China / Government

Remembering fellow heroes

By Zhao Xu (China Daily) Updated: 2014-11-12 08:13

 Remembering fellow heroes

This file photo shows the funeral being held for Major William McMurrey in Tengchong. The black-and-white picture eventually led to the discovery of a long-buried story.

Resting place

Many men from the US Army were noncombatant personnel but had also died in CBI as a result of their decision to fight on the frontline together with the Chinese soldiers, Deng said. One place he has often visited is the Guo Shang (meaning "the loss of the nation") Cemetery in Tengchong, a cemetery built in 1945 in memory of the more than 9,000 people who died during the five-month battle to take Tengchong, between May and September 1944. Amid the seemingly endless rows of identical-looking gravel tombstones stands a slightly larger one made of white marble with the inscription "Lieutenant Kirk Schaible" and another thirteen men from the US Army.

"I saw it for the first time in 1995 and immediately wanted to find out who they were," Deng said. He enlisted the help of many prominent field researchers. But the search would not be possible without the help of one man: John Easterbrook, the grandson of General Joseph Stilwell, whose name is almost equivalent to the US aid to the Chinese war effort against the Japanese invaders.

Assigned to CBI as commander of the US forces, the four-star general led the retreat of his men from Burma to India, through dense forests on foot, before making an eventual comeback to take Myitkyina. Apart from his eldest son, his two sons-in-law also served in CBI. One of them is Ernest Easterbrook, the father of John Easterbrook.

"Chinese never forget a friend, never," said John Easterbrook, who was two days short of 6 when the general died on Oct 12, 1946. Through him, Deng and his team of history pursuers were able to put their hand on some files concerning the war dead that had previously been as rated "confidential" by the US military.

"We got all the names of the men - in fact there were 19 instead of 14 of them - for whom that memorial stone in the Tengchong cemetery had been erected," Deng said. "Determined to have a fuller picture, we set out contacting all the relatives of those men."

The news was passed around surviving veterans in the US, as well as the families of those who died. On July 4, 2003, US Independence Day, and one year after Barbara had her dream about East Asia, she received a message from a distant cousin that "someone from China is looking for us". It turned out that her father was also on that list.

For the first time since the death of their mother, Fae McMurrey, in 1996, Barbara and her younger sister, Beverly, reached for the correspondence between their parents, thick stacks of letters that had been kept by the bereaved woman in the bottom of her dresser drawer.

In one letter, sent to their mother the day after the death of Major McMurrey, Colonel John Stodter, the major's superior, wrote about the funeral they had had for the fallen man, at "a beautiful terrace on a mountainside shaded by a giant Banyan tree", with the colonel conducting the service. The description eventually reached the searching historians in China, and the heavy curtain on a long-buried piece of history was finally lifted.

"Everything described in that letter matched the black-and-white photograph we had, the one about the funeral. The colonel himself was also in the picture. It couldn't be a mere coincidence," said Deng, who took further steps to investigate the connection and dug out all the details.

Then came that hot summer's day in 2005, when the McMurrey sisters came to China, along with Shan Stodter, daughter of Colonel Stodter, who died in 1990. A small memorial was held and presided by Stodter, standing in the same position her late father once stood.

"The body of my father was taken back to our hometown in Texas in April 1949. But it's in Tengchong, China, where he had died and was first buried," Barbara said.

"Mother had been to the China-Burmese border in the '60s, in an effort to retrace the footsteps of my father, but couldn't enter China due to political reasons. For us, to be there is to fulfill what's probably the last wish of my mother, and to bring Father truly home."

Looking back

In 2010, when Deng and his team were working against the clock searching for relevant information in the National Archives in Washington, he was stunned - and somehow stung - by the staff's reaction. "They were so surprised that we were there," Deng said.

"One lady said to me, 'The files kept here about European WWII history have been looked through numerous times by their researchers, while the ones for the Chinese battleground have been simply sitting there collecting dust. I'm so happy that you have come.

"By looking into that overlapping history between China and her allied friends during WWII, we have not only paid belated respects to our foreign heroes, but have rediscovered some precious memory of our own," Deng said.

Not far away from the original memorial stone at the Tengchong cemetery, Deng and his field researcher friends have erected a new one, with the names of the 19 men carved on it.

After the death of Major William McMurrey on May 21, 1944, people discovered in the upper pocket of the 34-year-old a picture of his wife and two daughters, Barbara and Beverly.

"I was barely 5 months old when Father was killed. But I know now that he knew I existed, thanks to the work of my Chinese friends which eventually brought me to read all his letters to my mother," Beverly said.

"The fire of love he had kindled, on that beautiful land for a beautiful people, has never stopped burning."

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