Gateway to Tokio

by Leonard Engel

From the moment in 1942 when our Pacific Fleet, shattered at Pearl Harbor, first overtook and then surpassed the Japanese anew, we have driven relentlessly across the Pacific toward the Chinese coast with three major goals. We have sought, first of all, to open a direct sea route to China which would provide the most effective means of moving supplies to our hard-pressed ally. At the same time, we have been seeking to sever communications linking Japan with her southern empire, because the sea is still the sole Nipponese supply line over which oil, bauxite for aluminum, chrome or steel alloys, iron, tin, rubber, rice, sugar, and medicinals can be shipped, As a military by-product of the first two efforts, we have attempted, third, to draw Japan's sea and naval power into a final and decisive action.

The time for accomplishment of all three of these purposes may well be near. Since June, we have stood on Guam, Saipan, Tinian in the Mariana Islands, which are 1500 miles from the coast of both China and Tokyo; since September in the Palau Islands, located 1000 miles from Manila. In October, the Philippines, Formosa and the Ryukyu Islands, last barrier between us and China, were all brought under the heaviest attack not only by carriers of Admiral Nimitz' task forces, but also by the growing fleet of China-based B-29s.

The Pacific strategy agreed upon at Army-Navy conferences in Honolulu and San Francisco and at the recent Quebec meeting of President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill may call for heavy carrier task force attacks on Japan itself as well as a landing in the Philippines. This would, however, result in no more than a comparatively short delay, if any at all, in our landing on the Chinese Coast.

What approach we would make to the China coast — whether between the Philippines and Formosa, between Formosa and the Ryukyus, or right through the Ryukyus, would depend in part on which Chinese ports we chose to land at or near. That, in turn, would depend on what we want to do with our landing.

If our main purpose is to deliver supplies to the Chinese, we would be likely to strike toward a more southerly part of the coast. The main axis of Japanese power in China is the mighty Yangtze River. If shipping supplies is our primary purpose, it would seem logical to operate as far from the main Japanese forces as possible. On the other hand, if it is considered necessary for American army forces to engage a substantial part of the Japanese army in China directly, which may be the case because of China's serious military weakness, a landing closer to the Japanese would seem advisable, ie, further north along the coast.

Also, the characteristics of the different Chinese ports would naturally play a part in our decision. But it should be kept in mind that no Chinese ports, except perhaps Shanghai, have adequate equipment and that we have already demonstrated our ability — in France — to land massive quantities of supplies right on beaches.

The principal ports from among which we might choose are Shanghai, Ningpo, Wenchow, Funing, Foochow, Amoy, Swatow, Canton and Kowloon, the mainland part of Hongkong. Shanghai was, of course, the greatest city of China, but it is situated well inland on a badly silted branch of the Yangtze, the Whangpo. Not only is it at the heart of Japanese power in China, but the approaches to it would bring us so close to Japan itself as certainly to result in our engagement in heavy flank operations,

The same applies to Ningpo, a few hours from Shanghai by rail, and also to Wenchow. Wenchow and Funing, moreover, are two of the least developed of the ports listed above. Foochow, which the Japanese have just seized in anticipation of our Chinaward drive, is near the seat of Japanese power in China. Amoy has a fine harbor, the only natural deep water harbor on the Chinese coast from Tsingtao, on the Yellow Sea, to Hongkong. But Amoy has no direct rail or water route to the interior of China. Nothing but a few surveyor's stakes remains of a railroad to Ichang on the Yangtze River, begun before the last war and abandoned when the British needed the equipment for campaigns in the Middle East.

A 120-mile railroad connects Swatow with Canton, which is at the confluence of southern China's most important transport arteries, the East, North and West Rivers. The Swatow harbor, however, is small and shallow. A nearby possibility which also deserves mention is Bias Bay, decades ago a pirate hangout.

As in the region of Swatow, around Canton, we would find strong guerrilla forces which can lend us substantial aid. But Canton, like Shanghai, is well inland (90 miles).

Finally, Kowloon is splendidly equipped, having, for example, the only large graving docks between Japan and Java, and a railroad connection with Canton. But seizure would involve a double operation, for the island of Hongkong lies only half a mile off shore. Furthermore, any facilities in Kowloon that are not wrecked by our preliminary bombardment will certainly be demolished by the Japanese, unless we can operate with unexampled speed.

The pattern which our landing operations will follow is by now completely familiar. The leading role in air operations such as air support would, in all likelihood, be played by carrier planes, as our land-based forces in China will not, because of supply difficulties, be able soon to equal our naval air forces in volume of fire. As a matter of fact, one reason we wish to land in China is to improve the supply situation to the point where it will be possible for our land-based forces to equal our sea-based.

If a landing on the China coast has ever been necessary, it is surely necessary now. As a consequence of the Japanese advance in Southwestern China this summer and fall, the Fourteenth Air Force was compelled to evacuate and destroy the greater part of its bases. These were around the cities of Hengyang, which fell to the Japanese in August, and Kweilin, on the verge of falling as this is written. Largely owing to the fact that every stick of necessary equipment had to be flown in over the hump from India, two years of fantastic labor were required to build these bases. If the Fourteenth Air Force should have to continue to depend solely on the hump airline of the Air Transport Command for supplies, it would take close to another two years to replace the lost fields.

The setbacks to the Chinese Army have, in fact, complicated the task of Adm Nimitz' triphibious forces in three ways. To begin with, if the Chinese retreat does not soon terminate, there can be no Fourteenth Air Force support at all for the landing. China's east coast would simply be out of range of most of the Fourteenth's aircraft, which are generally of short range type (B29s, of course, are not suited to tactical operations such as cooperation with a landing force). Second, the Japanese may be able to assign larger forces to the defense of the coast. Third, we will have many more miles to fight through before reaching territory firmly in friendly hands.

When we finally do reach such territory, we may look for a substantial improvement in the strength of the Chinese Army, a factor of vital concern to us, for the more Chinese soldiers able to take the field, the fewer will be the number of Americans who will have to go to the Far East. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the effect of the sea supply line. No matter where we land supplies, we will still have to make a long overland journey, through country boasting few good roads and fewer railroads, in order to reach Chinese on the anti-Japanese front. The time and equipment necessary to move those supplies through the prior sea leg of their journey, moreover, will be tremendous. The Pacific is three times as wide as the Atlantic. Experts estimate that it would take at least four times as much shipping to move a ton of war goods from San Francisco to the China coast as from New York to France. Even more important, the wide-spread notion that Chinese difficulties are due solely to want of material is erroneous. Political conditions inside China have actually played the larger part. For three years, 400,000 of the best Chinese troops have been, not in the field against the Japanese, but blockading the so-called Red areas in Northwest China, where people and military forces were fighting the Japanese long before official China. The defense of vital Kweilin and Hengyang was left by the Chinese Army to third-rate troops, whose incompetence has been bitterly denounced by Fourteenth Air Force spokesmen.

The dispute between Chungking and the Chinese Reds, as a matter of fact, has had the further adverse effect upon American air operations of denying to us air bases in the Red area. The strategically situated Red area is much closer to such Manchurian industrial targets as the steel mills at Anshan, the huge open-cut coal mine at Fushun, the great railway shops at Mukden and the modernly-equipped port of Dairen, than any of the present Superfortress bases. According to calculations based on published reports by the Twentieth Air Force, it is evident that the B-29 bases are located somewhere in central China, considerably to the south of the Red districts. Use of the latter by the United States is adamantly objected to in Chungking.

Nevertheless, the landing on the China coast will be of inestimable value. For the very least it will accomplish will be an immediate, very serious worsening of the Jap supply position, One of the objectives of the Japanese drive in Southwestern China has been to close the last gap in the projected all-land route from Manchuria to Singapore. Even if the gap should be eliminated and all necessary points fall into Japanese hands, transportation facilities do not exist over many parts of the actual land route, for example, between Canton and French Indo-China. For that, a sea haul would still be necessary. But the South China Sea is within easy range of Manila, whose streets we will soon walk and whose airfields will soon be at our disposal again. It is doubtful that the Japanese will find the steel required to repair the war-battered, long-dilapidated rail section between Canton and Hankow, Keeping open the all-sea route from the Indies to Japan, even on the present restricted basis, is so vital that the enemy may even risk his main naval and naval air unit, the Combined Fleet, in an effort to prevent our China landing. But that would not displease the US Navy at all, although the battle would occur with us at the long, and the Japanese at the short end of the supply line.

This article was originally published in the December, 1944, issue of Air News magazine, vol 7, no 6, p 36, 38, 76, 78.
The original article includes a map/diagram and 3 photos.
Drawing credited to Air News; photos credited to Acme, Navy, Curtiss-Wright.

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