Calif. WWII veteran survived Japanese POW camp, River Kwai ordeal
By CATHY KELLY | Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif. | Published: February 18, 2013
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Eddie Fung of Santa Cruz has an "extraordinary" life story to tell.
Fung, 90, is the only Chinese-American soldier captured by the Japanese during World War II. His battalion — all Texans and a lone Chinese-American from San Francisco — was captured in Java, now part of Indonesia, while on its way to the Philippines.
Of the battalion, 350 men were sent to work on the Burma-Siam railroad and about 60 of those 350 men died there, Fung said.
Fung, who attends annual reunions that have dwindled to just nine men, says there are about 20 men in his Army battalion who are still alive to share the wrenching story of their capture and how they survived.
It is one of many vivid stories Fung has to tell from his life.
He endured 3½ years of grueling work, near-starvation, beatings and disease starting in 1942 as he worked on the infamous railroad project that resulted in the death of some 100,000 laborers. He was one of 61,000 American, British, Dutch and Australian prisoners laboring there; he said many who died were civilians.
The ordeal was brought to light for many in an award-winning 1957 film, "Bridge on the River Kwai," though Fung knows firsthand that there were errors in that retelling.
Sent to Burma, the prisoners of war were forced to work from before dawn to after dark, or what they called then "from can't see to can't see," Fung said.
Fung was 5 feet, 3 inches and weighed about 110 pounds when he entered the Army National Guard at age 18 — choosing that branch after his parents refused to sign off on his admittance to the Army — and he shrank to just 60 pounds at one point during his long ordeal.
The prisoners were given no clothes or shoes and not enough to eat. Wounds quickly became ulcerous and infected.
Today, Fung is a reflective, peaceful man who lives at UC Santa Cruz with his wife, Judy Yung, a professor emeritus of American Studies. He is patient while sharing his stories and all they have taught him. He calls himself content, his wife says with a smile.
Sitting in their tidy home Sunday, surrounded by the sweeping hills overlooking Santa Cruz and Monterey Bay, Fung recalled the time a few months after his capture when he had lost more than 40 pounds and was asking himself if he really wanted to stay alive.
"We learned no matter how bad we imagined it, it could get worse," he said. "Then we learned to deal with it one day at a time. Survival depended on living one more day."
His life story — including being raised as a second-generation Chinese American in Chinatown and leaving his family at age 16 to work as a cowboy in Texas — is contained in a coming-of-age story his wife edited and that is written in his first-person voice, titled "The Adventures of Eddie Fung."
Fung and his wife met in 2002, while she was working on her fifth book, "Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present." Yung said that people continue to tell them how impressed they are with the story.
"That to us is more important than making the best-seller list," she said. "I think it's an extraordinary story that has a lot to pass on. I never thought I'd do a man's story, but it's been the most enjoyable to me, to get on paper what he was able to tell me. Eddie is a marvelous story-teller."
Published by the University of Washington Press in 2007 and available electronically, it is engaging as it relates Fung's long and adventurous life and the difficulties he and others faced reintegrating after the war.
On the final page, in the chapter "Learning to Live with Myself," Fung relates: "I've had many more good days than I've had bad ones. But even the bad days serve a purpose. They remind me of how good I have it now, in the sense that if you have never known hunger, you will not appreciate food; if you have never been enslaved, you will not appreciate what it means to be free."
He goes on to say he has learned that regrets change nothing; that eventually everything will work out.
And while Fung said the date of his capture — March 8, 1942 — was a defining moment of his life, the horrific experience is just one aspect of a rich life. It includes his upbringing, two prior marriages and his life after the war, when he returned to San Francisco, studied chemistry at Stanford and worked as a metallurgist and then a researcher at Livermore Laboratory, among other things.
"Ever since I was a kid, I've felt life was worth living, and the hell with the consequences," he said. "I always tell my family, 'No one will know I've died unless they are looking for me. I'll just be on to the next adventure; I know there is something to look forward to.'"
He said annual reunions by those in his battalion are down from 300 men to just nine last year. He plans to go this year. They are true friends, he says, and those who can count a handful of them in life are lucky.
"We have seen each other at our worst and we have seen each other at our best; there is nothing hidden," he said. "It's a matter of comradeship; it has nothing and everything to do with war."
And Fung said he doesn't regret his adventurousness, including joining the Army National Guard.
"It's all part of living," he said.