top of page
  • Writer's pictureJohn Wick

The Strange Vanishing of the Nanjing Battalion

Human beings continue to vanish from society without leaving a trace, despite modern advances in communications and surveillance technology. Often such disappearances are eventually explained. But sometimes, these explanation prove more difficult when the incident involves hundreds, or even thousands of people. In this post we explain one of these incidents: The Vanishing of the Nanjing Battalion.

The fall of Nanjing

While the Second World War officially occurred between 1939 and 1945, pre-existing conflicts would eventually become incorporated into it. On the evening of the 7th of July 1937, Chinese and Japanese troops exchanged fire near Beijing's Marco Polo Bridge. Although the soldiers involved were not to know it at the time, they had just fired the opening shots of what would evolve into the second Sino-Japanese war.

China's socialist forces lacked any form of effective training and were woefully equipped to oppose the impassioned and highly modernized Imperial Japanese Army. Within months of the incident, Japanese soldiers were surging deep into the heart of Chinese territory, ransacking and murdering as they progressed. By the end of the year, Shanghai had been taken and the Japanese commanders next set their sights on the Chinese capital of Nanjing.

Having fatally underestimated the strength and fury of the invading forces, the Chinese commanders had little option other than to abandon the people of Nanjing to a tragic and inevitable fate. The capital was formally relocated to the southwestern city of Chungking, leaving behind a token force of terrified soldiers in a desperate attempt to delay the unyielding enemy advance. It would take less than five days of sporadic fighting for the invaders to emerge victorious, and what followed remains one of the most notorious atrocities in human history.

The next six weeks saw the occupying Japanese forces massacre up to 300,000 men, women and children. The fall of Nanjing would, however, mark a turning point in the brutal conflict. As the Japanese at last reached the effective limit of their established supply lines, Chinese resistance finally managed to stiffen and the conflict entered a new more protracted phase. Rather than counter-attacking, the Chinese instead formed extensive defensive lines and invited the Japanese to push further inland.

Occupied cities found themselves ringed with heavy batteries of Chinese Artillery, poised to annihilate any attempt by the invaders to push further westward. The conflict descended into a grim stalemate, which would take further seven years to conclude. And it was during this lengthy phase of the war that a mysterious incident occurred within the Chinese positions overlooking Nanjing.

The defensive position

In December of 1939, one Colonel Li Fu Sien was responsible for a 3-kilometer section of the emplacements, which overlooked the former Chinese capital. The defensive positions entrusted to him were situated along the slopes of a deep valley, through which the Yangtze river flowed down into the city. At the center of his operational area was a road bridge, which allowed vital access across the river. The bridge represented one of the few routes, which the Japanese forces could effectively use to break out of the city and the loss of it could spell complete disaster for the Chinese military's, entire strategy.

Sien had been appalled at the poor quality of his conscripted troops as well as the ageing weaponry they had to handle. He had spent many weeks petitioning his commanders for reinforcements and on the 9th of December, his requests were finally answered. A battalion consisting of nearly 3,000 extra soldiers marched into his forward Command Post. The colonel remained unimpressed by the obvious lack of training and poor morale displayed by the new arrivals, but it was better than nothing. Too many men had already been lost that winter to disease and desertion.

As the new Battalion had lined up before him, he delivered an impassioned speech, encouraging his men to avenge those murdered during the previous year's massacre and to drive the invaders out once and for all. Satisfied that he had done all he could to motivate the soldiers, the colonel gave the necessary orders and deployed them to the forward positions. This provided a much-needed respite for the exhausted and battle-weary soldiers who had been manning them up to this point. As he watched the newcomers march off into the gathering darkness, he sighed in exasperation. Most of them have been farmers or factory workers up until a few weeks ago; in their current state, they stood little hope of holding out against any determined Japanese attack.

In the early hours of the following morning, the Chinese Commander was awoken by one of his Junior officers. Angered at the impertinence of the man's actions, Sien demanded an explanation and proceeded to listen with growing irritation as the aide attempted to explain himself. Radio contact had been lost with the forward positions and could not be re-established, despite the best efforts of the engineers. Grabbing his binoculars, Sien made his way to the nearest observation post and demanded to know if the sentries there had witnessed anything out of the ordinary taking place down in the valley.

The Vanishing of the soldiers

The terrified soldiers professed to their enraged commander that they had not, and that there had been no movement from either side of the front lines. Quietly seething to himself, Sien scanned the darkness for any sign that something was amiss, but could see nothing. Having become sufficiently suspicious of the developing situation, he ordered that the rest of the regiment be awoken and readied for battle and then dispatched a small party of engineers and infantryman to descend down through the Chinese positions and ascertain what was happening on the valley floor.

When they returned two hours later, he could barely believe his ears, because they informed him that the forward positions were completely empty and the replacement battalion had disappeared.

Exhausted and disgruntled Chinese soldiers were roused and hurriedly dispatched back to the position they could withdrawn from only hours before. They were met with eerily disconcerting scenes. Concealed fires, which had been lit to keep the reinforcements warm were still burning. Playing cards and small amounts of money were laid out mid game on ammunition crates and half-eaten field rations lay abandoned in shelters and foxholes. The precious 81 millimeter mortars that the new soldiers had brought with them, courtesy of the British government, were unpacked and assembled, and stood ready to fire from freshly established positions.

All the new weaponry such as maxim machine guns and flamethrowers were sitting right where they had been unloaded, showing no signs of having been touched. With the exception of a few sentries who had been sent to occupy positions further up the valley slopes, all of the new troops were gone. As daylight broke, Sien and his Junior officers repeatedly scrutinized the front lines, looking for any evidence of what might have taken place the night before. The concealed trip wires and landmines which had been set to prevent an enemy sneak attack had not been triggered, negating the possibility of Japanese forces having captured the missing soldiers.

In addition to this, the terrain just ahead of the Chinese positions contained only light vegetation, offering little opportunity for concealment. Close inspection found no footprints or broken branches as would be expected from thousands of troops crossing the valley floor. Repeated interrogations of the surviving sentries on duty that night yielded nothing. Nobody had been seen to cross the bridge that evening and there had been nothing unusual to report. It was as if the 2,800 infantry men had simply vanished into thin air.

Nanjing itself would not be recaptured by the People's Liberation Army until 1949, long after the incident. Survivors of the collaborationist government that the Japanese had formed there, confirmed that their forces had never captured any large numbers of enemy soldiers or encountered such mass desertions either. To this day, the loss of the Nanjing Battalion remains a complete mystery.

The seemingly unbelievable as the disappearance nearly 3,000 armed soldiers is, this incident is far from being an isolated one. There have been a number of well documented instances of military units vanishing during times of war, with the assumption that they had been killed or captured by the enemy, only for this to turn out not to be the case once the conflict had come to an end. Following a largely successful invasion of Great Britain, the Roman Emperor Claudius ordered General Agricola to subdue the Caledonian tribes, which had so far refused to accept the Roman occupation. The men chosen for the task were the veteran Ninth Legion known as the Spanish Legion, on account of the land from which they had been conscripted.

In or around AD 108, the men of the Ninth Marched out of their headquarters in York, later crossing over the border and into the depths of the Highlands. At this point, they disappeared into legend. There is no evidence that they encountered the Caledonian forces and no survivors ever returned from beyond Hadrian's wall to explain what fate had befallen them. Similarly, in 1915, at the height of the infamous Gallipoli campaign, the 5th Norfolk Regiment, which was made up largely of servants and staff from the King's Sandringham estate, were ordered to attack Turkish forces occupying the Anafarta plain.

On the morning of the 12th of August, just two days after they had arrived, the regiment's officers blew their whistles and nearly 300 British troops rose from their trenches and advanced on the enemy positions with fixed bayonets. Witnesses from the Infantry unit situated either side of the advance stated that has the British troops walked calmly towards the Turkish lines, a strange yellow cloud descended upon them. It quickly enveloped the regiment and seem to absorb the soldiers before inexplicably lifting a few minutes later.

When it did so, the Norfolks were gone and no trace of them was ever found.

In the closing months of World War Two, British forces were given the unenviable task of liberating a number of islands off the Burmese Coast which had been occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. In January 1945, a force comprising the 26th Indian Division and a detachment of Royal Marine Commandos laid siege to the Japanese Garrison on Ramree Island. Having been eventually routed from their positions by the Commonwealth forces, the remaining soldiers of the Japanese 54th division, which numbered roughly 1,000 men, withdrew to regroup in the island's mangrove swamps. That evening, British troops had sustained burst of machine-gun fire and desperate in human screaming coming from the enemy positions.

The loss of the Japanese troops was put down to a mass nocturnal attack by saltwater crocodiles, an explanation which nobody who had been present was prepared to accept. In all of these cases, it was later proven that the missing soldiers had not been killed or captured due to enemy action. It was as if some unearthly inexplicable force had elected to intervene in the conflict for reasons known only to itself. Particularly in the circumstances of the missing Norfolk regiment, it has been suggested that these disappearances were the result of extraterrestrial abduction.

Could large-scale warfare attract otherworldly visitors who use the chaos and confusion of conflict to study our species? At Nanjing, the 3,000 troops were somehow removed from a heavily fortified and well-equipped position, surrounded by sentries and booby traps; an achievement well beyond the capabilities of any terrestrial army of the day. An alternative theory exists suggesting that the fate of the missing soldiers was the result of a more Supernatural Force.

More sinister reasons

Chinese mythology is permeated with vengeful and murderous evil spirits, all capable of doing great harm to anybody unfortunate enough to encounter them. These include the Shui Gui, the ghosts of drowned people who sought to drag others to a watery grave and the soul devouring vampyrous Jiangshan. Going hand in hand with these malevolent and dangerous apparitions is the Chinese concept of the Subterranean realm. This proposes that the spirits of the dead reside beneath the earth's surface in hollow areas connected by networks of tunnels and caverns. Did the Chinese troops somehow get pulled down into this dark kingdom, never to be seen again?

There remains, of course, the possibility that the vanquished Japanese forces simply denied all knowledge they possessed about the incident. Given the brazen violence and savagery they had demonstrated throughout the conflict, any of the soldiers who might have deserted and ended up in their charge, or were captured in the act of trying to escape to their homes, would likely have been dispatched in quick and brutal fashion. Having eventually been defeated by the Socialist forces, what incentive would they have had in admitting their part in the incident and risking a similar fate themselves?


Is it more likely that any Japanese involvement in the vanishing of the soldiers would be long covered up, as with many other hidden war crimes? The mystery of the missing Nanjing Battalion will never be solved and is one which we have struggled to explain satisfactorily. The only rational explanation for what may have taken place could be the result of human error. It is only natural that over the passage of time, the story has been altered and embellished by those delivering it.

Some retellings have the disappearance occurring a year earlier, with Colonel Sien and his men entrusted with making a desperate last stand in front of the advancing Imperial Japanese Army. If this is true, then the chances that the soldiers either deserted or were completely annihilated are a great deal more likely. It must also be noted that there is no record in Chinese military history of this entire event ever occurring. It's possible that either the loss of the 3000 raw recruits was covered up in an effort to save face or improve morale or that the unit never even existed and the story was invented as a cautionary tale told to replacement soldiers posted to the area.

Whatever the truth behind the legend of the lost battalion and the other military forces we have touched upon, there is no denying the futility and hopelessness that accompany such conflicts. We commemorate this story to the men and women who never managed to return to their loved ones from the field of battle and hope their souls eventually settled in a place of peace.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page