It is the first time in 70 years that Zhao Xinli, a 89-year-old veteran of the war against Japanese aggression, has returned to Lugou Bridge, also known as Marco Polo Bridge, in southwest Beijing.
"This is probably my last chance to see the place where we battled for our country," he said in a trembling voice.
Zhao came back to the site with eight of his fellow soldiers from the No. 29 corps of the Nationalist Army, who resisted the siege by Japanese invaders at Nanyuan, a town near Lugou Bridge in 1937.
On July 7, 1937, Japanese soldiers attacked Chinese forces at the bridge, marking an official start of an eight-year war between the two sides. A mass invasion was launched 20 days later.
The No. 29 Nationalists Corps fought hard to resist the attack, but in vain. More than 5,000 lives were lost on the day, including Tong Linge, a deputy commander of the corps and Zhao Dengyu, a division commander. The defeat led to the fall of Beijing and Tianjin to Japanese.
The nine veterans, with the youngest aged 87 and the oldest 94, are the only surviving members of the No. 29 Corps known in the Chinese mainland, according to Fang Jun, organizer of their reunion on Saturday.
Fang, a researcher on the history of the war against Japanese aggression, has focused his efforts searching for living witnesses of the war.
A dozen years on, Fang has interviewed more than 100 veterans and has written two books about their lives. "Recounting the history through those who made the history is more impressive than any written or material evidences, and there isn't much time for us to retain those history-makers," Fang said.
"To have all the living soldiers back at the bridge today is a historic moment, the place where the nightmare of the whole nation started," he added.
Zhang Kezong, a 88-year-old veteran now living in southwest China's Chongqing, said memories were still fresh after 70 years.
"There hasn't been a day gone by when I haven't thought about the war. I told my children and grandchildren that the No. 29 Corps fought to the end to protect every life and every inch of the nation's territory," Zhang said.
But Zhang said he still had one regret that had been haunting his thoughts for years.
"I was responsible for protecting commander Zhao. I sweated blood and tears but I did not fulfil my task. It's a shame. The last wish in my life is to come back and see the place where the commander died," Zhang said.
Zhang and some other veterans went to the graveyard where Commander Zhao is buried and paid homage on Friday.
Descendants of the commanders were also among those present at Saturday's gathering.
"It is nice to have all the living members of the Corps back at this historic place. I am moved by what I see here today. I feel glad for my father, because without his sacrifice, victory wouldn't have come so soon," said Tong Bing, son of Tong Linge, the first high-ranking commander to die in the war against Japanese aggression.
The veterans also joined students, scholars and troops in attending an exhibition which opened at a memorial hall near Lugou Bridge.
The exhibition, which organizers say serves as a reminder to people to cherish peace and not to forget history, is showcasing 220 pictures and more than 200 wartime objects.
"We hope that the cruel war will not happen again and that peace will last forever," said Liu Bo, a middle school student who came from central China's Hunan Province.
"But we must remember the lesson that lagging behind leaves one vulnerable to attacks, and therefore we will work hard to contribute to a stronger motherland," he said.
The exhibition will last until December 30. A similar exhibition of wartime photographs also opened in the northeastern city of Shenyang, which was seized by Japanese troops in 1931.
"Our purpose of holding such an exhibition is not to perpetuate our hatred but to keep the past firmly in mind so China and Japan can have a better future," said Tang Xiaohui, deputy curator of the Memorial Hall of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
Also on Saturday, a US film chronicling Japan's notorious 1937 invasion of the Chinese city Nanjing and massacre of its residents made its debut in Beijing and Shanghai.
Starkly titled Nanking, the 90-minute English documentary with Chinese subtitles features interviews with Chinese survivors and Japanese soldiers, along with pictures, letters and diaries read by actors portraying westerners who helped save more than 200,000 Chinese.
(Xinhua News Agency July 8, 2007)