September 2nd will be the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender at Tsingtao, China. This event loomed large in my life when I was a tot. My father, who had fought in the miserable island battles of WWII in the Pacific, was among a contingent of Americans from the 1st and 6th Marines, sent to the surrender ceremony and kept on to guard the Japanese soldiers while they waited for repatriation. Those Americans then spent months guarding Chiang Kai-shek’s supply lines in his war against Mao Zedong. My intention was, and is to write, next week, about my dad’s experiences in China. Then, by chance, a few of days ago, I watched a film that had been in my Netflix queue for a long time. I had no idea what it was about or why I put it there. The film is called John Rabe, and before I saw more than a few seconds of it, the words “the rape of Nanking” fell into my head. You will learn next week why I took an interest in that part of history. The film knocked me out.
Fair warning #1, for today: the facts of this tale are horrifying.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War, in August of 1937, the Japanese, despite their far-superior military might, had a hard time capturing Shanghai. The Chinese, though doomed to lose, fought hard, and the Japanese, though ultimately victorious, sustained many casualties. When they went on, in December, to capture Nanking—then the capital of China—they were determined to make an easy job of it, by beginning with a killing attack, using all their might. Hopeless of any defense, Chiang Kai-shek abandoned the capital and withdrew to the interior of the country. General Tang Shengzhi, put in charge of defending Nanking, decided that the troops and the people there would never surrender, but fight to the death. What ensued was a bloodbath of more than biblical proportions, which still has political repercussions all over Asia and pollutes Sino-Japanese relations to this day.
|The memorial in China|
I cannot bring myself to describe the incidents in detail. Cold statistics are as close as I can get because it is just too painful to allow this story sink too deeply into my imagination. Somewhere between 40,000 and 300,000 civilians and disarmed soldiers were massacred. This wide numerical range is the result of an international scholarly consensus. Chinese scholars put it at the higher number. From everything I have read this week, 200,000 dead seems like a realistic figure. Rapes, of varieties it turns my stomach to read about that I cannot bring myself to describe, were committed in their thousands every day.
In charge of the Japanese troops at the time was Prince Asaka, a member of the Japanese Imperial family. Asaka was sent on this assignment as a form a censure for having a “not good” attitude. Hirohito hoped his service in Nanking would give him a chance to make amends for whatever his wrongdoing had been in Tokyo. Asaka proceeded to egg his troops on to secure a brutal victory and did nothing to rein them in when their attack turned into an orgy of bloodshed. But, when it was all over, the Prince was not among the perpetrators found guilt at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East and the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal in 1947. Those tried were executed. Asaka went free thanks to a deal that General MacArthur made with Hirohito to grant him immunity.
|The Imperial Prince Asaka|
There is now a small but highly vocal group of Japanese nationalists who deny that the atrocities ever took place. Based on reports from its own soldiers at the time, the Japanese government, however, has admitted to the killing of civilians and to other violence.
The most notorious of the Japanese crimes was a contest between two Second Lieutenants, which was reported in the newspapers on the Japanese home front. They had a bet to see who would be the first to behead one hundred Chinese using nothing but a sword. 2nd Lt. Mukai killed 106 and his opponent in the race, 2nd Lt. Noda killed 105, but since in the heat of battle, they could not tell who got to 100 first, the Tokyo Nichi Nichi Shimbun newspaper declared that the contest would go into “extra innings” until one of them reached 150. Fun and games.
|Newspaper clipping of the beheading contest with the score|
With the approach of the Japanese, most Westerners fled the city. Twenty-seven foreigners stayed, with the express purpose of establishing a safe zone where they could save the lives of Chinese civilians. Among them were five journalists. Fifteen of the group formed a committee to run the safety zone, which included the foreign embassies and the major installations of the Western companies, missionary enclaves, a women’s college, a hospital, and an electrical generating plant. The Nanking Safety Zone sheltered 200,000 people and was responsible for saving most of their lives.
A German business man, John Rabe, was elected as its leader. He had worked in Nanking for 27 years and was, at the time, the General Manager of the Siemens AG plant. Because he was German and a member of the Nazi Party, it was thought that he would have greater influence with the Japanese leadership in China. The movie that inspired this post is largely based on his experiences during the siege and carnage. He kept a diary that has been published in English as The Good German of Nanking.
|Dr. Robert O. Wilson|
Also notable among the westerners who stayed was Robert O. Wilson, MD. He was born in Nanking of American missionaries. He came back to the States in the 20’s, went to Princeton and Harvard Medical School. He was the only surgeon in Nanking during those brutal times. He also kept a diary.
If you have not seen it, I urge you to watch the film John Rabe. The script, the photography, the art direction are all wonderful. The acting is superb. Wait till you see Steve Buscemi as Robert Wilson.
Fair warning #2: When you watch the film, you will fall in love with a member of the Nazi Party. .Here is the trailer.
Next week, a couple of days before the anniversary of the Japanese surrender, I will tell you my father’s war stories.
Annamaria - Monday