I believe that all battles are evidence of failure; of diplomacy, of politics, of military strategy. A million minor inconsequential things must go wrong for there to first be a war and then a battle, and another million unintended mistakes must cumulatively be made for a great battle to occur. Even the language we use to describe these disasters is mistaken. In battle, nothing is “great” except the sacrifices of the men caught up in it.Officials in Fukouka Prefecture kept a close watch on the young males growing up in the towns and fishing villages of Kyushu, the southern most island of Japan. Often they would drop in for an unannounced visits, to check on the boys health and status. Then, sometimes during the young men’s 20th year, in the middle of the night, their conscription notices would arrive. It was claimed this delivery in darkness was done for security reasons, but it was usually followed by a very public send off to basic training. More likely the military merely wanted to drive home their ability to reach into each individual house in the nation..
During the first year of war with America and the British Commonwealth (1942) the Imperial Japanese forces suffered 2,672 men killed each week (on average), while in 1943 that appalling number increased to 3,563 each week. And the future promised only expoental growth in those tragedies. On 26 October, 1943, the Japanese Emperor Hirihito admitted that his nation’s situation was “truly grave”. It was accepted that 1944 would be Japan’s last chance to stave off defeat in a war they had started. In the Pacific the navy planned a counter stroke when the Americans struck the Mariana islands. In China the Army launched “Operation One”, a three prong attack by half a million men. And against British India, the Japanese Army decided on Operation “C”, a strike from out of Burma, which they had conquered two years before.
After their basic training and before leaving Japan, each of the 15,000 Fukouka soldiers wrote out his will and ceremonially gave his life to the Emperor. By now the nation could no longer wait until their twentieth year. By late 1943 the Japanese were inducting boys of 17 and 18, and men up to 44 years old. But whatever their age, from day one the soldiers were treated brutally. Officers and non-coms often slapped and beat their men for minor transgressions. Personal violence was so common that Japanese soldiers often beat each other.
This brutality was easily transferred to civilians and prisoners of war, particularly but not exclusively outside of Japan. The effect on unit moral was devastating, and by 1943 even the army high command wanted to correct it. But by then the war had grown out of their control
The men from Kyushu were formed into the 58th, 124th and 138th infantry regiments, a Mountain Artillery, an Engineering and a Transportation regiment. In late 1943 they were all assembled in Bangkok, Thailand and designated the 31st infantry division.
Their irritable and dyspeptic commander was Lt. General Kotoku Sato. He was of the opinion that his commanding officer was a blockhead, and openly told his staff that during Operation “C” he expected them all to starve to death. Late in 1944 the division was moved by rail to the northwest corner of Burma, to the head of navigation on the Chindwin River.
Each soldier was issued a 20 day supply of rice. Their equipment and ammunition were carried on mules and elephants, but there would be no supply line back to the Chindwin. The plan was to move fast enough to capture British supply depots as they advanced.
On 15 March, 1944, the 31st division, operating on the extreme right wing of four other divisions, crossed the Chindwin River by boat and raft on a front 60 miles wide. Moving quickly along winding jungle trails, their first objective was the tiny village of Kohima, 100 miles away and 4,000 feet up the 5,000 foot high Naga hills. They planned to reach this objective by a forced march in three days and nights. In fact it took them 15 days.
The jungle was fetid, hot and sickening, filled with flies, ticks, mosquitoes and leeches big enough to crawl up your leg and suck your blood until they burst. The mosquito bites could cause septic sores. By the time the advanced elements of the 31st division reached the outskirts of Kohima the monsoon had begun, the trails were reduced to deep sucking mud, and the men of 31st division were strung out along the trials, exhausted and hungry. Sickness and casualties had already reduced the Japanese force by 3,000 men. Still the remaining 12,000 Japanese soldiers had caught the British high command off guard, again. The draftees from Fukouka Prefecture quickly surrounded the barely 2,500 Indian and British troops defending the Kohima Ridge.
The ultimate goal for the 31st division was still 40 miles away; Dimapur, a British airfield, rail head and logistics base on the Brahmaputra River. From this depot a winding road climbed the Naga Hills, through a mountain pass along Kohima Ridge, and then ran southward to Impala. At Impala were three Indian divisions, commanded by British officers. The main Japanese thrust of four divisions was initially aimed at Impala. But if the 31st division could capture Kohima, those three British divisions would be cut off. And if it could capture Dimapur, the Japanese army would have enough food, ammunition and fuel to invade India itself. Sato’s goal was to capture enough supplies at Kohima for the next forty mile march.
In a first rush on the evening of 3 April , 1944, the men from Kyushu not only surrounded Kohima, they also captured British warehouses containing enough food to supply the 31st division for a year. But less than a month’s worth had been distributed when the Royal Air Force bombed the warehouses, and blew up the supplies. From this point forward each Japanese soldier received one rice ball, some salt and a bottle of boiled water a day.
Beginning on 6 April , under daily downpours and heavy mortar fire, the Japanese began a series of infantry attacks, squeezing the defenders back onto isolated hill tops along the ridge until the British still held only one, Garrison Hill. And atop that, at a 280 degree bend in the switchback Impala Road, was DC Hill, where in peaceful times the District Commissioner had built himself a summer bungalow, complete with garden and tennis court. By 9 April the the Japanese and British lines were separated only by the tennis court, and the entire battle for India and Burma had been reduced to a battlefield just 36 feet wide.
Attacks and counter-attacks raged across the court, for day after day . A British officer explained the battle this way. “We were attacked every single night... They came in waves…Most nights they overran part of the battalion position, so we had to mount counter-attacks...” Noted another source, “It was a very primitive battle. The Japanese had no air cover or air supply and attacked each night” Another British writer explained, “The defenders built barricades from the piled bodies of the attackers, the entire area eventually becoming a thick carpet of blackened and rotting corpses. When digging in, they found themselves often digging through the dead before hitting earth.”
On the night of 13/14 April , the Japanese managed to manhandle a 75mm cannon onto a slight rise to fire point blank into the forward British trenches. The survivors were forced to retreat. One of the Indian troopers, Wellington Massar, set up a machine gun on the billiard table in the remains of the club house, and cut down the following attack. A Lt. King led a counterattack which retook the trench. But the British position had been cut in half. With daylight the Japanese launched what was supposed to be the final annihilating attack, but it was repulsed. A British Officer told his commander, “The men's spirits are all right, but there aren't many of us left,” He said that if relief did not arrive within 48 hours, the position would fall. Five days later, the battle for the “shattered corpse-covered tennis court” was still raging.
On the morning of 18 April British artillery began to fall on the tennis court. It was the advance effect of the arrival of the British 2nd division, which had been flown into Dimapur the week before, and had now fought its way up the road. On 19 April the reliving column reached DC hill. What they found was “'filthy, bearded, bedraggled scarecrows” defending “shallow muddy trenches, dismembered limbs, empty cartridge cases, ammunition boxes and abandoned equipment, the debris of numerous assaults, and the stench of so many things rotting. The most lasting impression was caused by the litter of war- piles of biscuits, dead bodies black with flies and scattered silver from the DC's bungalow.”
Still the men from Kyushu did not give up. Now outnumbered and heavily outgunned, they contested every British advance, and were still holding the edge of the Tennis Court. As John Toland reported, in his book “The Rising Sun”, the 31st division was now eating “… grass, potatoes, snails, lizards, snakes – anything they could get their hands on, including monkeys”. Harold Jones, one of the reliving solders, describe Kohima this way. “I was there about 10 days. It was a terrible place”
By 25 May most the Kohima ridge was in British hands, and General Sato informed his despised commander that without food or ammunition his men could not survive past June First. When his commander ordered the 31st division to “fight with their teeth” if they had no more bullets, Sato instead ordered his men to withdraw. It was the only time in the Second World War that a senior Japanese officer disobeyed a direct order while under attack, and ordered a retreat..
Toland tells what the retreat was like. “On the long trek back over the mountains in pounding rain, men fought one another for food. Thousands of sick and wounded fell out of the march and killed themselves with grenades. The paths were seas of mud and when a man stumbled he became half buried in slime…Light machine guns, rifles, helmets, gas masks – anything useless – littered the trails. Only the will to live propelled the survivors…and those who lasted out a day’s march huddled together for sleep that rarely came because of the constant downpour. Many drowned, too feeble to raise their heads above the rising water, and the Chindwin River itself, their goal, claimed the lives of hundreds more in its swollen waters….by the end of the year Japanese rule (of Burma) was on the point of collapse.” (pp 693)
The 31st division had been destroyed. 67% of its precious 15,000 men were dead or wounded. The British counted 5,000 Japanese bodies on the Kohima battle field alone, and best estimates are that 7,000 of the men from Fukouka Prefecture were sacrificed in the attempt to take Kohima.. Fewer than 600 were taken prisoner. General Sato was relieved of his command, and sent sent home as unfit for duty because of wounds and physical wastage he suffered before Kohima. The British poet JM Edmonds left the best epitaph on the battle, which appears on the British cemetery at Kohima, and which could apply to the sacrifice of both sides. “When you go home, Tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow, We gave our today.”
None of the Japanese counter strokes of 1944 worked. The Imperial Navy blundered into the “Great Marianas Turkey shoot”, which saw 3 Japanese air craft carriers sunk, and 633 air planes destroyed. The Japanese Navy never recovered. In China “Operation One” pushed the Chinese army back, and forced the American 20th Air Force to abandon their advanced bases, which prevented them from bombing Japan. But the Mariana's victory allowed the Americans to simply transfer the B-29 bombers to the Marshal Islands of Guam and Tainan, where they would prove even more effective at burning Japanese cities.
And Operation “C” had captured nothing and left 50,000 Japanese dead, and reduced the defence of Burma to an empty shell. And for all the treachery and villainy of the Japanese militarist in fermenting World War in the Pacific, their greatest victims were not citizens of the United States, nor the British nor even China. Their greatest victims were the people of Japan, like the young men of Kyushu.
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