A Historian's Quest for the Truth



During the invasion of Nanking, 16th Division Commander Nakajima Kesago was in charge of the gates north of Zhongshan Gate (East Gate): Taiping, Xuanwu, and Heping gates. That entire area was defended by Chiang Kai-shek's crack training unit. Before, and even after Nanking fell, the 16th Division was engaged in heated combat with Chinese troops attempting to escape from the city.

The unit that Lieutenant-General Nakajima refers to as the "Sasaki Unit"1 in his war journal was the 30th Infantry Brigade, commanded by Major-General Sasaki Toichi. However, Sasaki was, in fact, the commander of the 38th Infantry Regiment and the 1st Battalion, 33rd Regiment, both attached to the 30th Infantry Brigade. Sasaki's memoirs have been published in Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 2. We shall refer to them as we examine hostilities subsequent to the capture of the gates.

Desperate Chinese Training Unit Attempts To Shoot Its Way to Freedom

Even when the Japanese captured and occupied Zhongshan Gate and other gates, the Chinese did not surrender. Counteroffensives perpetrated by Chinese troops desperate to escape from Nanking were vicious, especially in the vicinity of Zijinshan. In the "Journal of Major-General Sasaki Toichi," the situation there is described as follows.
At about 0830 hours, I was awakened by a barrage of gunfire very close to me ... enemy soldiers were approaching in great numbers, and from all directions. They were members of a training unit that had been at the summit of Zijinshan, and now they were launching an assault behind the battle line, attempting to cut through our unit.2

Sasaki was at detachment headquarters, located in Baying, north of Zijinshan. Five or six hundred soldiers from the training unit converged on Baying, shooting everything in sight with their Czech-made guns.3 The 16th Division, Sasaki's detachment in particular, was forced into a pitched battle.

At about 9:00 a.m. on December 13, Sasaki's unit fought a "formidable enemy force,"4 in compliance with orders from the 38th Regiment, for an hour. Most of the hostilities took place at Zijinshan, but the battle zone "extended over several kilometers,"5 from Tangshuizhen (two kilometers east of Nanking) in the east to Heping and Taiping gates in the west. During the intense, bloody battle, Chinese soldiers began to surrender.

Tang Shengzhi, commander of the Nanking Defense Corps, had sworn to defend the city to the death, but fled Nanking before the city fell. He did not order his troops to surrender to the Japanese. As Tillman Durdin wrote in a dispatch to the New York Times (December 18, 1937 edition), an alarming number of commanders deserted their men and "fled, causing panic among the rank and file."6 The counterattacks outside Nanking (particularly near Zijinshan) were the abandoned soldiers' last-ditch, desperate attempts to escape.

Major-General Sasaki's Report

The vanquished stragglers were determined to escape at all costs, and that made them very dangerous. A typical example of their behavior was experienced by a combined cavalry unit at Xianhemenzhen (20 kilometers east of Nanking). The "Journal of Major-General Sasaki Toichi" describes a straggler attack that took place on the morning of December 13, resulting in a bitter struggle.
The combined cavalry units were there also, in the rear, near the sanitary troops. But it was dark, and when the enemy attacked, they were pushed into a village. It was a fiasco - they lost 200 men and 60 horses. The combined cavalry units and the heavy artillery units behind them begged me for reinforcements. But I simply could not attend to anyone capable of defending himself, because my unit was engaged in a desperate battle, spread out over what must have been several kilometers.7 [Italics supplied.]

According to History of the 3rd Cavalry Division, the first wave of the attack occurred at midnight on December 12. At Xianhemenzhen, a "disorderly mob"8 consisting of approximately 20,000 Chinese soldiers, mainly from the 159th Division, "blew their bugles and then charged like an avalanche."9 A chaotic battle ensued,10 and continued until 9:00 a.m. on December 13.11

Among the more than 3,000 enemy dead was 159th Division Deputy Commander Cheng.12 The 3rd Cavalry Regiment sustained the "heaviest casualties since the Shanghai conflict."13 Therefore, even on December 13, when Nanking's gates were captured, battles were raging at Zijinshan - battles so fierce that the Japanese had to request reinforcements.

Chinese Troops Storm Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters

On the afternoon of December 13, the Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters at Tangshuizhen was ambushed by Chinese stragglers. The Japanese repelled them, but they attacked again at 5:00 p.m. Then, according to Major-General Iinuma's war journal, "a free-for-all ensued."14 The hostilities were so severe that when night fell, the entire 19th Regiment and one mountain gun battalion rushed to Tangshuizhen from Nanking.15 On the following day, the Japanese discovered that 12 of their comrades had been killed during the engagement. It is time to correct the common perception, i.e., that hostilities ended when the gates of Nanking were captured.

Testimony of the 38th Regiment's Adjutant

Chinese soldiers invariably surrendered during these battles, as described in an account written by Captain Kodama Yoshio, adjutant of the 38th Regiment, which appears in Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 5.
When the regiment's front line was one or two kilometers away from Nanking, engaged in close combat, the division's adjutant told me, over the telephone, "Do not accommodate any Chinese soldiers who surrender. Dispose of them." I couldn't believe my ears ... the whole unit was astonished and confused. But orders were orders, so I conveyed the instructions to all battalions. I received no subsequent reports from any of them. We were in the midst of a pitched battle, so you can imagine what it was like.16 [Italics supplied.]

Captain Kodama stated that these events took place on either December 12 or 13. Both he and the regimental commander were in the battle zone which, according to the 38th Regiment's Battle Report, extended from Xingwei, a village on the north side of Zijinshan, to Shizijie, east of Heping Gate.

Since the houses in the area north of Zijinshan (near Xingwei and Shizijie) had already been burned by Chinese troops, few residents remained there. Furthermore, that same area "had regularly been used by the Chinese for maneuvers," so they knew it very well. The 36th and 48th divisions and the supervisory unit did not surrender. Seeking an escape route, they launched a counterattack.17

The division adjutant responded by ordering his men, over the telephone, not to take prisoners. He was justified in doing so, since he had received repeated requests for reinforcements from a nearby unit under his command. Sasaki refused those requests, instead urging all his men capable of defending themselves to fight on. If the Japanese had accepted prisoners of war and disarmed them in the midst of hostilities, they would have been depleting their own war potential, and might have lost the battle.

The men of the 38th Regiment had the right to defend themselves and, in the throes of a pitched battle, had no obligation to accommodate prisoners of war. If they executed soldiers who surrendered, they were not necessarily violating international law. They were simply engaging in an act of war. Hata Ikuhiko was probably aware of that, and that is why he deleted the second (italicized) portion of the testimony cited above.18

Inaccurate Locution

Sasaki's men finally fought their way to Heping Gate, where several thousand enemy soldiers surrendered to them. By then, it was about 2:00 p.m. on December 13, the same time when hordes of Chinese stragglers were ambushing Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters at Tangshuizhen. Another excerpt from Sasaki's diary follows.
We reached Heping Gate. Later, several thousand prisoners of war surrendered to us. Our exasperated soldiers would have killed them all, had their officers allowed them to. Looking back over the carnage that has taken place over the past 10 days, and during which many of our comrades lost their lives, I too want to say, "Kill them all."19

Sasaki should not have used the term "prisoners of war." Prisoners of war do not need to surrender. As is indicated in The Battle of Nanking, Sasaki should have written: "We reached Heping Gate. Later, several thousand enemy soldiers surrendered to us."

Why were there so many stragglers near Heping Gate? The most plausible answer to that question is found in the eyewitness account of Nishiura Setsuzo, commander of the 7th Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, 16th Division, in The Battle of Nanking.

[On December 14], I saw many corpses of Chinese soldiers lying in hollows when we were advancing south of Taiping Gate. Since they had been carefully lined up, I assumed that they were the bodies of Chinese military personnel who had died during the conflict at Zijinshan, and were later transported to the gate.20

The wounded had probably been brought from the site of the pitched battle at Zijinshan to Nanking, through Taiping Gate. Soldiers who died en route were buried carefully in the caverns inside the gate. We can, therefore, assume that Taiping Gate was open until immediately before Nanking fell, so that wounded soldiers could be transported into the city. By the time that Sasaki's unit encountered stragglers at Heping Gate, at 2:00 p.m. on December 13, 12 hours had elapsed since the fall of Nanking. When the stragglers who had failed to escape were rushing from the north side of Zijinshan to Taiping Gate, in the hope of escaping into Nanking, they had a fateful encounter at Heping Gate with Sasaki's unit, which was travelling south from that gate.

"Kill Them All"

When enemy soldiers surrendered, the soldiers in Sasaki's unit apparently "killed them all." Article 23 of the regulations annexed to the Hague Convention states, in part, that it is unlawful "to kill or wound an enemy who, having laid down his arms, or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion."

Did Sasaki's unit violate the Hague Convention? Any judgements must be made in view of the circumstances prevailing at the time, for which there were two possible scenarios:

(1) The Japanese had subdued all of Zijinshan, and Chinese attacks had ceased. Chinese soldiers quietly came forward and surrendered.

(2) Japanese troops were ambushed by the Chinese near Zijinshan, and forced into a pitched battle. During that battle, some Chinese soldiers surrendered. If the Japanese had treated them as prisoners of war and gone through the formalities, they would have been unable to assist their comrades, who were still fighting.

As stated previously, the prevailing circumstances were not as described in (1). A desperate, bloody battle was taking place at Zijinshan, as described in (2).

At 5:00 p.m. on December 13, three hours after several thousand Chinese soldiers had surrendered to Sasaki's unit (Right-Flank Detachment, 16th Division), the Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters at Tangshuizhen was ambushed a second time. Another melee ensued.21 According to the Tangshuizhen Battle Report prepared by the 2nd Company, 9th Infantry Regiment, the Chinese used tanks in that encounter. At Shenhemenzhen, north of Tangshuizhen, the Chinese counterattack was so ferocious that the 2nd Battalion, Heavy Artillery (an independent unit), suffered its worst casualties since landing at Shanghai.

Chinese troops were attempting to flee from the east of Zijinshan to the west or southeast. On every battlefront except for Heping Gate, elite Chinese units were launching counterattacks. Put on the defense in the face of the violent attack, the 16th Division fought desperately. When the Shanghai Expeditionary Force Headquarters was ambushed a second time, it was not the 16th Division that rushed to its aid from Nanking, but the 19th Regiment, 9th Division. The 16th Division could not spare a single man.

"Take No Prisoners Until So Ordered"

Had it not been for the skirmishes and bloody defensive battles, Major-General Sasaki's 31st Infantry Brigade Order (issued on December 14 at 04:50 a.m.), i.e., "Take no prisoners until so ordered,"22 would never have been issued.

The situation in the vicinity of Zijinshan was described in the aforementioned order.

1. The enemy has been defeated on all fronts, but stragglers continue to resist.

"Resisting" seems a rather tame word to use to describe what the enemy was actually doing, i.e., launching savage counterattacks all around the base of Zijinshan.

The execution of enemy soldiers who surrendered on the battlefield was an act of war. If the Japanese had taken the time to disarm and free (or incarcerate) them, their war potential would have been diminished. That would have provided additional motivation to enemy soldiers attacking nearby, and might have caused a Japanese defeat. Even after the battles had ended, Japanese soldiers were ambushed by fleeing stragglers on many occasions.

Chinese troops never formally surrendered en masse. Some of them did surrender, but others went on the offensive. There was no orderly action on their part. As Tillman Durdin wrote for the January 9, 1938 edition of The New York Times: "Tang's departure, unknown even to many members of his own staff, left the army leaderless and was the signal for complete collapse."23 [Italics supplied.]

Leaderless troops have relinquished their obligations as combatants, and are not entitled to combatants' rights. Even if they were taken prisoner, they lacked legal prisoner-of-war status. Killing them was not in violation of international law. Nevertheless, the Japanese transported this large group of prisoners in order to intern them.

Unrest Among the Prisoners

As stated in The Battle of Nanking, the majority of Chinese soldiers were completely without supervision. As long as the enemy possessed the will to resist, the Japanese had the legal right to crush that resistance.

Even when Chinese troops surrendered, the Japanese had difficulty determining their motives, which were, in many cases, suspect. Sergeant Shimizu Kazue of the 38th Regiment (16th Division) recorded one such incident in his war journal on December 14, which appears in Hata Ikuhiko's The Nanking Incident.

As the sweep unit, we were assigned to the northern part of Nanking. We commenced our advance at 0800 hours ... we climbed over the wall into the city. While we were opening the gate, Chinese stragglers were running wild. We captured and annihilated them. Some of the stragglers came to us make peace, but we bayonetted 92 of them since they were behaving restively ... Countless stragglers were hiding in the city or running wild. I have never seen such a disgraceful sight. The spirited men of our company annihilated some stragglers who continued to resist, thus restoring order in the city.24 [Italics supplied.]

Hata's reaction to this incident is that "it would be more appropriate to describe these as executions than acts of war." One wonders what is at the basis of his conclusion. Normally, when soldiers who surrender on the battlefield are rebellious or defiant, the strictest measures are taken against them, i.e., execution. Executions performed under such circumstances are not in violation of international law. The italicized portions of Shimizu's account prove that the actions taken by the 38th Regiment were not unlawful.

Chinese Soldiers Hurl Grenades After Surrendering

Japanese troops were plagued by acts of violence committed by Chinese soldiers who pretended to surrender and then attacked them by, for instance, throwing hand grenades. If they had refrained from attacking an "enemy who ... has surrendered at discretion," they would have been leaving themselves open to attack. Let us examine the testimony of 2nd Lieutenant Muguruma Masajiro, adjutant of the 1st Battalion (16th Division), which can be found in Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking: A Comprehensive Examination, Vol. 8.
With one platoon, I was entrusted with security at Zijinshan, north of Zhongshan Gate. The battle had been harsh, however, and only about 30 men remained in the platoon. At midnight, we captured several hundred stragglers who had emerged from the east side of the mountain and, not having noticed us, were heading toward Nanking.

But there weren't many of us, and if the Chinese had become aware of that, we would have been in danger. So we took away their guns, and assembled them in a hollow. We tied only the soldiers on the perimeter with electric wire so that they could not escape.

Perhaps they underestimated us because of our small forces, because they began throwing hand grenades and rioting. They became uncontrollable, so we fired our light machine guns and rifles at them until we ran out of ammunition.25

In his Memories of My Youth, Muguruma mentions being shot with a dumdum (expanding) bullet.26 The Chinese were using dumdum bullets, which were expressly prohibited by the Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets,27 signed at The Hague in 1899. They also, on many occasions, concealed hand grenades in their clothing, which they held onto even after they had laid down their guns. Stragglers often fought back when captured.

Moreover, frontline combatants "did not have the leisure to carefully determine that each enemy soldier who raised his arms in surrender had lost the will to resist, or to accommodate him as a prisoner of war, in accordance with international law,"28 as stated in Eyewitness Accounts of the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 5. It would have been different if only a few soldiers were left behind after an entire enemy force had been routed. But when Chinese troops, desperate to escape, counterattacked, "if we failed to kill the enemy, we were sealing our own fates."

Transport and Medical Units Attacked

Source Material Relating to the Battle of Nanking, Vol. 1 contains the Battle Report prepared by the 3rd Battalion, 68th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Division. The report states that a second-line transport unit attached to the 68th Infantry Regiment and carrying ammunition, provisions, and fodder departed from Tianwangsi (approximately 50 kilometers southeast of Nanking) on December 11. The unit was scheduled to join the main strength of the regiment.

At 4:20 p.m. on December 14, as the party approached a mountainous area east of Tuqiaozhen (approximately 24 kilometers southeast of Nanking), "about 200 stragglers came out of a pine forest on the left side of the road, and attacked us."29 This was an ambush.

The clever enemy had persuaded some Chinese farmers to put on the armbands that Japanese soldiers wore, and to approach us. Their main force hid in the forest, and when we made contact with the farmers, used that as their signal to attack the unit from a location 50 meters ahead of us. At that point, the head of the transport unit deployed members of the party who were carrying rifles to both sides of the road, and instructed them to attack.30

The transport unit was carrying a full load of weapons, ammunition, provisions, and fodder. Moreover, not being a combat unit, it was at a distinct disadvantage. The Chinese often attacked transport units, but this time they "persuaded farmers to don armbands with a picture of the rising sun on them,"31 and to approach the Japanese unit.

It is a violation of international law for civilians to engage in combat. Fortunately, the Japanese routed the Chinese after a battle that lasted approximately one hour. Still, the following warning was added to the Battle Report, "for future reference."

Since large numbers of stragglers remain in territory we have occupied, we urge all units incapable of defending themselves to proceed with the utmost caution.32

Those who have claimed that stragglers presented no danger would be wise to revise their views.

Major Yamazaki Masao wrote in his war journal that at 3:00 p.m. on December 15, "more than a hundred"33 enemy soldiers attacked a party that included the Assistant G-4 (Ordnance Department, 3rd Division), the principal medical officer, and the principal veterinary officer. According to the war journal kept by Iinuma Mamoru, the party's fate was unknown for a time,34 but later, word was received that it was safe. That safety had not been achieved, however, without the loss of several Japanese lives.

On December 16, Sasaki's unit made a sweep of stragglers on the north side of Zijinshan. Not until then did the Battle of Nanking finally end.

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