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The Reverend Dr Norman Cliff, DPhil, BA, BCom, FSCA.


This year my mind goes back fifty years to a 1,600 strong Japanese civilian camp in Weifang, north China. We were in a camp in the Shandong countryside surrounded by electrified wires and cut off from events in the outside world. This isolation was broken when two men made a carefully planned escape in June 1944, fourteen months before our liberation. They stayed at the headquarters of a Chinese guerrilla group a hundred miles from Weifang Camp. The American forces in Chongqing dropped them a radio and other equipment, and whatever news they picked up they shared with us in a most unusual way.

Weifang Camp - at this spot in 1944 within the shadow of the watch tower, two men avoided the electrified wire and gained their freedom.

Messages in code were written on pieces of silk which a Chinese labourer, who went into the camp regularly to clear the cess pools, hid up his nose. He would be manhandled and roughly searched at the camp gate by Japanese guards, and then walk past a certain ash heap where he discharged his message. A Catholic priest, whose official title was Camp Sanitation Officer, waited for this nasal movement and duly decoded the message. So it was that we knew first that the war in Europe was over and subsequently that the Japanese were retreating in the Pacific war theatre.

We were going about our normal manual work on 17th August 1945 when the purr of a plane engine was clearly heard. It became louder and louder. Instinctively everyone knew this was the beginning of the end and we stopped work to go outside and catch sight of the aeroplane. Leaflets floated down from the sky, and then the unimaginable happened. A man came gently down by parachute, followed by six other men.

Relief has come!

Without regard for camp regulations, we rushed through the front gate to welcome our liberators. The guard could not hold back hundreds of internees. We found the Americans a mile away perched with loaded guns behind mounds, which were Chinese graves, uncertain of their reception by the Japanese. The guards had expected an overland attack, and so this sudden arrival from the skies caught them unprepared. They stacked their guns in one corner of the guard room, and waited to surrender to the American parachutists.

But to their surprise the American major handed back their weapons, and enlisted their assistance in protecting the camp from the fighting which had flared up between Communist and Kuomintang troops, each manoeuvring for the upper hand in the new chapter now unfolding.

Planes carrying clothes, medicines and food - surplus supplies after the cessation of fighting in the Far East - were dropped by parachute almost daily. We were now enjoying adequate food and freedom of movement. The Americans had to pay large sums to the rival Chinese groups to ensure that no railway lines were blown up while we were being taken to the coast. Within two months Weifang camp was cleared and we were waiting in Hong Kong for ships to our home countries.

A year before the end of the war I had what I believe to be a clear call of God to serve Him in the Christian ministry. Upon arrival in Durban, South Africa, I disclosed this to my father. His wise reply was, `When your father and mother were forced by the Japanese War to leave their missionary work in China we both had pharmaceutical qualifications to fall back on and earn our living. Get yourself a qualification in civvy street and I will back your going into the ministry.'

Four years later, in 1949, I graduated from Rhodes University with a Bachelor of Commerce degree. In the following six years I gained valuable accountancy experience in Dunlops and John Laings, studying for a theological degree for two hours each morning before going to work. And so when I was ordained in 1956 I was both a minister and an accountant.

Periods of ill-health followed and I was to bless my father for his sound advice, for I was able to turn to accountancy work.


From 1981 to 1987 I served at the central offices of the United Reformed Church in London as the Deputy Chief Accountant. Again I was able to combine the work of the Church with accountancy work. I recently turned 70 and am still preaching regularly within a few miles of my home and still holding Treasurerships for churches and charities. I thank God for whatever skills I may have in the accountancy field. Also on the 50th anniversary of my release from the Japanese camp in Weifang (then called Weihsien), which I have re-visited several times, I am thankful for the lessons learned in those far off days.

As a fellow internee put it: Weihsien the Test - whether a man's happiness depends on what he has or what he is; on outer circumstances or inner heart; on life's experiences - good and bad - or on what he makes out of the materials those experiences provide.

Although in this article I have dwelt on the ever-recurring problem of church finances, it would be misleading if I did not emphasise the indescribable privilege of sharing in the joys and sorrows of Church members, of preaching the Word of God in an ever changing world, of leading services of Holy Communion and of gently leading a seeker into a living faith.


A pass issued by the Japanese allowing the author aged 17 temporarily to leave the detention camp.