Even in his 97th year, Sun Yinbai cannot forget the severed limbs and mangled corpses of the U.S. airmen strewn across the remote, wind-whipped landing strip.
American B-29s had bombed a Japanese aircraft factory on Nov. 21, 1944, and were flying hundreds of miles to safety on the Chinese mainland. The small and treacherous airfield at Ankang, a western outpost where Sun was serving as a military interpreter, was designated as their only option for refueling and repairs; at least two had lost an engine.
As the fifth plane touched down, it veered off the runway and plowed into another aircraft. A fireball erupted.
"There were body parts — hands and feet — everywhere," recalls Sun, then a fresh college graduate. "We had to go out and piece the remains together as best we could. When we ran out of stretchers, we used doors" to carry the corpses.
Sun's contribution to the Allied victory in World War II should have earned him some kind of commendation. But like tens of thousands of others who served in Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek's forces, Sun found history dealt him a cruel hand after the global conflict's end in 1945.
China's civil war resumed in 1946, and three years later Chiang's Nationalists fell to Mao Tse-tung's Red Army. Chiang and millions of supporters fled to Taiwan, but many others including Sun couldn't or wouldn't leave. For 60 years, not only did Sun's service go unrecognized by Communist authorities, but his affiliation with the Nationalists became a badge of shame — and nearly cost him his life during political witch hunts in the 1960s.
Now, though, as China prepares to mark the 70th anniversary of the war's end with a massive military parade and other fanfare, men like Sun are finally being brought halfway out of the shadows.
Communist leaders still refuse to acknowledge that it was Chiang's troops — not Mao's — who did the bulk of the fighting against the Japanese. In the last few years, though, Beijing has begun to acknowledge that Nationalist forces played a not-insignificant role.
A few in their dwindling ranks have been invited to participate in Beijing's anniversary commemoration on Sept. 3, the date Japanese forces in China surrendered. The government also recently announced that as many as 50,000 unheralded servicemen — who never received veterans' benefits or other state assistance — would be eligible for a one-time welfare payment of about $780.
"It's a very complicated relationship between the Communist Party and the Nationalists," says Sun, a retired history teacher, sitting in his quiet living room in Beijing, decorated with Chinese scrolls, a stack of dusty English dictionaries and a calendar printed by a nonprofit group that aims to keep alive memories of U.S.-China cooperation during the World War II era.
"The Communists didn't fight much, but they need to take credit for winning the war. They've made a lot of movies about this," Sun says. "Old people know what really happened, but I wonder about young people. They don't know, but they need to."
'It was very scary'
Men like Sun aren't the only fighters from the Chinese theater whose service went largely overlooked for decades. Some have been hidden in plain sight in the United States as well.
John Angel Chu, 92, was born in Oakland to Chinese immigrants. In the late 1930s, with Japan's occupation of China intensifying, Chu and a few other Chinese American teens began training at a Chinese aviation school in the Bay Area. In the summer of 1939, he dropped out of Alameda High School to volunteer with the Chinese air force.
Chu made his way to Kunming, in southern China, where he trained until 1941 and attained the rank of captain. Good airplanes, though, were in short supply — until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of that year prompted Washington to offer more assistance.
"After that, everything changed," recalls Chu. He ended up piloting P-40 fighters out of the city of Chongqing as part of the Chinese American Composite Wing, a successor group to the Flying Tigers that included American and Chinese personnel.
Between 1939 and 1943, Japan dropped more than 11,000 bombs on Chongqing. "Every time we went out, it was very scary," says Chu.
Pilots like Chu were not considered American servicemen by the U.S. military, though they were U.S. citizens and were fighting Japan. In fact, says Chu, he temporarily lost his citizenship because he had volunteered with a foreign military. (Americans who volunteered with Britain's Royal Air Force before the official U.S. entry into World War II faced a similar predicament.)
Chu stayed in China until 1949, when he was finally able to get his U.S. passport back. Friends who worked for an airline helped him get his Chinese-born wife and son to San Francisco. They were all detained in an immigration center for more than a week before they managed to extricate themselves.
Chu finished high school, studied engineering and became a draftsman and a mechanical engineer. He never received veterans' benefits from the U.S. or China. "There was really no recognition from the U.S., Taiwan or the mainland," he says.
But this summer, Taiwan's Nationalist-led government invited Chu, all expenses paid, to the island to mark the 70th anniversary. Taiwan's air force hosted a banquet, and he attended a large parade in Taipei, the capital.
"We enjoyed ourselves," he says. "There are not too many of us old-timers left."
Lizhen Wang, 63, who retired last year from Lockheed Martin in the Bay Area, has been chronicling the experiences of men like Chu. So far he's published seven books in Chinese (and a military thriller in English).
"None of these guys complain" about the lack of recognition, he says. "I find their stories fascinating."
Searching for stories
If Wang has a counterpart in mainland China, it might be Xue Gang, a 53-year-old Beijinger who runs a video production business. He is among a small clutch of amateur historians who have sought to track down and record the stories of unrecognized Nationalist soldiers before it is too late.
He has spent more than a decade looking for these aging fighters, finding about 15,000 and conducting interviews with about 1,000. The efforts of people like him have helped nudge Communist officials toward acknowledging the contributions of Nationalist troops.
Half of the old soldiers he meets, Xue says, are pleasantly surprised. "They're happy to tell you about their experiences — finally, someone cares," says Xue. "The other half, they have no courage, no confidence and don't want to reopen old wounds. Some families that I know for sure were with the Nationalists, I'll knock on their doors and they will utterly deny it."
Sun knows their pain well. After Japan's surrender, he returned to Beijing and became a high school English teacher. After the Communist victory in 1949 and the onset of the Cold War, English fell out of favor as a foreign language, supplanted by Russian. Sun switched to teaching history.
When Mao launched his Cultural Revolution in 1966 — a decadelong campaign of terror to smash old customs and traditions as well as root out any perceived enemies of the party — Sun's war-era affiliation with U.S. troops came back to haunt him.
Sun and two other teachers were denounced as American spies and savagely beaten. "I alone survived," Sun says. Afterward, he was sent to what was essentially a concentration camp for intellectuals. He remained there for two years.
At last, Sun was freed, and a bureaucrat arranged for him to get a job writing new history textbooks — all the previous ones had been destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. "I took up writing ancient world history," explains Sun wryly. "Chinese history is hard to write [honestly], but ancient Egypt and India, that was pretty safe."
With the 70th anniversary of the war's end approaching, Sun says he has heard he'll get some award. At this point, he has let go of whatever bitterness he had about his experience; life, he says, has been good. He married twice and had three daughters. One lives in San Francisco, and her children are U.S. citizens.
Sun pulls out an envelope with some newspaper clippings of a 2013 ceremony during which his name was inscribed on a monument to veterans on his college campus in the southern city of Kunming. Asked whether he has any pictures of himself during his service at Ankang, Sun shakes his head. "We had to burn all those in the 1960s," he says.
Despite those dark days, Sun still recalls his time in Ankang with the Americans with some fondness. He remembers being exhausted but unable to eat after the plane crash because he was so traumatized. An American medic offered him some medicine, saying it would help him regain his appetite.
After tossing the liquid down his throat, Sun asked the American what the medicine was. "'Whiskey,' he told me," recalls Sun, hooting with laughter.
It's a shame, says Xue, that China still has no official program to collect the stories of men such as Sun. The amateur historian says he's alarmed by the lack of knowledge among the public about what really happened during the war.
On the other hand, Xue's encouraged that the government has begun to shift its stance and more young people are curious to learn about the era. That, he hopes, may eventually help China mend fences with Taiwan and even Japan.
"Before 2010, all our 'history' was propaganda, but in the last five to six years, more facts have started to emerge," he says. "I'm just an ordinary person; I'm not an expert. But I have to do something — it's important that we know what our history is."
Tommy Yang in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.