Donated film reels contain footage from the Nanking Massacre

Yale alumnus John G. Magee Sr. was an American missionary stationed in Nanking when the Japanese Imperial Army entered the city on Dec. 13, 1937.

The invasion unleashed six weeks of terror in the capital city of Nationalist China. Japanese soldiers perpetrated mass atrocities against war prisoners and civilians alike, including widespread looting, rape, and murder. Instead of fleeing the violence, Magee remained in the city and worked with other Westerners, considered neutral parties to the Sino-Japanese War, to save lives and document the soldiers’ crimes.

Magee, who owned a 16mm movie camera, risked his safety to capture footage of the horror happening around him. He smuggled the footage out of China the following year. It provided among the first visual evidence of the Nanking Massacre.

The Yale Divinity School Library recently acquired two of Magee’s original film reels from the massacre — a gift of Magee’s grandson, John Magee III.  They were part of a collection of 13 reels of footage that Magee shot during his missionary career in China.

The other 11 reels document daily life in Nanking and other places, including street scenes and church services, during the 1920s and 1930s.  They include footage of the flooding of the Yangtze River in September 1931 and the consecration of the second Chinese bishop in the Anglican Church, which occurred on Nov. 1, 1927.

The USC Shoah Foundation, which is producing a documentary on events in the Chinese cities of Nanking (now Nanjing) and Shanghai during World War II, digitized the reels for the library at no cost. The digitized footage is now available to researchers. Excerpts of the two reels of footage taken during the Japanese invasion, reels one and nine, are posted on the library’s Nanking Massacre Project website.

“We are very grateful to the Magee family for donating these remarkable film reels to the library, and the USC Shoah Foundation for digitizing the footage, which allows us to share it with scholars,” says Martha Smalley, special collections librarian and curator of the Day Missions Collection at the Divinity School Library. “The reels are a valuable addition to our collections documenting the Nanking Massacre and the works that John G. Magee and other missionaries performed there.”    

“It has been a week of murder and rape …”

Born in Pittsburgh in 1884, Magee graduated from Yale in 1906. He was ordained a minister in the Episcopal Church and assigned to missionary work in Nanking. While in China, he met Faith Emmeline Backhouse, a fellow missionary. They married in 1921 and had four sons: John, David, Christopher, and Hugh.

Magee was among about two-dozen Westerners — missionaries, physicians, businessmen, and academics — who remained in the city when the Japanese invaded.  (The American embassy was evacuated several days ahead of the invasion.) He was a member of the International Committee for the Nanking Safety Zone, which had established a safety zone for non-combatants in an area near Nanking’s center that included government buildings, the American embassy, the University of Nanking, and Ginling College, a college for women established by Protestant missionaries.

When the city fell, residents flocked to the safety zone to escape the marauding Japanese soldiers.  Hundreds of thousands of refugees sought and received protection there.

Magee was appalled by the brutality and depravity of the Japanese soldiers.

“The horror of last week is beyond anything I have ever experienced,” he wrote to his wife on Dec. 19. “I never dreamed that the Japanese soldiers were such savages. It has been a week of murder and rape, worse, I imagine, than has happened for a very long time unless the massacre of the Armenians by the Turks was comparable.”

He began shooting footage of the refugee camps and surrounding devastation, capturing horrific images of the wounded and showing the toll the violence had taken on the city’s civilians.

“But a fragmentary glimpse of the unspeakable …”

“The pictures shown herewith give but a fragmentary glimpse of the unspeakable things that happened following the Japanese occupation of Nanking …” he wrote in his notes about the films, which are housed at the Divinity Library. “If the photographer had had more film and more time, he could have taken a great many more scenes.”

He explained that he was “kept busy from morning till night” trying to help the refugees and only occasionally had time for “picture-taking.” 

Additionally, he had to take precautions not to be seen by the Japanese, who would have confiscated his camera. For this reason, he explained, he could not “take pictures of people being killed or of the vast numbers of dead lying about in many parts of the city ….”

Smalley says that the two reels, which combined are about 22 minutes long, appear to contain some previously unknown footage.

Reel one includes footage of life at Ginling College, showing bedrolls spread on what appears to be a gymnasium floor and footage of women and children doing laundry. It includes rare footage of Minnie Vautrin, a missionary and administrator at the college who provided detailed accounts of the situation in Nanking under Japanese occupation.

Reel nine opens with a scene of wounded people being carried to a medical clinic on makeshift stretchers. Inside the clinic, a nurse inspects a man’s mangled hand. The man had been shot while trying to protect his wife and daughter, according to Magee’s notes. Another scene shows rows of crude huts in the refugee camp and people lining up for food.

The library has a print of Magee’s other films of Nanking during the Japanese occupation. 

Magee returned to the United States in 1940. He served as chaplain to Episcopal students at Yale from 1946 to 1953. He died following a heart attack in September 1953.

The John G. Magee Family Papers include correspondence, writings, photographs, films, and other documentation of his life and work and that of his family members.  The Yale Divinity Library also houses papers of eight other former American missionaries who witnessed the Nanking Massacre: Miner Searle Bates, George A. Fitch, Lewis S.C. Smythe, W. Plumer Mills, Robert O. Wilson, Ernest H. Forster, James H. McCallum, and Minnie Vautrin.