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Man honors tortured comrades 52 years later

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Seoul, South Korea

D.W. Chang, a Korean now living in Grand Rapids, Mich., was 21 years old in 1941. It was his last year of school, and he had just begun an internship at a chemical company in Seoul.

One day at work, the Japanese Army came and took away all the Korean male employees, Chang with them. They were taken to Hanin Island, just off China’s southeastern coast. Chang and thousands of other Koreans worked on the island as forced labor for the Japanese army until the end of the war in 1945.

Conditions were horrible. Thousands died of malnutrition and ill treatment. Chang was among the few who survived, but not without scars.

“This is a bad memory,” he said, removing his cap to show on his forehead a crescent-shaped scar the size of a silver dollar. A Japanese soldier clubbed him when he didn’t respond to an order fast enough.

When the war ended, Chang’s group was abandoned on the island. He and a few others made their way back to Korea on their own in 1946. Not long after, Chang emigrated to the United States.

For 52 years, he locked his memories away, suffering in silence. But he longed to share those times with others. Last February, he traveled back to Hanin because, he said, “I wanted to find that story. Fifty-two years ago, no one wanted to find that story.” With an independent film crew to record the event, he returned and found more than just a story.

“I found bones, bones, bones. Thousands and thousands of bones.” Once on the island, Chang had no trouble locating the labor camp and army headquarters just outside the present-day city of Sanya in the western part of the island. Long neglected, the structures stood dilapidated. Once he found the camps, he said, it was easy to find the graves.

He displayed snapshots of himself kneeling in freshly uncovered graves, brushing dirt from the bones. Chang said he had no trouble remembering where he had buried so many friends, even though they had to leave the graves unmarked. Now, more than 50 years after their deaths, Chang was able to erect memorial markers for his dead colleagues.

He also confided that he brought a few bone fragments back to Korea and buried them secretly in temples in Seoul.

On the last Wednesday in August, Chang joined a group of Korean comfort women demonstrating outside the Japanese embassy in Seoul. He joined them because their struggle against the Japanese government continues, and he wants to support that.

With tears in his eyes and a diminishing voice he said, “I’m here to find peace. I want peace.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 23, 1998