One moment, 3-year-old Buist and her two siblings were tagging along with their British parents, Salvation Army missionaries who were performing God's work in Peking, China.
The next, they and about 2,000 others, including many from the missionary movement, were being thrown into Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center, an internment camp in central China, by the Japanese military that was at war with the Chinese.
Inside their 200-by-150-yard prison compound framed with 10-foot-high cement walls, an electric fence and armed guard towers at each corner, they would subsist mostly on insufficient food and water and second helpings of faith.
Weeks became months. Months became years. The prisoners huddled together in their tiny stone huts to fight the cold and desperation. When the sweltering summer heat arrived, they cooled themselves with a shower they were afforded once a week. The Buist children — 5-year-old Kathleen, 3-year-old Beryl and 1-year-old Gordon — amused one other by playing with tomato can labels in a garbage pile.
While the professionals among the missionaries organized makeshift schools and hospitals, daily living was abysmal.
When would it end, they wondered?
How long must we endure such inhumane conditions?
When, dear Lord, will we be free?
“I'll never forget that glorious day — Aug. 17, 1945,” said Buist, now Beryl Rogers, 68, who has lived in Warrington with her husband, Donald, a former pastor in Doylestown, for the past 40 years. “I was standing in the compound with my family and heard the roar of an airplane. We looked up and saw it had a star on the side. It was an American plane. They were finally coming to save us!”
Rogers fell quiet to collect her feelings and recollections from 63 years ago.
“My most cherished memory is of American soldiers floating out of the sky in white parachutes like angels to set us free.”
Freedom's fuse had been lit. The prisoners stormed the gates and rushed to meet the soldiers who had landed in a nearby field after leaping from a B-24 bomber named “The Armored Angel.” The male prisoners, despite their frail and weakened condition, carried on their shoulders their liberators, who met no resistance from the Japanese jailers. The Salvation Army band played triumphantly. Beryl Buist was given a swatch of a parachute that she tied like a ribbon in her hair.
“We were free,” Rogers said.
They were also unaware of how much danger their lives were in near the end. The war came to an end three days before the prisoners were freed, news that had not reached them before they were saved. The U.S. military had learned that the Japanese were planning to murder all of the prisoners in the camps.
To Rogers and thousands of fellow liberated prisoners of the nine internment camps throughout China, Veterans Day is not just another holiday. When one's freedom has been stripped away for years, and is then restored by military angels from above, the day takes on a significance that few can truly comprehend.
“I appreciate the sacrifice young men — and today young women — make for this country,” Rogers said. “Those men parachuted into an unknown land to save strangers. It boggles my mind. I can never repay those men for what they did for me, my family and all those others in that camp.
“When Veterans Day comes around on Tuesday, I will fondly remember those men.”
Yes, those men. Army Maj. Stanley Staiger, Navy Ensign James W. Moore, Army 1st Lt. James J. Hannon, Army Sgt. Tad Nagaki, Army Sgt. Raymond Hanchulak and Army Cpl. Peter Orlich.
“They are true heroes, and I will never forget them,” Rogers said.
On Veterans Day, Rogers will no doubt also be reminded of the horrors of the camp. Diets were so deficient that children's permanent teeth grew in without enamel, young girls moved into adolescence without ever menstruating, and beefy men lost as much as 100 pounds. Dysentery abounded.
The rations that prisoners received proved less than adequate in quality and quantity, so they were left to supplement their meals. Some boiled animal grain for food. Some insured calcium intake by eating ground-up egg shells obtained on the black market.
“The hardest part was not having enough food,” Rogers said. “Near the end, Red Cross parcels were not coming.”
But nothing was in shorter supply than freedom.
The detainees, who included Olympic track and field gold medalist Eric Liddell of Scotland, who was profiled in the 1981 Oscar-winning film “Chariots of Fire,” existed in a vacuum, unaware of what was happening in the outside world.
“Sometimes the Chinese coolies — they were hired by the Japanese to clean the septic tanks — would smuggle notes to us to tell us what was happening out there,” Rogers said.
“I don't remember a lot of what happened; I've talked to my older sister about much of it. It was a horrible experience. I never talked to my father about it, which I regret. Years later, my father suffered a nervous breakdown that I believe was caused by being in the camp for so long.”
Rogers married, raised three children — each of them Central Bucks East graduates — and had a career at Haberern Insurance in Doylestown before her retirement. Her brother and sister live abroad. All thanks to angels who floated from the clouds.
“I really haven't spoken much about this through all these years,” Rogers said. “What I think all of this taught me was that you can survive in any situation when your parents protect you. I learned that it's not how much you have, but it's who you're with.”
Phil Gianficaro is a columnist for The Intelligencer. He can be reached at 215-345-3078 or email@example.com.