The Unsolved Mystery of Nanjing Battalion, Did 3,000 Chinese Troops Really Disappear in 1939?

The Second Sino-Japanese war was brutal, with Japan ravaging China. Many lives were lost on both sides, but the strangest loss was that of the Nanjing Battalion. This battalion of Chinese soldiers simply vanished and there is still no consensus on what exactly happened to them.

In December 1937, the battalion of 3,000 Chinese soldiers was assigned to a two mile stretch of land around Nanjing. The Japanese had taken the city and the soldiers were charged with preventing the enemy fighters from getting out of it. Their main focus was a bridge on the Yangtze River which they needed to defend.

The evening of December 9, 1937, the commander of the battalion, Li Fu Sien, went to bed as normal after seeing to his troops. He had ensured that the troops were dug in for the night and that soldiers had been placed on watch. On the morning of December 10, he would be woken by an aide with some disturbing news.

The news was that the defensive line was not responding to any signals or calls. A team was formed to investigate the silence. When they arrived at the defensive line’s position, they found it had been abandoned completely.

The abandonment was made stranger by the lack of any signs of a struggle. The heavy weapons were still in place and ready to be fired. The concealed fires were still glowing and warm. The soldiers and field officers were simply gone with no sign of where they went.

Japanese soldiers marching on Nanjing
Japanese soldiers marching on Nanjing

The soldiers who remained were questioned about the missing battalion. Those at the bridge stated that they had not seen any movement across it. Other soldiers also stated that there had been no sounds of combat during the night. They did not have any leads on what happened to the defensive line.

The first theory to emerge regarding the missing soldiers was that they had surrendered to the Japanese. While this was possible, it has been deemed as unlikely. They would need to cross the bridge to Nanjing and the soldiers stationed there had not seen anything.

Japanese soldiers crossing the moat close to Zhonghua Gate
Japanese soldiers crossing the moat close to Zhonghua Gate

Defection would also have been unlikely as the Chinese were aware of the horrific treatment that prisoners of war received from the Japanese. If the battalion had gone to the Japanese, it is likely that they would be tortured or outright killed. Information that was later provided by the Japanese also makes this theory unlikely, as there was no mention of surrendering soldiers in Nanjing.

Another possible theory is that the soldiers deserted their position. This is a very reasonable theory as the troops might have been tired of fighting or saw hopelessness in their situation. While the bridge was the only way to Nanjing, it would not have been the only way out of the area.

Debris scattered on Nanjing’s Zhongshan Road
Debris scattered on Nanjing’s Zhongshan Road

The farmers in the area of Nanjing may have been willing to help the fleeing soldiers. If the soldiers had deserted, the army would not have been forthcoming with this information. News of a mass desertion would lower morale and would provide the Japanese with propaganda to weaken the Chinese government.

While desertion does seem possible, there are also reasons why this theory is hard to prove. The vegetation in the Nanjing area at the time was sparse and would not have provided sufficient cover for almost 3,000 soldiers.

Japanese soldiers searching Chinese men for weapons
Japanese soldiers searching Chinese men for weapons

The Japanese reports also state that they never encountered a group of Chinese soldiers. This many soldiers would be hard to hide and, if they deserted, some of them would likely have been found in later years.

Over the years, there have been more outlandish theories proposed to explain the disappearance. One theory is that the battalion vanished into a parallel universe. After all, if our universe is surrounded by a number of invisible parallel universes, this should theoretically be possible.

When considering all theories, one has to consider whether this incident occurred at all. There is some debate regarding the narrative of the disappearance.

Some versions of the story place the incident as happening in December 1937 which would be the immediate run-up to the Battle of Nanjing. Others place this incident in 1939 which would be a year and a half after the battle.

Read another story from us: Virtually Unpunished – Horrible War Crimes in the “Rape of Nanjing”

The desertion of a battalion before a battle would make more sense than a year and a half later. The fact that there is no historical proof for the disappearance of almost 3,000 soldiers lends credence to the disappearance never having happened.

No reputable historians or publications have looked into this disappearance, indicating that it could be a myth. Given this information, it is highly possible that the Nanjing battalion never existed and is a total fabrication.

Claudia Mendes

Claudia Mendes holds a BA Archeology from the University of Leicester. During her degree, she focused on medieval fortifications. She works as a freelance writer and stays up to date with historical and archeological news.