By Will Linhares-Huang
At 11:00 p.m. they started to shell. “How come they are bombing? They said they would only start after midnight.” “Don’t forget. They still bomb on even days.” Kuo reminded his assistant. Many of Kuo’s colleagues were so worried about the impending full day of bombing that they had forgotten such a crucial rule of life on the island. Kuo’s shelter was a makeshift bunker that was capable of holding a maximum of six men, but nine members of his platoon were with him that night. The bunker was two metres underground and the top was layered with wooden planks followed by another two metres of soil. Kuo and his foot soldiers were all packed together in the limited space of the bunker and their shoulders pressed against one another. At midnight, they started the 24-hour bombing.
A loud boom was heard from the mainland followed by a whistling sound that started at a low volume but gradually increased to become piercing to the ears. Kuo and his platoon had learned to recognize over time whether or not the shell was coming towards them by the sound: from low to high meant that the shell was not going to hit you. After the mainland bombed a portion of the island, there were fifteen minutes of silence so that China’s weapons could rest and the hot metal of the artillery could cool. As Kuo heard the shuddering sound of the launching shells and whistling through the air above, he waited in fear but didn’t display his emotions for the sake of his platoon. It was really up to chance whether or not he would be killed that day. Who knew when they would decide to bomb his area? Kuo waited and recollected his time in Taiwan before the frontline as an escape from his present fear.
In 1959, Kuo graduated from university in Taiwan. He was a diligent student and strong-minded young man who always fell back on his moral values. After graduating from university in Taiwan, the government mandated that each male graduate participate in six months of training as preparation for the war between Taiwan and communist China. The tensions between Taiwan and China are deep-rooted dating back hundreds of years and remain today. The political situation in Taiwan in 1960, however, was extremely different from the present.
Before the ending of the Second World War, Japan governed Taiwan for 50 years and during this time Taiwanese people were mistreated and oppressed by the Japanese government. Due to this oppression, there were many uprisings attempted by the Taiwanese people to overthrow the government, but were ultimately halted through violence by the Japanese. When the Second World War ended in 1945 and the allied countries defeated Japan, they decided to return Taiwan to China. The Taiwanese people originally migrated from mainland China hundreds of years ago and justifiably believed that this change in governance would be beneficial because they would be returning to familiarity. However, the oppression of the Taiwanese people continued when the Chinese Nationalist Party, also known as the Kuomintang (KMT), rose to power. After the loss of the Chinese Civil War (1945–1949) to the Communist Party of China, the KMT retreated to Taiwan where it continued to govern as an authoritarian one-party state. Since the KMT believed that their Chinese race was superior, they treated the people of Taiwan as lesser-than.
At a young age, Kuo was very well informed and familiar with the oppression Taiwanese people faced because of his family ties. Kuo’s great uncle was very well respected by politicians during the KMT’s reign of power and Kuo was subsequently exposed to a lot of the injustices through family discussion. During my conversation with my grandfather, Kuo, he specifically recalled his great uncle advising him that he should not become a lawyer because if you wanted to get anywhere as a lawyer, you would have to get involved with the KMT otherwise it would be a waste. Additionally, my grandfather said that Taiwanese people were unable to receive any respectable positions or jobs as the KMT only allowed the Chinese. For example, the principles of schools were not allowed to be Taiwanese even if a Taiwanese applicant was more qualified than a Chinese applicant.
During the six months of training, Kuo’s longtime friend who he had met through university was enticed and absorbed by the KMT. At the time, the political party was looking to recruit more youthful men and Kuo’s graduate class of thirty or so men was an appropriate demographic. The KMT along with Kuo’s good friend attempted to recruit Kuo multiple times, but he refused at every instance. Kuo knew the consequences and potential punishment that the KMT would inflict on him if he refused them, but he couldn’t side with a government that had mistreated his people. When all his classmates and even his friend succumbed to the powerful and oppressive government, Kuo never faltered. As a result, however, the KMT saw Kuo’s defiance as dangerous and even threatening. By the end of the six months of training, the government informed each graduate of where they would be dispatched to serve. Out of the thirty students in his class who completed the training, Kuo was the only one who was dispatched to the frontlines on the island between China and Taiwan. This was the most dangerous area to be dispatched as it was constantly being shelled day in and day out. Kuo knew that his dispatch was punishment for not joining the KMT, but he asked a government official for the reason he was selected to go to the frontlines. The officer said, “it was a result of a draw.” It was obvious that Kuo was being punished by the KMT, but the government official’s lie that he was chosen by chance was a true testament to the kind of authoritarian government which ruled Taiwan.
In 1960, Kuo was dispatched to the frontlines. It was in the middle of the night when he along with several other foot soldiers glided across the black water towards the Kinmen island. Kuo was tasked as a lieutenant and led a platoon that consisted of thirty men. On that first night, however, Kuo was far from a leader. When he arrived on the island, Kuo stayed in one of the many broken temples which were scattered across the island. In the darkness, he laid on his spare clothes, but could still feel the cold of the chiselled rock beneath. The broken temple barely had an intact roof over his head and there were gaping holes in the brick walls that surrounded him. At midnight, he heard the shells for the first time. In the pitch black, Kuo heard the boom of the shell followed by the sound of it accelerating towards the ground. At this time, Kuo had not learned how to tell if the shell was coming near him so he prayed that he would not be killed. He wrapped his arms around his body and tried to ignore the sounds of the shells. Kuo was solely focused on surviving that one night.
In June of 1960, President Eisenhower of the U.S visited Taiwan to discuss world affairs, freedom, and democracy with the then president of Taiwan, Chiang Kai-shek. The fact that Eisenhower travelled to Taiwan and gave a speech was a symbol of American assurance that the U.S would defend Taiwan. China took great offence to this visit and decided to protest the relations between the U.S and Taiwan by bombing every square inch of the Kinmen island.
At 2:00 a.m they started to bomb Kuo’s area of the island. Kuo had never experienced a shell land that close to him before. It was completely different from what he had ever experienced on the island. The loud boom of the shell leaving the barrel of the artillery was the same, but it travelled through the air differently. Kuo heard the whistling of the air above him as if the shell were fast approaching and hitting him straight on, but then there was no sound for a moment before it impacted. A brief moment of silence before the loudest explosion you have ever heard. Each time the shell contacted the earth above Kuo, his bunker quaked and bits of the packed dirt above his head became dust. As his bunker rattled, he could hear bits of metal clanging against the ground and pieces of rubble hitting the soil above. Kuo and the other eight men in his bunker cradled their bodies, thought about their families and braced for another shell. Kuo briefly wondered how the other members of his platoon were doing. My grandfather said that two men in his platoon in the other shelters suffered seriously, but not life-threatening injuries. One man had a piece of shrapnel cut through his neck, but it luckily did not hit an artery and the other had a piece of shrapnel through the leg. Two hours had passed since they started shelling and Kuo and his assistant could hear that they had started shelling an area further away. He knew it was safe to go out. He stood up, brushed off the dust on his tattered clothes and made his way to the ninety-degree exit of the bunker. Kuo climbed up the rungs pressed into the walls of dirt and raised his head just so that he could see a sliver of the outside. He lifted himself out of the bunker and immediately covered his mouth and nose because of the smoke. Kuo’s boots crackled as his feet sank into the scorched earth beneath, looking at the aftermath. The ground all around him was black and large divots were everywhere containing remnants of the shells. My grandfather described it as “a real-life movie.” He could see that almost the entire island was up in flames and viewed 270 degrees of fire. The men in his platoon called it ‘fire dragon.’