Bear’s Teeth, Dragon’s Claws:
A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War
by Chris Oakley
(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)
Summary: In the first two chapters of this series we explored the circumstances that led to the Manchurian War and the first months of the war itself. In this instalment we’ll recall the first Chinese chemical strikes and the Soviet retaliatory attacks; how the war confronted China’s neighbors with a thorny refugee problem; and how the Johnson Administration’s political fortunes were affected by events in both Siberia and Vietnam.
Fruit Of A Poisoned Tree: March 1967-January 1968
It was just past 10:00 AM Moscow time on March 3rd, 1967 when Soviet battlefield radars in the Khabarovsk area picked up the approach of the Chinese strike aircraft which Red Army troops had been warned would be coming that day to drop mustard gas bombs on their positions. With brisk speed, all Soviet ground personnel moved to get themselves into protective gear or the closest available shelter to safeguard their lungs and skin against the lethal poisons China was sending their way.
Simultaneously, Soviet air defense squadrons were scrambled to intercept the attack planes and shoot down as many of them as the Soviet pilots could find. This started the second major air battle of the Manchurian War, and it was at the height of this clash that the first mustard gas bombs hit Soviet ground positions around 10:52 AM. Thanks both to the warning they’d been given and the measures they had taken to protect themselves, the Soviet ground forces came through the Chinese chemical attack with minimal casualties, losing only six dead and twenty-eight hospitalized.
It would be a full week before Moscow’s military response to the attack came, but when that response finally did come it hit Mao’s regime like a punch to the solar plexus. The chosen target for the Soviets’ retaliatory strike: Shanghai, one of China’s largest andoldest cities. Those who know the gleaming metropolis Shanghai is today have a hard time remembering this, but during Mao’s era it was a city dominated by a decrepit mix of crumbling pre-Mao houses and poorly built Stalinist prison-like concrete boxes; under those circumstances it wasn’t hard for an enemy to do serious damage with a missile strike regardless of the type of warhead the missiles were carrying. Furthermore, it is an indisputable fact of modern combat that enough missiles launched at a particular target can, given the right conditions, trigger serious fires when they hit.
Add to this the unfortunate human tendency to panic in the face of mass disaster, and the climate was perfect for a body count of almost Biblical proportions. When Soviet missiles armed with chemical warheads struck downtown Shanghai early in the afternoon of March 10th, 1967, the combined effects of the gas inside those warheads and the explosions set off whenever a missile struck a building resulted in civilian losses on a scale China hadn’t seen since the establishment of Communist rule in 1949. 50,000 people were killed and another 100,000 lost their homes as a result of the fires that broke out in the chaos of the strike’s aftermath.
From his presidential palace in Pyongyang, Kim Il Sung viewed this carnage with alarm. It wasn’t just the prolonged infighting between the Communist bloc’s dominant powers that troubled him, though that was certainly a major consideration-- he knew by now that his nation was about to be faced with a flood of Chinese refugees and that it was ill-equipped to cope with that flood.
On March 6th, 1967, three days after the Shanghai missile attack, Kim ordered North Korea’s borders to be closed to all Chinese refugees no matter what their age, gender, or physical condition. Any who still tried to cross the border despite this edict were to be shot on sight. That, however, proved an insufficient deterrent to those determined to find sanctuary; despite Kim’s directive, they kept right on making their way over the Chinese-North Korean border and pressing claims for asylum.
Incensed as he was by the Soviet gas attack, Mao Zedong saw in it a golden propaganda opportunity to rally his nation’s wavering morale. Two days after the missile strike, he went to Shanghai and spoke at a mass funeral for some of its victims; his eulogy turned into a call for volunteers to swell the PLA’s ranks to avenge the dead in that ancient city. The CPC’s paramilitary youth organization, the Red Guard, pitched in to aid relief and recovery efforts in the Shanghai area.
But the morale boost didn’t last as long as Mao had hoped it would-- just two months after the Shanghai missile strike, the Red Army began began the offensive that would finally end the Chinese occupation of Khabarovsk. Hitting the PLA with a two-pronged attack, they broke the Chinese lines in two and began to retake the Siberian industrial town block by block; by July 3rd, First Secretary Brezhnev could proclaim with great assurance that Khabarovsk was fully under Soviet control once more.
The Soviets quickly followed up their success at Khabarovsk with a four-pronged assault on Chinese positions at the Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator. Historians worldwide, though they may vehemently dispute other things about the Manchurian War, are in unanimous agreement that the fight for Ulan Bator was the most savage land battle of the war’s second year; lasting almost a month, it left the city almost completely destroyed before it was over and bled at least a half-dozen infantry divisions on both sides white. There were so many corpses in the streets when the fighting was over that the Soviets had to use steam shovels to bury the dead.
September of 1967 saw a temporary lull in the fighting as China’s rainy season forced both the Red Army and the PLA to suspend major ground operations. But the Soviet high command was by no means idle; while they waited for the rains to let up, they were planning an all- out offensive against Chinese positions in Manchuria whose immediate goal was to reach Harbin by New Year’s Day and whose long-team goal was to secure bridgeheads for a projected assault on Beijing in late January or early February of 1968.
The rains finally cleared in mid-October, and when they did the Soviets wasted no time moving their men into position for the start of the Manchurian attack. On November 7th, 1967, the half-century anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution, the Red Army unleashed a four-pronged offensive against the weakest point in the PLA’s defensive lines along the Manchurian border; within 48 hours of the initial assault Soviet ground forces had already pushed at least 20 miles inside Chinese territory (one advance battalion managed to cover 30 miles of ground by the third day of the offensive).
As the days wore on, and Red Army troops pressed ever further into Manchurian territory, Soviet diplomats abroad and state-run media at home bragged that New Year’s Day 1968 would see Soviet troops marching in the streets of Harbin. And sure enough, on Christmas Day the official CPSU news agency TASS broke the story that Soviet tanks and artillery had begun shelling Harbin’s outer districts. But Mao wasn’t ready to throw in the towel just yet; he drafted Red Guards, some as young as 13 or 14, to form so-called "special action detachments" that were actually suicide squads whose purpose was to drain Soviet manpower resources on the ground far enough to enable attacks by conventional PLA units to succeed.
In Mongolia, Beijing encouraged pro-Chinese insurgents to mount a guerrilla uprising against Soviet occupation troops in the Lake Hyargas area. Though their numbers were inferior to the Soviets’, the rebels worried the Kremlin enough to prompt the Red Army high command to slow down its Manchurian offensive and re-deploy some of the troops from that front to smash the insurgent forces. A push to capture the strategically important industrial city of Shenyang ground to a halt ten miles north of town, allowing the PLA to send some of its reserves to the battlefront to begin pushing the Soviets back toward the border.
Anti-Chinese sentiment in Russia, already at a high pitch to begin with, escalated to new levels of ferocity as the Soviet people heard a steady stream of accounts of atrocities committed by the Chinese against Soviet POWs on the Manchurian front1. In those areas of the Soviet Union’s Far East territories not under Chinese occupation, a wave of racial hate crimes against Soviet citizens of Asiatic descent stretched the KGB’s already-strained resources to their full limit, and in postwar letters to an old friend First Secretary Brezhnev later confessed that his greatest fear at that point was the ethnic unrest in such regions might lead to a wider civil war. In Moscow effigies of MaoZedong and General Lin Bao were burned along with Chinese flags, and the CPSU Politburo tightened its ban on the teaching of the Chinese language in schools.2
Perhaps the worst single-day atrocity of the entire war took place on January 3rd, 1968 and involved the slaughter of a detachment of Soviet marines during their breakfast by one of Mao’s Red Guard suicide squads. Striking just after 6:30 AM Moscow time, they killed the marine troops using everything from rocks to bayonets to the marines’ own grenades; a few of the corpses were kept intact as proof to the squad’s superiors that the mission had been completed.
Brezhnev’s reaction to the massacre was to order the transfer of five Red Army tank divisions from the Group of Soviet Forces Germany3 to the Soviet battlefront in Manchuria; these divisions were then unleashed in a massive assault that opened serious breaches in the PLA defensive line around Shenyang. These ground attacks were accompanied by a wave of ferocious air strikes whose main targets (other than the PLA lines) were Shenyang’s industrial facilities....
Under different circumstances, President Johnson might have tried to halt the fighting via US and UN intervention in the hostilities; indeed, for months editorial writers all across America had been urging him to do exactly that to keep the Manchurian War from escalating into full- scale nuclear conflict. However, just a few hours before the Soviet armored assault on Shenyang commenced, US forces in the Quang Tri and Da Nang provinces of South Vietnam were themselves attacked by the Viet Cong in what would later come to be known as "the Tet offensive". Coming as it did in the wake of assurances by the Johnson Administration that the VC were on the brink of collapse, these attacks came as something of a rude awakening to both the administration and the American public.
Originially, the VC had envisioned a far more ambitious offensive which involved raids on every major military target in South Vietnam, along with assaults by suicide squads on the American embassy in Saigon. There had even been provisions for an NVA occupation of the historic city of Hue along the Perfume River. However, with North Vietnam’s chief foreign allies at each other’s throats the flow of aid to Hanoi had slowed to a trickle and the resources for such elaborate operations simply weren’t available.
Even so, the assaults would inflict sufficient damage on the American position in South Vietnam to make Lyndon Johnson’s political career the most significant casualty of the Manchurian War...
To Be Continued
1 The fact that the Soviet government had been guilty of equally heinous abuses against Chinese prisoners was not often discussed-- especially given that under Soviet law at the time criticism of the war effort was officially classified as treason by the Brezhnev regime.
2 Soviet military academies, where foreign language instruction was considered an essential part of the training of POW camp interrogators, were exempted from the ban, as were the Soviet foreign ministry’s diplomatic training schools.
3 The official designation for the Soviet main battle force then deployed to East Germany as a counter to US and NATO troops in West Germany.