By Karen D. Brown
INQUIRER CORRESPONDENT November 24, 1997
Mary Previte trembled as she dialed the number. With luck, the man at the other end would be the one who engineered her rescue from a Japanese prison camp more than 50 years ago. It was one of the last legs of a cross-country search that had brought her to this Reno, Nev., exchange.
She crossed her fingers. "Is this Major Staiger?"
"You don't know me. I was a child in the Weihsien concentration camp. You don't know what a national search I've done to try to find you. I cannot believe it!"
Their conversation took off the way old friends might talk, as Previte, 65, wiped away tears at her desk at the Camden County Youth Center, where she is the director.
She asked him questions in quick-fire succession about a long-past military paratroop operation, taking them back to the event she credits with repairing her life and reuniting her family.
"Were you the first one that dropped? I thought you were."
"What do you remember about the jump? Really low, yup."
"First time you jumped with a British parachute? It was a windy day, too, wasn't it? Your 13th jump? Oh, I can't listen. Oh, my land."
On Aug. 17, 1945, Mary Previte was 12 years old. She was lying on steam trunks in a Japanese prison camp in China, trying to avoid the bed bugs and rats. Neither she nor the 1,400 other captives knew that the Japanese had surrendered and that the war was over.
Five years earlier, as the Japanese army advanced into China, Previte's missionary parents had left her brother and her at the Chefoo boarding school in Chefoo, China. Her parents resumed their work in central China until the end of the war.
In 1942, just after the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese army captured the Chefoo school. All the children and teachers were taken to a larger prison camp nearby - the "Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center" - that held mostly European captives.
Previte said they were not tortured but lived in cramped quarters, had no privacy, suffered extreme temperatures, were forced to work, and ate horrible food or stayed hungry.
"So I'm lying in the blistering heat, and hear airplanes flying overhead," Previte recalled. "I look out of the dorm window and see American planes over the treetops. Out of the airplanes, seven parachutes came falling down. We were pointing at the sky, going hysterical. We just burst out of camp and hoisted the American airmen into camp."
The men had met just days before the flight, which was commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - the forerunner of the CIA. According to the men's accounts, they couldn't land at the camp because Japanese guards were standing with guns cocked. They flew low, making it harder to be shot down but also more dangerous to descend, and landed in a nearby cornfield.
The paratroopers remember the prisoners bursting past the guards while the Salvation Army band played "The Star-Spangled Banner."
"All of a sudden," said Previte, "we were free."
After rejoining her parents and returning to the United States, Previte became an English teacher and raised a daughter, and has run the Camden County Youth Center in Gloucester Township for 23 years. She won a Democratic seat in the Assembly earlier this month.
But she never got to thank the men who liberated Weihsien.
Until now. Thanks to a recent war reunion, some meandering queries, and several lucky hits, Previte has tracked down six of the seven men who carried out what the OSS called the "Duck Mission."
She has reached by phone four of them, now in their 70s - Stanley Staiger in Reno; Tad Nagaki in Alliance, Neb.; James Moore in Dallas; and James Hannon in Yucca Valley, Calif. Two have died - Raymond Hanchulak and Peter Orlich - but she found their widows. She has given up on one, Eddie Wang, the Chinese interpreter, because she doubts she could ever find him in China.
Why go through all this trouble? "To say thank you for 52 years of freedom."
Previte has known the names of the men on the Duck Mission since 1985, when a fellow camp survivor handed her a copy of the declassified military report on the rescue. But she didn't consider searching for them until May this year, when she spoke at a Mount Laurel gathering of the veterans of China, Burma, and India. "It just dawned on me, why not take a chance?"
She read the seven names to the 150 veterans. One man who thought he knew people connected with the mission took her phone number.
In October, she got her first call. They had tracked down Helen Hanchulak, in central Pennsylvania. She's the widow of Raymond, who had remained with the military until retiring in the 1960s.
"I was absolutely flabbergasted," Previte said. "She said he died a year ago. I couldn't stand it!"
To Helen Hanchulak, Previte's call was a "very pleasant surprise."
"To hear from somebody who directly received value from [my husband's] efforts is quite rewarding," she said from her home in Bear Creek, Pa.
"My husband would have been delighted to have met her - to think that somebody remembers all this. Some people forget to give thanks."
The ball was rolling. Previte soon found Peter Orlich's widow, Carol, in Queens, N.Y. She sent Previte a yellow silk parachute left over from the mission that a camp survivor had embroidered with the men's signatures.
Through Orlich's connections, Previte found Tad Nagaki, a Japanese American interpreter from the mission. "Don't you believe it - here he is, 77 years old in western Nebraska," Previte said. "He still farms beets!"
Nagaki recently lost his wife of 49 years. He said that connecting with Previte and revisiting his war days had helped ease some of his loneliness.
Nagaki had the number of James Moore, now 78, in Dallas. Moore, also an alumni of the Chefoo missionary school, had spent four years in the FBI before joining the OSS and the war effort. He retired from the CIA in 1978.
Moore joined Previte's effort to find the remaining G.I.s. "When you're retired, you don't have much going on, he said. So he enlisted a neighbor with a national computer database.
Last month, Moore called Previte with the number of the man she most wanted to meet: Maj. Stanley Staiger, the mission's commanding officer.
Staiger is now a 79-year-old widower, suffering from a broken hip. He said that hearing from Moore and later Previte "meant quite a lot to me. It brought back many memories, even from before that episode." Staiger became a stockbroker and later a hotel owner in Los Angeles before settling in Reno.
Finally, last weekend, Previte was able to "complete the circle." Moore had contacted dozens of James Hannons and hit the jackpot in California.
"It was sort of astounding," said Hannon, a writer living in the high desert of Yucca Valley. "I hadn't talked to anybody [from the mission] for a hundred years."
Hannon, in his mid-70s, had seen plenty of war by the time of the rescue. He spent 14 months in German prison camps until escaping from Schubin, Poland, in early 1945. For 60 days, he made his way over land to Romania. He later went to Asia for the final mission in Weihsien.
Since the war, Hannon has worked in open-pit gold mining while writing movie treatments (similar to plot summaries) for Hollywood about World War II. In fact, he said, John Wayne bought the rights to the story of the Weihsien rescue in 1958. But Wayne discovered that the military information was still classified and had to abandon the project, Hannon said.
Previte's call came just as Hannon was working on a new chronicle of the Duck Mission. "I always had this story tucked away," he said. "I feel this incident is so important."
Now that the group has been assembled, Previte admitted to feeling "a little sad.... The excitement is in the chase."
Still, she has her sights set on an in-person reunion, possibly in Reno. In the meantime, she's tried to keep the Duck Mission survivors together. She has sent snapshots of all survivors and widows to the whole group. Several have sent back letters. She called the men on Veterans Day. And she's organizing a birthday-card mailing for Staiger's 80th birthday on Dec. 30.