In the midst of the chaos, a man was struggling to reach any enemy bunker on the beach. He used the bodies that littered the beach as cover, and slowly crawled inland. Blood and sand was all over him and he couldn’t see a thing, but he kept crawling and didn’t stop until he reached a sand ledge about 20 meters short of the bunker. He ducked behind the ledge to take shelter from the machinegun fire coming from the bunker, and waited.
His regiment had planned to rendezvous at this spot hours earlier, but none of them had showed up. Instead, the young Sous-Lieutenant took charge. He gathered a group of men who were cowering near him and organized a strike on the bunker. He led a group of five, who flanked the bunker, while having the rest providing cover fire and creating diversions.
The unit took the bunker out with a couple of grenades, then rejoined the others at the ledge. The young field commander ordered the newly formed group inland towards other German-held positions.
This man who led the assault is named Cheng Chi-Shing. His French name is Jean-Claude. He was born in 1921 in Paris. He started life facing discrimination because of his mixed race. He ended World War II as an accepted and decorated French soldier.
He was the son of a French woman and a Chinese student. He had great black eyes and a small nose to go along with his yellow skin. And when he joined the 2e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine of the Troupes de Marine of the French Army in early 1939, he was not exactly embraced with open arms as, in his own words, “No one took me as a Frenchman”.
According to the regimental database, Cheng was the only soldier with Chinese blood. It is no surprise that he stood out.
“I had the toughest time in 1939, when I first joined the army as the Great War was breaking out,” he said. He joined the army because “it was my duty to fight for my country,” he said, but “people were looking down on me as they deemed me unfit for the French army.”
The French were an arrogant race. They had a lot of pride for themselves and especially when it comes to one of their oldest regiment.
“They had so much pride for their regiment they could not accept a Chinese kid in it,” said Cheng.
The commander of Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine tried removing Cheng from his regiment. He tried to move him to a number of other regiments. In the end, he even thought of discharging Cheng. But at a time of war, the French needed as many men as they could have, despite their ethnicity or nationality, and Cheng got to stay in the regiment.
But when the last attempt to get rid of him failed, the regiment simply took to ignoring him.
“It was worse than being beaten up or anything else, I was just, non-existing. I almost had to look in the mirror to be sure that I was there.”
He said it wasn’t until late in training that his fellow soldiers began to acknowledge his existence. “I guess it is that they never expected me to be able to finish the training. And that the fact that I was able to turned a few heads.”
But not long afterward, on 14 June 1940, Paris fell to German occupation and the regiment that had finally accepted him was soon disbanded.
“It was a disaster, just as I was starting to gain the respect of my fellow soldiers; we were given the order that we were to be disbanded,” said Cheng.
The unit’s soldiers were sent to Manchester, England to work with the British Navy. As Cheng crossed the English Channel, it didn’t dawn on him that he would have to face discrimination all over again.
“At the time, I was pretty much accepted by my fellows from my own regiment, I was getting used to it. To have to go through the discrimination, the ignoring (of his existence), and to have to work extra hard for, not even respect, (but just) acknowledgement: it was hell for me.”
They landed at Dover and were shipped to Manchester by a military truck at the courtesy of the British Navy. “The driver did not even look at us, he simply pointed towards the back of the truck and signed us to get on,” said Cheng, in his less than perfect English. “But this time, it is different, the discrimination was not against me as an Asian, but against the French and the French Army, it is against our nation. This time, I don’t feel like I am alone anymore.”
The French and the British people have never been the closest of friends. The relationship was still on the edge even while they were fighting a common enemy.
Cheng and his comrades worked and trained in Manchester with the British Navy for almost four years. During the time he had matured into a man and was readying himself for the counter-offensive.
On the dark, rainy night of 5th June 1944, the barracks just outside Manchester emptied all its soldiers onto a convoy of trucks. They were driven down to Portsmouth and were loaded onto large, ugly, metal transport ships. Escorted by squadrons of warships, they set sail for France.
“I had been waiting for Normandy for four years, I had been waiting for a chance to return to France for four whole years” said Cheng.
They were loaded onto amphibious boats in preparation for storming the beach. Cheng positioned himself right behind his captain and and tried to stop himself from shaking. The gates dropped. He jumped straight off the ship into the waters, not because he is an obedient man, but because he knew he would be dead if he froze even for a split second.
“I don’t remember how I got ashore,” he said of that chaotic scene, “it was all a blur really, but I do remember fighting my way to the sand ledge, blowing up the bunker, charging inland and securing the land as Allied territory.”
Five years later, Cheng received an honorable discharged from the army as the Second World War ended. He packed up his belongings and fixed up his collar on his uniform. He walked out of the barracks of his regiment in Le Mans with some of his fellow soldiers also discharged after the war. They walked together towards the Gare du Mans.
“People looked at me with respect,” said Cheng. “I knew it was probably the uniform, but it was still a great feeling, to be respected, at last.”
But he was mistaken, it was not just the uniform, it was the fact that he was walking with his fellow discharged soldiers. It made him seem like he was a true Frenchman. It made him seem like he was an accepted member of the French society.
Together, they started a bakery business in Perpignan and that business still stands today.
“We became great friends, we fought together in the war and we started our business together after the war. We were almost like brothers,” said Cheng.
Cheng continued to live in Perpignan for the next thirty years, during the time he had married and built up his family while maintaining his business with his comrades.
However, the death of both his partners of the bakery forced him to leave town.
“They were like brothers,” said Cheng, “It was really difficult to lose them.”
He left Perpignan in 1977, for the first time in thirty years, and returned to Le Mans, to visit his regiment. The trip was inspiring, it reminded him of his time in the army, the friendship and respect he attained, the confidence inspired, and, more importantly, that they had each other’s back.
“I knew the right thing to do, after the trip, was to return and look after their family and see that they make this through well”.
Till this day, Cheng still visits the family of his two former-partners and brothers-at-arms every day.
“It was certainly some experience to have fought in the Second World War and on D-Day,” Cheng now says. “But what really mattered was that, I have gained some friends, and they are not just friends you can meet anywhere, they were the ones that have fought alongside with me; they were the ones that have put their lives on the line with me; they were the ones who have stood by my side when it mattered the most.”
“And it never matters, your ethnicity, it is an obstacle everyone has to overcome. Your best friend is what he or she is not because of his or her ethnicity, but because of who he or she is.”