Wednesday 13 August 2014

Yang Kyoungjong - A Conscript's Story

It was 6 June 1944 and the D-Day landings were in full swing. The largest seaborne invasion in history saw almost 160,000 troops cross the English Channel in a single day and pour into German-occupied Normandy. Amongst the several thousands of German prisoner of wars (POW), American paratroopers captured what they believed was a Japanese soldier in German uniform. Eventually, it turns out he was Korean, why only puzzled the Americans more. What was a Korean doing in the middle of Normandy, thousands of miles away from home?

His name was Yang Kyoungjong and this is the story of how he was an unwilling veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German army during the most devastating conflict of all times. 
Yang Kyongjong (left) in Wehrmacht attire following capture by American paratroopers in June 1944 after D-Day
Let’s turn the clock back to 1938 to a Japanese-ruled Korea. Japan was at war with China, the Soviet Union threateningly loomed above Japanese Manchuria, border clashes, and skirmishes were common. Yang Kyoungjong, a native from Northwest Korea, was amongst thousands of Koreans conscripted into the Kwantung Army of the Imperial Japanese Army, in response to Soviet border hostilities. In 1939, the unofficial conflict climaxed at the Battles of the Khalkhin Gol in Mongolia that saw the defeat of the Japanese Sixth Army and the capture of 3,000 Japanese soldiers, including Yang Kyoungjong. All were shipped to labour camps across the country. 

Fast forward to 1942 & Operation Barbarossa, the largest land invasion in history (with over four million Axis soldiers deployed along a 2,900km Soviet front) was in full gear . The Soviets, having lost enormous portions of land and manpower, began drafting thousands of prisoners (our friend Yang included) to fill in the ranks. 

In early 1943, at the Third Battle of Kharkov which saw the destruction of 52 Soviet divisions, Yang was captured and conscripted into the newly-formed Ostlegionen (German for “Eastern Legions”). Now why would the German Wehrmacht (Army) conscript an “inferior race” into its ranks when it has gone so far in spouting its racial supremacy rhetoric? Simple; manpower, manpower, manpower. Thousands of German soldiers were stuck in German-occupied France and the Balkans, to deal with partisan activity. The general idea was that the Ostlegionen would free up troops to be sent to the Eastern Front. 

Yang, now in German uniform, was sent to the Cotentin Peninsula of Normandy in occupied France, later that year. When the events of D-Day occurred, Yang was captured and sent to a POW camp in the United Kingdom, before being transferred to another camp in the United States. At the end of the war, this war veteran became a US citizen and settled in Illinois, where he lived a quiet life. He died in 1992, age 72.

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