by Dylan Weir
In 2015, the Tokyo High Court ruled on a suit brought by 188 victims of the Chongqing bombings. The plaintiffs, many of them in their 80s and 90s, sought compensation and an apology from the Japanese government for the World War II bombing campaign against the civilian population of Chongqing that occurred between 1938-1944. While the Court acknowledged that the bombings did occur, it ruled that the victims were entitled to neither compensation nor an apology. This case is an example of the ongoing struggle to hold Japan accountable for its wartime crimes.
The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) invaded China on July 7, 1937. By the end of October 1938, the Japanese had taken Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, and Wuhan. As a result, Chiang Kai-Shek's Nationalist government was forced to relocate to the mountainous city of Chongqing in Sichuan Province in Southwestern China. The city is five hundred miles further inland than Wuhan and surrounded by treacherous terrain, meaning that it was out of the Imperial Japanese Army's reach. Confronted with this reality, the Japanese hoped to topple the Nationalist capital, and by extension, the government, by destroying the morale of the people of Chongqing with air power. To this end, the first bombing attack was launched on Dec 26, 1938. This attack was followed by several more over the course of the next month, but none were particularly effective, thanks to the poor weather.
These winter attacks were followed by a brief respite for the people of Chongqing, but by the summer of 1939, the Japanese were ready to try again. They hatched a plan called Operation 100 to bomb the people of China into submission. On May 3, Japanese bombers dropped incendiary bombs on the new capital, burning hundreds of people. The bombers returned the next day and dropped more incendiaries, burning many more people, some of whom were killed while trying to climb the city walls to escape the fire. Operation 100 continued until November 1939, with many bombings and thousands of deaths. From the beginning, the Japanese bombed Chongqing with the intention of killing civilians in the hope of destroying Chinese morale and forcing the country to surrender. This practice, which was to become widespread throughout the world during the Second World War, was pioneered by the Japanese during their 1931 bombing campaign in Manchuria.
The Japanese bombed Chongqing frequently from 1938-1944, meaning that the city was the target of the longest sustained bombing campaign of the war. To cope with this long campaign of terror bombing, the people of Chongqing constructed an extensive web of bomb shelters, the most of any city in the world. By November 1943, there were 1,823 bomb shelters in the city, with a combined capacity of over 444,000 people. This was still inadequate, however, because the city's population was swollen by the influx of thousands of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion.
Public and private shelters became an important feature of wartime life for the citizens of Chongqing, who spent plenty of time underground to escape the frequent Japanese air raids. However, the shelters were of varying quality, meaning that the poor people forced to use public shelters suffered a disproportionate share of the casualties, in contrast to the wealthy and well-connected who stayed safe in superior private shelters. This disparity in the quality of the shelters was to prove fatal during one 1941 air raid.
On the night of Jun 5, 1941, Japanese bombers attacked the city, catching the people of Chongqing by surprise. More than 10,000 people crowded into a large shelter known as the Great Tunnel, which only had the capacity to house half as many. In addition, the shelter did not have an adequate oxygen supply. As the bombing continued over the course of hours, the tunnel grew swelteringly hot, and the kerosene lamps dimmed as the tunnel ran out of oxygen. When the lamps went out, a panic ensued, and the people crowded in the shelter ran for the exits, which were sealed by gates that only opened from the outside. The result was a deadly stampede that lasted for hours. By the time the air raid ended and government forces finally arrived to help, countless people had been trampled and suffocated to death. The death toll of this great stampede remains disputed to this day, with estimates ranging from 900-12,000 people killed.
By the time of the last raid in December 1944, the people of Chongqing had been terrorized but were not defeated. Throughout the Great Bombing of Chongqing, the Japanese dropped around 22,000 bombs on the city, killing around 15,000 people and injuring over 20,000 more in some 268 air raids. Still, the Japanese were unable to destroy the morale of the Chinese people and eventually surrendered by 1945.
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