A Song of Salvation at Weihsien Prison Camp
Mary Taylor Previte
I remember so well when the Japanese came and marched us away from out school. By them, the war had made us enemy aliens. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya had fallen to Japan. Burma had collapsed, and U.S. Maj. Gen. Joseph Stillwell put it bluntly: “We got a hell of a beating.” The Philippines had toppled.
It was November 1942. Wearing olive uniforms, the Japanese soldiers led us off to our first concentration camp, three miles across town. A straggling line of perhaps 200children, proper Victorian teachers and God-fearing missionaries, we went marching into the unknown, singing from the Psalms. “God is our refuge and strength…therefore we will not fear…”
We had become prisoners of the war.
We all had to wear armbands in those early days of the war. “A” for American, “B” for British. When our teachers and the Japanese weren’t looking, the American children turned the “A” upside down, chalked out the crossbar and proudly wore a “V.”
We were crammed into the camp like sardines. There were four family-size houses, each one bulging with 60 to 70 people. Ten months it was like this. We always sang to keep our spirits up:
We might have been shipped to Timbuktu.
We might have been shipped to Kalamazoo.
It's not repatriation,
Nor is it yet stagnation
It's only con-cen-tration in Chefoo.
We would hit the high note at the end and giggle.
To supplement the dwindling food supply, one of the servants from the old Chefoo School smuggled two piglets and some chicks over the wall for us to raise. For the first few nights, we hid the piglets under the veranda and fed them aspirin to keep them quiet. When the Japanese finally discovered them, they accepted them rather affectionately as our pets.
In the daytime, propped up on our steamer trunks, we practiced our English lessons, writing iambic quatrains about life in concentration camp:
Augustus was pig we had,
Our garbage he did eat.
At Christmastime we all felt sad;
He was our Christmas treat.
After 10 months, they stacked us like cords of wood in the hold of a ship and brought us to the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center, a larger concentration camp cross the Shandong peninsula. This camp contained about 1,400 prisoners, mostly British and European, including some other children from Tientsin, Peking and elsewhere.
In a prison camp, how do you arm yourself against fear? Our teachers’ answer was to fashion a protective womb around our psyches, insulating and us with familiar routines, daily school and work details.
Structure. Structure. Structure.
Our teachers taught us exactly what to expect. They marched us off to breakfast for a splash of steaming gao liang gruel （animal feed, even by Chinese standards）. They trooped us back to our dormitory, mug and spoon in hand, to scrub the floor. We grouped for morning prayers, and sang:
God is still on the throne;
And He will remember His own…
His promise is true;
He will not forget you.
God is still on the throne.
We lined up for inspection. Were we clean? Where we neat? Did we have our mending done? We settled down on our steamer-trunk beds for school: English, Latin, French, History, Bible. School must go on.
Structure. It was our security blanket.
One of the predictable routines of the camp was daily roll call. The ringing of the assembly bell would summon us to our assigned roll called “district.” Then would come the strict lineups, with our prisoner numbers pinned to our chests, and the numbering of when the uniformed guards counted us, and then the delays while the guards taillied the totals from all six roll call districts. And finally, the all-clear bell.
To the Japanese soldiers who missed their own families, our district, with more than 100 children, was their pride and joy. And when visiting Japanese officials monitored the camp, our roll call was the highlight of the show—little foreign devils with prep school manners, standing with eyes front, spines stiff at attention, numbering off in Japanese: Ichi…nee…san…she…go…
Delays to the all-clear bell often dragged on and on. In summer we wilted in the insufferable heat; in winter we froze in the snow. But the innocence of children turns even the routines of war into games. While The Japanese tallied the prisoner count, we played marbles, or leapfrog, or practiced semaphore and Morse Code for our Brownie, Girl Guide and Boy Scout Badges.
The Weihsien concentration camp had once been a well-equipped Presbyterian mission compound, complete with a school of four or five large buildings, a hospital, a church, three kitchens, a baker and rows of endless rooms for resident students. Many years before, novelist Pearl Buck had lived there, and so had Time and Life publisher Henry Luce. The compound stretched only 200 yards at its widest point and was 150 yards long. Though the buildings themselves were intact, everything else was a shambles, wrecked by how many garrisons of Chinese, then Japanese, soldiers. Now, with 1,400 prisoners, it was hopelessly overpopulated.
In the dormitories, only 18 inches separated one bed from the next. Your snore, your belch, the nightly tinkle of your urine in the pot, became your neighbor's music. For adults, this lack of privacy was the worst hell.
The grownups in the camp knew enough about war to be afraid. Indeed, a few came to Weihsien with the baggage of hate from earlier Japanese prisons. But I saw the war through the eyes of a child, as an endless pajama party, an endless campout. I entrusted my anxieties to our teachers in the belief that they would take care of us. Or if they couldn't, God would.
Our spirits could scamper to the heavens atop the hundreds and hundreds of God's promises, such as: “All things work together for good to them that love God.”
We could tell endless stories about God's rescuing His people: Moses leading God's children out of slavery into their Promised Land. The ravens' feeding the hungry prophet Elijah in the wilderness. God's closing mouths of the lions to protect Daniel in the Lions' Den.
You could breathe the anticipation: God was going to add our very own story to the Miracles of the Ages.
“I was not afraid of our Japanese guards or of being interned,” our prep-school headmistress, Miss Ailsa Carr, would write me years later. “There was no sense in taking thought for the future, for there was nothing we could do about it anyway. Occasionally, I faced the end—whichever way it went—as being forced to dig a trench and then being lined up and machine—gunned into it, and prayed that my turn might come near the beginning.”
I thought about it once when I was young, how curious it was that children watching enemy bayonet drills at dusk could know no fear.
What I did fear, though, were the guards' Alsatian police dogs. Forty years have not dimmed the terror of one screaming night. Victoria was only a tiny ball of fur. Sometimes, under my bedcovers after dark, she would purr and suck on my finger as if it were a nipple. I wondered whether mothers felt warm and soft like that. Along with the “remember – me – forever” signatures and the fingerprints of all my 11 dorm mates, I had Victoria's paw print. I have it still. Victoria Frisky Snowball—Miss Broomhall's kitten. Miss Broomhall was our headmistress.
I hated the dogs. You could play with the Japanese guards but never with their dogs. The dogs were trained to kill.
Tucked under my mosquito net, I listened to the nighttime sounds from the roll call field below our window. I heard the tread of footsteps—one of the Catholic priest, pacing in his nightly meditation. Then I heard the coarse crunch of gravel—I knew that sound—rough leather boots of the Japanese soldier on his night patrol. His police dog would be with him, I knew. How, I wondered, does he get to be friends with a killer dog?
Suddenly, below our window, a terrified, yowling shriek ripped the stillness, clashing in a hideous duet with a guttural barking muffled by the tiny ball of fur between those bloody teeth. My little body froze, and my throat retched on a voiceless scream. Perhaps my dorm mates ran for the window. I do not know. I buried my head in terror and stuffed the pillow around my eyes.
They cleaned the mess by morning—perhaps our teachers, perhaps our older brothers. But we knew. Miss Broomhall, always sensible and very proper, walked a little slower after that.（to be continued...）