Pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy.
Twists of fate lead to other twists of fate.
Here is the story of a man who experienced some big ones. A pawn in a giant game whose rules he barely understood, he wound up serving in three armies and two wars in two continents. And was a prisoner of war (POW) in three countries.
Yang Kyoungjong (surname: Yang) was born in Korea on 3/3/1920, about 10 years after Japan incorporated Korea into its Empire. This made him a Japanese national. Ethnic Koreans like him were denied all the privileges of Japanese nationals from Japan while incurring all the obligations of Japanese nationals. He was drafted into Japan’s permanent military garrison in northeastern China (“The Kwangtung Army”).
Our story opens here in 1938.
Japan had grandiose plans for enlarging its empire by seizing Mongolia and a big chunk of Siberia. This would be easy for two reasons:
Manchuria – ostensibly the independent nation of Manchukuo – was Tokyo’s obedient puppet state in northeastern China, providing The Kwangtung Army with the perfect base for a war of conquest.
Secondly, despite the Soviet Armed Forces (the Red Army) and its obedient puppet state – Mongolia – looming large, the Red Army was reportedly in tatters. The Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s paranoia about traitors in every closet and spies under every bed saw scores of top Red Army generals arrested, tortured then executed.
Japanese intelligence officers noted with satisfaction that the Soviets’ leading tank warfare specialist was among the first to disappear. The Red Army’s morale, they reported to Tokyo, couldn’t be lower.
Smashing the Red Army would be a cinch.
Not so fast! said the Japanese Navy. The admirals saw the acquisition of sub-Arctic tundra as a monumental waste of effort. (Not to mention this was all the Army’s idea, thereby depriving the Navy of glory.) But the Army had the Emperor’s ear, and he approved the generals’ plan.
Meanwhile, Yang and his fellow Kwangtung Army troops geared up for what was supposed to be a brief and glorious invasion. But the Soviets inflicted a stinging defeat. Japan’s generals searched for someone else to blame, the admirals said We told you so and the Emperor now transferred his attention to the Navy’s idea: seizing America’s and Europe’s Asian-Pacific territories.
All this meant nothing to Yang, who – with 3,000 other Japanese and Manchurian soldiers – was now a prisoner of war in the Soviet Union.
Back home, Yang’s family received notification he’d been killed in action. Japanese tradition required its troops to commit suicide rather than fall into captivity. To spare their loved ones the shame of having a POW in the family, Yang and the others were declared dead, case closed. (For the Army they were as good as dead anyway.)
He languished in the Soviet Union, learning the debased Russian vocabulary of the prison camps, never knowing if he’d see another day, never knowing what fate awaited him. Then geopolitics intervened.
In June 1941 Hitler and his Axis allies (Croatia, Hungary, Italy and Romania) invaded the Soviet Union.
They caught the Soviets with their pants down, taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Only the U.S.S.R.’s vast distances and the brutal winter of 1941-42 saved Moscow itself from capture.
The Soviet dictator, Josef Stalin, ordered all Red Army units Hold firm! Fight to the last man! Surrender was forbidden. But hopelessly cornered Red Army troops facing certain death surrendered in droves.
The Soviet manpower situation became critical. Stalin now looked to the prison camps (the gulag) in Siberia and Arctic Russia. In 1942 he released most political prisoners plus the POWs from Manchuria. The idea was: put a little meat on their bones, give them rudimentary training and pitch them straight into battle. That should buy us some time, Stalin thought.
It bought Yang about a year. But in early 1943 the Wehrmacht captured him at Kharkov. He was now in a German prison camp.
Prison camp was a generous term. Stalin’s regime spurned all international agreements on the treatment of POWs, so Germany had no legal obligation to provide its Soviet captives with adequate food, shelter or medical care. Most of them huddled in barbed wire enclosures, left to freeze and starve, sleeping in piss puddles, surrounded by putrefaction and despair.
Some were used in ghoulish medical experiments. Some wound up as slave workers as far away as Norway and the Channel Islands. And a surprising number were either forced into the Wehrmacht (the German armed forces) or enthusiastically volunteered to fight against Stalin.
Nazi ideology permitted the concept of Honorary Aryan: “racially acceptable” non-Europeans, like the Japanese and northern Indians. There’d be no objection to them serving in German uniforms (whether they wished to or not). Nazi racial experts toured the camps, selecting Soviet POWs to replenish the Wehrmacht‘s numbers after its heavy losses.
The coerced ones joined the eager volunteers trudging out of the piss puddles, stepping over the corpses, getting deloused, receiving actual food and putting on German uniforms. They joined Ost-bataillone (Eastern battalions): Wehrmacht units under German command but comprising troops from the Soviet Union’s non-Slavic populations. (Later, as we’ll see, the Slavs’ official sub-human status was conveniently forgotten and any Russian/Slavic POW or defector wanting to fight Stalin could join in.)
The keen Estonians and Latvians were high up the racial totem pole, and the Caucasians (Armenians, Georgians and so on) were also good to go. So were the Central Asians (Kazakhs, Tajiks, Uzbeks…).
Yang made the cut as an Honorary Aryan. We’ll never know whether some racial expert simply liked the look of him or whether Yang somehow managed to convey to his captors that he was Japanese (his Korean ethnicity being irrelevant here). Whatever the case, in 1943 Yang Kyoungjong, formerly of the Imperial Japanese Army and the Red Army, became a private in the Wehrmacht‘s 709th Infantrie-Division. That was a static division – it had precious few motor vehicles and many of its troops were of inferior quality.
Next stop, France.
What went through the Korean’s mind as he was shunted across Europe to Normandy to be pitted against the enemy of his former enemy’s enemy?
He was still alive and in one piece, despite numerous chances to become neither. One spring day in 1944 he climbed off a horse-drawn wagon at the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass from where he’d started. He felt the salty tang of the wind from the English Channel as he joined his new Wehrmacht buddies in a division charged with repelling the expected Anglo-American invasion.
The 709th Division had its fair share of ex-Red Army soldiers: mainly Slavs and Georgians. Their combat effectiveness wasn’t expected to be high and their willingness to lay down their lives for Hitler was minimal. So, when the invasion came, the U.S. paratroopers assigned to that area easily overwhelmed Yang’s unit.
We don’t know exactly how Yang’s third capture happened, but we know he was luckier than some. Many of his fellow soldiers met a grizzly end, as the movie Saving Private Ryan depicted. In an early scene the Americans take heavy casualties on the beach then fight their way a little inland, encountering a German bunker complex. Two Wehrmacht guys emerge with their hands in the air, shouting something the Americans can’t understand. With the noise of battle and the fog of war they might as well have spoken Tamil. The Americans shoot them anyway.
The G.I.’s guarding Yang and his fellow-prisoners saw four East-Asian-looking men among them and discovered one of them was “Japanese” (Yaponskiy). They immediately assumed all four were Japanese. The guards sent word to their superiors who sent word to their superiors who sent word to Washington D.C. There are Japanese troops fighting for Hitler in France! We have the proof right here!
Questions immediately arose. How was this even possible? They couldn’t cross the Japan Sea to the U.S.S.R. and travel overland to France. Did they somehow cross the Pacific, traverse South America and cross the Atlantic to Europe? But why go to such trouble? And are there enough Japanese troops in Europe to tip the balance?
Even in 1944 the Anglo-Americans had little idea that the Wehrmacht included hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviets of many ethnicities. When the Western Allies encountered almond-shaped eyes and high cheekbones they immediately saw “Japanese”. Only later, as Germany collapsed and masses of prisoners fell into Allied hands, did the reality hit. But the NKVD (the KGB’s predecessor) already knew about all this.
The practice of POWs switching sides was hardly new. During the American Civil War some 5,000 Confederate prisoners joined the Union Army and about 1,600 Union POWs switched to the Confederate Army. And thousands of Czech and Slovak prisoners defected from the Austro-Hungarian Army to the Russians in World War One.
The scale here was massive. As early as 1942 NKVD officers saw ample evidence of Soviet troops defecting en masse to the Germans. They learned not only of POWs voluntarily switching sides, but soldiers on active duty. Whole units defected without even waiting to be captured. Not only troops from ethnic minorities, but actual sons of Russia. Not only ordinary Russian soldiers but officers too. Military academy graduates! Not only academy graduates – and this made the sweat trickle down the investigators’ backs – but actual Communist Party members. The Soviet elite! Holy Mother of God! the NKVD officers whispered under their breath as they two-finger-typed their reports to Moscow.
Comrades, let’s not kid ourselves, these reports said (although in more conventional words). We can understand – but never forgive! – Ukrainians acting on anti-Soviet impulses after the harsh treatment – harsh but totally justified, comrades! – they received during the agricultural collectivization campaigns before the war. And we can understand – but never forgive! – the Central Asians’ resentment at the Soviet government’s completely justified suppression of their Islamic practices.
As for the Armenians and Chechens, well, comrades, who can trust those people?
And so on. The revelation that Homo Sovieticus would so eagerly betray both the motherland and communism shocked Stalin. Never one for half-measures, he ordered 25-year Siberian prison camp sentences for every Soviet POW returning to the U.S.S.R. – whether he’d actually joined the German war effort or not.
But it got worse.
General Vlasov survived Stalin’s mass arrests in 1938. By 1942 he was a highly decorated hero, the Soviet medias golden boy. But that summer Vlasov’s forces – undermanned and undersupplied, unable to advance but forbidden to withdraw – were hung out to dry. He was captured on July 12, readily betrayed to the Germans by a local farmer.
Vlasov later claimed this senseless waste of lives turned him against Stalin and the Soviet system. In the prison camp he approached the Germans with a seemingly outlandish offer: he wished to recruit POWs of Russian ethnicity and train them as an army to fight side-by-side with the Germans against the Red Army.
Russians will fight with passion against the Communist beast, he told anyone who’d listen. And I, Andrey Andreyevich Vlasov, will lead them in this crusade.
At first this idea of an army of Russian prisoners helping to liberate Russia fizzled. But later, as the Germans’ manpower situation worsened, their thinking evolved. Among Berlin’s elite the conversations went thus:
These creatures in their barbed wire enclosures must be miserable.
Living in their own filth, waiting to shrivel up and die.
Is it true there’s cannibalism in those camps?
In all probability.
Apparently many of them hate Stalin and everything he stands for.
It stands to reason.
This Vlasov fellow seems rational enough, though.
He’s not Jewish, is he?
No. We checked.
So what have we got to lose?
It took ages to get the ball rolling, by which time most ex-Red Army Russians were already ensconced in Ost-bataillone. Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army was too little too late. By then Yang was in his third POW camp.
The Americans shipped most of their Wehrmacht prisoners to the States. But Yang wound up in Britain. As victory in Europe drew closer Stalin demanded the Anglo-Americans hand over all captured ex-Red Army men in German uniforms to Soviet authorities. This meant Yang.
But Yang was also ex-Japanese Imperial Army, and strictly speaking he’d never been a Soviet citizen. So the British weren’t obliged to return him to the NKVD’s loving arms.
Let’s review what’s happened so far:
A Korean teenager with Japanese nationality is drafted into the Japanese Army. He’s captured by the Red Army during Japan’s attempt to seize territory from the U.S.S.R. and Mongolia. He’s imprisoned in the Soviet Union until 1942, by which time the desperate Soviets turn political prisoners and POWs from into cannon fodder.
He’s thrown into the Red Army. The Germans capture him in 1943. They shove him into their army, assigning him to France just before the Anglo-American invasion. He’s captured again, this time by the Americans, and shipped to a POW camp in Britain.
Germany surrendered in May 1945.
Yang posed an administrative problem. He wasn’t a German so couldn’t be repatriated to post-war Germany. The Soviets weren’t legally entitled to him. He was technically Japanese but Japan was a world away and remained the enemy until September. Then, with Japan’s defeat, that country could no longer claim him, since Korea’s ties with Japan were severed, meaning Yang was a Korean, not Japanese. So what to do?
The details are murky, but Yang eventually emigrated to the United States in 1947. What transpired between May 1945 and 1947 remains unexplained.
Perhaps he was a Christian, like some other ethnic Koreans. That would have helped his application to move to America. Who knows?
We do know three things:
Yang settled in Illinois – at last! a place he could pronounce! – married and had kids.
He never spoke about his experiences, even to his children. He gave no interviews and resisted the temptation to write his memoirs.
He died in 1992.
So how did the Yang narrative emerge?
Fragments of the saga surfaced over the decades. Other stories circulated about similar discoveries. Cornelius Ryan’s 1959 best-seller about the Normandy invasion – The Longest Day – mentioned Americans capturing “a Tibetan shepherd” in a Wehrmacht uniform. Ryan reported that months later, when they finally found someone to translate, the shepherd explained he’d been kidnapped by Soviets who’d illegally crossed the border to kidnap men for the Red Army. Later, like Yang, the Germans captured him, put him in their army and shipped him to France.
But Ryan’s geography was way off. He should have seen that Tibet is a long way from the Soviet Union. It’s more likely this POW was from China’s Xinjiang Province, whose Uighur people share ethnic and linguistic roots with some Soviet Central Asians. And Xinjiang’s long, porous border with the Soviet Union allowed Red Army “press gangs” easy access.
Some analysts contend that not everything in the Yang story happened to Yang. He may have come from the Soviet Far East’s ethnic Korean population, served in the Red Army as a regular conscript, was captured and forced into the Wehrmacht, then was captured by the Americans. That’s plausible.
Others argue Yang’s a composite character: the stories of two or more East Asian soldiers have been muddled, combined and conflated into one figure. That’s also possible.
Only Yang knew for sure. But he remained stubbornly silent.
In 2011 a South Korean film studio made a highly fictionalized film about Yang (played by a handsome hunk with guaranteed box-office appeal to the ladies). My Way had its Wehrmacht Korean escaping from Normandy and nonsensically making it back to Korea (!). It was a critical and commercial flop. Don’t bother.
Because Yang never gave us his version of these events we can never be certain if we have the truth. He took his story to the grave. And unless something pops up to confirm or refute it, in the grave it will remain.