Taiwanese veteran is witness to century of change

AP News
Posted: Aug 04, 2011 5:29 AM
Taiwanese veteran is witness to century of change

He is an old soldier now, almost as old as the republic he fought to defend.

As Taiwan marks the centenary of the Republic of China this year, 97-year-old Wei Hsien-wen can reflect on what was _ and what might have been.

When he was born, the republic was in its infancy, poised to build a new China after toppling the last imperial dynasty in 1911. Today, having lost the battle for China to the communists in 1949, it governs only the island of Taiwan and its 23 million people.

Wei's life spans nearly a century of often tumultuous history that set the stage for modern China's rise. He fought the Japanese in World War II and the communists in the Chinese civil war.

If he has any regrets, he hides them well. Taiwan no longer dreams of ruling China, and many Taiwanese are ignoring the centenary celebrations. They have moved on as their self-governing island has prospered as a high-tech center, adopted democracy and started looking to communist China as a vital economic partner.

"Things are good now," Wei says, gazing out on Taipei's modern skyline from the high-rise apartment he shares with his daughter. "All and all, I am pleased."


Wei was born on Jan. 12, 1914, just 27 months after an October 1911 uprising that led to the fall of the Qing dynasty _ captured in the movie, "The Last Emperor" _ and the founding of the Republic of China on Jan. 1, 1912.

His father was an officer for one of China's leading warlords, and with rents from inherited lands, the family was well off. Wei excelled in basketball and volleyball and passed provincial exams for university admission in Beijing.

"We had high hopes for the future," Wei says, recalling a nation primed to turn the corner on a century of foreign domination after casting off four millennia of imperial rule.

By then, the Nationalist Party under strongman Chiang Kai-shek had unified much of the country by force, starting with an attack in 1926 on his former communist allies in Shanghai in the first confrontation of the Chinese civil war.

But Japan invaded the northeast in 1931, and as the Japanese expanded along the east coast, Wei felt he had no choice but to follow his father into the military.

In 1937 he and other cadets set off on foot from Nanjing for the air force academy in Yunnan province in the remote southwest. Wei wore frail hemp shoes and a fraying cotton uniform, a gas mask dangling from his waist.

They traveled about 20 miles (30 kilometers) a day for weeks, often seeking cover from attacking Japanese aircraft.

The roads were rugged, Wei recalls, but the Yangtze River area seemed prosperous. Its bountiful supplies of rice and meat contrasted sharply with the barren countryside just north of his hometown of Taiyuan, where many got by on rice porridge.

Wei was trained first by Chinese instructors and then by the U.S. Flying Tigers under the command of the legendary Gen. Claire Chennault.

He qualified as a navigator, and was quickly dispatched to take on the enemy.

"The Japanese flew the swifter Zeros, but we were able to counter them," Wei says. "During missions over the sea, we flew extremely low and dropped bombs that hit the Japanese ships. Their machine guns hit the wings of our fighters but missed the engines."

By war's end, only half of the 60 comrades originally in Wei's unit were alive. Casualties were especially heavy the week before the Japanese surrender in 1945, when the then 31-year-old Wei was lucky enough to be away on his honeymoon.

The Chinese civil war, suspended to fight the Japanese, resumed in 1946. Wei initially flew support for Chiang's troops in the north and then became a logistical support officer in the same area.

At first the Nationalists held their own, even occupying Mao's headquarters in an isolated cave complex in northwestern China. But by 1948 their situation had deteriorated.

Wei's hometown fell to the communists in April 1949. Six months later a victorious Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the People's Republic of China, seemingly consigning the Republic of China to the dustbin just 38 years after its birth.


Wei, his wife, and two children fled to Taiwan, where Chiang set up a government in exile. Five of Wei's siblings remained on the mainland.

His first impressions of his new home were of a place where trains constantly stopped and started, and thousands of new arrivals from China spoke their own dialects, rather than Mandarin, the official language.

"Soldiers and businesspeople from all over China gathered on this small island," he says. "We hardly understood people from Fujian or Guangdong, not to mention the Taiwanese."

Wei remained in the air force. He was paid in the silver coins that Chiang had brought with him from the mainland.

Through most of the 1950s, even as China regularly shelled a group of islands held by Taiwan, Wei believed Chiang's promise that the Nationalists would soon attack across the Taiwan Strait and defeat the communists.

"We used bamboo chairs, desks and beds that were built to last only two or three years," he says, reflecting the prevailing feeling that Taiwan was a temporary home.

But the return never took place.

By the late 1960s when Wei's son and daughter graduated from college, Taiwan was beginning its transformation from agricultural backwater to industrial powerhouse, fueled by exports of toys, shoes, furniture and electronics, mostly to the U.S. and Europe.

Later, mainland China would follow the same export-driven formula to prosperity.

In 1991, President Lee Teng-hui declared that Taiwan would not seek to retake the mainland, abandoning 40 years of official policy. The announcement shocked many veterans, including Wei, who had retired as a colonel in 1969.

But he has come to terms with it and now opposes any reprise of fighting.

"It's not like the old days when Japanese guns often missed their targets," he says. "Casualties in any modern-day war would be really horrible."

In the past two decades he has returned to Taiyuan frequently and is buoyed by China's possibilities. He is a strong supporter of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's efforts to embark on an era of peace and economic cooperation.

"They are no longer our bitter enemies," Wei says of China's current leadership. "They are not like the Communists during the era of Mao Zedong."