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China pays the price for Pearl Harbor

As I wrote in my last article, the Japanese attack on the American fleet at anchor in Pearl Harbor precipitated the entry of the US into the Second World War. The population of the United States was understandable angry and eager for revenge; but Japan was so far away and America not yet fully prepared for war so what, if anything, could they do to build morale?

Courtesy USA Government @ IWM (OEM 3605)

Within a month of the attack, in January 1942, an audacious plot was hatched by the Americans: why not raid the Japanese mainland? In one blow they could inflict damage on Japanese industrial sites as well as to the psyche of the civilian Japanese population who believed that their homeland could never be attacked by a force coming all the way from America. At the same time, an attack on Japan would also improve America’s relationships with her other allies in the war and boost the morale of the American people.

The initial plan was to launch a bombing raid from aircraft carriers, recover the planes and head back home; but whilst the B-25 could take off from a carrier it soon became obvious that landing on a ship was going to be much more difficult. It was therefore decided to launch the attack from ships positioned east of Tokyo, but instead of turning round and heading back to the aircraft carriers the planes would fly on to either China or Vladivostok in the Soviet Union. When approached about this Stalin was not keen on the plan as he was afraid that it might provoke Japan to attack Russia and so the Americans decided that all of the planes were to head for China. (For an overview of US/China relations at this time please see my article about Pearl Harbor).

James H Doolittle with some of his Raiders

The raid was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel James H Doolittle; the planes to be used were prepared for the mission by adding extra fuel tanks and stripping out all non-essential equipment to lighten the aircraft. The volunteer crews began their training in early March 1942 with a focus on night flying, cross-country flying, low altitude approaches, and evasive manouvers.

The Japanese knew that the Americans would not let the attack on Pearl Harbor go unpunished and so were monitoring US naval radio. From this they knew that an attack was planned for some time in April but had no radar so their early warning system was poor, relying on converted fishing trawlers positioned in parallel lines offshore to act as pickets. Surprisingly, one of these pickets detected the approaching US ships on 18th April, 650 miles from Japan, and whilst the plan had been to launch at closer to 400 miles from land the Americans could not risk losing more ships after Pearl Harbor and so launched immediately. This attack by long-range bombers took Japan completely by surprise as targets were hit in Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Yokosuka and Kobe where the American planes met very little opposition before flying on; one plane eventually landed in Vladivostok (where its crew were interned) whilst the other fifteen continued to China.

B-25 taking off from USS Hornet on the Doolittle Raid

The damage inflicted on Japan by the ‘Doolittle Raiders’ was minimal, but its effect on the enemy was enormous. As a consequence of the raid the Japanese decided that it was imperative to meet the US advance in the Pacific head-on (which led to the Battle Of Midway), whilst for civilians the belief in the invulnerability of their homeland was now gone. For the Americans the raid did a lot to restore their self-belief and pride after Pearl Harbor – their first major strike of the war had been an attack on the enemy capital and they now had the confidence that they would eventually be the victors.

But the story of The Doolittle Raid did not end with the American bombers reaching safety in China, and the consequences were far more wide-ranging than anyone could ever have anticipated. Unable to hit back directly at the Americans it was the Chinese who bore the brunt of the brutal revenge meted out by the Japanese.

Doolittle and his crew after crash landing in China

In early 1942 Manchuria as well as some industrial and commercial centers and key ports in China were occupied by Japan who was determined that she would hold on to these as well as prevent the Chinese from helping the Allied war effort. The American planners of the raid were aware of the situation before they set out, and they knew that the Chinese would suffer for the actions of the US but they went ahead regardless. The eighty volunteers who flew the Doolittle Raid knew before they set out that it was a one-way trip and so were prepared to bail out or crash-land in China when their fuel ran out; when this happened local guerrillas, missionaries and villagers willingly helped and cared for the downed airmen. Japan was quick to retaliate.

Individuals who had helped the Americans were identified by the little thank you gifts which the airmen had given them – maybe a cigarette packet, or a glove, or badge – these people were then tortured and murdered as punishment for the help they had given. But retaliation was not limited to individuals who had helped. One report by a Canadian missionary records how the Japanese flew 1,131 bombing raids against Chuchow (where the Doolittle Raiders first landed) in which 10,246 people were killed and another 27,500 left destitute when over 62,000 homes were destroyed, over 7,500 head of cattle killed and 30% of the local crops burned. Altogether there were twenty-eight market towns in the region, of which only three were not destroyed.

American airmen with some of their Chinese rescuers

The town of Ihwang was one of those where the civilian population helped the airmen, and one of the missionaries who worked there (Father Dunker) later described the Japanese retaliation – they raped all women aged 10 to 65, then shot everyone (men, women and children) as well as all the livestock they could find, the town was looted and then burned to the ground. The bodies of the civilians were left to rot.

The Japanese also took the town of Nancheng where they remained for a month. 800 women were rounded up and kept in a storehouse where they were repeatedly raped, the men were killed. Nancheng had a population of 50,000 when the Japanese arrived, when they left the town had been completely destroyed, hospitals looted, railway lines pulled up and the iron shipped back to Japan. The town burned for three days.

In the summer of 1942 the Japanese razed an estimated 20,000 square miles of China – livestock was slaughtered, irrigation systems wrecked beyond repair, crops burned, bridges and roads and airfields totally destroyed. But that was not the end. When the Japanese finally withdrew they contaminated rivers, wells and fields with plague, cholera, anthrax and typhoid; they left behind food rations contaminated with these diseases knowing that the hungry locals would eat them and so spread the sickness further. This part of China had been prone to such diseases before the Japanese action so it is not possible to know quite how many died as a direct result, but it was in the many thousands.

A US raid which had been designed to lift the spirits of the American people after Pearl Harbor led to a three-month campaign across the Kiangsi and Chekiang provinces of China in which it is estimated that 250,000 Chinese died, with the Japanese retaliation being likened to the Rape of Nanking in 1937-38. America honours the men who took part in the raid, but I hope they will also never forget the unsung, unnamed tens of thousands of Chinese heroes who will for ever be a part of this story.

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