The Red Army still had jobs to do, because Stalin’s armies were always about more than just conquest. For one thing, they had to dismantle the whole industrial infrastructure of Manchuria—pretty considerable, too—and ship it back to the USSR “for safekeeping.” Then they had to corral the 600,000 surviving soldiers of the Kwantung Army. Most resistance was over by August 14, 1945, but a few units held out longer, until the Emperor’s surrender broadcast—which most of the Japanese alive in 1945 still remember as the most crushing event in their lives—filtered down to the bunkers and foxholes all along that 3000-mile front. When they were all rounded up—well, this IS Stalin we’re talking about, so you can’t get too sentimental; what do you think he did with them? Nah, didn’t kill ’em—too wasteful. Instead all 600,000 Japanese POWs were herded into cattle cars, the cars were boarded up, and the whole of what used to be Imperial Japan’s proudest army ended up in freezing prison camps.
I know a lot about what happened to these guys, and you can too, if you read this amazing site I came across called “The Notes of Japanese Soldier in USSR”:
I read it in the English version (you can get it in Russian and Japanese too), kind of badly translated but illustrated with these great drawings made by one of the “Pulverized” Kwantung Army POWs, who was shipped all over the Soviet empire, and ended up in Hungary riding horses with Mongolian POWs. The best thing about his story and his illustrations is that they’re about the happiest things you’ll ever see. The good old Japanese sense of humor is all over the place: jokes about baseballs smashing into the catcher’s nose in a POW-camp pickup game, jokes about “unfunny injections” from gorgeous Russian-lady doctors (the dude can draw women, let me tell you) and jokes about the fun of dying of dysentery in the Russian winter. It’s amazing. You expect some gloomy Solzhenitsyn shit and you get like Tom Sawyer in the GULAG. I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed reading anything as much as I did this site.
But as much as I love the Imperial Japanese forces, I have to do my job here as the War Nerd and say the final lesson I take away from all the research I’ve been doing. For awhile now, I’ve been saying that the two great Axis powers had the finest soldiers of that war. Well, I was wrong. I’d say the Japanese may have had the bravest soldiers, but that’s not the same thing as “best.” Like the Lt. who charged those Soviet tanks on foot, with a sword; brave, but stupid and a waste of fine troops. Better to scatter and hope some of your men reach base than walk into machine guns like that.
When all’s said and done, I have to say, and it’s kind of sad, the Russians and the Germans divide first place between them—the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, tied for first and, unfortunately, locked in a death grip. Nobody else comes close. Third, a distant third, to the US; fourth—who even cares? The rest don’t even count. All creds, props, whatever to you Russians, and though you might not like me saying it, to those Germans too, because you two were Ali and Frazier, man. You were the twin towers, the best of the best. So bask in that; your grandparents earned it. Glug some vodka for me and pour a Roman-style libation at the foot of Zhukov’s statue for me…comrades.
Gary Brecher's book The War Nerd is due out in stores shortly.