The Wartime Odessey of Yang Kyoungjong

When the photograph below appeared in the American press not long after D-Day the soldier in question gave rise to the belief that Japanese soldiers where fighting alongside their German allies on the beaches of Normandy. While this possibility had long been pondered (as far back as 1941 some U.S. Naval personnel swore they saw Nazi planes over Pearl Harbor) the actual story behind this photo and the unlikely soldier in question – Korean-born Yang Kyoungjong – is in reality much more remarkable if not downright improbable.

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Above: A U.S. military press photograph taken at Normandy not long after the June 6, 1944 landings depicting a rather disheveled and forlorn looking POW in German uniform. Although unidentified in the original photograph, some believe that the man may be Yang Kyoungjong. Others postulate that this soldier may have been a POW from Soviet Asia who had been pressed into German service. The photo’s original caption incorrectly identifies the subject as Japanese. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

Born on March 3, 1920, in what is today’s North Korea, Yang Kyoungjong was sent as a laborer to Manchuria by the Japanese occupiers of Korea in 1938. Once there he was conscripted into the Japanese Kwangtung Army which had set up a puppet regime of Manchukuo in the Chinese province. At the although officially at peace the Soviet Union and Japan were in fact in a low-grade shooting war. The confrontations escalated to the point of several pitched battles, during one of which – Khalkhyn Gol – Yang Kyoungjong found himself captured by Soviet Forces. The year was 1939.

Yang Kyoungjong was sent to a Siberian gulag – a virtual death sentence – along with other Japanese POWs. Yang would receive a reprieve of sorts after Hitler ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. Initial Soviet defeats left Stalin so hardpressed for troops that he offered pardons the prisoners provided they volunteer to military service against Germany. Yang Kyoungjong volunteered for service in the Soviet army probably more to escape death in a gulag than anything else but his previous experiences in fighting along the Manchurian border would have ill-prepared him for the unimaginable carnage of Europe’s eastern front.

Yang Kyoungjong would have found himself packed like cattle along with thousands of other unwilling Soviet conscripts headed west along the Trans Siberian Railroad. The 2011 Korean film My Way depicts Yang Kyoungjong taking part in the Battle of Stalingrad but I have found no information confirming this. He apparently took part in the Third Battle of Kharkov in the eastern Ukraine (1943) where he was captured by the Germans.

By this time Nazi Germany found itself in the same predicament that the Soviet Union had just a couple years earlier – suffering from a dire shortage of troops and she resorted to the same dubious solution to the problem. Soviet, as well as other Eastern European prisoners, were conscripted for service in the Wehrmacht. Many of these troops – volunteers and otherwise – were organized into Ost-Bataillonen (Eastern Battalions) with the intent that they perform labor duties in occupied territories freeing up regular German units for more important frontline service. Once again Yang Kyoungjong found himself in a new uniform of another army.

Above: Of related interest in the 2011 Korean film My Way which is loosely based on Yang Kyoungjong’s wartime experiences during World War Two.  Here is a link to a trailer for the film which makes for some pretty spectacular viewing even if it is filled to overflowing with some big-time anachronisms such as the Iowa class battleship USS Missouri bombarding the Normandy beachhead.

Yang Kyoungjong along with the rest of his fellow Ost-Bataillone members were apparently deployed to the area around the Cotentin peninsula, close by Utah Beach in Normandy, France sometime prior to the Allied landings on D-Day.  Uninspired and completely unprepared for battle the Ost-Bataillonen not surprisingly contributed virtually nothing to the German defense of Normandy. Yang appears to have surrendered to American forces not long after June 6.

Interestingly a wartime account made by Lieutenant Robert Brewer, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division (of Band of Brothers fame) mentions his regiment capturing four Asian soldiers in German uniform not long after D-Day. Could one of these four men have been Yang Kyoungjong? In any event, Yang was reportedly sent to an American POW holding camp in England prior to being shipped to a permanent camp on the United States where he remained until 1947. One might guess that Yang was surprised not to have been shoehorned into an American uniform and deployed to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. Had that happened this remarkable journey would have indeed gone full circle.

After release, Yang declined repatriation to Korea and settled in Illinois. He is said to have passed away there on April 7, 1992.

So that is the remarkable story of Yang Kyoungjong. Remarkable? Yes, but is the story true? I was rather disappointed when after considerable research I was, and have been unable to find any verifiable/primary sources confirming the tale. For example, I can find no newspaper mention of Yang Kyoungjong with the exception of a 2012 review of the book The Second World War by Anthony Beevor. One might assume that given Yang’s notoriety an obituary might have been published in a local or national paper. None have been found. Versions of Yang’s life appear online in dozens of places, and while remarkably similar in detail, none provided any links to reliable and verifiable primary source material. Even a 2005 investigative documentary by the Seoul Broadcasting System found no evidence that Yang Kyoungjong ever existed.

It appears to this reporter at least that Yang’s story is one of the better peices of World War Two apocrypha. While it does not seem to be true, it is one tale that I wish could be verified.

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Above: A group of Asian POWs in German Army uniforms under guard on board a U.S. Navy vessel sometime after D-Day. Being transported to a POW camp in England, many if not all of these men were probably Ost-Bataillonen conscripts from the eastern reaches of the Soviet Union, some may have indeed bee Korean and whose forgotten tale parallels that of Yang Kyoungjong. Photo: Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.