'Negotations' by Konstantin Mikhailovich

Khalkh Gol-80
2019-08-13 15:59:33

Gaunt and a little harsh but also decent and neat, Potapov was what you call a soldier in nature. This day turned out to be his last day as a Colonel. During the negotiations, it was revealed that Japan is sending a Major General as the head of its negotiation commission tomorrow. Not wanting to replace Potapov and thinking the country’s representative should not be of a lower rank than Japan’s, Georgy Zhukov asked for permission from Moscow and there, Potapov was promoted to brigade commander. The next day, Potapov came to the negotiations with this new rank of his.

It was the second half of September in Mongolia at that time, cold and windy like winter.

Three tents have already been pitched in the valley where the truce envoys had met yesterday. Our tent is the one in the front, connected to a telephone line from the headquarters. The next large tent reminds me of either the royal tents from children’s books or the one from Polovtsian Dances of the ‘Prince Igor’ opera. The one further away is Japan’s.

Our and their groups met in front of the central tent, exchanging greetings and salutes.

There were a long reed table and 20 chairs in the tent. Chairs with upholstered backrest were placed in the middle of both sides of the table for the mission leaders. We sat on one side of the table, and the Japanese on the other.

Negotiations are underway. Although, our and Mongolian troops remained on high combat alert here at Khalkhin Gol just in case, the main issues had already been resolved by signing of the ceasefire agreement in Moscow.

These on-site negotiations are mainly about making the territory occupied by our and Mongolian soldiers a demilitarized zone, defining the distance that should be kept around the zone, as well as exchanging the prisoners of war and dead bodies. This last issue was a challenging part of the negotiations. The parties reached agreement on the procedures for setting up demilitarized zone and exchanging prisoners of war quickly. But, the issue on exchange of dead bodies dragged on.

All battles took place on the territory of Mongolia and almost all the soldiers killed in action died on the territory of Mongolia. Moreover, we totally crossed the border line, and Japan would have given only 42 or 52 dead bodies of our and Mongolian soldiers killed outside Mongolian territory by the time we finished lifting the siege around the Japanese soldiers. Whereas, the number of Japanese soldiers’ corpses apparently hit 15-20 thousand.

Clarification is necessary here. The total number of Japanese killed during the battles was even greater. But bringing the bodies, that is to say, the ashes back home is a holy traditional ritual for the Japanese. Therefore, they were transferring back the bodies of their combatants killed until the last moment when we finished raising our siege in the last battle’s five or six days. The siege involved around 20 thousand people. About 200 of them surrendered. This number easily indicates the harshness of the battle and strong resistance of the Japanese.

Even when they were fighting and losing lives in the siege, the Japanese held burials for their dead and used a special drawing, particularly, it was later revealed that they have been marking where, at what depth, and how many were buried on the drawing.

With a fear that news of the defeat and damage they faced might spread, the Japanese force was making triumphant and false ambiguous claims at times. Incidentally, the true information was later disseminated, albeit in an incomplete form. It was published on Asahi Shinbun that Japan lost 15 thousand or 18 thousand people or so in Khalkhin Gol Battle, I think. This caused quite a stir in Japan even though the number was understated.

This is why the representatives of the Kwantung Army were not telling just how many soldiers and officers were actually killed when asking for the transfer of the soldiers’ bodies even though they, taking their traditions into account, requested transfer of as many bodies as possible.

The Soviet-Mongolian side also encountered a barrier. We neither wanted to make our soldiers dig out Japanese corpses nor let the Japanese funeral groups in Mongolia for the excavation.

The first dispute arose over that. But in the end, we agreed to let the Japanese soldiers do the digging out by themselves.

 Another dispute starts. After this, we allowed them to do the work at ten main sites. We demanded to know the total number of their soldiers buried in our territory. The Japanese stated that, according to their calculations, three thousand corpses are left in Mongolian territory and that they may not be able to dig out all of them as the number of sites is limited to only ten.

Composition of the groups was discussed afterward. The Japanese wanted to send ten groups, each with 100 people. They asked us to allow the soldiers to carry knife in honor of the deceased. We agreed.

But they wanted to let the officers in charge have firearms and further checked if it is possible to give the soldiers carbines. Potapov got angry and mockingly asked if machine gunning is part of their ritual and if they wanted to carry machine guns.

At last, it was decided to equip the soldiers with a knife, and the officers with a sword. A new dispute arose over the number of days required for 10 teams each with 100 people to finish digging out 3000 dead bodies.

The Japanese said they need twenty or fifteen days, I am not sure. Our side initially gave two days, then three, and finally agreed on five.

The Japanese were arguing that the weapons found from the bodies should become theirs, whilst our people claimed all the weapons left on the territory of Mongolia belong to us. As far as I can remember, we decided to take the firearms and let them have the cold weapons. We then talked about the documents, map cases, carrying equipment, etc.

Everyone got fed up by the end of day three. Negotiations wrapped up on its fourth day so far as I can tell. After taking a break for a while, we dined with the Japanese in the very tent where we talked about corpses for three days to mark the end of the negotiations.

The transfer of dead bodies started two days after the negotiations wrapped up.

The excavation continued for ten days in total as the Japanese requested for three more days after the agreed five days and we also gave two days in addition. If I am not wrong, the Japanese dug out over eight thousand corpses and could have continued. We would have allowed it for a special reason.

Since the 6th army group was completely defeated in the Khalkhin Gol Battle, the required 1000 people were made up from two to three Japanese divisions brought to the border of Mongolia.

In the excavation days, summer-like hot weather suddenly arrived as if it was trying to discourage the Japanese.

A stench covers the area as soon as any place of burial is opened. As the corpses pile up on the trucks, the sun rises and the stench intensifies. It became unbearable to even breathe in the evening, when the trucks full of corpses were leaving.

The work with the dead bodies finally finished on the tenth day. The last thing to do was to deal with the living ones - the exchange of prisoners.

It was decided to swap those who are able to walk where the negotiations were held, at the center, a little closer to the right flank of our line and those unable to walk and seriously wounded around our left flank, at an airfield situated half a kilometer away from our lines. Our planes occupied with Japanese prisoners and their planes occupied with our prisoners were to fly there.

As agreed, four planes were to land from our side and eight from the Japanese.

Japanese planes began to land. Three of them came empty only to pick up Japanese prisoners. Only the fourth one brought twelve seriously wounded people of ours. They were unshaven, dirty, and terribly emaciated. Most of them had severe injuries, some had amputations.

One of the foremen, captured in May, was terribly thin, with an overgrown grey beard, hollow eyes, bandaged chest, and one leg and what struck me especially, is that he was in a burnt shirt without one sleeve. So he was captured in the battlefield like this, wounded in the chest, leg and arm, in a burnt shirt, and was returned to us after five months exactly as he was. Here at the site was our small ambulance bus. From there, chocolate, condensed milk, and other food were quickly provided for the wounded. About fifteen minutes later, our planes landed one by one. Our people, together with the Japanese, began to take out the seriously wounded Japanese.

I think there were seventy people, all on stretchers with heavy wounds. Some of them were sitting and some were laying. All were in a clean underwear and brand new Japanese uniform. Next to each and every one of them on the stretchers were new Japanese overcoats and everyone was covered to the waist by a brand-new Japanese blanket, in a word, apparently, everything was as per the instructions “to return orderly”.

The Japanese were deliberately rude to their wounded. It felt like they were acting that way not because of their aggressiveness, but because they wanted to show their contempt for the prisoners to their superiors.

The Japanese prisoners were taken on board quickly and roughly, in fact, were shoved into. Our prisoners were taken into one of our planes.

We returned to the negotiation venue safely. By the time we returned, the questioning and counting were over, and the prisoners were marching past us. At first, about eighty people of ours walked past. They were led by a dark-skinned, sad-looking man in a blue tanker’s uniform with a beard and hand bandage. I heard this person is a battalion chief of our tank brigade. He was thought killed in one of the battles back in July. The man led the line as he had a senior rank among the prisoners.

At the end of the line, there was a car occupied with Japanese prisoners.

At this last part, under the very eyes of everyone standing along both sides of the line, a Japanese got up in the back of the last car and gratefully waved at our doctors and nurses with his bandaged hand.

Having raised himself in the back, he was waving and waving until the car was out of sight. Who was this man? Was he a Japanese communist or just someone who wanted to express his last gratitude to our doctors who saved his life in any case? What is waiting for him there in Japan: a disciplinary action or a court martial? I do not know, but this scene still lives in my memory.

Renowned Russian writer, poet, journalist Konstantin Mikhailovich Simonov (1915-1979), who took part in the Khalkhin Gol Battle as a correspondent of the Heroic Red Army newspaper, was one of the eyewitnesses of the battle. As a war correspondent, he reported the Mongolia-Russia-China negotiations on prisoner swap held mid-September, 1939 and wrote this note.

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