Recalling the heroics of Nanjing’s American hero
On Sept 2, the day of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, the New York University (NYU) in Shanghai held a talk to pay tribute to George Ashmore Fitch, an American missionary whose heroic acts helped save tens of thousands of Chinese during the Nanjing Massacre (1937), also known as the Rape of Nanking.
About 300,000 Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were slaughtered in the weeks following the fall of Nanjing. Based on the findings of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, there were approximately 20,000 cases of rape in the city during the first month of the occupation.
Fitch had served as director of the International Committee of Nanjing Safety Zone when the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Nanjing, then the capital of China, on Dec 13, 1937. The zone measuring 3.86 square kilometers provided shelter to some 250,000 refugees. Fitch had also risked his life by revealing to the world the atrocities committed by the Japanese invaders.
Giving the talk at NYU’s campus was Fitch’s grandson David, who is working as a biology professor at the university. He gave an emotional account about his grandfather’s life during the war and the extraordinary measures he had taken to help the Chinese.
Fitch was born into a family of Presbyterian missionaries in 1883 in Suzhou. He later became the head of YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in Nanjing. In November 1937, following the fall of Nanjing, Fitch and a group of foreigners established the International Committee for Nanjing Safety Zone to protect civilians. Other members of the committee included missionaries, doctors, professors and businessmen from the United States, Britain, Denmark and Germany.
One of the notable characters was John Rabe from Germany who was also head of Siemens in China. Rabe’s diaries, which were first published in 1997, are among the most important historical materials that document the massacre which took place in the city.
Fitch was a witness to how the peaceful city had become a hell hole filled with anarchy and human brutality. In a letter written on Christmas Eve in 1937, he wrote about how houses were looted and razed while many civilians were shot, stabbed and burnt alive at will. The Japanese had even used people for bayonet practice and killing competitions.
In his memoir My Eighty Years in China, Fitch wrote that the Japanese had little regard for the safety zone as
George Ashmore Fitch, disarmed Chinese soldiers were often dragged out and executed. He claimed in the letter that committee members were at times threatened with bayonets and the appeals to the Japanese Embassy to cease the crimes and help prevent women from being abducted and raped were all made in vain.
“Hundreds of innocent civilians are taken out before your eyes to be shot or used for bayonet practice and you have to listen to the sound of the guns that are killing them; while a thousand women kneel before you crying hysterically, begging you to save them from the beasts who are preying on them,” Fitch wrote in the letter.
In January 1938, Fitch was permitted to leave Nanjing for Shanghai at the invitation of someone named Hollis Wilbur. Fitch brought with him eight reels of 16mm film negatives which contained evidence of the atrocities committed by the Japanese. Most of the exposures were captured by another American missionary named John Magee.
Smuggling the film negatives out of Nanjing might have been the most dangerous thing his grandfather did back then, said David. To avoid detection by the Japanese, Fitch had sewn the negatives into the lining of his coat.
“Had the films been discovered, he would have been killed on-site,” said David.
When he arrived in Shanghai, Fitch made four copies of the film before traveling to the US to share his experience about the Nanjing Massacre and gain support for China’s resistance against the Japanese aggression.
“It is a story of such crime and horror as to be almost unbelievable…Yet it is a story which I feel must be told, even if it is seen by only a few. I cannot rest until I have told it,” wrote Fitch in the letter.
After one meeting where he revealed evidence of the crimes, a Japanese man approached Fitch and accused him of telling lies about the situation in Nanjing. The man said his people were incapable of such brutality and demanded that Fitch retract his claims.
“I told him that I had many Japanese friends, and I knew that most Japanese were indeed incapable of such acts. But unfortunately, everything I said was true. And then I could retract nothing,” wrote Fitch in his memoir.
At the end of 1938, Fitch returned to China and continued working with the YMCA and later with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration until 1947. In 1946, Fitch and other members of the Safety Zone Committee filed an affidavit of evidence for the International Military Tribunal at the trial of Japan’s Class-A war criminals. He later went on to serve in the YMCA in Korea. Fitch retired in the US in 1961.
David said that his grandfather was a modest man who rarely talked about what he did in Nanjing. He added that the heroic actions of Fitch and other foreigners in Nanjing demonstrate that one individual’s choice can make a difference to the lives of many.
Chen Jian, a historian at NYU Shanghai, shared the same sentiment.
“These heroes showed the world the best in human nature during its darkest times,” said Chen.
Hundreds of innocent civilians are taken out before your eyes to be shot or used for bayonet practice and you have to listen to the sound of the guns that are killing them.”
an American missionary in China during the Nanjing Massacre
George Ashmore Fitch (third from left) was awarded acts in Nanjing in this file photo.
for his heroic