Foreign Volunteers in the Chinese Civil War


Koreans fighting with the People’s Liberation Army move down a mountain track during the winter of 1947. Thousands of Koreans fought for the Communists in China during the 1937-45 period and most remained to help their comrades defeat the Nationalists. Their homeland had been occupied by the Japanese since 1910 so they were happy to fight the Imperial Army alongside the Chinese. Most returned home in 1948 when the new People’s Republic of North Korea formed its own army.

Both the Nationalists and the Communists employed former Japanese soldiers in their armies during the Civil War. The Communists used former prisoners of war to operate their artillery and to crew captured tanks for them. They are also said to have used thousands of ex-Japanese soldiers to train new People’s Liberation Army recruits. Japanese civilians trapped in China at the end of the war in August 1945 were employed in Communist arms factories where they passed on their skills to Chinese workers.

On the Nationalist side there was widespread use of former Japanese soldiers, including about 6,000 who served in the army of the `Shansi warlord’ Yen Hsi-shan. About 5,000 of these troops were organized into six railway guards units to keep the vital supply lines open between Yen’s strongholds. Yen is also reported to have used former Japanese officers to train his troops after 1945 and to have employed about 200 engineers to construct fortifications for him. US pressure was brought to bear on Yen to release any Japanese fighting for him against their will but he ignored their messages. When Yen’s capital Taiyuan fell in 1949, most of the Japanese `volunteers’ are said to have died in the fighting. If this is true then they could well have faced some of the several hundred of their former comrades who were reportedly fighting for the Communists in the same campaign. Other Japanese in Nationalist units included a force of approximately 1,500 men who fought in Suiyuan province.

Another important group of foreigners who fought with the Communists in the Civil War were between 30,000 and 40,000 Koreans. The Koreans were divided between those who had fought as part of the Communist guerrilla forces during the Second World War and a smaller group who had fought as guerrillas in Manchuria in the 1930s. These guerrillas had been forced to escape to the Soviet Union in 1940 and returned to fight in Manchuria in 1945. Those who joined the Chinese Communists in Yenan in 1939 were known as the Korean Volunteer Army (KVA). By 1945 the KVA had reached a strength of 1,000 men and were joined by many more Koreans. Another Korean formation the Yi Hong-Gwang Detachment (YHD) also fought alongside the volunteers of the KVA in the Chinese Civil War until 1948. They then returned to North Korea to help form the first units of the new republic’s army.

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