On the Road
by Henry Sakaida
"Let’s go to Nomonhan!" my dad would joke to me. "Yeah, let’s go to Nomonhan!" I would echo. We were always interested in this obscure border clash between Soviet/Mongolian forces and the Japanese Kwantung Army prior to World War II. Very few people know about this footnote in modern military history which occurred during the summer of 1939.
An ill-defined border between Mongolia and Japanese-occupied Manchuria in Northern China, and national pride ignited this conflict over an area which had no economic nor strategic value. The Japanese claimed that the border followed the meandering Khalkin Gol (Khalka River) while the Mongolians countered that it was actually about 10 miles east of the river near the small village named after a hill called Nomon Haany. To the Japanese, it became the Nomonhan Incident. The Soviet and Mongolian troops entered combat at the Khalka River, so the conflict took the name of Khalkin Gol.
Mongolian herdsmen crossed the Khalkan Gol on 11 May 1939 to graze cattle and were chased back by Manchurian border guards. There were no boundary markers; the Mongolians had been pasturing their stock across the Khalka for centuries. Two days later, Mongolian cavalrymen returned and pushed back the Manchurian guards in a shooting match. Things escalated. The Manchurians called on the Japanese Kwantung Army for help while the Mongolians sought military support from their "big brother" - the Soviet Union. A mutual defense pact signed between Mongolia and the USSR in 1936 brought the Red Army into the fray. Mongolia was the second Communist country in the world.
The tit-for-tat engagements blossomed into a full blown war involving heavy artillery, tanks, aircraft, and thousands of men on both sides. After 129 days, an armistice was signed. The Soviets were preoccupied with problems in Europe, Hitler, and the coming war with Finland. The Japanese suffered horrendous losses and wanted a face-saving exit.
My father passed away in October 2004 and I never really entertained thoughts ofactually going to this desolate area. Then last year, I was introduced to a young Mongolian via email through a mutual friend. His name is Chinzorig, who runs a travel/tour company in Ulan Bator, Mongolia’s capital city. My friend told me that Chinzor has been to Khalkin Gol many times and was quite familiar with the place. Suddenly, the remote battlefield was no longer a pipe dream.
I quickly called my buddy Justin Taylan. He is a seasoned traveler, humanitarian, and fellow war historian. The young New Yorker operates a website called Pacific Wrecks. "Hey, wanna go with me to Khalkin Gol and look for battlefield artifacts?" I asked. "I would kill to go there!" he exclaimed.
We each flew separately to Tokyo, linked up, and boarded a Mongolian Airlines flight for Ulan Bator on 6 August. Our guide Chinzor picked us up at the airport and deposited us at a hotel. After a two day stop, we hopped a train for Ulan Ude in Russia to see some old friends from my 2004 adventure there. A few days after our arrival, we were taken to the headquarters of the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and questioned about our presence in Russia by a panel of officials and uniformed colonels.
"Welcome to Buryatia!" greeted the official host. No, we were not in any trouble. We told our friends that we wanted to meet Soviet veterans from the Khalkin Gol battles. The MVD produced a 90-year old Khalkin Gol veteran, plus two others from the Great Patriotic War. After videotaping their stories and snapping photographs, we became "victims" of the infamous Russian hospitality. The vodka began to flow, there were toasts upon toasts, followed by speeches and eating. We took a train back to Ulan Bator on 20 August.