Honoring a hidden army (China Daily)

One of the oldest surviving veterans of the communist-led guerrilla force that opposed Japanese troops during the dark days of occupation recalls her days fighting a hit-and-run campaign in the forests and mountains of Northeast China.

Female guerrillas pose for a photo during the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45). CHINA DAILY

As she rose slowly from her wheelchair to get a better view of the old black-and-white photos, Li Zaide, dressed in a green military uniform with a dozen badges across the chest, momentarily resembled the tough soldier she once was.

As she surveyed the photos of war-torn China at an exhibition in Beijing, the 98-year-old guerrilla veteran recalled the battles in the snow-covered forests, where she fought side by side with her late husband, her mother, who was executed by the Japanese, and the comrades she lost.

Li was born into a poor rural family in Japanese-occupied Korea in 1918. Two years later she was brought to China by her mother and grandmother and settled in a village in Heilongjiang province. The family struggled to make a living, but although things were bad, they quickly became much worse.

In 1931, the Japanese army invaded Northeast China and later established the Manchukuo puppet government.

In response to the invasion, the Chinese Communist Party formed a guerrilla force to harass the enemy, and in 1933, the Japanese began an offensive to track down guerrilla units across Heilongjiang.

In October of the same year, Li’s mother-a member of the CPC, still an underground organization at the time, in Tangyuan county in Heilongjiang-was arrested along with 12 colleagues.

“After being tortured by the Japanese soldiers, my mother and her comrades, who refused to give away any information about the organization, were drowned by being thrown headfirst into wells,” Li said.

Her mother’s execution prompted Li to join a 40-strong guerrilla unit and later join the CPC’s Youth League. “I want to live and avenge my mother,” she told the leader of the guerrilla unit.

“It was then I really began to realize that China was my new home. I hated the nightmare that was happening here,” she said.

She clearly remembers her first taste of combat, when her unit exchanged fire with a puppet government police squad in a forest. “It was chaotic. I couldn’t figure out where the bullets were coming from,” she said.

A woman learns how to shoot during the war. The guerrillas patrolled constantly, searching for small groups of Japanese and puppet army troops to attack. CHINA DAILY

Life on the run

The guerrillas patrolled constantly, searching for small groups of Japanese and puppet army troops to attack, but life in the mountains was difficult.

A shortage of food and the use of melted snow as drinking water resulted in many of the guerrillas contracting serious fevers and their wounds becoming infected.

Unable to hunt wild animals for food in case the gunshots were heard by the Japanese, the guerrillas began eating tree bark, but quickly stopped when they realized the trail of stripped trees would lead their enemies to them.

Lacking medical supplies, the guerrillas learned to use different plants to clean and sterilize wounds. “We didn’t have any simple medical equipment for dealing with gunshot wounds, let alone medicines such as anesthetics,” Li recalled.

The guerrillas “disinfected” gunshot wounds by wrapping a hot ramrod in a clean strip of cloth, inserting it into a wound and retracting it, then repeating the process until the rotten flesh had been cleared away.

“The only way to comfort the soldiers suffering the unspeakable pain was to tell them they would be able to keep fighting after they recovered,” she said.

The war was not just cruel in combat situations, though. The guerrillas were strict disciplinarians, and Li remembers how a soldier was executed because he had slept during sentry duty.

There were also moments of peace, short in duration but long-lived in the memory. In the summer, when the flowers blossomed in the valleys, Li picked bunches to wear in her hair or to decorate the tents they had captured from the Japanese.

“Sometime we danced and sang as if there was never a war,” said Li, who added that the guerrillas were always alert to the danger of surprise attacks.

Li often fought alongside Pei Chengchun, an older female guerrilla who cared for Li like a mother.

“Pei was a tough soldier during a fight, but she was a gentle woman when she was looking after me and the other young soldiers,” she said.

However, one day when Li was patrolling around the camp, she discovered Pei hiding behind a tree and weeping. “She had just learned that her younger brother had been killed in combat. That was the first and last time I saw her cry,” Li said.

Pei died in battle at age 31 as she provided covering fire for her comrades.

Li Zaide, a 98-year-old guerrilla veteran, joined the fight against the Japanese in Northeast China in 1932. WANG RU/CHINA DAILY

Crossing the border

Recently, Li has been watching the squares formed by female soldiers during the rehearsals for the Sept 3 parade that will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II and China’s victory in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45).

She said the women reminded her of female pioneers, such as her mother and Pei, who fought and died in the forests and were buried in the frozen soil more than 70 years ago.

In 1936, guerrilla units in different parts in Northeast China were reorganized to form the Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army, also known as NAJUA.

Li married in 1937, and in 1938, along with her unit and husband, she was sent across the border into what was then the Soviet Union, where she was taught radio communications techniques by the Soviet army. In 1939, she returned to China to join the NAJUA Third Army, commanded by General Zhao Shangzhi, who died as a prisoner of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, in 1942.

“General Zhao looked like an ordinary soldier instead of the chief commander. He had a glass eye, but his heart wasn’t false. He was truly committed to the liberation of the Chinese people,” she said.

Li later joined the 88th International Brigade under the command of the Soviets, but composed of Soviet, Chinese and Korean troops. In 1945, the brigade was later incorporated into the Soviet Army’s Far-Eastern Front, which was instrumental in Japan’s defeat in Northeast China.

A new life

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Li became the first Korean to be granted Chinese nationality. She moved to Beijing and began working in the library of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. She held the post until her retirement several decades ago.

She still has a battered notebook in which she recorded the names of the dead and injured soldiers from the different guerrilla units, many of whom had fought alongside her.

“It was their spirit of liberation and sacrifice that spurred me to fight against the invasion and work for peace,” she said.

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