After capturing the Chinese capital of Nanking in December 1937, Japanese troops raped and executed hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians. The brutal campaign became known as the Nanking Massacre, or the Rape of Nanking. The most detailed descriptions of the episode come from letters and diaries by Western missionaries who stayed in the city. Reverend James McCallum, a 44-year-old American working at a hospital in the Safety Zone—a demilitarized enclave run by Westerners—wrote the following account on December 29, which he later mailed to his family in Kuling, China. (The text has been condensed for space and does not have a salutation.)

Have been so busy every day and five nights of the week that I’ve had no time to write. A foreigner must be on duty 24 hours here at the hospital in order to deal with the Japanese visitors. It is snowing and bitterly cold. Our hospital is full and the lighter cases fill the University Dormitory building. Some we cannot dismiss for they have no place to go.

Thought of you all on Christmas Day and hoped it was a happy time for you. We presumed you were still in Kuling. We have been completely out of touch with the rest of the world. No one can get into Nanking and it seems very difficult to get out. We have talked of sending someone of our group out to carry the news of the terrible things that have been and still are happening here, but know that person would never get back if he once left.

All of us have been doing double duty. We scarcely sit down to our meals without someone coming in every other five minutes or so to call for help. Food is swallowed whole and hurried exits are made to save a truck from being stolen or more often to protect women from soldiers. We dare not go out alone after dark but go in twos or threes.

Every day or two I have gone out for an inspection of our mission property. I have found visitors in our house at Peh Hsia Rd. every time I have gone there. Every foreign house is a sight to behold; untouched until the Japanese army arrived, nothing untouched since. Every lock has been broken; every trunk ransacked. Their search for money and valuables has led them to the flues and inside pianos. Our phonograph records are all broken; the dishes are in a broken mess on the floor along with everything else that was discarded after each looting.

Nanking presents a dismal appearance. At the time the Japanese Army entered the city little harm had been done to buildings. Since then the stores have been stripped of their wares and most of them burned. Taiping, Chung Hwa and practically every other main business road is a mass of ruins. In south city much of the area back of main street was also burned. We see new fires every day and wonder when such beastly destruction will cease.

But far worse is what has been happening to the people. They have been in terror and no wonder. Many of them have nothing left now but a single garment around their shoulders. Helpless and unarmed, they have been at the mercy of the soldiers, who have been permitted to roam about at will wherever they pleased. There is no discipline whatever and many of them are drunk. By day they go into the buildings in our Safety Zone centers, looking for desireable women, then at night they return to get them. If they have been hidden away, the responsible men are bayonetted on the spot. Girls of 11 and 12 and women of fifty have not escaped. Resistance is fatal. A woman six months pregnant, who resisted, came to us with 16 knife wounds in her face and body, one piercing the abdomen. She lost her baby but her life will be spared.

Men who gave themselves up to the mercy of the Japanese when they were promised their lives would be spared, — a very few of them returned to the Safety Zone in a sad way. One of them declared they were used for bayonet practice and his body certainly looked it. Another group was taken out near Kuling Sz; one who somehow returned, lived long enough to tell the fate of that group. He claimed they threw gasoline over their heads, and then set fire to them. This man bore no other wounds but was burned so terribly around the neck and head that one could scarcely believe he was a human being. The same day another, whose body had been half burned over, came into the hospital. He had also been shot. It is likely that the bunch of them had been machine-gunned, their bodies then piled together and then burned. We could not get the details, but he evidently crawled out and managed to get to the hospital for help. Both of these died.

And so I could relate such horrible stories that you would have no appetite for days. It is absolutely unbelievable but thousands have been butchered in cold blood — how many it is hard to guess — some believe it would approach the 10,000 mark.

We have met some Japanese who have treated us with courtesy and respect. Others have threatened us, striking or slapping some. Altho’ the Japanese Embassy staff has tried to help us out, they have been helpless. But soldiers with a conscience are few and far between.

After the war, three high-ranking Japanese officials were hanged for allowing the Rape of Nanking, in large part because of testimony and documents provided by the missionaries, including James McCallum.