Following D-Day, the Allied powers captured a lot of Axis soldiers. One of the most interesting soldiers they captured in the immediate aftermath wasn’t necessarily a high-ranking officer or notorious German war criminal. No, it was a Korean soldier that had ended up on the beaches of Normandy fighting in a German Wehrmacht Unit. But what is more, this soldier had only recently arrived in Europe, after having fought in the Imperial Japanese army in Mongolia… and the Soviet Union’s Red Army in Ukraine. Yang Kyoungjong is the only soldier we know of that fought on three different sides during the Second World War, which makes his story all the more interesting.
Born in Korea in March 1920, when he turned 18 Yang was drafted for the Kwantung-army of the Japanese imperial army. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, treating the peninsula as a colony. The Kwantung-army was one of the most prestigious armies of Japan and after its reorganisation in 1919 around 10.000 soldiers served in it. The Kwantung-army was a semi-autonomous organ and was involved in several important political events between China and Japan during the 1920s, such as the assassination of Chinese warlord Zhang Zuolin in 1928 and the invasion of Manchuria 3 years later. Following the invasion and the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo Japan freed up many resources to increase the size of the Kwantung army. As such, at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the army consisted of close to 700.000 soldiers.
Already in 1937, the Second Sino-Japanese war broke out following the Marco Polo-bridge incident which was followed by a full-scale Japanese invasion of China. This meant that Yang Kyoungjong was drafted during the ongoing war and was sent to the front after his basic military training. In 1939 he was involved at the battles of Halhin Gol, on the Mongolian border. In short, even though the Soviet Union did not formally declare war on Japan until the last days of the second world war in 1945, there certainly were border disputes. The battles of Halhin Gol are part of the forgotten war between Japan and the Soviet Union, about the supposed border of Manchukuo.
Japan claimed the border was near the river Halha, but the Soviet Union and Mongols claimed it was about 15 kilometres to the east of the river. When a Mongolian cavalry unit entered the disputed territory to let their horses graze, a Japanese Kwantung-unit chased them back over the border. When the Mongols returned, a Japanese expeditionary force set out to fight them off again. Two weeks later a Japanese unit was surrounded by a much larger Soviet- and Mongol army. 105 Japanese soldiers were killed in action, and the rest was arrested. Among those arrested was the young Korean soldier Yang Kyoungjong. Although, admittedly, Yang could also have been detained during the subsequent battle between Soviet and Japanese forces, where over 100.000 troops and 1000 tanks and aircraft clashed resulting in over 40.000 casualties and the enforcement of border claims in accordance with the Soviet and Mongolian interpretation. Either way, what is for sure that Yang was arrested following these battles.
After his arrest, Yang was transported to the Soviet Union and imprisoned in a Prisoner of War camp, a Gulag. Two years after his imprisonment Operation Barbarossa commenced on the western front, and the Germans invaded the Soviet Union from the west. Because of a shortage of men, the Soviets decided to use prisoners of war to fight for them. In 1942 Yang was forced to serve in the Red Army, and one year later, in March 1943, he fought at the third battle of Kharkov. It was a massive confrontation between nearly half a million Red Army and Wehrmacht soldiers near Kharkov, Ukraine. The battle ended with the Germans suffering a bit over 11000 casualties, whereas the Red Army suffered over 85000. So, as you can probably tell, the battle ended in a German victory, albeit their last great success on the eastern front.
The victorious Germans took plenty of Red Army prisoners… among whom a Korean man that made clear he had been a Soviet prisoner of war forced to fight. It was Yang. Because the Germans suffered a shortage of men as well, they decided to enlist Yang in an Ost-bataillon. Ost-battalions were Wehrmacht units that consisted of non-Russian minorities of the Soviet Union. He served in the 709th infantry division under Wehrmacht General Karl Wilhelm von Schlieben. Yang’s division was sent to Normandy because of the structural lack of manpower defending the coastline. And, well, on the 6th of June 1944 D-Day commenced. Yang and his division defended Utah beach but were overran, and US troops subsequently captured Yang.
Although Yang has never given an interview about his ordeal, this photograph of Yang’s arrest providing his details to an American Army Captain is incredibly sad and telling one. Its caption on the United States military government archives say that ‘dismay and loneliness are written on his face’.
Now, Yang was unable to speak English or German and initially was identified as a Japanese soldier. He was transported to a POW camp in the United Kingdom, where he was interrogated in Korean. Following the end of the Second World War he emigrated to the United States, where he lived in Illinois for another 47 years until his death in 1992. His unusual story captured the attention of a South Korean filmmaker that adapted Yang’s life into the film ‘My Way’. And additionally, and this is the way I learned about Yang, Anthony Beevor’s introduction of his book The Second World War starts with the story of Yang. He wrote about Yang that he “remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.” Something that we can clearly see in the photograph taken of him following his surrender.
As far as the historiography goes, it seems that Yang Kyoungjong is the only soldier we know of that served in 3 different armies during the second world war. Although a close contender surely must be Lauri Törni, a Finnish soldier that enlisted in the German SS following Finland’s demobilisation, only to emigrate to the United States after the war and served in the US special forces during the Vietnam war.