Odd Couple: Fuxing's Flak Towers Provide Blast from Taiwan's Past

Odd Couple: Fuxing's Flak Towers Provide Blast from Taiwan's Past

What you need to know

While the towers are unlikely to scoop an award for aesthetics, they provide a glimpse of a period of Taiwan's modern history that, like their embrasures, expands to offer a macroscopic view when probed.    

Among the paddy fields of Fanpo Village (番婆村) in Fuxing Township (福興鄉), Changhua County (彰化縣), lurks a strange building. At first glance, it's hard to know exactly what this bell-shaped concrete tower could be. Given its location, those who happen upon it might take it for an old granary or storehouse. A corrugated iron hut sucking the side of the building like an angular, metallic parasite adds to this impression. This is surely a local farmer's tool shed, added some time later?

The guess as to the tower's function also makes sense in light of the history of this region of central Taiwan. As evidenced by another local heritage site – the well-preserved Fuxing Barn (福興穀倉) – Changhua was something of a rice basket under the Japanese. Along with neighboring Yunlin County (雲林縣), it was famed for its Zhuoshui Rice.

Named after the Zhuoshui River (濁水溪), Taiwan's longest waterway, this strain was a type of Penglai rice. The name Penglai (蓬萊), or Hōrai in Japanese, was a generic given to Japanese varieties crossbred in Taiwan. Early efforts to adapt the strains to Taiwan's climate took place at seed farms in Taipei's Yangmingshan (陽明山) region. Penglai is the name of a mythical land that features in both Chinese and Japanese folklore, a utopia where rice bowls and wine goblets are never empty and magical fruits can cure any ailment. Historically, Taiwan was one of the suggested locations for this East Asian Canaan.

CREDIT: James Baron

On closer inspection, though, there are some indicators as to the true purpose of the edifice: a series of trapezoid slots set about a foot into the outer wall like sunken eyes. The largest of these has had a window added, complete with the steel bars that are customary in Taiwan, though in this case, it's hard to imagine what bounty a potential cat burglar might hope to find inside. The other, smaller openings taper to narrow slits at the inner wall. Even a cursory familiarity with defensive structures tells you that these are embrasures. But what is a fortification like this doing slap-bang in the middle of nondescript farmland?

Although the first US bombing campaign on Taiwan didn't take place until November 1943, when the airstrip at Hsinchu (新竹) was destroyed, the Japanese were already anticipating attacks by late 1942. At the time, there were several airforce facilities, or airdromes, in central Taiwan. American maps of the time separated these according to size into airbases, airfields and airstrips.

Originally, the main facility in Changhua was an airfield at Lukang (鹿港), then known as Rokko. However, saltwater from the coast was apparently causing rust to the aircraft, and in 1942, the Japanese decided to construct another airfield southeast of the Rokko site. This was built on about 200 hectares of paddy between the villages of Fanpo and Waipu (外埔), with students and workers from a local sugar factory conscripted for the task.

Interestingly, locals also recall “American” prisoners of war participating. It's unclear which of the POW camps these men came from. There were 14 in total during the course of the war, but the nearest camps at Inrin – modern day Yuanlin (園林) – were open between 1944 and 1945, well after the construction took place. Besides, the internees at these two camps were in particularly bad shape and seemingly did not more than gardening and farming in the environs of the camps.

CREDIT: James Baron

The most likely candidate would, thus, seem to be the camp at Taichu as Taichung (台中) was known. This opened in late September 1942 and was occupied by around 300 American POWS for just a couple of months before a group of around 500 British prisoners was brought in. These men were put to work on digging a flood diversion channel near the camp.

It is interesting to note that Fanpo and Waipu are located along the bends of a drainage channel, which was originally constructed to guard the new airport from the floodwaters that plagued these flatlands. Were the men from Taichu involved in this? At any rate, the foreign labor scheme reportedly came to an end after some of the prisoners were caught attempting to attract the attention of low-flying US fighters who were scouting the area.

While the new airfield appears to have been known locally as Fanpo Airport, American maps had it down as Rokko Southeast. To add to the confusion over nomenclature, the official Japanese name seems to have been Shōka (Changhua) Airdrome (彰化飛行場).

Correctly predicting that this would be a code red location, the Japanese sent civil engineers to oversee the project. Lee Yu-qing (李玉清), a 22-year-old foreman with Nantou County's (南投縣) bureau of construction was charged with surveying the area in order to decide upon the best spots to set up flak towers. Fanpo and Waipu were chosen, these being the northwest and southeast corners of the airfield. At Waipu, a miniature version of the Fanpo tower can be found in an even more incongruous location.

Temporary shelters were set up to protect workers and more than 100 people were injured or killed in air raids during construction, according to some reports.

It's not clear how these casualties occurred, as it was not until Jan. 3, 1945 that F6F-5 Hellcats strafed the field, destroying around 20 Japanese planes. This raid was the last stage of a sortie that had began with an attack on an airfield at Hokuto, present day Beidou Township (北斗鎮) in southern Changhua. After that, the squadron flew over another facility in the south of the county at Erlin (二林), then known as Rojoseki, followed by an airfield at Caotun (草屯), then called Soton, in Nantou. Finding no aircraft at either township, the fighters flew north to bomb the fields at Lugang and Fuxing.

With a height of 12 meters and a diameter of six, the “old canon platform” (古砲台) at Fanpo doesn't look very imposing. It's hard to see how this would have given the soldiers who manned it much more advantage as an anti-aircraft tower, than those firing from the ground. The 120-centimeter-thick walls must have afforded a degree of protection from gunfire, and the materials and shape make it look a bit like a large rock from a distance, which was apparently the intention. Perhaps this helped save both towers from destruction. Or maybe the Americans didn't consider them worth the effort.

These days, the towers lead a lonely existence. There are no information boards detailing the history of the buildings and, if there are any signs indicating their existence, they aren't obvious. Locals seem bemused at any interest in these old lumps of concrete, casting doubt on local government claims that they are a tourist attraction.

Yet while the towers are unlikely to scoop an award for aesthetics, they provide a glimpse of a period of Taiwan's modern history that expands like their embrasures, offering a macroscopic view when probed.

Taiwan's POW camps. (Source: http://www.powtaiwan.org/)

Editor: Edward White