Emily’s grandfather Richard Hayden (far left) is a former US Ranger, Army Captain, and Green Beret. In his Ranger training, his buddy was a man named Cheng-Ming Kao (2nd from left): a Lieutenant and a Taiwanese. He and two other Taiwanese men in that group were among the first non-American Rangers in the world.
Throughout their 61 days of training, Lt. Kao and Grandpa Hayden became close friends as they helped each other make it through, despite a pretty wide communication barrier. In the orienteering course, which consists of being dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with nothing but a compass and map, the cadets must get from their drop point to a designated waypoint. If they give up or fail to make it in a certain period of time, they fail the Ranger training and go home. Emily’s grandpa said that Kao was the only reason he passed that course, and they were the first group to get to the waypoint because of Kao’s skill.
They were always looking out for each other. One night their training consisted of them exiting from a helicopter. The instructions were to leave from a specific side, but the chopper got turned around a bit and came in from a different direction. Kao didn’t realize this and was about to jump straight into the tail rotor when Grandpa Hayden grabbed his pack and threw him backwards, saving his life. These experiences happened throughout the entire Ranger course.
After they graduated, Kao and the two other Taiwanese soldiers went back to their country, but he and Grandpa Hayden continued to write frequently. Then somewhere around January the following year, the letters from Kao stopped. It wasn’t until April of that year that Grandpa Hayden found out from a colleague that Kao had died during a training accident. Emily’s grandpa was devastated—Kao had become one of his best friends. Though he was given the address of Kao’s family, he was too sad to write them. He always regretted that.
This is the letter he received with the news about Lt. Kao. (Lt. Weng is one of the 3 Taiwanese Ranger graduates.)
Over 50 years later, when Emily’s grandfather learned that we were visiting Taiwan, he told us to see what we could find in regards to Lt. Kao’s family so that he could get in touch with them again and find out more about his late friend. We couldn’t read Chinese, we couldn’t speak Mandarin, and we’d never been to Taiwan. Despite all these roadblocks, we were eager for the challenge and set out to find all that we could.
Grandpa Hayden knew that Kao had graduated initially from the Chinese Military Academy in Taiwan, but he didn’t know much else. We googled it and found out that it was located in the same city we were staying for the month, Kaohsiung. We figured that was as good a place to start as any.
We walked to the front gates of the CMA and tried to seem as dumb as possible, hoping that the guards would bring someone who spoke English to tell us to get lost so we could then explain what we’re trying to do. Eventually the plan worked, after half an hour of trying to use Google Translate.
LtC. James Huang came to see what the fuss was about, and we told him what we were doing there. We brought the picture of Lt. Kao with us to show, and we relayed all the facts we had of his family’s potential whereabouts, which wasn’t much: we had an address of his father from 50 years back, the year of Kao’s graduation from Ranger school, the year of his death, and the names of his fellow Ranger graduates. That was it.
It was a needle in a haystack in every possible sense.
Nevertheless, Colonel Huang placated us enough to bring us inside, telling us that if we had come a day before or after we would have been turned away immediately – the cadets were on leave since the day prior and the instructors had a day off. After letting us cool down in the A/C for a bit and asking some more questions (June’s hotter than hell in Taiwan), we headed to the CMA record office to see what we could dig up.
There was nothing. Not only did we not have the Chinese and actual version of his name, they couldn’t find anything in the yearbooks that remotely resembled it or looked like the grainy picture we had given him. There were 3 years where the yearbooks were missing, but the likelihood that it was one of those was just as impossible.
Having stressed every possibility, Colonel Huang needed to get back to work and kindly drove us to the train station. He told us to send him an email with whatever details we could muster and he would see if there was anything he could do, but it sounded pretty futile.
I sent him the information and didn’t expect a response. A couple days later, I got this.
LtC. Huang informed me that after asking military friends, posting religiously on facebook, and racking his brain for any other possible ways of searching, he made the connection between one of the other Ranger graduates I mentioned and someone he knew very well: his former general.
As it turns out, Lt. Chein-Chung Li went on to become the Admiral of the Coast Guard and then a 4-star General in the Taiwanese Army. His colleague and fellow Ranger graduate, Lt. Chi-Hsiung Weng, also became a general and a doctor with degrees from MIT and Harvard. Gen. Li remembered Kao well, and was more than happy to relay information to us. But there was one request:
He wanted to do it in person.
General Li wanted to meet us and take us to lunch in Taipei, which was a 2-hour high-speed train ride away from us. We packed up and left the next day so we could be ready for lunch on Tuesday. I bought a new shirt and tie, got a haircut and shaved, and prayed that we looked appropriate enough to meet the man who once ran the entire Taiwanese Army.
He was a kind, wonderful, and amazing man with an even more amazing history. He spoke to us with respect, and referred to Emily’s grandfather as he would his good friend—despite them not knowing each other well at all. This was the effect of the Ranger training, turning strangers into brothers. He said several times to Emily, “The granddaughter of a Ranger is my granddaughter.”
Though he hadn’t spoken any conversational English since his training in 1961, he spoke to us in English and even agreed to a video call with Emily’s grandpa. We knew this would absolutely thrill Grandpa Hayden, and him having first met this man 53 years prior would make for a really incredible experience.
(Grandpa Hayden in orange, Gen. Li in red. Lt. Kao is the guy growling on the top left diagonal of Grandpa.)
After replaying old memories, Gen. Li told Grandpa Hayden everything about Kao’s death and family. It was a sad story: Kao jumped headfirst into a lake during a training exercise, forgetting that given the height he was supposed to go in feetfirst; Gen. Li, his peer at the time, was the first to jump in after him and pulled him to shore to give CPR, but by then it was too late – Kao died on impact.
The news devastated Kao’s family; Kao, who was an only child, was the only line of succession for three generations back. He had no aunts and uncles. After his death, his father died because of sadness. Then his grandfather. Then his mother. Within a decade, an entire family line was wiped out.
The good news was that Kao’s legacy lived on in these men. Li and Weng went on to become generals, and attribute their success to the memory of their brother. Grandpa Hayden considered his Ranger training with Kao vital to how he chose to live the rest of his life, inside and outside of the military, becoming a vice president of Swift and raising a family of 6 children, 26 grandchildren, and almost 30 great grandchildren.
This experience could have gone so many different ways, but how it ended up was the most fantastic way possible. Having been able to speak to General Li, Grandpa Hayden finally got the closure he had longed for for over 50 years. He counts it as one of the greatest moments in his life.
(me, Emily, Carter, General Li, his son-in-law, and LtC. James Huang. HUGE shoutout to LtC. Huang who did the majority of the legwork in this search and spent hours upon hours making this happen. Without him, this would never ever have been possible.)
I wish I understood more fully the connection that one Ranger has to another, but what I do understand is that it surpasses boundaries of time, distance, and bloodline. Being a part of this experience was one of the most incredible things to happen in my own life. Happy 4th of July, America.