Wars against China and the Soviet Union
The Type 97 was deployed in China in combat operations in the Second Sino-Japanese War with considerable success, as the ill-equipped National Revolutionary Army of the Republic of China forces were limited to only three tank battalions consisting of British exports of the Vickers, German Panzer Is, and Italian CV33 tankettes. However, its first real test in combat against opposing armor came with the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in July 1939 against the Soviet Union. The IJA 1st Tank Corps consisting of the 3rd and 4th Tank Regiments (Yasuoka Detachment) had been assigned to the Nomonhan region, under the command of Lt. General Yasuoka Masaomi. Of the two regiments, only the 3rd Tank Regiment had been supplemented with 4 of the new Type 97 medium tanks, of which one was selected as the regimental commander's tank during the Battles of Khalkhin Gol. During fierce fighting against the Red Army, in which the 3rd Tank Regiment was assaulting an objective ringed with strung coiled wire (piano wire), the regimental commander, LTC Yoshimaru Kiyotake's Type 97 tank had become entangled up to its drive sprockets. Struggling to extract itself from the tank trap, LTC Yoshimaru managed to move his tank only about 40 yards rearward, when his machine became stopped completely. Now exposed to Soviet defensive positions, Yoshimaru's Type 97 was subjected to the fire of a dozen Soviet BT-7 tanks and anti-tank guns. Soviet shells struck the tank's drive gear, hull, and the engine area, causing the vehicle to erupt into flames. When the fire reached the tank ammunition, the tank exploded, tearing off the turret and throwing it several feet away from the hull. Only the tank's gunner survived unwounded, abandoning the tank prior to the explosion. The 3rd Tank Regimental commander's body was recovered after the battle.
World War II and beyond
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Type 97 tanks used by the People's Liberation Army, moving into the Chinese city of Shenyang in 1948.
From December 8, 1941 and in early 1942, during the Battle of Malaya and the Battle of Singapore, Type 97 tanks were used by the 3rd Tank Group's 1st, 6th and 14th Tank Regiments under Lieutenant-General Yamashita's Army. The 1st Tank Regiment was attached to IJA 5th Division, which was among the first to land at Songkhla in southern Thailand. One of its medium tank companies was the 3rd Tank Company under First Lieutenant Yamane (ten Type 97 medium tanks and two Ha-Go light tanks), forming part of Saeki Detachment. The company was in the vanguard of the attack.
One key to the Japanese success in Malaya was the unexpected appearance of their tanks in areas where the British did not believe tanks could be used. The wet jungle terrain did not turn out to be a decisive obstacle. Later, the 2nd and 14th Tank Regiments participated in the Burma Campaign.
The Type 97-kai was first used in combat in the battle of Corregidor. The updated 47 mm gun was easily capable of dealing with the armor of the American M3 Stuart light tanks, though not with the armor of the M4 Sherman medium tank.
During the Battle of Saipan, 36 Type 97s of the 9th Tank Regiment, commanded by Colonel Tadashi Goshima joined with Type 95s of the 136th Infantry Regiment commanded by Colonel Yukimatsu Ogawa in an all-out counterattack against the US 6th Marine Regiment. This was one of the largest tank attacks mounted by Japan in the Pacific Theater of Operations, and was stopped by machine guns, mortars, bazookas, artillery, and naval gun fire. However, the Japanese Army seldom made major armored attacks during the Pacific War, due to the limited maneuvering areas that prevailed on islands in the South Pacific ocean. Terrain dictated the battle, and IJA tanks were emplaced where they could be the most effective, in hull defilade position (that is, buried up to their turrets).
Many Type 97s were retained on the Japanese home islands in anticipation of an American invasion.
At the final Battle of Okinawa, 13 Type 95s and 14 Type 97 Shinhoto medium tanks of the 27th Tank Regiment were grossly outnumbered by 800 American tanks. Similar conditions repeated in the Kwantung Army's defense against the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.
Some Japanese tanks remained in use, under new ownership, postwar during the Chinese Civil War. The Nationalist forces had the majority at first but the Communists in the north were able to start their own tank force with a single Type 97. The forces were built up with further Type 97s. Following the battle of Jinzhou in 1948, that first Type 97 - which had performed notably in the battle - became known as the Gongchen tank and it led the tank forces in the first military parade to signify the formation of the People's Republic. As late as 1949, the Chinese People's Liberation Army still had an appreciable number of Type 97s in its inventory.