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Originally published Friday, May 10, 2013 at 11:23 PM

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Chinese rehabilitate fathers in forgotten war

Yang Jingtao did what many young, brave Chinese did - he left his home as a teenager to fight the invading Japanese in World War II.

Associated Press

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TAIPEI, Taiwan —

Yang Jingtao did what many young, brave Chinese did - he left his home as a teenager to fight the invading Japanese in World War II.

The problem was he fought while wearing the uniform of the Nationalist Chinese Army, condemning Yang to be shunned and reviled in China's often brutal politics after the Communist Party defeated the Nationalists and took control of the country four years after the end of the war.

But now, 10 years after Yang died, official attitudes toward him, and an estimated 20,000 others who stayed in China instead of fleeing to Taiwan after the Nationalists lost the civil war, are slowly changing. They may not be the heroes who vanquished the Japanese - the Communists still take credit for that - but they also are no longer the enemy.

They owe their enhanced status to a small group of Chinese - mostly descendants of the war veterans themselves - who used documents and photographs from a relatively forgotten theater in the anti-Japanese struggle to shed light on their heroism. It also reflects a warming of relations between China and Taiwan, and a slight softening of how the Communist Party views the Nationalist soldiers it fought, especially as it tries to reach out to Taiwan to show that it is more friend than foe.

Hundreds of the photographs were displayed in Taipei in April in a rare exhibition that brought five of the veterans' sons to the capital of what was once enemy territory - the island of Taiwan, to which Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and hundreds of thousands of his followers fled after their defeat. The exhibit followed two similar shows in China's Yunnan province, where one of the fiercest battles took place. There have also been books and photo collections published to reach out to tens of thousands of younger mainland Chinese.

"The images walk us through a time tunnel ... back to the days when those young soldiers sacrificed their lives for their country and for their people," said Yang's son, Yang Yankang, who traveled from China for the exhibition.

His father was 18 when he left his farming village in Shandong province for southwestern China on the eve of the war. He fought from 1942 to 1944 in Yunnan in the rugged terrain of China's southwest.

He survived that, but not the taint of being on the wrong side of the civil war. Like other Nationalist veterans, Yang especially suffered during the chaotic 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when his home was searched and he was harassed and branded a counter-revolutionary.

The younger Yang said his father never spoke about his war experiences and even destroyed his war-related documents and photos to avoid additional retribution from China's communist rulers. Branded "old remnants" of the hated Nationalists, he and his children were denied good jobs and educational opportunities.

The photos in the exhibition were taken by U.S. army photographers, stored at the U.S. National Archives, and scanned and assembled by a Chinese team that included Yang's son. They show some of the 70,000 Nationalist soldiers who battled their way into strategic towns occupied by the Japanese to reopen a crucial ground route for the transport of U.S.- and British-provided materials from India to the Chinese interior during the 1942-1944 period.

Yang began trying to discover the truth behind his father's wartime experiences in 1999, when he joined a Chinese team in Yunnan looking for clues about the Nationalists' exploits. Among his co-workers was Zhang Dongpan, a businessman also from China's booming coastal city of Shenzhen.

Zhang's parents both left their homes at the age of 17 to fight the Japanese, along with other relatives, some fighting with the Nationalists and others with the Communists.

"We were very curious about what's been hidden from us," Zhang said.

He said the photos also shed light on American participation in the Yunnan battlefield, another fact long disputed, if not deliberately ignored, by China's communist leaders.

Zhang pointed to one picture showing a U.S. observation plane transporting a wounded Chinese soldier to a medical station. In another, an American pushes a car stuck on the rain-soaked, muddy highway. Loaded with the bodies of 13 Chinese soldiers, it was on its way to a burial ground.

Taiwanese historian Chang Li said as many as 20,000 Nationalist veterans who survived the Yunnan campaign may have stayed in the mainland.

He described Yang and his team as part of a new wave of activists, eager to redress the wrongs done to the Nationalist veterans.

"The Communists now appear willing to accept many of their claims," he said. "The only stipulation is that they don't challenge the Communist version of events, which assigns the leading role in the anti-Japanese struggle to their own Communist troops."

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