Shanghai, China August 13, 1937

The Battle of Shanghai began on this date in 1937. It was the first major battle of World War II (the Euro­pean con­flict erupted two years later), and it even­tually involved nearly one million com­ba­tants. When hosti­lities broke out Minis­ter of War (1937–1938) Field Marshal Hajime Sugi­yama advised Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) that the Japa­nese Army would van­quish China “in about three months.” “We’ll send large forces, smash them in a hurry, and get the whole thing over with quickly,” Sugi­yama predicted. Hiro­hito was on board: “Since it has come to this [referring to fighting that had now spread to the coastal city of Shang­hai, China’s second largest city], it is diffi­cult to settle the con­flicts through diplo­macy.” The “three-month war,” designed to mili­tarily settle all out­standing dis­putes with China, espe­cially those over the five-year-old Japa­nese puppet state of Man­chu­kuo (known by Westerners as Man­chu­ria in North­eastern China), con­tinued for eight years, one month, three weeks, and five days and cost 20 mil­lion Chinese lives, 15 mi­llion other casual­ties, and created 95 mil­lion refugees. On the Japa­nese side, their armed forces suffered between 2.2 and 3.2 million casualties.

Following Japan’s occupation of Beijing (Peking) in July 1937, the Battle of Shang­hai began when Chiang Kai-shek’s numeri­cally superior National Revolu­tionary Army tried eradi­cating Japa­nese troops in down­town Shang­hai. In a bid to rescue their gar­ri­son, the Japa­nese launched amphib­i­ous landings north of the city and the two armies fought a Stalin­grad-type house-to-house battle, with the Japa­nese some­times em­ploying chemi­cal wea­pons, as other Japa­nese ele­ments gained control of the sur­rounding region. In the face of these flanking maneu­vers Nation­alist sol­diers retreated toward their capital at Nanjing (Nanking), 200 miles to the northwest.

The conquest of Shanghai ended on Novem­ber 26, 1937, with a loss of 270,000 peo­ple killed and over 100,000 injured or missing on both sides. The fero­city and tena­city shown by the Chi­nese shocked Japan’s mili­tary leaders, who had hoped for a quick and cheap vic­tory for the 300,000 troops who had been engaged in com­bat opera­tions. The Battle of Shang­hai signi­fied not just some “inci­dent” against “bandits,” terms Japa­nese expan­sionists had used pre­viously to down­play their country’s aggres­sion in China; rather, it opened a new chap­ter of all-out war between the two coun­tries (the Second Sino-Japa­nese War), a chap­ter rudely closed in the first half of August 1945 by a third party to the conflict (the United States) after it had incin­erated most of the aggressor nation’s major cities and wiped two off the map.

Battle of Shanghai, August 13 to November 26, 1937

Japanese cabinet of Kuniaki Koiso, July 22, 1944Japanese chemical attack during the Battle of Shanghai, 1937

Left: Hajime Sugiyama (left in first row) as Minis­ter of War in the cabi­net of Prime Minis­ter Kuniaki Koiso (third from left in front row), July 22, 1944. (Koiso was Gen. Hideki Tōjō’s replace­ment.) In early Septem­ber 1941, on the verge of the war with the United States and Great Britain, Emperor Hiro­hito severely berated Sugi­yama for having pre­dicted in 1937 that the Japa­nese inva­sion of China would be com­pleted with­in three months, and he chal­lenged Sugi­yama over his con­fi­dence in a quick vic­tory over the Western powers (prin­cipally the U.S. and Great Britain)—a classic case of les­sons not learned. Ten days after the sur­render of Japan, after finishing prepa­rations for the final dis­so­lution of the Imperial Japa­nese Army as dictated by the vic­torious Allied Powers, Sugi­yama com­mitted suicide by shooting himself four times in the chest with his service revolver.

Right: Japanese soldiers wearing gas masks and rub­ber gloves during a chemi­cal attack in the Battle of Shang­hai (August 13 to Novem­ber 26, 1937). The Japa­nese Army fre­quently used chemi­cal wea­pons during the war in China. Indeed, sol­diers were autho­rized to use chemi­cal wea­pons on speci­fic orders of Emperor Hiro­hito himself, trans­mitted by the Imperial General Head­quarters through Gen. Sugi­yama or another general on the Imperial Japanese Army General Staff.

"Bloody Saturday," Shanghai, August 28, 1937Japanese soldiers sift through Shanghai ruins, 1937

Left: This terrified baby was one of the only human beings left alive in Shang­hai’s South Rail­way Sta­tion after the Japa­nese bombed it on August 28, 1937. Taken a few minutes after the Japa­nese air attack, this black-and-white photo­graph, titled “Bloody Saturday,” was pub­lished widely in Septem­ber and Octo­ber 1937 and in less than a month had been seen by more than 136 mil­lion viewers world­wide. One of the most mem­o­rable war photo­graphs ever pub­lished, the image stimu­lated an out­pouring of Western anger against Japanese violence in China.

Right: Japanese troops in the ruins of Shang­hai, 1937. During the eight-year Second Sino-Japa­nese War (1937–1945), the Japa­nese mili­tary fielded 4.1 mil­lion men and enjoyed the services of 900,000 Chi­nese col­lab­o­rators. Facing the enemy were 5.6 mil­lion Nation­alist and Com­munist Chi­nese sol­diers. Granted its impre­cision, of the 1,130,000 Japa­nese sol­diers esti­mated to have died during World War II, 447,000 (or 39 percent) died in China.

“The Battle of China” (1944), Part of the U.S. Government’s Morale-Building Series “Why We Fight,” Directed by Frank Capra