Finding My Heroes from Weihsien Prison Camp

Mary Taylor Previte

I fell in love with America fifty-five years ago.

They were spilling from the guts of this low-flying plane, dangling from
parachutes that looked like giant poppies, dropping into the fields outside
the barrier walls. I dashed to the barracks window in time to see the American
red, white, and blue emblazoned on its belly. The Americans had come. It
was August, 1945.

"Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center," the Japanese called our
concentration camp in China's Shandong Province. I was twelve years old. For three years
my two brothers and sister and I had been captives of the Japanese. For five
and one half years we had been separated from our missionary parents by
warring armies.

But now the Americans had come. Six young American angels.

Weihsien went mad. I raced for the entrance gate and was swept off my
feet by the pandemonium. Men ripped off their shirts and waved at the bomber
circling above. Prisoners ran in circles and pounded the skies with their
fists. They wept, hugged, cursed, danced. Wave after wave of prisoners swept me
past the guards into the fields beyond the camp.

A mile away we found them -- six young Americans, all in their twenties,
and a Chinese interpreter -- standing with their weapons ready, surrounded by
fields of ripening broom corn. Advancing towards them, intoxicated with joy,
came a tidal wave of prisoners. We were free in the open fields.

Back in the camp, we trailed our angels everywhere. They were gorgeous
American men, sun-bronzed, with meat on their bones. We wanted their
insignias. We wanted their signatures. We wanted their buttons. We wanted snips of
their hair. We wanted souvenir pieces of parachutes. They gave us our first
taste of Juicy Fruit gum. We chewed it and passed the sticky wads from mouth
to mouth.

We made them sing to us the songs of America. They taught us "You Are My
, My Only Sunshine." Fifty-five years later, I can sing it still.

As the decades passed, I could never understand how or why six Americans
would parachute in a suicide mission to rescue 1,500 people they didn't even
know. Even men in the O.S.S. It was beyond my imagination. How would you go
about finding these heroes? I had no idea.

In 1997, when I was campaigning as a candidate for the New Jersey General
Assembly, a Senator asked me to substitute for him at a Saturday night
banquet reunion of a group of veterans -- China-Burma-India veterans, he told me,
from World War II, an All-East Coast reunion. He asked me to honor them with a
proclamation of appreciation from the New Jersey Senate and General Assembly.

China-Burma-India veterans! A feeling rippled up my spine. That's who
rescued me. I rummaged through ancient treasures in a rusty trunk and found
their names. Along with the gold-imprinted proclamation from the New Jersey
Legislature, I carried their names to the banquet on that Saturday night.
When my turn came to take the microphone, I spoke to a roomful of 150 men and
women in their 70s and 80s.

"I know it's not an accident that I was invited to be here tonight," I
said. I told them the story of America's rescuing angels parachuting from a B-24
bomber to liberate the Weihsien Concentration Camp.

"I brought their names," I said. I read them slowly into the microphone.
"Major Stanley A. Staiger, Sgt. Tadash Nagaki, Ensign James W. Moore,
T/5 Peter C. Orlich, radio operator; Eddie Wang, Chinese interpreter; 1st Lt.
James J Hannon; T/4 Raymond N. Hanchulak, medic." I paused when I finished
reading the names. "Is any one of my heroes here tonight?" I asked.

I was greeted by silence and by people weeping. But when the banquet
ended, they enveloped me. They told me I must write the story and print the
names in their national China-Burma-India Veterans Association magazine, Sound
Off. "Write that you're looking for these men," they said. "Write your name
address and telephone number."

Fascinated with my story, one of the veterans, Ed Kennedy from Maryland,
took my list of names. That was May, 1997. A few days later, a fat brown
envelope arrived in the mail. From an Internet program with every telephone
number in the United States, Ed Kennedy had sent me a printout of hundreds of
addresses and phone numbers with names that matched my heroes. I was dazed with
wonder. I looked at the fat envelope. There on my kitchen table were the
whereabouts of my heroes. Hundreds of names.

In September, I got the first break. Miracle of miracles! A nurse weho
served in the CHINA-BURMA-Inda theater of operations and who lives ten
minutes from my own house, read the article in the CBIVA magazine. Vonnie Camp
had served in Burma. Her sister in Pennsylavia lived next door to Raymond
Hanchulak, one of my heroes, she said.

In a frenzy of hope, I took to the phone and the U.S. mails. My first
two finds were widows. It made me shudder. I might never find the men alive to
say thank you.

There was only one Tad Nagaki on my list of names. Tad Nagaki in
Alliance, Nebraski. I phoned on a Sunday night. "I'm calling for Tad Nagaki," I

"Speaking," he said. I could hardly talk. I had found my first hero.
On my MCI, 5 cents-a-minute-on-Sunday rate we chattered for an hour, me in
New Jersey and he in Nebraska, half a continent away. Did he remember how he
felt with us trailing our heroes everywhere they went? I asked. "Like putting
us up on a pedestal," he said. He remembered girl prisoners cutting off
pieces of his hair for souvenirs.

What words would ever be enough to thank a man who risked his life to
give me freedom, to give me all the opportunities America gives its children?

By December I had found them all and thanked them. Imagine it! After
more than 50 years! Two widows and four heroes, all in their 80s now -- in
Pennsylvania, New York, Nebraska, Texas, Nevada, and California.

But talking to them by telephone, sending them cards, and creating a
rumpus in newspapers in their home towns didn't feel like enough.

So I started my pilgrimage -- crisscrossing America to visit each one of
them face-to-face to honor them. From New York to California, I went looking
for the soul of America. And it is beautiful!

Each one is different: A Japanese-American farm boy who didn't speak
English until he went to school. A son of missionaries to China. An adventurer
who prospected for gold in Alaska. An ROTC student snatched from his third
year at the University of Oregon. A boy from the coal mines and ethnic enclaves
of Pennsylvania. The youngest of the team -- a kid with a scholarship to
college whose family needed him to work, not go to school -- who memorized the eye
chart so he wouldn't be excluded from the rescue team because he wore glasses.
(And he taped his glasses to his head when he parachuted down to liberate
the camp.)

I could never say enough thank yous. I love you, America.

Note: My search continues. Who was the pilot who flew that B-24 bomber that
liberated the Weihsien Concentration Camp in August 17, 1945? Named "The
Armored Angel," the B-24 Liberator took off from Kunming on August 16 and stopped
overnight in Sian (Xi'an) in Shensi Province. In the early morning of August
17, the plane flew east to Weihsien in Shandong Province where the seven-man
rescue team parachuted to liberate the camp at 9 a.m. The B-24 did not land.
It was one of several humanitarian rescue missions that flew out of Kunming
that day to liberate civilan concentration camps dotted around China and

I cointinue to search for "Eddie" Cheng-Han Wang, the Chinese interpreter
on the rescue mission.

If you have information, please contact Mary T. Previte, 351 Kings
Highway East, Haddonfield, NJ 08033, or phone: 856-428-4909.