In November, the Americans chosen to be exchanged for Japanese civilian prisoners started off early in the morning, smiling and happy. Those of us left behind looked sadly at our departing friends. Had we known that we should have another two years in camp, we should have been even more depressed.
With their departure, certain changes were made in accommodations. I had been occupying a room not much bigger than a closet with another small room opening out of it which had been occupied by my friend who had left. The Housing Committee told me I must expect a new room-mate. When she appeared my neighbours in the alley said: "You can't have her - she is a prostitute". When she moved in she took the inner room. I said: "Don't mind coming through my room any time". "Oh", she said: "don't think about that. We'll go in and out the window, but I'd like to put up a partition between the two rooms".
So an elderly New England school-teacher and a prostitute shared discomfort and became friends.
This housing arrangement turned out to be rather temporary as a few more people were being sent to camp. The Japanese had allowed the very ill of Peking to remain, with one relative, as imprisoned in the British Embassy. This was true of Peking only where the German, Italian and other embassies were located. In the outlying districts all enemy aliens were brought - some even on stretchers. The very old were not spared. One very old lady - after a few days in camp - kept urging her son to move. "I don't like this hotel" she complained.
As those left in Peking died, their relatives were sent to camp. It was then that I was moved to a room 9' x 12' which I was to share with my sister, one of the new arrivals. My former room-mate was given a separate room.
As there was a chimney in the room, our neighbor suggested we build a little stove. Where to get bricks? Every night, after dark, we scrounged - a few from an old wall, a few from a paved walk - a few from a building the Japanese had started. What a comfort that stove was. They issued small amounts of coal and a log of wood - supposedly once a week. How glad we were to get them as winters in North China are bitterly cold, but there was the long walk, the standing in line and the heavy weight. As the coal was mostly dust it had to be made into coal balls (a sort of buguelle). That meant digging clay, mixing it with the dust and water. Then, like a child making mud balls, rolling the mixture into small balls and letting them dry. The wood had to be sawn and chopped. It was worth the labor as our room could be pleasantly warm and we could do some cooking, as my sister had been able to secrete some staple food in her mattress.
The extra food was very welcome as our diet was growing scantier and of poorer quality. "Loudou", a legume usually grown for the hens, was our breakfast, a slimy green stew was our lunch, and more stew for supper. We had little energy for our camp duties.
As all the work of the camp was done by internees we were kept very busy. With teaching — carried on in the kitchen in cold weather or out of doors in pleasant weather - cleaning Chinese latrines, standing in line to be counted twice a day and for ladles of stew, pumping cold water, emptying slops at the cesspool, keeping the small crowded room free from rats and bedbugs, making coal balls, chopping wood, washing clothes with little or no soap, we were exhausted at night. My sister, who did all the above-named chores except teaching, doing vegetable and kitchen work instead said, when she sank into bed: "If I weren't so tired I'd worry about the boys" - both of whom were fighting.
So winter turned to spring, spring to summer, and summer to autumn. Human nature, being ridiculously optimistic, we went on saying: "The war will be over by Christmas, by Easter, by summer."
Some Belgian Fathers had a hidden radio, so we had news — until the radio was discovered by the Japanese and dismantled. Fortunately, the punishment was not as severe as expected. Another method of getting news was through the garbage squad who carried, outside the wall under guard, the boxes of refuse. There, a Chinese friend disguised as a coolie would sort out a small wad which, at a safe time, would be collected by one of our squad. This proved to be news written in Chinese on a piece of silk. The translation was soon spread around camp.
In desperation at the dreariness and hardships, three (?) young men planned and executed a daring escape. As this story has already been written
by one of the escapees, I will not go into details. The effect on the rest of the camp was hard. The Japanese threatened reprisals.
Those closely connected were kept under close guard, allowed no communication with others and given an even poorer diet than usual.
The whole camp was aroused at two in the morning, taken out and lined against a wall. No-one knew what was to be done to us, but luckily nothing more than a recount.
Although we never doubted that we would win the war eventually, as the food became poorer and more meagre, work more of a drudgery, we became dispirited. Then one night a rumor "the Japanese have surrendered" ran through the camp. The next morning the drone of planes awoke us. As the planes circled the camp the U.S.A. insignia could be seen. "American planes, American planes".
The shout echoed through the camp.
The excitement was so great that one woman who was in the shower put on her hat and shoes (nothing else) and dashed to join the crowd heading for the gate. Past the stupefied guard swept the crowd — ragged, many barefoot and gaunt. There were cheers and tears - out into the fields outside the camp to welcome the parachutists drifting down men and boys hoisted them on to their shoulders and, among the singing crowds and the bewildered Japanese, they were brought into camp.
The first wave of rescuers was followed by a second and a third. Among them was Tom who hadn't seen his mother or me for seven years. To celebrate our reunion and delivery we opened for him a cherished tin of spam from one of the few Red Cross parcels we had received — and he had brought us, from West China, peanut butter. Peanuts were one of the few edibles that the Japanese allowed us to buy from the villagers. An O'Henry story.
The U.S. Army took us over. Food was so plentiful that the stomach pumps had to be used on some of the greediest boys. Radios played at 6 a.m. "Oh, what a beautiful morning" rather to the disgust of some who had hoped to have a good long time in bed.
Talks were given on the situation to get us up to date, and plans were made to send us home.
"THE WHITE ELEPHANT SHOP" in WEIHSIEN.
It was found that some people had taken to camp articles which they didn't need. So Helen Burton of "The Camel Bell" in Peking, got permission to use a small shed as headquarters for exchange. To pave the mud floor, we scrounged bricks when the guards weren't looking.
No goods were displayed except shoes. Notices were posted and contacts were made.
This exchange became so important and helpful that, after Helen left, a committee was set up to take charge of her wonderful idea.