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 the puppet state of Manchukuo, those of various White Russian exile units, Korean auxiliaries, 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. This is because the Kwantung Army had been siphoned off in 1942-45, drawing irreplaceable elite cadres away to be fed into the meat chopper that was defending the Empire against the on-rushing Allied forces island hopping from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. For reference, in June 1938, 18 months before Pear Harbor, the Imperial Japanese Army had a full 34 combat divisions tied down on the ground in Eastern China along the Yellow River, that, when coupled with a supply train that ran back to the Home Islands through Manchuria and Korea, totaled over 1.1 million men in the field.
When the Soviets marched into the Theatre, that force had been halved and most of what was left were second-rate troops.
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.
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.
Standing with the Japanese– briefly– was the “Manchukuo Imperial Army” of puppet Manchurian Emperor Pu Yi. Originally formed around the roughly corps-sized Chinese National Revolutionary Army of the “Young Marshal” (Zhang Xueliang) in 1932, it grew to a nominal peak of 300,000 men in the field, under Japanese tutelage, in seven provincial armies. While capable of pushing into Inner Mongolia and fighting roaming bands of warlords, the occasional Chinese Communist insurgent group, and bandit gangs, it was no match for the battle-hardened Soviets and, once the Russkis crossed the border, melted away into the countryside, with the conscripts often turning on their officers, killing their Japanese advisers, and vanishing into the towns and villages, taking their weapons but leaving their uniforms behind. Tellingly, the Soviets only captured about 30,000 non-Japanese Manchukuo Army soldiers– of whom half were ethnic Koreans and were too far from home to self-demobilize– and killed about 10,000 in very one-sided combat. In less than two weeks, the force had ceased to exist.
Much as the Russkis dismantled the Kwangtung Army and its puppet Manchukuoan allies, they also took apart the Egami-gun, the Manchukuo Imperial Navy. Established in 1932 with donated Japanese destroyers and gunboats and drawing half of its officers (the senior half) from the IJN’s retired list, the force concentrated largely on coastal defense and river operations on the Sungari, Amur, and Ussuri rivers against bandits, pirates and anti-Manchu Communist partisans. Consisting of about 20 small gunboats and a force of armored cars to drive around on the ice every winter once the rivers froze over, the Egami-gun quickly lowered its flags as the Russians came in and took over their vessels. Some of these warships would be retained by the Soviet’s Amur flotilla for years as working trophies.
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.
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 the ill and elderly or females with children, were quickly paroled, some the same day, the Soviets hauled the rest back to Siberia.
Over the next decade, many of the Siberian prisoners perished, with estimates running at a minimum of 50,000 and some as much as six times that amount. Meanwhile, many ethnic Koreans in the Japanese ranks would be “re-educated” by the Soviets to become the bedrock of the North Korean People’s Army.
The last remnants of the Kwantung Army went home in 1956 although some elected to stay behind and “go native” in the Worker’s Paradise.
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.
Echos into new wars
The wealth of equipment used by the Kwantung Army, unwanted and typically seen as obsolete when captured by the Allies, was quickly inherited by the Chinese and Koreans who soon put it into use against themselves and others. The boon of materiel picked up in large part by Mao’s Red Army gave it a huge shot in the arm in the final act of the Chinese Civil War and subsequently was recycled into the Korean War in the 1950s.