On Saturday, much of the world will commemorate the D-Day landings of June 6, 1944, which gave Allied forces a beachhead in France and led to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany in April 1945. In that remembrance, the sacrifices of British, European, Soviet, American, and Commonwealth nations are recounted and recognized. The experience and suffering of one World War II ally, however, is often under-reported: that nation is China, which lost 14 million people in the conflict.
In fact, World War II began earlier in China than in any other region. China’s war was fought almost exclusively against the Japanese, who invaded in 1937, coming over the Marco Polo Bridge southwest of Beijing on July 7 of that year. But a handful of Chinese also saw action in the European theater of war.
One of those was a young Chinese naval officer named Huang Tingxin, who left China for Britain in 1942 to take up training at the Royal Naval College in Greenwich, outside of London.
Sixty-four years later, Huang, long returned to China and living in Hangzhou, received a diplomatic visitor from Shanghai.
In a small ceremony at Huang’s home in 2006, French Consul General Jean-Marin Schuh awarded Huang the French Légion d’honneur, the highest order of military and civil honors that France bestows. The decoration is given to French citizens and foreigners alike for extraordinary performance and service to the nation, and for upholding French ideals.
In Huang’s case, the award was for his services toward the liberation of France during World War II. He and 23 other Chinese officers who trained with him in Britain were among the naval force that successfully supported and participated in the landings on the Normandy coast of France on D-Day. Those landings ultimately led to the liberation of Europe and the Allied victory over Nazi Germany.
Huang graduated from naval college in Qingdao, in eastern China’s Shandong province, in the late 1930s, the state-run China Daily reported in 2006, when Huang received the French honor. After their studies in Greenwich, he and his Chinese compatriots were then assigned internships on vessels operating within various fleets.
Huang’s posting placed him on HMS Searcher, a Bogue-class escort aircraft carrier built in the United States for the American and British war effort.
Huang kept watch over the ship’s angle to the sea and position within the formation of the fleet. China Daily reported that Huang recalled, “It was no small task as the smooth landing and take-off of aircraft depended on the tilt of the carrier.”
On the evening of June 5, Searcher sailed south out of Belfast. Only the next morning did Huang and the crew hear on the BBC that landings on the French coast had successfully taken place. “Only then did we know what our mission was that night,” Huang remembered. Searcher had served as an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) vessel in support of the landings.
“All of us were overjoyed at the news but we couldn’t feel completely relieved until our escort mission ended,” Huang is quoted as having said.
Just over two months later, Huang was again on board Searcher when it gave naval support to the Toulon landing in southern France on August 15.
That operation, called Operation Dragoon, landed Allied forces, including French troops, on a 30-mile stretch of coast between Toulon and Cannes, with a goal of capturing Marseille, the major French port, from the occupying Germans. The success of Dragoon ultimately led to the liberation of Paris.
“The Searcher and three other carriers participated in the battle. Our task was to cover the landing of the main force by attacking the German defense lines with aircraft launched from our carrier,” Huang told China Daily in 2005, a year before he received the French honor.
The distinction has been awarded since the order of the Légion d’honneur was first established by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802. Other Chinese recipients include the architect I. M. Pei, the novelist Jin Yong and Ba Jin, the widely-read anarchist writer who became a fierce critic of the Chinese Communist Party.
At the ceremony, Consul General Schuh told Huang, in Chinese, that “We will never forget that you and other Chinese people stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder when France was facing the most difficult situation during the war.”
“It was a great honor to join the anti-Nazi war,” Huang said upon the presentation. “After more than 60 years I am still very proud about it.”
China Daily said that the veteran’s face “lit up” as he was presented with the medal.
Huang said that he was reminded of his compatriots who also took part in D-Day. “The honor is not only for me; it belongs to all of them.” In 2006, Huang was the last surviving member of the tiny band of Chinese naval officers who took part in the European theater of war.
“Some other Chinese soldiers fought on the front line. One of my comrades showered thousands of artillery shells on the Nazi defenses,” Huang reminded his audience.
Huang went on to join the People’s Liberation Army Navy in 1949, after the Communists took over. A native of Anhui Province, he moved to neighboring Zhejiang in 1958, teaching English at Zhejiang Science and Technology University. He retired in 1971.
But the story of Huang and his fellow Chinese officers is one of many World War II events that was quashed in China in the decades after the Communists took over in 1949.
In fact, China was joined by most of its allies in failing to acknowledge its contribution and sacrifices in World War II, Oxford historian Rani Mitter argues in his book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945.
Asked in an interview in Pacific Standard why China’s history in the war “got lost,” Mitter responded, “I would say that one of the single facts, which is worth remembering if you want to annoy an official in the Chinese Communist Party, is… the primary reason that China today has a seat in the permanent five on the United Nations Security Council… is not because of anything that Chairman Mao did.”
Instead, Mitter said, “It was because of the wartime efforts of Chiang Kai-shek, and essentially as a direct result of China’s involvement on the Allied side in World War II” that China was given a seat at the “top table” of international diplomacy.
But the Cold War that ensued after the Communists took over mainland China made China’s contributions to the war a subject little discussed on both sides, Mitter suggested.
Mao had little interest in publicizing China’s role because by definition such a campaign would have to focus not only on the victories of the Communists, but also of the Nationalists and of his mortal enemy, Chiang Kai-shek. Official histories written in China after 1949 “essentially either dismissed or wiped out” the contributions of “the much larger Nationalist army,” Mitter said.
The West “quickly forgot about that wartime contribution, as well,” according to Mitter.
Why? Chiang Kai-shek was “seen as a sort of embarrassment… associated with incompetence and corruption.”
And too much attention on Chiang’s success in keeping Japan in the war for eight long years also highlighted the cooperation that his government had had with Germany, including Nazi Germany, from 1926 on. German advisers had helped China to modernize both its military forces as well as its industrial capabilities. In 1937, just before the Japanese invasion of China – which led to the end of Chinese-German cooperation — China had accepted a loan from the Nazi government to enable it to purchase weapons and machinery from Germany.
During the ceremony in Hangzhou, France’s consul general told Huang, “It is our responsibility to remember this forever.”
As with most history, eventually truths surface.
The author would like to thank Roland Evans for the idea to write this story.