Some people are just born cursed. While there are those whose lives seem inexplicably blessed with prosperity, comfort, and peace, others can be destined for squalor, chaos, and pain. Call it karma, luck, providence, or fate, it is tough to comprehend from our limited perspective why life is the way it is.
Why do some reprehensible people die in their late 80’s after a long life of debauchery and self-abuse while some saint succumbs in their teens to cancer? In medicine, you sometimes get fatalistic about it. The sweet little grandmother strikes her head and strokes out, while the unkillable thug catches half a dozen rounds in a drug deal gone bad and leaves the hospital under his own steam the next day. Someday God will explain such stuff to me face-to-face in a way I will understand. Until then, I haven’t a clue.
A Most Unusual Tale
In the peculiarly tragic life of Yang Kyoungjong, we see the curious power of fate at work. According to an interview by the esteemed historian Stephen Ambrose, there were at least four ethnic Asians captured by American forces in the opening days of the D-Day invasion. These troops purportedly did not speak German and were wearing Wehrmacht uniforms. One of these men has been identified as a Korean named Yang Kyoungjong.
Before we proceed, appreciate that there is controversy surrounding this story. It was related as fact for years and was even used in an online advertisement for a real estate company in St. John’s, Newfoundland. In 2011 Yang’s story formed the basis for a South Korean movie titled My Way. However, documentary filmmakers in Korea have researched the story and subsequently cast some doubt on its veracity. Regardless, the narrative is nonetheless both compelling and plausible. Try to just enjoy the ride.
Born in Korea on March 3, 1920, Yang was a conscript in the Kwantung Army in Manchuria. Operating between 1919 and 1945, the Kwantung Army was the most prestigious command in the IJA (Imperial Japanese Army). While the Kwantung Army saw a great many battlefield successes, they were also responsible for some of the war’s most egregious atrocities. Among these was the infamous Unit 731 which performed biological warfare experiments on both captured civilians and prisoners of war.
Manpower was always a critical component of any WW2 military campaign. The United States enjoyed vast resources of both men and raw materials for military production. The British drew from across the Commonwealth. The Germans, Japanese, and Russians harvested meat wherever it could be found and threw a uniform on it. This resulted in some peculiar loyalties.
Yang Kyoungjong was first press-ganged into service in 1938 at age 18. The following year he was captured by Red Army troops during the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol and remanded to a forced labor camp. By 1942 the Soviet Union was in dire straits and faced the very real probability of national extinction at the hands of the Nazis. This drove Russian commanders to some desperate places.
When you’re packed into a prison camp alongside several thousand of your mates subsisting on sawdust bread and whatever rats you can catch, most anything seems like an improvement. When the desperate Russians came looking for cannon fodder, Yang either volunteered or didn’t resist unduly. Either way, he soon found himself in a Soviet greatcoat fighting under the red banner for Mother Russia and Marxism.
In 1943, Yang found himself in Ukraine at the Battle of Kharkov. The Battle of Kharkov was actually four distinct battles spanning nearly two years. The first began in October of 1941 when the Germans captured the city. The last took place in late summer 1943 when the Soviets finally won it back for good. It was the Third Battle of Kharkov in February of 1943 that saw Yang captured by the Germans.
By now the tide was turning against the Nazis, and they were beginning to sense the mess they had gotten themselves into. With war raging on three fronts, the German High Command began harvesting the dregs for manpower. Where previously service in the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS might have been a prestigious thing that was both selective and competitive, by this point in the war if you could stand and hold a rifle you met the entrance standards. As a result, Yang Kyoungjong found himself wearing field gray in an Ost-Bataillone.
These scratch units went by several titles. Osttruppen, Osteinheiten, and Ostlegionen all meant similar things. With piles of bored and starving Soviet conscripts languishing in prison camps, the Germans enlisted those they felt might be ideologically malleable into these ad hoc support units. Results were predictably mixed.
Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely
Josef Stalin was a turd. He was a relatively small man at 5 foot 5 inches tall. He was also ugly. A severe bout with smallpox as a child left him badly scarred. Stalin was directly responsible for the deaths of between 20 and 40 million people. This makes Josef Stalin one of the most prolific mass murderers in human history.
Stalin ruthlessly enforced a weird sense of justice. To be captured by the enemy in battle was frequently viewed as being tantamount to cowardice or even treason. A great many captured Soviet soldiers faced harsh imprisonment or execution upon repatriation. As a result, while most soldiers like Yang had little use for Naziism, they did find service in an Ost-bataillone preferable to the alternative.
Ost-Bataillones were battalion-sized units comprised of a mixture of volunteers and conscripts who were most typically posted in support roles away from the front-line fighting. This allowed the Germans to use their own troops for more serious work. The Ostlegionen were larger formations that were usually ethnically similar and comprised of multiple battalions. One of the roles for which the Germans used these foreign units was as defensive troops in fixed fortifications in fairly quiet places. In early June 1944, that is what brought Yang Kyoungjong to the placid beaches of Normandy, France.
Operation Overlord was the most extensive amphibious invasion in human history. Given advances in intelligence, logistics, and military technology it is highly unlikely that this performance will ever be repeated on such a grandiose scale. One of the more revolutionary aspects of the invasion was the widespread use of airborne forces.
The Germans really pioneered the widespread use of paratroops. The airborne assault on Crete in 1941 was ultimately successful but only at a fearsome cost. Hitler refused to authorize any further large-scale use of parachute forces in their intended role as a result. German fallschirmjagers were subsequently used as elite light infantry for the rest of the war. The Allies, however, aggressively developed the concept of airborne vertical envelopment.
Most of the 13,000 Allied paratroopers dropped on D-Day did not accomplish their specific assigned tactical objectives. Intense ground fire and chaos among the lift aircraft ensured that units were spread randomly and piecemeal across the Norman countryside. However, once these aggressive, highly-trained airborne warriors touched down they proceeded to sow chaos among German combat and support units wherever they found them.
One of these American paratroopers was LT Robert Brewer of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. According to the Stephen Ambrose interview, Yang was one of four Asians in Wehrmacht uniforms LT Brewer and his men captured in the immediate aftermath of the D-Day invasion. At the time it was presumed that the four were Japanese. It was later determined that Yang’s three companions were from Turkestan. Yang was processed and sent across the channel to a POW camp in Britain. From there he was further removed to a camp in the US.
The American Dream
The American South was dotted with such camps during and immediately after the war. My family and I lived in Clinton, Mississippi, while I was in medical school. The POW camp outside Clinton had long since been transformed into a sweeping grassy park, but it still retained fields of daffodils planted and cultivated by the 3,000 German and Italian POWs who were held there during the war. Most of the Clinton prisoners were members of the Afrika Korps captured in North Africa early in the war. There is a small contingent of graves in the Jackson, Mississippi, cemetery occupied by German troops who perished in captivity.
Yang Kyoungjong was finally released from captivity in 1947. After such a violent and circuitous trek across all those Asian and European battlefields, Yang was purportedly none too keen to return to the nation of his birth. By the time of his release, he had already been away from home for nearly a decade.
Yang purportedly opted to remain in the United States after his release. He is said to have settled in Evanston, Illinois. He died there in April of 1992 at the age of 72.
It is easy to lose the trees for the forest when it comes to the study of war. I have a rabid addiction to military history books myself. My home sags under the weight of such. This is where I find much of the inspiration for our efforts here. My perennial challenge is finding tales of the individual soldier.
Book shops are dirty with tomes about Generals and campaigns. Memoirs about the movement of armies have occupied many a retired General officer in his waning years. However, what fascinates me are the tales of the regular private soldier. The humble dogface is the single entity who does most of the suffering and, in so doing, wins the wars his political leaders craft for him. In the curious tale of Yang Kyoungjong, we find the story of a normal guy caught up in some decidedly abnormal circumstances. I for one hope hope his life was ultimately warm and fulfilling.
Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at email@example.com.
Claim During World War I, German and Russian forces declared a temporary ceasefire and banded together to hunt wolves. The voracious animals were attracted to the prolific and gruesome scavenging available in the warzone, attacking soldiers and civilians alike.
Origin Multiple newspapers in 1917 reported on this story, including the El Paso Herald, Oklahoma City Times, and New York Times. Since then, it’s become a favorite bit of bar room banter among amateur historians, like the powerful Joe Rogan.
Facts In February of 1917, a dispatch from Berlin noted large packs of wolves moving into populated areas of the German Empire from the forests of Lithuania and Volhynia. Locals hypothesized that war efforts displaced the wolves, so the canines started seeking out new hunting grounds.
The hungry wolves infiltrated rural villages, attacking calves, sheep, goats, and in two cases, children. They also showed up on the front lines, feeding on the fallen and sometimes taking advantage of incapacitated fighters.
“Parties of Russian and German scouts met recently and were hotly engaged in a skirmish when a large pack of wolves dashed on the scene and attacked the wounded,” reported a 1917 Oklahoma City Times article. “Hostilities were at once suspended and Germans and Russians instinctively attacked the pack, killing about 50 wolves.”
The Russian and German soldiers temporarily stopped being enemies once they found a common foe. Both sides agreed to a cease fire if the wolves interrupted another battle.
“Poison, rifle fire, hand grenades, and even machine guns were successively tried in attempts to eradicate the nuisance,” according to a 1917 New York Times article. “But all to no avail. The wolves—nowhere to be found quite so large and powerful as in Russia—were desperate in their hunger and regardless of danger.
“As a last resort, the two adversaries, with the consent of their commanders, entered into negotiations for an armistice and joined forces to overcome the wolf plague.”
Takeaway Though seemingly far-fetched, it turns out these claims are mostly accurate. Historians estimate that soldiers killed hundreds of wolves during the war, and that the surviving wolves fled to escape a “carnage the like of which they had never encountered.”
For a brief moment, a kind of peace spread across the battlefield, even though gunshots and grenade explosions continued to ring out.
It’s tough for the modern mind to comprehend the scope of the Second World War. During those six years, the combatant nations produced enough bullets to shoot every human being on the planet forty times. 12.2 million Americans served. 407,316 died.
The final planetary death toll was somewhere between 70 and 85 million people. That’s roughly 3% of the world’s population. Nearly one-fifth of the Soviet population perished.
WW2 touched almost everybody on earth. If you didn’t have a loved one serving you certainly knew someone who did. My friend enlisted in 1940.
He fought in North Africa before heading to Sicily for Operation Husky. He then landed at Salerno in September of 1943 as part of Operation Avalanche. Afterward, he fought past places like Rome and Monte Cassino. Nearly 70,000 Allied soldiers died in the Italian campaign.
By the mid-1940s warfare was a very dynamic thing. The advent of the tank and, more importantly, the military truck ensured that battle lines ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of fate, strategy, and logistics. The Italian campaign, however, lasted nearly two years. This gave the combatants time to get to know each other.
Italy was a grunt’s nightmare. Steep natural defiles impeded maneuver while minimizing the effectiveness of air power and artillery. When combined with cold, wet, miserable weather this all conspired to create a relatively static battlefield, particularly in wintertime. In 1944 with the offensive temporarily stalled my friend’s unit dug in and made itself at home.
Things then got a bit weird. In some areas, the German and American positions were within shouting range, sometimes for days on end. In my buddy’s unit, nobody spoke German. However, a few of the corresponding Germans did speak English. The two sides would pass the time by hurling insults at each other punctuated by the occasional hand grenade. My friend acquired a decent repertoire of German profanity.
In this particular area, the Americans held the ridgeline, while the Germans occupied the valley. Each side would sporadically exchange rifle and machinegun fire as necessity dictated. However, most grunts on both sides just wanted to live long enough to go home.
A modest road snaked through the valley at the base of my buddy’s ridge. Fairly frequently German troops would cruise down the road, sometimes in vehicles like trucks or Kubelwagens, occasionally on horseback, and often on foot. The road was at the limits of effective rifle range but oriented directly underneath the American positions.
My friend said neither side was in any real hurry to shoot at the other. Small arms fire invariably precipitated mortars or artillery in response. Nobody likes being on the receiving end of the field artillery. One frigid evening as my buddy sat shivering in his foxhole he had an epiphany.
The next afternoon late he and his pals took a bunch of Mk 2 hand grenades and packed snow tightly around them before pouring water over the whole frozen mess. The water froze in short order, locking the grenade spoons in place. The US troops then gently removed the safety pins from the grenades and gave these high explosive snowballs a gentle shove down the mountainside.
By the time these frosty bombs reached the bottom of the hill, they were thoroughly encased in ice and ample accumulated snow. The geography of the situation was such that each diabolical frozen snowball came to rest in the road below. Then they just waited.
The English word “grenade” dates back to the 1590s and is derived from the French word “pomegranate.” The hand grenade’s obvious similarity to this poly-seeded fruit was the overt inspiration. The concept of the hand grenade dates back much farther, however.
Simple incendiary grenades were used by the Byzantines as far back as the 8th century. Byzantine troops found that they could fashion glass and ceramic containers filled with Greek Fire and use them to visit chaos upon a nearby enemy. Greek Fire was some fascinating stuff indeed.
Even today nobody is completely sure what made up Greek Fire. The stuff was most typically expelled from a device similar to a modern-day flamethrower and was used in ship-to-ship naval battles. Greek Fire was rumored to continue burning once in contact with water. Some suggested components included quicklime, naphtha, pine resin, sulfur, niter, and calcium phosphide.
True explosive grenades as we appreciate them really arose in China about a thousand years ago. They were rather theatrically called Zhen Tian Lei or “Sky-Shaking Thunder.” These rudimentary devices consisted of gunpowder packed into metal or ceramic containers. Fuse-fired cast iron versions first saw service in Europe in the mid-1400s.
The Ketchum Grenade was fin-stabilized and featured a nose-mounted impact fuse. These weapons were first used by Union forces during the American Civil War. Confederate counterparts were simpler spherical things that weighed up to six pounds and used sensitive paper fuses.
In 1902 the British War Office declared hand grenades to be obsolete. However, nobody bothered telling the Germans so they started churning out stick grenades by the zillions in 1915. In that same year, the British saw the light and began producing the Mills Bomb, the world’s first truly modern fragmentation grenade.
The Mills Bomb was a product of the fertile imagination of one William Mills and was deeply serrated. In theory, this was supposed to create predictable fragmentation. In practice, these knobs made very little difference to exactly how the grenade burst. The typical British Tommy was expected to be able to throw a Mills Bomb at least thirty meters, though the danger zone was advertised as being closer to 100. By the end of WW1, the warring nations had produced about 75 million hand grenades.
The Mk 2 Pineapple Grenade
The Mk 1 grenade was one of the world’s first time-fused grenades. However, deploying the Mk 1 was a fairly convoluted chore, and many were thrown without being properly lit. The Germans were frequently all too willing to light these things up and toss them back. This led to the definitive Mk 2.
The classic Mk2 Pineapple grenade was first introduced to US forces in 1918 just as the First World War was winding down. Despite orders for some 44 million copies very few of these handy little bombs saw service before the armistice. By the onset of WW2, however, the Mk 2 was ready for prime time.
The Mk 2 hand grenade featured a cast iron body with a grooved surface divided into forty prominent knobs in five rows of eight columns. Like the Mills Bomb, these knobs actually did very little for controlling fragmentation but did make the grenade easier to grip. The obvious similarity to the pineapple fruit forever associated the two terms.
The Mk 2 typically sported a time fuse with a 4 to 5-second delay. Fillers included TNT, Grenite, a 50/50 combination of amatol and nitrostarch, a proprietary explosive called Trojan comprised of ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate, and nitrostarch, or smokeless EC powder.
EC powder was a 19th-century formulation of potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, and nitro-cotton gelatinized with ether alcohol. This same stuff was sometimes used as a propellant in shotgun shells. The Mk 2 weighed about 21 ounces depending upon the particular filler and was most unpleasant up close, particularly in enclosed spaces.
The Rest of the Story
By late winter, the snow was thick on the ridgeline, but the temperature fluctuated from sunny and warm in the daytime to well below freezing at night. My friend and his buddies would liberally seed the German road below with frozen snowball grenades at night and then go about their business. The following day the sun would come up and gradually melt the ice-encased bombs.
The end result was a steady stream of random detonations along the German road throughout the day. My friend said he had a clear conscience as he was effectively harassing the enemy without exposing himself or his men to any incremental danger. After the first few days of random grenade explosions, the Germans lost their enthusiasm and stopped running couriers and supply vehicles within sight of American positions.
My pal told me that, as near as he could tell, they never killed anybody with their curious explosive snowballs. However, they did effectively deny the enemy use of a handy supply and communications route while suffering no casualties in the process. Eventually, the weather improved and Allied forces resumed pushing the Germans back up the Italian peninsula.
Like most heroes of his generation, my friend came home from the war ready to create and to build. He went decades without discussing his wartime experiences with anybody, preferring to focus on more pleasant stuff. I was blessed with this story sitting on a porch swing with him soon after I finished Airborne School back in the 1980s.
Our friendship blossomed, and I got to hear many such tales. Along the way, I also married his granddaughter. He was and remains one of my heroes.