In the 1930s, Yang Kyoungjong was just a young Korean man caught up in the middle of a fight between world powers. He lived in Manchuria, which was the puppet state created by the Japanese after their invasion of northern China. In 1938, at the age of 18, Yang was conscripted by the Kwantung Army which was part of the Imperial Japanese Army. The Japanese were in need of soldiers to fight against the Soviet Union, and they discovered that their occupied territory in China had plenty of able, young men. The short war between the Japanese and the Soviets culminated at the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in 1939.
Yang was one of many soldiers taken prisoner during those battles and he was sent to a Soviet work camp. He stayed in the camp for three years as World War II raged. By 1942, years of war had depleted the Soviet Red Army and they were in desperate need of soldiers. With few options, the Red Army quickly emptied their labor camps of thousands of prisoners. From the work camp, Yang was put into a Red Army uniform and sent to fight on the Eastern Front. Once again Yang was forced to fight for a country that was not his own.
The war was not kind to Yang yet again and he fought to stay alive. He faced death at the hands of the Germans if he was not successful in battle, and death at the hands of the Soviets if he was caught trying to escape or underperformed in battle. His time with the Red Army was relatively brief and ended in early 1943. Yang was fighting at the Battle of Kharkov in Ukraine when he was taken prisoner yet again. This time instead of languishing for years in a work camp, the Germans saw a soldier that could be useful in their own manpower shortages.
As part of the German Army, Yang was placed into one of the Werhmacht’s Eastern Battalions. The Eastern Battalions were filled with conscripts and “volunteers” that were taken from German-controlled areas in Eastern Europe. Once again Yang was in a position that had become somewhat familiar; fighting against his will for a country that he held no loyalty to. He was still doing whatever it took to survive until he could find a way to freedom. Unfortunately, he would once again be taken prisoner, and this time his fate would end up very different.
The Eastern Battalion that Yang was put into was sent to France. There, he and the other men were ordered to guard the Atlantic Wall from the coming Allied invasion. Yang was stationed in Normandy near Utah Beach when the D-Day landings occurred in June 1944. Yang watched as American paratroopers fell from the sky and landed near his battalion. Yang was captured by the American troops. The Americans assumed that he was a Japanese soldier wearing a German uniform.
Yang was taken prisoner by Lieutenant Robert Brewer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. Brewer called up after the landing to announce that his regiment had taken four Asian prisoners. At first it was assumed that the prisoners were Japanese. There was no one in the regiment that was able to communicate with the prisoners, so they were sent to a British POW camp. After a time, Yang was transferred to a POW camp in the United States. When the war ended and he was given the opportunity to go home, Yang had been away from his home for nearly a decade and decided to stay where he was. He settled down in Illinois and lived there until he died in 1992 at the age of 72.
Yang’s story is one of the most incredible of World War II. One historian said that it was the “most striking illustration of the helplessness of ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.” The story has been collaborated through books and news outlets, but there are some who doubt the story.
In December 2005, more than 10 years after Yang’s death, the Seoul Broadcasting System aired a documentary that examined whether or not there were Asian soldiers that were forced to serve Nazi Germany that were then captured by the Allies. While the documentary found that this was true, they were not able to find any strong evidence that proved anyone by the name of Yang Kyoungjong ever existed. Despite the findings of the documentary, there are those who swear Yang existed and his story continues to be told long after the war.