Sunday 27 September 2015

Liberation from Weihsien Camp, by Janie Hampton

In August, Clare Mulley wrote in History Girls about the atom bombs dropped on Japan which killed over 150,000 people. A terrible event: but by bringing the war to a final end, millions of lives were saved. Many of these were Allied soldier prisoners-of-war but some were children, imprisoned without their parents in China. This is their story.

Eric Lidell & Brownie   

When the war began, Europeans living in China were not unduly worried. During Japan’s invasion of China in 1937, the international compounds were ignored. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, all enemy civilians became prisoners of war, including 150 children of British and American missionaries who attended Chefoo boarding school on the north east coast. 

In 1943, after 18 months internment in Shantung Province, they and their teachers were moved south to Weihsien ‘Civilian Assembly Centre’. Inside a high wall was a small compound with a collection of huts and kitchens, and 45 Japanese guards. The 1,450 prisoners included Trappist monks, White Russian prostitutes, British businessmen and Cuban jazz players. There was no sanitation or running water and little to eat. The freezing winters brought chilblains and pneumonia, while the scorching summers led to dysentery and typhoid. Eric Lidell, the missionary and Olympic gold medal winner featured in ‘Chariots of Fire’, died of cancer there in February 1945; and only a few months later the Girl Guide captain Louise Lawless died of typhoid.

The camp had thriving Boy Scout, Girl Guide and Brownie Packs and while the children were kept busy with school, games and errands, by August 1945, three months after peace in Europe, the adults knew the situation was grave. The Brown Owl Evelyn Davey from Liverpool, weighed just 98lb and her periods had stopped.  ‘We just got used to being thin and hungry,’ she told me in 2006. She and a missionary called Eugene had been courting for a year but wondered if they would survive another winter. ‘We read Winnie the Pooh to each other.’
Eugene & Evelyn with their Brownies & Cubs, Weishien, China
The rumours of imminent peace meant even greater danger: without Japanese guards, the starving Chinese surrounding the camp would steal what little food they still had, or Communist guerrillas might kidnap the children as hostages. If defeated, the guards had been ordered to kill all prisoners, regardless of age.

On the morning of Friday, 17 August, the men were carting sewage, Boy Scouts were carrying water in buckets, women were cooking bones and rotten vegetables for soup and the Brownies were singing in church.
Brownie Log Book 1944
Mary Taylor aged 12 was lying in her dormitory, suffering from diarrhoea. ‘I heard the drone of an airplane.’ Through the window she saw a B-24 circling overhead. ‘Beyond the treetops, its silver belly opened, and seven parachutes drifted into the fields beyond the Camp. Oh, glorious cure for diarrhoea!
 ‘Grown men ripped off their shirts and waved them at the sky. Prisoners ran in circles, wept, cursed, hugged and danced as the plane circled back. The Americans had come!’  Cheering, weeping, disbelieving, dressed in rags and emaciated by hunger, the prisoners surged through the gates. The guards quietly retreated to their barracks.
‘These gorgeous liberators were sun-bronzed American gods with meat on their bones,’ wrote Mary. The seven US paratroopers had been warned they were unlikely to return alive from ‘The Flying Angel’. Instead they were hoisted onto shoulders and carried back to the camp in triumph, where they were greeted by the Salvation Army brass band playing a victory medley of national anthems which they had been practising in secret for four years.
Commandant Tsukugawa, known to the children as King Kong, surrendered but the US Major Stanley Staiger handed back his sword and ordered him to defend the camp against Communists and looters.
 The prisoners were told the Japanese had surrendered and they would be evacuated but meanwhile supplies would be dropped by air.  The Weishien Girl Guides sat up all night making giant letters out of the parachutes to read ‘OK TO LAND’. The next day B-29s dropped canisters of clothing, food, Lucky Strike cigarettes, chocolate and chewing gum. ‘Unbelievable riches and our joy knew no bounds! Our ordeal was over,’ Margaret Vindon, then 18, told me. She and her brother had been on their own for six years.
After a crate of Del Monte peaches crashed through the kitchen roof, the children were told to run for cover whenever they sighted bombers. ‘They were not about to have us survive the war and then be killed by a shower of Spam,’ said Mary Taylor.
The Americans were determined to cheer everyone up with music. But weakened by undernourishment and exhausted by suspense, the internees were horrified when ‘O What A Beautiful Morning’ premiered in 1943, played over the camp loudspeakers at dawn. This was not their idea of liberation. ‘We hadn’t missed western pop music, because we had never heard it before,’ said Margaret Vindon.
In all this excitement school continued for the Chefoo children. The headmaster decided that the 16 year-olds should take their School Certificate before the evacuation, using old examination papers. Once back in Britain, he explained the unusual circumstances to the Oxford board; they all passed and most were admitted into universities.
It took several weeks to evacuate all the internees by train and plane. The children the  faced the task of tracking down their parents.
The missionary Dr Hoyte spent months searching for his six children in China. He found them in Hong Kong where he told them that their mother had died of typhus. ‘I had been only six when I had last seen him,’ Elizabeth Hoyte remembered.  ‘Now I was in the strong arms of the half-familiar stranger, and we began the gentle probing business of getting to know each other again.’
The Taylor family - Kathleen, Jamie, Johnny and Mary - had also not seen their parents for over five years. They travelled into the interior of China by plane, train, mule cart and finally on foot. Chinese peasants blinked in amazement at the four foreign children struggling through the mud. ‘There, through a window, I could see them Daddy and Mother. Caked with mud, we burst through the door into their arms shouting, laughing, hugging hysterical with joy,’ remembered Mary Taylor.
Beryl 11 & Kathleen 15 Strange, 1945.

When Kathleen and Beryl Strange, aged 15 and 11, arrived in Liverpool by ship at the end of December, they too had not seen their mother for five years. ‘The last time,she was wearing Chinese clothes, with her hair in a bun,’ Kathleen told me. ‘When my teacher said, “This is your mother,” I said “No it isn’t. She would never wear a brown hat like that.” ’
Estelle Cliff’s mother had moved from inland China to Durban, hoping to find her children there. ‘It was six years before we came,’ wrote Estelle. ‘It was a terrible wrench from our camp extended family, and we hardly knew our parents.’
After coping with internment, the children now had to endure separation from their friends and teachers. No-one thought of the emotional effect of taking children to a cold post-war Britain where they were strangers.  But they had learned not to make a fuss, and many of them did not mention their childhood for 50 years. ‘When you are a teenager,’ said Estelle Cliff, ‘all you want to be is “normal”.’

Evelyn & Eugene Heubener, 1947.

I do not condone the use of nuclear weapons. But without the atomic bombs AT Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Pacific War might have continued for two more years and these stories have ended very differently. Over 200,000 Allied prisoners of war, up to 800,000 U.S. soldiers, 2.3 million Japanese troops and 28 million civilians who believed they should die for their country, all lived to see peace.

We can only hope that, now the Japanese government has voted to re-arm, they have learned the lessons of 70 years ago.


Joan Lennon said...

Thank you for this moving post.

Sue Purkiss said...

What can you say? Those poor children. Thank you, Janie.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you for providing another important piece of the jigsaw in this moving post. If only all nations, and generations, could learn to seek peace together...

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Eva Marie Everson said...

I am currently working on a biography on the life of Eric Liddell for a publishing house. Thank you for the mention of prostitutes within the camp (I know that sounds strange to say...). Many people forget that more than missionaries were brought into Weihsien. There were also businessmen and women ... bankers, bakers, and ... prostitutes.

A legend around Eric (whether it is true or not remains to be seen) is that he was to be released from the prison early, but gave his place to a pregnant prostitute. Again, don't know if this is true or not.

The "morale" was so high in the camp (thanks to people like Eric and those mentioned in your post), that I fear we often forget how dire things really were. Your post reminds readers of both, and that we can be thankful in all circumstances.