War Interview with Zhang Youting
My grandfather Zhang Youting is a WWII veteran and retired farmer in China. I interviewed him on the telephone for this assignment. The following transcript is based on a telephone interview with him and some follow-up calls to him concerning the interview. The original interview was conducted in Chinese and I translated it into English.
Chong: Grandpa, you were a soldier in the WWII fighting against the Japanese army in China. How do you define war?
Grandpa: Any military conflict between two or more nations is a war such as the WWII you just mentioned. In China, we call it the Anti-Japanese War. It is part of the WWII. Of course, a military conflict between people with different beliefs in the same country can also be a war such as the Chinese Civil Wars and the Civil War in U.S. history.
Chong: Have your ideas of war changed over the years?
Grandpa: No. A war is always a war. It should be used as the last resort. There are always some people got killed in a war. That is why I do not like war.
Chong: What would you want other people to know about war?
Grandpa: Though wars are used to solve the problems that cannot be solved by other means, we should avoid wars as much as possible because no matter who wins the war, both sides of the war will have some casualties. Many innocent civilians would possibly be killed, too.
Chong: Did you ever struggle with ethical questions such as whether the war was just or not?
Grandpa: No. I knew it was a just war for China since we were fighting the invaders. We had to defend our country which is everyone’s duty and I am very proud for what I did.
Chong: But why did Japan invade China?
Grandpa: Japan was small. It did not have sufficient resources. They came to China to expand and rob our resources. They were “robbers”.
Chong: Did you ever experience any combat in the war?
Grandpa: Not really. I was not in the army fighting on the frontline. I was just a member of the Communist-led anti-Japanese guerrilla in my hometown fighting against the Japanese in the Japanese-occupied region. I was only about seventeen years old. I worked for the guerrilla as a messenger. I delivered messages and orders to the adults who were fighting. I did my job on foot or by bike since they did not have telephones at that time. I went secretly from house to house where the guerrilla members were hiding and passed the guerrilla leader’s orders to them. They thought I was too young and did not allow me to fight. They even did not have a gun for me.
Chong: Where were you during the Anti-Japanese War as you call it?
Grandpa: I was in my hometown, Liaochen. It is in Shandong province. Shandong was occupied by the Japanese and the Chinese guerrillas were fighting against them to take it back.
Chong: Why did they come to Shangdong in the first place?
Grandpa: They had the three provinces in northeastern China before the war started in 1937, but they were not satisfied and wanted to seize more territories by moving towards south. Shandong was one of the northern provinces that were close to the occupied northeastern territories.
Chong: Were there any resistance when the Japanese moved southward?
Grandpa: Yes, the Chinese army had a big battle with the Japanese army in Tai’erzhuang, Shandong in 1938. The fight lasted over a month, and the Chinese army won the battle after heavy loss. However, since the Japanese were better equipped, they eventually took over Shandong.
Chong: Did you ever have non-combat encounters with the Japanese army?
Grandpa: Many times. My hometown was occupied by the Japanese and they came to my village to take strong and healthy males to the Northeast China to build railroads for them. I was caught by them and forced to work for them. I worked for them for about a year.
Chong: What was your reaction when you first saw them?
Grandpa: I was angry and scared since I was only about 16 years old. They did not take my father since he was too sick to do anything. They forced me and some other villagers to leave the village under gunpoint. I did not want to leave but could do nothing about it.
Chong: How did you deal with fear and anger?
Grandpa: They beat others who disobeyed their orders. Even though I was scared, I knew they were not going to kill me. However, I feared that they were going to take me away from my parents. I tried not to think about this at all.
Chong: Can you describe to me what that was like?
Grandpa: That was a long time ago. I remember a group of Japanese soldiers unexpectedly came to my village. They had an interpreter with them who was Chinese. The interpreter told everyone to gather at the center of the village where there was a small square. The Japanese soldiers had bayonets on their guns and started to shout at everyone who showed reluctance. I remember that I was having lunch with my parents and my younger brother and sister at home. All of sudden, a couple of Japanese soldiers rushed into our house with the interpreter and pointed their guns at us. They took us to the center of the village where everyone was. They threatened to shoot if we did not listen to them. They told us that they needed men to build railroad in the Northeast China and started to choose strong and healthy male villagers. I was selected and ordered to step out to form a new group. Since my father was very sick that day, they did not choose him after believing that he was too weak to work. Even though the villagers were very angry and started to cry, we could do nothing to stop the Japanese taking their sons and husbands away. They forced me and others into the back of a big truck and drove us to their stronghold in town. We stayed there overnight and were shipped away the next day. That was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life because I saw my parents were crying and begging them not to take me away. I think I was the youngest in the group to be taken away. Those Japanese were cold-hearted and threatened to burn down the village if the villagers did not shut up. So my parents and other villagers had to let us go.
Chong: Did they kill anyone?
Grandpa: No, they didn’t kill anyone that day in the village, but when we were building the railroad in the Northeast, some people died of diseases and fatigue.
Chong: How did they treat you in the Northeast China?
Grandpa: They treated me like an animal instead of a human-being. They wanted me to work from dawn to dark and did not care if I was sick or starving. They liked to point their guns at us when they gave orders and allocated work. It was a terrible experience because their guns could have fired at anytime and I would have been shot at anytime.
Chong: Were you ever wounded in the war?
Grandpa: No, I was not wounded in any military action, but I was seriously sick and almost lost my life when I was in the Northeast. The Japanese were very cruel; they only wanted us to work for them but never cared about our health. I was lucky to work and live with some people from my village. Once, I was very sick, my villagers fed me and took care of me till I survived from the illness. I saw bodies were taken out of the cabins nearby where other laborers stayed. A year later, I came back to my village with others after the railroad was finished. I then met with some organizers of the anti-Japanese guerrillas in my hometown area. Without any hesitation, I joined them in fighting the “Japanese Devils” until the war was over.
Chong: What was it like returning to “normal life” when the war was over?
Grandpa: It was just like the nightmare was over. I was very excited to have my normal life back so that I could work on the land to raise crops with my parents.
Chong: Did you have a period of adjustment?
Grandpa: Not really. When the war was over, everyone was very happy and we could do whatever we wanted without fearing to be caught or shot.
Chong: Did your experience resemble portrayals of war on TV, in film, or in literature?
Grandpa: Yes. There were quite a few Chinese films and novels that described guerrilla’s fighting in the Japanese-occupied regions which were just like what we did.
Chong: Did you think about the war often?
Grandpa: Yes, from time to time, I was invited to some local schools to give a speech on my experience in the war, so I have to think about the war sometimes in order to prepare the speeches.
Chong: Did you have different memories on the war each time?
Grandpa: No. The memories were pretty much the same.
Chong: When you get together with people who had similar experience as you did, what sort of stories did you share?
Grandpa: We shared how we fought the Japanese and how we believed that we did not have other choices but fighting to get rid of the occupiers. If we did not do that, we would have been slaves to the Japanese.
Chong: Was there anything about the war you did not talk about?
Grandpa: No, we talked about everything including the suffering and the hardship.
Chong: Did your war experience change you in any aspects?
Grandpa: Yes, it changed me into a stronger person. It had great impact on my later life and work. Whenever I encountered difficulties, I always told myself that I could handle them since there was nothing more difficult to overcome than the hardship I had in the war.
Chong: Thank you very much for your time, Grandpa. I will give you a call if I have more questions or if I need some clarifications.
Grandpa: Anytime. I will be glad to answer your questions.
My Grandfather, Zhang Youting, is a World War II veteran and a retired farmer in China. Recently, I conducted a war experience interview with him over the telephone. Through the interview, I learned a great deal of my grandpa’s war experience during World War II in China. The interview was very special because we had never talked about the topic of war before and I am glad that I have learned something new about him through this project. Since my Grandpa was a Chinese World War II veteran, his experience of the war was different than that of U.S. veterans. I believe this factor makes his experience much more unique and appealing to share. In addition to my Grandpa’s interesting war story, I found that his experience has both similarities and differences to the literary texts we have read.
According to my Grandpa, in the early 1930’s, Japan began to look for resources at other countries to meet the needs of its growing population. China became the obvious choice for Japan’s expansion because of its abundant resources and its closeness to Japan, and Japan was hungry enough to swallow all of China’s natural resources. This eventually led Japan to invade China. This cause was also discussed by Howard Zinn in The Twentieth Century. In the section called “A People’s War,” Zinn mentioned that Japan attempted to take over China for its “tin, rubber, and oil of Southeast Asia” (Zinn 141). Also, Japan and Germany both had similar motives to invade other countries. According to Paul Fussell’s “Almost Beyond Human Conception” in The Norton Book of Modern War, the reason why Germany invaded Poland was “to satisfy Hitler’s territorial hunger” (Fussell 308), which is similar to one of Japan’s reasons to invade China.
My Grandpa at that time was about seventeen years old. He did not go to the frontline to fight in the battles. Instead, he served as a messenger boy for the anti-Japanese guerrilla forces in his Japanese-occupied hometown. He delivered messages to the adults who were fighting. He disguised himself as a young peasant and did his job on foot or by bike since they did not have telephones at that time. He went secretly from house to house to pass out secret orders to guerrilla soldiers.
My Grandpa does not like war and believes that war should be avoided as much as possible. In his opinion, no matter who wins, both sides would have casualties. Many innocent civilians might die as well. However, he believes that as a part of World War II, the Anti-Japanese War was necessary because Japan was invading China and it was his duty to defend his country and to participate in the war. I found that answer very appealing because I would have done the same to fight and to defend my country if some foreign countries tried to invade us. No matter how much you are against the war, fighting in a defensive war should always be just.
It is interesting to share the specific details of my Grandpa’s war experience because of its uniqueness. Japan had already invaded China in the early 1930’s and occupied some northeastern territories. In 1937, Japan decided to move south and acquire more Chinese provinces. My Grandpa’s hometown Liaochen, Shandong was very close to the Japanese occupied territories, so the Japanese Army quickly moved towards Shandong and seized his hometown. According to my Grandpa, even though the Chinese resistance forces had a big battle against the Japanese army in Shandong, the Japanese army was better equipped with weapons and supplies, and they eventually took over Shandong. Soon after the Japanese army occupied my Grandpa’s hometown, they came to his village with an interpreter who was Chinese. They came to take the strong and healthy male villagers and sent them to Northeast China to build railroads. The Chinese interpreter who betrayed his own country to help the Japanese reminds me of Howard W. Campbell Jr. in Slaughter House-Five. He was an American who became a Nazi propagandist and wanted Prisoners Of War to fight for Germany (Vonnegut, 162). I do not have any respect for those people who betray their own countries to support the enemies.
My Grandpa was selected by the Japanese army and was taken away in a truck under gunpoint. He was forced to leave his parents without knowing where he was going. I think his experience is similar to the experiences of the Japanese Americans who were taken to the concentration camps by the American government during World War II. In the “Japanese American Concentration Camp Haiku, 1942-1944,” the Japanese Americans were arrested and hand-cuffed away from their homes. They also had no idea where they were going (Metres). I can imagine that my Grandpa and the Japanese Americans were panicking and not knowing what was going on when those events happened. Similarly, under the gunpoint, my Grandpa was forced to build railroad for about a year. He also mentioned that the Japanese treated him like an animal instead of a human-being and they did not care if his was starving or sick. They just wanted him to work all day long. This story is important to share because it shows how much courage that my Grandpa had. At the age of sixteen, he had already been abused physically and mentally. I cannot imagine how he felt when he was separated from his family and was forced to do heavy labor for the enemies against his will.
My Grandpa eventually became very sick for working excessively under hazardous working conditions. He could have died of sickness without the care from his villagers. When he came back to his village after the railroad was built about a year later, he met with the Communist led anti-Japanese guerrilla force and joined them. He served as a messenger boy. He was glad that he did not die at the Japanese labor site because during that year, he saw bodies were taken out of the cabins where his fellow laborers stayed. I think my Grandpa’s labor experience resembles Kurt Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war in Dresden in some way. In Slaughter House-Five, Vonnegut mentioned that American prisoners began to die in the boxcar when they were being shipped. For example, Roland Weary died in the boxcar due to gangrene (Vonnegut 79) and the Polish slave who stamped Billy Pilgrim when he arrived at the German camp also died later (Vonnegut 91). This shows the cruelty of war because many people died of diseases due to poor conditions instead of actual combat.
I think the major difference between the experience of my Grandpa and the war literature we have read is the setting of the war. Obviously, my Grandpa fought the war in his China to defend his homeland against the Japanese imperialism. In our readings, the Americans were fighting in a foreign land and they were not fighting against the Japanese. Furthermore, my Grandpa and his guerrilla were fighting in the enemy’s backyard while the Americans were fighting on the frontline, so their fighting styles were different. Besides, my Grandpa had never seen anyone killed in front of him in combat. Perhaps that was the reason why he was not mentally or emotionally wounded. In the stories we have read, such as “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” “The Things They Carried,” and so forth, all have vivid images of someone being killed. Those graphic images have troubled the writers through life. Also, in Slaughter House-Five, when Billy Pilgrim became a prisoner of war, he seemed to be treated well by the German soldiers. He was never put into hard labor and he seemed to be fed well and taken good care of. Even when he got sick, he was sent to a camp hospital. On the contrary, my Grandpa was poorly treated by the Japanese and often suffered from starvation and illness.
In conclusion, both my Grandpa’s war experience and the stories in the war literature we have read tell us that wars are cruel and harmful and are disasters for human beings. The stories and memories are different, but they all convey a single message that when we have disagreements or disputes, we should solve them in a peaceful way rather than by means of wars.