China’s Surprising Role in WWII

by | Oct 2, 2018

Chinese tank in 1945

This weekend I visited the National WWII Museum in New Orleans and was stunned by a few related facts:

  • While estimates of the number of deaths in WWII vary, the National WWII Museum estimates about 65 Million people died in WWII, consisting of about 15-20 million military and battle deaths and 45 million civilian deaths. They acknowledge that 65 Million may be a low estimate.
  • 80% of all casualties in World War II came from just four countries: Soviet Union, China, Germany and Poland. Over 50% of the casualties were civilian.
  • The Soviet Union had the greatest number of deaths at about 24 million.
  • China is second with 20 million deaths!!!!! 
  • As a point of reference, the U.S. had 418,500 deaths and the U.K. had 450,700 deaths

Prior to this weekend I wasn’t aware that China played a role in WWII, and I was stunned to find that they suffered the second greatest loss of life. I’ve been quizzing all sorts of people and I am not alone – China’s role in WWII seems to be ignored in American history classrooms. In fact, historian Rana Mitter published a book about China in WWII called Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945 which highlights China’s role in the war and discusses how/why those of us in the West seem to be unaware of their important role.  Here are a few interesting facts about China’s role in WWII:

  1. China was an ally to the U.S. and U.K. from just after Pearl Harbor to the end of the war.
  2. Their war with Japan started in 1937 two years prior to Germany’s invasion of Poland, usually considered the start of WWII. China’s war against Japan lasted eight years! Japanese occupation of some parts of China began as early as 1931.
  3. The majority (our tour guide said 80%) of the Imperial Japanese Army was tied up with fighting China while the U.S. and other allies were engaged against Japan in the Pacific theater of the war. Without China’s continued battle with Japan, our fighting with Japan would likely have been much more difficult and the outcome could have been different.
  4. According to historian Rana Mitter, the reason China is a permanent voting member of the U.N. Security Council (along with the U.S., Russia, France and the U.K.) is due to its being an ally in WWII.
  5. The famous American flying squadron “The Flying Tigers” commanded by Claire Lee Chennault fought against the Japanese in China and had a mission of defending China against the Japanese.


  1. History is written by the victorious not the victims. In the case of WWII that was the United States. Immediately, following WWII China went into a civil war which was won by the followers of Chiang Kai-shek. He established a government contrary to the US & European model and thus China became an enemy of the Western World. I contend, for that reason, the Western World largely wrote China out of the history books regarding WWII.

    • Yes. The Japanese were in China all through the thirties. A lot of in fighting among the Chinese, they were more apt to fight each other than the Japanese. It says a lot about the viciousness of Japanese occupation that the much despised Western imperialists were greeted as liberators at during the war. Japanese retaliation against the Doolittle raiders numbered in the tens of thousands of Chinese, but the Chinese got the survivors out.

  2. I did guess China. I knew their conflict lasted a long time, on many fronts. This was touched on briefly in my Mandarin class recently and was influential in part why this became the national language & not Cantonese.

  3. John,
    I knew China was number two in casualties. My father, Walter Janning, served on the “CBI” front, China, Burma, India. He said it was the least know part of the war.


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