A scraggly scarecrow, a person-shadow made his way towards the Japanese sentry. A reed-like outline, sun-blasted and wasted in strength like a dark ghost moved up the jungle track. Skin like a dried ammunition pouch he appeared to be a mountain tribesman often enlisted as coolie labour by the Japanese. The beam used to haul earthen buckets balanced on his shoulder confirmed his vocation, but what did he want here?
The sentry barked again the call-sign and the reed answered in a halting, strained, but obviously native Japanese with a distinctive accent of the southern island of Kyushu. The sentry startled as a few language stabs revealed the ghost to be artillery Lt. Kinoshita, of the Ramou garrison. Taking his pole from his shoulder he revealed it to be his military sword wrapped in dirt and rags to disguise it as a working coolie pole to suspend two baskets for hauling earth（天秤棒) . He reached into the end of the “stick” and took out a grenade enclosed in the event his disguise was seen for what it was and he needed to kill himself and destroy the secret military documents stashed even further down the scabbard.
He wouldn’t be needing it anymore.
Handing it to the sentry he was shepherded towards the 2nd Division command post. There he unfolded a harrowing tale of the last days of the Ramou roadblock fortress and its 120-day struggle of its 1300- man (and women) garrison against and entire Chinese army. Kinoshita-san was one of only a handful to make it out of this improvised fortress mountaintop before his remaining comrades were annihilated.
With heavy hearts and much tears Kinoshita told his tale to the staff and commanders of the Imperial Japanese Army’s 2nd Division. Many of the garrison were known to divisional headquarters. Stomachs tightened, tears welled up as each officer tried to comprehend the nature of the catastrophe of the fall of Ramou. The Burma Road was open. Nothing impeded the Chinese obtaining their supplies via the new road from India. Ramou, the last roadblock, was gone. Facest downcast, tears were evident, but their chests also swelled in appreciation so small a garrison had held up an army 50 times its size for 120 days.
“Ramou” is the name the Japanese army used for a battle on a mountain otherwise known in Chinese as the battle of Song Mountain (松山战役) . “Song-shan” in Chinese or “Matsuyama” in Japanese mean “Pine Mountain”(松山). the name of Ramou ( らもう= 拉孟 a small rivulet and abandoned vi
Here, for three months, a force of 1300 Japanese soldiers of the Japanese 56th Division from Northern Kyushu held up the entire Chinese Expeditionary Force of over 40,000 US trained and supplied troops preventing a link up with the British Indian Army in north Burma. Unsupplied and abandoned by their hard-pressed and retreating comrades further to the south they firmly blocked the Burma road denying its use to the western allies in a knock-down, no quarter battle over three months. This “Gyokusai” battle did not take place on an isolated island in the Pacific, but atop 2000 metre mountains surrounded by passes, deep gorges, rivers and evergreens with snow where the temperature could fall below freezing at nights.
The campaign in South Yunnan is largely forgotten in both Japan and China. It is completely unknown in western histories of the war in Burma. A most recent compendium on the war released does not mention it. Louis Allen’s wonderful opus major on the war (Burma: The Longest War) borrowing heavily on Japanese translations does not mention it beyond vague reference to the Chinese attacking from the north, detail increasing as the Chinese Yunnan Army approaches British forces.
Historical events of the last days of the mountain-top fortress are at times obscure – history can cease or change into something inscrutable when one side in a battle is physically erased. It remains clear however this garrison, unlike their brothers on remote Pacific Islands had the opportunity to withdraw and did not. Major Kanemitsu Keijirou, commander of the Ramou garrison was ordered to stand and fight, and that he did. The order was given to prepare a “sacrifice garrison” of less than 1400 men. This included an incredible 300 wounded. They had no hope of being relieved or supported. The order to stay and hold was a slow death sentence taking an incredible six months from the time of encirclement to the time when the hills stopped shaking and the Chinese army emerged into the fire-swept hilltop to find no more Japanese to kill.
Garrison survivors were few. Chinese sources say nine soldiers were captured. Japanese sources say seven only. With numbers this small it was a clear case of Gyokusai. I have seen it referred to as 陸の玉砕 = “riku no gyokusai” or “mainland gyokusai” in Japanese. Kanemitsu and his men could have pulled out at numerous times but in the end the pull of culture, central command and a sense of duty to each other and the emperor prevailed. One hesitates to use superlatives to elevate one pool of suffering over others but it is hard to find a similar battle during WWII for sheer endurance without support in a very small area to compare with what the Japanese soldier endured on Pine Mountain.
Upcoming posts will analyse this battle through a selection of translated materials I have come across in the coming weeks. In particular I shall be translating from Noguchi Seiki’s “Reminiscences of the Burma Campaign.” (回想ビルマ作戦 ). Noguchi was a staff officer in training specialising in research and defence. He had chances to directly travel to sites on the front line and gives a good account of the battles and the deteriorating strategic situation in Yunnan. He was at Ramou before the battle began in earnest and the garrison cut off by the advancing Chinese Army. He also switched between the Yunnan Front with the Japanese 56th Division and the offensives along the Burma-India border so had a very good appreciation of the overall picture.
Japanese staff officers had a reputation of direct contact with the front and did not shirk from accompanying front-line troops into the fighting or aggressive reconnaissance. Noguchi was no exception and even on accompanying small combat parties he showed a zeal for his profession to learn as much as possible about the enemy and provide plans for the defence of Northern Burma. He seems to have realised even early in 1943 that Japan could not win the war but, like most Japanese, felt that unconditional surrender, putting in question the fate of the Emperor, simply not an option.
In his own words, suitably enigmatic and rich in Japanese free-form open-ended logic he said:
“military superiority of the allies made it inevitable that Japan could not win the war, my job was to make sure that if we did not win, then as least we did not lose.”
Fearless in defence, always willing to make the best of a worst situation, Noguchi typifies the mentality of endurance — make the enemy suffer to the point they weaken, fortitude fades, and political demands become less stringent. Maybe Japan could be saved occupation? Perhaps Japan’s place in China might be assured, especially in Manchuria? Maybe a deal could be cut with the western allies ensuring the inviolable nature of the Emperor?
This Japanese strategy, so strange from the view of our current times is commonly seen as some idiosyncratic cultural relic of the Japanese war, something fantastic and unreasonable. It was, and is still, interpreted as a desperate battlefield stance devoid of proper, humanitarian and political considerations. It’s eschatology is frightening to western logic – death as a sustitute for victory. Like a dark plotless novel Japanese annihilation battles unfold in grand detail and have but one seemingly purposeless outcome.
What is even more strange however is that this tactic should be percieved and placed as historically specific of the Japanese Armed forces in WWII. One should remember that such tactics are exactly the same strategy used by almost all revolutionary-independence armies in the post-war world. It is still seen as a viable strategy of radical Islam, North Korea and other baleful groups currently clashing with democratic countries and their institutions. Why should it have seemed so foolish by the western allies for the Japanese to develop such a strategy from 1943 onwards….?
Stand by for more…!
Part II: BURMA ROAD CUT: MARCH TO YUNNAN ビルマ道遮断せよ！雲南へ行軍