Many thanks to my good friend Tina for relating this story to me. She had heard it from others and had not read it in a book, making this an FOAF (friend of a friend) story or, in other words, an urban legend.
This story takes place during the rule of President Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, 1887-1975), specifically during the crucial Battle of Kinmen in October 1949, one of the last actions of the Chinese Civil War.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA) had landed on Guningtou (Kuningtou), one of the small islands off the coast of China and which were and still are held by Taiwan. The battle was bitter and fierce. A victory for the PLA would have meant a huge psychological blow to the Kuomintang (KMT) government on Taiwan and paved the way for the eventual landing of PLA troops on Taiwan itself. The soldiers of the Republic of China (ROC) army keenly understood the stakes involved and fought to preserve every inch of Guningtou.
At one point in the battle, on a stretch of beach, the tanks of ROC army were used to roll over and crush the PLA soldiers. This in fact happened, and many ROC soldiers who found themselves engaged in hand-to-hand combat with PLA soldiers were also inadvertently run over and killed. How many ROC soldiers died this way? All we know is that there were many.
By the end of October, the battle was over. The PLA force had been defeated, with most either killed or captured.
The ROC army then set up observation stations along the beach on Guningtou manned by soldiers who remained on watch twenty-four hours a day.
Then, something happened . . .
ROC soldiers stationed on the beach began to request transfers; some tried to avoid going to the beach stations; others deserted.
What was going on?
A high-ranking officer interviewed some of these soldiers, and they all said the same thing: Ghosts haunted the beach at twilight. The officer thought this was a load of nonsense and went himself to the beach to see if there was any substance to these stories. He stood on a ridge overlooking the beach. After sundown, he witnessed whisps of luminous smoke gradually form themselves into human shapes, the shapes of men whose bodies had been twisted into unnatural postures, whose smokey limbs appeared to be maimed or ripped off, whose heads had been decapitated.
The officer reported this to his superiors, who, in turn, reported back to the KMT government. The report reached the desk of President Chiang himself.
Given the large number of men who were refusing to be assigned guard duty along the beach, President Chiang decided to fly to Kinmen and then take a boat to Guningtou. He needed to have a look just in case something was really taking place on the beach. He, along with his bodyguard detail, would see for himself what was going on. All those involved knew what this meant: If no ghosts materialized in front of Chiang, those being held for desertion, dereliction of duty, and spreading rumors of ghosts--all serious charges in wartime--would be summarily executed.
President Chiang and his entourage arrived and found a vantage point above the beach to observe. The sun finally set but no ghosts had yet appeared. The president continued to watch and to scan the beach. Minute after minute ticked by, with the beach still empty of any kind of human presence.
And then wisps of luminous smoke slowly materialized, hundreds of them. They finally took the forms of damaged, broken bodies seen earlier by other soldiers. The forms began to gather and verge on the area where President Chiang sat. They lined up in formation, facing the man who in their lifetimes had been their leader, and who was now observing them from above the beach. Those that still possessed what had once been in their lifetimes their arms saluted President Chiang.
President Chiang stood up and said, "Thank you, Brothers, for your hard work and your ultimate sacrifice. I am pleased to tell you that the fighting is over. Rest easy."
Chiang Kai-shek finished speaking and left with his men, shortly afterward returning to Taiwan.
The ghosts were never seen again. The soldiers that had been arrested and were slated to be executed were spared.
For another urban legend of that era, see the posting for 6/19/11.
Motifs: E330, "Location haunted by non-malevolent dead"; E334.5, "Ghost(s) of soldier(s) haunt battlefield"; E421.3, "Luminous ghosts"; E421.5, "Ghosts seen by two or more people; they corroborate the appearances"; 422.1.1, "Headless (ghosts)"; E451, "Ghosts rest when certain thing happens"; E587, "Ghosts walk at certain times."