MARY PREVITE’S SPEECH AT THE SIXTIETH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION OF THE LIBERATION OF THE WEIHSIEN CONCENTRATION CAMP
August 17, 2005
Weifang, Shandong Province, China
Honorable Mayor Zhang Xinqi, honorable friends of Weifang, you have earned our deepest gratitude by inviting us here to celebrate this Day of Liberation. Assembled from all around the world, we, former internees in Weihsien, say thank you. You have welcomed us home.
Kindness like this is more powerful than bombs, more powerful than armies in building peace and friendship in the world. Kindness like this binds us heart to heart. Today we are one people of one world
— China, United States, Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand — friends celebrating together. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Gan-xie zhu-wei Yuan Ni-men Ping-an.
When I first returned to China in 1983, I knelt on the ground at the Beijing International Airport and kissed the soil. China is my mother. I was born in Henan, Kaifeng. So I knelt and kissed my mother. I was home. Many of us who have returned today from all around the world were born in China. We lived here before most of you were born. We spoke the language of China before you did. We enjoyed the food of China before you did. Today, we are home.
Today is August 17, 2005. Let me tell the story of August 17, 1945 — Liberation Day, sixty years ago. I was twelve years old. For almost three years, my older brother, my younger brother, my older sister and I had been prisoners of the Japanese — first in Yantai, then in Weihsien. We were separated by warring armies from our parents. Imagine this. We had not seen our Daddy and Mommy for five and a half years.
The day after Japan attacked America in 1941, Japanese appeared in Yantai at the doorstep of our Chefoo School that educated the children of missionaries. They brought a Shinto priest to the ball field of our school. He conducted a ceremony that said our school now belonged to the Great Emperor of Japan. They pasted paper seals on the furniture, seals on the pianos, seals on the equipment — Japanese writing that said all this now belonged to the Great Emperor of Japan. Then they put seals on us — arm bands. We belonged to the Emperor, too. Wearing steel helmets, bemedaled khaki uniforms, and carrying bayonets, Japanese soldiers took up duty on the road in front of our school. Swords swaggered at their waists. When the Japanese occupied Chefoo in 1937, from an aircraft in the harbor, a plane dropped leaflets in Chinese explaining that this was “The New Order in East Asia.” The leaflets said every house must fly a Japanese flag to welcome the Japanese.
We were now called enemy aliens. And they wanted our school for a military base.
I remember so well when the Japanese came and marched our Chefoo School away — perhaps 200 teachers, children, old people — marched away to concentration camp on Temple Hill. I will never forget that day in 1942. A long, snaking line of children marching into the unknown, singing a song of hope from the Bible: “God is our refuge and strength. The Lord of HOPE is with us. Therefore, we will not fear.” Our Chinese friends wept as they watched.
After nine months’ imprisonment in Yantai, the Japanese shipped us to Weihsien. There, they had commandeered a Presbyterian missionary compound that housed a school and a hospital. They turned it into a concentration camp and called it the “Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center.” They squeezed 1,500 Allied prisoners into this place behind barrier walls with electrified wires and guard towers. Separated from our parents, we found ourselves crammed into a world of gut-wrenching hunger, guard dogs, bayonet drills, prisoner numbers and badges, daily roll calls, bed bugs, flies, and unspeakable sanitation.
Yes, that is one story of Weihsien.
But that is not the story of Weihsien I want to tell you. My story of Weihsien is a story of heroes, a story of hope, a story of triumph. That story of triumph has shaped my life for ever.
Weihsien is a story of Chinese heroes — Chinese farmers who risked their lives to smuggle food over the wall to prisoners. We called it the “black market.” And those who brought us food so generously when the war was over. Chinese heroes who helped two prisoners escape and then hid them safely when the Japanese searched madly for these men. Chinese heroes who smuggled messages and news into the camp – messages hidden in their mouths when they entered the camp to empty the cesspools. I hope some of these heroes are here so we can thank them again today. Xie-xie, Xie-Xie.
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.
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. He organized games and races for us children — to keep hope in our hearts.
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. Some of our boys still have the bird-watching diaries they kept in the camp.
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 here 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 guards and into the fields beyond the camp.
A mile away we found them — six Americans and a 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:
“0, 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 at only 400 feet from an American bomber. 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.
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.
Here in this place, I salute those heroes today: Major Stanley Staiger, Jimmy Moore, Jim Hannon, Ramond Hanchulak, Peter Orlich, Tad Nagaki, Wang Chenghan.
In the United States, they called this the war to end all wars. War does not end wars. The world is still a dangerous place. In America, we have watched in horror as terrorists destroyed the World Trade Towers. Last year, the world watched terrorists in Russia kill hundreds of little children in a school. In Madrid and in London, blasts in the subways have turned commuters into casualties.
We who were interned here speak from the story of our lives: War and hate and violence never open the way to peace.
In this place, where there was despair, I saw heroes plant hope.
Mayor Zhang and friends, I learned in Weihsien that goodness and love triumph over evil. Weihsien shaped me. I will carry Weihsien in my heart forever.