The story appears on

Page B1 , B6 , B7

January 20, 2012

GET this page in PDF

Free for subscribers

View shopping cart

Related News

Home » Feature

Bringing forgotten soldiers home

WE know about the famous Flying Tigers, Merrill's Marauders and the Burma Road but the valor of the Chinese Expeditionary Forces in Burma is far less known. Journalist Sun Chunlong tells Zha Minjie that he hopes to change that.

While the People's Liberation Army today is lauded for its glorious achievements, the 400,000 Chinese soldiers who fought the Japanese during World War II in the jungles of Burma, saving China's lifeline, have received little recognition.

They were known as the Chinese Expeditionary Force, actually several armies, which began in February 1942 to fight in the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater after the Japanese overran Burma (Myanmar today); they defended and counterattacked, fighting in numerous key battles with Allied Forces, including the battle of Myitkyina in August 1944.

Over the years, it's believed, around 100,000 of these soldiers in the Kuomintang (KMT) army died and perhaps another 100,000 were injured. Many were buried in unmarked graves. Many were left behind because of injuries and were unable to travel. Later, the turmoil of the Chinese Civil War made travel difficult. Some chose not to take part in the internal conflict that broke out after World War II and decided to remain in Burma and Southeast Asia.

The number unaccounted for is not known; very few are still alive. They are mostly forgotten.

One man, former journalist Sun Chunlong of Oriental Outlook magazine, has been reuniting old soldiers with their families in China for the past six years and trying to remind people of their honorable achievements in defense of their country.

He has reunited around 30 families, including one man who returned to his family in Shanghai a couple of years ago. Sun is considering expanding his work to other Southeast Asian countries and repatriating remains.

Sun, who lives in Shenzhen and runs a foundation for old soldiers, plans to write a history of forgotten soldiers. Shanghai Daily interviewed him by telephone.

"I'm afraid that some won't be able to make it through this winter," said 36-year-old Sun.

But one veteran, Liu Shirao, who lives in Thailand arrived in Guangxi Zhuang Antonymous Region yesterday for Spring Festival, after spending 70 years outside his homeland.

In Myanmar there are few survivors who have not returned to China for a brief visit or permanent reunion, Sun said. A number of them have returned to Myanmar, feeling rejected - not because they fought for the Nationalist Army - but because they did not return sooner to their homeland.

Bring soldiers home

Sun's mission began in June 2005 when he was in northern Myanmar near the Yunnan Province border to investigate the ban on growing opium poppies in the "Golden Triangle" of Southeast Asia.

One day after dinner, Sun encountered an old man dressed like a local, resting under a tree. He called out to Sun in Chinese and they started talking. The man said he used to be a KMT soldier and retreated to the "Golden Triangle" area after KMT was defeated in 1949.

"We too fought the Japanese," the man told Sun. "We did not fight for Chiang Kai-shek; we fought for our country. Do you think we were traitors? Who were all those men buried in the Martyrs' Cemetery in Yunnan?" he said in anger.

"Nothing I had learned prepared me to answer his questions," said Sun, "and I didn't know of the cemetery."

On the other hand, a great deal has been written about the China-Burma-India Theater, the Burma Road supply line to Kunming, which was cut by the Japanese; the alternate Ledo Road that was built, "Flying the Hump" over the Himalayas so that China was not cut off by the Japanese. There were many battles in the jungles of Burma, in which the Chinese Expeditionary Forces took part. The Japanese strategy was to completely cut off China and stop access through Burma.

A great deal was written by Barbara W. Tuchman in "Stilwell and the American Experience in China" (1971) in which the US commander praised the valiant Chinese soldiers but had no patience for Chiang Kai-shek and the corruption of his government.

In January 1942, Churchill said, "As a strategic object I regard keeping the Burma (Myanmar) Road open as more important than the retention of Singapore." If the defense failed, he said, it would be "very grievous. It would cut us off from the Chinese."

For journalist Sun, it was not until January 2008 that he visited Yunnan's Tengchong Cemetery, China's largest to memorialize China's expeditionary forces in World War II. When he saw the vast graveyard in the green mountains, he decided to make the history of the expeditionary forces better known, for the sake of his own generation and others to come.

Three months later in April, Sun began to locate and interview the remaining Chinese soldiers in Myanmar. Helped by local overseas Chinese, Sun met veteran Li Xiquan, a Hunan Province native, who later became the first man Sun helped to return home.

Li, then 88, had not set foot in his motherland for 64 years after he was seriously wounded in a counter-attack in Tengchong in 1944; he was sent to a British field hospital in Myitkyina. Li joined the army when he was just 17 years old; he had little training and was sent to Burma in 1943.

After he recovered, he stayed on in Myitkyina, changed his name, married a local woman and lived by selling matches. He has two sons and a daughter. He lives in a small wooden and bamboo house; he has not too much left at home.

"Do you want to go back?" asked Sun.

"No," Li answered, to Sun's astonishment. Li explained he had no money and said, "I'm too old go to back."

Money and travel permission were the issues. Sun asked Li for everything he could remember about his family and hometown and promised to help. Sun's article about Li's story - old soldier unable to go home - attracted many readers and led to information about Li's family in Hunan.

In May Sun successfully contacted Li's family; three of Li's six brothers had enlisted in the army. Li was the only one missing in action.

Next Sun needed funds, around 30,000 yuan (US$4,755 today) and legal travel documents. He sought sponsors and turned to the Internet. It took a long time but finally, a Hunan company decided to finance the reunion trip.

"I did not know what to tell the veteran while he waited," said Sun. "He must have been disappointed, thinking I was just talking big."

Meanwhile Sun talked with local police in Yunnan and used a lot of 'guanxi', or personal connections. He finally arranged for Li, who did not have a passport, to travel by train from Yunnan to Changsha, the capital city of Hunan.

At 5:45pm on October 19, 2008, Train K472 entered the Changsha station with Li onboard. On the platform, hundreds of people held banners saying, "Welcome home, Hero."

He had left behind the dense jungle, brutal battle, hand-to-hand combat, sickness and hunger. He remained in his hometown.

In his book "Myanmar Dang Kou Zhi" or "Extermination of Bandits in Myanmar," Sun Kegang recounts the struggles of soldiers like Li. Sun Kegang, nephew of General Sun Li-jen, followed his uncle's 38th division in 1942 and 1943.

"When troops struggled through the jungle, it was like the gates of hell," he wrote. "The sunshine was blocked by thick forest. All we could feel and see were a large python gliding among weeds and leeches falling off trees and onto the men ... There were no roads and the only road signs were piles of skeletons ... It's terrifying to step into this dead man's land."

He said his battalion had been surrounded for a month by the enemy five times their size. No Allied planes dropped food; all soldiers and officers had to eat the roots of banana trees.

General Sun once praised the foot soldiers as well as the better trained and equipped enemy, saying, "One Japanese can fight 10 British soldiers, five American soldiers, but only two and a half Chinese soldiers."

One of them must have been Liu Zhaohui, another veteran found and returned home to Sichuan Province with the help of Sun.

Hard life

Despite their heroism, most surviving veterans live in poverty and anonymity in Myanmar.

When Sun first spoke to Liu Zhaohui, then 86, he only had a tattered alien card for identity, not Myanmar citizenship recognized by China.

Living in Myanmar's Lashio border town, Liu had no telephone but kept up with China news by listening to an old radio, talking to other vets and a local overseas Chinese businessman.

Despite living 67 years near the Myanmar border with China and despite his poverty, Liu still longed for home.

Liu was injured in the fierce battle to recapture Tengchong, Yunnan, from the Japanese in 1944, just one year before the surrender. During his long hospitalization, Liu finally heard that the war was over. He had had enough of blood and sacrifice. He took off his uniform and stayed. He had five children from his two marriages.

Making a few hundred yuan a month, Liu wakes up at 5am every day and sells slippers in a suburban market in Lashio, which was bombed heavily.

With Sun's help, Liu and eight other veterans managed to cross the border in June 2009. He made it to his village in Sichuan.

A grandfather himself, Liu cried like a baby when he saw his brother-in-law back in his native village. Liu was traveling on a short, home-visit pass but he told Sun he wanted to go back for the rest of his life. In 2010 Sun and volunteers working with him got Liu a Chinese passport and he went home.

But he was not welcome to stay, he was mocked and told he "did not belong," said Sun. He went back to Myanmar last year.

Sun said one reason he wanted to help Chinese veterans of the expeditionary forces was that Americans and British seemed to talk more about their military history in the China-Burma-India Theater, while China didn't seem to give it the same weight - given its own mainland battles with the Japanese and its own Civil War. But they all fought the Japanese in the same war in Southeast Asia.

In her book, Tuchman says, "Chinese soldiers were not afraid of being killed in battle" despite their lack of "competent leadership."

The Chinese "had in large measure the good soldier's qualities of courage, stamina, willingness and an eye for the country, and their dominant characteristic was cheerfulness," she wrote. "Under conditions which would reduce Europeans to gloomy despair, smiles of pure joy break out constantly over the Chinese faces."

Americans have memorialized World War II, but the China-Burma-India Theater is generally less known, except for the Flying Tigers and the feats of the multinational special forces unit known as Merrill's Marauders in Burma, which became a book, film and TV series.

Veterans campaign

To coordinate his veterans campaign, last year Sun quit his job at Oriental Outlook, where he had worked for more than 10 years.

All his work is volunteer; he is unpaid. He cofounded the Long Yue Charitable Foundation in Shenzhen, mainly supported by a business, to help veterans get back together with their families.

Sun and the foundation are trying to help returning vets by giving each 3,600 yuan in living expenses a year.

"As a journalist, I should tell the truth for fairness and justice," said Sun who investigated and exposed the collusion between government officials and coal tycoons to cover up a fatal accident and illegal brick-making sweatshops in Shanxi Province several years ago.

Instead of an observer and recorder, Sun wants to do more as a nonprofit social worker. "When we help the soldiers, it's us who feel warm inside," he said, adding that his work with veterans will "make the weak stronger and the country better."

Sun also plans to bring back the remains of soldiers buried in overgrown old cemeteries in Myanmar.

Ge Shuya, a 58-year-old non-academic historian on the fighting in Burma, has carried out research with Sun at cemeteries in places like Myitkyina.

"Many tombs have been damaged," said Ge, referring to the estimated 100,000 Chinese soldiers buried in Myanmar. The Japanese, on the other hand, did a good job protecting and preserving their soldiers' cemeteries and repatriating remains, Ge said.

Last September, the first batch of 19 Chinese soldiers' remains were returned to China for burial and the government has relaxed its once-strict limits on reunion campaigns.

Sun is now working with the historians to write the lost history of Chinese Expeditionary Forces.

The question asked most frequently by veterans still in Myanmar and other countries is "Were we wrong?" Sun said.

True, it was hard to return after the war and the post-war. "We did not die, but we live in pain," veteran Yang Jianda told Sun.

Quite a few soldiers chose not to be reunited and quite a few who were reunited, later returned to Myanmar.

In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of the victory over Japan, the Chinese government issued the bronze Chinese Expeditionary Force Memorial Medal. It was given to survivors of the China-Burma-India Theater - including those outside China.


Copyright © 1999- Shanghai Daily. All rights reserved.Preferably viewed with Internet Explorer 8 or newer browsers.

沪公网安备 31010602000204号

Email this to your friend