Child during WWII and Chinese Civil War depicts the trauma of life in war

May 22, 2017 — by Caitlyn Chen

Junior's grandmother recounts experience living through World War II and the Chinese Civil War.

My dad’s mother Ko-Hua Chen, only 7 at the time, was walking from home to her elementary school 3 miles away in Jiangxi, China, in 1941. From a distance, she heard the whirring sounds of a helicopter — one of the first ones ever used in war — and spotted it, low in the sky.

She swore she could see the face of the Japanese pilot. Quickly, she ran away from the street, walking through the cemetery instead to hide from the looming enemy planes above.

Whenever they heard the planes get nearer, she would duck in bomb shelters ditches, crouching, without saying a word. When she could no longer hear the blaring of the helicopters above, she got up, and some of her classmates were standing by a tombstone, staring at a broken burial and the bones of a dead person inside.

“In the eight years [during World War II], [the Japanese] kept on dropping bombs on our country, and trespassing into our country,” she told me, now 85-years-old. “They would harm the civilians — killing people who were not even part of the army.”

She was just five at the start of the war and 13 by the end.  

“[World War II] was a traumatic eight years of my life,” she said, “and it defined my childhood.”

During the time, many of her brothers, uncles and family friends enlisted in the army. The Japanese had been invading the Chinese mainland since 1937 in the Nanking Massacre. When World War II began in 1939, Japanese forces expanded into my grandma’s hometown of Jiangxi in the south. Even her father gave his life to the cause.

Her dad, my great grandpa, was a doctor who ran a clinic in Zhangzhou (in Fujian) before the war started. When the war began, her dad YeZai Shuai closed the clinic and went to help out in the army hospital, caring for the wounded soldiers from the frontline.

But one time, she told me, her dad was caring for a wounded soldier who had gone to the front lines to fight and was hurt — but not hurt badly. My great grandpa said that he could go fight again, but the soldier refused to go because he was scared of the war.

Later, my great grandpa told him he had to go back to fight, because he couldn’t stay in the hospital any longer.

The soldier got mad, took a gun and killed her father.   

“My dad gave his name to the army," she said.

After living through the merciless fighting against the Japanese, she said she was glad the U.S. entered the war in 1941  and could help end the fighting.

At the time, she could not help believing that the Japanese had “bad hearts,” after all they had done to her, her family and friends.

But looking back on it, as we read in our  history textbooks today, this idea of Japanese militarism — that surrender was considered worse than death — was something ingrained in their culture as a result of Emperor Hirohito’s reign.

The Japanese were made to believe that the strength of the military is equal to the strength of a nation, and so they were “merciless” to the Chinese, my grandma said.

“I’m so thankful for America for dropping the two atomic bombs that made Japan surrender,” she said. “Or else, Japan would keep dropping bombs on China.”

My grandma thought that was the end of the war, but only a few years later in 1946, the Chinese Civil War began, the communists led by Mao Ze Dong and the nationalists led by Jiang Kaishek. At the time, my grandma lived in her uncle’s house, while her mother, a nurse, helped soldiers in the front lines. Even as she helped her uncle with housework every day, my grandma said sometimes there there was no food on the table. Because of wartime inflation, a handful of rice would cost one Yuan one day and  the next, it would cost three.

By the time she was 17, the fighting had reached her hometown in Fujian, FuZhou, China, and she had to leave her uncle’s house. She didn’t take the pictures of her mother and father off her desk; she didn’t know she would never come back for them.

Her family fled the country and moved to the island of Taiwan. While the communists continued to fight for power in the mainland until 1961, she was able to find peace in Taiwan, and studied to be teacher. She ended up being second place in her class, right after my grandpa, who took the No. 1 spot.

“I was never able to beat number one!” she laughed. “He was pretty incredible.”

Thereafter, she got a job as an elementary school teacher and began raising four children in Taiwan. When her children, including my dad, graduated from undergraduate schools in Taiwan, they all moved to California for graduate school. Four decades after the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1993, she would join her children in California after retiring from her teaching job of over 36 years.

Still, even years after the war she would wake up from sleep in a cold sweat, thinking she was hearing the whirring sounds of enemy planes. She has never forgotten what she lived through, and only hoped it would never happen again in her lifetime.

“It was hard to focus on my studies during that time,” she said. “The war defined my life, and I’m glad I could redefine it since then.”


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