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by Ruth Hunkel ...


by Ruth H. Kunkel

This is a small village in North China, west of Tsingtao. Years ago a school was started there by the Presbyterian mission and it was there that eventually eighteen—hundred and fifty civilian prisoners of war were held.

On the day of the attack on Pearl Harbor which was December 8, 1941, in China, we were called to the Japanese Embassy where the Ambassador was as shocked as we were. His wife was an American and their child was attending the Peking American School. We were told to go home until orders came from Tokyo.

Meanwhile our school was closed and no funds were available. Fortunately, the British—American Tobacco Company advanced us money against tobacco held for Japanese. Thus we were able to live. But what to do about the children who couldn't go to school? The Principal solved that by starting an underground school. Classes were held in different houses and at different times. The teaching of sciences which required laboratories could not go on, but thanks to a loyal Chinese janitor, books were smuggled out and our school went on. There were no diversions, so the children studied more than ever and a class received diplomas.

Then came the day when we were told that we were to go to a concentration camp and to pack only what we could carry and report in the American embassy compound. One Ingenious woman pushed her belongings on a contraption with roller skates attached; the rest of us had packs on our backs. During inspection, many things were confiscated. Among them a useful knife belonging to my ingenious friend. She felt it was a necessity for camp life and, since it was on top of a rising mass of things, we stood close to the pile and tapped gently with our feet until we could reach the coveted knife which was with us to the end.

The tiresome train trip of about eighteen hours would have been dull had not a guard grabbed a woman by her rather big nose and slapped her head back and forth. She was near a door which the guard couldn't open and when she laughed he thought he was the object and so lost face. My friend took it all smilingly so, although we were angry, we too laughed.

When the weary prisoners were going up a long ramp, William Christian was at the head of the line and turned around to announce: "I see my initials all over the place". Fun. Some were assigned small schoolrooms designed for one student; some were put into former laboratories where 18 were housed.

There were no beds so we slept on the floor with only our coats for covering, until the Japanese got our beds sent in.

All camp work had to be done by prisoners. Our men set up committees and we were assigned duties. The British and Americans started schools. Some of us were assigned to the hospital which was very badly in need of repair since most pipes had been rudely ripped out. There was no way to sterilize dressings, except in two small pressure cookers. How to cope with childrens' cuts and bruises? It was quite a challenge since dressings had to be wrapped in tiny parcels and the cookers had to work night and day. Eventually, the Red Cross sent us autoclaves and not too soon, as babies were being born and emergency operations had to be performed.

Three kitchens were set up and food was brought in on trucks from a distant railroad. The Japanese did the best they could, but sometimes the meat was spoiled and the men in charge of the Peking kitchen buried it at night when guards were not watching. Otherwise our meat supply would have been cut entirely. One of the kitchens was not so fortunate and bad meat was served resulting in trips to the toilets. One poor man was challenged by the guard and forgot the Japanese word, but remembered that it was like the English for a musical instrument, so he started: "piano, organ, flute, drum" until he came to "banjo" when the guard let him pass.

Food became very important and some of the Catholic Fathers made a hole in the wall of their small room. Loyal Chinese rolled the precious eggs through the hole and the Fathers distributed them to those who needed them. One day a Father had a basket of eggs and saw a guard watching, so he nonchalantly took clothes from someone's line and went along. Then later he was caught and said to the guard "Don't shoot till you see the whites of my eggs".

Most of us had not had a smell of coffee in years. Then a grateful patient gave Dr. L. a tin of Maxwell House. He gave it to us on the hospital staff and said "Make all the coffee you can and give it to those who want it". We used the grounds over and over until there was nothing left and many were made happy by the good doctor's kindness.

There had been no milk for ages until our men got the Japanese to bring cows into camp. Young boys stationed themselves at intervals throughout the camp and the ones at the gate announced: "The cows are coming" and the joyful announcement echoed for minutes as the news spread.

Mornings we assembled to be counted and sometimes were kept so long that people fainted and children cried. After one such ordeal, one of us offered to make the count. The Japanese agreed while the man went to the kitchens and the hospital to check. Every time he was one short. He forgot to count himself.

On the fourth of July some of the men arranged a baseball game. In the midst of it there was a terrific cloud—burst and some of the camp's mud walls were washed away. We could have walked out, but there was no place to go. The Commandant called a meeting and told our men that they must mend the walls. One said that, according to the Geneva Convention, a prisoner could not be forced to build his prison. Moreover, said this wise man: "This happened on the date of our most historical day and is an omen. The Japanese will never win this war". The Japanese became pale, if that is possible, and Chinese were called to mend the walls.

The meanest guard in our camp was called "Gold tooth" to suit his dentistry. One night a minstrel show was arranged. The Master of Ceremonies announced that the next song was dedicated to Gold Tooth, who was in the front row with other guards. "The next song is dedicated to Gold Tooth. We'll be glad when you are dead, you rascal you". Gold Tooth applauded with the rest of us. Of course, he didn't understand.

One night three men, who were housed in a tiny room with a brilliant light shining into the room all night, were standing at their cell door when one said: "I could sleep if that darned light were out". Another said: "I'll put it out". He reached behind and grabbed a glass of water and hurled it at the light. As it crashed Dr. T. screamed: "My God, my teeth". In the dark, the men scrambled around until the precious teeth were found.

And so life went on with work enough to keep us glad to get into bed at night.

Our spirits were greatly uplifted when rumor flew through the camp that a telegram had been posted on the bulletin board. It read: "Prisoners, we have not forgotten you and are working for your release" signed Cordell Hull.

News of the outside world was meagre, but a loyal Chinese from the village got a job as garbage collector for the camp and, after buckets were emptied, he put a cellophane bag into one. He carried it in his mouth and was never caught. In this way, we had some idea of how the war was going.

Finally, in November, we were told that many of us would be exchanged for Japanese civilians from the United States. Happy day. William Christian remarked, "Well, maybe we shall be home for the January white sales". And we were. Home in time to see the lovely Christmas decorations. A real thrill.


We were going home! A happy group went down the ramp from the concentration camp and boarded trucks to take us to the station in Weihsien. From there we spent many hours in third class coaches on the way to Shanghai. A Japanese ship then took us to Portuguese Goa, making stops to pick up more prisoners. We were a month on that miserable ship, crowded, with poor food, and water once in a while. Some way some champagne was produced and, by putting together our meagre funds, some of us were able to buy a bottle which we consumed from tin cups on the deck.

When we reached Goa, there was the beautiful "GRIPSHOLM" docked just ahead. A glorious sight.

While the two ships were unloading, we were allowed to walk on the dock. We talked to some of the Japanese who were being taken to Japan. Some of the children were not at all happy. They had had lessons in Japanese on the "GRIPSHOLM", but had always lived in the U.S. They were anxious to talk to those of us who had visited Japan. Poor kids. Wonder what happened to them and how they adjusted to their new life.

The day for the exchange of prisoners finally came. We were marched from the back of our ship to the front of the "GRIPSHOLM" passing the Japanese on the way. Quite a contrast. We were shabby but happy; they were well-dressed and unhappy, so it seemed.

On the "GRIPSHOLM", the Red Cross passed out chocolate bars and we were greedy to get them. However, a couple of nibbles was enough. We had been so many years without sugar that we couldn't tolerate it.

We stopped at Port Elizabeth in South Africa and were given a wonderful welcome by the British who lived there. In a large hall, a table was set up with food and drinks. Even an orchestra was on hand to play for those who cared to dance. Word had gone ahead that our ship had to be deloused and our names were posted for accommodation in private homes. We didn't have to accept this kind hospitality, praises be.

Our State Department had sent us funds, so we were not penniless. We had fun shopping in the well-supplied shops.

Then on to Rio de Janeiro where more hospitality awaited us. We certainly learned how many kind people there are in this old world. The Red Cross had reservations in hotels and private homes for the three days we were there as free citizens at last.

On the "GRIPSHOLM" there were twin girls whose father had been a doctor in Shanghai. Everyone made a fuss over these adorable children. One day, a small boy pulled a lady's skirt and said, "Of course the doctor would choose the cutest ones for himself".

The famous Emily Hahn was on board with her child and has since written about the trip, it is said.

Then came the Statue of Liberty and people started to sing. Some of us wept for pure joy. Home at last after seventy-six days on the way.