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Most of the time, during conflicts, soldiers come and go representing one flag, one nation, or one side— regardless of whether they go out surviving the war or dying while fighting for what they believed in. However, there were some instances when they switched sides, of course, be it because they were forced to or because they had a change of heart after seeing and experiencing the horrors of war firsthand and realizing that they were the bad guys. Then there was the alleged story of a Korean who was said to have fought not only under one or two but three sides of war during the messy times of World War II.
Fighting for Japan
Not much was known about Yang Kyoungjong’s life before World War II. He was reported to be an 18-year-old man in Korea who, in 1938, was conscripted to serve in the Kwantung Army since he happened to be living in Japanese-controlled Manchuria at the beginning of World War II. He fought alongside the Japanese troops against the Soviet Red Army. He was one of those who fought in the Battle of Khalkhin Gol in 1939. It was a decisive battle of the undeclared Soviet-Japanese border conflicts that involved Mongolia, the Soviet Union, Japan, and Manchukuo. The conflict was known as the Nomonhan Incident in Japan. The battle resulted in the defeat of the Japanese Army. They had an estimate of 20,000 deaths on their end and 10,000 from the sides of the Soviets, although the numbers varied depending on the source. The highest figure was some 60,000 losses on the side of the Kwantung Army.
Some of those who survived were taken by the Red Army as prisoners of war. This included Kyoungjong, who was captured and sent to a labor camp, along with the others.
Fighting for The Soviet Union
From 1939 when he was captured, until 1942, Kyoungjong spent his years stuck and working in one of the Soviet labor camps. However, Russia became desperate for soldiers because of the manpower shortages they were facing at that time. Their solution was to utilize their prisoners and conscript them into fighting on their side. For the second time, Kyoungjong found himself forcibly fighting for a nation that he didn’t really want to fight for, this time alongside the Russians.
His service with the Soviets lasted for about a year. During that period, he became part of numerous engagements along the Eastern Front, the most notable being the Third Battle of Kharkov. This was a series of battles between Nazi Germany’s Army Group South versus the Soviet Red Army that ensued around Kharkov city (today Kharkiv) from February 15 to March 15, 1943. The counterstrike of the Germans led to the recapture of the cities of not only Kharkov but also Belgorod.
As far as Kyoungjong was concerned, it was a deja vu, for he again found himself captured as a prisoner of war.
Fighting for Nazi Germany
As if he was in a recurring nightmare, he was again forcibly conscripted in 1944 into the German army. This time, he was transported even farther west to France. There, he joined the 709 Infanterie Division and was tasked to defend the port of Cherbourg during the Normandy Invasion.
As we know, the Allied forces successfully took over the beaches with around 4,000 to 9,000 Germans killed, wounded, or missing, while some 200,000 more were taken as prisoners. You probably have guessed by now that Kyoungjong was one of those captured, with the Allied troops initially thinking he was Japanese. He spent some time in an English prison before being sent to a camp in the US. After the war, he decided to stay in the United States for good until he became a citizen and lived the rest of his life in Illinois until he died in 1992.
There were some speculations that Yang Kyoungjong didn’t really exist at all and was no more than just a made-up story. His story, however, was adapted into the 2011 action film My Way. Meanwhile, historian Antony Beevor begins and ends his book The Second World War with Yang’s story. He wrote,
“Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.”
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