• Mary Previte, who has tracked down all but one of the soldiers who liberated the Japanese concentration camp, says she found 'the soul of America.
RENO, Nev. - Mary Previte found a lot more than she bargained for when she went looking for the seven soldiers who freed her from a prison camp in China during World War II.
"What I found was the soul of America," said Previte, 66, now a state assemblywoman in New Jersey.
"They are all different kinds of people. To a man, they claim they are not heroes," she said.
The Haddonfield, N.J., woman was among 1,400 prisoners, many of them children, liberated from the Japanese concentration camp on Aug. 17,1945.
To a 12-year-old British girl, the seven paratroopers were "like gods" dropping out of the sky in the days after World War II ended and rumors were spreading that the Japanese intended to kill their prisoners.
Today, their pictures fill the scrapbooks that she carries to reunions with the rescuers or their widows - a cross-country, cross-section of the young men who volunteered for the surprise attack one commander in the Office of Strategic Services called a "suicide mission."
• Stanley Staiger, 81, of Reno, a young aspiring stockbroker who was 23 credits away from an economics degree at the University of Oregon when his ROTC class was called to active duty in World War II.
• Tad Nagaki, 78, a Nebraska beet farmer who overcame the suspicions directed at all Japanese-Americans of the time to become a member of an elite team that did spy work in Southeast Asia.
• Jimmy Moore, 79, an FBI agent from Dallas, who attended the same missionary school as Previte in China and joined the OSS after reading in an alumni newsletter that it had been captured.
• Peter Orlich, who died in 1993, a nearsighted radio operator from Queens, N.Y., who stayed up nights memorizing the eye chart so he wouldn't be kicked off the rescue team.
"I couldn't even make up a story like this," said Previte.
Over the past two years, she's been reunited with four of the soldiers and two soldiers' widows. Only the Chinese interpreter, Eddie Wang, hasn't been accounted for.
At her recent reunion with Staiger, she sounded more like the blond, blue-eyed kid rescued in 1945 than the state politician she has become.
"I'm so excited I can hardly stand it," said Previte, visiting Staiger on his 81st birthday.
"I knew it was an act, of God when the day I picked to visit turned out to be your birthday," she tells him.
"You're still blond," Staiger says, "and blue-eyed."
Staiger, the commander, remembers the rescue much the same as his colleagues.
"It was just another mission. None of us received any attention until Mary Previte started this crusade," he said.
Actually, Staiger's previous mission had been more trouble.
"We jumped at night and landed in a Chinese graveyard," he said. "There were mounds and tombstones."
This time, the soldiers parachuted out of a B-29 bomber just 400 feet above the ground "so we'd be exposed for a shorter, period and surprise them," Staiger said. ` '
"It was only seven men against 45 guards," he said.
"No," Previte corrects, "200 guards."
"Oh," said Staiger. "That would have scared the hell out of me."
Dozens of Parachutes carrying food and supplies "floated, alongside the rescuers" "They thought it was a whole damn army. It was incredible we took over the camp without bloodshed," Staiger said.
A Salvation Army band captured by the Japanese started playing.
"They had been practicing ''Happy Days Are Here Again," the "Star Spangled Banner" and four other national anthems so they'd be ready for whoever came to rescue us," Previte said.
She remembers Staiger slithering down a pole and saluting the trombonist.
"I began to cry. We knew what it meant. We were free," Previte said. "I'm just thrilled to have a chance to meet him after all this time."
The children in the camp wouldn't let the soldiers out of their sight. They made, them sing songs from America, she said.
Staiger sang, "You Are My Sunshine." '
Staiger marched to the headquarters of the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center and presented a letter to the commanding officer "ordering the Japanese to cooperate with us - that we were on a humanitarian mission, the war was over, so knock it off. " '
Previte and her three siblings had been studying on the coast of China at Chefoo, a boarding school for children of American and British missionaries. The school was converted into a military base by Japanese invaders in 1942.
The rescuers brought chewing gum and chocolate bars to the youngsters who'd been living of rice and an occasional canned meat from the sky.
"We used to have to go inside during the air drops. The teacher used to say she didn't want us to survive three years in a prison camp only to be killed by a can of Spam," Previte said.