As China ties warm, US military resumes search to bring WWII ‘fallen heroes’ home from southern provinces

As China ties warm, US military resumes search to bring WWII ‘fallen heroes’ home from southern provinces

The US military has completed two site surveys to recover World War II remains in China, the first in the country in nearly five years, in the latest effort to honour the legacy of Sino-American military cooperation eight decades ago.

A team with the US Defence POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) “spent several weeks surveying sites in southern China in order to provide vital information for future recovery missions”, the agency said on its website last week.

It was their first trip to China since May 2019. It came as ties between the two countries continued to thaw following a summit between presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco in November, and as high-level communication between their two militaries was subsequently restored.

“We are committed to finding our fallen heroes and bringing them home with dignity, honour and respect,” US ambassador to China Nicholas Burns wrote on X on February 1.

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DPAA scientific recovery expert Dr Willa Trask examines a piece of metal with local workers during a site survey in China on January 7, 2024. Photo: US Army

Zach Fredman, an associate professor of history at Duke Kunshan University in Jiangsu province in China’s east, said the latest surveys in China were “unambiguously good news”.

“Locating missing remains would help to give closure to families [of American soldiers] and to honour the legacy of Sino-American military cooperation during the second world war,” said Fredman, the author of The Tormented Alliance: American Servicemen & the Occupation of China, 1941–1949.

He said this could be part of “improvement at lower levels” that would help stabilise the bilateral relationship despite disagreement between the two sides, for example, over Taiwan and remaining geopolitical rivalries.

One week before the San Francisco summit, the US and Chinese militaries held a video meeting about cooperating to find the remains of American POW/MIA , or prisoners of war/missing-in-action).

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China mourns thousands killed in Nanking massacre ahead of World War II

China mourns thousands killed in Nanking massacre ahead of World War II

It was the first such meeting since January 2021 and, according to the Chinese defence ministry, the two sides “exchanged views on the case investigation and matters related to the military archival cooperation”.

More than 120,000 American military personnel served in China during the 1940s when the two sides fought against Japan.

The remains of about 690 unaccounted-for American personnel from World War II are believed to be within modern-day mainland China, according to the DPAA, a US Defence Department agency responsible for recovering the bodies of service members who go missing during wars.

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Recovery work was suspended during the Covid-19 pandemic because of Beijing’s border controls and lockdown restrictions, and did not resume immediately, largely due to tension between the two countries, including spats over then the House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to self-ruled Taiwan in August 2022.

Efforts to resume the military exchange were also derailed when the US identified and shot down an alleged Chinese spy balloon transiting US territory in February last year.

During a meeting in Hawaii in August, DPAA director Kelly McKeague reportedly asked South Korean vice-defence minister Shin Beom-chul for help to contact the Chinese side in try to restart the recovery mission, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency.

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Wartime bomb shelters become new tourist attraction in southwest Chinese city of Chongqing

Wartime bomb shelters become new tourist attraction in southwest Chinese city of Chongqing

Seoul has worked closely with Beijing on recovering the remains of soldiers killed during the 1950-1953 Korean war, and it has returned the remains of 938 Chinese troops since 2014.

Fredman said the shared history between China and the US during WWII still had “a lot of relevance” to today’s bilateral relationship, particularly for China.

“This was the absolute apex of US-China relations – there’s a wartime alliance against Japan, and China was unambiguously on the right side in this global war against fascism as a partner with the United States,” he said.

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“In lower hanging fruit, like this shared history against Japan, they can enable cooperation in more complicated areas.”

In August, China held a high-profile commemoration for Joseph Stilwell, the American general who sought to gain unrestricted command over Chinese forces when serving in China during the second world war and had an acrimonious relationship with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek.

Xi hailed Stilwell as “an old friend of China … whose positive contribution to friendship between our two peoples would never be forgotten”.

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The famed Flying Tigers are lined up at an unknown airbase in China in 1943. Photo: Handout

In a letter to two former members of the Flying Tigers, a fighter pilot group that helped to defend China against Japanese forces at that time, the Chinese leader said the two countries should “bear even greater responsibilities for maintaining world peace, stability, and development … and must achieve mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation”.

According to General Claire Chennault, commander of the group and later the air force in China during World War II, Chinese soldiers and civilians rescued more than 900 American airmen during the war, or about 95 per cent of the American fliers who survived after bailing out or crash landing.

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Because of Japan’s blockade of the Chinese coast, nearly all Americans who were deployed to China had to enter the country via “the Hump” airlift, the perilous air support route over the Himalayas that connected Assam, India, to Yunnan province in southwestern China.

Joint efforts to recover the war remains of American soldiers started as early as the 1940s during Chiang’s rule and, after being suspended during the Chinese civil war, cooperation resumed soon after the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the US in 1979.

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