by Quin Cho
The Battle of Pingxingguan was China’s first victory in its War of Resistance Against Japan. Therefore, it was a propaganda rallying point for both the Communists and the Nationalists alike. In the weeks before the battle, the Japanese had advanced rapidly through North China and routed the Chinese forces there in a humiliating fashion. Many Japanese began to think that China was nothing but a paper tiger and would fall in short order. However, the Battle of Pingxingguan showed that China was to be no pushover and intended to resist the Japanese until they were defeated.
On July 7, 1937, the 8th Company, 3rd Battalion, 1st Independent Infantry Regiment conducted combat exercises in the vicinity of Lugou Bridge. Japanese officers had not warned their Chinese counterparts of their planned exercises, and as a result, the 8th Company, 3rd Battalion came under fire from the Chinese (Frank, 5). After a brief firefight, the 8th Company conducted rollcall only to discover that a soldier, Private Shimura, was missing (Frank, 5). The commander of the 3rd Battalion, Major Kiyonao Ikki, was notified of Private Shimura’s absence from rollcall and “mustered the main body of his battalion for a search” (Frank, 6). These forces once again came under fire from Chinese units. At this point, Major Ikki’s immediate superior, Colonel Mutaguchi Reyna, commander of the 1st Independent Regiment intervened and ordered him to attack the Chinese units despite Major Ikki’s desire to avoid an “international incident” (Frank, 6). While the 8th Company was able to rout the Chinese units in the vicinity of Lugou Bridge, Mutaguchi’s escalation of the situation put Japan onto the warpath with China.
Chinese and Japanese units in North China clashed shortly after the Lugou Bridge Incident. Elements of the Chinese 29th Army (namely the 143rd Infantry Division, Fortieth Independent Brigade, and Thirteenth Independent Cavalry Brigade) were stationed in Chahar Province, now part of contemporary Inner Mongolia (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 163). Other parts of the 29th Army were positioned in the vicinity of Beijing. However, the Japanese had the offensive initiative and struck on July 25, 1937 (Ness and Shih, 22). The Japanese 20th Infantry Division quickly defeated Chinese units in the vicinity of Langfang, while two brigades isolated Beijing from the northeast (Ness and Shih, 22). These actions were followed by more attacks, this time from the 5th Infantry Division against the 38th Division near Tianjin (38th Division was also under the command of 29th Army) (Ness and Shih, 22). The 38th Division was routed, and it, along with the rest of 29th Army, was forced to retreat (Ness and Shih, 23). The 29th Army’s retreat abandoned Beijing to the Japanese, who entered an open city on August 3, 1937 (Ness and Shih, 22).
After the Japanese seized Beijing, they struck deeper into Chahar province and Inner Mongolia in general. The advance was spearheaded by elements of the 5th Infantry Division and the 11th Independent Mixed Brigade, which soon fought meeting engagements with the 13th Army in the vicinity of the town of Juyong (Ness and Shih, 23). Unfortunately for the Chinese, the commander of the 13th Army elected to defend the town of Juyong itself as opposed to the more defensible mountain pass to the west, and the Japanese seized Juyong on August 13, 1937 (Ness and Shih, 23). While three Chinese divisions were eventually dispatched to the Juyongguan pass, the Japanese 5th Infantry Division outflanked them through the Chenpien pass to the south, forcing them to retreat (Ness and Shih, 23).
The 5th Infantry Division continued to pursue the retreating Chinese into Inner Mongolia. The Division, along with the rest of the Chahar Expeditionary Force, rapidly advanced along the rail lines to seize control of North China (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 164). Armored and mechanized units created and exploited breakthroughs in this region (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 164). Consequently, the Japanese advance was rapid and sustained into September. In mid-September, the 5th Infantry Division and Chahar Expeditionary Force captured the town of Datong in Shanxi Province (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 164). However, trouble was afoot, as Japanese aerial reconnaissance detected a concentration of Chinese units near Pingxingguan pass (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 164). To deal with this concentration of Chinese units and defend his rear, 5th Infantry Division Commander Lieutenant-General Seishiro Itagaki dispatched a force of roughly regiment strength to subdue the Chinese units in the vicinity of Pingxingguan on September 21, 1937 (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 164).
The Japanese force sent to flush out the Chinese out of the Pingxingguan area moved slowly towards their objective due to the constraints of local infrastructure. There was only one dirt track available to travel through in the steep mountains of Shanxi Province, and as a result, the Japanese convoy of forty-nine trucks “managed a speed of only seven miles an hour” (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). The advanced elements of these forces ran into a Chinese strongpoint in the form of a village a mile away from the pass on the night of September 22, 1937 (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). The Chinese 73rd Infantry Division soon counterattacked the Japanese but was forced to withdraw. Soon after, the Japanese launched a night attack with two infantry companies supported by heavy machine guns and artillery (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). These forces managed to take the vital high ground overlooking Pingxingguan pass from the west, and held it against continued Chinese attacks (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165).
While the Japanese fought to take control of Pingxingguan pass in the west, the Chinese moved around their flanks and threatened their lines of communication. Specifically, the 8th Route Army’s (the 8th Route Army was the Chinese Communist army) 6,000 strong 115th Division under the command of Lin Biao was able to move south and take effective control of the road that led through the eastern entrance of the Pingxingguan pass (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). Lin Biao’s maneuver effectively cut off the Japanese forces fighting to secure the western part of the pass from resupply. However, the commander of the regiment size Japanese force assigned to take the pass, Major General Miura Keiji, was unaware of the Chinese forces in his rear, and continued to launch attacks against the forces defending the western entrance to the pass. While these night attacks achieved surprise against the 71st and 84th Divisions and were therefore successful, Miura also requested for a resupply column to arrive and replenish his forces with food, water, fuel, and munitions (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). Unbeknownst to him, this supply column was going to be in for a nasty surprise.
The Japanese supply column dispatched to replenish the forces fighting in Pingxingguan pass was composed of seventy trucks and eighty horse-drawn wagons (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). Most of the men that were part of the convoy were rear area service personnel, and therefore not trained or armed. This was true for most of the men that handled the horses and wagons, as well as those that drove the trucks (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). Indeed, this was true for most of the 176 men inside the trucks as well (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165). The only combat elements were a “handful of regular service corps troops” that possessed a mere “ten cavalry carbines” and an infantry platoon of roughly thirty men (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 165).
The Japanese supply convoy moved along a narrow defile that was overshadowed by cliffs that were as much as thirty-five feet high (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). As the Japanese convoy of 70 horse-drawn wagons and 80 trucks approached the narrowest point of the track, the 115th Division engaged them in a surprise ambush (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). Since the troops of the 115th Division occupied the high ground on both sides of the defile, they were able to rain down grenades and automatic weapons fire on the Japanese convoy below. The Japanese, who were ill-prepared and not expecting to fight, were massacred. Only five trucks escaped the slaughter; the rest were destroyed, and the Japanese convoy sustained roughly 200 dead (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166).
The Communist ambush of the Japanese convoy was concurrent with attacks by the 71st and 84th Divisions on the Japanese Regiment near the western Pingxingguan pass (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). These attacks resulted in heavy casualties for both sides. While the Japanese were able to hold the high ground, they were outnumbered, cut off, and desperately low on supplies. Therefore, 5th Infantry Division commander Seishiro Itagaki ordered three regiments to relieve the embattled Pingxingguan task force. These forces moved towards Pingxingguan on a “single narrow road through mountains during heavy rains” (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). Approximately forty miles north of Pingxingguan, these forces diverged as the 21st Regiment outflanked the Chinese forces from the west while the other forces continued on to “fix” them in place in the pass (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). Meanwhile, the Fifteenth Brigade moved southeast to complete the envelopment of the Chinese units in Pingxingguan (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 166). The Forty-first regiment soon relieved the Japanese units in the Pingxingguan pass and forced the Chinese units to withdraw (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 167). By the end of the engagement, the Chinese claimed they inflicted 3,000 Japanese casualties, while they acknowledged losing roughly 30,000 men (Peattie, Vea, and Van de Ven, 167). The Battle of Pingxingguan was over.
Frank, Richard B. Tower of Skulls: a History of the Asia-Pacific War, July 1937-May 1942. W.W. Norton and Company, 2021.
Ness, Leland S., and Bin Shih. Kangzhan: Guide to Chinese Ground Forces 1937-45. Helion & Company, 2016.
Peattie, Mark R., et al. The Battle for China: Essays on the Military History of the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945. Stanford University Press, 2013.
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