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Yang Kyoungjong: The Reluctant Soldier by WILL DABBS

This may or may not be Yang Kyoungjong. Yang’s was one of the more bizarre stories to come out of World War 2.

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.

Sometimes the thugs can seem indestructible. Mind that trigger finger, stud.

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

The German military was quite the heterogeneous mob by the end of the war.

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.

Yang Kyoungjong’s story has been immortalized in film.

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.

Yang Kyoungjong was first forced to serve in the Japanese Kwantung Army.

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.

World War 2 was a brute force battle of meat. For the Axis in particular there was always a shortage of manpower.

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.

Life in a Russian gulag was ghastly.

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.

For Yang Kyoungjong, combat seemed preferable to life in a Russian POW camp.

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.

Yang was captured by the Germans during the Third Battle of Kharkov.

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 the end of the war, the Germans were using troops from all over their conquered territories.

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.

Most Osttruppen were not intended to be used in front-line applications.

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 one of history’s most prominent psychopaths.

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 looked like an amiable grandfather. He wasn’t.

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.

The Germans used the Osttruppen to flesh out their ranks so reliable soldiers were available for combat roles.

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.

Capture

It’s tough to get your head around just how massive the D-Day invasion was.

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.

German Fallschirmjägers introduced the world to the capabilities of airborne forces in battle.

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.

These hard young studs made life miserable for the Germans in Normandy.

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.

American paratroopers captured large numbers of prisoners in the days immediately following the invasion.

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

My kids and I used to play on the site of this old WW2 POW camp outside Clinton, Mississippi.

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.

Shockingly large numbers of Axis prisoners were held in American POW camps.

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 Kyoungjong was inclined to remain in the US after having such a horrible experience fighting in WW2.

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.

Ruminations

It is in the lot of the private soldier that we find the true pathos of war.

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.

It seems to me that Yang Kyoungjong did his time as a soldier. I hope that the rest of his life was peaceful.

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.

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Sayago: police officer had ice cream with his son and repelled a shooting assault
Two men approached the ice cream parlor, the policeman identified himself and repelled them.
 One of the criminals ended up injured.
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THE ARMORY LIFE FLIES A BRITISH SPITFIRE By Will Dabbs, MD

Rudy Augarten wasn’t a war junkie, but he certainly found his share of war. Augarten flew P-47 Thunderbolts for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. He was shot down over Normandy in 1944 and captured, but ultimately escaped. He then returned to his unit to fly and fight some more, eventually logging more than 90 combat missions. Like countless other American veterans, once the war was over he went home secure in the realization that he had helped rid the world of a vile scourge. However, events brewing in the Middle East were conspiring to put him back in the cockpit of a warplane yet again.

modern spitfire
The Supermarine Spitfire is one of the iconic fighter aircraft from World War II. It was developed in the United Kingdom. Photo: Adrian Pingstone/Released to public domain

In the aftermath of the world’s bloodiest conflict, the British were ready to divest themselves of some of their more fulminant holdings. I’ll spare you a discourse on the political details, because I frankly do not understand them all that well myself. Regardless, on May 14, 1948, the Israelis acted at the end of the British Mandate for Palestine to declare independence and establish a free-standing state. The following day a military coalition of Arab nations including Egypt, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen declared war.

spitfire landing gear
The Spitfire was known for its narrow track landing gear as well as its excellent flying characteristics.

This was a time of profound desperation for the burgeoning Israeli state. Bereft of serious weapons and stifled by suffocating arms embargoes, they faced the combined organized militaries of seven nation states. Things looked grim, indeed. However, these people were still reeling from the Holocaust and were frankly tired of being pushed around. The stage was set for a proper scrap.

american spitfire
Spitfires are associated with Britain, but they were used by many allied countries including the United States. This one was photographed in England in January 1944. Photo: NARA

Most of the world opposed them, but the Israelis were understandably driven and well-funded by expatriates overseas. One of the critical components of their early national survival was Operation Velvetta. Also known as Operation Alabama, this was the mission to obtain fighter planes for the nascent Israeli Air Force. The narrative reads like a movie script.

operational modern spitfire
The Spitfire is a timeless war machine. There are around seventy examples still flying today, including this one that the author flew.

In 1948, Europe was still a wasteland. Amidst the pervasive detritus of global war, Jewish clandestine operatives secretly purchased 60 surplus British Spitfires for $23,000 apiece from Czechoslovakia. After surreptitiously sneaking them into the country, they were destined to join a handful of former-Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf-109’s and a smattering of P-51 Mustangs. A short three weeks later on October 16th there were still only ten fully operational fighter planes in the entire country. Some two dozen volunteer fighter pilots had answered the call to man those planes. Rudy Augarten was one of them.

british spitfire battle of balikpapan borneo
British Spitfires are deployed at the airbase in Balikpapan, Borneo in July 1945. Photo: NARA

On October 19, 1948, Rudy Augarten was at the controls of a freshly imported Spitfire alongside his wingman, Canadian Jack Doyle. The previous day Augarten had downed an Egyptian Spitfire while at the controls of an Israeli Bf-109. Now Augarten and Doyle were patrolling high above the Negev Desert looking for trouble. Off in the distance they found it in the form of four Egyptian Spits flying in formation.

wrecked us spitfire
A U.S. Army soldier and U.S. Coast Guardsman examine a downed Spitfire on the beach near Paestum, Italy in September 1943. Photo: NARA

Outnumbered two to one while flying identical machines, Augarten and Doyle still had a singular advantage. They were a product of the American and Canadian fighter pilot training system. This made them capable, aggressive and competent. Carefully rolling around to put the sun behind them, the two Israeli pilots each picked a target and opened up with their 20mm cannon. The first two Egyptian fighters fell trailing smoke and exploded on the desert floor below. The Israelis damaged the other two Spits before returning to base for fuel and ammo.

british spitfire in france 1945
Dusted with snow in France, this Spitfire prepares for a mission against the Germans in January 1945. Photo: NARA

Rudy Augarten ultimately downed four enemy aircraft while flying for the newly minted Israeli Air Force. One of his kills was in the Bf-109, two in the Spitfire, and the last at the controls of an Israeli Mustang. Only one other Israeli pilot matched his score. After the war, Augarten remained in Israel to help train the next generation of Israeli aviators. He then returned to the States to complete his college degree at Harvard University. Following his graduation he returned to Israel once again and dug out his old IAF uniform. He spent two years in command of the Ramat David air base and eventually retired as a Lieutenant Colonel.

The Plane

The competitive performance of the Supermarine Spitfire during the Israeli War for Independence illustrates the unique nature of the design. The Spitfire first flew in 1936. During the course of the war it went through 24 successive Marks. Some 20,351 were built. The Israelis got their first copy in 1948.

supermarine spitfire diagram
RAF pilots in Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes prevented the extinguishing of the last lamp in Europe before the New World came to her assistance. Image: NARA

Twelve years is an absolute eternity in the world of combat aircraft development, particularly during the maelstrom that was the Second World War. However, the Spitfire remained competitive with other machines from start to finish. The basic airframe lent itself to drastic upgrades in both engine power and armament. Few other fighter designs have been so versatile.

The Spitfire was originally designed as a short-range, high-speed interceptor by R.J. Mitchell, the chief designer for the Supermarine Company. The most iconic aspect of the Spitfire’s design was its graceful elliptical wing. Designed to be both thin and strong, this geometry, though fairly difficult to produce, greatly enhanced the plane’s performance.

dwight eisenhower with spitfire
General Dwight D. Eisenhower talks to flight officer A. K. Asbos of Brisbane, Australia. In his Spitfire, Asbos escorted the general’s plane from England to Normandy where this image was taken. Photo: NARA

The original Spitfires sported a 1,030 hp Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The final Marks featured a Rolls-Royce Griffon producing 2,340 hp, more than twice the output of the original powerplant. Such flexibility speaks to the extraordinary nature of the design.

spitfire escorting b-17 bomber over germany
This B-17 bomber (381st Bombardment Group (Heavy)) is escorted over Europe by a Supermarine Spitfire on September 29, 1943. Photo: NARA

The graceful semi-monocoque, duralumin fuselage was a bear to build in quantity. The architecture included multiple compound vertical curves that complicated production. The plane’s metal skeleton was built around nineteen separate formers that spanned from behind the propellor to the tail along with fourteen longitudinal stringers and four longerons. Mass production was facilitated by a series of jigs that kept everything in place during assembly.

supermarine spitfire in gibraltar

The landing gear of the Spitfire folded outward and resulted in a narrow ground track. While the narrow track gear on the Messerschmitt Bf-109 has been rightfully maligned, that of the Spitfire is not much wider. However, the Spit’s landing gear deployed into a near-vertical state that was much stronger than that of its German counterpart.

Early Spitfires carried eight .303-caliber Browning machineguns adapted for open-bolt operation. Later Spits were armed with four 20mm Hispano autocannon. Interstitial models carried combinations of these two weapons. A few even incorporated American .50-caliber guns as well.

Impressions

I have actually had the privilege of flying a Spitfire myself. The big 1,600-hp Merlin engine of the one I flew produces a throaty rumble that is simply breathtaking to behold up close. The long nose and conventional landing gear layout conspire to impair visibility on the ground. This means the pilot must S-turn while taxiing to keep the plane pointed in the right direction.

author flying the spitfire
As a pilot, the author found it to be an amazing privilege to take the controls of this $4 million restored British fighter plane.

Once in the air the plane is almost too cool to describe. The Mk IX will reach beyond 400 mph, well over twice the top speed of most civil prop-driven aircraft, without breaking a sweat. The Spitfire accelerates very quickly in the dive, and it’s natural agility will ruin you to lesser craft. The cockpit layout and instrumentation are surprisingly crude by modern standards. Rolling inverted in a vintage Spitfire is an incomparable rush.

spitfire cockpit
The Spitfire’s cockpit is fairly primitive by modern standards. Nevertheless, it was this office from which RAF pilots went to work on German bombers headed toward England.

There are around 70 Spitfires remaining in flyable condition today. Brad Pitt owns one he bought for a cool $3.3 million. If I ever win the lottery and find myself with some serious change burning a hole in my pocket, Brad is the first guy I’m going to call. Perhaps he’s grown tired of his.

flying a spitfire in 2022
Named the Grey Nurse, this Spitfire is an Mk IXe built in 1945. It was converted to a two-cockpit trainer after WWII and was seen in the movie The Battle of Britain (1969) with Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and others.

Thanks to www.flyaspitfire.com for the opportunity to