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Heroic and Critical Battles in Yunnan During WWII

(How Chinese, Americans, and Overseas Chinese Joined Forces to Regain Control of the Critical Supply Route to China)


(Copyrighted 2009 by Don M. Tow)


For more than two and a half years during WWII, fierce, deadly, and heroic battles took place in the western Yunnan Province (in the region called Dianxi, 滇西) in China.  Besides helping to turn the tide against the Japanese Imperial Army in the Asian warfront, the events that occurred during this period are of great historical significance for two reasons.  One is that by studying what happened in Dianxi, one can learn about all four major types of atrocities committed by the Japanese in Asia during WWII:  (1) Massacre, (2) sex slaves, (3) germ warfare, and (4) slave labor.   The other is how the Chinese, Americans, and Overseas Chinese joined forces to fight successfully to drive out the invading Japanese army.

This article is based on a personal visit to Dianxi in July 2009, as part of the 2009 Peace and Reconciliation Tour to China (also called China Study Tour) organized by the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (GA) and the New Jersey Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (NJ-ALPHA).[1] 

Japan’s Invasion of Western Yunnan: 

Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia began on December 8, 1941 with its invasion of Thailand and Malaya, i.e., about the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, which in Asia was December 8, 1941.  In early 1942 Japan invaded and gained control of Burma from the British colonial power.  At that time, Japan already controlled all the sea ports along the east coast of China and a large part of the urban areas of China, making it extremely difficult for the Allies to provide supplies to China.  However, since Japan did not control Yunnan Province, which shares a western border with Burma and other Southeast Asian countries,  the Allied Forces, in particular, the U.S., were able to transport military and other supplies to Kunming (昆明, capital of Yunnan) and there to other parts of China, either via the ground using the Burma Road[2] starting from the port of Rangoon in southern Burma or via the air by flying through the Himalayan mountain range bordering Yunnan and nearby Asian countries.

In order to shut off this critical supply route to China which greatly helped the Chinese to fight against the Japanese, in late April 1942 Japan moved their troops in Burma to invade western Yunnan, with the objective of gaining control of Kunming which is several hundred miles to the east.  On the way to Kunming they first had to cross the Salween River (also known as Nujiang, 江 meaning Angry River in Chinese) and go through the city of Baoshan (保山), which is the heart of the Dianxi region and just to the east of the Salween River.  To help soften the defense of Baoshan, the Japanese army periodically bombed Baoshan and the surrounding area in late April and early May in 1942.  This is followed by a massive bombing raid on Baoshan on May 4, 1942, including using large amounts of germ warfare, in particular, bombs that can spread cholera and bubonic plague.  May 4 is an important historic day in China in honor of the May 4, 1919 student movement (perhaps the world’s largest student movement ever), which was an anti-imperialist, cultural, and political movement growing out of students protesting the Chinese government’s weak response to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, including the transfer of German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan, instead of returning its sovereignty to China.  Therefore, on May 4, 1942, as on other May 4, many people in Baoshan were out commemorating the May 4 Movement when the bombing attack started around noon.  In one day this bombing attack killed 10,000 people in Baoshan, and the effects of the germ warfare lasted many years, and cholera alone killed about 60,000 people in the Baoshan area, plus thousands more killed from the bubonic plague in the Baoshan area.[3]  The population of Baoshan in 1942 was about 400,000.

Three Survivors’ Testimonies: 

During our recent trip, we interviewed three people who were survivors of the May 4, 1942 bombing and germ warfare attack.  They are

  • Yizhi Yuan:  a 90 year old woman who was 22 on May 4, 1942
  • An Xian Ma:  a 75 year old man who was eight on May 4, 1942
  • Jia Zhen Ma (wife of An Xian Ma):  a 72 year old woman who was five on May 4, 1942

These are their stories.

Yizhi Yuan:  She was an overseas Chinese living in Burma.  She is Muslim.  Besides Chinese, she also speaks Burmese and a little bit of English.  After Japan took control of Burma, the Japanese just randomly burned and killed people.  In Burma many of the overseas Chinese who could afford to do so escaped to Baoshan, Yunnan; those who could not afford to do so remained in Burma and most likely were killed.  She thinks that if they had not escaped from Burma, they would have all died. 

On May 4, 1942, a bomb hit the roof of her house and killed her husband, younger brother, and younger sister.  (She also had another younger brother and younger sister in Burma, but she has lost contacts with them.)  The bomb wounded her in several parts of her body, and her right foot was damaged.  She was saved by two Americans (perhaps soldiers), who were part of a contingent of 30-40 Americans stationed in that area, perhaps to build airports.  She was very happy to see us, because it was the first time she has met Americans since 1942.

The doctors wanted to amputate her foot, but she refused because she would prefer death.  Subsequently a Chinese doctor treated her and saved her foot, but her right foot is permanently deformed.  She was also infected with cholera, but treatment by a Burmese oriental doctor cured her.

Later she remarried, to a man whose first wife and brother and sister were also killed during the bombing attack.  They have three daughters and a son, the latter we also met during our visit.  Her second husband kept a daily diary starting in 1942 with detailed records of the bombing and the cholera (this diary was also shown to us).  Several of his relatives also died from cholera.

Our contingent included two young college students, Sophia and her younger brother Brian, whose parents lived in Burma before moving to Taiwan.  Sophia can speak a few phrases of Burmese, and Brian was born in Burma.  When Sophia spoke with old Yuan in Burmese, old Yuan was overjoyed to hear Burmese, and she said it was the first time in over 60 years that she had spoken Burmese.

Old Yuan said that the Japanese right wing must understand that Japan went very far away and destroyed people’s lives and destroyed a peaceful region’s livelihood. 




Survivor Yizhi Yuan


Yizhi Yuan with Sophia and Brian

To get a bigger size of each of the photos, just click on the photo.


An Xian Ma:   He first noticed skin lesions, signs of bubonic plague (other signs are swollen glands), among the people in Baoshan about seven-eight days after the May 4, 1942 bombing.  His sister was also infected with the plague, but his father, who was a Chinese doctor, treated his sister and she survived.  Also around the same time, he saw signs of cholera infection (symptom was exhaustive diarrhea).  He said that before the bombing, Baoshan had no bubonic plague, and only a few cases of cholera.  But after the bombing, he saw many bodies.  Many of his playmates, including the whole family of one of his playmates, died from bubonic plague.  The Japanese would even ask innocent small children to supply them with rats (in exchange for a small monetary reward), and then infect the rats with the bubonic plague bacteria.  They then let the rats loose to infect more Chinese.   

There were so many deaths that they even ran out of coffins, resulting in bodies just being left exposed on mattresses.  One day, he even saw dogs running around with human leg bones in their mouths.  So many men were killed; it was up to the women to carry away the bodies.  He said it was like hell.

He said that his sister met an old man who saw a bomb on the ground.  The bomb was split opened, either opened upon impact or opened by itself.  Then lots of flies with sticky yellow, jelly-like material on their wings flew away.  These flies would carry and spread the cholera-infecting bacteria. 

It seems that every year there was a reappearance of the bubonic plague, until 1952 when the Chinese government had a campaign to eradicate rats, whose fleas are the main carrier of the bubonic plague bacteria.

Before he retired, Mr. Ma was a business administrator in a government agency.

Jia Zhen Ma:  Her parents’ family moved from Burma to Baoshan in 1941.  Her aunt (her mother’s sister) and her aunt’s six-year-old daughter both died from bubonic plague resulting from the 1942 bombing.   

After the Japanese bombed Baoshan in 1942, Baoshan’s whole social and political fabric was destroyed and was basically non-existent.  People had to rely on themselves to find food, and often also shelter since so many buildings and houses were also destroyed.  Survival was a difficult, daily task. 

Japanese planes bombed Baoshan again several times from May to July 1942.  But after three Japanese planes were shot down by General Chennault’s Flying Tigers[4] in July 1942, the Japanese planes flew away and never returned to bomb Baoshan again.

Her mother was an elementary school teacher (my notes did not record the profession of her father).  She was the only child, and she received better education as compared to other girls of that generation.  She was sent to school, and graduated from a university, and became a school teacher.  Now in retirement, she still attends adult university classes in the afternoon, and practices Taiji in the morning.

She is also Muslim.  In Baoshan today, there are about 3,000 Muslim minorities, and another 1,000 who believed in the Muslim religion but not considered as Muslim minorities.  She said that independent of their racial background or religion, they are all nationalistic toward the Chinese government.  Even though they are Muslims, their love for the Chinese motherland never diminished.

She said that we cannot forget history.  Those Chinese who know about this part of history must educate other Chinese.  She said that Japan should also learn from the past, and teach their young people about history.  She would like good Sino-Japanese relationship and world peace.

Although she has not written her memoirs, her niece has asked her many times to do so.  She has now decided to write her memoirs. 



Survivors An Xian Ma and Jia Zhen Ma with two members of our group, Linda Grandfield (2nd from left) and Leah Brown-Klein (4th from left)



Stopping Japanese Army’s Advance and Japanese Atrocities:

As the Japanese army advanced from the west toward Baoshan, the only way that the Chinese army was able to stop the Japanese army’s advance, to not only Baoshan, but all the way to Kunming, was to blow up the Salween Bridge (also called the Huitung Bridge, 惠通桥) over the Salween River.  This resulted in a stand-off, with the Japanese army on the west shore, and the Chinese army on the east shore, of the Salween River.   This stand-off lasted slightly more than two years.

Although the Japanese army was not able to advance past the Salween River, they did control the western border of Yunnan and the western part of Dianxi, and thus that part of the Burma Road.  Since they also control Burma, the Burma Road was no longer operational, and supplies to the Chinese army had to be flown in by the Flying Tigers via the air route over the Himalayan mountain range (also called the Camel Hump Route).

In their advance through western Yunnan and during this stand-off, the Japanese army exhibited the cruelest and most inhuman nature in carrying out various atrocities.    They did not consider the Chinese as humans, and not only massacred innumerable civilians, including women and children, but used methods such as beheading, bayonet stabbing, burning down houses with people inside, boiling live people in hot water, and burying people alive.  As a matter of fact, during road constructions in the 1970s in Dianxi, numerous skeletons were dug up from various mass burial spots.


Drawing based on an eyewitness account of a live burial:  When a crow tried to peck at a man’s eye, the man was still alive and shook his head.

Besides raping women and young girls whenever they came across them, the Japanese army also kidnapped many girls and women from this area and other parts of China and other countries to be sex slaves housed in what they called Comfort Women Stations.  These sex slaves were each raped by a dozen Japanese soldiers on a daily basis, and many died.  There were several dozen such sex slave stations just in Dianxi alone.[5]  To avoid the Japanese searching for females when the Japanese were in their dwellings, the Chinese got into the habit of hiding any female shoes in their dwellings.

Robbing the Chinese farmers and merchants of their holdings, including crops and livestock, was automatic.  Besides raping the Chinese women, kidnapping Chinese males to do various menial tasks, including building roads and bunkers, was also automatic.  Being a prisoner of war of the Japanese army was almost like a death sentence.[6]  These kinds of atrocities happened on a regular basis in Dianxi, just like they happened almost everywhere else under the control of the Japanese. 

Heroic Battles at Songshan: 

After the Salween Bridge was destroyed by the retreating Chinese army, the Japanese army’s advance to Kunming and east Yunnan was stopped.  South of the Salween Bridge is a 7,000 feet mountain peak called Songshan (松山) that could provide a strategic mountain-top view of the Dianxi area and an excellent defensive location for the Japanese troops.  So the Japanese army built a vast array of bunkers and trenches on Songshan.  They also built roads that could carry tanks and other military vehicles to transport troops and supplies to their Songshan fortified base.  They of course drafted many Chinese to provide the free labor to build their base. 

After more than a two-year stand-off on the shores of the Salween River, the Chinese Expedition Army finally mounted a counter-offensive on the night of May 11, 1944.  Under the cover of darkness, 20,000 Chinese soldiers (about 10% of the 200,000-strong Chinese Expedition Army) crossed the Salween River via 12 crossings using American-supplied plastic water crafts.  The counter-offensive was successful and the Japanese troops retreated, many of them retreated to their Songshan base. 

On June 4, 1944, the Chinese Expedition Army received order to attack the Songshan base.  Since this base was on top of a 7,000 feet mountain peak and was strongly fortified with many bunkers and trenches, it was a long, difficult, and deadly objective to achieve.  Because of its strategic importance in pushing the Japanese troops out of Yunnan and regain the use of the Burma Road, this objective had to be achieved.  It took three months and three days of many heroic and deadly battles to regain Songshan, at the cost of the lives of over 7,600 Chinese soldiers.  About 3,000 Japanese soldiers were killed and only 10 became prisoners. 

Several of the battles involved hand-to-hand combats, including one in which the attacking Chinese soldiers ran out of ammunition.  Instead of retreating which would allow the Japanese soldiers to regroup, the Chinese soldiers kept on running toward the Japanese soldiers to engage in hand-to-hand combats.  Sometimes one battle would immediately follow another, so that there was no time to retrieve the bodies of those killed.  By the time they were able to retrieve the bodies, the bodies already decayed so much that the bodies could no longer be recognized.  In attacking two especially solidly fortified four-story bunkers, the Chinese were repeatedly pushed back.  Finally, the Chinese dug two long underground tunnels to beneath these two bunkers, and used 70 boxes of TNT on one and 50 boxes of TNT on the other to blow up these two bunkers (the TNT was supplied by the U.S.).  The Chinese were then able to kill or drive out the soldiers defending the two bunkers.

No American ground troop was involved in the Songshan battles, but the Flying Tigers provided some air support, and seven Flying Tiger soldiers were killed when their plane was shot down.

Having defeated the Japanese at Songshan, the Chinese Expedition Army was then able to push the Japanese troops out of Yunnan, and regain control of all of Yunnan and the China portion of the Burma Road.  Because the Burma Road started in the seaport of Rangoon in southern Burma and Burma was still under the control of Japan, the Allied forces were still not able to use the Burma Road to provide supplies to China.  Only when the Allied forces finished building in January 1945[7] the Ledo Road from Ledo, India to Wanting, Yunnan and connected to the China portion of the Burma Road, supplies to Kunming once again were able to be transported via the ground.

The ordinary Chinese people in Baoshan and surrounding areas played a key role in the successful counter-offensive to regain control of west Yunnan.  Even though life was already extremely difficult during wartime, the ordinary Chinese people provided over many months food and shelter to feed and house the 200,000-strong Chinese Expedition Army, as well as providing many other necessary supplies, including raw material for ammunitions.  They provided labor to repair damaged vehicles, roads, and airports, and help transport ammunitions and supplies to the front lines, including serving as drivers and mechanics of various vehicles, which was an important role that was taken up by a lot of overseas Chinese.  Many men including young boys either joined the Chinese Expedition Army or fought alongside the Chinese Expedition Army.  They also provided shelter and medical aids for the thousands of wounded. 

Besides providing a lot of the drivers and mechanics, the overseas Chinese made other significant contributions.  In general, the overseas Chinese who returned to China before or during WWII were relatively speaking more educated, better off financially (many were shop or business owners), and also very patriotic.  Around 1938, more than 1,000 overseas Chinese returned to China to help build the Burma Road or to join the fight against the Japanese, and many died.  With their business and management experience, they provided a lot of the leadership and know-how to keep a war-time economy running that could support not only the local citizens, but also the huge number of soldiers of the Chinese Expedition Army.  The overseas Chinese also donated a lot of money to help the war effort or improve the country in general.  For example, a Mr. Leung who was originally from Baoshan donated two-thirds of the money that were needed to rebuild the Salween Bridge in 1931.  In 1937, he also donated to China several dozen heavy trucks and an airplane.  In 1941 when Japan invaded Southeast Asia, he used his automobile company to transport for free the Chinese troops and military supplies that were located outside of China back to China. 

Although there was no American ground troop involved in the Songshan battles, American ground troops were involved in other counter-offensive battles (see, e.g., the next section).  With or without providing ground troops, the U.S. did play a pivotal role in the whole counter-offensive to regain western Yunnan.  The U.S. provided critical supplies to the Chinese Expedition Army, including the large number of plastic water crafts (that allowed the Chinese soldiers to cross the Salween River to begin the counter-offensive) and the large amount of TNT and other ammunitions (that was so crucial in destroying the fortified bunkers on Songshan).  Without the U.S. Flying Tigers, the Japanese would have controlled the air.  However, even though the Japanese had better and more versatile planes, they were repeatedly outfought by the Flying Tigers due to the superior air fighting skills of the Flying Tigers pilots.  The Flying Tigers also transported a large amount of supplies to China.  As a matter of fact, even after the Burma Road became operational again after the completion of the Ledo Road in January 1945, most of the supplies were still being flown over the Himalayas by the Flying Tigers.  But the battle and transport in the air also took a heavy toll.  Five hundred U.S. planes were lost, and over 1,500 American and Chinese pilots and other airmen were killed.[8]  The U.S. also led in the construction of the original Burma Road in 1937-38, and in the construction of the Ledo Road (from December 1942 to January 1945) that started in India and bypassed most of Burma and connected to the China portion of the Burma Road.  Finally, General Stilwell, as the commander of the American troops in the China-Burma-India region, also provided overall strategy guidance and leadership.  These American contributions are well known and recognized in China, especially in Yunnan.  There are quite a few monuments and memorials in Yunnan that honor the contributions and sacrifices of the American soldiers and the Flying Tigers.  As a matter of fact, in one of the hotels we stayed in at Baoshan, the hotel owner named the hotel bar the “Stilwell Bar” in honor of General Stilwell.  In China, the Burma Road and the Ledo Road are known as the Stilwell Road.

A Tribute to Ordinary Chinese Soldiers and also American Soldiers:

After the Japanese Imperial Army invaded and occupied the western part of Dianxi (east of the Salween River) in May 1942, for the next two years there was a continuous war of resistance from the Chinese, with help from the American military, against the invaders and occupiers.  The largest of such war of resistance in western Dianxi was a series of heroic and deadly battles to regain control of Tengchong County (腾冲县), located to the west of the Salween River and almost directly west of Baoshan. This series of battles took place from May 1944 to September 1944 and lasted 127 days. The dead toll was about 9,000 Chinese, dozens of American soldiers, and over 6,000 Japanese soldiers.  To keep this article from getting even longer, I will highlight only a few points, and not elaborate on this part of the war of resistance.

  • In the town of Heshun (和顺), the main town in Tengchong County, a “Dianxi War of Resistance Museum” (滇酉抗战纪念馆) was established by the local people in July 1945.  This was the first non-government museum in China focusing on WWII in Dianxi.  It was rebuilt in 1984, classified in 1996 as a National Historical Museum, and expanded in 2004.

  • 3,346 of the killed Chinese soldiers whose identities were known are buried here, each having its own tombstone.  This is the only large-scale memorial cemetery in China with individual tombstones for ordinary soldiers, and not just for their commanders.  Although they know the names of many who were killed, their bodies were not always identifiable (e.g., bodies already decayed before they were retrieved).  Therefore, all the bodies were cremated collectively, and one cup of collective ash was buried under each tombstone.

  • Within this museum, there is also a separate memorial site with plagues for the 19 American soldiers (including Major William C. McMurrey) killed here, although their bodies had since been shipped back and reburied in the U.S.

  • This museum is one of only two museums in the People’s Republic of China that has the flag and symbol of the Republic of China hanging on the walls of the museum.

For more information and photos about the “Dianxi War of Resistance Museum,” especially about Major McMurrey and other American soldiers, read the two articles in: 

http://cbi-theater-6.home.comcast.net/~cbi-theater-6/sixtyyears/sixtyyears.html and



Dedication of the New “Dianxi Anti-Japanese War Cemetery of Heroes”: 

As discussed earlier in this article, it is clear that the success of the war of resistance against the Japanese Imperial Army in west Yunnan was due to the successful integration of the contributions of the Chinese army, the Chinese population (including the overseas Chinese), and the U.S. army.[9]  This is well recognized by the Chinese people, especially the Chinese people in Yunnan.  This is why the people in Long Ling County (the county where Songshan is located) recently held the completion ceremony for the “Dianxi Anti-Japanese War Cemetery of Heroes.”  This is a new war memorial to honor the Chinese soldiers, Chinese ordinary citizens, and American soldiers who died while participating in the war of resistance.  Because our delegation represented both Americans and overseas Chinese, the local organizers actually chose the date of this completion ceremony to coincide with our day of visit.  The head of our delegation, Dr. Pete Stanek, President of the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (GA), was also asked to speak during this ceremony.



Completion Ceremony of the new “Dianxi Anti-Japanese War Cemetery of Heroes”

Pete Stanek, President of GA, invited to speak at this ceremony.  To his right is Ignatius Ding, EVP of GA, acting as translator.




English wording on the left plague explicitly mentioned Major William C. McMurrey.  Note also the American flag on the top right that was put there before the ceremony.  The right plague has the same description in Chinese.

Bilingual wording on the middle plague.



Personally I found this ceremony and the whole visit to west Yunnan quite emotional and educational.  It is hard to understand how one group of people can be so inhumane in treating another group of people.  It is also so heartening to learn how people, including ordinary people and people from different countries, can join forces and face all kinds of difficulties and sacrifices to resist successfully and drive out the invading and occupying forces.  As an overseas Chinese, I especially admire the great contributions and sacrifices that the overseas Chinese made in the Dianxi war of resistance.  I wish that my current generation of overseas Chinese would be more willing to make contributions and sacrifices to improving the social and political fabrics of either their adopted country - the U.S., or their country of origin - China.

[1] The 2009 China Study Tour also visited Shanghai and Nanking.

[2] More information about the Burma Road (and the Ledo Road), which is also known as the Stilwell Road (in honor of the American Army General Joseph Stilwell) is provided later in this article.  Also, more information can be found in, e.g., http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burma_Road.

[3] The total number killed by the bubonic plague in the whole Dianxi region during WWII was estimated to be about 50,000.

[4] The Flying Tigers, although when it was first formed in 1941 was not an official unit of the U.S. Army, it was formally incorporated into the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1942.

[5] For a more detailed discussion of sex slaves, read the article “Sex Slaves of WWII”:  http://www.dontow.com/Archived_PS_Articles/APS15-Sex_Slaves_of_World_War_II.html.

[6] For another account of the treatment of POWs, see the article “American POWs and the Bataan Death March”:  http://www.dontow.com/Archived_OT_Articles/AOT17-American POWs and the Bataan Death March.html.

[7] Construction of the Ledo Road started in December 1942.

[8] The pilots and other airmen of the Flying Tigers included both Americans and Chinese, but the planes were American and the Flying Tigers was led by the American General Chennault.


[9] During WWII, the Flying Tigers, as well as the U.S. Air Force, was a unit of the U.S. Army.



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