Valor Friday

| May 20, 2022

Photo from just after D-Day, listed as “young Japanese man” in Wehrmacht uniform

Picture this. It’s 6 June, 1944. You’re a young lieutenant in the US Army’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division (the same regiment as the famous Band of Brothers). After being scattered all over the Normandy countryside, you and your men have regrouped and are pushing the war on the Germans at the edge of Fortress Europe in what was (and remains) the largest amphibious army operation ever.

In these first few chaotic days as Allied forces push forward from the beach and the Germans fight back your soldiers come across an odd and unexpected sight. They capture four men in Wehrmacht uniforms. This of course is not surprising. These men weren’t German though. Again, not entirely surprising. The Germans raised several units from non-Germans from other parts of Europe, as far away as Turkey.

What set these non-Germans in German uniforms apart was that they were Asian. They didn’t speak anything the Americans could translate. It’s safe to say they could have translated German and French at a minimum. Therefore it was assumed that these Asians were Japanese, who were allied with Germany as part of the Axis powers.

The story of one of these men is fantastical. It’s been widely reported as true, but there are also recent looks into the story that cast doubt on its accuracy. It seems as if this story comes largely from oral retellings, which come with potential errors. Since the man died 30 years ago, it’s not like we can ask him directly. That is, if he even existed in the first place. I’ll be writing as if it is a true story, because it’s just crazy enough to be true.

Born in 1920 in Heijo, Japanese Korea (the modern city of Pyongyang, North Korea), Yang Kyoungjong was drafted into the Kwantung Army. The Kwantung Army was made up of Korean conscripts pressed into service for the Japanese Empire, which was occupying the Korean Peninsula, in 1938.

While Japan and Russia had been at war (most notably the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905), they were technically not at war until the final days of the Second World War. They did however fight a series of border skirmishes between the Japanese occupied part of the Asian mainland and the Russian puppet state of Mongolia.

Yang was involved in one such battle, the Battles of Khalkhin Gol. Fought over the summer of 1939 at the Khalkha River in Mongolia, the battle saw between 20,000 and 30,000 Japanese troops face off against about 70,000 Soviet troops. The Japanese forces ultimately fell under an intense and concentrated force under the soon-to-be famous Russian General Georgy Zhukov. Zhukov’s offensive was such a rousing success that he earned his first of four titles of Hero of the Soviet Union.

Among those captured was Yang. He was sent to a Soviet prison gulag as a prisoner of war when the battle ended in September 1939. That was the month in which the Germans invaded Poland, alongside their then-allies the Soviets, starting World War II.

By 1941, the Soviet-German quasi-alliance had soured. The Nazis having a very low opinion of the Slavic peoples, Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, attacking the Russians. This opened the massively bloody Eastern Front, where millions would die in the coming years.

It was thus in 1942 that the Soviets decided to use the readily available slave labor rotting away in their notoriously brutal gulags. Yang, and many others, were pressed into service with the Soviet Army.

While fighting for the Soviets, Yang was captured by the Germans in 1943 in Ukraine. The Third Battle of Kharkov was a distinct German victory. Nearly 100,000 Soviet troops were killed or wounded in action in the month-long battle from mid-February to mid-March.

The Germans both recruited and conscripted troops from their prisoner of war camps. They also raised and organized foreign legion-like units composed of a particular ethnic group. It’s unclear if Yang was recruited or forced to serve, but he became a member of the Wehrmacht’s Osteinheiten (“eastern units”).

Such soldiers were rarely trusted with front-line duties, and so were relegated to rear echelon or coastal defense assignments. This probably was far better than life in a prison camp, even as a second class citizen among Germans. For someone like Yang, who would have had no love for either the Japanese occupiers nor the Soviets, it was probably especially appealing.

Yang’s third army would post him along the “safe” part of Germany’s Western Front in Normandy, France. Thanks to massive deception and counter-intelligence operations, the Germans didn’t think the Allies would be invading at Normandy. Of course, history records that that is exactly where they did land on 6 June 1944 in what became known as D-Day, the opening salvo of the larger Battle of Normandy.

It was in the fighting there that Yang’s war would finally come to a close. After serving in the armies of three belligerents in the conflict, and on all three major fronts (in the Far East, the Eastern Front, and the Western Front).

Post-war, Yang remained in American internment until 1947. It is said he moved to Illinois, became a US citizen, and passed away in 1992.

Now is the story true? Nobody can say definitively. Some historians have speculated that Yang never existed. Perhaps he is a composite. The photo at the top of the page is real, confirming that a man who is seemingly Korean and definitely Asian was in a German uniform and serving at Normandy. There has been postulation that the soldier pictured is in fact an ethnic Georgian or perhaps Kazakh. Both Georgia and Kazakhstan were part of the Soviet Union and both ethnicities bear more than a passing resemblance to other East Asians.

Category: Army, Historical, Valor, We Remember

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I find this story believeable. History is repleat with examples of men that would do anything to get out of a POW Camp. Maybe his goal was to get to the USA, eventually, and kept traveling west til he made it. He was most probably a very good American Citizen.

Great story, Mason, again. Thanks!


There is a Korean movie called “My Way” loosely based on this. It is very entertaining.

The Stranger

Join the Army, they said. You’ll see the world, they said!


No sh!t, there I was…


I thought my father in law was a uniform hunter having served in 3 separate branches of the services.

Steve 1371

My uncle Jim served aboard the USS Massachusetts in WW2. After the war he went into the Air Force. Not liking that he transferred to the regular Army. He finally retired as a WO4 after a total of thirty something years.


When I was in Germany back in the ’60s there was a cook at a site we were guarding. He was in the Polish army in ’39, then the Soviet army, and was currently in the American army. Poor guy was an alcoholic wreck, but I liked his food. Took me to a Labor Service canteen canteen a couple of times. Interesting. I was the only native English speaker. Had a Polish E6 in our company, too. Hell of a scrounger. Very popular guy for AG and CMMI inspections. Also a Polish kid who ’emigrated’ to Sweden when he got orders to RVN.

Then, a few months later in lush, exotic, RVN, there was an NCO at the replacement center in Cam Ranh bay. who was formerly in the French Foreign Legion.

There was a lot of “demographic mobility” during and after WWII for various reasons.