The Dark Valley Deepens
World War II: The Pacific War

Chinese baby crying in the middle of a devastated train station
Icon of the Japanese Empire highlighted on the globe
Map of China from 1928-1937
Icon of Imperial Japan

The Marco Polo Bridge Incident

The Pacific War Begins
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident

During the night of July 7, 1937, a small detachment of Japanese troops were on maneuvers at Marco Polo Bridge, just a few miles outside of Beijing .... when some shots were fired. This might easily have remained a relatively insignificant incident, except that because of the formation of the United Front [between the Nationalists and the Communists] and Chiang Kai-shek’s new determination to resist further Japanese aggression, Nationalist China responded by reinforcing its troops in the Beijing area. The Japanese also sent reinforcements, and by July 25 full-scale war had erupted.
Map of Chinese troops defending the area around the bridge
Based on the ease with which a small number of Japanese soldiers had earlier overrun Manchuria, and widespread Japanese feelings of contempt for warlord China, the Japanese anticipated a quick victory. The war minister assured the Showa Emperor that this China incident would be over in a month, and in July 1937 the Japanese cabinet authorized operations for only three divisions for three months. Although Chinese Nationalist armies did put up surprisingly stiff resistance, especially in the Shanghai area, by December 13 the Nationalist capital at Nanjing (Nanking) had in fact fallen to the Japanese. (HEA, 300)
Japanese troops on the Marco Polo Bridge
Map of China highlighting the location of Nanjing
In a major military and strategic gamble, Chiang Kai-shek decided to deflect the Japanese from their campaign in north China by launching an attack on their forces in the Shanghai area. It was here that Chiang had the bulk of his best German-trained divisions, primed for action since the Communists had been forced out of the Jiangxi Soviet onto the Long March. His forces outnumbered the Japanese in Shanghai by more than 10 to 1, and he had taken the precaution of constructing — again with German advice — a protective line of concrete blockhouses in the area of Wuxi on the railroad to Nanjing, should retreat become necessary.
Photograph of Shanghai after Chinese bombs missed their Japanese targets and hit the city instead
On August 14, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his air force to bomb the Japanese warships at anchor off the docks of Shanghai. If he had hoped that this would be a triumphal revenge for the humiliating destruction by the Japanese navy of the Qing forces at Weihaiwei in 1895, he was sadly disappointed. Not only had the Nationalist air force lost the element of surprise when the Japanese intercepted and decoded a secret telegram, but the Chinese planes bombed inaccurately and ineffectively, missing the Japanese fleet and instead hitting the city of Shanghai, killing hundreds of civilians. Despite this tragic fiasco, the commanding Japanese admiral announced that “the imperial navy, having borne the unbearable, is now compelled to take every possible and effective measure.” Prince Konoe [the Japanese Prime Minister] declared that Japan was now “forced to resort to resolute action to bring sense to the Nanjing government.” (The Search for Modern China, 400)
Icon of Imperial Japan
Japanese troops marching into Nanjing
As the Japanese bombarded the city with leaflets promising decent treatment of all civilians remaining there, skeptical Chinese troops — fugitives from the Shanghai fighting — killed and robbed the people of Nanjing to obtain civilian clothing and make good their escape. On December 12 Tang [Shengzhi, commander of the Chinese troops] himself abandoned the city; since he had vowed publicly to defend Nanjing to the last breath, he made no plans for the orderly evacuation of the garrison troops there, and his departure worsened the military confusion.
Japanese soldier
Scene from the movie "City of Life and Death"
Poster for the film "City of Life and Death"There followed in Nanjing a period of terror and destruction that must rank among the worst in the history of modern warfare. For almost seven weeks the Japanese troops, who first entered the city on December 13, unleashed on the defeated Chinese troops and on the helpless Chinese civilian population a nearly unparalleled storm of violence and cruelty that has become known as the “Rape of Nanjing.” The number of women who were raped, many of whom died after repeated assaults, was estimated by foreign observers living in Nanjing at 20,000; the fugitive soldiers killed were estimated at 30,000; murdered civilians at 12,000. Other contemporary estimates made by Chinese observers were as much as ten times higher, and it is difficult to establish exact figures. Certainly robbery, wanton destruction, and arson left much of the city in ruins, and piles of dead bodies were observable in countless locations. (The Search for Modern China, 401-2)
Currently, the most reliable and widely agreed upon figures place the massacre victims within Nanjing City Walls to be around 40,000, mostly massacred in the first five days from December 13, 1937; while the total victims massacred as of the end of March 1938 in both Nanjing and its surrounding six rural counties far exceed 100,000 but fall short of 200,000.[1] Hence, depending on the timeframe and the geographic scope, an empirically verifiable, scholarly valid victimization range is from over 40,000 to under 200,000.[1] (Wikipedia/Death Toll of the Nanjing Massacre)
Scene from the movie "City of Life and Death"
Japanese "katana" (sword) page divider
Japanese newspaper article on the "Contest to Cut Down 100 People"

A Contest to Cut Down 100 People

[Nov. 29th, Correspondents Asami, Mitsumoto and Yasuda reporting from Changzhou] ... In the Katagiri unit standing in the front line, two young officers have undertaken a contest to kill 100 people with their swords.

Since leaving Wuxi, one of them has already cut down 56 people, and the other, 25 people. The former is Toyama Battalion’s 2nd Lt. Toshiaki Mukai (26) from Jindai, Kuga County, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The latter, in the same battalion, is 2nd Lt. Tsuyoshi Noda (25), from Tashiro, Kimotsuki County, Kagoshima Prefecture. While 2nd Lt. Mukai, a 3rd dan in jukendo, takes pride in the “Seki no Magoroku” sword on his hip, 2nd Lt. Noda talks of his sword, of a no-name brand, but a family treasure handed down from his ancestors.

It was decided that after leaving Wuxi, 2nd Lt. Mukai and his group would advance along the railroad for 26 or 27 km, and 2nd Lt. Noda’s group would advance parallel to the railroad, so the two of them were temporarily separated. The morning after they had departed, 2nd Lt. Noda charged into a pillbox in an unnamed village 8 km outside Wuxi and cut down four enemies in his bid to become the first to breach the enemy line. Hearing about this, 2nd Lt. Mukai worked up his resolve, and that night, he and his men rushed into an enemy camp in Henglin, where he cut down 55 people.

After that, 2nd Lt. Noda cut down nine people in Henglin, six people in Weiguan, and on the 29th, six people at Changzhou station, for a total of 25. 2nd Lt. Mukai subsequently cut down four people near the station, and when we reporters arrived, we happened to catch the two men being interviewed in front of the station.

Second Lieutenant Mukai: “As it stands now, I’ll probably have cut down 100 people by the time I reach Danyang, let alone Nanjing. Noda’s gonna lose. I’ve already cut down 56 people with my sword, and it’s only got one little nick in it.”

Second Lieutenant Noda: “The both of us have decided not to cut down people who are running away. I’m an [aide-de-camp], so I can’t get my numbers up. But before we get to Danyang, I’ll try to set a big record.” (Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shimbun, Nov. 30, 1937)

Original photograph that was featured in the newspaper article
The Contest to Cut Down 100 People
Mukai 106, Noda 105

[December 12th, Correspondents Asami and Suzuki reporting from the foot of Purple Mountain] Toshiaki Mukai and Tsuyochi [sic] Noda, the two daring second lieutenants in the Katagiri Regiment who started an unusual contest to “cut down 100 people” before entering Nanjing, have — amidst the chaos of the battle to capture Purple Mountain on Dec. 10th recorded their 106th and 105th kills respectively. When they met each other at noon on Dec. 10th, they were both carrying their swords in one hand. Their blades had, of course, been damaged.

Noda: “Hey, I got 105. What about you?” Mukai: “I got 106!” … Both men laughed. Because they didn’t know who had reached 100 kills first, in the end someone said, “Well then, since it’s a drawn game, what if we start again, this time going for 150 kills?” They both agreed, and on the 11th, they started an even longer contest to cut down 150 people. At noon on the 11th, on Purple Mountain, which overlooks an imperial tomb, while in the midst of hunting down the remnants of the defeated [Chinese] army, 2nd Lt. Mukai talked about the progress of the drawn game.

“I’m happy that we both exceeded 100 kills before we found out the final score. But I damaged my ‘Seki no Magoroku’ on some guy’s helmet when I was cleaving him in two. So, I’ve made a promise to present this sword to your company when I’ve finished fighting. At 3 AM, on the morning of the 11th, our comrades used the unusual strategy of setting Purple Mountain on fire, in order to smoke any remaining enemies out of their hiding places. But I got smoked out too! I shot up with my sword over my shoulder, and stood straight as an arrow amidst a rain of bullets, but not a single bullet hit me. That’s also thanks to my Seki no Magoroku here.”

Then, amidst a barrage of incoming enemy bullets, he showed one of the reporters his Magoroku, which had soaked up the blood of 106 people. (Tokyo Nichi-Nichi Shimbun, Dec. 13, 1937)

Nanjing Memorial claiming that 300,000 people died in the Rape of Nanjing
Icon of Imperial Japan
Map of Japanese encroachments into China in various years
Retreat to Chungking
As the Japanese advanced yet farther west to the ancient capital of Kaifeng, which would win them control of the crucial railroad leading south to Wuhan, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his engineers to blow up the dikes of the Yellow River. The ensuing giant flood stalled the Japanese for three months, destroyed more than 4,000 north China villages, and killed unknown number of local peasants. ...
Map showing the point where the Nationalist Army blew up a dike on the Yellow River to slow down the Japanese

Nationalist forces flood the Yellow River to slow the Japanese

Photograph of the flooded Yellow River after the Nationalist army blew up the dikes to slow down the Japanese
By the late summer of 1938, however, the Japanese had assembled the planes, tanks, and artillery needed for the final assault on the tricity area of Wuhan ... [and] by late October 1938 much of Wuhan was in ruins. ... The Japanese took over the ravaged area on October 25, 1938, having (according to Chinese estimates) sustained 200,000 casualties and lost more than 100 planes. Only four days before, Japanese marine and naval units had landed and seized Canton. Chiang Kai-shek had now lost de facto control over the whole swathe of eastern China stretching from the passes at Shanhaiguan to the rich ports in the semitropical south, along with all the wealthy commercial and industrial cities lying in between. The area encompassed the most fertile of China’s farmland and the ancient cultural heartland of the country. (SMC, 402-403)
Icon of Imperial Japan
Although it took somewhat longer than originally anticipated, the Japanese did swiftly capture most of the major Chinese coastal cities and the principal agricultural plains of eastern China. But the Nationalist Chinese capital merely retreated farther up the line of the Yangzi River, finally settling in the city of Chongqing (in English, Chungking), in Sichuan Province — a vast natural fortress protected by steep encircling mountains. Despite prolonged Japanese aerial bombing of Chongqing, the Chinese Nationalists continued to resist and stubbornly refused to surrender.
Painting of the Japanese bombing of Chungking
Although they won repeated battlefield victories, the Japanese found themselves unable to inflict a decisive defeat on Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist China. To the end of World War II, the Japanese found it necessary to continue to station about half of all their total available forces in China, yet even that was not enough to achieve conclusive success. After the Japanese offensive stalled, however, Chiang Kai-shek’s ability to launch a counteroffensive was also seriously limited. ...
ROC Gold Yuan 1,000,000,000 Note
Nationalist China’s loss of the developed modern sector of its economy, which had been almost exclusively confined to the large coastal cities, especially Shanghai, and which had been the government’s principal source of tax revenue before the war, led the Nationalist government to issue mountains of poorly backed paper money. This resulted in catastrophic hyperinflation. Between 1937 and 1945, average prices in Nationalist China increased by more than two-thousand-fold. In the end, it has been suggested that “inflation did more than any other single issue to undermine public confidence” in the Nationalist government and cause it to eventually lose control of mainland China. (HEA, 300-3)
Map of the Japanese empire showing where the natural resources were located
The huge costs of waging war on a continental scale in China, especially when combined with Japan’s strategic ambition to simultaneously gear up quickly for military self-sufficiency, drove Japan from a surprisingly robust export-led recovery from the Great Depression in the early 1930s to what would turn out to be a fatal dependency on heavy industrial imports by the end of the decade. Increased military spending after 1936 led to inflation, which raised the cost of Japanese products and made them less competitive as exports. Government controls over imported raw materials favored those with military applications rather than materials, such as cotton, that could be used to manufacture textiles for reexport. Government control also funneled new investments into war industries rather than consumer or export-oriented business. As a direct result of her quest for self-sufficiency, ironically, Japan only became more critically dependent on such imported things as machine tools, iron, and oil. (HEA, 304)
Icon of Imperial Japan
Map showing the U.S. embargo on sale of iron and oil to Japan
Going to war against Japan’s own largest supplier of vital war materials (the United States) hardly seemed sensible, especially since the United States was also much more populous and more extensively industrialized than Japan as of 1941. But Japan’s options were limited. By late 1941, Japan’s stockpiles of oil were dwindling alarmingly, while the United States was already beginning a massive military buildup. If Japan was to have any chance of victory in a war with the United States, it would have to begin soon. Some leaders in the Japanese army were, moreover, confident that Japanese fighting spirit would overcome the material disadvantages. At an imperial conference on November 5, 1941, a decision was made to go to war if no settlement had been reached by December. The imperial navy drew up plans to temporarily paralyze U.S. forces by striking at the U.S. Pacific Fleet based in Hawai’i. A Japanese carrier task force sailed for the purpose on November 26 and struck at Pearl Harbor on December 7. (HEA, 305)
Photograph of a U.S. ship sinking during the attack on Pearl Harbor
We hereby declare war on the United States of America and the British Empire. ... It has been truly unavoidable. ... More than four years have passed since China, failing to understand the true intentions of Our Empire, disturbed the peace of Asia. ... The regime which has survived at Chungking, relying on American and British protection, still continues its fratricidal opposition. ... Both America and Britain have aggravated the disturbances of East Asia [and] have increased military preparations on all sides of Our Empire to challenge us. They have obstructed by every means our peaceful commerce and finally have resorted to a direct severance of economic relations, thereby gravely menacing the existence of Our Empire. ... Our Empire has no other recourse but to appeal to arms and to crush every obstacle in its path. (East Asia: A New History, 395)

Uncle Sam with the words "I want YOU for U.S. Army"
All the American aircraft carriers had miraculously escaped the slaughter at Pearl Harbor simply by being out of port at the time of the attack. ... In June 1942, Japanese forces staged successful amphibious landings on actual U.S. soil in the Aleutian Islands, Alaska. This was only intended as a diversion, however, as part of an elaborate plan to lure out and sink the remainder of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Thanks to some good luck, and the fact that the Americans had broken the Japanese code and were able to decipher Japanese messages, the U.S. fleet surprised the Japanese instead. In the ensuing naval air battle of Midway Island, beginning June 4, 1942, four Japanese aircraft carriers were sunk to the American loss of only one. This battle of Midway became the crucial turning point of the war in the Pacific.
Map showing Japanese and Allied movements in the Pacific theater
Instead of serving as an impenetrable defensive shield, Japan’s island empire in the Pacific proved to be full of holes. U.S. submarines, sailing deep into Japanese waters with relative impunity, almost immediately began to wage an aggressive campaign to cut off the flow of essential raw materials from Java, and elsewhere, to the factories on the Japanese home islands. As a result, Japan’s industrial economy ground to a standstill, and Japan was increasingly unable to replace the ships and planes it lost in battle. Japanese-held islands in the Pacific that were especially strongly fortified could furthermore simply be bypassed, or skipped over, in the Allied counteroffensive, in a process called “island hopping.” (HEA, 307)
Icon of Imperial Japan

Ending the War
In November 1944, air raids on the Japanese home islands began with long-range B-29 bombers based in the Marianas. Altogether, some sixty-six Japanese cities were reduced to charred rubble. Incendiary bombs ignited raging conflagrations among the mostly wooden Japanese houses. Of Japan’s major cities, only the ancient imperial capital of Kyoto was spared. Before long, Allied aircraft enjoyed almost complete command of the air above Japan. Yet the unconditional surrender demand that had been adopted by the Allies at the Casablanca conference in 1943 remained unacceptable to Japanese authorities. ...
Photograph of the American fire bombing of Tokyo
Photograph of the Hiroshima nuclear explosion
Photograph of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb
On August 6, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. On August 8, the Soviet Union unleashed a massive assault on Japanese forces in Manchuria. On August 9, a second atomic bomb was detonated at Nagasaki. Even then, on August 10, the Japanese government still broadcast a message indicating that Japan would be willing to accept Allied surrender terms only if the preservation of the emperor could be guaranteed. The U.S. response, approved by both Britain and the Soviet Union, was to agree, but with the crucial modification that “the authority of the Emperor ... shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.” (HEA, 308)
Photograph of General MacArthur with Emperor Hirohito
Nuclear Bomb Icon

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