Interpreter recalls tumult of WWII on China-Burma Road

By Zhou Yu Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-14 5:03:01

Statues of Chinese Expeditionary Force soldiers stand at the Western Yunnan war memorial in Yunnan Province. Photo: IC

Chen Yuanrui Photo: Courtesy of Qian Guanli

Unlike most soldiers from the Chinese Expeditionary Force during WWII who fought in the China-Burma-India theater (CBI) whose names have been lost to history, Chen Yuanrui is still around to tell his story.

Chen, 95 and thin, has a bookshelf stuffed with books related to WWII and the CBI. Despite having suffered many illnesses, he is still sharp and thinks clearly, occasionally using English terms to explain acronyms used by the US army.

Chinese, American, British, Burmese and Indian forces fought together against the Japanese in the CBI. Joint Allied units in the CBI included the Chinese Expeditionary Force, the US Flying Tigers and other Allied combat and logistical units.

Chen was born in 1920 in Shanghai. His father was a colonel in the Chinese Navy. In 1937, when war broke out against the Japanese, he was in his first year of high school. On August 13, the Battle of Shanghai began. Many of the houses in Hongkou district, where he lived, were razed to the ground. Along with thousands of refugees, his family escaped to the city's international concessions. The Battle of Shanghai was the first major battle of the war, and one of the largest and bloodiest.

"The Japanese army attacked and killed many civilians. Thousands of civilian houses were burnt down," Chen told 

In 1940, Chen was admitted into Shanghai Jiaotong University. In November 1941, when the Pacific War broke out, the Japanese army occupied the international concessions. Jiaotong University was taken over by the puppet government.

Like millions of refugees, he escaped. After traveling thousands of kilometers, Chen finally arrived in Chongqing, the wartime capital of China. In 1942, Jiaotong University was reopened in Chongqing, and he began his third year of studies.

Brothers in arms

In January 1944, the Chinese Ministry of Education drafted all college students in their fourth year to train in Chongqing.

With the support of the US, the Chinese government set up several training bases in the region. Every senior US liaison officer had a Chinese interpreter. Although there was also a great deal of competition to be hired as an interpreter for the US army, Chen was successful.

As a transportation major in college, Chen was assigned to the transportation division. He was an interpreter between February 1944 and October 1945 in the Yunnan.

 Chen joined at the right time. The CBI Allied forces had just launched large scale counterattacks. The Chinese army was the main force providing most of the soldiers, and the US provided advanced weapons and air support.

Chen participated in vital counterattacks in Yunnan, where the Chinese Expeditionary Force gradually took back the Nujiang River and Songshan Mountains.

"At that time, the Yunnan-Burma Road hadn't been re-opened. All cargo was transported by US airplanes across the Himalayas. Fuel, food and weapons were all provided by the US. Previously, China suffered constant air raids from Japanese warplanes. With the support of the US's 14th air fleet, the situation changed instantly," Chen said.

After a series of fierce battles in the jungle, in March 1945, the expeditionary force won several decisive battles, killing and injuring 70,000 Japanese soldiers, liberating not only Yunnan, but also a large part of Burma, which is now called Myanmar. It was a victory that came with a heavy and painful price. Chinese forces suffered casualties 100,000.

Essential allies

Chen was later transferred to a US artillery training center in Kunming, where US army officers trained Chinese soldiers in firing artillery, telecommunications and vehicle repair.

"At that time, the Japanese army had reached Guizhou Province, and half of China was occupied by the Japanese. Frankly, without the support of the US, China couldn't have won these battles," Chen said.

In August 1945, the US dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 15, Japan announced its surrender. "We didn't expect the war to end so soon. Without the atomic bombs, the war would have gone on for at least another two years," he said.

However, peace didn't mean freedom for Chen.

Life is wearing

In 1947, he was fortunate enough to get a job as a transportation administrator in Shanghai. In April 1949, Shanghai was liberated by the People's Liberation Army, and he was transferred to a local People's Bank of China branch. He lived an affluent life until 1952, when the authorities started to investigate his work as an interpreter for the US army.  One year after the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, he was imprisoned in a labor camp, and investigators spent two years looking into his past as an interpreter. During and after the probe, he was forced to stay in the labor camp for several years. In 1979, he was finally released and allowed to work as a teacher at a Suzhou vocational university. In 1996, he moved back to his hometown. 

Chen said he is satisfied with his current life, though his hearing and eyesight are poor. Long ago, he prepared for his old age by memorizing many poems. His favorite was written by his fellow Chinese soldier and poet Mu Dan while on the Yunnan-Burma Road: "Though life is wearing, I must quest; Though jungles of ideas surround me, there glimmers in my heart the light, of good and evil."

Newspaper headline: Student soldier

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