Jack Belden, now forgotten, was once famous during and after World War II as a war correspondent, whose vivid firsthand reporting from China, Burma, India, North Africa, Sicily, and Italy graced the dispatches from United Press and then the pages of Time and Life. He evolved into a reporter over a 10-year stint as a romantic young wanderer, a globe-circling able seaman, bartender, beggar, gambler, teacher. Born in Brooklyn, educated at Colgate University, he was too restless to stay home. He went to sea, jumped ship in China at age 23, learned the language, and started to write, in English and Chinese. He was curious, observant, resourceful, and well-nigh fearless. And he was there, on the ground, when the Japanese attacked China in 1937. This excerpt, from his book Still Time to Die, is a dispatch from the early chaotic days of the Sino-Japanese War.
The retreat from Hsuchow [now Xuzhou] is one of the strangest operations in military history. The movements of the Chinese and Japanese armies, like the movements of the French and Russian Armies described by Tolstoy during the retreat from Moscow, are like nothing so much as a “game of blindman’s-buff, in which two men are blindfolded, and one has a bell to ring, so as to let the other know where he may catch him. At first, he rings it boldly without much fear of his adversary, but as the game gets closer, he tries to steal away noiselessly and generally, when trying to avoid the enemy, blunders into his arms.” In the same way, when the Chinese started their retreat, the Japanese knew where to find them; but somewhere along the way they lost track of the adversary and without suspecting his presence came into collision with him now and again. But the strange part of these movements was that while the Chinese Army was flying, the Japanese was not pursuing, though the very object of its movements was to catch the Chinese. This comes from the peculiar situation that the Japanese were moving to the north while the Chinese were moving to the west directly across their path. Instead of facing each other as two armies do when drawn up in battle array, or facing in the same direction as when one army is fleeing and the other pursuing, these two armies were crossed over each other in most unorthodox fashion. The Japanese moving north from the Hwai River toward the Lunghai Railway were spread out in a great ribbon while the Chinese coming from the east were cutting directly across their lines. Thus the Chinese movement from a mechanical point of view had all the earmarks of a great attack on the Japanese flank. Its character, however, remained that of a retreat, and its entire mood was one of escape.
On leaving Hsuchow and abandoning the Hanchuang Taierchwang-Grand Canal line, the Chinese had only one general route: it was south and then west across the Tientsin-Nanking Railway and forward to find the holes in the Japanese blockades. The Japanese knew this: their chief method of finding out the whereabouts of the enemy—reconnaissance planes—was utilized with increasing frequency on the 16th and 17th of May. Though a drizzling rain fell continuously on the latter date, the Japanese planes flew overhead in an endless queue.Precipitous and secret as the Chinese flight might be, the Japanese could not fail to detect it.
The Chinese tried, therefore, to conceal their plans; they could not mask them with distracting maneuvers for they had not the time to indulge in such persiflage when they were needed urgently on the far side of the Japanese blockade line.Above all, the Chinese tried to hide their actual movements from the enemy. They wished to get in position to launch their attack with suddenness. Once the details of their plan were discovered to the Japanese, they would be doomed. Instead of holding their thin line spread like a net over the whole countryside, the Japanese could then concentrate on the Chinese rear, sever the retreating columns into sections or mass their planes on the exposed troops while they were in vulnerable marching order on the road.
The Chinese casualties had been so heavy that their main force perhaps consisted of 100,000 men. They were divided into three groups. General Sun Lien-chung had the northerncolumn, General Tang En-po the central and General LiaoLei the southern column.
Feeling how important it was to get a start on the vigilant foe, these forces were ordered to hold themselves ready to march at a moment’s notice. At midnight on the 17th of May, General Tang En-po called his tired Thirty-second Army down off the banks of the Grand Canal and put it into motion on a southwest route toward Fulichi on the Tientsin-Nanking Railway. It was arranged that the sick and badly wounded should occupy the center, transported on litters on the backs of donkeys, while the lightly wounded tramped along with the rest as best they could. The cavalry went ahead as a screen and the artillery brought up the rear. Seeing in the very size of this army the germs of its own destruction, the staff took elaborate precautions to prevent the numerous elements from losing their way in the unfathomable darkness and unfamiliar countryside. Nevertheless, there was great anxiety lest the force degenerate into a disorganized mob and rush off in disorder.
The distance to be covered was 100 li [one li is about 500 meters]. The army had to get off the roads before daybreak. But the nights were short—dark at seven in the evening and light at four in the morning. Still there was nothing to be done but to go ahead.
To give General Li Tsung-jen [commander in chief of the Chinese forces at Hsuchow] the huge start which he needed to conceal the exact direction of his flight and to prevent the massing of the enemy on his lines of retreat, these thousands of fleeing men had to march 33 miles, get off the roads and hide themselves from the enemy between the hours of midnight and daylight at four in the morning—it was obviously impossible. But capricious fortune made the impossible possible. Still on the march at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 18th of May when the Japanese air armada took off to locate the absconding quarry, the position of the Thirty-second Army of Tang En-po appeared hopeless. But, suddenly, a thick, heavy fog poured out of the earth and drowned the retreating army in a bath of snowy mist. The effervescing waves of clouds burst over the army and wiped it completely from sight. It was alchemy; it was magic; it was fantastic; it was salvation. Along the bottom of this foggy sea, the army of Tang En-po marched, concealed. At 10 o’clock the troops halted. Then the mist stole away and it was light and there were planes in the air. But it was too late; the troops were hidden—in the wheat forests, in the hamlets and the hovels. Laughing. Safe.
But by 12 o’clock the planes were out in unprecedented numbers, angrily scouting the land for the vanished foe. Evidently acting under orders, the hunting planes worked over large areas near the railway, flying extremely low, examining and questioning the countryside until it seemed as if it must yield up its secrets. But again fate intervened. Shortly after noon, a tremendous sand storm broke loose, hiding everything under an impenetrable silica haze. So violent was the storm that the planes no longer dared fly low. Thus all day the troops hid, the soldiers rested well in the fields. These two acts of nature were the salvation of the army; thanks to the weather conditions on the 18th of May the Japanese intelligence failed to learn of the concentration of the Chinese forces north of Fulichi on the Tientsin-Nanking Railway. The three main groups were thus able to draw together and lay plans for their next step—the crossing of the railway. The army had little faith in fate, but such unexpected favors served to heighten the soldiers’ courage and lighten the gloom that inevitably hangs over any retreat.
The little cloth shoes of the soldiers danced silently over the plains, kicking up twistings of brown dust, and they streamed across the tracks and held on their way unmolested during the night. But on the second day when they reached the hills west of the Tientsin-Nanking Railway, they beheld parties of Japanese moving in the distance along the heights while the boom of artillery and the plop-plop-plop of machine gun fire echoed roundly off the hilly walls. Down into the valley, caged in on four sides by mountains, the army went, discovering along the way the extent of its hunger. Their stomachs, which only the day before had been full enough of the food of the peasants in the comparatively undisturbed areas east of the railway (rice, sesamum cakes, stolen chickens, congee and thin soup), were now empty, their exercise-sated bodies, which had been chilled during the infrequent halts at night, gasped in the heat of the day, and their cheeks, alive with sweat, now fed the rushing stream of salt dew which poured forth from their glazed eyes into their parched lips, dry with a hunger that drove many of them to rip the kaoliang stalks from the fields and stuff their mouths with grain seeds. When they discovered stagnant fresh-water pools, they drank, choked with nausea.
In the highlands, soldiers weak with dysentery and relapsing fever fainted and dropped in the green grass of a small valley, and a single Japanese plane flying overhead without apparent mission saw them and unloosed a salvo of hand grenades and dipped low as it dared, sweeping the ground with machine gun fire.
As the army was climbing the hilly steeps which shut in the valley, scouts came back with the intelligence that the enemy was encamped on the other side, apparently waiting their approach. This intelligence was soon confirmed by their own eyes and ears as they topped the hill and heard on all sides of them shells roaring from the guns emplaced on the heights to the southwest and whistling overhead with the speed of an express train, bursting open on the peaks of the Yellow Mountains and covering the hillsides with unfolding flowers and blossomings of white smoke.
When the Chinese discovered that the whirlwind advance of the Japanese had left great gaps in their rear, they, for once, acted immediately on their information. Li split the Seventh, Thirty-first, Forty-eighth, Seventy-first, and Fourth Army Corps into three routes and, in order to protect the flank of his main force as it crossed over the rivers, dispatched two divisions to retake several strong points on the highway between Mengcheng and Yungcheng. In three hours the highway was cleared and the Japanese infantry, taken by surprise, drew back into Mengcheng. The Japanese transport, not informed of the retreat, came on and ran into an ambush. Carloads of clothes, rifles, documents and flags,almost all of which they later abandoned on the retreat, fell into the hands of the advance guard. And the soldiers, going through the pockets of the dead enemy and finding fountain pens, handkerchiefs, toothbrushes and toothpaste—all things which they never owned before but only wistfully hoped for—helped themselves. When it was done, the commander sat down and said to his cohorts: “We have completed our duty and cut the enemy in half. Now we only have to hang on until we are dead.” Then he gave an order to the people not to cut the wheat,for the army behind him could use it to hide from the planes.Then he camped on the enemy’s line of communication and telephoned Li Tsung-jen to go ahead.
Early in the morning Li Tsung-jen, with four divisions of foot soldiers and a regiment of antitank guns, came out on the north shore of the river and stood watching the progress of his army pouring in a choked stream across the rude, narrow bridge of doors, wood planks,stones and mortar which his engineers had hastily thrown together. Flowing back from the river was nothing to be seen but an endless line of vehicles and an enormous body of troops with their baggage and horses and a strange crew of newspapermen, boy and girl actresses,officials and whatnot stretching away until it was out of sight: this was the Kwangsi contingent which was breaking through the center while the flanks held off the foe. When this army saw the narrow green ribbons of water, they immediately set up a market of noise.
“That’s the Fei River,” said a soldier.
“Don’t look very broad.”
“And not so deep either,” said a third.
“How rotten we haven’t yet crossed! It’s getting light,” said a young staff officer who, having become estranged from his own units during the night march, had joined up quite accidentally and nonchalantly with Li’s main force.
While this motley crew buzzed about the homemade structure, waiting their turn to cross it, eight li up-river by two well-built bridges,the Japanese, with a complement of tanks and armored cars, were camped, waiting for the Chinese to put in an appearance. And 15 li beyond this lurked another Japanese unit silently awaiting the approach of a quarry which,all unknown to them, was at this very momenta few miles down-river, stealing away.
But the theft of the river ford did not make the Chinese happy. They were nervous about it. Outside the camp in a wide semicircle they stationed soldiers on outposts, peering through the binoculars of their officers into the surrounding countryside for any possible enemy. Inside the circle, not far from the crossing which was a mass of angry, peevish and growling soldiery, two high officers, seated in a grove of trees upon a pile of rice stalks, were diligently scanning a map, which had been laid out before them by an orderly and carefully weighted down with stones. Nearby stood a regiment commander with an air of respectful attention, taking in all that was said and every now and then lifting his head in some peculiar manner as if he were listening for something. Suddenly, he nodded, as if he were confirming some secret thought. In a moment two planes appeared.
Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.