II Dragons on the Salween: The Japanese 56th Division In Yunnan Province ビルマ道遮断せよ!雲南へ行軍



Burma Road Cut – The Fall of Burma, January-June 1942

(Second part of a Three-part series using Japanese texts previously not available in English. All translation and accuracy is purely my responsibility).


Japan’s March into Burma got underway January 16th, six full weeks after Japan’s attack on Malaya. Japan captured Singapore in less than three months and the invasion of Burma happened at a similar lightning pace. Japan’s aims in occupying Burma were:


  • defeat British and Indian Imperial troops plus any Chinese support force in Burma and protect the entire SE Asian flank from western allied threat;
  • sever the last line of support for Chiang Kai-Shek’s republican army in mainland China. Japanese forces occupied all sea access along the Chinese coast. In 1940 and 1941 they took over French colonies in Indochina from a prostate Vichy regime. Occupying Burma blocked all land and sea access to China making allied support impossible, and;
  • support internal disruption of the allied war effort by fostering Burmese and Indian Independence movements.

Japanese forces marched across the Thai border and after several short clashes, notably on the Sittang river, forced a British withdrawal from Rangoon into central Burma.  Advancing on two broad axes along the Irrawaddy river and across the central Burma plains to Mandalay, they defeated the Anglo-Indian Burmacorps[1] and elements of two Chinese support Armies.  A Chinese defence around Taungoo was initially successful in slowing the Japanese advance into Northern Burma but by the end of May both British and Chinese forces had been pushed back across the Irrawaddy in the west of the country. Mandalay fell on May 01st 1941 and Lashio on April 29th

The Japanese punched far in Southern China’s Yunnan State and then stopped at the Salween River, a natural defensive feature. Japanese forces has travelled an incredible 1200 kilometres along roads, and a direct distance of 800 kilometres.  All land and sea access supporting Chiang’s regime in China was now cut. For the first time there was a real possibility and fear Chiang-Kia Shek’s nationalist regime would accede to Japanese terms, cease effective resistance and cut a deal with the the Japanese army in mainland China. [2]


During this offensive the Japanese Army’s 56th Division lead classic advances on the right of the Japanese line cutting off Chinese forces in the north of Burma by forced marches along jungle tracks emerging to establish road blocks in the rear of Chinese forces. These tactics sewed fear and apprehension in Chinese ranks. Even when successfully cutting their way out of encirclement Chinese troops were always mindful of the next eruption in the rear flank by Japanese troops who moved incredible distances along mountain tracks. This formed the tenor of battle all the way up the Irrawaddy and into China. 


The Dragon Division: Sons of Fukuoka

The Imperial Japanese Army 56th Division was formed from conscripts and regular army forces attached or originally from the Northern Kyushu conscription service area. Japan divided the county into regions with conscripts called to induction within their dedicated areas, trained and attached to area divisional command. In the case of the 56th Division in Northern Kyushu it was the Kurumes-shi District. Although there were other larger cities in Northern Kyushu, Kurume City offered a convenient collection point for inducting soldiers from many surrounding regions.  New divisions in the Japanese army, as in most armies, usually received an assigned group of cadres as founding units.  Units from the 12th Division (also from Northern Kyushu) formed the basis of the new division, all conscripts inducted from the Saga, Nagasaki, and Fukuoka Regions of Japan. Japanese divisions besides the guards divisions were composed of 3-4 regiments and selected a symbol emblematic of their espirit de corps. In the case of the 56th it was called the “Dragon” Division「龍兵団」[3]

56th Division was mobilised in December 1941 and shipped with orders to support the drive on Singapore.  With the quick fall of Singapore in February 15th 1942,  the original mission changed and it was sent north to disembarked at Rangoon on March 25th. [4] They were immediately attached to the Japanese 15th Army and raced north towards Tongoo where Chinese troops had taken over from the British to defend the allied east-sector of Burma and the route into Southern Yunnan. The Dragon Division was to face the Chinese Army its entire time in Burma. They advanced continuously with incredible speed along the allied extreme left flank making for Lashio and eventually Bhamo in the extreme north of the country.

Most of the action at this time was characterised by swift marches, one source reports elements of the 56th advancing sometimes over 100 kilometres per day, appearing where not expected, harrying Chinese troops and threatening to cut off completely allied armies on the central Burma plain. Tactics like these forced the allies into a series of constant withdrawals. On May 05th the 148th Regiment reached the northern terminus of the Burma Railway and took the town of Myitkyina seizing the formal command base of both the Chinese 5th Army and an Indian-British army Brigade headquarters along with marching orders for most of the allied army units in Northern Burma.

Officers of the 113th Regiment of the 56th “Dragon” division during the calm, tranquil times from May 1942 – May 1944.
Officers of the 113th Regiment of the 56th “Dragon” division during the calm, tranquil times from May 1942 – May 1944.

Racing north advanced elements of the 56th were just in time to help in the defeat of the Chinese 200th Division sent down from Yunnan province in a disorganised attempt to help the British stem the Japanese advance into the central plain of Burma.

On May 05th, 1942 after a lightning advance up through central Burma and into Southern Yunnan the 56th stopped several tens of kilometres short of the Yunnan regional capital of Baoshan. An incredible 1400 kms in less than two months. To place such an advance in perspective the distance from Brest-Litovsk to Moscow is a little less than 1200 kilometres by road. It took the Germans 6 months to cover the same distance when they invaded Russia. The opposing forces in Burma were smaller in number than those engaged in between Germany and Russia. Japan also lacked almost completely any mechanised formations, but in overall terms it was the fastest land advance within a short period of time of any Army during World War II. Anglo-Indian elements were smaller than those in Malaya and Singapore but it was the longest retreat in the history of the British Army.


Salween River Barrier: Invasion of South China

Advanced elements of the Japanese 56th Division’s 113th Regiment reached positions at the last major crossing into Yunnan province overlooking the Salween River. Their experience of following the Burma Road up the river valley to the Salween after the Chinese retreat was a disorganised affair, but resistance was very light. 

Early air superiority by the Japanese meant a high body count for the opposing forces and it is impossible to know with any certainty Chinese casualties. Chinese troops left mountains of US equipment and food behind. The Japanese put this to good use subsisting almost totally on foraged and captured stores, a happy circumstance  merely confirming their designation as a superb light infantry force, capable of self-sufficiency. A success in 1942, but an ingrained strategic self-conception that ultimately contributed to their destruction later in the war.  

Not known for their shining examples of discipline the Guomindong Army (國民革命軍) rarely stopped for their wounded if they had no way of carrying them. Food stores, supplies and weapons, were left derelict beside the roads. Chinese soldiers tore off their uniforms, some headed for the mountains taking their chances with mountain bandits, others ran pell-mell across the Salween and beyond into the Prefectural town of Baoshan. Everywhere found the stench of bodies and the burnt out shells of trucks lying by the side of the road or at the bottom of ravines along the Salween tributaries. 

Retreating Chinese troops committed the bridge[5] crossing the Salween to the river with explosives. It had only been rated to carry 5 tonnes, which meant one lorry at a time – an exercise in patience that few Chinese drivers had time for.

The fighting behind them, the hard battles fought in Burma, the Dragon Division rolled along to the top of the Gaoligong Mountains 高黎貢山  and then descended into the dark Salween River valley. Resistance had evaporated. The Japanese Army victorious seemed to reaffirm the old Japanese Army’s adage that against the Chinese Army, “a company was as good as a battalion, and a battalion as good as a division.”[6]

The Japanese had no immediate intention to advance further than the Huitong bridge. It was a logical point to limit the offensive. Here a sliver of the Gaoligongshan Mountain Range ran north to south along the Salween river dividing this extreme branch of southern Yunnan from the Irrawaddy watershed to the west.  At their furthest penetration into Southern Yunnan the bridge crossing could be observed from excellent positions 1300 metres above the river. Japan was at the end of extreme communication and transport lines. The objective was to hold positions on the Salween guarding the Northern flank of the Japanese army in Burma.

The Salween was an ideal barrier. A high position overlooking the now derelict bridge was a perfect block on the Burma Road. Holding this one position removed any chance of allied supplies reaching Chaing’s Nationalist Army via land. It could also serve as a future jumping off position should further advances into Republican China become necessary. With their northern flank secure Japan could also contemplate a strike into India with reasonable confidence of little hindrance from Chinese Nationalist forces.

Here on the Salween the Japanese army’ Dragon Division waited, biding time, husbanding resources, and all the time digging defences for a battle all the Division soldiers knew must be coming. They waited for two whole years.


The Burma Road originated in the port capital of Rangoon, ascended through central Burma crossing the mountains along the Burma-China border before debouching into Southern Yunnan province. From 1939 the road had been increasingly important in getting supplies to Chiang’s nationalist forces. As Japan took over more control of the Chinese coast and then French Indochina, it became the only functional re-supply route. The British under Japanese political pressure closed the route in 1940 for three months.  The Salween River portion of the road is its most dangerous and geographically challenging. 

The road clung to the sides of the Salween. The edges of the river dropped almost perpendicular in places for 200 metres into the water below. The road was only 8 feet wide. It snaked from the Chinese border town of Wanting along through the old walled town of Longling, then up over the Gaoligong Shan mountain range before dropping into the Salween river.

The Burma Road was never 100% secure even under the allies in peacetime and dead Chinese soldiers and the detritus of road building, poor treatment of workers and drivers was to be found everywhere. Skeletons of drivers and coolie labourers who built this road by hand were to be found virtually everywhere. The Chinese had never been very popular among the mountain tribes here. Before and during the war mountain bandit tribes fell like silent vultures on the Chinese drivers hired to haul supplies to the Chinese nationalist forces. To them it made little difference who won this war. Crashed trucks that had slipped on ice or ran afoul of bandits could be seen by the side of the road, or glimpsed deep in the valley below. Chinese drivers were allotted a costed amount of petrol to get them between designated points. They would sometimes try to bank the money they could save by turning off their engines and cruising downhill. In many cases the price to be saved cost the driver his life. In most cases his body was merely left in the cab at the bottom of a gulley.

One British convoy of lorries traversing the Burma Road shortly before the Japanese 56th Division arrived counted dead coolie labourers and truck drivers: “20 bodies every 15 miles.” Watching the dead literally drop in front of their eyes happened with depressing frequency, so much so that “the men of one truck saw a man stumble and drop dead. The second truckload saw him being stripped of his clothes. The third saw only a naked body in the gutter.” [7]

As the British commentator flatly stated, “life was cheap in China.” The 56th Division members would have had no reason to disagree with this assertion. 


Ramou, lies high in foothills of the Gaoligong Shan mountains overlooking the Salween river. 

Marco Polo remarked on the barren, “gloomy and unwholesome” banks of the Salween and their lack of inhabitants. It was functionally unnavigable by boats averaging 400 metres across and fast and deep given its flow from far up in the Himalayas of China.  It could drop 4-5 metres in elevation in a kilometre ensuring a frothy pace even during the dry season. Above the river rose hills and mountains to over 5000 metres, the Burma road itself crossed high to about 2000 metres to the summit at Ramou. Far below Ramou, the road dropped 1300 metres in a few short kilometres to the Salween at about 700 metres.  The Salween River rendered in Chinese characters (怒江) translates as “angry River” in both Japanese and Chinese.  It was certainly regarded so by both sides. Its geography determined military positions and operational directives of the region.

The Chinese regarded this place as pestilentially evil. Forms of malaria were said to be able to incapacitate a man in several minutes and, kill him in hours. Here was bitter cold replete with ice and snow in the winter. Here was all kinds of tropical disease: cholera, infections, scrub typhus, worm infestations and topical skin diseases. Diseases part of another age of history such as bubonic plague also struck the local populatoin probably with more frequency than officially recorded.  It also has one of the highest concentrations of the most poisonous snake varieties in the world.

The word “Ramou” does not appear on any maps in Chinese. The village was nameless when the Japanese arrived comprising no more than ten huts of various sorts.[8] A short distance away was a peak naturally dominating the Salween crossing and blocking the Burma Road. This was “Songshan” in Chinese, “Matsuyama” in Japanese. Both languages use the same Chinese characters meaning “Pine Mountain.” [9]  

Nationalist Chinese forces had abandoned their short squat huts originally used to billet a few soldiers, but these and some other huts formed no more than what the current Japanese classified as an “abandoned village.” It was not called Ramou before and has not been called so since by the Chinese. Nearby this small agglomeration of huts ran a small stream marked with the Chinese characters of 拉 (meaning to crush with the weight of misfortune or abduct) and 孟 (a literate term sometimes used in names and also signifying a beginning).  The Japanese officially named the garrison they established here Ramou with both of the characters being placed together. Whether the irony was immediately apparent to the garrison is not recorded.

It is not known if the isolated peasants ever used the same Chinese characters to describe Ramou. Inhabitants were few and poor, even by contemporary Chinese standards. They tilled steep, stepped paddies[10] making the best of the steep ground by building terraced paddies up from the river deep into the clefts and defiles of the surrounding hills. Seasons passed ineluctably. Predictable regularity and tradition depended upon the growing season, rains, and tradition-bound sentiments of ancestor worship. Maintenance of weathered tombstones with embossed characters representing honourific names of the deceased overlooked the river connecting the region with larger historical currents cutting across its isolation yet not penetrating into them.

Ramou little known, lacking a formal name, tortured by rough geography, unknown in its place of historical understatement, overlooked the Burma Road bridge, the Huitonqioa, over the Salween river and directly commanded road approaches south of the River. It was a perfect block for any Chinese army trying to open the Burma Road and link up with British forces coming from India. As long as the Japanese held Ramou the Burma Road was blocked. No supplies would be getting into China.


Biding Time:  Southern Yunnan and Burma 1942-1944

By June 1942 major allied units had been defeated in Burma. The Chinese and their remnants removed well into Yunnan in the North. To the West the British army regrouped behind the Chindwin River their major bases removed from Burma. Britain built up along the wide straddling Indian frontier protected by buffers of jungle and river. From mid-1942 to early 1944 both sides faced a lull in major operations. Advanced outposts petered out on jungle-fringed hilltops and reed-filled river edges separating opposing forces. Inhospitable jungle was traversed by single tracks or, before WW II, not traversed at all. Advanced listing posts and active patrolling characterised much of the action at this time.  Besides the ill-planned and implemented first Arakan Campaign (December – April 1942) along the Burma coast by the British Indian army and some active Chindit Commando operations of very limited significance no major campaign was initiated by either side during this time. Britain was too weak to advance and needed to build up its forces.

The Chinese National Army under the command Generalisimo Chaing Kai-Shek (or Jiang Jie-Shi in Mandarin 蔣介石) made the rather cynical and calculated decision that Northern Burma would be cleared eventually by advancing Anglo-Indian units building up on the Indian frontier and he therefore need do nothing on the Yunnan front.  The US committed itself to an air transport corridor to move supplies into China by air from Assam State in India to Kunming.  Once it became clear the Japanese army was unlikely to attack further into Yunnan, Chiang leashed his army and waited for the expected allied offensive from British India or a sea landing near Rangoon to clear the Japanese from all of Burma. Resources in his way of thinking were better spent defending the Chinese interior from Japanese attacks radiating from the littoral regions and of course girding for the expected showdown with the communists, who at this time were nominally at least allied in common cause with Chiang’s National army against Japan. It was a cold Machiavellian decision, one typical of Chiang who made decisions largely based around the assumption of building up resources for the coming ultimate no-rules fight against the communists. Chiang played his hand well and allowed the Americans and the Anglo-Indian forces to do most of the heavy lifting. The Americans had no choice but to support him and Chiang knew it.

After Japan cut the Burma  Road the only remaining route of supply was the the air corridor. But supplying an entire country by air had never been tried before. Doing it at the end of supply lines on the other side of the world over a mountain range with extreme weather was a miserable, desperate and political strategy. To keep China in the fight and expand the war against Japan the land route had to be reopened. The Americans eventually inveigled Chiang into putting two Chinese divisions, which had initially retreated into British India, under the operational command of American General Joe Stillwell. This Southern force with a very small but effective American fighting force supporting it would push through, capture northern Burma and link up with another Chinese force, also commanded by Stillwell, coming down out of Yunnan. The only problem was there was no Army in Southern Yunnan and Chiang had no intention of using any of his forces in a Southern push out of Yunnan into Burma.

The British did not care much for the American plan. The main Japanese force would be crushed in a an eventual battle on the central plains of Burma with the British and Indian forces attacking into the heart of Burma from the Imphal plain or in coordination with an eventual sea landing near Rangoon. When this happened the northern route would fall as a consequence. The American plan was strategically flawed and a waste of resources better spent confronting the main Japanese army in central Burma. Frittering away resources along the upper edge of Burma was a fool’s strategy. The Japanese could keep on pushing in men and equipment to fight on a very narrow front with small chance of Allied success engaging only a very small amount of the Japanese army at any time.

The British were proved right but from 1942 to 1944 inter-allied cooperation was paramount. They bit their tongues and supported the upper Burma front strategy whilst preparing for a major offensive from the land or sea.

Outside of patrols along the Salween and potential crossing sites the garrison at Ramou had a mostly uneventful time during this period. At times it was described as idyllic by some Japanese soldiers.   Chinese forces nominally controlled the east bank of the Salween River and did have patrols on the west side of the river moving up and down the mountain ranges. For the better part of two years however there was no major Chinese force stationed across the Salween to counter and Japanese move.  Clashes occurred with Japanese patrols but for two years Ramou was relatively at peace. To the Japanese soldier stationed in Ramou life could have been a lot harder. Though at the furthest extremity of the Japanese advance into Yunnan Ramou was described as “tranquil.”

All felt however there would be a price to pay for their relative sanctuary.  Two years of intensive fortification building had proceeded almost every day without rest. Though everyone was prepared to die, in battle it was felt that one day the inevitable attack would come and it was better to pay with sweat and good fortifications than pay with blood for lack of them.


The 56th Division had all functional control of the Southern Yunnan front. It was a large area.

Ramou garrison was built amongst a group of cascading hills emerging from the edge of the Salween River. The smaller peaks closer to the river afforded views and could bring artillery fire to bear against an enemy trying to cross the river, hazardous even when flows were low. It was impossible to defend the entire west bank of the river but not really necessary since the Burma Road ran directly through the Japanese positions atop Matsuyama while the road wended its way up from the river and then down the opposite side of Matsuyama. Any attacker would have to seize Japanese positions on the mountain aerie. The main position was in turn surrounded by smaller hillocks enveloping and hugging the road. These positions near Matsuyama such as Hirayama and Sakaiyama had positions and observation posts built around geographic features. All offered superb interlocking fields of fire and all could bring indirect or direct fire to bear any enemy approaching from any side. Ramou could  be surrounded but was able to provide 360 degree defence if flanked in any conventional sense.  Listening posts were built at the river line and local sympathetic tribes asked to help. It was impossible to defend all of the river and once across the river the Chinese would have to support their army by bringing supplies and support up the main road. It would be difficult to support a main force without capturing the Burma Road. It made little difference where the Chinese National Army crossed the river. The Burma Road could not be used until the all the positions along this ridge were cleared of Japanese.  No defensive position used by the Japanese in the Pacific – Okinawa, Peleliu or Saipan – could boast such 360 degree defences at such commanding heights.

Looking across the camp the main position, Matsuyama was a few short kilometres to the Salween River. Ramou Garrison overlooked it all. The highest position was at 5000 ft.

On Matsuyama were placed a platoon from Number 5 Machine Company and a platoon of rapid fire guns – these being 37 millimetre. To the southeast fronting the enemy coming up from the river along the Burma Road was a platoon of infantry, a machine gun platoon, and a battery of infantry guns, quick-firing cannons to add to the infantry firepower.

The Northwest position was atop Matsuyama directly and sighted into the bends of the river and offered high angle firing positions. Here was the most important position inside the camp as it overlooked all the other. The Japanese positioned here a platoon of infantry, one of quick firing guns and a platoon of machine guns. To the southwest on Yokomata (横股) supporting Matsuyama mountain were two platoons of infantry. On Hirayama also overlooking the Salween to the immediate east of Matsuyama was one company of infantry with a machine gun platoon.

On Origuchi straddling the main Burma road and overlooking the East side of the Japanese position it was essential to keep this position to maintain a solid line between Hirayama and Matsuyama. Here was stationed the better part of 6 Company.

To the South of Ramou about 4 kilometres was Sakaiyama, protecting approach from the south road should the Chinese force the flank and attack from here.


Typical Fortification as Constructed by Cpt Kinoshita. Wood with cement poured over proved a cheap and effective form of reinforced cement.
Typical Fortification as Constructed by Cpt Kinoshita. Wood with cement poured over proved a cheap and effective form of reinforced cement.

Cement was a vital commodity of limited production and a very long journey from Japan. Burmese domestic production was extremely limited. The Japanese decided to use as much local resources as possible in the construction of the Ramou defence. A preference for log bunker construction developed utilising the Red Pine found almost everywhere in the mountains.   Fortifications were dug deeper and more earth covered firing positions. In many during the two years of Japanese fortification grass had again grown over the freshly dug earth concealing the positions. Fields of fire were built with numerous interlocking defences. Small hillocks meshed with other positions on higher hills and swept all approaches with deadly fire.

Captain Kinoshita, an artillery gunner with experience in his family running a construction company was in charge of many of the positions. He devised numerous bunkers using logs and sticks as a form of rebar and then pouring cement over them and adding several feet of earth on top. [11] These were capable of surviving all but a direct hit from a heavier artillery piece.

Occasional patrolling from both sides kept some edge on the life at Ramou, but for two years there was no fighting. The Japanese army had built defences, but they also had built a virtual paradise for their troops. They planted squash (kabocha) patches directly over their positions. This has the added benefit of camouflage from the air and a wonderful source of food supply. Persimmons at this elevation were readily available and the Japanese gathered as many as they could and strung them in garlands around their positions to dry them for food. Owing to the astringent nature the only way they could be enjoyed was after drying. In November 1943, Field Marshall Terauchi, Commander of the 15th Army, comprising all the Japanese land forces in South-east Asia paid a visit to the far-flung garrison and in home-spun language evocative of the homeland they had left behind commented on the persimmons. “This is extremely amazing, my mother used to dry persimmons and drape them from the eaves.” He knew of course that to many of soldiers who came from farms in Kyushu, their mothers would have done the same. 

The soldiers also had time to construct large ovens to make pottery. Some of the most beautiful ceramics are made in Japan and many of them come from Kyushu. The Kyushu warriors were quick to make fine representations of pottery and presented one to Terauchi during his visit. “The men of Kyushu have the martial spirit in their bones, they can turn their hand and do just about anything.”[12] The men eventually shipped out very many of their works mainly to army hospitals to give to the wounded.

Colonel Matsui was pleased indeed when Marshal Terauchi took the offered cup as a gift.

Taishohotaibi 大詔奉戴日

Greeting the Morning Sun at Ramou before the battle.
Greeting the Morning Sun at Ramou before the battle. Reading of the Imperial Rescript at sunrise at Ramou with Matsui’s unit.

Colonel Matsui had an even more novel approach to kicking up the pace of morale far from home. Each man was assigned a dugout. At the bottom a small alcove was dug. Into this the men were encouraged to place pictures and mementos of home. A small shrine would eventually be collected by men in their own dugout that was expected, and eventually did, become their homes. Matsui-san countermanded the idea of switching men between positions and dugouts or mixing groups. Gathering them in positions of extended familiarity it was hoped men would regard their positions more like a home. This would help morale in the interim and afford them a sort of attachment of “place” to the positions. Since they had resigned themselves to the prospect of probably never returning home, it was hoped that they would defend their dugouts and their shrines with equal fervour of defending the home islands of Japan. It was a thoroughly Japanese response in the cultural aesthetics of linking simple memorials of time and place in nature.  

Morale could also be boosted in other ways. Travelling bands and troupes of performers rotated through Ramou garrison over the two-year period performing traditional Japanese plays. Japan’s national broadcaster, NHK showed up with a recording truck to make reports and then take them off to the regional centre and divisional command in Boshi (芒市 now Mangshi) for processing and shipment back to Japan or broadcast by the local subsidiary.  In the summer of 1943 the garrison hosted the famous Japanese female screenplay writer, Mizuki Youko (水木洋子) . Drafted into the war effort, Mizuki was in the right place for learning more about the front and gathered as much as she could from the men for news reports.  Few places could boast the importance of meriting this act of class. With Ramou’s first Japanese female making a stop the soldiers pulled out all stops and made special rice cakes (mochi 餅) with ground sesame seed on top to offer her. She stayed for three nights and no one was disappointed. Feted and toured they dressed her in Army uniforms and drove  her the Salween and to view  the remains of the bridge.

Unfortunately the direct practise of sexual slavery was also part of the panoply of moral support the Japanese armed forces supplied for their troops.  Military run brothels were unfortunately seen as a way to assuage the troops sexual urges. By providing for the soldiers directly it was seen as providing moral support for the troops but also provided an outlet for sexual energy that could not be unleashed upon the general public of the occupied country. Sexual slavery in the form of comfort women was seen as keeping Japanese soldiers out of trouble with local women. 

 In the beginning of the 1944 Supreme Army Command voiced the need for a comfort station in Ramou. Colonel Matsui was initially against such a plan. Ramou although quiet, was technically on the front lines in any shooting war. No place for women he opined. The 33rd Army high command sent none other than senior staff officer Tsuji Masanobu to send a firm signal that a comfort station was needed. Tsuji-san is an actor who appears to be on almost every front in Asia just before and during momentour events. He is noted for his personal courage as a staff officer and also associated with some of the more grisly excesses of the war. This parapaptetic messenger of excess, hated by both sides for his ruthless efficiency yet noted for his personal courage, showed up on the steps of Ramou ( as he seemed to show up at so many other occasions of historical import during the war).[13]  He was interested in the psychological well-being of the men and that called for a comfort station. Matsui-san was placed in a position where he could not refuse and a comfort station was built on the reverse slope of Matsuyama. 

The comfort station consisted of two buildings, purpose built over two weeks by army tradesmen of the Ramou garrison,  who spent ‘many hours” building it. In the beginning of 1944 approximately 20 girls arrived.

They arrived just in time to fight and die alongside the rest of the garrison.


[1] Burma Corps central strength comprised two divisions and two brigades including one armoured Brigade. Later Chinese troops, up to 100,000 also supported Britain’s defence.

[2] For greater understanding of these early battles there is virtually nothing written in English and most on-line writings are less than reliable and lack firm source citation. There are however good general histories of the region such as the masterful history of the Japanese war in Burma by Louis Allen, Burma: The Longest War. For a better understanding of the Chinese response in English there is Barbara Tuchman’s Sand Against the Wind: Stillwell and the American Experience in China . Though dated it still offers a fine overview of the conflict from the American perspective in English and will be only superseded by studies incorporating more Chinese sources – which has yet to happen. For those looking for how the invasion affected the indigenous peoples, independence movements and colonial mindsets before and after the invasion, there is the wonderful and relatively recent Forgotten Armies, by  Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper.  Most recently Rana Mitter in his magisterial, Forgotten Ally covers the political background and international events preceding and shaping the conflict.

[3] This units designation was known as the unit tsushogo 通称号in the case of the 56th Division the Japanese rending would be read “Ryuuheidan”  Heidan is a term which could be loosely translated as unit or group.

[4] Kiku to Ryu: Sokoku e no Eikou Tatakai, Chrystanthemum and the Dragon: Fighting for the Glory of the Homeland (authors translation), Kojinsha- Press, Tokyo, p.15.

[5] 恵通橋 in Japanese and Chinese. It is uncertain if the conventional pronunciation in Japanese would have been Keitsuukyou or Kietsuubashi . In Chinese is it known as the Huitong Bridge, the characters are the same in both languages.

[6] A common thread of thinking that Japanese soldiers and officers drilled into their strategic thinking. Historically it was a rule of thumb borne out in many battles in China with the Japanese fighting at tremendous numerical disadvantage for most of the war. While this may have ensured a success rate in most battles it was not a recipe for victory in war. Ultimately Japan still had too few men and China was far too vast to be successfully controlled by military means alone.

[7] Iain Adamson, The Forgotten Men, p.28, G.Bell & Sons, London, 1965, First edition.

[8] 壮烈拉孟守備隊―玉砕に殉じた日本軍将兵の記録 Soretsu Ramou Shubitai – Last Stand of the Japanese Soldier, Umemoto Sutezou, 2012, Kojinsha Press, Toyko, pp.5-20.

[9] Since both Chinese and Japanese use Chinese character in their writing systems (but with completely different pronunciations) this appellation with the Chinese characters 松山 is the common geographical and historical reference used by both China and Japan. Ramou 拉孟is never used in Chinese sources where it is referred to as 松山战役 the battle of Songshan, or Battle of Pine Mountain.

[10] 段々畑

[11] Kinoshita-san will figure later in our story where his survival will be retold. Here is a documentary with his testimony on the defences of Ramou (in Japanese only).

[12] Kiku to Ryu, Sagara Shunsuke, Kojinsha, Tokyo, 2004, pp.184-185

[13] The historical trajectory of Tsuji Masanobu reads like a “Zelig” everyman with Tsuji being present and instrumental in fomenting the depredations of the Kwantung Army in China, the Soviet-Japanese border clashes, the invasion of Malaya and fall of Singapore and invasion of Burma. He was directly associated with the disasterous planning for the defence of Guadalcanal, and the Philippines. During these operations there is some documentation and even more rumour that he counseled and committed war crimes.  He was known as a fanatical teetotaler who could brook no insubordination while exasperating his commanding officers with his own zeal for carrying out acts and issuing orders sometime with no authority from his higher-ups. He is also noted for not liking the excesses of drinking and rampant sexual activity. It is often said he was seiren keppaku (清廉潔白), which may be translated as morally upright or ‘straight as an arrow,’ but usually carries the notion of fastidiousness and being uptight and fanatical.

For reasons unclear he was not charged with war crimes. He ended his life with suitable dramatis in the 1960s becoming a Buddhist priest and disappearing into Laos while on another of his journeys of fanatic self-discovery – it is presumed he was executed by the communist Pathet Lao government, but there is no official record of his death.

[14]  Gendai no Ianfutachi, Usuki Keiko, Tokuma Shoten, Tokyo, 1992   According to one Japanese source 15 Japanese and 5 Korean Comfort women were stationed at Ramou. All Japanese comfort women died during the battle in many cases fighting alongside the soldiers. The Korean comfort women were rescued by American observers and returned to their home country after interrogation. Though there were undoubtedly some who “chose” to join the Japanese military brothels through financially straightened or tragic backgrounds, the majority of women were foreigners, many from Korea who very young had in most cases been dragooned or tricked into servicing Japanese Army Soldiers in distant garrisons in a form of sexual slavery. Though they may have been recruited by local brokers related to Korean and Japanese criminal organisations in their respective regions, most were placed into prostitution camps either directly administered by the Japanese Imperial Army or farmed out to local contractors who enjoyed a special relationship with the Army. Once placed in camps they had little choice and direct physical and financial coercion – use of force – was widespread, whether or not it was officially condoned by the Army. While all soldiers frequented brothels, no other Army in WWII had their Armies directly involved in the running and administration of brothels, much less procuring and impressing women to work in them.


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