He was also a cavalry officer in the Imperial forces, which wasn’t so much fun, especially when his unit was transferred from Manchuria to Iwo Jima in 1944. His unit didn’t even make it to Iwo: they were torpedoed en route and all their tanks are still rusting somewhere on the Pacific sea floor, condos for the hagfish. Nishi and his men survived the sinking, all but two of them, and made it to Iwo Jima, even got new tanks. But they were ordered to bury them up to the turrets. Not much chance for maneuver warfare; this was going to be one of those suicide stands Showa-era Japan loved so much.
The Americans were all for that, usually: “Here, we’ll hold the bayonet and you run onto it!” but—and I have to admit, this is kind of touching even for me—they knew that their old Hollywood buddy “Baron Nishi” was on the island and they didn’t want to hurt him. So they actually sent guys with bullhorns around the island saying, “Paging Baron Nishi, paging Baron Nishi! Please surrender at the front desk, you can have your horse back and everything! Free tickets to the new Clark Gable flick! C’mon, don’t be a sore loser!” But the dude was an Imperial Japanese officer; they weren’t always smart but they were hardly ever chickenshit. Eventually they found him: crisped by a flamethrower, still wearing his riding boots.
So that, in a crispy-fried nutshell, is what happened to the best units of the Kwantung Army while it waited with its head down in bunkers all along the 2000-mile front facing the Red Army: all its best troops were gone, dead in pointless outpost defenses, and all its armor was gone. The Soviets were going to have a wonderful time of it. They were going to do this like a victory lap, a tour de force, a training video.
This was a campaign between two great empires—both gone now, it occurs to me—but one, the Soviet, was at the absolute top of its game, and the other, Imperial Japan, was dying and insane. There were still about 700,000 Japanese and Korean troops holding the line in Manchuria, but they weren’t exactly Samurai-quality. A full 25% of the Kwantung Army’s strength was guys who’d been drafted in the two weeks preceding the Soviet attack. We’re talking about an army that looked like John Bell Hood at Atlanta, missing an arm and a leg and not top-drawer material to start with. The amazing thing is that the Japanese troops knew it themselves. They were the dregs, dragged out of junior-high classrooms and old-age homes and shelters for the hopelessly useless, and they called themselves names that sound like a Heavy Metal amateur night at your local bar: “human bullets,” “Manchurian orphans,” “Victim Units” and “The Pulverized.” (If you don’t believe me, check out Philip Jowett’s book, The Japanese Army 1931-1945, page 22.) Their official strength was 24 divisions, but that translated to about eight divisions of effectives, with only about 1200 light armored vehicles.
Against that was a force that God would have made excuses to avoid facing in the Octagon: 1,600,000 battle-hardened Soviet troops with 28,000 artillery tubes and 5000 tanks—and more than 3000 of those were T-34s, the best tank in the world at that time. (You tank nuts who disagree with that assessment can send me all the King Tiger sites you want; it was a nice blueprint but they tried it against the T-34s and it LOST, and I kinda go by success in battle, not bluebook-style stats.)
The Red Army had learned a lot about logistics since 1941, and some of the moves they made to prepare for the assault on Manchuria were pretty amazing. Instead of trying to transfer thousands of tanks across the whole Eurasian landmass from Eastern Europe to Manchuria, the Russian armored units like the 6th Guards Army, one of Zhukov’s best, left their tanks in Czechoslovakia before the engines even had time to cool down, hopped into troop trains and crossed the continent to meet up with fresh new tanks, shipped from factories east of the Urals, when they arrived on the Manchurian front. By August 1945, the Russian supply lines were running so smoothly that they could ship pretty much anything anywhere it was needed. Like Soviet armies always did, they took logistics and surprise both dead seriously, so they ran up to 30 trains a day across Asia, but I should say “a night,” because to keep tactical surprise they ran all those trains at night. (If you want a great detailed account of the prep the Soviets took, read Col. David Glantz’s book The Soviet Strategic Offensive in Manchuria, 1945.)