JINAN, China - In 1954 Army Pvt. James G. Veneris stood on the back of a truck along the 38th parallel, the line separating North and South Korea, and waved goodbye to the West. To folks back home, the choice he made was almost inconceivable.
Having spent most of the Korean War in a Chinese-run prison camp, the knock-about laborer from western Pennsylvania joined 20 other U.S. military men in choosing Mao Tse-tung's China over Eisenhower's America. Hanging from the back of the truck was a white sign suggesting their reasons. "We Stay For Peace," it read.
The next years, though, were anything but peaceful for Veneris and his adopted country. Instead of a socialist utopia, China generated intermittent chaos and profound suffering.
In 1957, three years after Veneris arrived, Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, a wildly ambitious program to increase agricultural and industrial productivity. The result: perhaps the worst famine in world history and the loss of an estimated 30 million lives.
Nine years later came the Cultural Revolution, a nationwide political struggle in which at least another million died.
While most of the world remained ignorant of events unfolding behind China's "Bamboo Curtain," Veneris watched the early decades of Communist rule from a rare, front-row seat. He saw Chinese friends die of malnutrition during the Great Leap Forward and his first wife succumb to tuberculosis. He plastered political slogans along the streets of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution.
After China began to engage the world in the 1980s, he watched the Communist Party dismantle its cradle-to-grave social safety net and introduce the sort of capitalist-style reforms that Mao would have despised.
If he has any regrets, Veneris, now 79, keeps them mostly to himself.
"They messed around for a while, but they found the right way," Veneris said of China's leaders during a recent interview in his home in the city of Jinan on the country's east coast.
"If I had to do it all over again, I'd do it in the wink of an eyelash."
Veneris' Chinese odyssey began in North Korea near the Ch'ong Ch'on River on Nov. 28, 1950, in the early days of the Korean War. Sent as a replacement soldier in the U.S. 8th Army, Veneris says he became separated from fellow troops during a firefight and hid in a man-made cave shielded by evergreen trees.
As he waited for darkness and a chance to escape, he watched Chinese soldiers stationed in a Korean village nearby. Although officers had told him Chinese troops could be brutal, Veneris said he was struck by how well they treated the Korean farmers. At one point, he said, a Chinese soldier gave a handful of money to villagers to pay for food.
Convinced that the Chinese wouldn't mistreat him, Veneris said, he decided to surrender. The Chinese took him to a prison camp in North Korea near the Yalu River, which runs along the two countries' border.
The (North) Korean People's Army had attacked South Korea that June to reunite the Korean Peninsula. After U.S. and United Nations forces crushed North Korean units, China took over the war on behalf of its Communist neighbor, including the management of prison camps.
Veneris said the Chinese treated him well. He survived on a diet of rice, steamed buns and cabbage; occasionally, he had meat, including pork, mutton and chicken.
He spent hours talking to his captors, who gave him cartons of cigarettes. Over time, he said, he came to see the American war effort as barbaric and warmed to his Communist guards' egalitarian philosophy.
"There is something terrific going on in China," Veneris recalled thinking. "They were building a new world."
After the war ended with an armistice in 1953, the Chinese returned 3,576 U.S. POWs. Veneris was not among them. He and 20 others had decided to move to China.
The decision shook many Americans and provoked soul-searching within the Army. Some Americans thought the men had been brainwashed. Others believed the soldiers must have collaborated with the enemy and therefore feared prosecution if they returned home. There was debate too about whether the United States had produced a generation of men who were "too soft"; anyone who succumbed to the Communists, it was thought, was faulty in some way.
"A lot of people have come up with different explanations for this," says William Donnelly, a historian at the U.S. Army Center of Military History in Washington. "Nobody can say except the men themselves."
Veneris says none of the conventional theories was true.
During a grace period when he was given time to reconsider, friends and strangers sent him letters by the bagful encouraging him to return home. "All I ask is to let me talk to my boy," Veneris' mother, Irene, was quoted as saying on the front-page of the Los Angeles Evening Herald-Express in October 1953. Veneris' parents made a record so he could hear their voices. He refused to listen to it and threw it away.
"What good would it do me?" said Veneris, who had made up his mind to stay. But, he added quietly, "I should have kept it."
A rough start
Friends in his hometown of Vandergrift, Pa., were stunned by his decision to move to China.
"Then some of us realized that his life wasn't a bowl of cherries either," said one of Veneris' friends, Pete Basile, now a 74-year-old chocolate manufacturer.
Growing up in Vandergrift, a small, working-class community 28 miles from Pittsburgh, hadn't been easy. When Veneris was young, his father, George, beat him and frequently told him he would never amount to anything, according to Basile. Introverted and an avid reader, Veneris suffered from an inferiority complex, Basile said.
"If he had the wrong tie on, someone would mention it and he would go home and change it," recalled Basile. "Sometimes he wouldn't come back."
After high school, Veneris spent years drifting from one blue-collar job to another as he and fellow workers suffered through layoffs. Veneris said he became frustrated and embittered as he watched companies dump loyal employees.
"Jobs were very tough to find," recalled Veneris' brother-in-law, John Scolinos, a retired college baseball coach who lives near Los Angeles. "He got discouraged, and that's when he went back into the service."
Veneris, who had served in the South Pacific during World War II, said he re-enlisted because he couldn't find anything else to do. He hoped Army life would provide security.
After he chose to live in China, Veneris says, the Army gave him a dishonorable discharge and refused to provide back pay for his time in prison camp. The Chinese gave him a stipend, new clothes and a vacation in Beijing.
Veneris later moved to eastern China's Shandong province, where he took a job in a state-run pulp factory in Jinan that turned discarded cloth shoes into toilet paper for export to Hong Kong.
Great Leap Forward
When Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, Veneris joined fellow workers in what amounted to a nationwide scavenger hunt. They collected everything from scrap iron to old sewer pipes to aid the country's industrialization effort.
Like hundreds of thousands of homes and factories, Veneris' pulp plant devoted several furnaces to making steel. The national effort ultimately failed when furnaces were unable to produce a high-quality product.
In the countryside, the government placed peasants into giant "people's communes" to boost agricultural output. Local officials falsified crop figures, and subsequent miscalculations led to devastating famine.
"Many, many people were sick, they just bloated up from lack of nutrition," recalled Veneris, who lost several friends to malnutrition and refers to the period by the Chinese euphemism, "The Three Years of Calamities."
"The idea was good," Veneris now says, "but it went to the extreme."
In 1963, Veneris began attending People's University in Beijing, where he studied Chinese literature, philosophy and the history of the international Communist movement.
A favorite of party propagandists, he gave an anti-Vietnam War speech in 1964 to some 10,000 students in the Great Hall of the People, China's hulking, Stalinesque parliament building on the edge of Tiananmen Square.
When the Cultural Revolution began the next year, he says, he joined in.
Veneris recalls causing traffic jams while distributing thousands of Mao pins on the streets of Jinan. He wrote so-called "Big Character Posters" calling for international unity and hung them along Wangfujing, one of the capital's two main shopping avenues.
The Cultural Revolution, though, had a fiercely anti-foreign bent. Some of Veneris' friends were criticized for associating with him. Classmates told his children that he was a spy for the rival Nationalist government on the island of Taiwan.
"It definitely had an effect," says Veneris, who partly blames the Cultural Revolution for the breakup of his second marriage, to a fellow factory worker. He says the chaotic period - in which children informed on their parents and students attacked their teachers - had a big impact on people's thinking.
Though he declines to elaborate, Veneris says the confusion of the era led to a major argument with his wife.
"I got pissed off, asked for a divorce and got it," he says. "I made a big mistake."
After a third marriage, to a botanist, Veneris remarried his second wife in 1989. They share a spacious, three-bedroom apartment, which the government sold him at a generous discount for $2,400.
In many ways, Veneris belongs to an earlier age: post-World War II America and China under Mao. On the arm of an overstuffed sofa sits Veneris' current reading, The Biography of Lin Biao, the story of Mao's chosen successor, who died in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia in 1971 after allegedly plotting Mao's assassination.
Veneris' listening tastes lean toward John Philip Sousa and classical Chinese music played on the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle. Stacks of old National Geographic magazines, some with the spines held together by strapping tape, line his bookshelves.
Having spent his first 29 years in America and the next half-century among Chinese, Veneris speaks in a late 1940s GI slang peppered with the sayings of Chairman Mao.
He refers to blacks as Negroes and describes being drunk as half-corked. When the subject turns to Chinese politics, Veneris may begin a thought in English only to finish it in fluent Chinese with such aphorisms as "Seek Truth from Facts" (Mao, 1941).
His continued reliance on Communist lingo is all the more striking because most Chinese don't use it anymore. Address people under 40 who live in a city as comrade, and they will probably laugh.
If Veneris' vernacular seems odd to visitors, he tends to put them at ease with his enthusiasm and folksy hospitality. Appearing 10 years younger than his nearly eight decades, he can chat for hours about the past, alternating between sips of Chinese flower tea and drags from his favorite cigarettes, Camels and Lucky Strikes.
"It all seems like yesterday," Veneris told a recent guest. "Your coming here has helped my spirits."
Last of his kind
Today, there is hardly anyone left quite like Veneris. Almost all the other former POWs have died or gone home to the United States. Veneris first went back to the U.S. in 1976 to celebrate the bicentennial and visited again a few years ago.
His last compatriot in China, a Texan named Howard Adams, declines to talk to reporters.
A veteran of two wars, Veneris says he now believes most in peace and hopes for good relations between China and the United States. Although many back home considered him a turncoat in the 1950s, Veneris likes to think of himself as a goodwill ambassador who was ahead of time.
"I'm not a traitor; I'm a patriot," he says. "I came to China 23 years before Nixon."
Sun staff writer Tom Bowman contributed to this article.