Eugene A. Lance

The Baltimore Sun

Eugene A. Lance, a World War II veteran who never forgot the boy he befriended in China during the war and was finally reunited with him 60 years later, died of lung cancer Jan. 20 at Gilchrist Hospice Care.

The Lutherville resident was 85.

Mr. Lance, who was born in Baltimore and raised on Pine Street, attended Polytechnic Institute until being drafted into the Army.

After signing up for hazardous duty to escape a commanding officer with whom he had disagreed, Mr. Lance was sent in 1943 to an engineering unit assigned to China. Burma and India.

"A week later, I was flying over the hump to China, assigned to the Burma Road engineers," he told The Towson Times in a 2004 interview. He worked as a welder helping to construct the road.

Mr. Lance found himself 7,000 feet above sea level in a primitive base camp that was short on luxuries and long on challenging living conditions. The weather varied from searing humid heat to frigid cold at night. Meals were confined to C-rations and K-rations

They named the camp Monkey Bridge because of an adjacent bamboo bridge made of vines and branches that spanned a stream.

In early 1944, a hungry child wearing tattered clothes and speaking no English wandered into camp.

"I first saw him walking down the road looking very hesitant, curious, as if he was unaware who we were," Mr. Lance said in the newspaper interview. "The only foreign troops he had seen were Japanese, and we were a pleasant surprise to him. We were friendly."

Mr. Lance eventually learned that the Japanese had driven the little boy's family away from their mountain home and had killed many of them.

He and his fellow soldiers adopted the homeless child, who readily adapted to camp life, doing odd jobs for the soldiers and helping where he could.

"We fed him and we clothed him. He was the kid who came to lunch and never left," Mr. Lance said in the interview.

Eventually, with Mr. Lance's help, the young boy learned some English, and could say "Good morning," "Yes, Sir" and "No, Sir."

Mr. Lance called the child in Chinese vernacular "Shawheightza," which is "little kid" and spelled "Xiao Haizhi," according to The Towson Times article.

"He always called me 'Sarge,'" Mr. Lance said. "We became pretty close. I was the only one who shaved. He would take cold water from the stream and boil it in my helmet at 5 a.m. each day, and he would touch my face and say in English, 'Nice. Clean.' He was proud of me."

He remembered him as a "smart boy" who was a "good kid to have around."

Eventually, two months after the Japanese surrender in 1945, Mr. Lance was ordered home and according to U.S. military rules was forbidden to take Shawheightza with him.

Mr. Lance said in the interview that he regretted leaving the little boy, but they had located his mother, who was living in a mountainside lean-to some distance away.

After an overnight trek, Mr. Lance and his fellow soldiers reunited their friend with his mother, and before departing, gave them clothing and supplies.

"We gave him a big hug like Americans do," he said. "I felt guilty leaving him - Americans are sentimental, you know. It's a certain weakness," Mr. Lance said.

After being discharged in 1945 and returning to Baltimore, he worked as a welder, drove a cab and later was an insurance agent and sold real estate.

In 1951, Mr. Lance was recalled to active duty and sent to Korea. After injuring a knee, he was sent home.

Mr. Lance went to work as a master steamfitter for what eventually became Plumbers and Steamfitters Union Local 486. He retired in 1985.

With the passage of the years, Mr. Lance never forgot the little boy.

While attending a 2003 reunion of China-Burma-India veterans in Valley Forge, Pa., Mr. Lance became acquainted with Zehao "ZZ" Zhou, an assistant professor at York College and a member of the Association for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia.

Assisting Mr. Zhou was Pat Lucas, a documentary filmmaker, who filmed the veterans while listening to their experiences.

When the two men asked Mr. Lance if they could help him, he asked them if it was possible to find the boy who wandered into his camp 60 years ago. It was a daunting task, made more complicated because Mr. Lance didn't know the boy's name, and the boy, if they were lucky enough to locate him, only knew his benefactor as "Sarge" or "Boss."

Mr. Zhou, however, pressed on and wrote to the Chinese government, asking if it could help with Mr. Lance's request.

Somewhat surprising to Mr. Zhou, government officials promised they'd conduct a door-to-door search in the rural province where the Monkey Bridge had been located.

"After a month of intense searching, the foreign affairs official thought he had found the right man: Cai Wenbo, a 75-year-old grandfather who is a member of the Li Shu ethnic minority," according to The Towson Times article.

In September 2004, Mr. Lance, then 81, journeyed to China at the invitation of the government, with his visit treated by the media as a major news event.

"Gene was overwhelmed with the hero's welcome he received. So many people thanked him for his contribution to the Chinese people's freedom from Japanese occupation and brutality," Mr. Zhou said in the newspaper interview.

After a long bus trip with a police escort and a visit to the Monkey Bridge, Mr. Lance finally got to meet his friend.

His son and daughter greeted Mr. Lance and helped him across a little plank bridge to the hut where their father waited.

"He was in the hut waiting for me. He was just a tiny little thing," Mr. Lance told The Towson Times.

The two men hugged and cried.

"It was a great reunion," Mr. Lance said. "It was as if he were my long-lost son."

In December, he found out that Cai Wenbo had died last January.

"ZZ confirmed it for us. He learned it from the government," Mr. Lance's wife of 42 years, the former Lois F. Baumholser, said yesterday.

"Gene was pretty sad about it. He said he knew we all had to go one day, but he was still very surprised by the news," she said.

Mr. Zhou became and remained a close friend of Mr. Lance's until the end of his life.

"Finding Cai Wenbo validated and redefined Gene's life," he said yesterday. "It really is an incredible story."

Mr. Lance, who was an active member of the China Burma India Group, earned his pilot's license and enjoyed flying and restoring airplanes at Essex Skypark.

He was also a member of the Hampstead American Legion post, Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Towson Elks.

He was a member of the Episcopal Church of the Holy Comforter in Lutherville, where services were held Satuday.

Also surviving are five sons, Eugene C. Lance of Hampstead, James E. Lance of Pensacola, Fla., Mark A. Lance of Littlestown, Pa., Ryan M. Lance of Baltimore and Kerry P. Lance of Gettysburg, Pa.; two stepsons, the Rev. Keith S. Gentry of North Little Rock, Ark., and Kim E. Gentry of Lutherville; a stepdaughter, Karla K. Kuhn of Parkville; 15 grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Two earlier marriages ended in divorce.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad