A Historian's Quest for the Truth



"All Prisoners of War Are To Be Killed in Compliance With a Brigade Order"

Kojima Noboru, the author of The Second Sino-Japanese War, discovered a battle report that includes an order stating unequivocally that "all prisoners of war are to be killed".1 Since a battle report is an official record, this was a shocking revelation. The same battle report, prepared by the 1st Battalion, 66th Infantry Regiment, also appears in Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1. It reads as follows.
8. The following order was received from the regimental commander at 1400 hours [on December 13]:
A. To comply with brigade orders, all prisoners of war are to be killed.
What is the advisability of rounding up the prisoners, a dozen at a time, and then shooting them, one by one?
B. After weapons have been assembled, prisoners are to be observed until instructions are forthcoming.
C. The main strength of the regiment is in the process of sweeping the city, under brigade orders.
Your battalion's assignment is as stated previously.
9. In accordance with the aforementioned order, the procurement and collection of weapons and the provision of lookouts was assigned to the 1st and 4th companies.

At 1530 hours, all company commanders were assembled to discuss the disposition of prisoners of war. They decided that the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Companies would divide the prisoners equally among them, and bring out in groups of 50 from the detention area. Prisoners were to be bayonetted by the 1st Company in the valley south of the bivouac, by the 3rd Company in the hollow southwest of the bivouac, and by the 4th Company near the valley southeast of the bivouac.

The companies were cautioned to post sentries along the perimeter of the detention area, lest the prisoners become aware of their fates when they were brought out. All companies completed preparations and commenced bayonetting by 1700 hours. Bayonetting ended at approximately 1930 hours, at which time a report was submitted to the Regiment.

The 1st Company altered the original plan, and attempted to confine the prisoners and burn them to death en masse. The attempt failed. Some of the prisoners resigned themselves to their fates, bravely offering their heads before the sword, or calmly walking toward the bayonets. Others wept and begged for mercy. The company commander heard such entreaties when he patrolled the aforementioned areas.2 [Italics supplied.]

Kojima claims that the commander of the 66th Infantry Regiment issued the following order to the 1st Battalion: "All prisoners-of-war must be killed in compliance with brigade orders. Their execution is to be effected by rounding them up, a dozen at a time, and shooting them, one by one."

According to the battle report, upon receipt of the aforementioned order, the commander of the 1st Battalion assembled the commanders of the 1st, 3rd, and 4th companies, with whom he consulted about the execution of the prisoners. The commanders agreed that the prisoners should be divided among the three companies, brought out in groups of 50, and bayonetted. The executions commenced sometime after 5:00 p.m. on December 13, and ended at 7:30 p.m.

114th Division
      |                   |
127th Brigade       128th Brigade
(Left-flank)        (Right-flank)
      |                                       |
66th Infantry Regiment             102nd Infantry Regiment
      |                   |                   |
1st Battalion       2nd Battalion       3rd Battalion
      |                   |                   |                   |
1st Company         2nd Company         3rd Company         4th Company

The chain of command was as follows: The original order was issued by the 10th Army of the CCAA to the 114th Division, which relayed it to the 127th (left-flank) and 128th (right-flank) brigades. The 127th Brigade then passed the order on to the 66th Infantry Regiment which, in turn, relayed it to the 1st Battalion.

One often encounters entries like "The order was transmitted verbally and in writing once the recipients had been assembled" in battle reports. At that time, orders were communicated both orally and in writing.3 Verbal transmission was permitted when time was of the essence, but orders were always written down at some point.

Order from the 114th Division

We will consult Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1 for a closer examination of the battle report prepared by the 1st Battalion, 66th Infantry Regiment. The order in question, 114th Division Order No. 62A, issued at 09:30 a.m. on December 13, reads as follows.
1. The enemy is resisting stubbornly inside the city. ...
2. The Division shall continue its assault, with the intention of annihilating the enemy inside the city.
3. Both flanks shall invade the city, and shall use bombardment and whatever other means necessary to annihilate the enemy.

If it is deemed necessary to do so to accomplish this objective, burn the city. Be especially careful to avoid being taken in by deceitful actions perpetrated by defeated enemy troops.4 [Italics supplied.]

The order issued by the 114th Division was transmitted to the 127th and 128th brigades. Unfortunately, the order received by the 127th Brigade has been lost. However, it is extremely unlikely that the Division issued different orders to the two brigades.

Order Issued by the 128th Brigade

According to Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1, the 128th Brigade issued "128th Infantry Brigade Order No. 66," a right flank order.
1. The enemy continues to resist stubbornly inside the city. ...
2. The right flank shall advance into the city, and sweep the areas southward of and including the line extending from Gonghe Gate, Gongyuan (Park) Road and Zhongzheng Road.
3. Both frontline regiments shall concentrate their resources on gaining entrance into the city, and annihilating the enemy, using any and all means. If it is deemed necessary to do so to accomplish this objective, burn the city. Be especially careful to avoid being taken in by deceitful actions perpetrated by surviving enemy troops.5

This order was issued at noon on December 13, two-and-a-half hours after the 114th Division Order No. 62A (114th Division order), issued at 9:30 a.m.

Comparing the two, we note that the brigade order is a faithful rendering of the intent of the order issued by the superior entity, i.e., the division order. Therefore, we would like to provide an explication of the italicized portions of 114th Division Order No. 62A.

The gates of Nanking were occupied on December 13. Chinese troops fled in droves, but did not surrender. For both the invaders and the defenders, it was a desperate battle. A conflict ends when one side or the other surrenders. The sooner one side surrenders, the sooner it is over. But in this case, each side was determined to annihilate the other. Annihilation is a matter of killing the enemy to the last man, and annihilating an enemy that refuses to surrender is an act of war that does not violate the prohibitions specified by international law.

Next, we have: "If it is deemed necessary ... burn the city." This means that Japanese troops, when attacking enemy soldiers entrenched in the second floor of a building, were to burn that building if necessary.

According to the 114th Division Order No. 59A issued on December 12,6 "both flanks" referred to the 127th Brigade (left flank) and the 128th Brigade (right flank). Therefore, we may assume that the 127th Brigade order was issued at the same time as the 128th Brigade order, i.e., at about noon.

Two hours later, at 2:00 p.m. on December 13, the commander of the 127th Infantry Brigade (left flank) issued the order, "All prisoners are to be killed in compliance with brigade orders" to the 1st Battalion and the other battalions under his command.

However, the words "all prisoners are to be killed" appear nowhere in the aforementioned 128th Brigade order (128th Infantry Brigade Order No. 66). Thus, the execution order issued by the commander of the 66th Infantry Regiment was not relayed as a brigade order. In that case, why did the words "all prisoners are to be killed in compliance with brigade orders" appear in the battle report prepared by the 1st Battalion, 66th Infantry Regiment?

According to the 1st Battalion's battle report, the order instructing that "all prisoners are to be killed in compliance with brigade orders" was relayed to the 1st Battalion by the regimental commander. Was it issued by the commander of the 66th Regiment on his own initiative? If it had been, the execution order would have been recorded in the battle reports of the other battalions as well. The 66th regiment also comprised the 2nd and 3rd battalions. Fortunately, the 2nd Battalion's war journal is extant. However, it contains no record of an execution order's having been issued. In other words, there is no trace of an order to that effect issued by the regimental commander to his battalions. Therefore, we may assume that the regimental commander did not issue the order on his own initiative.

It is possible, however, that the execution order was relayed only to the 1st Battalion. The 1st Battalion's battle report reads: "The main strength of the Regiment is in the process of sweeping the city ... ." The 1st Battalion had not been ordered to participate in the sweep. Did the regimental commander issue the execution order, arbitrarily, to the 1st Battalion?

The answer is no. "Battle Instructions" from the headquarters of another division (the 13th Division), dated July 1937, reads in part, "When a great many prisoners of war are captured, they are not to be shot to death, but disarmed, assembled in one location, observed, and their presence reported to division headquarters."7 As Deputy Platoon Commander Oyake Isaburo later attested, "Only officers ranking above regimental commander had the authority to issue orders relating to prisoners of war."8 No regimental or battalion commander would have issued an execution order of his own volition. Accordingly, no execution order was issued by the commanding division or brigade. Nor was one issued arbitrarily by a regimental commander (or battalion commander). What appears to be a phantom execution order is recorded in the 1st Battalion's battle report.

Given the facts stated above, there is only one possibility. There must have been a problem at the 1st Battalion, which compiled this battle report. Therefore, we would like to submit the 1st Battalion's battle report to further scrutiny. Before we do that, however, an investigation into the movements of the 1st Battalion is in order.

The 1st Battalion's Battle Report

The 1st Battalion consisted of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th companies, and other units. Most of the soldiers belonging to the 1st and 3rd companies had already entered Nanking. Since the 2nd Company was the color guard, it accompanied the regimental commander into the city. The remaining company, the 4th Company, must have been fighting near Zhonghua Gate.

According to entries in the 1st Battalion's Battle Report for December 10-13, the 4th Company, 1st Battalion was assisting a light armored vehicle company attached to the 114th Division in its advance toward Zhonghua Gate (South Gate).

The Chinese were resisting the invasion doggedly, hurling hand grenades from the roofs of private homes. Waves of Japanese infantry soldiers charged continually through the hail of grenades, bursting into houses where the enemy was entrenched, and engaging in close combat. The light armored vehicles were very effective.

The terrified Chinese soldiers soon began to surrender, waving white flags. Many of them were shot in the back by their officers.9 After having recorded the progress of the battle, Company No. 4 wrote the following in the Battle Report for the 1st Battalion, 66th Infantry Regiment, which appears in Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1.

By about 1900 hours (on December 12), the sound of hand grenades exploding had become intermittent ... We took more than 1,500 prisoners and confiscated many weapons and a large amount of ammunition ... When we took our first prisoners, our commander sent three of them as couriers, instructing them to tell their comrades that we would spare their lives if they ceased resisting and surrendered. This enterprise was very successful ... We searched the prisoners and attended to the wounded.10

The account continues, reporting that 1,500 Chinese soldiers surrendered. A significant number of prisoners were taken near Zhonghua Gate by the 4th Company. This record is substantiated by a battalion order issued by Captain Shibuya, deputy commander of the 1st Battalion at 7:30 p.m. on December 12. The order read: "The 4th Company shall be entrusted with the observation of prisoners of war."11

First Battalion Commander Ichikari was wounded on December 8, on the way to Nanking. Therefore, researcher Itakura Yoshiaki's hypothesis that 1st Battalion Commander Ichikari executed the Chinese soldiers who had surrendered, at his own discretion, is not viable, since Ichikari had withdrawn from the battlefront.

Ara Kenichi's Fortress: Soldiers' Recollections of The Nanking Incident (Vols. 1 - 20), on the other hand, is a very reliable source. The author spent many years interviewing individuals who participated in the invasion of Nanking. This writer is greatly indebted to him, particularly for the material in this chapter. The book includes the recollections of Sergeant-Major Oyake Isaburo, deputy commander of the 1st Platoon. In 1938, after the fall of Nanking, Oyake went on to become an instructor at the Nanking Military Academy.

Oyake's account reveals some surprising information. According to the battle report, when the 4th Company took its first prisoners, its commander dispatched three couriers to the Chinese soldiers who were still resisting the invaders. Oyake mentions that First Lieutenant Tezuka, commander of the 4th Company, had been wounded near Nanking on December 7, and was out of action. He had been replaced by 1st Platoon Deputy Commander Sergeant-Major Oyake.12 (There were three platoons in each company.) Oyake said that he did indeed assume command of the 4th Company, but never dispatched three couriers.

Sergeant-Major Oyake described his recollections of the hostilities at the time when Chinese soldiers were taken prisoner as follows.

On December 12, the 4th Company's war potential had been reduced by half. However, we were ordered to advance to the right of Company No. 3, which was fighting on the front line. I led the 1st and 3rd platoons and about a dozen of my staff members (60 to 70 men in all) to assist the 3rd Company. Therefore, I was in charge of the 4th Company at the time. Since we were fighting on the front line, I had no idea where our company commander or the other platoons were.

I supervised my men from the footbridge in front of the barracks. Soon the Chinese began to retreat. When I noticed that some of them were waving white flags, I ordered my men to stop shooting, and beckoned to the Chinese. Then, suddenly, someone on top of the wall started shooting at me. There were five or six shots. The bullets landed near me.

Nevertheless, the Chinese continued to surrender. I interrogated them and escorted them behind the lines. During the interrogation, I was consulting with Tank Corps Commander Inoue about a possible Chinese counterattack, so I do not know exactly how many prisoners there were. I recall having been told later that there were 1,200 of them. Two or three hundred more had been captured by other units, so all together, there were 1,500 prisoners.

But it is hard to believe that we could have interrogated and disarmed 1,200 prisoners so quickly, so I cannot say with any certainty that there were 1,200.13

The battle report states that "By about 1900 hours, the sound of hand grenades exploding had become intermittent."14 The battle must have been nearing an end, but did 1,500 soldiers surrender?

In any case, the Chinese prisoners were fed at 10:00 p.m. on December 12, even though Japanese troops had not eaten their fill. According to the 1st Battalion's battle report, "For this meal, requisitioned rice was cooked by 20 prisoners assigned to that task ... When the food was served, at about 2200 hours, the starving prisoners fought over it, and ate ravenously."15

The meal was simply sustenance offered at the height of a battle, but it was enough to fill the prisoners' stomachs. However, it would have been virtually impossible to disarm and feed 1,500 prisoners in less than three hours. The number of prisoners must have been considerably smaller.

Who Wrote the Battle Report?

Battle reports were written after an engagement had ended. When and how was the 1st Battalion's report prepared?

Nishizawa Benkichi, commander of the 3rd Company, 1st Battalion, writes in Our Battles in China that on December 31, "instead of celebrating the New Year, the soldiers have been compiling the battle report, work on which began yesterday. We have been deluged with orders."16

Japanese units in Nanking began preparing their battle reports on December 30. Preparation of the battle report in question, that of the 1st Battalion, must have begun on that same day.

Nishizawa continues, stating that even in January, "company members have been assigned to prepare a battle report covering all engagements since our arrival in China, and to see to organization, equipment, and training. The men are working night and day."17

Approximately 20 days had elapsed since the most recent battle. Apparently, the personnel in charge of compiling the battle report were very busy. Then, who was entrusted with the preparation of the battle report? Let us consult Sergeant-Major Oyake's account once again.

The battle report, as its name suggests, is a detailed description of all matters concerning battles. It was prepared by an adjutant or a clerk, and then submitted to the regiment after the battalion commander had approved it. Ultimate responsibility rested with the battalion commander.18

Thus, the battle report was drafted by the battalion's adjutant, and then copied by a clerk. Did the 1st Battalion's adjutant prepare the battle report? Since the battalion was in a combat zone, the adjutant might have been wounded and removed from the battlefront. Here are Deputy Platoon Commander Oyake's comments on the subject.

I wrote the battle report for the 4th Company. There is no reference to the execution of prisoners in it, since no such action was taken.

Commander Ichikari had been wounded, and Adjutant Shibuya was the only logical person to replace him. Shibuya took up the reins of command, and was responsible for our military operations. But there was no time even to think about the battle report, and since Adjutant Oneta had not been in active service for very long, he didn't know much about battle reports. I don't think we produced a proper battle report, since this was a new experience for all of us."19

It is true that Battalion Commander Ichikari had withdrawn from the battlefront, as Oyake mentioned. The order that read, "The 4th Company shall be entrusted with the observation of prisoners of war" was issued by Captain Shibuya.

Adjutant Shibuya was leading the 1st Battalion in battle. He was required to make instant judgements at every stage of the conflict, and had no time to think about the battle report. Oneta, the other adjutant, was inexperienced and unfamiliar with the preparation of battle reports. Therefore, anyone in a position to prepare the report was either preoccupied with the exigencies of warfare or incapable of preparing a proper report due to inexperience.

Nevertheless, for some reason, the 1st Battalion executed Chinese soldiers who had surrendered. But after the battle had ended, when it came time to justify the execution in the battle report, its writers used a nonexistent brigade order, namely "All prisoners are to be killed" as an excuse.

That is why the execution order did not appear in Division records or in the 2nd Battalion's war journal - only in the 1st Battalion's Battle Report.

In other words, as Ara Kenichi concluded through the process of elimination, the "execution order" was the creation of the writer of the 1st Battalion's battle report.20 That is the only plausible explanation.

Further scrutiny of the report reveals two problems. The first questionable item is "What is the advisability of rounding up the prisoners, a dozen at a time, and then shooting them to death, one by one?" Soldiers fighting for their lives on the battlefield cannot act decisively when their commander is asking them to make decisions for him. Orders were always written in the imperative mode. A genuine execution order would have read "Shoot the prisoners of war, one by one."

Furthermore, the prisoners were not shot one by one, as the "order" instructed, but bayonetted to death. It was winter. By the time the bayonetting commenced, night had fallen, and it was pitch dark. The Chinese prisoners were wearing heavy winter uniforms. Were the Japanese able to aim at the prisoners' vital organs, through their uniforms, and bayonet them, again and again, in total darkness? And did the Chinese prisoners stand there docilely awaiting their deaths?

Most of the executions were performed by the 4th Company, which had captured the prisoners. Let us take another look at Deputy Platoon Commander Oyake's testimony in Ara Kenichi's Fortress: Soldiers' Recollections of The Nanking Incident.

I don't have a clear recollection of what happened to the prisoners after that. But I do remember going to inspect the place where they were confined, noticing that it was very noisy, and feeling sorry for the soldiers who were guarding them.21

The treatment of prisoners-of-war, defined as soldiers who surrender, having lost the will to fight, and who obey our orders and instructions, is prescribed in the International Convention. But among those considered prisoners of war are soldiers who have been defeated and lost the strength to fight when attacked. They surrender, but when they regain their strength, they form gangs where they are detained and foment rebellion. Or they feign surrender and wait for an opportunity to return to the battlefront. There have been instances in which prisoners under escort have ambushed their guards, seized their weapons, and escaped in great numbers. In most cases, it takes quite some time to confirm that they are genuine prisoners of war.22

A similar account appears in The Battle of Nanking published by Kaikosha. Shimada Katsumi, commander of the 2nd Machine-gun Company, 33rd Infantry Regiment, reports that many of the Chinese soldiers who had surrendered "discarded their rifles, but had hand grenades or pistols hidden in their clothing."23

In other words, more than a few soldiers who surrendered because they had lost the will to fight did not obey orders from Japanese troops. Some of them were waiting for the right moment to return to the battlefront. Others seized opportunities to form gangs and rebel.

According to Deputy Platoon Commander Oyake's testimony, the prisoners of war at the detention center were "very noisy."24 It is likely that they later grew so restive and unmanageable that they could not be released, leaving their captors with no choice but to execute them.

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