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Zhang joined the Communist Party of China in 1928 after taking part in a communist-led rural uprising. He participated in the Long March and served as a field commander in the Chinese Red Army, first fighting against Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang forces, and later the Imperial Japanese Army in the Second Sino-Japanese War. During World War II Zhang commanded a guerrilla band sent to rescue U.S. flight crews who crash landed in China following the April 1942 Tokyo bombing raid led by Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle.
After 1949, Zhang was an important builder of the Chinese military forces. He commanded the first People's Liberation Army naval force and served as an army corps commander in the Korean War. Upon his return home he served in a series of significant military and political posts. He was made a General in 1955.
Zhang was accused of counterrevolutionary crimes and dismissed from all positions during the Cultural Revolution, when many veteran communists were attacked by Red Guards inspired by Mao Zedong's vision of continuous revolution, and one of his leg was broken as a result of being struggled by Mao Zedong. He reappeared in 1973 and served as defense minister from 1982 until 1988. He served as deputy chief of the PLA general staff, vice premier, and chaired a key commission that sought to modernize the PLA.
Zhang's most famous remark known is that:"The only thing the Cultural Revolution (had succeeded in) giving me was a cane."'
Due to the exigent circumstances, we as old soldiers, make the following request: Since the People's Army belongs to the people, it cannot stand against the people, much less kill the people, and must not be permitted to fire on the people and cause bloodshed; to prevent the situation from escalating, the Army must not enter the city.
- (Chinese) Wu Renhua, "89天安门事件大事记：5月21日 星期日" Accessed 2013-07-12
|Minister of National Defense