by Wen Jiang
As presented to the 2005 Annual Convention of
the U.S.- China People's Friendship Association
The time was early autumn, 1944, the final period during the retaking of Tengchung, Yunnan, China, by the Chinese Expeditionary Force in the Salween Campaign.
The place was the only working photo shop in a village outside Tengchung. One day, a Chinese Expeditionary Force news staff rushed in to have some photos developed. The shop owner, who was also the dark room technician, worked overnight to finish the job. Without asking for permission, he made one more set of the photos and kept it for himself. The next day, the news staff took the photos, which were not seen again for many years.
In 1999, Ms. Sun Min, a historian, came to Tengchong (the new spelling) to investigate the history of the Salween Campaign. She made friends with Mr. Zhang, a local scholar. During a chat, Mr. Zhang told Ms. Sun that he has some old black-and-white photos his father kept that he would like to show her. These 92 photos have been carefully kept and Mr. Zhang felt somewhat guilty: "It was not right that my father didn’t ask for permission to develop the extra set." Luckily, because of this action taken without permission, history was not completely buried.
No one really understood the significance of these photos. They were put away again. But one of the photos was unusual because it showed a funeral conducted by American military men. It made people realize that Americans, like many soldiers of the Chinese Army, lost their lives during the Campaign as well.
Shortly after the completion of the Salween Campaign in the fall of 1944, the Memorial Garden of Tengchung was built to commemorate the thousands of Chinese soldiers killed in the war.
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It was not until recently that some of us in China learned that, in addition to the famous U.S. 14th Air Force (the Flying Tigers), there was a special American Army force, named the “Y-Force”, that assisted the Chinese during the Campaign. This brave force was almost forgotten in the history of World War II.
But local people said, “We remember them.” They wanted to find out the full names of the forgotten soldiers and engrave them on a new tombstone so their heroes wouldn’t be unknown to the remote land where they sacrificed their lives.
In 2002, a special search was launched to discover the full names of these American soldiers. With the combined efforts of Mr. John Easterbrook, the grandson of General Stilwell, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a casualty list of 10 soldiers of the U.S. Army Y-Force during the Salween Campaign was discovered. The first person on the list was 1st Lt. Schaible, whose name has a pronunciation similar to Chinese phonetic “Xia Bo Er”. Therefore, we believed that this list was the source of information for the Tengchung Memorial tombstone. Next, with the help of the Department of Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, the additional 9 soldiers of the 14th Air Force were identified. All together, 19 full names of fallen American military men were identified.
In September, 2004, during the commemoration of the 60 year anniversary of the Salween Campaign, a new tombstone was erected to commemorate those 19 American military personnel who sacrificed their lives for the peace and freedom of the Chinese people in World War II.
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A few days later, Barbara McMurrey Hyde, the Major’s older daughter, sent me a letter with her father’s photo. She wrote “thank all of you for this project you are working on. I have learned more about what my father was doing in one week than in my whole life”. The last sentence of her letter was: “PS our mother, Fae, passed away in 1996. She never remarried.” It made us feel sad. If we had done the search some years earlier, her mother would have seen that her husband still receives the lasting gratitude of the Chinese and this cherished memory may have comforted her life after her many years alone.
Enclosed with Barbara’s letter was a letter written by her father’s immediate commander,
Col. John Stodter on May 21, 1944, the day after the Major was killed.
This letter made my friends and I go back to the photo of the military funeral mentioned above. Was it the photo of Major McMurrey’s funeral? Based on the record released by the U.S. Army, we learned he was killed in a place called “Tatangtze.” We needed to go there to search for the story of the war.
In the early winter of 2003, several historians and scholars went to southwest Yunnan to retrace the route taken by the Chinese Expeditionary Force during the Salween Campaign.
Without seeing it, hardly anyone could imagine the existence of such a difficult battlefield. Next to the Salween River, or “angry river” in Chinese, are the steep Gaoligong mountains of several hundred kilometers running north and south. The altitude near Tengchong is around 3000 meters, over 9000 feet. In May of 1944, the Chinese Expeditionary Force crossed the turbulent Salween River and began to climb over the mountain toward Tengchung, an ancient city occupied by the Japanese for about 2 years.
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Soon after the war, roads were built in the mountains. The trails became quiet again and heavy fogs flowed here and there. Because of the huge casualties of the Campaign, to this day, the local guides would tell postwar ghost stories in the evening, swearing every one of them was absolutely true, so that you would feel your hair standing up even during the day.
Distance in the mountains is calculated not by kilometers but by days. The possibility of clues was very slim since, at that time, local people could only hide themselves further in the mountains and saw the battles only from a distance.
According to the war record of the 53rd Army of the Chinese Expeditionary Force, Tatangtze was an area where heavy attacks were launched on the enemy who were guarding the trails towards Tengchung. The battles lasted for over 10 days. On May 20th, 1944, several Chinese officers, together with the American advisor, Major McMurrey, and around a hundred Chinese soldiers were killed. The battle ended on May 24th with the enemy retreating to the south.
Without any success in finding clues about the burial site of Major McMurrey, my historian friends were going to leave the area. They went to say goodbye to a 79-year-old local peasant, Mr. Wu, who runs a small private museum on the Salween Campaign because of his personal interest in the subject. He has a notebook with many stories he has heard. My friends had hastily browsed the notebook before. This time, one historian was again turning its pages casually.
Suddenly, a line of text jumped to his eyes: “Chinese Expeditionary Force attacked Guoditang. One wounded Japanese threw a grenade and killed 3 officers and 1 American officer. They were buried in front of the temple of Tiantouzhai.”
In the village of Tiantouzhai, an 80-year-old man who was aware of the funeral took my friends to the burial site of the Major. He told them that 3 Chinese officers were buried in a site about 10 meters away. Nevertheless, the Banyan tree and the temple no longer existed because of a fire shortly after the war. The old man also told them the origin of the coffin. My friends then visited the family from whom the Chinese general bought the coffin. It used to be a wealthy family and the coffin was made of a valuable wood from high mountains several hundred kilometers away for the household head. It was extremely expensive.
After the war, the U.S. Army sent teams to search for Major McMurrey’s remains. It was not until the second time that they succeeded in locating the site in 1947. The Major was then reburied with full military honors in his home town in Texas.
In July of this year, Barbara and Beverly McMurrey, the daughters of Major McMurrey, as well as Shan Stodter, the daughter of Col. Stodter, the Major’s immediate Commanding Officer, were invited to visit Yunnan to retrace their fathers’ footsteps during the Salween Campaign.
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The McMurrey sisters and Shan, together with a documentary TV crew and myself, started from Dali, a town west of Kunming, where their fathers began the journeys along the Burma Road to the battlefields further south and west. Along the way, they reviewed their fathers’ notes, letters, and military reports. They talked to the old trees that saw their fathers’ jeeps passing on the Burma Road. They met the Chinese veterans who still remember their fathers. They visited the son of the photographer in Tengchung who developed the extra set of the photos. They made friends with a local man who runs a popular bar called “The Stilwell Bar”. Of course, our trip to the Tengchung Memorial Garden to visit the new tomb stone was kept secret from the media so the McMurrey sisters could quietly express their feelings.
Shan had seldom seen such tender feeling and sensitivity from her father, who was usually an authoritative figure, as she saw in the letter he wrote to Barbara’s mother the day after the Major’s death. Seeing the burial site in a very beautiful terrace which complies with Chinese Fengshui principles, Shan understood her father more than ever. Standing in the exact same spot where her father conducted the funeral for Major McMurrey, Shan Stodter prayed:
Fae McMurrey, the Major’s wife, kept all the letters she received from her husband. Their younger daughter Beverly has been studying them lately. Beverly’s words after she read the letters:
The sun was very bright over the Yunnan plateau. We bowed to the Major’s burial site and some veterans saluted. We believed Major McMurrey could see us in heaven. Sixty years ago at his funeral, a Chinese general, Huo Kuizhang, was among the attendees, representing tens of thousands of Chinese comrades who fought together with him. Today, the Major’s soul must feel gratified that Chinese soldiers still salute him. He must have saluted back, in an American style. He will still be as young and handsome as when he left for overseas. He will be young forever because his life stopped at such a young age for the sake of the Chinese people.