous conflagration that stretched for five miles and filled the northern horizon from end to end, almost as far as the eye could see. The orange-yellow flames greedily consumed buildings and their contents, finishing the destruction already begun after three months of intense fighting between the Chinese and Japanese armies. Thick coils of smoke reached 3,000 feet into the air, obscuring the skies of central China. It was a spectacle never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it—the funeral pyre of a great city.
Some of the fires came from the fighting, but most had been deliberately set to cover the Chinese Army’s retreat. The outnumbered Chinese had resisted gallantly, but many units now were reduced to mere shadows of themselves. When word came that the Japanese had gained ground outside the city and were threatening the Chinese flank, there was no other choice but to withdraw.
One unit was deliberately left behind, entrenched around a concrete warehouse just opposite the International Settlement. The officers and men of the 524th Regiment, 88th Division, knew only too well that their mission was suicidal, that they were being sacrificed to showcase Chinese courage, but they accepted their fate stoically. Their ordeal, which had started on October 26, would continue for another four days of brutal fighting, and the defense of Sihang Warehouse would rivet the attention of the world, with the American press quickly dubbing it “the Chinese Alamo.”
The Impromptu Sino-Japanese War of 1937
The Sino-Japanese War of 1937 had begun in a haphazard manner. Throughout the 1930s the Japanese military, imbued with an aggressive “samurai” spirit and rabid ultra nationalism, gained the upper hand in Japanese politics. In 1932 the Japanese seized Manchuria, China’s rich northern province, and set up an “independent” government under the last emperor of China, Henry Pu Yi. It was a transparent ploy, mere window dressing to cover naked aggression, and few nations in the world community were fooled by it. The major powers, however, particularly Great Britain and the United States, were too preoccupied by the deepening economic depression to do more than lodge a few feeble and ultimately ineffectual protests.
China was in turmoil in the 1930s, torn asunder by Japanese aggression from without and internal dissension from within. The country was ruled by the Nationalist Party under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was a pragmatic soldier-politician whose main obsession was the destruction of the Communists under Mao Zedong. To Chiang, Mao and his followers were like a deadly disease infecting the Chinese body politic. Chiang’s Communist preoccupation was a godsend to Japanese militarists. After 1932 there was a series of incidents between the Chinese and Japanese, with the Chinese usually granting concessions and territory to the aggressors. Having digested Manchuria, Japan was still ravenous, nibbling away at the rest of China throughout the decade.
On July 7, 1937, a Japanese soldier went missing near Beijing. Eventually, the soldier returned unharmed (reports said he had been visiting a brothel). But local Japanese officers, always ready to find a pretext for open aggression, demanded restitution for the alleged kidnapping. If the usual pattern had held true, the Chinese would have granted more concessions, territory, or whatever else the Japanese wanted. But this time the Chinese flatly refused—a line had been drawn in the sand.
Intense fighting between the two sides broke out and quickly escalated into a major conflict. The Japanese soon occupied Beijing and large parts of northern China. The 1937 war was entirely unplanned, but, once begun, the Japanese were confident it would be a quick one. They hoped so. More than anything, the Japanese military did not want to be drawn south, because just across China’s northern borders lay the Soviet Union, which the Japanese rightly considered a deadly enemy.
The Generalissimo’s Army
Chiang Kai-shek had other plans. The great Yangtze River of central China nourished the heartland of the nation and the center of its developing economy. China’s economic and political capitals, Shanghai and Nanking, were located there. Chinese troops in Shanghai had fought the Japanese to a standstill in 1932; Chiang had every reason to believe he could repeat their performance. As a first step, he began pouring troops into Shanghai, including the crack 87th and 88th Divisions. German equipped and trained—they even wore the distinctive steel helmets soon to be familiar in World War II—the Chinese troops were elite forces who proudly bore the title, “the Generalissimo’s Own.”
The Chinese Nationalist Army—formally titled the National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China—was a juggernaut on paper, boasting some 1.7 million men. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Chinese Army was made up of of semi-illiterate peasants who were poorly uniformed, trained, and equipped. Only around 300,000 men, some 40 divisions, were sufficiently equipped and trained to have a fighting chance against the ramrod-stiff Japanese Army. Of these, some 80,000 were members of the Generalissimo’s Own.
In the mid-1930s, Shanghai was the richest, most progressive, and most decadent city in Asia. The city’s core was dominated by foreigners, a legacy of China’s troubled past. The International Settlement was ruled by a British-dominated Municipal Council, hard-headed businessmen whose primary interest lay in making a profit. The nearby French Concession was ruled as an out-and-out colonial possession of France and generally conveyed a kind of Gallic aloofness. Greater Shanghai was ruled by Chiang’s central government. When the war broke out, it was Greater Shanghai that was to see the bulk of the fighting.
The International Settlement figured prominently in Chiang’s overall plans. The Chinese could attack the Japanese garrison at Shanghai’s Honkou district, which was small and vulnerable. A success at the Settlement’s very doorstep would underscore China’s strength and resolution in the face of Japanese aggression. There was even the possibility that the western powers, particularly Great Britain and the United States, would intervene on China’s behalf. Accordingly, Chiang began pouring troops into the Shanghai region, including the elite 87th and 88th Divisions. Soon, there were upward of 50,000 Chinese soldiers in position. Consternation reined in the Japanese high command; they had no wish to be drawn into central China when northern operations were still in full swing. But the Chinese, as Chiang intended, had forced their hand.
The Battle of Shanghai
On August 12, Colonel Charles F.B. Price of the U.S. 4th Marine Regiment conferred with American Consul-General Clarence Gauss and British Brig. Gen. Alexander Telfer-Smollett about the looming Shanghai crisis. At the same time, the Shanghai Municipal Council mobilized the Shanghai Volunteer Corps and formally requested support from the British and American garrisons. Under a long-standing arrangement, code-named Plan A, British troops from the Shanghai Area Force and American marines would man a defensive perimeter along the Settlement’s borders. The Suzhou Creek border was of particular concern, because Zhabei, the Chinese district just beyond, had been the scene of brief but bloody fighting in 1932. Because the water table was only a foot or two below Shanghai streets, trenches could not be dug, and millions of sandbags had to be trucked into the area. Barbed wire was strung and sandbags stacked to form blockhouses, walls, and machine-gun emplacements. As marines and tommies moved into position, thousands of Chinese civilians poured over the bridges spanning Suzhou Creek, seeking refuge from the inevitable clash. Once the perimeter was manned, it was simply a matter of watching and waiting for the Japanese to appear.
The wait proved to be a short one. Around 9 am on August 13, Chinese troops exchanged small-arms fire with Japanese units. The Japanese responded in kind, and the Chinese 88th Division retaliated with heavy mortar attacks. Japanese Admiral Kioshi Hasegawa’s Third Fleet vessels, which were on station in the Yangtze and Whangpoo Rivers, opened up with thunderous salvos. The Battle of Shanghai had begun.
On August 14, the Chinese began a major offensive, an attack that was designed to push the Japanese into the Whangpoo River. They almost succeeded. The outnumbered Japanese were mainly bluejackets and marines from the Special Naval Landing Force. It seemed as if the modern-day samurai were about to be humiliated at the hands of the despised Chinese. To be defeated in battle, and to have that defeat witnessed by the Western powers, was too much for the Japanese to bear. Soon, massive help was on the way. The Shanghai Expeditionary Army, under General Iwane Matsui, was assembled and sent to China immediately. It was a powerful force, built around the 3rd and 11th Divisions and totaling some 300,000 men, 300 guns, 200 aircraft, and the powerful presence of the Japanese Imperial Navy. The expeditionary forces made successful amphibious landings along the northeast coast at Boashan and elsewhere, and in so doing lengthened the battlefront. It now extended from Shanghai’s city center, down the length of the Whangpoo, finally ending at the northeast coast area where the river emptied into the mighty Yangtze.