In August 1939—you Russians must like hot weather, you seem to do a lot of your big attacks in August—Zhukov had all his ducks in a row, and gave the word to attack. Remember, attacking wasn’t something most commanders in 1939 did easily. They’d learned in 1914-1918 that the advantage was with the defenders. Only a few guys like Patton, Rommel, de Gaulle and Zhukov realized that that wasn’t necessarily so any more. Zhukov showed how it was done by encircling and annihilating the Imperial Japanese forces in Eastern Mongolia. And I do mean annihilating, because as usual, Japanese troops just didn’t surrender, so after Zhukov’s pincer attack surrounded them and they’d turned down a trip to the GULAG, Soviet artillery wiped them out.
|Zhukov crippled Japan’s Imperial Army, much as this photo-caption is crippled with tasteless irony.|
Another little preview of 1945 during this battle was the way Japanese troops dealt with the inevitable, as in “total denial,” aka: “brave but stupid.” One Japanese officer supposedly led his men on foot in an attack against Soviet tanks, with his Samurai sword on high. That was a pattern you were going to see again and again, in Saipan, Okinawa, the Philippines, everywhere Japanese troops were defeated: they thought way too much of arranging glorious deaths for themselves, and not nearly enough about arranging the same thing for the enemy.
But this time, in a rare moment of reason, the Imperial Armed Forces learned their lesson: after meeting Zhukov and getting slaughtered next to that frozen Mongolian river, they lost all appetite for a land war against the Soviets. Now, the Japanese were all for headin’ south, to the sea and sun, to those balmy Pacific beaches, starting with Pearl Harbor.
That little shift in Japan’s business expansion plan kept them pretty busy. So now we can fast-forward all the way to 1945 without losing much, because while the whole rest of the world was exploding, in the meantime, the USSR-Japanese borders in Manchuria/Siberia didn’t so much as flicker from 1939 to 1945. Nothing, zip, nada going on for all that time. Stalin kept 40 divisions there (remember, a Soviet division was only 11,000 troops), but thanks to Richard Sorge’s Tokyo spy ring, he knew the Japanese weren’t interested in another big fight in Manchuria, which made planning for the German front a lot easier.
So now it’s May 1945: “Hey Comrade Stalin, you’ve just won the Super Bowl! Where are you going?” Well, it wasn’t Disneyland; “I’m goin’ to Manchuria!”
And like I said earlier, he was in no hurry to get there, because every day the Japanese were weaker. The B-29s ran the Tokyo route more often than commuter flights from SFO to LAX. The last of the island fortresses were falling—and instead of reinforcing the Manchurian Front, the Japanese Imperial Command, in its usual psychotic state of total denial about the Soviet threat, was actually sucking every decent infantry and armor unit away from the Kwantung Army in Manchuria and feeding them into the hopeless war against the US advance toward the Home Islands.
I came across an amazing story of this one cool Japanese officer who was caught in that transfer. Actually, there are a lot of amazing stories in this Manchurian campaign, but this guy is a classic: Takeichi Nishi, also known as “Baron Nishi” when he used to hang out with the stars in Beverly Hills. Nishi was a child of the Japanese elite, a nobleman and a famous Olympic horse-riding star, and he spent a lot of pre-war time going to snooty horse-riding tournaments in Hollywood, driving his convertible around waving to all those silent-movie stars.