China / Cover Story

China's 'West Point' a beacon

By Zhao Xu (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-11 07:54
'China's West Point'  

Whampoa Military Academy, established by Sun Yat-sen, one of China's most revered revolutionaries, was officially opened on May 1, 1924, with the first lessons beginning on June 16 of the same year.

The inauguration took place on Changzhou Island, which lies offshore of Whampoa Dock in Guangzhou, from which the academy took its name. Although both Communists and Nationalists attended the school in its early days, the establishment came under the control of the Nationalists in 1927.

After the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression in 1937, Whampoa was forced to relocate many times, first moving to Nanjing in Jiangsu province, then Wuhan in Hubei and later Chengdu in Sichuan. Following the defeat of the Nationalists in China's civil war (1946-49), the academy moved to Taiwan, where it has remained ever since.

Having produced many prestigious commanders who fought in many conflicts in the 20th century, notably the Northern Expedition, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression (1937-45) and the civil war, Whampoa earned the nickname "China's West Point". 

A tough regime

[Video: Whompoa spirit still shines]

However, according to Chen Yu, earning the right to sit in Whampoa's classrooms was just the beginning, and some of the expatriate students were ill-prepared for the hardships that were soon to follow.

"The drills could be unbearable. Students were ordered to stand motionless under the scorching sun, sometimes for seven or eight hours at a stretch. Half of the class fainted," said the 57-year-old. "Given that most of the expatriate students came from well-off merchant families who had made fortunes in their adopted countries, life at Whampoa was a real challenge."

Many students gave up, but a hard-core group persisted, holding their dreams close to their hearts. Fu was one of them. "We were constantly hungry. I remember trekking along mountain roads for hours to fetch rice and flour," he said. "I wrote to my parents to ask for a monthly stipend, but I never once thought of quitting. Only those who endured until graduation day were entitled to call themselves Whampoa men," he said.

According to Shan Busheng, a historian whose grandfather, father and uncle all graduated from the academy, the expatriates' superior language skills saw many of them sent to work as signalmen or for Chinese intelligence teams. And just because they weren't on the front line didn't mean they weren't in danger. "Around the end of 1943, Chinese intelligence decided to send a team of five - all Whampoa graduates - back to Thailand, their former home, to spy on the Japanese army of occupation there," the 65-year-old said.

"They were airdropped, in the wake of a bombing raid, into the Thai forests by British warplanes, which took off from Allied airbases in the Indian Ocean. The aim was to trick the Japanese into believing that it was simply another of the Allies' numerous air attacks. Sadly, the plan didn't work and the men were discovered soon after they landed."

While the Japanese were trying to round them up, the young men decided that one of them must escape and complete the mission. "They succeeded in doing so, but at the cost of four lives," Shan said. "The survivor was called Wu Yu, but the names of his fellow alumni remain unknown."

Bullet holes

The immense human tragedy of war makes the story of Peng Jiaheng's survival all the more miraculous. Peng, a second-generation Chinese from Indonesia, entered Whampoa in 1941, and was selected to train as a pilot in the United States the following year.

In 1944, he returned to China and was promptly assigned to a joint aerial division staffed by Chinese and US pilots. The unit was a direct descendent of Claire Chennault's "Flying Tigers".

"My father remembered coming back from one bombing mission to find a couple of dozen bullet holes in the tail of his aircraft," said Peng's son, Zhuonan. "He told me that he lived every single day as if it were his last on Earth, and never saved a penny."

But the overwhelming sense of imminent death wasn't the most traumatic aspect of the war for Peng Jiaheng. "A US pilot was trapped in the burning cockpit of his plane, which had crashed just a few meters from the Allies' camp. The man was screaming like crazy, and a US captain, seeing no chance of him surviving, took out his gun and shot him twice," said the 56-year-old. "My father saw it. He saw it with his own eyes."

Chen Yu said Whampoa graduates were accorded the status of idols during and after the war. "The experience of real war shattered all the romance once associated with a military academy like Whampoa, and turned these innocent, passionate young men into diehard soldiers," he said.

"Imagine a handsome young man dressed in a decorated army uniform and leather boots, with the strap of his holster slung across his chest. I have no idea how attractive that chivalrous image was to those applying for the military academy, but it was by ultimately fulfilling their promise to save the country that the Whampoa graduates earned a reputation that transcends all periods and party politics."

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