Defense of China: 1942-1945
China and Japan fought World War II beginning in 1937 and continuing until the Japanese surrender in 1945. The United States advised and supported China but had only a few units based there. The primary American goal was to tie down Japanese forces that otherwise might be used against the Allies in the Pacific.
Chinese soldier stands guard at "Flying Tigers" (14th Air Force) base during World War II. The aircraft are Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, almost certainly P-40Bs, the P-40 used by the Flying Tigers.
Defense of China in World War II: 1942-1945
The China Theater was the most remote from the United States. Japanese control of the China coast meant that all supplies had to reach inland China through either Burma or French Indochina. American supplies and equipment had to endure long sea passages to India for trans-shipment to China by airlift "over the Hump" -- the Himalayas -- and by the Burma Road. The mountains claimed the lives of many American air crews while the road route delivered only small quantities of supplies, late in the war after Burma was retaken. Despite a heroic and backbreaking effort, only a fraction of the supplies necessary to successfully wage war reached China.
On paper China had 3.8 million men under arms in 1941. They were organized into 246 "front-line" divisions, with another 70 divisions assigned to rear areas. However, most of these divisions were ill equipped with antiquated weapons, training was inadequate, and they were poorly led by officers with questionable loyalties. Furthermore, divisive political fights within China reduced the strength and effectiveness of the armed forces.
Stillwell, Chennault and the Flying Tigers
Despite the many problems, the U.S. government established a military theater of operations in China in December 1941, immediately after Pearl Harbor. President Roosevelt appointed Army Lt. Gen. Joseph W. Stilwell head of the U.S. China-Burma-India theater, and Chinese leader Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek appointed Stilwell chief of staff of the combined forces in the theater upon his arrival in China in March 1942.
Claire L. Chennault, a U.S. Army Air Corps Captain (Retired) advising the Chinese, helped Chiang obtain Roosevelt's support for an American Volunteer Group (AVG) of about one hundred U.S. civilian volunteers to fly one hundred recently purchased Curtiss P-40 Warhawks. These "Flying Tigers" began arriving in Burma in late 1941, the first Americans actually to be fighting alongside the Chinese.
Fighting against much greater numbers of Japanese planes, with aircraft of obsolete design and equipment, the AVG compiled an incredible record. Between 18 December 1941 and 4 July 1942, the AVG was officially credited with the destruction of 286 Japanese aircraft vs. only eight Flying Tigers pilots killed in action.
The AVG's success in Burma and China led to its integration into the U.S. Army Air Forces on 6 July 1942 as the China Air Task Force with Claire Chennault, recalled to active duty as a Brigadier General, commanding the new unit. In March 1943, the Fourteenth Air Force was established by special order of the President with Chennault as commander, promoted to Major General. For the rest of the war, the Flying Tigers conducted effective fighter and bomber operations along a 5,000 mile front in the China theater.
Inaction in China, 1942-1943
In May 1942 the raid on Japan by Brig. Gen. James H. Doolittle's carrier-launched medium bombers sparked a punitive campaign by six divisions of the Japanese Eleventh Army and Thirteenth Army against Nationalist airfields in Chekiang Province. The Japanese were initially successful but by August the Chiang's troops had pushed them back.
Although Stillwell proposed an aggressive plan for operations in Burma to reopen the overland route, Chiang had no stomach for it and supplies coming over the Hump were barely adequate for Chennault's air operations let alone expanded ground combat. Political infighting with the Chinese army and between Stillwell and Chennault, and the Allied inability to provide more supplies or troops kept Stillwell's plans from being implemented, although the Flying Tigers continued to operate successfully.
Stillwell continued to work on his plan to reopen the Burma Road by a Chinese offensive. During the summer of 1943, Stilwell's headquarters concentrated on plans to rebuild the Chinese Army, despite Chiang's insistence on giving Chennault a higher priority. Stilwell expected to train and equip thirty Chinese divisions as well as two or three divisions in India, a goal that was only partially realized.
Available airlift capacity for deliveries of supplies to China over the Hump barely replaced Chinese war losses, but were never adequate to sustain a major unit modernization and training program. Generalissimo Chiang used this U.S. failure to undermine General Stilwell's credibility in Chungking and to reject his strategic and operational guidance when it conflicted with the Generalissimo's desires.
Reopening the Burma Road
Stillwell eventually was able to begin operations in Burma, and U.S. Army Engineers were able to build a new Ledo Road to bypass the portions of the Burma Road held by the Japanese since May 1942. Progress was slow and the land route did not begin delivering supplies in any quantity until 12 January 1945, following successful campaigns by the Chinese in Burma. The first convoy of 113 vehicles left Ledo (in northeastern India) on that date, arriving in Kunming, China on 4 February 1945. A fuel pipeline was also built, in parallel to the road. The road was renamed "Stilwell Road" in honor of the General's inspiration to the project. While the road was a stunning engineering achievement, by the time the overland route was reopened, operations in other theaters had determined the outcome of the war against Japan.
Japanese Operations Against the Fourteenth Air Force
Successful attacks by the Fourteenth Air Force, and obvious preparations for B-29 Superfortress operations against the Japanese home islands, led Tokyo to launch Operation ICHIGO on 19 April 1944, the first Japanese ground offensive in China since December 1941. With their China Expeditionary Army of 820,000 men, the Japanese captured Allied airfields in east and south China and opened an overland supply route stretching from Pusan, Korea, to Saigon, French Indochina, compensating for Allied success in interrupting Japanese control of the sea routes. Defensive moves by the Chinese Army and the Fourteenth Air Force only delayed, but could not stop, the Japanese who reached their objectives by the end of 1944.
Stilwell was replaced by Maj. Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer as part of a theater reorganization in October 1944. Wedemeyer inherited all of Stilwell's problems and only a small advisory force, but also an improved situation. In October 1944 almost 300 aircraft flew 35,131 tons of supplies over the Hump, four times the monthly tonnage of the previous year and by January 1945 overland supplies were rolling in. Wedemeyer developed a plan for an ALPHA force of Chinese units with American leadership to counter the 1944 gains by the Japanese with ICHIGO.
But the Japanese struck while most ALPHA units were still in training. On 8 April 1945, Japan's 20th Army launched a local offensive against Chihchiang, the Fourteenth Air Force's largest forward base south of the Yangtze. By early May, revitalized Chinese forces and American advisors halted the Japanese offensive short of its objective. By June the Chinese had driven the Japanese back to their original line of departure.
The Chihchiang campaign was the last major Japanese offensive in China. With the Chinese finally ready, General Wedemeyer was planning for a Chinese offensive in the summer of 1945 to open a seaport on China's east coast. But the Japanese began to withdraw from China as the Allies closed in on their home islands from the Pacific. The war in China ended with the Japanese surrender in September 1945.
Despite the problems, the China Defensive Campaign succeeded. The Japanese Army was prevented from expanding its grip on the Chinese mainland. China remained in the war, diverting 600,000 to 800,000 Japanese troops, who might otherwise have been deployed effectively against Allied operations in the Pacific.
Recommended Books about the Defense of China
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