Did you know that the Japanese made a strong play for India during WW2? I'd like to say I hadn't remembered, but, put more honestly, at the time of reading I had no idea. I'd known that Subhash Chandra Bose had flown off to join them, but I'd had no idea that they had come this close. The dense jungles of North Burma was where the seemingly unstoppable Japanese surge through Southeast Asia was finally slowed. However, having thrown the Brits out of Burma back into India, the Japanese made a concerted attack on Imphal and Kohima -- the two major eastern cities -- during the first few months of 1944. At stake was more than a bit of territory. These two cities, and with them the strategically vital railhead of Dimapur, controlled access to plentiful stocks of grains and provisions. The Japanese, in their whirlwind conquests, had over-extended themselves. Their invincible army was winning battles while dying of starvation. They needed this food. Donovan Webster's The Burma Road details this critical yet neglected face of WW2 in gripping detail.
On the afternoon of April 6, 1944, Lt. General Kotuku Sato's 31st Division had Kohima encircled in a vice-like grip. Further south, Imphal, better defended, was also cut off from supplies. Sato communicated with Lt. General Reyna Mutaguchi of the Fifteenth Army, and they agreed on the next step to be taken. As Webster puts it, "With the British off-balance, the time was right to strike forty-six miles northwest of Kohima and take the railhead at Dimapur. Once the rail yard was captured, severing the flow of supplies and ammunition, the Brits and Indians would being to weaken daily." They communicated this plan to their superior, General Masakazu Kawabe, the man in charge of all the Japanese forces in Burma.
Kawabe disagreed. The plan was "not within the strategic objectives". He vetoed it.
In the end, the aborted attack on Dimapur may rank as the greatest missed opportunity in Japan's invasion of India. With the Dimapur railhead left open--allowing the flow of weapons, soldiers, and supplies to Kohima and Imphal--the potential for the overwhelming Japanese invasion of India was lost. And possibly the successful Japanese invasion of India was lost as well.
Who knew? All because of one man's insistence on sticking to the book. I wonder how he felt the morning after he found out? I wonder what he thought.
From the uncannily providential to the grotesquely whimsical. The Japanese army was unstoppable during the first few years of WW2. Part of the reason was their strategic brilliance, another part was their overwhelming force applied at incredible pace. A third part was the savagery with which they fought. The story of the Rape of Nanking has now had many retellings that stand testimony to Japanese brutality. The Burma Road highlighted another - possibly more positive - aspect of this.
The Brits were unable to stop the Japs as they swept all the way up from Singapore to India. However, even after they managed to turn the tide at Kohima and beat the invasion back, it was not as if they won Burma back in a stroll. They had to fight for every inch, like I said, even against an opponent who was starving to death. Japanese soldiers had performed their funeral ceremonies at home before leaving to fight. They were not scared of death. Of every company of a hundred, the British had to kill ninety-eight. Usually individually. And the last two would embrace each other, hold a grenade between their swollen bellies, and pull the pin. All the way across Burma, as the Brits followed the Japs through the murderous jungle, they had to fight in this manner mile by sweltering mile.
Indeed, reading the descriptions in this book made me see for the first time the logic behind dropping the bomb. I still don't agree with it, but now at least I see it. The bomb was only the second time during the entire war that the Japanese lost morale in any sense.
The first was in Burma.
Here's the story.
May 1942, the Allies were beaten out of Burma in the most ignominious manner possible. Lt. General Joseph Stilwell, a three star general and commanding American officer of the WW2 China operations, was chased along with a few dozen comrades for three weeks on foot westward into India. For the next two years, the only Allied presence in Burma was that of a handful of spies co-ordinating covert operations. One of the most successful of these counter-occupation forces was the Northern Kachin Levies. The Kachins are a tribal people. The NKL was formed to harass the Japanese occupation forces. They would come up on the Japs in the jungle, unseen, and only engage them if they were sure of winning -- greater numbers and the element of surprise. They made it a point to take no prisoners. They would kill their victims. And, according to their tribal custom, they would cut off their victims' ears.
As reports of victim tolls started growing, Stilwell started questioning the figures. In his diary, he reported his first meeting with a Kachin. "How can you be so sure?" In response, the Kachin pulled out a bamboo tube and, unplugging one end, dumped a pile of "small, blackish lumps" on the table. "The blackened lumps resembled bits of dried fruit, apricots perhaps, or peaches." Japanese ears.
So why did this freak the Japs out? Not because they were being taken by surprise. Not because of the vast numbers of casualties. By freakish coincidence, this struck a chord with Japanese superstition. It was part of the belief system of the vast body of the Shinto/Buddhist soldier population that dead bodies are pulled to heaven by the ears. The unseen ghost enemy in the steaming jungles of Burma had hit unerringly at the core of their superstition. That's what it took to shake the Japs -- that, and the bomb.
I am now also extremely interested in knowing more about the Japanese. Throughout history they have been an isolationist race, leaving others well alone. Interclan rivalry and samurai movies notwithstanding, also a peaceful one. What caused the sudden explosion of WW2? Out of character behavior?
Speaking of interclan rivalry I also learned a lot from the other book I read: The Shia Revival by Vali Nasr. I'd been wanting to read this ever since I saw the NYT review last year, and was glad to find it in paperback last month. Not going to talk about it in detail -- just going to say it gave me *heaps* more understanding of the mess that is the Middle East. Well-written and all, of course, plus it personifies history and that's always nice. Very highly recommended.
Also speaking of interclan rivalry, I may be offline till the end of this month. Am headed to one of my least favorite place-times on earth, and for a wedding at that. It's TPB's younger brother - call him Junior, "getting spliced" (as my hysterical father put it) with a PYT. TPB, all well-meaning no doubt (and well-inspired to boot), wants me to blog about it. However she also tells me there's no decent internet connection yet at Junior's new apartment. So maybe I'll just do something else instead.
I've heard that's possible.
And these streets
Quiet as a sleeping army
Send their battered dreams to heaven