End of the Kwantung Army

Soviet Defeat of the Japanese Kwantung Army, 1945

75 years ago today, the largest Imperial Japanese military force on the planet, the fabled Kwantung Army, was instructed to surrender its remaining 500,000+ men into Soviet hands.

Formed in 1906 in the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese War to police the Empire’s slice of mainland Asia, it had long been the key command in the IJA and by 1945 was in actuality a large army group composed of no less than six numbered (3rd, 4th, 5th, 30th, 34th, and 44th) armies in addition to the forces of Manchukuo, those of various White Russian exile units, and assorted Chinese warlord allies.

That is, until the Soviets crashed in and burst that bubble, showing the force to be a hollow Easter bunny of sorts.

A Lend-Leased M4A2 Sherman with a Soviet crew making friends

Soviet Motorcyclist column on Harley-Davidson WLA-42 and Dnepr M-72 in Manchuria, August 1945.

Soviet soldiers sitting on the throne of emperor Pu Yi, leader of the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, China, September 1945

Gen. Otozō Yamada, an old horse soldier, cumulated 40 years of service in the Imperial Japanese Army on 16 August, the day after the Emperor ordered national surrender, by issuing a command to lay down the Kwantung Army’s arms and banners at the feet of the invading Soviets in Manchuria.

However, many of Yamada’s units kept fighting for several days until Field Marshal Hata Shunroku, son of a samurai of the Aizu domain, met with Soviet Field Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky in Harbin on the 19th and a further cease-fire order circulated directly after.

A former Minister of War, Hata had experience with surrender, having been a member of the Japanese delegation to the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations as a young colonel in 1919, although on the winning side.

Nonetheless, the Soviets kept advancing even after Stalin had announced the end of hostilities on 23 August. Red paratroopers hit the silk into Heijō, a Japanese colonial outpost since 1905 and known today as Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, on 24 August, the same week as the Soviet Pacific Fleet arrived in Wonsan– on American Lend-Leased LSTs.

On 9 September, a full week after the instruments of surrender were signed in Tokyo Bay, 100,000 Japanese troops in Nanking laid down their arms. Even with that, there were still isolated Japanese garrisons in China that remained intact well into November 1945.

Japanese surrender in Peking (Beijing), China to combined U.S./British/KMT forces, October 1945

The Soviets remained a presence in Manchuria and North Korea for several years, going so far as to keep troops in the Manchurian hubs of Mukden, Harbin, Dairen, and Port Arthur– all notably former Tsarist stomping grounds– until 1955, more than eight years after the Communist Chinese had taken over the supposed governance of such areas.

PPS-43 armed Soviet tankers in Mukden, 1946. Note the officer with an upcycled Japanese Army tanker winter suit that he has installed shoulder boards on. Also, note the bronze plaque behind them with T-34s on it.

Soviet Naval Infantry raising their flag on the famous 203 Meter Hill in Port Arthur– now known as Lüshun in Liaoning province– 22 August 1945. The Baiyu Tower, constructed by the Japanese in the 1930s to commemorate 1904-1905 war dead, is visible in the distance. The Japanese Army used 203 Meter Hill in late 1904 to destroy the besieged Imperial Russian Navy’s Pacific Squadron below. RIAN Archive Photo 834147

Throw away the key

As for Yamada, the former Japanese general was taken as a prisoner of war to Siberia and sentenced to 25 years in the Soviet gulag for war crimes, primarily related to the heinous activities of Unit 731, but was repatriated to Japan in the mid-1950s after Stalin’s death along with the remnants of his surrendered Army.

Ironically, most of those crimes had occurred under Hata’s period as commander of the Kwantung Army from 1941 through 1944, rather than Yamada’s. Sentenced to life imprisonment after a war crimes trial by the Americans, Hata was paroled in 1954.

On 10 May 1962, Field Marshal Hata Shunroku, the last surviving Field Marshal of the Imperial Japanese Army, died while attending a ceremony honoring Imperial war dead, age 82.

The Soviets said they ended up with 594,000 Japanese EPWs by October 1945, but Japanese authorities contend it was well over 700,000 when other, non-military, subjects of the Emperor under Stalin’s control were counted. Although 60,000, mostly ill and elderly or females with children, were quickly paroled, some the same day, the Soviets hauled the rest back to Siberia.

There, over the next decade, many perished.

The remnants of the Kwantung Army went home in 1956 although some elected to stay behind and “go native” in the Worker’s Paradise.

“A Japanese mother is reunited with her son after he is released from a Soviet POW camp in Siberia, 31 December 1956. He and his fellow prisoners are arriving at Maizuru port in Japan, having been captured at the end of World War II and held for another 11 years.” (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive via History Forum)

Japanese artist Nobuo Kiuchi, who during WWII was a Japanese paratrooper, spent years in Siberia after the Kwantung Army laid down its arms, and chronicled what he saw.

His art reflects those experiences and is on exhibit at the Maizuru Repatriation Memorial Museum located in the principal port where some 660,000 Japanese POWs and civilians were sent back home from China, Russia, and North Korea in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

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