Wang Jianguo discusses the dangers he encountered when he was dispatched to Laos to construct roads in the early 1970s.
Wang Jianguo enlisted into the People’s Liberation Army in December 1969. Wang was first sent for a two-month basic military training at Simao (now known as Pu’er). After his training, he was assigned to a unit that was to be deployed to Laos. His unit was in charge of assisting the Laotians to construct roads along the Eastern Road Line. His main duty was to operate a bulldozer.
Life in Laos was arduous. Frequent bombings by American forces in the region, as well as various hostile saboteurs in the area, disrupted progress. Wang recalled an incident when he was almost struck by two shells that had detonated near his bulldozer. The two explosions from the shells were so powerful that it almost deafened him. The weather was so hot that the sun was out even when it was raining. The soldiers were made to live in makeshift bamboo shelters that kept neither the weather nor the bugs out. Difficulties in communications and the maintenance of supply lines meant that many soldiers there suffered from malnutrition.
Discipline within the unit was strict. Soldiers were not allowed to contact foreign soldiers in the area. Also, because the Cultural Revolution was happening in China as his unit was executing its duties in Laos, Wang had to undertake study tasks in the evenings. Cadres from the Communist Party of China led soldiers in reading works by Mao Zedong, as well as some newspaper articles. Wang returned to China in March 1972 after his unit constructed a sixteen-kilometre stretch of the Eastern Road line in Laos.
Interviewee: Wang Jianguo
Interviewer and writer: CUI FENG
Location: Ezhou, Hubei province, China
Date: October 11, 2021
Language: Chinese (Translated by CUI FENG)
In December 1969, over a thousand new recruits from Echeng, Hubei Province, took a train to Kunming, Yunnan. It took about four to five days on the train before reaching Kunming. Afterwards, we continued southward by military trucks and arrived in Simao (now known as Pu'er), where we underwent training for two months. Around March 1970, we concluded our basic training and were deployed to Laos. The unit I was assigned to was sent to the eastern part of Laos, to construct roads along the Eastern Road Line. Our regiment was responsible for building a 16-kilometer section of that road. I was in charge of operating a bulldozer.
Construction work in Laos was not very safe, especially for heavy equipment operators like us. We were frequently subjected to bombings by American planes. There were also instances of hostile agents causing sabotages in the area. Once, while I was operating the bulldozer, a sentry suddenly shouted for me to turn off the engine and take cover. I had just turned it off when two shells exploded. The explosion was so powerful that it nearly deafened me. I was fortunate to have escaped alive.
The weather in Laos was exceptionally hot and humid, which made it very uncomfortable. It rained almost every day during the rainy season. It would still rain even when the sun was out. We lived in makeshift bamboo shelters that were neither houses nor tents. They were surrounded by fences made of bamboo strips, and our beds were woven from bamboo. While sleeping, we would often be bitten by grasshoppers. Life was very difficult. We relied on supplies from China, but transportation was challenging––especially for vegetables, which were in short supply. Due to a lack of vitamins, many soldiers developed skin diseases.
During the Cultural Revolution, we also had study tasks in the evenings. Communist Party cadres would lead us in reading Chairman Mao's works and some newspapers. The discipline within the unit was strict, and we were not allowed to leave the designated area of our camp. In principle, contact with other foreign military personnel, mainly Vietnamese soldiers at that time, was not permitted. In March 1972, my unit completed the road construction mission in Laos and returned to China.
Interviewer: Cui Feng
Interviewee: Wang Jianguo
How did you think Wang’s experience of being dispatched overseas shaped the way he understood the Cold War in Asia?