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Janesville man shares untold story of his father, a Titanic survivor

JANESVILLE

Wing Sun Fong clung to life, lashed to a piece of wood paneling, a scrap of shipwreck adrift in the North Atlantic Ocean.

Scores of dead and dying people surrounded him, some crying out for help as they froze to death or drowned on the rising and falling swells of the lethally cold, 28 degree water.

Fong, recorded in ship manifests as Fang Lang, was 17 years old, a ship worker in the third-class bowels of the Titanic, then a brand-new luxury ship, when it hit ice and began to take on water. Fong at the time was en route to a new ship assignment somewhere in the Caribbean.

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Records indicate Wing Sun—or Fang or Lang—probably was the last man rescued, pulled from wreckage and saved from the frigid Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912, the morning the great Titanic sank.

Tom Fong, Wing Sun’s son, is a Janesville resident and the longtime proprietor of the Cozy Inn Chinese restaurant in the city’s downtown. Fong spent most of his life in the dark about his father’s amazing survival story. It’s a story Fong said his father never shared with him.

Now, at age 59, Fong has begun to learn much about his father’s survival. For Fong himself, it’s a story of almost incomprehensibly long odds—being the son of a Titanic survivor that history forgot.

Soon, the world will know his father’s story.

A new documentary, “The Six,” is slated for international release later this fall, Fong said. The documentary tells the story of Wing Sun Fong and five other Chinese nationals who were among the 700 some people who survived the Titanic disaster, perhaps the best-known shipwreck in modern history.

The story of “The Six” had been buried in time, untold for various reasons, including America’s earlier political exclusion and anti-Chinese sentiment, and until now, a lack of historical records to tie a half-dozen Chinese seamen to the Titanic’s notorious history.

Last year and this year, Tom Fong traveled to Canada, England and China to participate in the filming and production of a documentary led by maritime historian, author and film producer Steven Schwankert.

For Fong, “The Six” has opened a reality he still can’t fully wrap his head around.

“It’s crazy. I mean, the story sounds so crazy to anybody you tell it to. Even after I learned of it, after I found out, I never really told anybody. I was afraid to,” Tom Fong said.

“It’d be like telling someone you were inside of a UFO or you’d seen aliens. Who’d believe you? They’d think you were crazy.”

Fong said throughout his childhood and as a young adult his relatives had hinted that his father had survived a shipwreck, but Fong said his father never spoke about the accident to him or his mother, Marie, a Janesville resident who is now 86.

Fong, a Milwaukee native, never so much as heard the word “Titanic” cross the lips of his father, a restaurant waiter in Milwaukee who was 65 years old when Fong was born. Wing Sun spoke little English and died almost 40 years ago, Fong said.

Wikimedia 

The Titanic at the docks of Southampton, England, before embarking on its doomed journey across the Atlantic Ocean.

In 2003, when Fong and a male cousin were visiting The House on The Rock in Spring Green, Fong’s cousin pointed to a few curios on the wall that were labeled as items recovered from the wreckage of the Titanic.

The cousin casually told Fong, “You know, the Titanic: That was the shipwreck your dad survived.”

“He thought I knew all along, but I didn’t know. Nobody had told me that before,” Fong said.

Fong said he and his son began their own Internet investigation to learn more about Wing Sun’s life and about his ties to the Titanic wreck. For years, the only clue Fong could find came from a transcript of a U.S. Senate hearing that mentioned a few Chinese survivors.

That record might have led to distorted online historical accounts, of which there were just a few, that characterized the Chinese men who survived the Titanic as ship stowaways or hucksters who had tricked their way onto rescue boats by dressing in drag and unfurling their long, braided pigtails so they would appear to be women.

Fong said he’d learned through the production of “The Six” that those accounts are untrue. But more than a decade ago, the distorted characterizations of his father he found on a few Titanic history chatrooms prevented Fong from trying more than a few times to set the record straight on what he believed were inaccurate portrayals of his father.

Anthony Wahl 

Janesville resident Tom Fong holds a photo of his father, Fang Lang, known later in life as Wing Sun Fong, who was one of six Chinese survivors rescued after the Titanic sank in 1912. A forthcoming documentary, “The Six,” tells the story of Fang Lang and the five other Chinese Titanic survivors.

After a few years, Fong fell away from tracing his father’s survival story or fighting lies about the Titanic’s Chinese passengers. But a single message Fong had posted in a Titanic chatroom led producers of “The Six” to his door in Janesville.

In 2015, Fong said he got a call from producers of “The Six” who said they were trying to hunt down the surviving family of six Chinese survivors of the Titanic who had never been mentioned in any mainstream historical account of the shipwreck.

The producers believed a set of nearly decade-old Titanic chatroom snippets that showed Fong trying to reason with skeptical historians matched up with a name and raw backstory of one Titanic survivor—a teenage seaman and native of Xiachuan Island.

After a long search and facing odds of about 1 in 7.5 billion (the number of people who now live on Earth) “The Six’s” producers believed they had tracked down Wing Sun’s family. His son, no less.

And Fong was beginning to learn the truth about his dad, who records now show moved on from the Titanic disaster to land in Europe and, eventually, in the U.S. That was at least four decades before Fong was born.

“They were checking out my story. And I was checking out their story. It was a weird standoff at first,” Fong said.

“My dad was so old when I was born, and that was one thing. How could I be the son, and not the grandson or great-grandson of a Titanic survivor? The age spread between me and my dad ... would be hard for anybody to believe.”

Wing Sun’s untold, post-Titanic story rolls out between World Wars I and II—a time marked by the rise of Communism in Russia and China and flavored by anti-Chinese fervor that reigned in some parts of the U.S. and globally.

Anthony Wahl 

Tom Fong’s father Fang Lang, left, known later in life in the U.S. as Wing Sun Fong, was one of six Chinese nationals who survived the Titanic sinking in 1912. Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, right, captained the lone lifeboat that returned and discovered Fang Lang floating on a piece of wreckage in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Fong now knows his father and the five other Chinese ship workers rescued and boated to New York after the Titanic never initially set foot on U.S. soil, in part because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act was an immigration ban on most Chinese nationals. It was enacted in 1882 and lasted in one form or another for six decades.

Fong in an interview with The Gazette, took pains not to unveil many specific details of his father’s story that he shared with—and learned from—producers of the as-of-yet unreleased “The Six.”

The film remains under censorship review by Communist Chinese officials—standard practice with films produced in part or in full in China. Fong said he believes the film will get released late this fall, but he knows about only portions of the film he participated in last year and early this year, including filming at his home on Janesville’s east side and during filming trips Fong made for to Canada, England and Xiachuan Island.

Fong said researchers now know Wing Sun wrote to relatives on Xiachuan about his survival.

Fong said he’s learned that one person on the island has poetry Fong wrote to them detailing his struggle to stay afloat in the frigid ocean as others in the frigid water cried for help from the darkness surrounding him.

Fong said at some point he became aware of a scene from the blockbuster 1997 film “Titanic” that lives online: One that shows a pig-tailed young Chinese man in the aftermath of the Titanic sinking.

The man in the movie’s scene is shown afloat on the freezing and dark Atlantic Ocean, waving his hands for help among scores of the dead. He’s shown clinging to an ornate piece of paneling, or a door, wreckage from one of the glitzy main floors of the lux Titanic.

Tom Fong stands for a portrait inside his Janesville home.

It’s a scene shot as part of the famous rescue sequences in the Academy Award-winning film. And it was deleted in post-production, a decision that for a couple of decades has inadvertently kept the story of Fong’s father and the other Chinese survivors lost to time.

Fong said he’s not sure if James Cameron, the producer of “Titanic” knew or knows that Fong exists or that he’s the son of Wing Sun—the Chinese man producers in the trailer for “The Six” indicate might have been the final person rescued from the Titanic before the ship’s small rescue boats headed away from the wreck.

Fong knows more now about a monumental historic event than he ever did, but he’s still coming to reckon with the unknown life of a father he only knew as an elderly man who was quiet yet proud of his American family.

A memory keeps floating back to Fong. He remembers how often his father would pull a thick, leather journal from his pocket to write entries in a foreign script Fong couldn’t read. Fong wonders what he could learn from that journal, whether it would shed light on the past, the big shipwreck and what it all meant to his enigmatic father.

No one in the family can remember seeing that journal. It likely was boxed away or discarded in his father’s waning years.

“I think that journal is long gone,” Fong said.


Obituaries and death notices for Sept. 22, 2019

Phyllis D. Benage

Mary Ann Butts

Audrey C. Frey

Richard E. “Gilby” Gilbertson

Douglas Griffin

Richard W. Krajeck

Sharon Lee Morgan

Robert “Bob” Schmid

Marilyn Smith


Anthony Wahl 

American Legion Post 209 member Mike Collins carries the American flag in the silent march to begin Wisconsin American Legion First District’s annual POW/MIA Recognition Day memorial event in Orfordville on Saturday.


Local
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His father’s footsteps: Man returns to WWII battlefields in Europe

JANESVILLE

Dave Sheen wore out his father’s World War II field jacket during junior high.

But like so many in the baby boomer generation, Dave seldom heard his father, Merle, talk about the war.

He remembers Merle saying that wars don’t solve anything. They just kill people.

And he remembers hearing his father tell his mother that he wanted to return to France, Belgium and the Netherlands someday to see the countries “when they weren’t all torn up.”

Submitted photo 

Merle Sheen served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He fought with the famed 30th Infantry Division, which was considered the cream of the crop among U.S. fighting units.

Merle never got the chance.

The Janesville insurance adjuster died in 1976, before Dave ever asked him about his wartime experiences.

But Dave was lucky.

His father, who earned the Silver and Bronze stars and Purple Heart, survived some of Europe’s most horrific fighting, and the Army kept a paper trail of his push into Germany with the famed 30th Infantry Division.

Known as Old Hickory, the 30th Division was regarded as the cream of the crop among U.S. fighting units.

The 30th fought at Normandy, along the Siegfried line at the Battle of the Bulge and in the final operations inside Germany.

Dave also has dozens of historical letters written by his father during the war to his father’s mom and to the woman who later married Merle.

Merle’s wife, Bette M. Sheen Shaw of Janesville, died this past Mother’s Day.

Angela Major 

Dave Sheen holds letters written by his father.

Curiosity driven

Dave began researching his father’s division while he worked as a firefighter with the Janesville Fire Department.

In 1995, he and his wife, Sharyn, attended a 50th reunion of the division.

Merle kept letters from some of his Army buddies.

“We connected with them on Merle’s behalf,” Sharyn said. “We corresponded with them until they died.”

In 2010, Dave and his nephews went to a 65th reunion, attended by only a couple of dozen of the division’s surviving men.

“They suggested to me that I should go back and see where Dad was during the war,” Dave said.

Some of the men also opened up to Dave and shared war stories long stored in silence.

“The artifacts are one thing,” Sharyn said. “But having firsthand stories put more flesh on the experience.”

Earlier this year, Dave, who is now retired, decided: “Let’s do this.”

He and a longtime friend traveled to Europe in July and retraced Merle’s footsteps 75 years after Merle fought in the war.

“I did not go with the goal to be closer to my father,” Dave said.

But he returned home with a heightened awareness of the history his father made.

“History comes alive to all of us,” Sharyn said, “if we have something to hang our hat on.”

Sharyn, who has been a genealogist for decades, did not go with her husband.

“I thought of this as a male-buddy trip,” Sharyn said. “I was thrilled he was able to share this with one of his really good friends.”

Heavy fighting

Merle was the kind of guy who did not expect special treatment.

During the war, he served stateside but requested to go to the front lines.

“He didn’t think it was fair for him to be at home,” Dave explained.

Merle was assigned as a replacement officer with Company K of the 120th regiment. He joined the 30th Division on Aug. 6, 1944, with no time for reflection.

The next day, 22-year-old Merle and his men, many only in their teens, dug in around the summit of Hill 314 at Mortain, France, as the 2nd SS Panzer Division attacked their coveted position.

Cut off from the rest of the 30th Division, they held their ground until Allied reinforcements drove back the Germans on Aug. 12.

Later, Merle went on to liberate Fort Eben-Emael on the Belgian-Dutch border, where he confiscated a Nazi flag and sent it to his sweetheart back home. When he took a bullet in his leg, Merle recovered at an aid station in Paris.

Soon, he was back in action to take part in the Battle of the Bulge.

Eventually, the 30th Division—often called the Workhorse of the Western Front—led the way across the Rhine River into Germany.

Angela Major 

Dave Sheen holds a photograph of his father, Merle.

History held dear

At Mortain, Dave was overwhelmed by the hospitality of the Michel and Isabelle Paysant family, who showed him the hallowed ground of Hill 314.

Three generations of French people have cared for the site where so many lost their lives.

“People are so invested in the history of the region that they instill it in their children,” Sharyn said.

Dave discovered that many, including the Paysant family, have small museums in their homes, honoring the Allied forces who freed their country and filled with artifacts found in the region.

“If the trip had stopped at Mortain, I would have been happy,” Dave said, “because of the knowledge and hospitality of the people there.”

At Fort Eben-Emael, Dave returned the Nazi flag sent home during the war by his father. He presented it to administrator Tom Hendrikx of the museum there.

“It was fun to be able to give them something back,” Dave said.

Submitted photo 

Dave Sheen stands next to a memorial honoring the U.S. Army’s 30th Infantry Division, also known as Old Hickory, in the Netherlands. Sheen and a friend visited Europe this summer to retrace Sheen’s father’s footsteps during World War II.

He traveled on, spending time in the small towns of Germany, where he envisioned his father traveling by jeep.

Dave continues to digest what he saw and learned during the trip. He said the research he did before leaving and after returning home was “just as much fun.”

“I can put perspective to it now when rereading Dad’s letters and the history books,” he said.

Dave also has a better sense of the price of war in human lives.

He visited several Allied cemeteries maintained by the French people.

“Everyone has heard of the American cemetery at Omaha Beach,” Dave said. “But there are many others immaculately kept.”

The cemeteries are solemn places.

“It is touching when you walk through thousands of white crosses,” he said. “They were all brothers, sisters and husbands. You really realize the magnitude of the war.”

Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264 or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.


International
AP
Americans’ struggles with medical bills are a foreign concept in other countries

GORINCHEM, Netherlands

In France, a visit to the doctor typically costs the equivalent of $1.12.

A night in a German hospital costs a patient roughly $11.

And in the Netherlands—one of the few wealthy nations other than the U.S. where patients face a deductible—insurers usually must cover all medical care after the first 385 euros, roughly $431.

Health care in the U.S. has long been unique. But few things so starkly set the American system apart as how much patients pay out of pocket for medical care, even if they have insurance.

“The U.S. likes to see itself on par with other high-income countries,” said Jonathan Cylus, a former economist at the Department of Health and Human Services who now studies patient costs internationally at the World Health Organization and European Observatory in London. “The truth is, it’s a real outlier.”

Nearly all of America’s global competitors—whether they have government health plans, such as Britain and Canada, or rely on private insurers, such as Germany and the Netherlands—strictly limit out-of-pocket costs.

So while tens of millions of insured Americans must balance medical bills with spending on food and other basic needs, such trade-offs are largely unthinkable for patients in Western Europe, Japan and Australia, a Times examination of international health insurance systems shows.

“We only have to worry about getting well,” said Pieter Piers, a 57-year-old Dutch engineer who was talking with his family doctor earlier this year about work-related stress in Gorinchem, a walled city in the table-flat farmland of southern Netherlands.

“If I had to worry about how to pay for it all, I don’t think that would be very helpful for getting better,” said Piers, one of dozens of patients and physicians worldwide interviewed for this story, including at clinics and hospitals in Germany, Britain and the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, like many wealthy countries, mandates that visits with primary care doctors are free so patients won’t be discouraged from seeking care.

By contrast, as deductibles in job-based health plans in the U.S. have more than tripled in the last decade, half of Americans who have coverage through an employer say they or close family members have put off going to the doctor or filling a prescription because of cost in the last year, according to a nationwide survey conducted for this project by The Times and the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation.

One in six covered workers has had to make a difficult sacrifice in the previous year, including taking on extra work or cutting back on food, clothing or other essentials, the poll found.

In the Netherlands, just 1 in 90 households faces catastrophic health spending that competes with necessities such as food and housing, a recent World Health Organization analysis of patient spending in three dozen countries found.

In Ireland, Great Britain, Sweden, France, Germany and Japan, fewer than 1 in 35 households had medical bills that threatened their financial security.

The financial struggles of American patients have prompted renewed calls by some Democrats for a government-run, single-payer system, or “Medicare for All,” as it is sometimes called.

But the experiences of other wealthy nations suggest that strict limits on how much patients must pay and tight regulation of prices are more consequential than whether health coverage is provided directly by the government or through private insurers.

“There isn’t one system that works,” said Thomas Rice, a UCLA health economist who is writing a textbook about health insurance systems around the world. “Lots of different kinds of systems can protect patients from high costs.”

In the United Kingdom, care “free at the point of service” was a founding principle of the National Health Service when it was established after World War II to give Britons affordable health care “in place of fear,” as health minister Aneurin Bevan explained at the time.

Patients in the National Health Service usually face no medical bills when they go to the doctor or hospital. Co-pays for prescription drugs are capped at the equivalent of about $12, no matter how expensive the medication.

All hospital care in Australia is similarly covered at no cost for patients, who are protected by a government health plan known there as Medicare. The same is true in Canada.

In Germany, which relies on regulated private health plans, all physician visits are free for patients. Medication co-pays are capped at 10 euros, or about $11.

And Dutch primary care visits have long been cost-free, despite the deductibles for other medical services.

“A very important value in the Netherlands is equity,” said Dr. Jako Burgers, a family physician in Gorinchem who also helps develop clinical guidelines for the Dutch system. “We don’t want a system that benefits the rich more than the poor.”

In the U.S., health insurers can require patients in an individual plan to pay up to $7,900 out of their own pockets before care is covered in full. One in four workers has a deductible of $2,000 or more, according to an annual Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

That kind of cost-sharing would never be tolerated in Germany, said Dr. Markus Frick, a senior official at that country’s leading pharmaceutical industry group, the VfA. “If any German politician proposed high deductibles, he or she would be run out of town,” Frick said.

In Australia, a recent proposal to establish the equivalent of a $5 co-pay for primary care visits fueled such an outcry that the federal government was forced to withdraw the idea.

And in the Netherlands, the government is under mounting pressure to reduce deductibles, which many there believe are too high.

In the U.S., health plans with lower deductibles typically have much higher premiums.

But other wealthy nations, in addition to limiting patients’ out-of-pocket costs, also strictly control the cost of health insurance.

Residents of many countries—including Britain, Australia and Canada—pay no premiums because basic health insurance is financed through taxes, though residents can buy supplemental coverage on their own. In Germany and Japan, a set percentage of workers’ wages is deducted for health insurance, making premiums less expensive for lower-wage workers.

“I don’t think about any costs,” Dorota Langner, a German massage therapist who had pancreatic cancer, said after meeting with her oncologist at a hospital in Berlin earlier this year.

Langner, 41, a single mother, had other worries, including what would happen to her two teenage children. “I don’t know what I’d do if I also had to think about what this would cost me,” she said.

Langner died a few months later.

Keeping insurance premiums and medical bills in check has helped keep overall health care spending far lower in most wealthy countries than in the U.S.

Last year, for example, America’s total health care tab, including spending on government programs, private health insurance and patients’ out-of-pocket costs, exceeded $10,000 per person, according to government data. That was more than twice what governments, insurers and patients in the Netherlands, Canada, France and the United Kingdom spent and almost twice Germany’s tab.

Controlling costs has sometimes required trade-offs.

Hospitals in Britain, for example, can be overcrowded and in need of renovation. In some, patients must share a room with six or more other patients.

In Canada, patients can face substantial delays for care, with 18% reporting having to wait four months or longer for an elective, nonemergency surgery, compared with just 4% in the U.S., according to a recent international survey conducted by the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that studies international health systems.

Evidence suggests that some medical care in the U.S., particularly in hospitals, might be better, as well.

For example, American patients are less likely to die after being hospitalized following a heart attack than are those in most wealthy countries, data show.

However, Australia and Sweden top the U.S. on this measure of cardiac care. Wait times in Germany or France are shorter than in the U.S.

And measures of the overall quality of health care place the U.S. near the bottom. Americans are far more likely to die prematurely from diseases that could be treated with timely, high-quality care, such as diabetes, childhood measles and some cancers.

The death rate from these avoidable conditions is more than 30% higher in America than in the United Kingdom and Germany, and nearly twice as high as in Australia, France and Norway, according to an analysis by the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies, a partnership of international health researchers.

Beyond better health outcomes, residents of most other wealthy countries simply enjoy more peace of mind.

In south London, Chris and Afii Marshall, who had taken their 2-year-old daughter to the emergency room at King’s College Hospital after she cut her lip playing, shuddered at the thought of what they might pay in the U.S.

“I’ve heard stories. It’s terrifying,” said Chris Marshall, noting that he has had many retail jobs that in America would likely come with high-deductible coverage. “I’d be very, very worried.”

The Marshalls faced no bills for their visit in Britain.

The United Kingdom—like most wealthy nations—keeps patients’ costs in check by tightly regulating the prices that doctors, hospitals and drug companies can charge.

Government regulation of prices has been done for decades in the U.S. by Medicare, which has a fee schedule for most physician and hospital services.

However, this kind of price regulation is rare in commercial health insurance, where most working Americans get coverage.

Instead, individual insurance companies negotiate prices with hospitals and physicians and drug makers. Under this system, prices for medical services and prescription drugs in the U.S. far outpace prices in other countries.

A month’s supply of the popular arthritis drug Humira, for example, tops $2,505 on average in the U.S., according to a 2015 analysis by Bloomberg News and research firms SSR Health and IHS Inc.

In Britain, where the National Health Service sets prices, the drug costs $1,180. In Japan, the monthly price is just $980.

Physicians’ services and hospital care are also far pricier in the U.S., data show.

A knee replacement that costs more than $28,000 on average here costs about $18,000 in Britain and less than $16,000 in Australia, according to 2015 figures collected by the London-based International Federation of Health Plans.

The average price for heart bypass surgery tops $78,000 in the U.S. The same procedure costs less than $29,000 in Australia and $24,000 in Britain.

When medical and pharmaceutical prices are high, insurers pass the costs on to patients. That has fueled higher premiums and, in more recent years, skyrocketing deductibles.

“People may not make the connection, but what’s coming out of their pockets is the result of a failure to control prices,” said Dr. Eric Schneider, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Fund.

“What other countries have learned is that without some form of price regulation, there is no effective check on prices.”