This is the second installment of a
series, which started last Wednesday.
Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. The Angels of Mercy suddenly appeared from the belly of the lumbering, lowflying B-47 bomber. Fhlop. Fhlop. Fhlop. Seven parachutes, one after another, popped open in the sweltering heat of that Aug. 17, 1945 morning, sixty-four years ago. Brisk winds buffeted the chutes as they rapidly descended on the corn field outside Weishien Civilian Assembly Center in eastern China.
Fifteen hundred civilian prisoners of war cheered in unison as the parachutes floated earthward. They laughed and cried. They cheered and prayed. Men ripped off their shirts to give them something to wave skyward. The cacophony impossibly increased with the appearance of each ensuing jumper.
In the midst of the madness stood a strangely calm young child, Mary Taylor, a 12-year-old who had been separated from her missionary parents at war’s onset. At the age of 9 she and her siblings had been marched into captivity with other children, Christian missionaries and teachers. By this time the four Taylor youngsters had not seen their parents for 5 ½ years.
As the American bomber disgorged it’s final parachutist and banked to safety, Mary smiled knowingly after spotting the name painted on its nose, “Armoured Angel. “ It couldn’t have been otherwise. She was reminded of her mother’s long ago recitation of Psalm 91: “And He shall give His angels charge over you to keep you.”
The celebration and rejoicing was unending. The rescuers were escorted into the compound, everyone seeking some remembrance of the occasion, a button, shards from a parachute, autographs, insignia, a lock of hair.
It seemed appropriate they break into American song: “You are my Sunshine” and “Happy Days (are here again).” Seeking anything remotely Yankee, an impromptu few innings of baseball were also played.
Despite the imprint of war and its lasting impact, a child’s resilience and ability to recover converged as young Mary and siblings were united with their parents (as well as a new brother) and returned to the United States. Weihsien eventually became a distant memory. The years in China were replaced with the joys of growing up as an American in America.
Fifty two years later, Memorial Day week of 1997, Mary Taylor Previte was campaigning for a seat in the New Jersey Assembly when asked to be a substitute speaker before a group of veterans of the China-Burma- India Veterans Association. Although she had never heard of the group, the CBI reference brought about a cold chill and goose bumps. Her long ago rescuers were a part of that World War II campaign!
[Twelve years earlier Previte by chance had discovered a declassified military report on the Weihsien internment camp mission; it also contained the names of the seven members of the Duck rescue team. The list was tucked away in a drawer all those years, but was now nervously retrieved as she outlined the talk she planned to give. Vivid memories of that memorable 1945 morning returned as she addressed 150 elderly CBI vets. The climax of her speech was a recitation of the rescuer’s names. Could it be possible someone in the audience that evening might be familiar with any one of the seven?]
There was no miracle recognition. But there was total agreement amongst the audience that a search should be launched to find her long ago hero Angels. They urged her to write a story in their national magazine to publicize and seek outside assistance. She sat down and wrote her poignant account of the rescue.
Results and reaction were almost immediate. After the meeting a Maryland veteran took her roster of seven, made a computer search of every telephone number listed in the United States (thousands) that matched her name list! With hundreds upon hundreds of telephone numbers and addresses scattered over her kitchen table, she started her daunting task by initially sending out some self-addressed, stamped envelopes: “Are you the Stanley Staiger who liberated the Weihsien concentration camp in China?”
A trickle of responses came in. “God bless you in your search”, they said, but no hero was uncovered. The first break came in September of 1997. A nurse, having read about the search in the CBI magazine, informed her of a sister who lived next door to Raymond Hanchulak, the mission medic!
Hanchulak’s widow answered the telephone. He had died a year earlier. Previte began to wonder if her contacts would all end in conversations with widows. The second call, tracing radio operator Peter Orlich, seemed to confirm her fears. He had died four years earlier. Third name on her list was Tadashi Nagaki, Japanese American interpreter on the Duck roster. Holding her breath she carefully dialed Alliance, Neb.
“I’m calling for Tadashi Nagaki,” she whispered when the telephone was answered. “Speaking,” the voice replied.
Mary T. Previte had found her first live hero! Between sobs of happiness and relief she was able to explain the complete history of her determined search to a stunned Nebraska farmer, a half century and thousands of miles removed from her emotional recitation.
There are no guidelines on what to talk about under these stressful circumstances. During the course of the *get-acquainted conversation she did most of the talking, learning about his background, family (a recent widower) and farm. She asked how he felt with all of the camp children following him around like he was the Pied Piper. He was reticent and rather stoic throughout, admitting to feeling like being on an undeserved pedestal. He remembered a girl cutting off a chunk of his hair so she’d have a souvenir.
(*“I remember that first telephone call from ‘the lady’,” Nagaki states matter of factly. “I really didn’t know what to say or how to react. It was just such a weird experience, a call like that from out of the blue.”)
Finally reaching a mutual comfort level, Nagaki explained that he had stayed in touch with fellow team member Jim Moore. What a relief, thought Previte. There were 150 James Moores on the search log she now would not have to canvass. He, in turn, later located Stanley Staiger by checking a program which listed every driver’s license in the United States! (Eddie Cheng-Han Wang, the Chinese interpreter and a Chinese national, was the only one of the seven not tracked down.)
Previte then made it an additional mission to criss-cross America to personally visit each of her living heroes and kept in touch via phone and mail. She also contacted chambers of commerce, veteran groups and newspapers in the cities where the members resided, notifying them and writing stories about their under-publicized wartime exploits.
When she traveled to Nebraska for her first face to face with Nagaki, Previte was impressed by his modesty and refusal to accept anything resembling special status. But she knew of the perils of a Nisei being captured by the Imperial Army yet could never get Tad to admit to anything except simply being an American in uniform. As to the danger of being mis-indentified as an enemy soldier by Allied troops, he merely shrugs with a patient “I never gave it any thought” reply.
Nagaki is now the sole living member of Duck Team. He suffered through a bout with pneumonia and more recently had a serious fall from his truck resulting in the fracture of his pelvis. Due to physical infirmities he has sharply reduced his active hands-on farming supervision but still oversees some acreage to remain involved. He will be 90 years old next January.
[In next week’s third and concluding column on the Nagaki-Previte story, a personal view of Nagaki, his wife, family background, how Crossroads to Somewhere came upon the story and why it took two years to complete.]
W.T. Wimpy Hiroto can be reached at email@example.com . Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.