MEMORIES OF INTERNMENT AT WEIHSEIN
By Brian Butcher
My mother and father, William and Elsie Butcher, were missionaries from England stationed at Kalgan, in northern China on the Mongolian border. Their fellow missionaries were Alan and Violet Benson. Much later my Dad described what had happened to him. In late 1940 Alan Benson was arrested and tortured by the Japanese who thought he was a British spy. He was imprisoned for months and during that time they used water torture, pulled out his toenails and finger nails, strung him up by his wrists so that his toes barely touched the ground and beat him until he passed out trying to obtain a confession. This was the context for my parents and me, when the Japanese came to order us to leave for internment.
When we were ordered to leave, my parents were allowed to take three trunks or suitcases and whatever they could carry including as much food as possible. We were marched through the streets between armed guards watched by the Chinese. We traveled by train to Weihsein where along with many others we were lined up in the hot sun to wait for assigned billets. When we finally reached the wicket, a guard asked Dad for his money. My mother remembers him saying to the guard, “That won’t make you any richer or poorer.” as he handed over the little money he had.
We were given a very tiny room with one small window in a long one storey building. Much later we were given a larger room that had a bigger window that provided a through draft. We slept on the floor until some beds arrived. There was no stove until later in December and the room was bitterly cold. Because I was a small child and with my parents we were given a stove and we built a chimney out of tin cans and made fuel balls by mixing powdered clay and coal dust. We kept the balls under the bed to keep them dry.
At the beginning there were very few flush toilets and the line-ups were incredible. My mother was assigned to the kitchen where she cut vegetables mainly eggplant and cucumbers. Breakfast was bread soaked in water and for dinner there was a stew or soup of sorts. Sometimes there was dry bread and the only thing we had was salt for the bread. For years afterwards, I still ate bread and salt. Somehow the taste was embedded in my memory.
I remember so vividly watching one day as a cart came into the camp, I think it was drawn by a horse, but the cart was piled with meat – mostly bones and entrails as far as I could see – covered with big blue flies and disgusting to look at. I think that became part of the soup later that day.
Dad was assigned to the bakery. The story is very vivid in my mind for I heard my Dad describe this so many times. The first day a guard came to my father and said in Chinese: “Your name is Butcher. You will make the bread.” My Dad’s experience with making bread was very limited to making the odd single loaf and he protested that his name meant butcher – cutting meat. The guard was convinced that dad was lying and he said:
“You are butcher and you will make bread. The Imperial command never makes a mistake.”
Dad was taken to the bakery and told to make a huge number of loaves. Dad’s belief that God would guide was very strong and he prayed for help. He and fellow internees mixed the flour, yeast and water into three huge vats. He had no idea how much to use but God impressed on him the amount that was required. As the mixture rose, something impressed on Dad that the dough needed to be kneaded down. That seemed so contrary to what should be done, but they proceeded to do just that. When the dough rose again, they put the loaves into the oven and waited. The next morning the guard who had assigned my Dad to the bakery came into the bakery, cut off a slice from one loaf with his bayonet and ordered Dad to eat the slice. To dad’s surprise, the bread was as perfect as the ingredients would allow. The guard said “Liar” and left.
During the summer, the temperature in the bakery often reached 130 degrees and Dad would take off his shoes and pour out the moisture. There were three shifts of twelve men in the bakery and when internment ended my Dad was a shadow of his former self at 100 pounds.
I can remember one day when we were allowed to cut some of the dead branches on trees for fuel. One young boy climbed a tree to cut wood while others watched below and he fell from the tree and was killed. It was my first encounter with death.
Some of us children had toys that we had brought with us. I had a wooden car with doors that opened but my favorite was collecting razor blade covers from PAL and Gillette. These were the old safety razor blades and I would collect them from the men who lived in the men’s barracks. I also collected labels from tin cans. Two children who were nearby were Rachel (I don’t remember the last names.) and Dietrich. Rachel had a tricycle and Dietrich had a wind up train of some kind.
Some Lutheran missionaries had brought canaries with them to the camp and they ended up giving them to me. One sang beautifully until the other one killed it. One day I left the cage door open to let my canary fly around our tiny room when somehow it got out. It was pouring with rain and Dad and I chased it everywhere until it flew over the wall.
One night the bell rang and woke everyone. It seems that someone was playing a prank but the last laugh was with the Japanese who called a roll call in the middle of the night. I remember so clearly standing there, frightened in the dark with my parents as the roll was called.
There was one particular guard who seemed so big to me as a small child. All the children called him Mr. Bushingdi (?) meaning “Mr. No”. As he marched past during one roll call, I called out his name. He wheeled on me in anger and I ran for our room and hid under the bed. He chased me there and my mother tried to explain that I was a child and it was a foolish childish prank. He wrote my name down in some book he had, grumbled and left. I was frankly terrified. My parents lectured me in true British style about manners and proper behaviour. My parents remembered what had happened to Alan Benson and there were rumours about beatings in the Camp.
My parents talked about repatriation and as a small boy I heard them talk about somehow being set free. After July 1942, that talk ended for the British internees. We said goodbye to one American friend of my parents, Rev. Clare Scratch, who was repatriated to the United States. Although his name is not included in the list of internees, I think he was there for a short time.
My Mother traded her wedding and engagement rings for food and it was many years before Dad bought her replacement rings.
One day I was outside and I heard the noise of airplanes and looking up there were American bombers in the sky. It seemed to me that one of them came only a hundred feet over my head and then turned and dropped parachutes. The sight of those parachutes, the soldiers and the roar of the planes are embedded in my memory. The soldiers in their battle uniforms were like strange gods. Later many planes came and dropped barrels of supplies. Some of those parachutes didn’t open and some of the barrels crashed down into the camp smashing through roofs and trees. One landed very close to where I was standing. I was terrified and excited at the sight. The barrels contained untold luxuries – even sweetened condensed milk!
The parachute silk was so beautiful. My mother made cushion covers from it that we kept for years.
Later a small group of English sailors arrived and came into the camp. I was so proud that they were English sailors. By that time we were free to leave the camp and barter with the Chinese at the market outside the camp. I remember walking outside with my parents and being afraid of the wide-open spaces and wanting to get back inside the camp.
Finally, we were able to leave the camp. We had been waiting because bandits had ripped up the railway. When we arrived in Tsingtao there were ruins everywhere and Japanese soldiers who were now prisoners were busy by the road cleaning up the debris. It was a shock to see these men who had been our guards, now prisoners doing menial slave work under the guard of soldiers. I remember we were housed for a while in a fancy hotel and fed some incredible five-course meals but we could eat so little. There was linen on the table and fancy cutlery and bananas – I ate those bananas until I was sick!
Eventually we boarded a US Navy troopship for Hong Kong. The ship plowed through a typhoon and for much of the trip we were kept below decks. The weather had cleared by the time we entered Hong Kong Harbour. I guess the powers that be knew there was a shipment of British internees aboard for we were welcomed by a flight of Spitfires as the ship entered the harbour. What an incredible sight for a small boy.
We went to England and then returned to Yunnan Province in China for three years and then had to leave when the Communists took over the country. Strangely, we ended up in Japan for three years and saw the utter desolation in Tokyo, Kawasaki and Yokohama.
The bitterness was gone for my parents but it must have been a struggle at first to work with Japanese after what we had experienced and what had happened to Dad’s co-worker, Alan Benson.