By Trista di Genova / published 2005 in Travel & Culture magazine in its abridged form
THE BATTLE OF GUNINGTOU
The Chinese Nationalist army (KMT), led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣中正), defeated the Japanese in Nanking, but lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao Zedong’s Communists. The KMT then “took all the money and left all the bad elements behind,” [quote by gadfly Li Ao] escaping to the island chain in 1949. After the Japanese surrendered to Allied forces in World War II, Kinmen acted as a frontier against possible attacks from China.
Most have forgotten the story of how General Chiang Kai-shek carved the words “Wu wang tsai Ju” (“Do not forget Ju”) on a 253m rock on Kinmen’s Mount Taiwu in 1952. What was Ju? It was a reference to a battle waged during the Warring States Period (700-256BC), where General Tian Dan defeated the Yen army, recovering over 70 cities. For Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT, Kinmen was supposed to be a springboard for the Nationalist army to “take back” China. This was a military feat never realized, and eventually given up, or least transformed today into an openness toward “the Mainland,” and toward closer economic cooperation with China.
Instead, Taiwan has developed a strong “pro-independence” movement over the past few decades, a source of much contention in today’s cross-strait relations. A formal declaration of independence by Taiwan — according to the “Anti-Secession” Law that was rubber-stamped in China’s People’s Congress this year — would cross “the red line” that China has drawn, and constitute a “non-peaceful means” for an invasion of Taiwan.
However, I would argue that Taiwan’s “war of independence” with China was already fought – and won — at the Battle of Guningtou in 1949.
The Guningtou War Museum uses film, artifacts and oil murals to tell the seldom-told story of Taiwan’s victory over the China. On Oct. 25, 1949, at 2am, ten thousand Chinese communist troops invaded Kinmen in Houchiang Bay, between Lunghou and Guningtou. But they significantly underestimated the number of Taiwanese troops at 8,000, when there were actually over 20,000. The Chicoms broke through the island’s defenses, but under General Kao Kuei-Yuan the Taiwanese forces regrouped the next afternoon, and the Taiwanese, armed with numbers, courage and 22 old M-5A1 tanks (“the bear of Kinmen”) they had acquired from the US, managed to route the lighter-armed Chinese back to the beach, where the PLA was not only out of ammunition but trapped. Their escape was cut off because the Taiwanese army had ingeniously torched the 200 fishing ships the PLA had used to invade the island. The entire engagement lasted only 56 hours.
Seven thousand Chinese were forced to surrender that day to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist armies at Guningtou. The Taiwanese forces gave the PLA a merciful choice – either return to China as dishonored soldiers, or to be sent to Taiwan. Six thousand chose to be “re-educated” in Taiwan and eventually joined the Taiwanese army. Interestingly, to this day, China distances itself from the Battle of Guningtou, saying they didn’t attack, claiming that an (unnamed) general decided to attack independently.
So in 1949, the battle was won at Guningtou, but it was not over. There was the September 3rd Artillery War of 1954, the “Quenoy Crisis,” and was a major issue in the 1960 presidential elections between Kennedy and Nixon. In the 1950s, the United States even threatened to use nuclear weapons against the PRC, if it attacked the island.
Then on Aug. 23, 1958, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) bombarded Kinmen (and Matsu) with over 500,000 bombs for 44 days. The Taiwanese forces responded with their own bombardment until Mao declared a ceasefire. But when US warships entered the Taiwan Strait to defend Kinmen, the artillery bombardment resumed.
On Oct. 25, Mao proposed that if the US warships kept away from the Chinese coastline, the Communists would only bombard the islands on odd-numbered days. The US accepted, and by mutual agreement Taiwan fired artillery shells on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while the Communists volleyed theirs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Sunday was a holiday from the fighting. This odd arrangement continued for 20 years, until 1978, when the US broke off diplomatic ties with Taiwan. A total of 578 ROC soldiers were killed during this time, whereas the Chinese death toll is unknown as China’s death tolls have been a state secret – until this year.
Until 1978, the Chinese shelled the island, mostly with “propaganda shells.” A propaganda shell, like this one, might typically have inside a leaflet with a smiling Chinese couple, saying “Don’t waste your life on defending the ROC,” and urge the Taiwanese to surrender.
Ironically, these shells have been serving the purpose of the island’s economy for decades. In 1937, Wu Chao-hsi, “Blacksmith Wu,” inherited his ancestral business and founded a steel knife factory, and took advantage of the fact that each artillery or propaganda shell contains enough steel to make about 60 cleavers. He first collected the artillery shells dropped by the Allies in WWII, and then there was a supply of millions from China’s bombardments. At first, there was plenty of steel to support Maestro Wu’s brisk import trade in cutlery. Today they are mainly available in outlets around the island or at the Chin Ho Li Steel Knife Factory and museum, where visitors can also watch how a knife is forged – in about 15 minutes.
There are several other military museums that are a must-see for visitors. The 823 War Museum has a family-friendly, wide array of planes, tanks and cannons used during the battles, as well as war documents.
Also, visitors can see one of the three cave-like secret tunnels at Dishan, Zhaishan tunnel. They were built using explosives in 1961, and once docked 42 military supply ships.
To be continued…