A Day That Will Live In Infamy…as long as we remember it.
Posted by Euroranger on December 7, 2009
Today is December 7, 2009.
Sixty-eight years have passed since the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor by the Japanese launching us into World War II. The conflict has been immortalized in countless movies and books, scrutinized by legions of historians and been sanitized and somewhat caricatured as the backdrop for several video games for today’s children. Most folks have a pretty heavily summarized perception of the war and don’t realize how little their notions about the war today differ from the way it was lived by those engaged in it at the time. History has an odd way of doing that: glossing over the details to put a perfunctorily succinct homogenized face on an incredibly deep and complex subject. I guess it helps teachers in grade schools. Anyway, one of the more interesting things about World War 2 is to realize just how global the war truly was. Combat occurred on every continent (even in the waters around Antartica) and as is often the case with lots of players, some truly weird things happened during WW2. As has been my habit for the past few years on a forum I like to frequent, I’d like to introduce you to an odd, little-known incident about WW2 in remembrance today of the greater conflict and noble goals as well as the individual human stories that make up the total history of the war. To that end, let me introduce you to this German soldier captured on June 6, 1944, during D-Day, and hear the interesting story of how he is, quite possibly, the luckiest man of World War 2.
Most people “know” that WW2 started with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. What somewhat less people know is that the war really started back in 1931 with Japan’s aggressions against China. Japan had a small landhold of the islands of Japan (including Sakhalin island, today held by Russia) as well as a few islands like Okinawa and Iwo Jima…and, since 1910, Korea. Koreans by and large regard the history of Japan in Korea as a Japanese occupation. First a protectorate in 1905, then annexed in 1910, the entire episode of how Japan came to be owner of Korea is in itself an interesting bit of history. However, for the purposes of this post you just need to know that Koreans detested the Japanese by and large and considered the Japanese to be occupiers in their previously autonomous Korean empire. Japanese occupation of Korea wasn’t all that pleasant with the Japanese regarding the indigenous Koreans as subhuman and somewhat less worthy than Japanese citizens. However, as the years progressed, Japan was not content with their Japanese/Korean empire: they wanted more and they cast their eyes westward to China and adjoining Manchuria to satisfy their territorial desires. Japan went to war with China in 1931, took over Manchuria and set up a puppet, pro-Japanese government and warred with China again in 1937 in a bid to take over the entirety of the country. China, however, was simply too big for Japan to take on despite their overwhelming edge in weapons and tactics. China simply had too many people and was too big. So, starting in 1938, Japan started conscripting Koreans into the ranks of the Japanese army as Korean “volunteer” units mostly into the Japanese 6th Army. The bulk of the Japanese military from 1937 on was engaged further south around Beijing and Shanghai but the 6th Army was left to keep an eye on the Mongolian and Soviet units on their northern border. The Soviets in particular had possible designs on the mineral wealth to be found in Manchuria and Japan and Russia had fought a war in 1905 (that Russia lost)…so there was no love lost between them. Anyway, Japan and the Soviet Union fought a series of battles in 1937 and 1938 that culminated in the Battle of Khalkin Ghol which turned out to be a total defeat of the Japanese 6th army by a little known Soviet commander named Georgy Zhukov.
One of the results of the battle was that despite almost entirely obliterating the Japanese, the Soviets captured a fair number of conscripted Koreans (around 1000). While these soldiers were imprisoned in gulags along with their captured Japanese counterparts, in early 1942 the Soviets made a curious decision: release the captured Korean prisoners from the POW camps and conscript them into the Soviet army. The Soviets had lost entire armies in the 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union and were desperate for men. They figured forcibly conscripted soldiers from an ally of their enemy would fight for them so they impressed them into Soviet Far East units and moved them west to face the Germans. Around 200 of these formerly Korean-Japanese now Korean-Soviet soldiers met the Wehrmacht at the Battle of Kharkov in the Ukraine in summer 1943…and were defeated with some captured by the Germans. What most common histories of WW2 seem to leave out is that unlike pretty much everyone else, the German army was comprised of soldiers from many countries in addition to Germany. There were French, Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and other nationalities organized into units in the German armed forces (mostly the army but sometimes the air force and even the SS) and they fought for Germany. The Germans captured around 100 of these Russian prisoners (not knowing they were actually formerly Japanese and actually Koreans) and allowed them to choose between a German POW camp (notoriously bad for former Soviet soldiers) and joining a German “Ost” battalion (the German word for “east”). Around 80 joined and were rolled into the ranks of one of the two Ostbattalions of the Wehrmacht’s 709th Static Infantry Division. The 709th’s area of responsibility from December 1943 on was the area around a small town called Vierville in Normandy, northern France. Mostly used as construction battalions for Hitler’s Atlantic Wall, Ostbattalions were also armed and formed the garrisons of many static defensive points in northern France.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, members of E Company of the U.S. 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped into and around Vierville and fought for several days with units attached to the German 709th Infantry Division and, once again, despite heavy casualties, four Koreans were captured and marched down to Utah beach. The photograph at the top was taken as one 24 year old Kyoungjong Yang was being processed as a German POW by the Americans there on the beach. He was subsequently ferried across the channel to England where he sat out the remainder of the war in an English POW camp. Pretty lucky guy right? Born in 1920 in northwest Korea under Japanese occupation, forced to fight for the Japanese against the Russians and survives the annihilation of his unit to be captured by the Russians and put into a gulag from which later emergence is, in itself, a minor miracle. Re-conscripted into the Red Army and forced to fight the Germans at Kharkov where he again manages to survive the German decimation of the Red Army only to be captured again and re-conscripted to fight for the Nazis. Finding himself in Normandy on D-Day fighting American paratroops in a brutal hedgerow fight Yang is again captured (and for a wonder, not re-conscripted to fight for the Americans) and manages to finally land safely, unwounded and unhurt in an English POW camp. You’d think that would make him the luckiest guy in WW2, right?
Nope, just one of the luckier ones. What happened next makes him the luckiest.
As if being forcibly conscripted into THREE armies wasn’t enough. As if being in THREE major battles wasn’t enough. As if being on the losing side in those THREE battles and being captured alive and unhurt wasn’t enough. After the war ends in May, 1945 prisoners are freed from POW camps to return to their country of origin…in Mr. Yang’s case though that means the Soviet Union (because in May, 1945 the Japanese are still fighting). Ostbattalion soldiers were almost entirely repatriated to their countries of origin and Mr. Yang would have been sent to the Soviet Union. Problem is, almost all Ostbatallion members repatriated to the Sovet Union end up in gulags to be tortured, interrogated and eventually executed (Stalin had a hate on for folks who surrendered and then fought for the Nazis for some reason). The four Koreans captured during D-Day? Three of them were returned to the Soviet Union never to be seen again, almost certainly executed for “treason”. Somehow, Yang escapes this fate through some bureaucratic mixup and in 1947 moves and settles in America. He lived near Northwestern University in Illinois until he died on April 7, 1992. He lived as an ordinary US citizen without ever telling his unbelievable life story even to his two sons and one daughter. His story only came to light after his death when his family tried to compile an accurate obituary and contacted the appropriate authorities about his service during the war.
One guy, 8 years, 3 armies, multiple battles, multiple captures, dodges the Stalin “welcome home” bullet…and his story was unknown until 1992. One guy…out of 75,000 at Khalkin Ghol and of the 1000 taken prisoner in 1938 by the Soviets. And he ends up living quietly in America as a productive citizen. All big historic events are made up of smaller individual stories and the tragedy of history is that those stories get lost over time. From Korea to China to Siberia to Ukraine to France to England and finally to America, the story of Kyoungjong Yang is one that ought to be remembered. He wasn’t a hero, he wasn’t a war criminal, he wasn’t a politician nor even a general. He was just a guy. Just like all the millions of men back then who are the ever-shrinking pool of aged veterans they are today.
People worth remembering on a day like today.
My name is Euroranger and I approved this message.