Why the Kuomintang Armies were so Ineffective during the Pacific War…

Chiang’s Kuomintang regime was indeed far from pretty, but the criticisms against it nearly always lacked context. While it is difficult to argue with the facts of the corruption of Chiang and his court, the American press and indeed the American government failed to grasp the main issues; one such was the actual role of the Communists in fighting for China’s survival. Mao not only had no real intention of working with the Kuomintang, but was actually working with the Japanese and increasing his own territory with the aim of subjugating China. Chiang’s analysis was correct.

During the war the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) greatly increased its military resources, contributed little to the war effort and did everything in its power to sabotage Chiang’s military capability. Mao’s priority was always to conserve his resources and use the war with Japan as a means of achieving ascendancy over the Kuomintang—the very strategy for which Chiang Kai-shek was roundly accused by Stilwell and many others. Meanwhile Mao and Zhou Enlai played a masterful game with the western press, visiting intellectuals, the US State Department and ranking emissaries sent by Roosevelt and of course Stilwell. All these parties failed to see beyond the simple comparisons between Chiang’s heavily bombed, corrupt, impoverished and chaotic makeshift capital of Chongqing, whose population increased tenfold during the war, and the seemingly disciplined calm of Mao’s mountain hideout in Yanan. Above all, Mao convinced key constituencies in the West of the CCP’s goodwill and worth as an ally.

Probably of even greater significance in the breakdown of relations between Chiang and Stilwell were their rarely noted differences in strategic priorities. Chiang’s constant complaint was that Stilwell, who had complete control of the Lend-Lease resources, lacked a broad strategic vision, and placed the importance of the retaking of northern Burma above the importance of holding back the Japanese from Eastern China.

Like MacArthur and the Philippines, Stilwell appeared to place his personal interest in revenge for defeat in Burma in 1942 above larger strategic priorities. His championing of the building of the Ledo Road, an immensely wasteful use of resources, was another strategic blunder. On the positive side Stilwell was probably correct in his view that the overreliance on the B-29 bombing campaign against Japan from Southern China was a mistake; its absorption of the Humps’ capacity by the need to fly aviation fuel over the Himalayas seriously obstructed America’s ability to equip a poorly armed Kuomintang Army. However, it was a mark of Stilwell’s ineffectual political touch that he failed to sway either Chiang or Washington against the over-reliance on air power which absorbed so much of the Hump’s logistical capacity; it was an argument in which the Fourteenth Air Force’s General Chennault, the ultimate Washington outsider, outmaneuvered Stilwell, in spite of the latter’s close relationship with General Marshall. In hindsight Marshall too seems to have failed. When it became clear that the Hump was proving an effective supply route, the importance of the Ledo Road should have been downgraded. Furthermore US military strategy should have reduced the Hump’s supply allocation for Chennault’s over-extended air operations. Most importantly Stilwell should have been ordered to focus attention on the equipping and training of the Kuomintang’s armies on China’s eastern front.

The thirty divisions of Stilwell’s Y-Force on the northern Burmese border absorbed the vast majority of the ‘non-oil’ military resources that made it over the Hump. The issue of corruption and theft by the Soong family and others, of Lend-Lease resources, for which America’s lack of controls was probably as much to blame as Chiang’s inability to control his wife’s family, has tended to obscure the fact that it was Stilwell who had ultimate control of these resources. In spite of the pleadings of Chiang and Chennault, Stilwell deliberately ignored the supply and logistical requirements of the sixty divisions that Chiang needed to combat against the more than one million troops that Japan had stationed in China.

Stilwell’s poison warped the Roosevelt administration’s perception of the real issues that were at stake in China. It led to the canard that, during World War II, Chiang was hoarding resources to fight the Communists while doing nothing to fight the Japanese. On 26 September 1943 Stilwell had opined to Marshall, “He [Chiang] believes the war in the Pacific is nearly over, and that by delaying tactics, he can throw the entire burden on us.” In fact the exact opposite was true. Certainly he was faced by the reality that he needed to keep a watching eye on the Communists, but Chiang nevertheless demonstrated a constant determination to defeat the Japanese in China throughout the Pacific War. The charge of being unwilling to fight against the Japanese does not sit squarely with the facts of Chiang’s and his Kuomintang armies’ remarkable resilience during more than a decade of conflict with Japan—a military resistance to Japan that no western power in the region had matched. Indeed Stilwell’s successor, Lieutenant-General Wedemeyer, if critical of many aspects of Kuomintang’s military capability, nevertheless asserted that the Kuomintang forces had displayed “amazing tenacity and endurance in resisting Japan.” It is interesting to speculate on how the war would have progressed had China succumbed to Japanese force of arms at the start of the Pacific War. With the release of upwards of a million Japanese troops, the course of the conflict with Japan might have been wholly different. As it was, the anti-Chiang poison left by Stilwell and the US State Department was to have a profound effect on America’s post-war relations with China, and indeed the development of the Cold War in Asia.

What Stilwell and the Roosevelt administration never came to appreciate was that the Kuomintang forces were profoundly incapacitated by their exertions in the first four years of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the six years of conflict before that. By 1941, Chiang Kai-shek’s military effectiveness had been ground down by Japanese success on the battlefield, the expulsion from the political and economic heartland of Shanghai and Nanking, the blanket bombing of Chongqing, and the successful isolation of the Kuomintang-held areas from world markets. The economic crisis was such that men could not be easily recruited let alone fed. Recruitment fell from a peak of 1.98 million men in 1939 to 1.67 million in 1941. In a war in which attrition rates, often from disease, amounted to up to 40 percent of an infantry unit per annum, continual recruitment was essential. Yet recruitment itself created a spiral of decline. The taking of healthy young men from the land reduced the ability of ‘free China’ to produce enough grain to feed its armies.

Ray Huang, the noted historian of the Ming Dynasty, who fought in the Kuomintang Army, recalled that, having completed his training with the 14th Division stationed in Yunnan Province on the border with Vietnam, he was sent with a team to Hunan to find 1,500 recruits: “The armed soldiers from the escort team accompanied the baojia elders to comb through villages to round up men. The conscription law had reached the bottom of the manpower barrel. The purchases of substitutes became increasingly abused and human cargo degenerated in quality.” Because of disease and desertion, only 500 of the men from Hunan reached the 14th Division in the summer of 1941. No wonder that Chiang had difficulty in flying over decent recruits to X-Force in India at this time. Like most Americans who viewed China as brim-full of manpower, Stilwell, in his published papers, complained, without ever seeming to reflect on the problems facing Chiang. On arrival at the 14th Division, Ray Huang was shocked to find that

 All battalions and companies were down to half strength. Obviously the division had at one time been lavishly equipped. There were German-style helmets, gas masks, and canvas tenting sheets. But they appeared in a way that you would find in a flea market: one piece here and another there … Two or three shared one blanket. They had no toothbrushes and used bamboo sticks for toilet paper. They washed their faces with a common towel, so that if one man’s eye became inflamed, the whole platoon caught the infection.

If the condition of Chiang’s troops was bad in 1941, by 1945 it had deteriorated further. As a result of inflation, an infantryman’s pay of fifty yuan per month could purchase a couple of pounds of cabbage. Recruitment collapsed by half from its peak in the last year of the war. X-Force may have been well provisioned and equipped, and Y-Force reasonably so, but for the rest of Chiang’s army, men, provisions and equipment were in desperately short supply by 1944. Kuomintang arsenals were only operating at 55 percent of capacity. During Operation ICHI-GO, coal production fell by 17 percent and pig iron production by 23 percent. Industry could produce just 510 machine guns and 15,300 rifles in 1944. As for bullets, only 12.8 million were produced—less than five per soldier.

Even with the help of Lend-Lease, the Kuomintang forces had little offensive capacity because its armies had by now been forced to live off the land. In 1944 the logistics for mobile offensive operation just did not exist. Against this background of lack of food and a lack of recruits, it was not surprising that Chiang saw the 14th Air Force as almost the only means of exerting attacking pressure on the Japanese forces in China. It is noticeable that when the ‘short Hump’ directly over Burma from Calcutta, under Major-General Tunner’s direction, began to deliver a vastly increased tonnage of supplies to the Kuomintang forces from the end of 1944, the offensive capability of Chiang’s armies responded accordingly.

In the spring of 1945, a 70,000 Chinese force destroyed a Japanese army in west Hunan Province inflicting 11,000 casualties. The field commander General Ho Ying-Chin was so upbeat that he noted: “The Chinese commanders at the front all wanted to undertake an offensive drive eastward to sever enemy lines of communication.” Seven days before the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, Wedemeyer wrote enthusiastically to General Marshall in Washington, “we now look forward confidently toward a successful advance to the coast.” So much for the Kuomintang’s supposed lack of desire for offensive action. When well provisioned with food and munitions, Chiang’s forces were clearly not only capable, but also very willing to conduct offensive action.

Stilwell should have understood the economic, manpower, provisioning and equipment problems faced by Chiang Kai-shek and should have briefed Washington accordingly. Either he simply did not have the broad intellect and understanding to present Chiang’s genuine economic difficulties in China, or he was simply obscuring the situation to try put more power into his own hands. Both explanations ring true. Others too were irresponsible and incompetent in their reporting including the various missions sent by Roosevelt, ambassadors as well as the supposed experts of the State Department. Roosevelt would remain in the dark about why the Kuomintang would not fight. It could not. As Hans Van De Ven concludes in War and Nationalism in China 1925–1945 [2003], the background of economic collapse in 1941, “explains Nationalist strategy better than easy assumptions about a patriotic deficit, an obsession with Communism, or a backward cultural preference for the defence.”

Chiang was all too aware of the desperate straits of ‘free China’ and perhaps he too should take some of the blame for not sharing his country’s predicament more effectively with Washington. On 11 April 1943 Chiang wrote in his diary:

The poverty of government employees has reached an unbelievable point. Unable to raise families, many let their wives have abortions … What misery! I cannot bear it! Heavens! If the Japanese bandits are not defeated soon, or the war should drag on for another year or two, then China cannot make it, and I must fail in the mission that God commands me to perform.

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