Modern History Sourcebook:
The Nanking Massacre, 1937
The Japanese occupation of Nanking, the capital of the Republic
of China, lead to one of the greatest horrors of the century .
This eyewitness report was filed by a New York Times reporter.
Aboard the U.S.S. Oahu at Shanghai, Dec. 17 .
Through wholesale atrocities and vandalism at Nanking
the Japanese Army has thrown away a rare opportunity to gain the
respect and confidence of the Chinese inhabitants and of foreign
The killing of civilians was widespread. Foreigners who traveled
widely through the city Wednesday found civilian dead on every
street. Some of the victims were aged men, women and children.
Policemen and firemen were special objects of attack. Many victims
were bayoneted and some of the wounds were barbarously cruel.
Any person who ran because of fear or excitement was likely to
be killed on the spot as was any one caught by roving patrols
in streets or alleys after dark. Many slayings were witnessed
The Japanese looting amounted almost to plundering of the entire
city. Nearly every building was entered by Japanese soldiers,
often under the eyes of their officers, and the men took whatever
they wanted. The Japanese soldiers often impressed Chinese to
carry their loot....
The mass executions of war prisoners added to the horrors the
Japanese brought to Nanking. After killing the Chinese soldiers
who threw down their arms and surrendered, the Japanese combed
the city for men in civilian garb who were suspected of being
In one building in the refugee zone 400 men were seized. They
were marched off, tied in batches of fifty, between lines of riflemen
and machine gunners, to the execution ground.
Just before boarding the ship for Shanghai the writer watched
the execution of 200 men on the Bund [dike]. The killings took
ten minutes. The men were lined against a wall and shot. Then
a number of Japanese, armed with pistols, trod nonchalantly around
the crumpled bodies, pumping bullets into any that were still
The army men performing the gruesome job had invited navy men
from the warships anchored off the Bund to view the scene. A large
group of military spectators apparently greatly enjoyed the spectacle.
When the first column of Japanese troops marched from the South
Gate up Chungshan Road toward the city's Big Circle, small knots
of Chinese civilians broke into scattering cheers, so great was
their relief that the siege was over and so high were their hopes
that the Japanese would restore peace and order. There are no
cheers in Nanking now for the Japanese.
By despoiling the city and population the Japanese have driven
deeper into the Chinese a repressed hatred that will smolder through
tears as forms of the antiJapanism that Tokyo professes
to be fighting to eradicate from China.
The capture of Nanking was the most overwhelming defeat suffered
by the Chinese and one of the most tragic military debacles in
the history of modern warfare. In attempting to defend Nanking
the Chinese allowed themselves to be surrounded and then systematically
The flight of the many Chinese soldiers was possible by only a
few exits. Instead of sticking by their men to hold the invaders
at bay with a few strategically placed units while the others
withdrew, many army leaders deserted, causing panic among the
rank and file.
Those who failed to escape through the gate leading to Hsiakwan
and from there across the Yangtze were caught and executed....
When theJapanese captured Hsiakwan gate they cut off all exit
from the city while at least a third of the Chinese Army still
was within the walls.
Because of the disorganization of the Chinese a number of units
continued fighting Tuesday noon, many of these not realizing the
Japanese had surrounded them and that their cause was hopeless.
Japanese tank patrols systematically eliminated these.
Tuesday morning, while attempting to motor to Hsiakwan, I encountered
a desperate group of about twentyfive Chinese soldiers who
were still holding the Ningpo Guild Building on Chungahan Road.
They later surrendered.
Thousands of prisoners were executed by the Japanese. Most of
the Chinese soldiers who had been interned in the safety zone
were shot in masses. The city was combed in a systematic housetohouse
search for men having knapsack marks on their shoulders or other
signs of having been soldiers. They were herded together and executed.
Many were killed where they were found, including men innocent
of any army connection and many wounded soldiers and civilians.
I witnessed three mass executions of prisoners within a few hours
Wednesday. In one slaughter a tank gun was turned on a group of
more than 100 soldiers at a bomb shelter near the Ministry of
A favorite method of execution was to herd groups of a dozen men
at entrances of dugout and to shoot them so the bodies toppled
inside. Dirt then was shoveled in and the men buried.
Since the beginning of the Japanese assault on Nanking the city
presented a frightful appearance. The Chinese facilities for the
care of army wounded were tragically inadequate, so as early as
a week ago injured men were seen often on the streets, some hobbling,
others crawling along seeking treatment.
Civilian casualties also were heavy, amounting to thousands. The
only hospital open was the American managed University Hospital
and its facilities were inadequate for even a fraction of those
Nanking's streets were littered with dead. Sometimes bodies had
to be moved before automobiles could pass.
The capture of Hsiakwan Gate by the Japanese was accompanied by
the mass killing of the defenders, who were piled up among the
sandbags, forming a mound six feet high. Late Wednesday the Japanese
had not removed the dead, and two days of heavy military traffic
had been passing through, grinding over the remains of men, dogs
The Japanese appear to want the horrors to remain as long as possible,
to impress on the Chinese the terrible results of resisting Japan.
Chungahan Road was a long avenue of filth and discarded uniforms,
rifles, pistols, machine guns, fieldpieces, knives and knapsacks.
In some places the Japanese had to hitch tanks to debris to clear
From F. Tillman, "All Captives Slain,'' The New York Times, December 18, 1937, pp. 1, 10.
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(c)Paul Halsall Aug 1997