A PLANE TO TAKE ME TO FREEDOM.
All this time my own thoughts were obsessed by how I might once again meet up with my parents. They were about 2,000 miles away in Southwest China. Almost every day American planes were flying in from Kunming via Sian. There must be a way to get a flight I thought. I went over to the wireless operator and told him my story. He told me everybody in this camp wants to get out. I can’t do it. The major who happened to be waiting nearby spoke up and said “You haven’t seen your dad for 7 years?” “That’s right.” I replied, he then really became cooperative, Turning to the wireless operator he said “Look we have to try and get him to Kunimng.” I assumed my parents were away up in the mountains 5 days journey from Kunming. I asked him to send a telegram to my parents via the British consulate in Kunming, and ask them to send a message requesting me to come to Kunming. The next day I was summond to the administration office. A message had arrived from my father to say they were waiting for me. The officer in charge told me that they had a plane flying out immediately, to come with my bags straight away. I quickly threw my things into a duffle bag Three of my friends joined me on the truck. The five miles of dirt track to the airfield took no time, and we backed right up to the waiting plane with its propellers slowly turning over. I was immeadiately hurried up into the plane. I just had time to shout goodbye. It took off almost straight away; I looked down to see my friends waving frantically. This was no ordinary farewell. We had grown up together, eleven years in a boarding school, ending up in this dreary prison camp for the last four years. My mind was soon absorbed in the fascination of my first airplane flight, looking down on the villages and towns of North China. We soon flew over the big Yellow River and followed its course westwards, as hour after hour the fascination of the landscape below me captured my thoughts. It was dusk as we circled the lights of the big US airfield in Sian. I was bustled into a jeep and quickly handed over to the charge of a young US officer who arranged for my bed and a meal. He told me a jeep would be around for me in the morning
I lay awake trying to take in all that had happened. Here I was by myself in a US army tent. All my friends were now more than 600 miles away. I was free. Some had never made it out, there was Brian my close friend who had been electrocuted, and close to his grave there was Eric Liddell, what an amazing man he was. My departure had been so sudden, I hadn’t said goodbye to anyone hardly. I slept soundly that night. In the morning, I hadn’t time to take in my surroundings, when a jeep turned up and whisked me down to the airport. I sat near the transit desk all day. The young man in charge was amused that here was a POW who had no travelling orders and was trying to get to Kunming. The next day another clerk was on duty and he was like a stone wall. “Sorry without orders there is no way I can get you on any plane.” He said, “This is my job and there are all kinds of crazy guys trying to fly out!” Later in the day another clerk seeing my dilemma rang up an officer in the frieght department who came over. He was a congenial man obviously a veteran with greying hair. He asked me my story as I recounted what had happened. One young fellow spoke up and said “Gee he sure speaks funny!” The officer turned to him and said,”My wife was English and that’s how she speaks.” and then he asked me, “Do you have any money?” When I said, “No.” he opened his wallet and gave me all he had, He said, “You can’t do anything without money.” Then several others who had been listening to me also gave me money US $ 87.00. Another laughingly handed me a wallet to put it in. Money meant little to me; I had lived without it for so long. He then went over to the young clerk and said “Look, we have to get this guy to Kunming. He hasn’t seen his dad for seven years” Then ensued the most rigid reply, saying that there was no way without papers I would get on a plane. This time this congenial man barked out orders giving his rank etc and saying he was taking full responsibility for sending me to Kunming. To my astonishment the clerk’s attitude changed. “Sir, what unit shall I put him down as?” Put him down as OSS (Officers Special Service) there will be no questions asked. “Yes Sir,” came the prompt reply. You had better route him by Chengdu there are no flights going to Kunming. Laughingly, he said to me as he walked off. “It always works when you pull your rank! Have you eaten today?” I replied I hadn’t. He turned to a clerk and said, “See this man gets some food.” He took me around to a small canteen that was almost empty. Telling me to sit down he said he would get me some food. Soon he came back with a tray loaded up with food. Leaving me he said “Sorry sir, I have to go now.” I still remember looking at this huge glass of milk and two fried eggs, milk and eggs had been rare commodities for years. I had to leave half the food. It shocked me to see the left over food being slung in the huge waste bins. It was given to the starving Chinese.
ON MY WAY TO KUNMING AND HOME
A few hours later I was in the transit at Chengdu. There were scores of personnel milling around, I had an hour and half before my flight to Kunming. An army man standing near me began to read out aloud the label on my bag. CIM. Kunming. He turned to me and said, “I was there last night. Who are you?” When I told him, he replied saying he was a CIM missionary loaned to the U.S. Army on special service. He went on to say, I was in a prayer meeting last night with your father and mother, many prayed for you and others. He took me over to where we could get a cup of coffee and he talked about the great spiritual needs of China, and the unprecedented opportunities the end of the war were creating. I had to hasten off to get my flight.
As our plane took off for Kunming. There
was a great excitement welling up in my chest and nostalgia as we so easily
flew over the great mountains below me. I had never known anything but trudging
all day to cross just one mountain. Many had been the times when I had awakened
in the night and realized that I had been dreaming of trekking through these
great mountain ranges. Now I had a vast panoramic view as far as my eyes could
take it in. Then below us appeared the Yangtze River. It looked like a little
stream winding its way in the deep ravine. As we flew on south we were still
in bright sunshine, but down below the evening shadows were fast dimming the
view. Sometime later we began to descend and suddenly the lights of a huge airfield
were below us and in no time at all with a terrific bump we had landed in Kunming.
We seemed to taxi for the next quarter of an hour. Before alighting from the
plane into an army bus which seemed in an awful hurry. I was handed over to
the transit officer who after hearing my story said. “We must get you
into the city, but we’ll go over to the canteen and get some food.”
The canteen was huge. He said “Just sit here and I’ll get you something.”
Soon he returned with a platter piled up with food, I laughingly remarked that
my stomach had shrunk, and I could only eat small meals. “Just eat what
you can, and leave the rest.” Everything in me rebelled against leaving
anything on my plate. They called for one of the chaplains to come, and he called
for two volunteers to go into the city. He explained just where the China Inland
Mission Home was. I thanked him, then I was led out to a jeep.
THE DAY I HAD DREAMED ABOUT. HOME AT LAST.
As soon as we were beyond the airbase
we seemed to be in thick darkness. There was an occasional dim street light.
We were now passing through the city with its narrow streets. This was where
I was born, I was musing on all the times I had walked these quiet streets in
the past. “It’s the next to the left.” The GI who was piloting
announced. And then we crawled down this very narrow street. A typical Chinese
gate with the Chinese name “Nei De Whei.” CIM, indicated we were
there. I stepped out and banged on the gate. Calling out, “Kai Mon! Open
up.” in Chinese. I heard footsteps approaching. And then the door opened.
It was my father! He looked into the dark astonished and bewildered at what
he thought were three American G.I’s. I said “Father, its Stephen.”
He turned back and shouted into the compound. “Stephen’s arrived!”
In the seven long years since I had seen him last I had grown into an 18 year
old youth. To add to his confusion, here I was, dressed in American army uniform.
My drivers wanted to return. They had just witnessed an emotional and extraordinary
reunion. I was soon inside, surrounded by my mother and numerous missionaries
all sharing in the joyous welcome. They had had no word of my coming. Two days
earlier my father had trekked in from Taku 5 day’s journey in the mountains.
Just as he walked up to the CIM transit home gate, a messenger arrived with
my telegram from the camp in Weishien. Not even stopping to go in, he read it.
This was the first word he had had from me in 4 years. So he hastened down to
the British consulate and sent off the telegram for me to come. When he arrived
back at the CIM home he told them what he had done. There was a buzz of voices
to say that the CIM personnel were to be repatriated together and not go into
inland China. My father had acted in the only way a father would react in such
circumstances. Then my mother led me up to a room explaining that Mrs Vinden
was sick with stress and worry not sleeping. There had been no word from Dick
and Margaret for 4 years. “Please give her some good news; it will help
to revive her.” I went in and told her. “Dick is just fine. I had
left him two days ago.” I went on to say. “We slept in the same
room for the last few years. Margaret also was fine.” I had never dreamt
I would meet up with his parents. Few if any of us, had any news. He had no
idea where his parents were. My departure had been so sudden, I really had had
no time to say goodbye to Dick, as he was working in the bakery. I went to bed
that night and lay awake thinking of all my friend’s parents, who had
had to live with all the uncertainties of having their children in a Japanese
prison camp hundreds of miles away. Wild rumors were rife about the horrific
atrocities of the Japanese. We on the other hand, knew we were well and also
presumed our parents were safe in free China. The next morning I was up early.
The mission secretary called me into his office and asked me for any news of
various people in the prison camp and methodically sent off letters. He examined
my baggage and said I’m afraid we will have to burn these; they are full
of nests of bed bugs and other vermin. Then my father took me down to the British
Consul where I had my passport updated. The consul said to me you will soon
put on weight; I was just over 40 kilos. Apart from my teeth I was feeling fine.
Arrangements were made for my parents and me to fly to Calcutta. They were to
fly the next day and I would be going the following day on an RA.F. Flight.
I would have loved to trek the five days back to Taku and visit my old home,
but it was not to be for another sixty years.
THE PERILOUS FLIGHT TO CALCUTTA.
After saying goodbye to my parents again, I spent the day sightseeing in the city. This was where I had been born. Even though seven years had passed. I still remembered many places. During the war the Burma Road had been constructed. Kunming had become the back door to China. The huge American air base was unbelievable. The next morning I went down to the airport. The RAF C47 was waiting and I was the only passenger, apart from a woman and her two small children from another prison camp. We sat in canvass bucket seats along the side. As the plane taxied out I remember being amazed at the sight of three B29’s they seemed gigantic. Again the great mountain ranges were below us as we headed south for India. Soon after flying over the Mekong River we hit a storm. The plane seemed to be tossed around like a kite. Finally, the pilot said he was going to try and fly above the storm. Not only did the engines begin to roar, but the whole plane seemed to be juddering. Then he announced we had just hit an air pocket and dropped 3000 feet! It certainly felt like it. He continued by announcing that he hoped to avoid the storm by flying under it. We were now descending towards the plains of India heading for Calcutta. I had never flown in such conditions, hedgehopping over the paddy fields. It was breathtaking to see the ground racing up to meet you and then the plane would roar up into the air again. The lady who was with us was terrified. She moved over and held onto me. Saying, “I’ve just survived four years of prison camp in Shanghai with my children, and now we’re going to end up in a horrible plane crash.” On the other hand her two children seemed to be enjoying it all. I can only describe it as a prolonged roller coaster ride that seemed to go on hour after hour. In retrospect I’m sure the Air Force Pilots were exhausted trying to keep the plane in the air. It was dark when we finally landed at Dumdum airport. They told us we were running low on fuel and a number of planes had had to ditch in the rice fields. Mum & Dad were at the Airport to meet me. They had been waiting for hours with no word of our flight. I can still remember being handed this great big mug of hot tea which was a wonderful tonic for all we had been through. I hadn’t eaten anything substantial all day.
SURPRISES! GRACIE FIELDS.
A small truck drove us into Calcutta, where we drove through the big gates of the Viceroy’s Palace. This magnificent place had been turned into the centre for the repatriation of prisoners of war. As soon as I reported at the desk I was given a room number and a bed. When I said I hadn’t eaten all day I was told to go down to the basement, where there was a very large restaurant. I was soon served a delicious Indian curry. Just as I started to eat, a middle aged lady who was obviously a celebrity or singer or the like, came in and sat down at the table next to mine. The army personnel who attended her seemed taken up with her every word. She then rose and came over to me asking where I had been a prisoner. I told her in North China. She then asked “Do you know Evelyn Binks?” I replied, “That she had been in the same class at School but she had been moved to a camp in Shanghai, where her mother was.” She smiled and said, “I mean her mother. Her name is also Evelyn. Is she all right?” I told her as far as I know she is.” She went on to say. “Evelyn and I were great friends; we had the same singing teacher. She gave up a promising career and went to China as a missionary. I never had a friend like Evelyn. I do hope she’s alright.” She then asked me a few more questions. Why I was wearing a GI uniform. And went back to her table saying she would see me upstairs. As soon as I was out of earshot. I asked someone. “Who was the celebrity?” “You don’t know! That’s our Gracie…Gracie Fields; she’s giving a concert upstairs tonight.” I felt as if I was the only person who didn’t know of her. A little later that evening I joined with the hundreds of POWs and serviceman, for an enthralling concert; with pieces like “The biggest Aspidistra in the World” The concert climaxed with her wonderful rendering of “The Lords Prayer” with an encore that brought down the house. I went up to my room, where about 15 POW’s, most of them asleep were billeted. I lay for a long time watching a chirping lizard right above me. It was a steaming hot night. And the muffled whirr of the fans finally lulled me to sleep.
THE PARDRE AND VISITING THE HOSPITAL WARD.
The next day was Sunday. After eating a typical English breakfast I walked upstairs with a balding Scotsman, who had been sitting at the same small table, and we sat down in a lounge for a drink. Just then there was an announcement for chapel. The Scotsman turned to me and said lets go and I walked into the large banqueting hall. Where a few people were seated waiting for the padre to start the service. He was a very tall young man and soon commenced the service. I have forgotten almost aIl that was said but I have never forgotten the Bible reading and the text. It was from Luke 17.17. “Where are the other nine?” Referring to the healing of the ten lepers. I looked around at all the empty seats; there were only ten of us! The Padre spoke briefly on “The ingratitude of man.” Referring to the fact that only the one leper a Samaritan had returned to give thanks. After he had finished the Scotsmen turned to me and said, “I’m glad I was here to say thank you to God. He saved me from 3 years of hell when men were slowly dying all around me. Two thirds of our battalion either died or disappeared.” Just then a nurse came up to us and asked if there was an Aussie here. The Scotsman said. “This young fellow is going to Australia.” “You’ll do”, the nurse said, leading me off to the hospital wards. She told me there’s this young Aussie lad and he has lost his will to live. I want you to encourage him that he will make it home safe. He was lying there completely listless, with a vacant stare. His yellow skin was stretched across his bones. I spoke to him and said, “They are all waiting for you, and you will soon be home.” His vacant stare, coming from his sunken eye sockets and his emaciated face, still haunt me. I drew my face close to his and held his limp and skinny hand. “You’ll make it mate. The war is over. This nurse here wants you to live, and so do all the people at home.” There seemed to be just a flicker of emotion. I spoke to him a little time longer. I wasn’t used to talking to dying men. The nurse said they had him on a drip and that they expected him to pull round, but they had lost a number, it was heart breaking when they were so near to getting home. I left his bedside to suddenly realize here was a whole ward full of what appeared to be dying men. There were terrible stories of cruelty and torture. It was a shocking sight to see. Now these men were in such loving hands, being nursed back to life. The nurse said we have had to send three more coffins home this morning. I walked back, away from the hospital wards a very sobered young man. It had been a long and horrifying war and I had been spared to live.
A DAY SPENT WITH DAD AND MUM.
As I reached the main hall I heard my name being called out to say there was a phone call for me, it was my Dad to say he would be around shortly. They were staying at the British & Foreign Bible Society. I traveled over with him and found everything so different from China. It was an education in itself just to see how the cast system worked. The cook wouldn’t clean, and another man did the washing. Yet another carried the water. The other thing I found so trying was the heat. After lunch, I sat with my parents and talked and talked. We had so much to catch up with. They had had regular letters from my sister Ruth in Adelaide South Australia. England had taken such a hammering with the bombs. Our dear uncle Joe had died. Our family had decided to meet in Australia. The government was encouraging people to go to Australia. In the evening I went back to the palace, again I had a delicious curry and I was enjoying the cups of tea. I had never really drunk tea until then. The next morning there were all kinds of papers to be filled in. A young military nurse conducted a medical questionnaire, with a few tests. Because I was English I had been directed to go to England. When I explained that the family was going to Adelaide Australia. I was told that was fine, but as my parents were civilians and not POW’s they could not travel with me. I was booked the next day to fly down to Colombo Ceylon (Shrilanka.) I would make my connection to Australia from there.
Upon arriving in Colombo I was taken to a British naval camp and found myself sleeping in a large barracks. The next day I was driven down to the naval transport office, who handed me over to a young man who was handling the flights for personnel in the forces. He said they would contact me when a flight came up for Australia. I soon made friends with a number of the sailors; there were some who were younger than me. There were some other POW’s who passed through on their way to England. It was like one glorious holiday for me. I went swimming and sightseeing with the rest of the sailors. The petty officer who had been in charge of me was posted elsewhere. So after three weeks with no word about my flight I went into the offices where I had first gone, only to find the man who had spoken to me originally had gone to England. A clerk went through their files and finally found a note that they were meant to put me on a flight to Australia. They told me there would be a flight the next day. I was handed the details. I think the navy was glad to get me on my way. Some of the sailors I had made friends with drove me down to the airport. All this time I was very self conscious that here I was dressed in American army uniform, it made me stick out like a sore thumb. The plane was a liberator a B24 it was comparatively empty, with a few Air Force personnel, its destination was Sydney. There was also one POW on the flight. He had been a civilian air pilot who had been captured by the Japanese in Malaysia. Since his release he had been in a military hospital regaining his health. He had had amoebic dysentery, dengue fever and malaria. He said, he didn’t think he would have survived another month. They had no warning that the war had finished, suddenly the Japanese had left. It was weeks before they had been picked up out in the jungle, although the local natives had been very good to them. Nobody knew what was happening. Finally a jeep arrived to say that they had heard there were prisoners near this village.
A LONG LONG FLIGHT TO ADELAIDE.
There was only the one stop on the flight; it was at the Cocos Islands right out in the Indian Ocean. Just after we left we ran into a rain storm. Then the Pilot drew our attention to the rainbow down below us. It was a full circle an amazing sight to see. God always looks down on a full circle. We only see the half promise of God. It was very early morning when we finally arrived in Perth. We were told we could spend the day in the city and they would pick us up in the evening. I spoke to the young fellow at the desk saying I was going to Adelaide. He said if you go to Sydney you will soon get a flight to Adelaide. It seemed strange to fly an extra 1000 miles. Fortunately my pilot friend stayed with me all day. I didn’t have any money. I had spent the US money in Colombo. My POW friend said that was no problem he was loaded with all the back pay coming to him from the years he had been in prison camp. He urged me to take £10.00 saying I would need some money to get to my sisters.
A NEW LIFE IN AUSTRALIA.
Perth in 1945 was a quiet little city, far from everywhere and the day passed uneventfully. In the evening we caught our flight for Sydney. It was a tiring flight I was curled up on the floor with my bags. It remained dark for the whole 2000 mile flight. We got in just before daybreak. The crew were congratulating themselves that with a strong following air current they had broken the record for the transcontinental flight. After landing we had to wait around for the airport to open up. I went up to the desk and said I wanted a flight to Adelaide, they said I would have to go via Melbourne. The man at the desk said I’ll put you down for a standby. You’ll be lucky to get anything today, Its Melbourne Cup Day. However, just before the very first flight, somebody didn’t turn up and I got a seat on a packed out plane. I had an hour and a half in Melbourne’s Essenden Airport. One of my best friends was in Melbourne. I rang around and located him. “Ray its Steve, How are you?” “Where are you? You old sinner!” He replied. I told him I was at Essendon Airport but only had just over an hour before flying on to Adelaide.” “I’ll come right over.” he said. But he didn’t tell me he would be pushing his bicycle for over ten miles. I hung on straining my eyes to the approach to the airfield. Finally I had to board my plane. Ray told me later that he just arrived at the airfield perimeter as my plane took off. What a barren landscape stretched out in front of me. It was spring in the southern hemisphere. It had been summer when I had left north China, but I could hardly see anything green below me. Paramatta Airfield north of Adelaide was equally dry and dismal as we landed.
THE HARTLEYS AT NO 1. KELLKENNY RD.
An air force transport man told me they would take me to my sister’s address. I didn’t know what to expect. It was a very long drive and they finally stopped outside a grocers shop on the corner of a very wide road. “Here you are mate, I‘ll leave you here, No 1 Killkenny Rd. We can’t wait.” and I found myself dumped in front of the grocers. As I pushed the door open a bell rang and a very large man with a ruddy complexion looked up from serving some customers. “Please,” I said, “I’m looking for Ruth Metcalf.” “You had better go round to the side door.” He replied.” I took my bags and opened the side gate and pressed the bell. An elderly lady came to the door. “I’m Stephen Metcalf and I’m looking for my sister Ruth.” I said. “Well, come on in. We thought you may be coming but we have had no word.” Turning back into the house she announced. “Its Bessie’s son, Stephen. I thought he was an American soldier.” As I walked into the room there were two other ladies in there. I’m Ruth your mother’s friend and this is Marjory our youngest sister. We thought you may be coming but we have had no word. Please sit down. Have you been in touch with your sister Ruth? Last week when she phoned she said she hadn’t heard anything.” “Is it possible to ring my sister?” I asked. “Let us try; she will be on duty just now. She is working and living at the infectious diseases hospital, it’s a long way out so we don’t see much of her nowadays.” Ruth Hartley, the eldest sister went out into the hall and began to ring the hospital. It must have been about ten minutes before she called me out to answer the phone. There was Ruth on the other end bombarding me with questions. Asking why I hadn’t told anybody I was coming. She said that as soon as she could get off duty she would come over. We talked for a few more minutes then we hung up. Suddenly an uncontrollable wave of emotion swept over me. I found myself in these strangers house, weeping my eyes out. Great sobs seemed to have taken over my speech. I had never in my life had such a reaction. Not even when I was reunited with my parents. Somehow talking with my sister had triggered something that had been dammed up in me all these stressful years. I was so embarrassed, but I couldn’t help myself. The Hartley’s were obviously distressed to see me like this. They brought me a cup of tea, and slowly I recovered my normal composure, apologizing for what had happened. Then the big man I had spoken to in the shop came in. “Oh, Its Ruth’s brother Stephen.” He said. “I thought he was an American serviceman asking after Ruth. I was wondering what he wanted.”
REUNITED WITH MY SISTER RUTH.
It was a couple of hours later when finally Ruth arrived. The big man, whose name was Stan said he would walk over and let his brother Geoff know I had turned up. My sister explained that Geoff and his wife had volunteered to put me up. She said that she would walk over with me. As soon as we got outside the house, she began to fill me in on the Hartley’s. They are very insular family. Four spinster sisters & one bachelor brother. The other brother Geoff and his wife, whom you will be staying with. Are also a very private couple, they have no children. They are all very good people.