Japan Strikes: 1937


For the next eight months Hankow (also known, in a triad with two adjoining cities, as Wuhan) was the capital of unoccupied China. The Generalissimo had his headquarters across the river in Wuchang on the south bank. In Hankow itself the foreign missions crowded into the Western-style buildings of the concessions facing the river, where the U.S.S. Luzon , flagship of the Yangtze River patrol, lay at anchor. The city was a chaos of thousands of people rushing around “like ants on a hot rock,” in Stilwell’s phrase: officials, hangers-on, journalists, profiteers, refugees, welfare committees, and all the hectic influx of war. Devotion and energy mixed with laxity and indifference. As always, the uncaring treatment of the common soldier excited Stilwell’s wrath. “The wounded left in the north station and everywhere. Not wanted, and they realize it and expect it and pay the price of living by dying. … Why didn’t CKS organize a medical service or at least a stretcher bearer service?”

A week after Stilwell reached Hankow, on December 13, 1937, Nanking fell in circumstances dreadful even for China. During the time bought in the trenches at Shanghai no preparations for the defense or evacuation of Nanking had been made, with the result that losses in men and material when the capital fell were enormous. The arsenal was taken intact, as was the Red Cross Hospital with all its precious supplies and the wounded in their beds, as well as the rolling stock in the railroad station and vehicles and stores of all kinds. With no defense lines established to cover the withdrawal of soldiers or civilians, the human loss was as great.

Determined to make an example of the capital that would bring the war to an end, the Japanese achieved a climax to the carnage already wrought in the delta below. Fifty thousand soldiers hacked, burned, bayoneted, raped, and murdered until they had killed, by hand and in person, according to the evidence witnessed and collected by missionaries and other foreigners of the International Relief Committee, a total of forty-two thousand civilians in Nanking. Groups of men and women were lined up and machine-gunned or used alive for bayonet practice or tied up, doused with kerosene, and set afire while officers looked on. Reports by missionary doctors and others. dazed with horror and helplessness, filled church publications in America. Much of the photographic evidence that later reached newspapers abroad came from snapshots taken by the Japanese themselves, which they gave for developing to ordinary camera shops in Shanghai, whence copies made their way to the correspondents. …

Not a few Chinese, including members of the government, believed peace with Japan preferable to ruin, but the majority would not have permitted a surrender or settlement. “CKS can’t quit,” wrote Stilwell. “Called on the country, it responded. Now he must go on.” Japan too had to go on, although dangerously extended and with no definite goal in sight. After Nanking, on December 17, Chiang Kai-shek publicly reaffirmed his decision to continue resistance to the utmost by a strategy essentially Chinese. “The time must come,” he explained, “when Japan’s military strength will be exhausted thus giving China the ultimate victory.”

In reply Japan severed relations (up to now maintained), and frustrated and angry, caught in the fatal entanglement of war without limits, drove on, forced to send more and more divisions until their strength on the mainland numbered more than a million. As time went on, repeated peace overtures were made to Chiang Kai-shek, first through the German ambassador in China, later through an American, Dr. John Leighton Stuart, president of Yenching University, but on terms that would have left Japan in control of the country. …

On December 12 the event most dreaded by the American government—an incident involving American bloodshed—occurred. Coinciding with the fall of Nanking, the Japanese in an excess of arrogance bombed and sank the U.S.S. Panay a few miles above the capital, causing two deaths and forty-eight casualties. … So deliberate was the attack, that it could not seem like anything but a direct challenge.∗

∗See an account of the Panay incident in the April, 1967, issue of A MERICAN H ERITAGE .— Ed.


Stilwell’s recorded reaction, characteristic of him in fateful moments, was reduced to a minimum: “ Panay bombed and sunk yesterday. Great to-do.” Almost anything might follow, including war. …

Next day tension eased slightly when, as Stilwell put it, “Japs apologize. ‘Very sorry for you.’ Couldn’t see the insignia. The bastards.” He did not mention the Panay again, but it cannot be doubted that the necessary swallowing of this incident by his country added to his black mood at this period.