World War 2 History: Koreans Fought on Both Sides in 3 Different Armies
Prisoners of the Soviet Army
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 Penninsula). 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 Spoils of Khalkhin Gol
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 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, 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.
German Panzer in Russia
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 Kyoungjong (in German Uniform) Being Processed
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 a 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, 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.
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© 2012 David Hunt