China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - By ZHAOXU zhaoxu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

Ed­i­tor’s note: Al­most 85 years ago, the Ja­panese army engi­neered the Septem­ber 18th In­ci­dent near Shenyang, Liaon­ing prov­ince, and launched an in­va­sion of North­east China. This was fol­lowed by a full-scale in­va­sion, trig­ger­ing the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45). Three vet­er­ans of the war, with a com­bined age of more than 300 years, spoke to our reporter and re­counted what it was like to take up arms against the in­vaders.

Zhang Daqian has had a re­mark­able life, not the least in its longevity. He is a car­pen­ter who ex­pe­ri­enced the hor­rors of war, sur­vived, and now, at more than a cen­tury old, the 102-year-old re­flects on a life rich in ex­pe­ri­ence be­yond the imag­i­na­tion of many.

Work­ing with wood, he said, re­quired a cal­cu­lated approach, whether shav­ing or craft­ing the piece, be­ing care­ful not to waste any and know­ing when to stop. “But none of these ‘cal­cu­la­tions’ com­pare to the one I made decades ago, on the bat­tle­field in Shanxi, in north­ern China,” he said.

That was in 1943, six years into China’s War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion (1937-45). Zhang, an ar­tillerist, in fact the only ar­tillery spe­cial­ist in his squad in China’s Na­tion­al­ist Army, found him­self face to face with an en­emy sol­dier.

“This may sound sur­real to­day, but it was just him and me. We were sep­a­rated by about 100 me­ters — both armies had been dis­persed by all the fight­ing, I sup­pose. I had a gun, with one bul­let left. And from where I stood, be­hind some low earth­works, I could clearly see that he was also hold­ing a gun.”

Zhang had to think quickly— his life de­pended on it.

“We stared at each other for a few sec­onds. Then I told my­self, ‘Don’t panic. He has only one bul­let.’ How did I know? Be­cause if he had two, he would have shot me,” he said. “I took off my mil­i­tary cap, put it on a stick, which I thrust sky­ward.”

The Ja­panese sol­dier, prob­a­bly too ner­vous to see and think clearly, fired. The bul­let hit the cap. “I guess he thought the cap was me. It took him two sec­onds to re­al­ize his mis­take,” Zhang said. “And off he fled. I didn’t fire.”

These days, with both his wife and only son hav­ing passed away, Zhang is liv­ing a quiet, if not lonely, ex­is­tence in Pingding­shan, He­nan prov­ince. Still ag­ile, he cooks for

him­self, some­thing un­think­able for most peo­ple his age. From time to time, his nephew, Zhao Jian­guo, vis­its. “My un­cle doesn’t even re­mem­ber the num­ber of times bombs and shells ex­ploded near him,” Zhao said.

Zhao told of one par­tic­u­lar mo­ment when his un­cle’s life hung in the balance.

Zhang and his squad were overwhelmed by the en­emy, Zhao said.

“When the fight­ing ended, a team of Ja­panese sol­diers came to in­spect the bat­tle­ground. My un­cle, too fee­ble to run, hid him­self un­der the body of a fel­low Chi­nese sol­dier,” he said. “He was ly­ing there, im­mo­bile. Then all of a sud­den, a bay­o­net went through the dead body on top be­fore stab­bing my un­cle in his right leg.”

The pain was over­whelm­ing, but Zhang re­mained still and did not ut­ter a sound. The Ja­panese sol­diers left, sure in their minds that all the Chi­nese sol­diers had been killed. Later, un­der cover of dark­ness, Zhang fled into the moun­tains and tried to stop the bleed­ing with his limited knowl­edge of Chi­nese herbal medicine. He sur­vived and later re­joined the army.

But then his luck ran out. He was cap­tured by the Ja­panese in Shanxi prov­ince and thrown into a la­bor camp in Hebei prov­ince about 200 kilo­me­ters away.

“My un­cle had been a car­pen­ter be­fore join­ing the army. So the Ja­panese asked him to make wooden bar­rels. But this type of car­pen­try he had lit­tle idea about,’’ Zhao said, adding that his un­cle never men­tions those days, as they are too painful to dis­cuss.

The only story the old man has shared with his nephew in­volved a failed es­cape at­tempt. “A small group of in­ternees — about 15 peo­ple — built an un­der­ground tun­nel that was about fourme­ters long and led di­rectly from the camp yard to the out­side,” Zhao­said. “It­took­them four en­tire months since they were only able to work dur­ing the change of guards that took place a few­times aday.”

On the eve of their planned es­cape, they were be­trayed.

“The traitor must have been among us,” said Zhang, who saw three of his fel­low in­ternees beaten to death dur­ing in­ter­ro­ga­tion.

For movie buffs with a keen in­ter­est in­WorldWar II his­tory, the hor­ror of such in­ter­ro­ga­tion could be glimpsed through the 2013 Bri­tish-Aus­tralian war film The Rail­way Man, star­ring Colin Firth as Eric Lo­max, a real-life Bri­tish of­fi­cer cap­tured by the Ja­panese in Sin­ga­pore dur­ing WWII and tor­tured at aPOW­camp for build­ing a ra­dio re­ceiver from spare parts.

World of dark­ness

At age 95, Song Yupu has also lived a life that, at times, saw him ex­posed to in­hu­mane treat­ment.

Join­ing the army in 1941, Song was cap­tured dur­ing a bat­tle in the sum­mer of 1942, when his 800mem­ber reg­i­ment was rounded up by 5,000 Ja­panese in Shan­dong prov­ince, east­ern China. “About 200 Chi­nese sol­diers died by the end of the fight­ing. The rest of us were cap­tured,” Song re­called. “I was put into a truck with about 40 other peo­ple, head­ing for a place un­known.”

At around mid­night, the truck stopped. “It was dark, and we waited un­til the next morn­ing, only to be driven into an­other world of dark­ness where we would re­main for all our wak­ing hours for the next fewyears.”

That was the un­der­ground world of the iron mines, deep in the moun­tains ofNorth­east­China’s Jilin prov­ince, oc­cu­pied by Ja­pan since 1931.

“Ev­ery morn­ing, we were driven into the tun­nels be­fore dawn, and were only able to re­turn long af­ter sun­down to our liv­ing quar­ters, where 30 men slept on the floor in one room,” Song said.

Cave-ins hap­pened quite of­ten, ac­cord­ing to Song. And when ill­ness struck, many of those over­worked, mal­nour­ished young men, mostly in their early 20s, were too weak to sur­vive. “Once so ro­bust, they broke like chop­sticks,” Song said. “Of all the peo­ple in that truck, only three even­tu­ally went out of the moun­tain alive.”

Song was one of them. And he did so by flee­ing the death­trap two years ahead of Ja­pan’s de­feat in WWII. “I tried twice— the first time­wasjust a few months af­ter my ar­rival at the mine. I ran into the moun­tains with a cou­ple of fel­low cap­tives, be­fore re­al­iz­ing that all roads down the steep slope had been blocked by the Ja­panese,” he said. “When night came and the bit­ter cold set in, we were left with two choices: to die in the wild or to re­turn to the­camp. We chose the sec­ond.”

For­tu­nately for them, the man who was di­rectly in charge of all the cap­tives was a Chi­nese who har­bored se­cret sym­pa­thies for the young men, so the pun­ish­ment handed out was not as se­vere as it might have been.

Song de­cided to make an­other es­cape at­tempt two years later, in 1943. “As la­bor­ers, we were al­lowed to write to our fam­i­lies. So I wrote a let­ter tomy par­ents back in Shan­dong ask­ing­whether they knewany­body from our vil­lage who had moved to Jilin in the pre­vi­ous years. It turned out that there was one,” he said.

Song’s par­ents wrote back, telling their son the ex­act ad­dress of his fel­low vil­lager in Jilin. Song im­me­di­ately wrote to that man, no­ti­fy­ing him of his com­ing. “I made no men­tion­ing of my life at the la­bor camp. And he as­sumed that I was a trav­el­ing busi­ness­man,” Song said. “Then one day, I fled— at that point, I knewmy sur­round­ings well enough that no turn­ing back was nec­es­sary.”

For two days solid Song walked un­til he stood right be­fore the door of his sav­ior, 100km­from the camp site. “I told him ev­ery­thing. He let me rest for a few days be­fore get­ting me a pass through his con­nec­tions,” Song said. “Then I took a train that took me tomy par­ents.”

Ja­pan of­fi­cially sur­ren­dered to China on Sept 9, 1945. Song, who had ex­pe­ri­enced toomuchto stay in his lit­tle vil­lage in Shan­dong, came to Beijing the fol­low­ing year. He be­came prop man­ager of the new­ly­founded Pek­ing Opera Com­pany, where he worked un­til re­tire­ment.

For the past 70 years, he has been liv­ing in his small court­yard home just a fewmin­utes’ walk away from Tian’an­men Square, the sym­bolic heart of the coun­try. He has prob­lems with his legs and he can barely walk. “I be­lieve the ori­gin of the pain lies in the days spent dig­ging iron ore in the dark, damp­tun­nels,” he said.

How­ever, Song said the scene that had seared the most in­deli­ble im­pres­sion on his mind was not one of suf­fer­ing, but one of loss.

“I still re­mem­ber the way our cap­tain fell dur­ing our last bat­tle, in the blind­ing sun­light of the day. He was hit by a bul­let,” Song said. “We were merely two me­ters from each other. In fact, I had never been that close to him be­fore that point — phys­i­cally and men­tally.”

In times of war, ques­tions of life and death can be al­most aca­demic. Death can ar­rive at any time andno plans can be made for life be­yond the bat­tle­field. Death is not some­thing to be scared of, but some­thing to be ac­cepted, said Dong Jimin, who, in­cred­i­bly in De­cem­ber this year will turn 112.

“Death was just an in­te­gral part of life that could come at any time, with or with­out an em­phatic note,” he said.

Lives cut short

Dong joined the Chi­nese re­sis­tance soon af­ter the Septem­ber 18th In­ci­dent. That day in 1931, Ja­panese mil­i­tary per­son­nel det­o­nated a small quan­tity of dy­na­mite close to a rail­way line owned by Ja­pan. The ex­plo­sion was so weak that it failed to de­stroy the track and a train passed over it just min­utes later. But the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army ac­cused the Chi­nese of caus­ing the blast and re­sponded with a full in­va­sion that led to the oc­cu­pa­tion of North­east China, then known asManchuria.

Decades later, on Sept 3 last year, when China held a grand mil­i­tary pa­rade to com­mem­o­rate the end of WWII, Dong watched the live TV broad­cast at home. His son, Dong Xiwu, will never for­get what hap­pened next.

“When the ve­hi­cle car­ry­ing vet­eran sol­diers came into view, my fa­ther propped him­self up on the back of a chair and saluted.”

For Song, ev­ery cer­e­mony serves as a re­minder of lives cut short in an in­stant and of young men never al­lowed to age.

“A young man, my fel­low in­mate at the la­bor camp, once talked to me about his plans to run away,” Song re­called. The man died in the mine af­ter part of it col­lapsed. “He said to me, ‘I have to get out of here — I’men­gaged’,” Song said.

Death was just an in­te­gral part of life that could come at any time, with or with­out an em­phatic note.” Dong Jimin, a vet­eran sol­dier in Beijing


Vet­eran sol­diers of the War of Re­sis­tance Against Ja­panese Ag­gres­sion at­tend a cer­e­mony to com­mem­o­rate the 83th an­niver­sary of the Septem­ber 18th In­ci­dent at the 9.18 His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum in Shenyang, Liaon­ing prov­ince, in 2014.


Pri­mary stu­dents visit a mu­seum ded­i­cated to the his­tory of North­east China un­der Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion in Changchun, Jilin prov­ince, on Sept 17, 2015.


Nearly 112, Dong Jimin joined the Chi­nese re­sis­tance soon af­ter the Septem­ber 18th In­ci­dent in 1931.

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