Eugene A. Lance

World War II veteran made news when he was reunited in 2004 with a Chinese boy he had befriended 60 years before

January 28, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Eugene A. Lance, a World War II veteran who never forgot the boy he befriended in China during the war and was finally reunited with him 60 years later, died of lung cancer Jan. 20 at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The Lutherville resident was 85.

Mr. Lance, who was born in Baltimore and raised on Pine Street, attended Polytechnic Institute until being drafted into the Army.

After signing up for hazardous duty to escape a commanding officer with whom he had disagreed, Mr. Lance was sent in 1943 to an engineering unit assigned to China. Burma and India.

"A week later, I was flying over the hump to China, assigned to the Burma Road engineers," he told The Towson Times in a 2004 interview. He worked as a welder helping to construct the road.

Mr. Lance found himself 7,000 feet above sea level in a primitive base camp that was short on luxuries and long on challenging living conditions. The weather varied from searing humid heat to frigid cold at night. Meals were confined to C-rations and K-rations

They named the camp Monkey Bridge because of an adjacent bamboo bridge made of vines and branches that spanned a stream.

In early 1944, a hungry child wearing tattered clothes and speaking no English wandered into camp.

"I first saw him walking down the road looking very hesitant, curious, as if he was unaware who we were," Mr. Lance said in the newspaper interview. "The only foreign troops he had seen were Japanese, and we were a pleasant surprise to him. We were friendly."

Mr. Lance eventually learned that the Japanese had driven the little boy's family away from their mountain home and had killed many of them.

He and his fellow soldiers adopted the homeless child, who readily adapted to camp life, doing odd jobs for the soldiers and helping where he could.

"We fed him and we clothed him. He was the kid who came to lunch and never left," Mr. Lance said in the interview.

Eventually, with Mr. Lance's help, the young boy learned some English, and could say "Good morning," "Yes, Sir" and "No, Sir."

Mr. Lance called the child in Chinese vernacular "Shawheightza," which is "little kid" and spelled "Xiao Haizhi," according to The Towson Times article.

"He always called me 'Sarge,'" Mr. Lance said. "We became pretty close. I was the only one who shaved. He would take cold water from the stream and boil it in my helmet at 5 a.m. each day, and he would touch my face and say in English, 'Nice. Clean.' He was proud of me."

He remembered him as a "smart boy" who was a "good kid to have around."

Eventually, two months after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Mr. Lance was ordered home and according to U.S. military rules was forbidden to take Shawheightza with him.

Mr. Lance said in the interview that he regretted leaving the little boy, but they had located his mother, who was living in a mountainside lean-to some distance away.

After an overnight trek, Mr. Lance and his fellow soldiers reunited their friend with his mother, and before departing, gave them clothing and supplies.

"We gave him a big hug like Americans do," he said. "I felt guilty leaving him - Americans are sentimental, you know. It's a certain weakness," Mr. Lance said.

After being discharged in 1945 and returning to Baltimore, he worked as a welder, drove a cab and later was an insurance agent and sold real estate.

In 1951, Mr. Lance was recalled to active duty and sent to Korea. After injuring a knee, he was sent home.

Mr. Lance went to work as a master steamfitter for what eventually became Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 486. He retired in 1985.

With the passage of the years, Mr. Lance never forgot the little boy.

While attending a 2003 reunion of China-Burma-India veterans in Valley Forge, Pa., Mr. Lance became acquainted with Zehao "ZZ" Zhou, an assistant professor at York College and a member of the Association for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia.

Assisting Mr. Zhou was Pat Lucas, a documentary filmmaker, who filmed the veterans while listening to their experiences.

When the two men asked Mr. Lance if they could help him, he asked them if it was possible to find the boy who wandered into his camp 60 years ago. It was a daunting task, made more complicated because Mr. Lance didn't know the boy's name, and the boy, if they were lucky enough to locate him, only knew his benefactor as "Sarge" or "Boss."

Mr. Zhou, however, pressed on and wrote to the Chinese government, asking if it could help with Mr. Lance's request.

Somewhat surprising to Mr. Zhou, government officials promised they'd conduct a door-to-door search in the rural province where the Monkey Bridge had been located.

"After a month of intense searching, the foreign affairs official thought he had found the right man: Cai Wenbo, a 75-year-old grandfather who is a member of the Li Shu ethnic minority," according to The Towson Times article.

In September 2004, Mr. Lance, then 81, journeyed to China at the invitation of the government, with his visit treated by the media as a major news event.

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