Dai Li reported that the Japanese High Command was deploying 150,000 troops south from Manchuria and North China and rebuilding a bridge over the Yellow River. The troops were presumably moving to join a major offensive in central and east China, probably sometime in the coming months. This operation, called Ichigo, would eventually involve half a million well-armed frontline Japanese soldiers, the largest number of troops ever used in a campaign in Japanese history.
The reason for Ichigo was the destruction of the Japanese merchant fleet down to 77 percent of its prewar level, which was seriously restricting Japan’s importation of raw materials from Southeast Asia. Strategists in Tokyo hoped to solve the crisis by creating a continental corridor linking Japanese- occupied territories from Korea to Manchuria, through North, Central, and South China down to Indochina, and then through Thailand and Malaya to Singapore. Such a corridor would require uninterrupted control of the railways between Hanoi and Peking and to Dalian in Manchuria. The plan would in effect expand Japanese-occupied China west and southwest, thereby securing the empire’s rear and allowing raw materials (such as oil, minerals, and possibly food) as well as troops to be transported from China and Southeast Asia to the port of Pusan in Korea and then across the narrow Tsushima Straits to Japan. The sizable territorial gains that the plan required would also result in the destruction of Chennault’s new airfields. On April 6, Chiang received intelligence reporting that Japan’s goal was not just to destroy the easternmost airfields but to open up “the Big [Dalian to Hanoi] Asian Railway.”
Consequently, while the Germans were retreating on every front in Europe and the Japanese were falling back in the Pacific, the Imperial Army was planning its biggest offensive of the war in China, bigger than anything MacArthur had faced. In Chungking as in the other Allied capitals there was increasing talk about the possible collapse of Hitler’s regime sometime during 1944. Chiang assumed that at Tehran Stalin had agreed to enter the war against Japan after Germany’s surrender, although the Allies had not informed him of this. Once in control of Manchuria and possibly Peking and Tianjin, Chiang thought, the Soviets would “talk tough and ask for a regional [CCP-dominated] government and regional autonomy.” But there was nothing at the moment he could do about it. In Yan’an, arguments for serious CCP cooperation with the Kuomintang lost what little force they had retained among the Chinese Communists. In Politburo meetings in December, Zhou again admitted his “capitulationist” (proKMT) views.
Chennault warned Chiang that the expected Japanese offensive in central China was imminent and would eventually extend into Hunan and Guangxi. The Y Force, he thought, would be needed to resist the enormous Japanese attack. Stilwell’s recurrently inaccurate intelligence office in Chungking issued an “emphatic dissent” to the prediction of a massive Japanese offensive. Stilwell informed Chennault that “the current crisis in [Imphal] India” had priority and he instructed the air officer not to send the Generalissimo “a gloomy estimate of the military situation” in China. Only when Chennault’s pilots spotted 239 Japanese troop trains steaming south and west did Stilwell’s Chungking headquarters finally conclude that a major offensive was indeed imminent. On April 17, the Japanese 37th Division, with hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, crossed the Yellow River on repaired bridges and rolled across the flat Henan wheat fields. Their goal was to sweep away the Chinese forces between the Yellow and Yangtze rivers, clearing the rail lines between Peking and Wuhan. The motley forces of General Tang Enbo’s First War Zone fell back in disarray, but the 28th and 31st Army Groups held on at the key city of Luoyang. For good or bad, the Generalissimo was on the phone personally directing the defense. He also appealed to Stilwell, his chief of staff, for five hundred tons of gasoline from the B-29 stores to fuel Chennault’s fighters supporting the Luoyang defenders, but Stilwell, believing that the Generalissimo had brought the situation on himself, declined.
The Chinese divisions in Henan fought as usual with no armor or motor pool, a few old cannon, and for every three soldiers two old, mostly Chinese-made rifles. The only advantage the Chinese fighters inside China enjoyed was tactical air support from the ninety or so operational planes of Chennault’s 14th Air Force that had been assigned to Chinese army operations inside China. The Luoyang defenders resisted for fifteen days, losing 21,000 Chinese soldiers and officers before Chiang’s withdrawal order came.
During the night of May 11, as the collapse in Henan proceeded, the 72,000-man Y Force waded across the Salween River in western Yunnan province to link up with Stilwell. According to the American liaison officers, the Chinese expedition, with its up-to-date equipment and extensive tactical air support, fought well and bravely. Scattered downpours soon merged into the near constant torrential rain of the monsoon. But U.S. planes dropped supplies and ammunition and the Chinese slogged on. At the same time, Stilwell’s Chinese divisions and Merrill’s Marauders, all battling mud and floods, reached the outskirts of Myitkyina.
Despite the rains, Stilwell was hopeful that his five Chinese divisions could soon link up with General Wei’s twelve “Y” divisions to the east. But in mid-June, Wei’s effort to seize Long Ling, the center of the Japanese line on the Salween front, collapsed when a counterattack by only 1,500 Japanese troops drove back 10,000 Chinese fighters. Chiang was extremely angry and demanded that Wei “spare no effort” to renew the attack and capture Long Ling. Chiang ordered two more Chinese armies from North China to join Wei’s force in Burma. These armies were desperately needed in the Ninth and Fourth war zones, which were awaiting the next phase of the grand Japanese offensive. By diverting them south, Chiang again demonstrated his commitment to an Allied victory in Burma.
American pilots continued to report that elite Japanese units from Manchuria were still pouring down the newly occupied rail line into Wuhan. Chennault again appealed to Stilwell to use his emergency authority to divert supplies, transport capacity, and combat elements of the B-29 command to meet the emergency in East China. Stilwell responded that “until the emergency is unmistakable, the decision will have to wait.” Two days later, the Japanese Sixth Army surged out of the Wuhan bulge into Hunan while smaller forces advanced from Canton and Vietnam. This second stage of Ichigo threatened to seize most of Hunan, which was the main rice bowl for Free China, as well as the bases of the 14th Air Force in Hunan, Jiangxi, and Guangxi. The pilots of Chennault’s 23rd Group flew three to four missions a day through and under the weather. They wreaked havoc among the Japanese, but their losses were horrendous—equaling or surpassing that of U.S. bomber groups in Europe. Nearly half the pilots of this group of three squadrons were killed or taken prisoner that summer, among them three squadron commanders.