Japanese General Yasuji Okamura

Japanese General Yasuji Okamura

(Oct. 1, 2021) This week, 80 years ago, the Imperial Japanese Army, under the command of Gen. Yasuji Okamura made its second attempt to capture the 2,000-year-old Chinese City of Changsha, which is the capital of Hunan Province.

Today Changsha is home to more than seven million Chinese. It is located on the Xiang River, in the Xiang River Valley, formed by the Luoxiao Mountains in the east, Wuling Mountains in the west, the Hengshan Mountains in the south, and the Dongling Lake in the north.

Former Chairman Mao Zedong, began his political career there, first as a student at Hunan No. 1 Teachers Training School and later as teacher and principal of the same school. It is the birthplace of the chairman’s first wife, Yang Kaihui. The largest Chinese restaurant in the world, with seating for 5,000, is located there.

Most of the action, in the movie “The Sand Peebles,” starring Steve McQueen (for which he received his only “Oscar” nomination), Candice Bergen, and Richard Crenna, takes place there. The entire story occurs on the Xiang River in 1926.

By this time, in WWII, there was not much left of the city. It had already survived one battle a year previously, and what was not bombed by the Japanese, had been burned by the Chinese. However, it was the gateway to China’s southernmost provinces, the capital of resource-rich Hunan Province and the last door to the Western World.

In July 1941, Gen. Okamura was appointed commander-in-chief of the Northern China Area Army, which consisted of the First, Twelfth and Forty-third Armies, and the Second Independent Mixed Brigade.

After the war, Gen. Okamura was convicted of war crimes by the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal, and although he, through his use of chemical weapons and administration of the “Three Alls” policy —“Kill All, Burn All, Loot All” — had been responsible for 2.7 million Chinese civilian deaths, he was immediately pardoned by the Nationalist Leader, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who gave him a job as military advisor to the Chinese Nationalist Army.

The Japanese forces numbered about 120,000 troops from the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 13th, 33rd and 40th Divisions.

The Chinese forces defending the city consisted of the Ninenteenth Army Group, under the command of Xue Yue. He was probably the best general that Nationalist China had. American Gen. Clair Chenault, leader of the famed “Flying Tigers,” nicknamed him the “Patton of Asia.” This highly respected Chinese general lived until 1998 when he died at the age of 101, in Taiwan.

Nationalist soldiers under his command had forced Mao’s Communist Army to embark on the famous year-long 8,000 “Long March,” which was actually a long retreat, in 1934-5. For this, he was described by Chiang as, “...a true example of an Officer.”

After the Nationalist retreat to Taiwan, upon their defeat by the Communists under Mao, Gen. Yu was offered a government post, but declined, and instead retired from the Army with 10 years back pay, plus interest, making him relatively wealthy. On Aug. 9, 2008, his son-in-law, Tai Shen Kuo, was sentenced by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Virginia, to spend 16 (later reduced to three) years in prison for spying against the U.S. for China.

The impetus for the battle occurred on Sept. 6, 1941, when Chinese guerrillas attacked the Japanese 6th Division in the mountains southeast of Yueyang, which is located 97 miles from Changsha. Nine days later, the Japanese crossed the Sin Chiang River at four points and made rapid advances, crossing the Milo River on Sept. 19.

Gen. Xue’s Ninenteenth Army Group was reinforced by soldiers from the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Army Groups. Eventually the Chinese defenders numbered 110,000. On Sept. 26, the battle was joined, which included street fighting, in the city. When the sun rose the next morning, it revealed stacks of dead soldiers from both armies filling the trenches.

Elements of the Japanese 13th Division crossed the Liuyang River on a makeshift bridge and occupied the city. They were joined by the 4th Division the following day. Eventually, on Oct. 1, the Japanese retreated, leaving more than 10,000 dead. The cost to the Chinese is estimated to have been 50,000.

Soviet Gen. Vasili Chuikov, later renowned for his leadership in the defense of Stalingrad, who was present as an observer, noted that the Chinese, “...were capable of waging vigorous defensive operations and ...of scoring victories.”

On Dec. 24, the Japanese attacked the city again in an attempt to prevent the Chinese from reinforcing Commonwealth forces defending Hong Kong. Once again the Imperial Japanese Army suffered a defeat, leaving behind almost 57,000 dead.

In June of 1944, the Japanese attempted, for the fourth time, to capture Changsha. This time the outcome was different. First, they employed more than three times as many troops, and second, Gen. Yu was not in command of the Chinese. The commander of the Chinese Forces defending Changsha, Gen. Zhang De-Neng, fled the City and was later executed by Chiang Kai-shek.

Next week: Double Battle of Vyazma/Bryansk

Mr. Wimbrow writes from Ocean City, Maryland, where he practices law representing those persons accused of criminal and traffic offenses, and those persons who have suffered a personal injury through no fault of their own. He can be contacted at: wimbrowlaw@gmail.com.

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