I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.
Yang Conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army
Yang Kyoungjong (March 3, 1920 – April 7, 1992) was born in Shin Euijoo, in northwestern Korea. In 1938, at the age of 18, he was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army (at that time Japan controlled the Korean Peninsula). Over the next six years, Yang fought in the Japanese Army, the Soviet Red Army, and the German Army until he was finally captured by the Americans in Normandy in June 1944.
The Japanese Army in Manchuria had occupied that region in 1931 and, by 1938, were eying Soviet-controlled adjacent lands. To beef up their army, they took young men from Japanese-controlled areas, including Korea, where Yang Kyoungjong soon found himself transported from his native land to Manchuria, wearing the uniform of a Japanese soldier.
The Soviet-Japanese Non-War
World War Two would not start for months when the Japanese provoked border incidents in 1939 with the Soviet Union and the Soviet puppet state of Manchuria. The Japanese Army in Manchuria (also known as the North Strike Group) had considerable autonomy, needing no approval from the Japanese government to “settle” border disputes with the Red Army. This resulted in the “incidents” called the Battles of Khalkhin Gol. The Soviets, busy trying to set up their Non-Aggression Pact with Nazi Germany, did not wish to fight a two-front war. As a result, they built up a massive response and smashed the Japanese Army so badly that the Japanese government signed a cease-fire agreement with the Soviet Union which the two honored until the Soviets declared war on Japan on August 8, 1945. Incidentally, the utter failure of the North Strike Group shifted emphasis to the South Strike Group, which was to invade Southeast Asia, and the Dutch East Indies, and attack the American base at Pearl Harbor.
Yang Captured By the Soviet Red Army
One of the many Japanese prisoners taken by the Red Army was Yang Kyoungjong. He languished for three years in a Soviet labor camp. In 1942, the Soviets desperately needed manpower, so Yang and other prisoners were given a choice: sure death in the camp or don a Red Army uniform and fight the Germans on the Eastern Front. Yang chose to fight.
Yang Captured By the German Army (Wehrmacht)
While fighting Germans during the Fourth Battle of Kharkov in the summer of 1943 in Ukraine, Yang was once again captured. This time, the Germans pressed him into fighting for Germany in the Ost-Bataillone, (“eastern battalions”). These battalions of various nationalities were integrated into larger German formations and fought mainly on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts, though some eventually found themselves stationed in northern France. Luckily for Yang, he ended up near what the Allies designated as Utah Beach in Normandy.
Yang Captured By American Paratroopers
When the Allies launched Operation Overlord in June 1944, Yang was captured for the final time by American paratroopers who thought he was Japanese fighting for the Germans. He was sent to a POW camp in the United Kingdom where it took some time to figure out he was Korean. He was freed in May of 1945 after Germany surrendered.
After the war, Yang immigrated to the United States in 1947. He lived out the rest of his life near Northwestern University in Illinois, an “ordinary” US citizen, never even telling his amazing story to his children. He died on April 7, 1992.
In 2012, a movie called “My Way” (original title “Mai wei”), inspired by Yang's story, was released. At the time, “My Way”, filmed in Latvia, was South Korea’s largest-ever film production.
- The Film MyWay
- IMDB: My Way
- Yang Kyoungjong
- The Battles of Khalkhin Gol
- Soldier Forced to Fight for Three Sides in WW2
© 2012 David Hunt
Read More From Owlcation
Jordyn on July 10, 2018:
This was a good read. I know I'm late but I was talking about the subject and decided to search it up & this was interesting to me. Thanks for the read!
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 26, 2015:
Gary, you were indeed fortunate. In Des Moines you would have been unmercifully subjected to Minn-e-soda jokes. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Gary Malmberg from Concon, Chile on August 26, 2015:
I almost got captured in Des Moines once, but I was fortunate enough to get back to St Paul in one piece. Anyway, another great story and enjoyable read. Two thumbs yup.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on September 17, 2014:
Hi Graham. Your comment is welcome as always. Great to hear from you.
Graham Lee from Lancashire. England. on September 17, 2014:
Hi David. Another first class hub. He was quite a soldier of that there is no doubt. Great research as usual. voted up and all.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 24, 2012:
Thanks for commenting and sharing, Gypsy. Yes, I'd say Yang was very lucky-- although, ending up in Evanston, his luck must have run out.
JUST KIDDING, Illinoisans. At least he didn't end up in Minnesota. Hey, I'm an Iowan. We get to say things like that.
Gypsy Rose Lee from Daytona Beach, Florida on October 24, 2012:
Voted up and interesting. A fascinating story. That's one way to get through wartime and stay alive. Sounds like a great movie. He's lucky he got to live out his life in the USA. Passing this on.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 23, 2012:
Hi Pavlo. Thanks for commenting. He certainly took a roundabout way of leaving his Korean village to end up in Evanston, Illinois.
Pavlo Badovskyi from Kyiv, Ukraine on October 23, 2012:
Ineresting story with unpredictable ending. I thought he will be shot either by this or that side. Lucky man, he managed to live throuhg the war !!
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on October 23, 2012:
Yes, that was my impression while reading this, like he was just a tool, an object, used by others for their schemes. The de-humanizing factor is what stuck out to me.
David Hunt (author) from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on October 23, 2012:
@gmarquardt, @NateB11 and @NotPC thanks for your comments. Yang's "adventures" have been used to illustrate the way war completely takes over lives. The individual becomes nothing in total war. A little different from the Iraq War when the government told us to go shopping.
NotPC on October 22, 2012:
Wonderful article! I think you may need to change your title from Korean to either "Koreans" or "Korea." Just a suggestion but otherwise I love your writing!
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on October 22, 2012:
Fascinating story. Amazing how Yang was kind of tossed around and forced to fight in three different armies and alternatively on two opposing sides.
gmarquardt from Hill Country, Texas on October 22, 2012:
Awesome! Can't wait to see the movie as well.