A special Anzac Day story provided by the UWA Confucius Institute.
ORE than 75 years ago, a young man in military uniform donned a slouch hat and posed for a photograph with a mate – just as hundreds of thousands of others like him had done throughout World War II.
But despite being a member of the Citizen Military Forces – later known as the Australian Army Reserve – Private Yao Chao Liang was not an Australian citizen. He was a Chinese teenager far from home, caught up in a chapter of Australian military history almost as faded as his photograph.
Mr Yao survived the war and now lives in Shanghai, a world away from the Port of Fremantle where he first became part of Australia’s war effort.
His memory is still good, and he hopes that telling his story will help pay tribute to the 2000 other Chinese seafarers who served Australia with him between 1942 and 1944.
“I am 95 years young now and my wife is 88 years young,” he says.
“We live together in a house in Jing’an District, Shanghai. We have a happy lifestyle and we enjoy ourselves every day.”
Mr Yao was 17 when WWII began. At the end of 1941, he sailed from Shanghai to Hong Kong with the British merchant shipping company, Swire Shipping.
But a few months later, in February 1942, he ended up stranded in far off Fremantle along with about 500 fellow Chinese seamen.
The shipping company, fearful of being bombed or robbed by Japanese forces sweeping through South East Asia, had directed its five ships to head for sanctuary in Australia. They sailed for
10 days to reach Fremantle in February 1942. There the ships were commandeered by the Australian government and the Chinese crew ultimately found themselves part of the Australian Army’s Citizen Military Forces.
Mr Yao’s yellowing army papers from that time show he served 593 days of continuous full-time war service with the Citizen Military Forces from March 1942 until October 1943. His soldier’s pay book records a payment of just over £239 for the period.
Mr Yao says his company, known as the 7th Australian Labour Regiment, was stationed in many cities around Australia, including Perth. They carried out logistical support jobs such as material handling for warehouses and vehicle transportation.
In 1944 most of the 500-strong regiment returned home to China, although a dozen men chose to remain. Altogether about 2000 Chinese seafarers served around Australia in similar roles during WW11.
After he returned to China, Mr Yao studied accounting and worked for the Ministry of Metallurgical Industry in various roles until he retired. He and his wife have a son, a former journalist, and a daughter who has now passed away.
“I am very grateful to the Australian Government for keeping our historical military service documents in your country so complete,” he says.
“I feel very sorry that we had a total of 500 people in the 7th Australian Labour Regiment and only a few are still alive.
“I believe that my comrades who have passed away will be grateful as if they were still alive this day, because they will be remembered in the history of Australia!”