Many men have the honor of saying they fought for their country in the global struggle known as World War 2. However, not many men have the misfortune of being forcibly called to fight for 3 separate countries that would take him from the Axis in the Pacific theater, the Allies on the Eastern front, and then back to the Axis just in time for D-Day.
It is a story almost too inexplicable to be true, but don’t tell that to Korean Yang Kyoungjong because that is precisely what happened to him. As a Korean living in Manchuria at a time when the Japanese ruled Korea and were expanding their empire, the needed fresh troops for a series of border conflicts with the Soviet Union.
When conscripted at the age of 18 in 1938, he would begin a journey that would include the POW camps of 3 separate nations and fighting a war on behalf of both the Axis and the Allies.
A Short War for the Japanese
After his conscription, he would find himself at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939 which would pit Japanese forces and State of Manchurian forces of which Yang was a part against the Soviet Union and Mongolian People’s Republic. This battle was part of a series of border conflicts that would take place amongst the powers between 1935 and 1939 with the Soviet Union and Japan pulling the strings for each of their respective puppet states.
The result was a Soviet and Mongolian victory where a ceasefire agreement was signed with little changed. However, the ceasefire would come a little too late for Korean Yang Kyoungjong who would be captured and sent to a Soviet labor camp.
As a prisoner in these camps, Yang would inevitably suffer brutal conditions and an intense workload for which it was common for many not to survive. While exact records are hard to verify it is estimated that over 1 million prisoners died in this system with many believing the number to be substantially higher.
However, Yang would be one of those who survived although his path out of the labor camp would bring its own unique set of risks.
In 1942 as the Soviets faced the German onslaught, they were in need of men to fight on the Eastern Front. Against his will, Yang was pressed into service with the Soviet army and shipped to the front.
It remains to be seen which was the deadlier proposition going from the Gulags to the Eastern Front, but Yang wouldn’t have much say in the matter. Once at the front, he would again find himself on the losing end of a major battle at the Battle of Kharkov in early 1943. This time, he would now be in the hands of the Germans and on his way to yet another POW camp.
On the Road to D-Day
After a brief stint fighting for the Allies, Yang would find himself back with the Axis yet still against his will. He was pressed into service for Germany as part of its Eastern Battalions. This was a conscription effort by the Germans to raise much-needed fighting men out of the captured Easter territories. Perhaps they thought Yang fought for the right side once, so why not give him another crack at it. He was “volunteered” for duty.
The Eastern Battalions were hardly the elite of the German forces as most were pressed into service and while many would fight admirably, most would just surrender at the first sign of conflict. So in late 1943, Yang and this unreliable conscription of troops were sent to Normandy because it is not like the Allies would pick this location for a massive invasion or anything of the sort. Surely it wouldn’t it wouldn’t be Normandy.
June 6th, 1944, Yang would look up into the skies above Normandy and watch thousands of Allied paratroopers fall to the ground. They were sent in advance of the main invasion force in order to kill the men that would oppose it, but for Yang, her perhaps saw it as his ride home.
While it remains to be seen just how much of fight this Korean from Japanese-occupied Manchuria would put up, he would quickly find himself in his 3rd and final Prisoner of War camp after fighting for his 3rd country in this very long and to him likely very confusing war.
The Long and Winding Road
Upon his capture by paratroopers on D-Day, he was believed at first to be a Japanese in a German uniform, but upon further examination his long ordeal had come out. One might think that a soldier who gets captured 3 separate times by 3 different nations is not a very good soldier at all. But if we are honest with ourselves, this man hardly had any reason to fight in any attempt to win each nation’s highest military honor.
This is a man who was conscripted by a country other than his own at age 18 in what would be a pattern that would last until 1944 and take him from his homeland in Asia all the way to Normandy.
Luckily for Yang, the Americans were not in need of extra manpower and he was finally able to sit out a war that began so long ago for him halfway across the world. How he survived and stories he could tell might perhaps be lost to time as Yang Kyoungjong passed away as a resident of the State of Illinois in 1992.
Heis without a doubt, one of the luckiest and perhaps simultaneously unluckiest men of the entire war. We can only hope enjoyed his life in America as he certainly seemed to deserve it.
This truly is one of the more remarkable stories of war that we can be thankful was not fully lost to the passage of time.