In the past few years several books have been written about the “Rape of Nanking” and other atrocities committed by the Japanese military across Asia during World War II, as well as on the Japanese government’s refusal to apologize for or even acknowledge its crimes against civilians. According to historian Hua-ling Hu, who edited the Journal of Studies of Japanese Aggression Against China and is now a professor at the University of Colorado, during the three months after the Japanese took over the Chinese capital of Nanking in late 1937 at least 300,000 Chinese civilians were killed.

What happened was told in graphic detail by Iris Chang in her 1997 book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II and shown just as vividly in the vintage news photos collected in The Rape of Nanking: An Undeniable History in Photographs, another 1997 book by Shi Young, James Yin, and Chicagoan Ron Dorfman. But before these books were published, the massacre–surely one of the most gruesome in a war filled with unspeakable acts–was barely mentioned in history books. Hu says she heard about it from her mother, who had relatives in Nanking, but there were only a couple of short sentences about it in the textbooks she read when she was growing up in Taiwan. For a long time, she says, the governments on both the mainland and in Taiwan discouraged scholars from investigating the matter. “They needed Japan economically and politically,” she says.

Hu started researching the massacre in the early 90s, and to her surprise discovered an American connection–a missionary from Illinois, Minnie Vautrin, who’d saved an estimated 13,000 lives. Vautrin’s heroic efforts were cited in both Chang’s and Young’s books, but neither writer knew much about her. Hu read over Vautrin’s diaries and letters, which were in a Yale University archive, read memoirs from the time, and interviewed Vautrin’s niece, then stitched together a biography, American Goddess at the Rape of Nanking, which was published two years ago.

Hu was in town last weekend for the opening of Margaret Waterstreet’s play The Rape of Nanking: According to Minnie, which is based in part on Chang’s and Hu’s books. As Hu tells the story, in 1912 the 26-year-old Vautrin boarded a ship for China, where she was being sent by the Foreign Christian Missionary Society to teach the poor. A native of Secor, a small town 130 miles southwest of Chicago, she’d grown up poor, the daughter of a religious Methodist blacksmith. Education–at Illinois State University and then the University of Illinois–allowed her to escape her rural community; the church gave her a vocation.

Hu says it wasn’t unusual for unmarried women at the turn of the 20th century to pursue missionary causes. “Teaching was the only profession for women, and that was what missionaries did,” she says. “For these spinsters, there was a certain glamour in going to pagan lands to help out.”

Once in China, which was undergoing a tumultuous transition from imperial rule to republican regime, Vautrin was assigned to establish a high school in the capital of a backward province–the sort of initiative that appealed to a new government keen on westernizing. After six years she took a yearlong furlough to study at Columbia University. Already swept up in the missionary movement, she now made educating young Chinese women her goal. When she returned to China she was sent to Nanking to serve as acting president and then dean of Ginling College, an all-girls school founded in 1915 by various churches and Smith College.

For the next 18 years Vautrin led an uneventful life, recruiting students and preaching Christian virtues. She may have thought about marriage–there are references in colleagues’ correspondence to an engagement to another missionary who went back to the States–but she didn’t mention it, or anything else about her emotional life, in her diaries until much later.

“Minnie was in her element,” says Hu. “Rare for a foreigner and woman, she earned the love and trust of her staff and Chinese citizens. She was not condescending toward them, as many missionaries, especially British, tended to be. She hobnobbed with diplomats and officials, she knew Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her power-broker sisters. What I’m most impressed with is that she had a special empathy for the ordinary folks, perhaps identifying with their humble background. She also found Chinese women too submissive and insisted that her students carry themselves with dignity.”

It was this empathy and her intense attachment to the college, says Hu, that compelled Vautrin to stay behind in 1937 when the Japanese army was about to storm the gates of Nanking. “Most non-Chinese had evacuated,” Hu says, “but Minnie and about 20 other foreigners, all men, decided to create an international safety zone of about two and a half square miles that would be shielded from Japanese soldiers. They figured that the Japanese wouldn’t dare to harm foreign nationals and those under their protection.”

The Japanese army seized Nanking on December 13. They slaughtered any Chinese foot soldiers they found, but they also went after civilians, gang-raping women of all ages, decapitating men and then using their severed heads for bayonet drills. They commanded an entire family to dig a mass grave, then buried the family members alive. The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and Chinese newspapers all ran eyewitness accounts and photos. According to one particularly poignant story, two girls were found clinging to the corpse of their mother, who’d been raped and killed weeks before.

Many people have speculated about why the Japanese conscripts were so brutal. Dorfman thinks that anger at the unexpectedly stiff Chinese resistance, frustration at having captured the capital only to find its high officials had fled, and a mixture of awe and contempt for Chinese civilization all played a role. Hu thinks the reason was simpler. “The soldiers committed the crimes systematically because of orders from higher up to rape, burn, and kill all,” she says.

Vautrin heard about the atrocities and might have witnessed some. She turned Ginling College, which was in the safety zone, into a sanctuary. A flood of refugees sought shelter there, and she welcomed most of them, defying the Japanese officers who constantly checked for Chinese soldiers in disguise.

The Japanese occupation was hard on Vautrin. She had temper tantrums, she complained that too many things needed her attention, she felt guilty about lives she couldn’t save. “She was in her 50s by then,” Hu says. “She had menopausal problems that weren’t treated, which contributed to her suicidal mood.”

In early 1940 Vautrin had a nervous breakdown and was escorted by two colleagues back to America against her will. She tried to jump ship three times, says Hu. She wound up in Indianapolis, where she underwent shock therapy while staying with a friend from the missionary society. A year after her return, in May 1941, she turned on the gas in the apartment and killed herself.

“The Japanese still deny the Rape of Nanking,” says Hu. “When Minnie’s biography came out a Japanese politician, who’s now the mayor of Tokyo, went on American TV and said that Nanking was a total fabrication by Chinese intellectuals who want to tarnish Japan.”