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How a revolt at sea led to the creation of Chinas first naval vessel2019-04-23 08:15:45

As the worldwide spotlight is on the eastern port city of Qingdao, the host city of the international maritime parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, few remember that it is the birthplace of China's first naval vessel.

Seventy years ago, a group of young naval officers directed a destroyer escort of the Kuomintang (KMT) party away from the city of Qingdao to the areas freed by the Communist PartyofChina(CPC), leading a revolt at sea that turned the destroyer escort into China's first naval vessel.

The story was relegated to a mere footnote of history and largely erased from the public memory as the officers at the destroyer escort passed away. CGTN got exclusive access to Wang Zhijin, a 93-year-old man who was a crucial figure behind the preparation of the uprising and can reveal the untold story behind the creation of China's first naval vessel.

The preparation stage

Clashes between the CPC and the KMT intensified after a short-lived truce broke down in 1946. Yet by the end of the 1940s, it was clear that victory would be on the Communists' side as the Nationalist government was beset by corruption and dysfunction in the military.

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Wang Ziliang (1st L) with two other naval officers involved in the Huang An mutiny. /Photo courtesy of Wang Tao.

Though its advantage on ground battles faded, the KMT's sea power advantage stood intact because of the more than 400 naval vessels it possessed. After the fall of Jinan in Shandong province to the CPC, the port city of Qingdao not far away from Jinan became the sanctuary of KMT navy forces, among which was Huang An, a Japanese destroyer escort given to the KMT as compensation after the Sino-Japanese war concluded.

The PLA at the time was most certainly a land-focused armed force. Since it did not have a naval vessel, time and time again the KMT extracted ground forces lost in war to areas not yet under Communist control. Seeing the clear strategic disadvantage the party was in, CPC leaders hoped that more KMT naval officers could turn to the Communist side, thus leveling up the battlefield at sea.

In July 1948, Wang Zhijin, who was then a middle school student, was called to the CPC Qingdao Municipal Committee office. He was told that the task of orchestrating the mutiny was delegated to him. Though still only 21, Wang had been involved in intelligence operations of the CPC and had an unrivaled family connection — his elder brother Wang Ziliang was a gunnery chief on the Huang An destroyer escort.

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A photo of the then middle-school student Wang Zhijin (R). /Photo courtesy of Wang Tao

"There are two difficulties in plotting the uprising, one is that the captain of the Huang An destroyer was a diehard KMT believer, second is that the supply officer at the ship was not someone we got along well with," Wang Zhijin told CGTN in an interview.

They, therefore, came up with numerous ways to develop personal relations with the two, giving small gifts to the former while doing match-making for the latter.

As they tried to win the minds and hearts of naval personnel, an uprising was brewing on the ship.

A night that changed it all

On February 14, 1949, the entire city was engulfed in a celebratory mood. Navy officers mostly left the ship to celebrate the Lantern Festival with families, including the most diehard "resistance force" on the ship, the captain of Huang An.

The wind was blowing heavily that night, creating perfect conditions for a naval uprising. This means that the KMT's airforce would not be in operation at night, thus making it less likely to spot a mutiny, said Wang Tao, the son of Wang Zhijin and a researcher on Chinese naval history.

At eight o' clock in the night, Wang Ziliang, the gunnery chief at Huang An, together with a few CPC members who were also naval officers on the ship, announced the start of the uprising. One member rushed to the cabin of the captain's room and put the deputy captain under control. Another went to the communications officer and ordered a cut to all communications with land forces.

Most personnel on the Huang An vessel, on hearing that an uprising was launched, joined immediately. Morale in the KMT navy had already sunk to a rock bottom due to leadership corruption that hallowed the naval personnel's pay. Though facing no strong resistance from those on the ship, Wang Ziliang and his crewmates forgot a great danger lurking in front of them — an American fleet was deployed in the sea not far from the Huang An destroyer escort.

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Wang Ziliang and his wife were both naval officers on the Huang An. /Photo courtesy of Wang Tao

As the vessel proceeded at full force, an American cruiser stopped them, said Wang Zhijin, who heard the accounts from his elder brother Wang Ziliang, the man who initiated the uprising. Those who led the uprising claimed they were on a sea trial and were then let go.

"There had not been any mutiny of KMT naval vessels before and it never occurred to the Americans that there would be one," said Wang Tao, the son of Wang Zhijin.

In one night, a KMT-held naval vessel was turned into the first naval vessel of the PLA Navy.

The creation of the PLA Navy

The uprising of Huang An shocked the KMT. Days into the mutiny, the Huang An destroyer escort became the target of bombardment by KMT air force for multiple days.

It also sparked mass defection among KMT naval personnel. 12 days after the uprising of Huang An, another naval vessel, the new cruiser and the KMT flagship called the Chongqing, which also turned to the CPC's side.

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A group photo of all those behind the Huang An mutiny. /Photo courtesy of Wang Tao

"The KMT at the time did try to rein in on naval personnel. It launched the campaign to root out Communist influence and strengthened control over free movement of KMT officers on and off the ship," Wang Tao, the son of Wang Zhijin, told CGTN.

But still, the mutiny became contagious. In one year, 21 naval vessels turned against the KMT, paving the way for the founding of the PLA Navy in April 1949.

From having only one naval vessel to launching its first home-made aircraft carrier, the PLA Navy has come a long way, Wang Zhijin said. As the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PLA navy goes, the oft-uncredited effort in the run-up to the creation of the PLA Navy needs to be acknowledged.

(Top image designed by Gao Hong Mei)