The United States and China During World War II: An Operational Outline

by Donald M. Bishop

Let me begin by tracing the strategic situation in the China-Burma-India theatre as it was conceived by America’s political and military leaders soon after the United States joined the Second World War.  A brief summary can hardly do justice to such a complicated topic — as is usual in history, the threads are many and tangled — but here are some broad brush strokes.

Officer of the Chinese Air Force receives Link Trainer instruction from U.S. Air Force Officer at Kunming Army Air Base, China. March 20, 1945. Source: National Archives and Records Administration

Americans had been following the tragic events in China since the opening of Japan’s aggression in 1931.  Though the United States was not a member of the League of Nations, it joined the international efforts to condemn Japan’s seizure of Manchuria.

After Japan’s aggression accelerated in 1937, the United States, hoping to avoid war, first turned to sanctions and other measures.  In July, 1938, President Franklin D. Roosevelt imposed a “moral embargo” that prohibited sale of warplanes to Japan.  In January, 1939, China received its first American loan.  Sale of scrap iron and steel to Japan was barred in September, 1940.  China received $26 million in arms under the Lend-Lease Act in 1941.  The Panama Canal was closed to Japanese shipping the same year.  And in July, 1941, the United States froze Japanese assets, bringing bilateral trade to a halt.

After Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt’s personal commitment to China ensured that — even as America determined that the nation must first concentrate on defeating Germany and Italy, only then to be followed by a major effort against Japan — China was not to be left unsupported.

It would take a conference of several days to trace the strategic decisions made by Allied leaders and councils during the war (Casablanca, Trident, Quadrant, Quebec, Cairo, Yalta and many others), but we can fairly state that the United States was consistently China’s strongest supporter.

The American commitment had a military dimension.  China tied down a major portion of Japan’s armed forces – more than a million troops — which could not then be deployed elsewhere.  And early in the war, China seemed a good candidate to become a base for air and naval operations, and for the final amphibious operations, against Japan.

That commitment had a social and cultural dimension.  Justice required that America support China against Japanese aggression.  Americans had absorbed a positive regard for China from many sources — through the novels of Pearl Buck and Lin Yutang, from the reports of missionaries, and from Time and Life magazines, published by Henry Luce, the son of American missionaries to China.  The well-respected Chinese Ambassador, Hu Shih, ably spoke for China all over the United States — at my father’s college’s graduation in 1940, for instance.

The American image of China was somewhat romantic and idealized, and it ignored the realities of inefficiency, graft, and corruption in Chiang Kai-Shek’s government and the Chinese armed forces.  But it must nonetheless be counted a factor in American calculations.

Between December 1941 and the Doolittle Raid of April, 1942, Americans received only bad news of defeat after defeat — our own defeats at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, the Philippines, Bataan — allied defeats in Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, and Singapore.

The only good news came from a small band of American aviators flying for the Republic of China under the command of Claire Chennault.  Their victories of the American Volunteer Group kept China “on the map” of America’s planners, and Americans were cheered by the news of American flyers helping brave Chinese face terrible odds.  This no doubt helped sustain President Roosevelt’s commitment to China, and it may help explain his later frequent support for using air power to fight the Japanese in China.

In planning to act on its commitment to help China, however, America faced some major difficulties.  After the completion of the Japanese offensives that began in December, 1941, China was in a dire geographic and geopolitical situation.

The Soviet Union was neutral, so while the U.S. began to move vast tonnages of weapons, aircraft, vehicles, and materiel to the Russians through Iran, to help in the fight against Hitler’s Germany, no supplies would travel through the Soviet Union to China.  There was thus no aid from the west and north.  Japan and its colonies (Manchuria, Korea, and Taiwan) blocked contact and support from the east.  The ports of the Chinese coast were occupied.  The Japanese conquered the Philippines, Indonesia, Indo-China, Singapore, and Malaya in lightning campaigns, making any approach to China from the southeast impossible.  Their advance through Burma cut China’s last road route to the outside world, the Burma Road (Kunming to Lashio by road, Lashio to Rangoon by rail), in May, 1942.  Thus China’s only border still open was with British India (now Pakistan, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh).

After their advance through Burma, the Japanese were, however, at India’s eastern gate.   And between India and China were the Himalayas.  No land transportation was possible over the highest mountains in the world.

To say China was isolated doesn’t quite convey its desperate position, and the situation left the United States, which was admittedly preoccupied with events elsewhere, both in Europe and the Pacific, unable to deploy its full resources to help China.  A major American contribution on every front of the Second World War was its industrial and economic power — brought to bear as mountains of supplies; lakes of oil and gasoline; shiploads of food; megatons of ammunition and weapons; the application of science; flotillas of transports and landing craft; vast thousands of vehicles; clouds of aircraft.

Bringing to bear this American might in materiel depended, however, on continuous logistics flows from the United States to the battle theatre and steady replenishment on the lines afterwards.  (American units used supplies and material, to deadly effect, in greater quantity than those of any other combatant.)

The United States could with great effort over long distances get war materials to Karachi and Calcutta by sea or air.  In 1943 the U.S. sent 4600 railroad workers to operate key sections of the rail lines in India so that supplies could reach Assam in India’s extreme northeast.  (Movement of materiel from Calcutta to Assam over the disorganized British colonial railroad system with different gauges, originally built to transport the tea crop to port, took up to 67 days).  Even so, with no sea or road access, only a trickle of materiel could reach China by air over the Himalayas.  Consider this rule of thumb — it took six gallons of fuel to deliver one gallon to China.

The need to open a ground transportation route between India and China drove much of the planning of Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten in India and General Joseph Stilwell in China.  The British wanted to push back the Japanese from the borders of India and retake Burma with a drive on Rangoon.  The Americans wanted to re-open the land route to China.

The fighting in Burma brought together British, Commonwealth, Indian Army, and African colonial troops on its southern front.  American troops and the three Chinese divisions that retrained in India, aided by guerillas and hill tribes, formed the northern front.  Their advance was strongly aided by air supply and air commando operations.  As the Japanese were slowly pushed back, it was American combat engineers that built the new Ledo Road and laid a fuel pipeline and telephone lines to China along its route.  The Burma campaign, begun in September, 1943, was a long hard slog.

One more strategic factor should be mentioned.  The generals of the Army Air Forces in World War II were committed to the idea of the decisiveness of air power in modern war.  Whether it was former Air Corps Tactical School instructor Claire Chennault, who believed that airpower alone could defeat ground offensives, or General Henry “Hap” Arnold who wanted American bombers to fly over and past the Army’s battlefields to attack the vital centers of the German and Japanese economies — all were apostles of air power.  These intellectual commitments to air power would shape part of what was to come.  To say that General Stilwell and many other Army generals did not share the airpower vision helps us understand some of the high-level arguments over strategy and tactics in the China-Burma-India (CBI) theater.

Let’s now take a look at the cooperation between Americans and Chinese at the operational level during the Second World War, chapter by chapter.

The first American aviators to engage the Japanese had been headed there for some time.  Claire Chennault, a retired U.S. Army pilot and instructor, had signed on as an aviation advisor to Chiang Kai-Shek in 1937.  Chennault had been head of the pursuit department at the Air Corps Tactical School and had many innovative and unorthodox ideas about the utilization of air power.  He had tested many of them to good effect in the annual U.S. Army maneuvers in Louisiana.

In 1940 and 1941, while America was still neutral in the war, Chennault began to raise a group of American volunteer airmen to fight the Japanese.  An executive order signed by President Roosevelt on April 15, 1941, authorized volunteers to resign from the Army and Navy to join an American Volunteer Group (AVG) in China.  One hundred pilots and 200 ground crew left the U.S. in the summer of 1941.  One hundred crated Curtiss Tomahawk fighters were diverted from England to China.

The recruitment of the AVG paralleled the movement of many young Americans into allied air forces as they anticipated American entry into the global conflict.  Many young Americans eager for battle traveled to Canada and enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force to receive flying training.  Three “Eagle Squadrons” of Americans wearing British uniforms fought in the Battle of Britain in 1940 and 1941.

While young Americans with no experience in the air could easily go to English-speaking Canada or Britain and receive flight training, China needed already-trained and experienced military pilots to serve in a distant corner of a yet-undeveloped country at war.  In modern management terms we would say that Chennault “thought outside the box” in recruiting the volunteers and used a “generous financial package” (high salaries) and “performance-based bonuses” (a payment for each enemy aircraft destroyed) to get those China needed.

Recruitment, moving to China, and training of the AVG in Burma occupied many months.  The first combat for the “Flying Tigers” was eleven days after Pearl Harbor.  Many have written about Chennault’s leadership and training, his focus on what we now call “dissimilar air combat tactics,” the innovative warning net (they called it the Jing Bao system), the halting of the Japanese offensive at the Salween River Gorge, and how the AVG raised Chinese morale.

For now we can just let the numbers speak:  From December 18, 1941, through July 4, 1942, the men of the AVG destroyed 298 Japanese aircraft, and the Japanese lost perhaps 1500 trained pilots, gunners, bombardiers, and navigators.  The AVG’s losses were ten pilots in combat, three on the ground, and four missing.  Twelve aircraft were lost in combat and 61 on the ground.  In terms of percentages, this ratio of aerial victories has never been equaled.

The spring of 1942 was a time of Allied defeats and withdrawals in the Pacific, with virtually the only good news coming from China — the victories of the Flying Tigers.  But on April 18, 1942, a direct air attack on Japan electrified the American — and Chinese — peoples.  Sixteen Army Air Forces twin-engine B-25 bombers, under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, made daring takeoffs from the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Hornet and bombed targets in four cities in Japan.

Since the B-25’s could take off from, but not land on, the carrier, they flew on to China.  Because they had taken off early (the carrier task force had encountered a Japanese picket ship), they did not have enough fuel to reach their ultimate destination, Quzhou in Zhejiang Province.  Some crews parachuted from their aircraft in the darkness over China; others crash landed.

Of the 75 aircrew that reached China, three died in the landings and eight were captured by the Japanese.  All the others were rescued by Chinese army units or guerillas.  The actual military effect of this first attack on Japan was modest, but it gave an enormous psychological boost to people in the United States and China.  Doolittle’s men were warmly welcomed everywhere in China.  Their rescue foretold similar efforts by Chinese all throughout the war.

The damage caused by the raid was modest, but the raid was an air operation with a vastly disproportionate effect.  Morale in the United States and China received a boost.  Japan kept many of its air units in Japan, to guard against another attack, rather than deploy them to the Pacific or to China.

Also, the raid occurred just as the Japanese high command was deliberating whether to marshal forces to attack the U.S. Pacific fleet, Australia, or India.  The shock and humiliation of the raid, launched from an aircraft carrier, made the Japanese choose a naval campaign directed at remaining U.S. naval power.  The raid thus set in motion Japan’s defeat in the battle of Midway of July 4-7, 1942, perhaps the most decisive naval battle of the entire war.

This success of the Doolittle Raid came at a heavy cost, however.  Japanese units in China killed tens of thousands of civilians for helping the Americans who crash landed in China.

In early 1942 the United States called Chennault out of retirement status and appointed him a brigadier general in the Army Air Forces on active duty.  The AVG’s pilots were offered their old commissions.  Some accepted, and other AVG members helped train an initial cadre of incoming Army aviators to take their place, insuring that the Flying Tiger experience would be passed on.

The three original AVG squadrons became the 23rd Fighter Group.  Chennault’s overall air command became the China Air Task Force.  The CATF and Chennault were, however, under the formal command of the 10th Air Force headquartered in India.

The CATF’s missions were:  defend the Hump supply lines; locate and attack Japanese air and army units, military and naval installations, and Japanese shipping along the coast and on coastal waterways; attack the Japanese in Indochina, Thailand, Burma, and Taiwan; and support China’s military operations.  The 23rd Fighter Group well carried on the spirit of the earlier Flying Tigers.

A gradual but steady increase in the number of U.S. Army Air Forces units in China under General Chennault’s command allowed the organization of the Fourteenth Air Force on March 5, 1943.  The Fourteenth Air Force, headquartered in Kunming, was unique among America’s sixteen wartime air forces — created and located in a zone of active combat, dependent on an aerial supply line, and established for a particular leader, General Chennault.

The Fourteenth Air Force was operationally a descendant of the original AVG, carrying on the same fight with many of the same models of aircraft.  Its new insignia featured a tiger with wings, so men of the Fourteenth Air Force are also often called “Flying Tigers.”

Bomber groups were added to the command in 1943.  So too was the Chinese American Composite Wing, with Americans and Chinese who had been trained in the United States serving and flying together in its formations.

The pace of operations against the Japanese by the Fourteenth Air Force increased in 1944, but its effective action prompted a Japanese reaction.  They undertook a major offensive in October, 1944, that seized the airfields at Liling, Hengyang, and Lingling, pushing back the reach of American air power.  Airpower historians are still debating the campaign.  It demonstrated that an Achilles heel of air forces unsupported by ground troops is dependence on secure bases.

Let the numbers compiled at the end of the war sum things up:  By the end of the war, the Fourteenth Air Force had some 20,000 men and 1000 planes.  Its four wings had seven fighter groups flying the P-40, P-38, P-47, and P-51; three bombardment groups flying the B-25 and B-24; two troop carrier squadrons flying the C-47; a photo reconnaissance squadron flying the F-5; and a night fighter squadron flying the P-61.

What was the record of these American commands in China?  From the formation of the China Air Task Force in July 1942 through the end of May, 1945, U.S. planes destroyed 2135 Japanese aircraft, with another 773 probably destroyed.  In air combat, the ratio of kills to losses was ten to one.  Japanese merchant shipping losses were estimated at more than 2 million tons.  How well the American aviators hampered Japanese movements is testified by 817 bridges destroyed or damaged, 1225 locomotives destroyed with another 1500 damaged, and the loss of 18,888 river craft.

Behind the air units in China were the Himalayas.  Every sortie in China depended on supply by air over the mountains from India.  Every man, every aircraft, every spare part, every tool, every radio, every radar, every bulldozer, every bullet, every gallon of aviation gas, and every can of Spam came the long distance to join the fight in China.  Others also depended on the same supplies – the Chinese government, the Chinese armed forces, and General Stillwell’s troops in China.

Negotiating the percentage share of supplies carried over the Hump for each end-user was a consistent source of policy stress between the Chinese and American governments and their military staffs.  Decisions were ratified after long debates at the allied planning conferences.

Several organizations contributed crews and aircraft to the air transport effort — the China National Aviation Corporation (with many former members of the AVG), American Airlines, the U.S. Army’s Ferry Command and later the Air Transport Command, and troop carrier and combat cargo squadrons.  They flew the C-46, C-47, C-54, and C-109 aircraft (all transports) and bombers that were converted into transports for cargo and fuel, the C-87.

In mid-1942 the USAAF and the CNAC took two months to carry just over 300 tons of materiel to China, but by the end of the same year the Hump pilots were carrying about 1000 tons of supplies per month to China.  In 1943 the amounts reached 3000 tons per month.

One U.S. Air Force summary noted that “The five-hour, 700-mile (1127-kilometer) route was considered suicide by the pilots, with freak winds, monsoons, unpredictable turbulence, and the most treacherous landscape on earth.”

Some pilots flew three trips a day, and they were often exhausted and stressed.  When Brigadier General William Tunner took command in September 1944, he focused on safety and efficiency.  Tonnage increased while accidents declined.  In the last month of the war, when air transport and combat cargo units that had been engaged in the Burma campaign could join the airlift over the Himalayas, 72,000 tons of supplies reached China via the Hump Route.

During the war the Hump pilots flew 777,000 tons of supplies to keep China fighting, but with aircraft losses of 509 crashed and 81 missing.  In one month, January, 1944, three men died for each 1000 tons that reached China.  The overall human toll was 1314 crew members killed and 345 missing.

We should mention one important legacy of the operations over the Hump.  Many of the early pioneers of airlift operations in the United States Air Force had flown the Hump.  They had learned in India and China that flying the missions is only part of an airlift operation.  Effective airlift also relies on the management of air routes, airfields, and ground handling.

The Germans, for instance, had attempted to supply the Von Paulus’s Sixth Army at Stalingrad by air.  Their pilots were brave, but for want of effective ground handling they could not deliver supplies in the quantities needed.

It comes as no surprise that when the Allies sought to supply Berlin by air in 1948, to keep it from passing under Soviet control, it was General Tunner who led the historic effort.

From June of 1944 through January of 1945, four groups (sixteen squadrons) of B-29 bombers were deployed through airfields built by tens of thousands of Chinese laborers in the area of Chengdu – at Guanghan, Qionglai, Pengshan, and Xinjin.   They comprised the 58th Bombardment Wing of the new Twentieth Air Force.  This was the strategic bombing air force which implemented the dream of the air power pioneers such as General Arnold.

The strategic plan for “Operation Matterhorn,” approved at the Quebec and Cairo Conferences, was:  gather a force of the new long-range Boeing B-29s in India, advance loaded bombers to the bases near Chengdu where they would refuel, and launch long distance raids against Japan.  Histories of the operation emphasize President Roosevelt’s personal commitment to opening a bombing campaign from China against Japan.  The Twentieth Air Force was not placed under any of the CBI theatre commanders (Arnold knew Stilwell and Chennault would try to use the B-29s to support their own operations), but was rather was an autonomous command under the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The supply problems were daunting.  Ships with materiel, fuel, and personnel traveled from the U.S. via lengthy and roundabout Atlantic or Pacific routes to Karachi or Calcutta.  Before any raid from India to China to Japan could be mounted, fuel had to be transported to the airfields near Chengdu.  B-29s, intended for bombing, flew preparatory missions that carried only fuel (seven tons per mission) over the Hump to China.  It took six missions over the Hump to provide enough fuel for one mission to Japan.  There were losses of aircraft and men on these supply missions, which also reduced the active service life of the engines and airframes.

The first raid against Japan — a 3200-mile mission — was conducted the night of June 14-15, 1944.  The numbers testify to the difficulty of the task.  Ninety two aircraft left India, but only 79 reached China.  Seventy-five aircraft took off, but only 68 reached the Chinese coast and only 47 attacked the target, the Yawata Iron Works.  Fifteen aircraft bombed visually and 32 bombed by radar.  Only one bomb hit the target.  It was a harbinger of difficulties to come.

The XX Bomber Command continued to press its attacks, including some missions against Japanese targets in Manchuria, Taiwan, and China.  Its effectiveness increased with the assignment of Major General Curtis LeMay to the CBI and as it adopted new procedures — a different formation, lead crews to find and mark targets, control of the bomb run by both bombardier and radar operator, and different mixes of high-explosive and incendiary bombs.  But so did the effectiveness of the Japanese defenses.

By the end of 1944 the Command had lost 147 bombers.  It was evident that the attacks against Japan mounted from Chengdu were too expensive in men, aircraft, and material to continue.  The last attack from Chengdu — against Japanese targets in Taiwan — was conducted on January 15, 1945, and the bombers deployed to the Marianas Islands in February.  There they joined the rest of the B-29 force attacking Japan, first with high-level precision bombing tactics, later with low-level attacks that ignited Japanese cities.

Major General Haywood Hansell, one of the air power visionaries who commanded B-29s, judged Operation Matterhorn “not a success” from the operational view.  “You just couldn’t supply B-29s over the Hump well enough to conduct a successful bombing campaign.”  In the Marianas Islands, the bombing force could be easily supplied by sea across the Pacific, now cleared of the Japanese by the island-hopping campaigns.

Hansell judged, however, that “from the standpoint of strategic effect” it was “a tremendous success,” confirming the principle of central strategic command of a bomber force rather than assignment of the forces to local commanders.  Tactical innovations pioneered in China made the Command more deadly for the remainder of the war.  Many of the obstacles to the successful strategic bombing by the B-29s were with aircraft and engines; many of these problems were shaken out in India and China.

Post-war studies demonstrated that Japan was defeated by the twin effects of the submarine campaign, which cut off its supplies, and the strategic bombing campaign, which destroyed its industrial capacity.  Operation Matterhorn was part of the latter.

The failure of Operation Matterhorn to achieve decisive results and the disputes between General Stilwell, General Chennault, and Chiang Kai-Shek all stemmed from the inability to move enough material over the Hump to China to support operations that would have been decisive.  General Stilwell’s hope was that re-opening a land transportation route to China would remedy the strategic deficiency.

The campaign in northern Burma had opening a land route to China as one of its primary objectives.  General Stilwell opened the campaign in Feburary, 1944.  The India-trained Chinese divisions, the X-Force, were the right wing of the offensive, and the American 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), “Merrill’s Mauraders,” was the left.  After months of difficult fighting with the planned route of the Ledo Road as the axis, the airport at Myitkyina, Burma, was seized in May, 1944, and the town fell in August.  The X-Force and the Marauders then moved south toward Mongyu on the Burma Road.

American air power gave the offensives in Burma an important advantage.  Troops were moved, supplied, and supported by air.  The attack on Myitkyina of March 5-11, 1944 included an important innovation in air-ground tactics and cooperation.  The First Air Commando Force under Colonel Philip Cochran dropped gliders onto a landing site nicknamed “Broadway” with troops, engineers, and bulldozers to clear an airstrip.  The landings on Broadway continued in spite of initial losses.  Beginning the same evening, C-47s and more gliders unloaded cargo, 9000 troops, half a million pounds of supplies, and nearly 1500 mules and horses.  As the troops advanced, they received more supplies by airdrop.

As the Americans and the X-Force of Chinese troops approached the Chinese border, the Y-Force, Chinese divisions stationed in Yunnan, began their movement in May, 1944.  Their major battles were at Lungling, Tengchong, and Sungshan.  On January 27, 1945, the X-Force and the Y-Force met.

The construction of the Ledo Road — from Ledo, Assam, India — into Burma had began on December 16, 1942.  A fuel pipeline and telephone lines were built along the full length of the new road from India to China.

The Ledo Road, the pipeline, and the communications lines went through some mostly uninhabited areas of Burma with some of the most difficult terrain in the world, including tropical rain forest, torrential streams, terraces and canyons, jungle-covered mountains and swampy valleys.  The wet monsoon season from May to October had heavy rain (up to 140 inches in the mountains).  Leeches, malaria, and typhus were among the medical hazards for the troops.  Two Chinese units joined the American engineers, the 10th and 12th Independent Combat Engineer Regiments.

From October, 1943, the commander of the effort was Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick.  Troops nicknamed the Road “Pick’s Pike.”  General Pick said that building the road was “the toughest job ever given to U.S. Army Engineers in wartime.”  Told the road could not be built, he said the road would be built, “rain, mud, and malaria be damned.” He began around-the-clock construction.

As with the campaign in Burma, air supply played an important role, with aviators of the 10th Air Force landing on crude jungle airstrips or dropping supplies by parachute to advance units.

Engineers moved 13,500,000 cubic yards of earth in building the road.  This is enough earth to build a wall a meter wide and three meters high from Shanghai to Tashkent.  Engineers dug 1,383,000 cubic yards of gravel from riverbeds to surface the road.  If this gravel had been loaded on railcars, the train would be 687 kilometers miles long.  The Ledo Road crossed 10 major rivers and 155 smaller streams.  Seven hundred bridges were built over the length of the road, including the longest (360 meters) pontoon bridge in the world over the Irrawaddy River on December 6, 1944.

General Pick led the first convoy out of Ledo, bound for Kunming, China on January 12, 1945 — 113 vehicles (heavy cargo trucks, jeeps, and ambulances). The convoy reached Myitkyina on 15 January, but was delayed until 23 January until the last Japanese units were cleared from the Road area by Chinese and American troops.  The convoy entered China on 28 January.  They were met by Minister of Foreign Affairs T.V. Soong.  On 4 February, the convoy reached Kunming as firecrackers exploded and bands played.  The Governor of Yunnan Province gave a banquet for the Americans.

In the six months following its opening, trucks carried 129,000 tons of supplies from India to China.  Nearly twenty-six thousand vehicles and another 6,500 trailers that carried the cargos (one-way) were handed over to the Chinese.  In the last two months of the war, the pipeline delivered 3 million gallons of aviation fuel and motor gasoline to China per month.

The final estimated cost of building the Road (in labor, materiel, supplies, equipment, fuel, and repairs) was $148,910,000.  The greater cost of building the Ledo Road is measured in human lives. The entire length of the Stilwell Road was 1,079 miles. American fatalities were 1,133.  The men working the project called the losses “a man a mile.”

In southwest and southern China, America’s cooperation was with the government of the Republic of China under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek.  This is entirely natural.  The Republic of China was China’s recognized government, and the Americans, reaching China from India, flew into areas controlled by what we now call “the Nationalists,” the Guomindang (“Kuomintang” or KMT).  General Stilwell’s headquarters was in the wartime capital of the Republic, Chongqing (“Chungking”).

Japan invaded a China divided by a severe conflict.  Confronting the Guomindang were the Communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong.  Their wartime headquarters was in China’s west, in Yan’an.  During the war there was an unstable period of cooperation between the Nationalists and the Communists, with representatives of the Communist movement residing in Chongqing.

The Communists were eager to win American recognition and support for their cause, while Chiang Kai-shek was determined to prevent contact.  During the period of cooperation, however, Chiang agreed that American military observers could visit Yan’an.

The U.S. Army Observer Group, nicknamed the “Dixie Mission,” under Colonel David D. Barrett, arrived in Yan’an on July 22, 1944.  The Group included Embassy officers.  Colonel Barrett remained until December 8, 1944.  A few dozen Americans remained in the Communist areas until the end of the war.

The team gathered and sent on to Chongqing weather reports (especially useful to the Fourteenth Air Force and the XX Bomber Command), helped organize the rescue of downed American fliers, and passed on to Chongqing intelligence on Japanese forces in northern China.  Chairman Mao offered to build airfields for the B-29s in northern China, but General LeMay demurred.  New airfields could not solve the basic problem he confronted – limited supplies coming to China via the Hump route.

In general, the American military observers and their Embassy counterparts were impressed by the Communist efforts against Japan, while journalists visiting Yan’an mostly communicated glowing reports about a Chinese society organized on new lines being constructed by Chairman Mao — free of corruption, for instance.

The end of the war brought to a conclusion this period of contact and cooperation.  Chairman Mao’s forces were, of course, ultimately successful in the struggle between Communists and Nationalists that ended in 1949 with the withdrawal of Chiang and the Guomindang to Taiwan and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.  A period of hostility between China and the United States followed.  It is no surprise, then, that accounts of this chapter of the war are strongly influenced by a sense of “what might have been” or “a missed opportunity.”  Historians will be debating this for some time.

The histories of the United States Army divide the war in China into two campaigns, the “China Defensive” and the “China Offensive.”  The China Defensive closed as the 14th Air Force held back the Japanese “Ichigo” campaign.  The China Offensive began, by the historians’ reckoning, on May 5, 1945, when the tide was turned against the Japanese by a successful Chinese attack on Wuyang.

General Stilwell’s departure from China in October, 1944, allowed U.S.-China military cooperation, which had been strained by his antagonistic relationship with Chiang Kai-shek, to get a fresh start.  General Albert Wedemeyer became the new commander of U.S. forces in China, and the Japanese offensive that began in October provided a new urgency to allied cooperation.

Wedemeyer persuaded Chiang to form a new command of 36 divisions and a Chinese-American combined staff.  A new combat command, training center, logistics command, and school for interpreters improved the fighting ability of the Chinese units.  More than 3000 Americans joined the Chinese formations as trainers, advisors, and liaison staff.  The units were, for the first time, joined by radio communication.  All these measures created “a new spirit of mutual cooperation between the Chinese and the Americans.”

The Fourteenth Air Force, now including bombers, night fighters, and reconnaissance aircraft, continued its destruction of Japanese air and ground units.  Supplies over the Hump and over the Stilwell Road gave all the forces more punch.

By this time, moreover, the progress of the costly American offensive on Okinawa prompted the Japanese to change their strategic plan and to regroup forces by withdrawing from areas of south China.  Chinese troops pressed them as they withdrew, taking Liuzhou and Fuzhou.  The Americans and Chinese were planning another major advance, Operation Carbonado, when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan and the war came to a rapid conclusion.

At the end of the war there were more than 60,369 American military personnel in China.  More than 34,000 were in the air units, and more than 22,000 were assigned to ground units.

Thousands of American and Allied prisoners of war had been sent by the Japanese to prisoner of war camps in occupied China.  American planners knew that main bodies of American troops would be unable to quickly reach these camps in the event of a Japanese surrender, and there were disturbing reports of Japanese plans to kill the prisoners.  Quickly, detachments of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) were organized to parachute into the camps and to order the Japanese garrisons to release them.  Long-range aircraft of the Fourteenth and Twentieth Air Forces airdropped supplies on the camps to provide nourishment, medicine, and hope.

The six- or seven-man teams – many of which included a Japanese-American interpreter — were ready a week after the Emperor’s broadcast of surrender.  They took off from Xi’an.  Magpie jumped into Beijing, Duck to Weixian in Shandong Province, Sparrow into Shanghai, Flamingo to Harbin, Cardinal to Shenyang (“Mukden”), and Pigeon to Hainan Island.

Each team had its own remarkable stories to tell.  Here’s one.  Cardinal was taken captive on landing in Shenyang, put in a luxury hotel overnight, and freed the next day.  They gave the news of the end of the war to 1600 American, British, Australian, and Dutch prisoners and prepared them for their return home.  They learned that Lieutenant General Jonathan Wainwright, the commander of the American troops in the Philippines in 1942, and Lieutenant General A. E. Percival, who had surrendered the British troops in Singapore earlier the same year, were held in another camp 150 miles north of Shenyang.  A doctor and a corporal traveled by rail to Si’an to set them free.

After more than three years of hard captivity, General Wainwright and General Percival stood on deck of the USS Missouri on September 3, 1945, witnesses to the unconditional surrender of Japan.   When General MacArthur signed the instrument of surrender, he gave the pens to the two men who had been freed in Si’an.

There were many controversies relating to American and Chinese cooperation during the war in China, and historians continue to debate them.  Would a different allocation of supplies flown over the Hump have produced a better effect?  Whose strategic vision was the right one, Stilwell’s or Chennault’s?  Should President Roosevelt have been more decisive in the conflict between the two American generals?  Were the Americans wrong to support Chiang Kai-shek?  Was Operation Matterhorn worth the effort?  Let me step back from these controversies, however, and offer some thoughts on the fundamental meaning of the wartime alliance between China and the United States.

Some military historians divide World War II into four linked but different major conflicts – Germany vs. Russia, Germany vs. the Western democracies, Japan vs. China, and Japan vs. the United States.  In this view, what we call the war in the Pacific had two major theatres of combat – China and the Pacific Islands.

To zoom in on the picture more closely, there were three major axes of advance against Japan by three major commands.  One – the focus of this paper — was in China.  The second was the advance of American forces (with Australian participation) in the Southwest Pacific Area (SWPA) from New Guinea to the Philippines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur.  The third was the advance across the Pacific Ocean Area (POA) by American forces under the command of Admiral Chester Nimitz.  The SWPA and POA advances converged to conquer Okinawa in the spring of 1945.  General Stilwell, reassigned to Okinawa, was preparing his new command, the Tenth Army, for the invasion of Kyushu in November, 1945.

Concurrently, Japan’s island economy, dependent on material from the conquered territories, was being strangled by American submarines launched from Hawaii and Australia, and in 1945 the strategic bomber force began the systematic attacks on Japan’s industries.

The alliance between the United States and China was a main pillar in the architecture of the war in the Pacific, providing unity of effort, and it was this alliance that was decisive in achieving the unconditional surrender of Japan in the Pacific theater, bringing World War II to an end.

It in no way diminishes Chinese courage, will, and sacrifice to say that the alliance with the United States was indispensable to China’s resistance.  The Fourteenth Air Force and the supplies moved over the Hump not only “kept China in the war.”  Very likely, they were decisive in preventing China’s defeat.

The war would not have ended when it did if the Republic of China had been defeated by the Japanese.  No doubt a people’s war of resistance would have followed.  One can imagine scenarios involving later American or Soviet offensives.  But years of effort would have been required to expel the Japanese from China, and the campaigns on the Asian mainland would not have directly challenged Japan’s military regime on the home islands

The alliance with the United States, then, meant that China need not face many more years of blood and agony in its war with Japan.

It is also true that President Roosevelt and his advisors were right.  China’s fight against the Japanese troops in China kept more than a million troops in China, unable to mount another offensive (against India, for instance) or to reinforce the islands in the Pacific.  Americans paid terrible prices to pry such places as New Guinea, Saipan, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa from Japan’s grip.  How much more terrible would have been the price if Japan had more troops to deploy against American forces.

Yes, the American submarine campaign was particularly effective against Japan’s island economy, American B-29s reduced Japanese cities to ashes, and the United States possessed the atomic bomb.  Japan’s eventual defeat by the United States, even if America had to do so alone, cannot be doubted.  It was the dropping of the two atomic bombs on August 6 and August 9 that caused the Emperor to broadcast his message of surrender on August 15, leading to the surrender of Japanese forces in China and all other fronts soon afterwards.

Had China been defeated earlier, however, the American campaigns would have been longer and more difficult, with heavier losses.  And history would have taken a new, unpredictable trajectory that would have stacked the odds against a stable and peaceful postwar order.

The alliance with China, then, meant for the United States what it meant for China, that neither need face even more years of blood and agony in a war with Japan.

This, then, was the meaning of the alliance.  China and the United States gave what they had.  Both nations bore heavy losses.  Both did something the ally could not do on its own.  If a historian or journalist presses the point – which was the decisive contribution? – there can only be one answer.  The efforts of both nations were essential to the decisive defeat of Japan.

I am conscious that this paper focuses on American accomplishments, American commands, American units, American leaders, and problems solved by Americans.  This is perhaps a natural leaning for a paper by an American military historian.

All of us know the tremendous sacrifices and burdens of China during the war, facing an aggressive and brutal enemy.  We know that American losses in China were in the thousands, but China’s were in the millions.

General Stilwell and many other Americans knew that China’s difficult transition into the modern world and more than a century facing European and Japanese imperial designs had left it poor and underdeveloped, affecting its overall ability to face more modern and better-equipped Japanese forces when war came.

The Americans who came to China during the Second World War, however, encountered a people who were poor in things, but rich in energy and courage.  Chinese rescued downed flyers at great danger to themselves.  General Chennault’s warning network succeeded because patriotic Chinese were willing to risk death to report the movement of the enemy aircraft.  Tens of thousands of Chinese worked to prepare the airfields.  Chinese supported the American units in dozens of roles, from cooks to airfield workers to aviation mechanics to nurses.  Whatever the shortcomings of China’s generals, there were legions of brave and hardy Chinese soldiers.  As the war progressed, there were more Chinese pilots and aircrews, many trained in the United States.  In 1945, Chinese divisions with American advisors, training, and logistical support turned to the offensive.  American veterans of the CBI will be the first to tell all of this about the Chinese they met more than sixty years ago.

This paper, then, is not only about Americans.  It is about Americans and Chinese together.  We were friends in the past, and we must be friends now.  Our peaceful tomorrows are surely even more important than our wartime yesterdays.

15 September 2005

Donald M. Bishop was the Minister-Counselor for Press and Cultural Affairs at the American Embassy in Beijing.  Before entering the Foreign Service, he was Assistant Professor of History at the United States Air Force Academy.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at conferences in Kunming, Beijing, and Chongqing.  The author thanks the many Chinese and American scholars who made constructive comments.