The Girl in the Picture: Stilwell Photo Leads to Surprising Reunion

Wednesday, April 29, 2015
General Joseph Stilwell with Chinese Nationalist generals outside Kunming, 1943 (Joseph Warren Stilwell Papers, Box 92, Hoover Institution Archives)
General Joseph Stilwell with Chinese Nationalist generals outside Kunming, 1943 (Joseph Warren Stilwell Papers, Box 92, Hoover Institution Archives)
General Joseph Stilwell with Chinese Nationalist generals outside Kunming, 1943 (Joseph Warren Stilwell Papers, Box 92, Hoover Institution Archives)
John Easterbrook and Huang Minnan in Beijing
Image credit: 
Courtesy of John Easterbrook
John Easterbrook and Huang Minnan in Beijing

Before his trip to Kunming, China, a few years ago, John Easterbrook, a grandson of General Joseph W. Stilwell, discovered, in the Stilwell Collection in the Hoover Archives, some unique photographs of his grandfather and a number of Chinese Nationalist generals taken outside Kunming in 1943. He made photocopies of the photographs and took them to Kunming, thinking that he would try to find where some of the photos had been taken. In Kunming he met a Chinese historian of World War II, Ge Shuya, who not only knew immediately where they had been taken but also was most interested in the photographs from a historical standpoint.

Easterbrook gave him copies, which Ge Shuya subsequently shared with friends. One friend, Yan Huan, the grandson of Chinese general Pan Yu-kun, helped identify many of the Chinese generals in the photographs. Huan was especially intrigued, however, by  a little girl in one of the photographs taken at Dragon Gate, carved into a vertical stone cliff three hundred meters above Dianchi Lake. Suspecting that the little girl might be related to one of the Chinese generals in the photograph,  through his contacts in China,  a few years he was able to validate his suspicions.  He found that Huang Minnan (the little girl) and her father, General Huang Wei, were both in the photograph and that she was currently living in Beijing.

After 1949, and especially during the Anti-Rightist Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution, any affiliation with the Nationalist Party, especially with a person of high rank, was politically and personally unsafe for everyone in the family.  Much suffering was endured, and many photos, letters, and memorabilia were destroyed and lost forever.  So it had been with Huang Minnan; she had no photographs of her father taken during World War II.

On a later trip to Beijing, Easterbrook brought with him high-quality copies of the photograph and  another he had found with the same little girl in it.  At a  heart-warming and emotional meeting with Huang Minnan and several members of her family, he gave  the copies to her.  She had no recollection of the photographs being taken but was overjoyed to receive the copies and be able to reconnect with the past and her father.

On subsequent trips to China, Easterbrook has continued to meet with Huang Minnan, who continues to be most grateful, thanks to the Stilwell Collection at the Hoover Archives, for the gift of a tangible connection to her family history.