75th anniversary of the end of WWII: Ashes to glory in the China-Burma-India Theatre
28 July 2020
As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao recounts the events in the Pacific theatre, noting that Chinese troops who were part of the Allied forces also played a significant role in the China-Burma-India Theatre.
26 December 1944, India-Burma border — Members of the Chinese Expeditionary Force stationed in India are boarding the American M4A4 tanks, known as M4 Sherman, to push into northern Burma to support the offensives of the US-China Joint Forces. The Allied forces prioritised the recapture of Burma as a key ground operation in the Far East.
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15 August 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. On that date, the Japanese emperor accepted unconditional surrender under the Potsdam Declaration, ending a bloody three years and eight months on the Pacific front. In what the Japanese Empire called the Greater East Asia War, China and Southeast Asia were as one battlefield.
Previously, the Chinese in Singapore supported China during the two Sino-Japanesewars, but the war had spread to Singapore’s doorstep all the way from China. The people of East Asia went through wartime casualties, homelessness, and hunger; and out of the ashes of war, they welcomed the glory of victory.
On 7 December 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing the US into World War II and sparking the Pacific theatre. This event turned things around for China, and changed the history of Southeast Asia, Asia, and even the whole of humanity.
China had been fighting the war alone, waiting for its turnaround moment; and the international tide was finally shifting in its favour. As the war stretched on, Japan gradually faltered — in particular, it ran out of oil, and was planning to seize the oil fields in Dutch Indonesia. Worried that Japan would expand its military strength, the US sent its volunteer air force to assist China’s war efforts, and halted oil exports to Japan, bringing Japan and the US to the brink of war.
China was on the side of the Allied powers
And when the US joined the war, the world was divided into two camps: the Axis powers of Germany, Japan, and Italy, and the Allied powers of the US, Britain, China, and Soviet Union. The US drew up the China-Burma-India (CBI) theatre, where they sent a lot of weapons, supplies, and some fighting troops. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was appointed supreme commander of Allied forces in the China war zone, with General Joseph Stilwell as his military advisor and commander of all United States Forces in China, Burma (now Myanmar), and India, participating along with Allied forces in ground combat against Japanese troops.
After Pearl Harbor, Japan pulled some of its forces away from China, while attacking Hong Kong and Western colonies in Southeast Asia. The Japanese 1st Division landed in the north of Luzon island in the Philippines. The US troops retreated in defeat and ended up cornered in the Bataan peninsula. In mid-March 1942, General Douglas MacArthur, commander of United States Army Forces in the Far East, along with his family and staff, left in PT (patrol torpedo) boats amid an atmosphere of gloom. Subsequently, 70,000 American and Filipino troops surrendered, and were forced on a long march. Along the way, over half of them were either executed or died of torture, illness and starvation — this was the Bataan Death March.
Furthermore, as France had fallen to Nazi Germany, Japan easily captured French Indochina. Japanese troops landed in the north of the Malayan peninsula; in just over a month, they advanced to Johor, while British and Australian troops retreated to Singapore. Meanwhile, Japanese planes took just one hour to sink British warships the Repulse and Prince of Wales.
On 1 February 1942, Japanese troops launched a general offensive on Singapore. Two weeks later, over 100,000 British, Australian, and Indian troops surrendered to about 30,000 Japanese troops. Singapore had fallen, and was renamed Syonan-to. As for Dutch Indonesia that lay further south, the Nazis had taken Holland, and the few Dutch troops in Indonesia were unable to resist the Japanese attack. In mid-March, the Japanese captured the Indonesian islands.
Chinese troops answered Britain’s call for assistance
In Japan’s offensive on Southeast Asia, the only strong resistance it met was in Burma, due to the intervention of Chinese troops. Britain had stationed sizeable forces in Burma, with sufficient weapons and troops. The Japanese started the offensive against Burma in January. After seizing the Malayan peninsula and Singapore, their main forces were deployed as reinforcements for the battle in Burma.
With British troops surrounded by strong Japanese forces, London requested assistance from Chongqing. China sent elite troops to Burma to fight alongside the British, the first time since the start of the war that Chinese troops had gone out of the country. While they were unable to prevent Burma from falling to the Japanese, they did relieve the British troops so that they were able to pull out of India and avoid total annihilation as in Singapore. After the battle of Burma, some Chinese troops returned to China, while others moved into India, where they were refitted, retrained, and reinforced, to become strong opponents in the subsequent counterattack on Burma.
When the Pacific war broke out, the Japanese only pulled about a tenth of their elite forces from China to fight in Nanyang, or Southeast Asia. These troops had fought for over four years in China but were unable to enter Sichuan, the centre of China’s war resistance. But within six months, they defeated all the Western armies in Southeast Asia and captured all the Western colonies.
The world was deeply impressed by the staunch long-term resistance of the Chinese army and civilians, while being surprised at the fragility of the British army, which had been considered the strongest in the world. This contrast of military and national strength signalled that China, which had been bullied by the West since the Opium Wars, was beginning to truly rise again. The historical balance of power between China and the West was restored, and the Western colonial governments that were so easily defeated by Japan lost all credibility in the eyes of the locals.
As for Japan, which expanded the war for oil resources in Indonesia, it ended up in worse trouble. The US quickly found Japan’s weakness: not only was it lacking in resources, but its industrial skills and technological capabilities were also far behind the US. Most crucially, while Japan’s land forces were vast, with strong fighting capabilities, Japan itself ultimately consisted of three islands — if Japan’s navy and air force were destroyed, Japan would be left defenceless, because without these two forces to transport equipment and supplies, Japan’s land forces would be left spread out and isolated over huge terrains. Without ammunition and supplies, the fighting capabilities of its land troops would be diminished and would only be able to watch helplessly as US troops advanced.
In June 1942, the US and Japan engaged in a large-scale naval battle in the waters of the Midway Atoll. The Japanese navy was routed, and the Battle of Midway became a turning point in the Pacific theatre. Subsequently, the US and Japanese armies engaged in an intense six-month battle at Guadalcanal, where the Japanese pulled out in shambles after experiencing serious casualties. Over the next two years, the US army advanced with its “island-hopping” strategy that allowed it to recapture strategic Japanese-occupied islands.
In December 1944, General MacArthur finally made a glorious return to the Philippines, just as he promised. From 1945, the US army initiated the Battle of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa, and launched large-scale strategic bombing on Japanese islands, resulting in heavy Japanese casualties.
As for the CBI theatre, Chinese and British troops split up and attacked the Japanese through various routes; by May 1945, they had managed to recapture Burma. At this point, Chinese troops had also counterattacked and recaptured Japanese-occupied cities in southwest China. On 15 August, following the dropping of two atomic bombs by the US, Japan declared unconditional surrender.
In the three and a half years from Japan’s offensive in Southeast Asia to its unconditional surrender, the local people went through the ruthless baptism of war. As the Chinese in Singapore had previously supported China’s war efforts, after the Japanese took Singapore, they engaged in the retaliatory massacre known as Sook Ching, or purge, killing tens of thousands of innocent civilians. Even in other Southeast Asian regions, the retreating Japanese tried to support the war by seizing property, printing money, forcing people into labour, and collecting all sorts of taxes, making it hard for people to survive.
As for Japanese mistreatment of Western prisoners of war, it would be impossible to recount all the examples, including forcing them into hard labour building roads, overworking, executions, beatings, and leaving them to die of starvation and illness. When the Allied troops returned after Japan’s surrender, they were shocked to find the surviving POWs in such poor shape. Out of anger at their comrades’ deaths due to such mistreatment, the Australian troops also subjected the remaining Japanese troops to harsh treatment. Australia was the only Allied member that called for the Japanese emperor to be listed as a war criminal.
The CBI theatre brought casualties and pain, as well as the glory of victory from the ashes. The end of the war saw a changed world. Even as the Japanese were defeated, the might of the Western colonialists crumbled. There was a political awakening — people no longer accepted colonial rule in any form, but yearned to determine their own fate, sparking a wave of independence efforts.