The Long Road Home: China’s Rehabilitated War Veterans

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Chinese soldiers march down a road in northern Burma on their way to engage in battle with Japanese forces in the Naga hills in 1943.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, when Chinese families traditionally gather, He Shaocong finally returned home from the war — World War II, that is. He had been away from his hometown of Yibin in China’s central Sichuan province for a lifetime, since he was abducted by a press gang at age 17 and forced into service for Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang army. He played a part in one of China’s greatest victories, ousting Japanese forces from southwestern China to establish a supply link to India known as the Burma Road. But after the war, He and many of his comrades were separated from their families by China’s civil war, then by decades of internal chaos and repression.

Now, as the contributions of Kuomintang veterans are being recognized, volunteers are helping old soldiers like He return home. It is an experience of pride tempered by loss, of discovering that the world left behind has changed beyond all recognition. He had spent the intervening years hunkering down in Tengchong, a city in Yunnan province, on the Burmese border. “I hadn’t been back [to Yibin] in over 70 years,” says He, 89. “I felt so sad. All the people I knew were dead.”

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It’s estimated that there are a few hundred veterans of the Burma campaign still alive in Yunnan and a few dozen still in Burma itself. The chance for them to openly return to their hometowns is the result of a major shift in how China views World War II and the veterans who served in it. The contribution of Kuomintang soldiers to the struggle against the Japanese was ignored during the Mao Zedong era and even caused them to be targeted during the Cultural Revolution and other political campaigns. But after Mao’s death in 1976, China began to re-examine the anti-Japanese struggle. The earlier narrative — of valiant communist resistance — began to develop greater complexity as China began to recognize that Kuomintang troops also contributed to combatting the invaders.

In the long, sad tale of Chinese humiliation and defeat at the hands of the Japanese, the exploits of Kuomintang troops represent a notable success. In 1942, the Japanese invaded Burma, then a British colony, kicking out the British forces and the Chinese troops sent by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. U.S. General Joseph Stilwell believed the Chinese forces could match the Japanese if they were given sufficient food and training, and he persuaded Chiang to allow American instructors to train Chinese troops in India and Yunnan for a counterattack.

In late 1943, three Chinese divisions — the X Force — entered northern Burma from India. After long delays, the Yunnan-based Y Force entered the campaign in May 1944. As the Y Force moved south, they encountered Japanese forces dug into mountains north of Tengchong. They spent months clearing Mount Gaoligong and Mount Song, the highest-altitude fighting in Asia during the war. “It was summer, so we were in shorts and shirts, but there was still snow and ice,” says He. “Many died from the snow and cold.” The fighting was brutal. Chinese dead there, and in the battle to take the nearby village of Longling, totaled 37,133, compared with 13,620 Japanese. But they succeed in ousting the Japanese Imperial Army.

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After further bitter fighting, allied Chinese, Indian, British and American forces reopened the Burma Road in January 1945. But the Japanese surrender later that year did not mean the end of hostilities in China. Rather the nationalists and the communists, who had merely scaled down their conflict during the Japanese invasion, resumed full-scale civil war. Many of the Burma campaign vets rejected the prospect of further fighting — especially against fellow Chinese. “I heard the civil war was starting, but I wasn’t willing to go fight,” says Li Gaocai, 88, a Y Force veteran from Sichuan. “So to avoid that, I lived in the mountains all the way up until after 1949.”

Many of the Kuomintang veterans stayed in Yunnan and took up farming. “I didn’t have any money, and at that time there were few roads or cars,” says Zhang Tiliu, 85, an X Force veteran from Sichuan. “It took me four months to walk to Yunnan, and it would have taken me four months to walk back.” Some of the former soldiers kept in touch with family through occasional letters, but that channel of communication ended in the late 1950s, when Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a disastrous collectivization effort that saw as many as 30 million famine-related deaths. “In 1958 my father wrote me a letter that said they were in real trouble, and if I had any money or food I should send it,” says Zhang. “I came up with food coupons for 100 lb. [of grain], which I sent. It was my only chance in this lifetime to show filial piety to my father. After that, our lines of communication were severed. I tried to think of every way to contact them, but we never got back in touch.”

In Yunnan, the vets avoided the worst of the famines that devastated central provinces like Sichuan. But they could not escape the violent political campaigns. During the 1966–76 Cultural Revolution, the former Kuomintang soldiers found themselves targeted. Many cut off all ties with family, says Sun Chunlong, a former journalist who now runs an NGO helping old soldiers. “They wouldn’t dare acknowledge their own identity,” Sun says. “They wouldn’t write letters home because it would cause a lot of problems for their families, particularly during the Cultural Revolution. That had a big influence on their decisions not to go back.” In Tengchong, Red Guards ransacked a war cemetery and destroyed about half of the 5,000 to 6,000 tombs of Kuomintang soldiers who died in the Burma campaign. “People mocked and criticized us,” says Zhang. “They said we were a bandit army that did nothing to fight the Japanese.”

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With Mao’s death, the sacrifices of the Kuomintang troops started to become an acceptable topic of historical discussion. Part of this discourse, especially in the 1980s, was meant to woo the Kuomintang leadership in Taiwan. But the reconsideration of China’s wartime struggle took on another objective — to stimulate Chinese nationalism, particularly among young people, which Deng Xiaoping made a priority after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising. “The eight years of war with Japan has been rediscovered as a heroic struggle of a unified Chinese people against foreign aggression,” says Parks M. Coble, a professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. “Unlike other traumas of the 20th century, such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, the villains in World War II are not Chinese.”

Sun, the former reporter who now works with Chinese vets, says that growing up in the 1960s and ’70s he learned little about their wartime efforts. In 2005 he traveled to Burma to report on the drug trade. (In 1949 some 12,000 Kuomintang troops fled Yunnan during the final days of the Chinese civil war. Those armies — separate from the World War II–era X and Y Forces — have been linked with drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle.) There he discovered an old soldier who told him about the Chinese World War II veterans who had stayed behind. He decided their case was more compelling than his work as a journalist. So he quit his job to help them full time.

Sun and other volunteers have identified 24 surviving veterans in Burma and suspect there are more in parts of the country’s remote northeast, like Kachin state. In Yunnan there are about 500. The volunteers solicit donations for poorer vets and help those who have never been home to track down surviving relatives and arrange return visits. “There’s a saying in China: ‘Return home in glory.’ We all want to return home in splendor, with a lot of money and a good life. But for these old men, there’s no way they can do that. They can’t go back, because they fear if they do, people will look down on them,” says Sun. “After so much time, they’ve been forgotten. And for so long, they wouldn’t dare return. When they finally could return home, when the political obstacles were no longer there, they didn’t have any money. They were physically unwell. So it was even harder.”

The volunteers work with local governments to arrange ceremonial welcomes for returning veterans, including an honor guard from local battalions of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force. “The truth is, we owe these old soldiers,” Sun says. “No matter who you are, you are in their debt. For the country, for the people, they sacrificed their own lives. They sacrificed themselves, and since then have lived in very difficult conditions.” For their part, the surviving World War II veterans welcome this newfound recognition of their sacrifices. “Now that the difficult periods are over, our neighbors all recognize our contributions,” says Zhang. “They help us out when we have problems.” Just a few days previous, some volunteers went to give him some new bedding. “I was very moved,” he says.

— With reporting by Jessie Jiang

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