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... to Chinese translation of Shantung Compound by Langdon Gilkey

Written by Mary Taylor Previte

Weihsien: For almost seventy years, English-speaking people have been reading about what happened in what was once a small country town in Shandong province where the Japanese locked away more than 2,000 Allied men, women, and children from twenty-six nations during the war against Japan. The Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center, as the Japanese called it, ranked among the largest three of these Japanese civilian internment camps in China which were opened in February and March of 1943.

With this translation by Cheng Long, Ph.D., of Beijing Normal University, Chinese people can now read this chapter of Chinese history.

On September 7, 1943, the Japanese herded and shipped away the Chefoo School in Yantai -- largely British and American school children, teachers, old people -- shipped like animals by ship, train, bus, and trucks into the already-overcrowded Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center. Like all of us, I was an “enemy alien.” It was my 11th birthday.

Every person interned by the Japanese in Weihsien has his own story. It is a story of heroes and villains.

Mine is the story of a child born in China to Christian missionary parents. I was a little girl. Imagine this. Separated from our missionary parents by warring armies, my brothers and sister and I did not see Daddy and Mummy for 5 1/2 years. Yet I felt protected every minute, every hour, every day by our missionary teachers of the Chefoo School and the grown-ups in the Weihsien camp. The Japanese interned four hundred and twenty-four children in this camp. These heroes in Weihsien focused their hearts and souls on preserving our childhood. Before the war came, my parents had taught us the Bible verse, “God shall give His angels charge over you to keep you.” Our Chefoo School teachers taught us to sing the Bible verse:

“God is our refuge and strength; therefore, we will not be afraid.”

Langdon Gilkey’s is so very different: a riveting story of more than two thousand internees who knew about the horrors of “the rape of Nanking;” of adults who had lived with the comforts of civilization and status now enduring the endless nightmare of too little space, too little food, no status from the past, unthinkable sanitation, and mind-numbing boredom. Gilkey was 24 years old when he was interned in Weihsien. He had been teaching English at Yenching University.

So how did these civilized internees behave in this precarious world? The choices they made under stress – these create the fascination, the excitement of this book.

Gilkey opens with the words from Bertolt Brecht’s The Three Penny Opera.

For even saintly folk will act like sinners
Unless they have their customary dinners.

Prisoners now worried about what was ahead. Would there be brutality, starvation, or extermination? Among them were the powerful who had run businesses and corporations in China, taught in universities, served God as missionaries, practiced medicine, traveled the world for adventure. They ranged in age from six months to eighty-five years. Some were ill; some, frail.

As they entered the camp, they saw machine guns pointed their way. Electrified barbed wire ran along the top of the barrier walls. Accompanied by German shepherd guard dogs, contingents from forty uniformed Japanese guards patrolled the camp. Prisoners were lined up to be counted and to swear to the Japanese an oath "to obey rules and commit no hostile act." There they were, stuck inside barrier walls of a camp run by the iron discipline of an enemy army.

Reality dawned quickly. There were no servants, no machines. They themselves would have to cook the food, pump the water, stoke the fires, wash the laundry, and scour the primitive latrines. Overnight, every one of their creature comforts had disappeared. Now more than two thousand people squeezed into what had been an American Presbyterian missionary compound, a compound measuring only one hundred and fifty by two hundred yards with everything now wrecked by how many garrisons of Japanese and Chinese soldiers.

Society’s morals, religious rules to “love your neighbor as yourself” -- what happens when these pillars of civilization clash with hunger, crowding, cold, filth, and very little running water? When you’re squeezed together with strangers and people you hardly know?

Langdon Gilkey creates vivid pictures of these crises with day-by-day events within the walls of Weihsien. What seem like tiny happenings become epic moral dilemmas.

You’re hungry. Will you “black market” over the wall for eggs or cabbages or sugar from Chinese farmers if the Japanese might stand the unfortunate farmer in front of a firing squad within earshot of the camp if he is caught?

Should two prisoners plan an escape that will certainly bring down retribution upon everyone else in the camp?

In a world of anxiety and tension, what motivates your actions? The Quarters Committee asks you in the crowded nine-man dormitory room to make room for one more man transferring from a similar room that now squeezes in eleven: Do you choose justice or your own comfort of hanging onto your own tiny space?

You work in one of the camp kitchens and your family and you are everlastingly hungry or cold. Do you smuggle from the camp kitchen its limited supply of meat or sugar or coal? What if everybody did?

You’re an American citizen and you’re hungry, when 1,550 American Red Cross relief parcels arrive in the camp, each three feet long, a foot wide, and eighteen inches high. Do you fight so that only the two hundred Americans in the camp will get these parcels or do you agree to share the life-saving bounty equally to everyone in the camp?

When you’re cold, is it inventiveness or courage or theft to take from the Japanese the bricks or metal to build a stove in your family’s 9’ x 12’ room?

Does self-interest come before your fellow man in this community?

American readers have flooded Amazon with comments: “I couldn’t put the book down. Every page I found myself thinking ‘What would I do in that situation?’ ”

More: “My choices in life were influenced more by what I read in this book than any other book I’ve ever read.”

This book is so spirited, so scholarly, that those who love thrillers will read it. So, will historians, psychologists, sociologist, and theologians.

Yes, Langdon Gilkey’s is one story of Weihsien. All true.

Yes, separated from our parents, we Taylor children found ourselves crammed into this very same world of gut-wrenching hunger, guard dogs, bayonet drills, prisoner numbers and badges, daily roll calls, bed bugs, flies, and unspeakable sanitation.

My story of Weihsien, however, is a story of heroes, a story of hope, a story of triumph. This story of triumph has shaped my life forever.

My Weihsien story tells of Chinese heroes -- Chinese farmers who risked their lives to smuggle food over the wall to prisoners and those who brought us food so generously when the war was over.

It is a story of a 20-year-old Chinese from Sichuan, Wang Cheng-Han, skilled in speaking English, who joined the army, determined to fight the Japanese. On loan as a Chinese interpreter for the American Office of Strategic Services, he was recruited for the seven-man rescue mission to liberate Weihsien. On August 17, 1945, he parachuted from a bomber called the Armored Angel to liberate 1,500 Allied prisoners in Weihsien. He had never before jumped from a plane. Wang Cheng Han was the youngest member of the rescue team; we called him “Eddie.” We children adored him. We followed him around. “Eddie” Wang is a hero.

Weihsien is a story of heroes like our missionary teachers who told us, “You will go to school each day.” (Please remember, most of us children in the Chefoo School had no parents in this place.) Our teachers kept saying it -- some day, you will get of out of this place. Some day, you will compete with boys and girls who have been going to school. Imagine it! School in the midst of a bloody war -- no desks, no chairs, no classrooms, few books -- but, yes, our teachers insisted -- school would go on.

Weihsien is the story of hero-teachers who would never, NEVER let us give up, hero-teachers who insisted on good manners. There is no such thing as one set of good manners for the outside world, they would tell us, and another set of manners for a concentration camp. We could be sitting on wooden benches, at wooden tables in the mess hall, and be eating the most awful looking glop out of a soap dish or an empty tin can, but those hero-teachers kept repeating the rules: Sit up straight. Do not stuff food in your mouth. Do not talk while you have food in your mouth. God is not honored by rudeness. Imagine it! Insisting on good manners in a concentration camp!

Weihsien is the story of heroes like Scotsman Eric Liddell, who won the Gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. In Weihsien, we children called him Uncle Eric -- a hero whose life and words taught us the love of God every day. To keep hope in our hearts, he organized games and races for us children.

Weihsien is the story of heroes like American missionary, Mary Scott, who took us girls under her wing and taught us how to play softball.

Weihsien is the story of heroes like ornithologist Hugh Hubbard -- world famous for his study and writing about birds. Hugh Hubbard became the hero of Weihsien to countless boys. Under the trees of Weihsien, Hubbard took them on bird watching walks. He taught them the songs, the colors, the flight, the nesting habits of the birds. I still have my brother Jamie’s bird-watching diary he kept in the camp—pages of Jamie’s notes and color drawings of birds that he saw.

Weihsien is the story of heroes like the Salvation Army Band. I don’t know how they brought their band instruments into a concentration camp, but they did. They kept telling us the message of hope. WE WILL WIN THIS WAR, they said. And when we do, we will be ready with music of a Victory Medley to welcome our liberators. But who would those liberators be? They said it would be China or America or England or Russia. And so they created the Victory Medley of those four national anthems, all mixed together with hymns of faith. On Tuesday nights, right outside the Japanese commandant’s office, the Salvation Army Band practiced the Victory Medley for the day the liberators would come.

Life in this concentration camp tore open the human soul. Yet all these heroes held one freedom -- the ability to choose their attitude -- even behind barrier walls and barbed wire. Even with Japanese everywhere, they turned life into inner victory.

Weihsien is also the story of seven heroes who volunteered to risk their lives to liberate 1,500 Allied prisoners in that camp. August 17, 1945. It was a hot and windy day. I was lying sick with an upset stomach in the dormitory in the second floor of the hospital that stands there still -- when I thought I heard the drone of an airplane over the camp. Racing to the window, I watched it sweep lower, slowly lower and then circle again. It was a giant plane, emblazoned with an American star. Beyond the treetops its belly opened. I gaped in wonder as giant parachutes drifted slowly to the ground.

Weihsien went mad.

Oh, glorious cure for my diarrhea! I raced for the entry gates and was swept off my feet by the pandemonium. Prisoners ran in circles and pounded the sky with their fists. They cursed, wept, hugged, danced. They cheered themselves hoarse. Wave after wave of prisoners swept past the Japanese guards and into the fields beyond the camp.

A mile away we found them -- six Americans and a young Chinese interpreter standing with their weapons ready-- surrounded by fields of ripening gao-liang.

Advancing towards them came a tidal wave of prisoners intoxicated with joy. Free in the open fields. The men hoisted the young American major onto their boney platform of shoulders and carried him in triumph to the gates of the camp.

In the distance, from a mound near the gate of the camp the Salvation Army Band was blasting its joyful Victory Medley. When they got to the American “Star Spangled Banner” the crowd hushed:

“O, say, does that star-spangled banner still wave,
o’er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”

From up on his throne of shoulders, the young, sun-bronzed, American major struggled down to a standing salute. And up on the mound by the gate, a young American trombonist in the Salvation Army Band crumpled to the ground and wept. He knew what we all knew. We were free.

I was a child that could understand the excitement of that day -- seven men parachuting from an American bomber at only four hundred feet. They were gods. They were angels. They had meat on their bones! We cut off pieces of their hair for souvenirs. We got their signatures, their buttons, their insignia, pieces of parachute. We followed them around. We sat on their laps. We made them sing to us the songs of America.

But I was too young to understand the miracle of seven men -- against how many Japanese -- risking their lives to rescue me and 1,500 prisoners whom they did not even know. In 1997, in a miracle search, I tracked down these American heroes. Then I crisscrossed America in a pilgrimage to say thank you to each one face to face. In China – 2015 -- I connected with Wang Cheng Han.


In Weihsien, where there was despair, I saw heroes plant hope. Where there were ruins and destruction, I saw heroes create art and music and learning.

I learned in Weihsien that goodness and love can triumph over evil. Weihsien shaped me. I will carry Weihsien in my heart forever.


Assemblywoman Mary Taylor Previte is great granddaughter of J. Hudson Taylor. A British Protestant Christian missionary to China and founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor spent 51 years there. Primarily because of the mission’s campaign against the Opium trade, Hudson Taylor has been referred to as one of the most significant Europeans to visit China in the 19th Century. Previte, an educator, author, and administrator, served eight years in the New Jersey state legislature. She speaks and writes frequently about her experiences in Weihsien. With her family, she has visited Weihsien several times.