A Song of Salvation at Weihsien Prison Camp
Mary Taylor Previte
We listened wide-eyed to the whisper that passed from mouth to mouth one day at roll call: “Hummel and Tipton have escaped!”
My heart pounded against my ribs as I grabbed Podgey Edwards and started jumping up and down. I tried to recall what Hummel and Tipton looked like. Shaved bald and tanned brown like Chinese, someone said. Chinese clothes. But how in the world, I wondered, did they get over the electrified wire atop the camp wall without getting killed?
Our teachers and the older boys were more subdued. Escape would mean instant reprisals.
Roll call that day dragged on and on. With Hummel and Tipton missing, the guards’ count failed to tally, and when the Japanese realized what was wrong the commandant unleashed the police dogs. And Japanese soldiers promptly arrested the nine remaining roommates from the bachelor dormitory and locked them up in the church for days of ugly interrogation. But nothing worked. Hummel and Tipton were gone.
Roll call was never the same after that. Instead of one, we now had two roll calls a day. Japanese guards cursed and shouted. They counted and recounted us each time. They also dug a monstrous trench beyond the wall, 10 feet deep and five feet wide, and beyond that they strung a tangle of electrified wire. No one would ever escape again.
Laurance Tipton had been an executive with a British tobacco importing firm. Arthur Hummel Jr. had been a professor of English at Peking’s Catholic University; years later, he would serve the U.S. ambassador to China, from 1981-1985.
Not until years later did I learn the story of their escape. Shortly after the nightly changing of the guards, in a prearranged plan with Chinese guerrillas, they had gone over the wall at a guard tower. For the rest of the war, maneuvering in the hills within 50 miles of Weihsien, they employed Chinese coolies—either repairmen or “honey-pot men” who carried out the nightsoil from our latrines and cesspools—to smuggle coded messages in and out of the camp.
This was our “bamboo radio,” known only to the camp’s inner circle. It was a deathly dangerous business. The Japanese had once found a concealed letter on a Chinese coolie as they were checking him before entrance into the camp; they dragged him into the guardhouse and beat him until he was unconscious. He was never seen again. Another Chinese confederate who was passing black-market supplies over the wall to hungry prisoners slipped, in his hurry to get away as the guards approached, and was electrocuted on the wire that crisscrossed the wall. The Japanese left his body hanging there most of the day, as a grim warning.
News from the “bamboo radio” was delivered, therefore, with extreme care. A message would be written on the sheerest silk, wadded into a pellet, placed inside a contraceptive rubber and then stuffed up the nose or inside the mouth of a Chinese workman. Once inside the camp, at a prearranged spot, the coolie would clear his sinuses and spit out the news. Insiders then pounced on the spit wad and took it to the translator.
Ironically, the Japanese themselves helped confirm the accuracy of some of the smuggled information. They distributed English editions of the Peking Chronicle, a carefully doctored propaganda rag filled with hideous lists of sunken Allied ships and downed American plances. In our Current Events class, we followed the names of the places battles were in progress: the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Guadalcanal, Kwajalein, Guam, Manila, Iwo Jima, Okinawa. It was obvious where the battles were raging: closer and closer to Japan! Our bamboo radio was right. Japan was on the run.
For some of the adults, the prospect of Allied victory was tinged with terror. If the Japanese knew they faced defeat, what would they do to us? Does a defeated army rape and kill its prisoners? Would it hold us hostage to prevent more bombings of Japan? Those were some of the unvoiced agonies of the adults.
We children ached, instead, for the Japanese guards who had become our friends. Hara-kiri, someone told us, was the honorable way for a Japanese soldier to face defeat. Ceremonial suicide. The Chefoo boys who knew about these things demonstrated on their bellies where the cuts of the samurai sword would be made—a triangle of self-inflicted wounds, followed by a final thrust to the heart. I shuddered. The Japanese guard who lifted us girls up so gently into his guard tower and dropped us for delicious moments of freedom into the field beyond the wall—would he commit hara-kiri?
None of these considerations, our teachers said, was to interfere with school. The Chefoo School had been called “the beat English-speaking school east of the Suez,” and our teachers had no intention of dropping the standards now. In times of peace, the Sixth Form (roughly equivalent to the senior year in an American high school) boys and girls crammed each year for their Oxford matriculation exams. From these, a passing grade would open the doors to universities in England. And jobs.
Nothing will change, our teachers said. You will go to school each day. You will study. You will take your Oxfords. You will pass.
Sitting on mattresses in the dormitory, we conjugated Latin verbs with Mr. Martin. In summer heat, we studied Virgil and Bible history and French under the trees. Between roll calls, scrubbing laundry, scouring latrines, hauling garbage and stoking kitchen fires, the Sixth Form boys and girls crammed for their Oxford exams.
In the blistering August heat of 1943, 11 students sweltered through the test, and 11 passed. The next year, Kathleen and her 13 classmates took the exams. They all passed. The year after that, 11 more sat for the exam. Nine passes. And when the war was over, Oxford University confirmed the results.
The missionary and education community of northern China in those days was a remarkable collection of talent. Besides teaching the young, the internees organized adult education classes on topics that ranged from bookkeeping to woodworking to the study of such languages as Chinese, Japanese, Mongolian and Russian. They could also hear lectures on art or sailing or history, and they could attend lively evening discussions on science and religion, where agnostics debated Roman Catholics and Protestants about creation, miracles and the Resurrection.
On Sundays there were early-morning Catholic masses, then Anglican services at 11 a.m., then holiness groups, Union Church, and Sunday-night singspiration. We also worshiped in glorious Easter sunrise service.
Weihsien was a society of extraordinary complexity. It had a hospital, a lab and a diet kitchen. It had its own softball league, with the Tientsin Tigers, the Peking Panthers and the Priests’ Padres playing almost every summer evening. Though we young ones never knew it, Weihsien also had its prostitutes, alcoholics, drug addicts, roving bands of bored adolescents, and scroungers and thieves who filched extra food from the kitchens and stole coal balls left to bake in the sun.
Compressed into that 150-by-200-yard compound were all the shames and glories of a modern city.
Including music. Someone found a battered piano moldering in the church basement and made it the centerpiece of a 22-piece symphonette. It was a glorious combination—brass by the Salvation Army band, woodwinds by the Tientsin Dance Band, and violins and cellos by assorted private citizens.
There was also a choral society that sang classical songs and madrigals—Handel's Messiah, Mendelssohn's Elijah and Stainer's The Crucifixion. And yet another group of prisoners organized a sophisticated drama society, whose ultimate triumph was its production of George Bernard Shaw’s Androcles and the Lion. To costume 10 Roman guards with armor and helmets, stage hands soldered together tin cans from the Red Cross food parcels.
The church was always jammed for these performances. It was our escape from the police dogs, barbed-wire barriers, stinking latrines and gnawing hunger.(to be continued...)