The Second Sino-Japanese War was a dark period in human history (as wars tend to be) and is only overshadowed by World War II. The casualty figures are staggering: 1.32 million killed in action, 1.79 million wounded in action, 120,000 missing in action, and between 1.7 and 2.2 million civilians killed.
In the West, the Nanjing Massacre (or Rape of Nanjing) is perhaps the most commonly known part of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and it is very much representative of the kind of atrocities perpetrated at that time. But while the war was a period of inhumanity, it was also a time of unbelievable bravery on the part of the Chinese.
And amongst the bravest was a group who would come to be known as the 800 Heroes (八百壮士).
By August 13, 1937, the Japanese forces had swept into Shanghai and, bolstered somewhat by their superior numbers, training, weaponry, air support and artillery, had thoroughly routed the Chinese, who were left with only the slightest toehold on the vital port-city. The order to pull out was given, but someone needed to stay behind to cover the retreat. An experienced, well-armed detachment with an outstanding commander was the obvious choice. Instead, the job went to the 524th Regiment, 88th Division – a group made up primarily of green recruits and battle-weary veterans. And their leader, Xie Jinyuan, hadn’t even been a commander for that long.
But then Xie wasn’t ordered to take the position – he volunteered. Why? Because he knew how to get things done.
Namely, getting things done with a machine gun
Holing up in a six-story, well-supplied, concrete warehouse, the 88th got to work. They reinforced the doors and windows with sandbags, set up machine guns on every floor and the roof, scoured the surrounding area for medical supplies and razed the buildings around them, setting up choke points and kill zones. The buildings they couldn’t get rid of, they filled with explosives because everyone likes a surprise, right?
These were wise preparations, considering that out of all the men who had been ordered to join Xie at the warehouse, only 414 had actually made it there alive. Worse, they had no heavy weapons, no anti-tank or anti-air guns, and no reinforcements. Meanwhile, the Japanese forces were not only well-armed, but were the 3rd Division––the elites.
As prepared as they were ever likely to be, Xie’s rag-tag defenders took their positions and waited for the hellish might of the Imperial Japanese Army to descend upon them.
It began on October 27, with the Japanese severely underestimating what they had gotten themselves into. Bullets were exchanged and grenades were thrown, resulting in the repulsion of the invaders. The conflict lasted into the night, but by 9 pm, the Chinese realized they had made it through the day. But now the Japanese––all 20,000 of them––knew what they were up against.
Yet as outgunned and outnumbered as the (not quite) 800 Heroes were, they did have one thing going for them. Their warehouse backed onto the Suzhou River, and the other side was a Foreign Concession––meaning it was occupied by Europeans and Americans. Appropriately fearful of provoking those two powers (who, up until that point, had been content to mutter vaguely about those “nasty Japanese aggressors”) the invaders were unable to bombard the warehouse with naval artillery or aerial strikes, lest they miss and hit the other side of the river. Nor could they get away with using mustard gas right in front of the Europeans because this was post-World War I, and the people of Europe were still pretty sensitive about that sort of thing.
Yellow - the warehouse. Green - the Foreign Concession. Red - places where the Japanese were likely to kill you
Nonetheless, over the next four days, the Japanese threw everything they could at the defenders. A scouting party approached the building first, but Xie, who was in the middle of a rousing speech, turned them back by promptly picking up a rifle and shooting one of them dead, while they were still a kilometer away. The Japanese then attacked in force from the west, deploying cannons in a nearby building and shelling the defenders’ position. The warehouse’s concrete walls proved too thick to penetrate, however, allowing the 88th to force the enemy back with suppressive fire.
By this point, news had spread of the Chinese soldiers garrisoned inside the warehouse and dozens of people now crowded the foreign side of the river, cheering the 88th on. Truckloads of supplies were donated by Shanghai refugees, all of which had to be smuggled in under cover of darkness while the Japanese opened fire. The British troops in the concession even agreed to sneak in and take out several wounded soldiers.
Among the onlookers was a Girl Guide named Yang Huimin. She asked for a list of defenders’ names so that they could be announced to the entire country. Fearful of revealing just how few men he actually had left, however, Xie devised a cunning ruse. Using the original troop roster of the 524th regiment, he chose 800 names at random and gave them to Yang. The false list was announced to the rest of the country, immortalizing his (considerably smaller) division as the 800 Heroes.
Irked by this sudden upsurge of national moral, the Japanese forces did everything they could to end the standoff. They again deployed cannons, but this time backed them up with tankettes driving the 88th up into the 3rd floor of the warehouse.
In danger of being routed, the 88th fell back, but before they had a chance to rally themselves, the Japanese infantry took to scaling the walls and infiltrating the building through the numerous holes they had finally blasted. The fighting degenerated into bloody hand-to-hand combat, but Xie was ready for such an eventuality. In what must have been a truly awesome scene to behold, he confronted a Japanese soldier crawling through a hole, grabbed the man’s rifle in one hand, seized him by the throat with the other, choked him, pushed him back out the hole, shot another soldier who was coming up behind him, and then toppled the ladder they had used.
We can only assume he did all this without breaking a sweat.
Pose representative of Xie's innate coolness. Horse added for dramatic effect.
Waves and waves of Japanese came at the 88th, all supported by cannons and tankettes, but all were repelled. The carnage was so great that one defender eventually snapped and hurled himself from the warehouse – covered in grenades. In the end, the invaders even tried tunneling in, but that failed too.
And for as long as there was daylight, the observers on the other side of the river cheered the 88th on, even holding up massive signs revealing Japanese troop positions.
By the 30th, the Japanese had all but given up trying to take the warehouse with infantry and had resorted to endless bombard. Reports say that a shell was fired every single second, and that it went on all day.
Suffice to say, the warehouse gained a few new "windows"
Finally, with most of the Chinese forces now having escaped Shanghai, the 88th were ordered to retreat…which Xie refused to do. A few gruff words from his superiors made him see that dying for no reason was rather silly, however, and eventually he acquiesced. At midnight on November 1, Xie led the 376 surviving members of his division across the river.
Twenty seven hard-as-nails men volunteered to stay behind and cover the escape. Already badly wounded, they literally gave up their lives so that their comrades could get away. There isn’t a designated phrase to describe such men, but if there had to be one, it would probably be “bloody heroes.”
Thanks to the politics of the time, the 376 survivors were arrested and detained in a POW camp upon their triumphant arrival in the concession. Xie would be assassinated three years later, again for political reasons, while the rest of his men were seized by the Japanese when the concession was invaded, and sent to do hard labor.
It was an ill-fitting end for such heroic men, but in the years that followed, Xie and his “800” became national heroes. They were visited by hundreds during their time in the POW camp, and even today, they hold a near-legendary status as symbols of Chinese strength and defiance.
For another historical bad-ass, try Dian Wei, the axe-wielding warrior!
And to discover the greatest pirate who ever lived, look over here.