"Chariots of Fire" hero, whom they knew as a fellow prisoner in the Japanese concentration camp in Wei Hsien, China.
The prison camp was the seven-acre compound of the American Presbyterian Mission in Wei Hsien. 500 miles south of Peking. The Japanese had euphemistically named it the Civilian Assembly Center. Inside were 1800 prisoners from 11 allied nations - a mixed assembly of missionaries, business people, government functionaries, and assorted disreputable types from profane seamen to prostitutes.
OMS missionaries Meredith and Christine Helsby were among them. Still in their first term, they had been placed under house arrest following the attack on Pearl Harbor, December, 1941.
Herded into the camp along with the Helsbys in March of 1943 were two young people who would find romance even in those harsh surroundings. They would marry and one day go to Taiwan as missionaries. He was Marcy Ditmanson, a Lutheran missionary, and she was Joyce Stranks, whose parents were with the Salvation Army in North China. All four of these missionaries would become friends and admirers of their fellow prisoner, the Olympic gold medallist, Eric Liddell.
"Life in Wei Hsien was a grim battle for survival," Meredith remembers. Fellow internee, Mary Taylor Previte (great granddaughter of Hudson Taylor), wrote that the camp was "awash in a cesspool of every kind of misery, Wei Hsien was daily triumphs; earthy victories over bedbugs and rats and flies; humble heroics in make-do accommodations; indomitable spirits."
And perhaps the most indomitable of them all was Eric Liddell. Meredith first saw him one day shortly after their arrival in Wei Hsien. He was standing with Dr. John D. Hayes, former president of Peking College of Language Studies, and a Rhodes scholar. "Do you know who that man is'?" Hayes asked, pointing to a balding missionary coming down a lane the prisoners had dubbed "Rocky Road." He was wearing his usual baggy, knee-length shorts and bold-figured sports shirt (fashioned, they later learned, from drapery material he and his wife, Florence, had used in theirTientsin home). "That's Eric Liddell." said Hayes. "the Olympic 400-meter champion, who refused to run on Sunday." Liddell was now in his early forties but still walked with a spring in his step, his stride longer than usual. His broad smile exuded confidence and hope. especially welcome in those dismal surroundings.
When Marcy Ditmanson first met Eric, he did not realize that this man was the famous Olympian. Modest and self-effacing, Liddell never mentioned his Olympic exploits nor his heroics on the rugby and cricket fields. The following year when two of the prisoners escaped and the Japanese retaliated with a major reshuffling of housing assignments, Ditmanson found himself in the same room with Eric Liddell.
"Eric spoke with a charming Scottish brogue," says Marcy. "and, more than anyone I had ever known, typified the joyful Christian life. He had a marvellous sense of humor, was full of laughter and practical jokes, but always in good taste. His voice was nothing special, but how he loved to sing, particularly the grand old hymns of the faith. Two of his favorites were. 'God Who Touches Earth with Beauty' and 'There's a Wideness in God's Mercy'. He was no great orator by any means but he had a way of riveting his listeners with those marvellous, clear blue eyes of his. Yes, that's what I remember most about him as he spoke ― those wonderful eyes and how they would twinkle."
"Eric so lived in the Word." says Meredith. "that when he spoke it was with a sincerity that made you feel he was speaking directly to you. His illustrations were usually from everyday life. He loved to draw upon observations he'd made in the chemistry lab. He often preached from the Sermon on the Mount and he emphasized the importance of putting Christianity into practice."
Christine remembers one of Eric's illustrations. He told of an evangelist in Australia who had spoken on Christ's triumphal entry. After the service a jockey came to the preacher and remarked. "What wonderful hands Jesus must have had. If an untamed ass's colt came through a screaming palm-waving throng of people and yet arrived safely at the destination, the only explanation is the wonderful hands of Jesus." As a result, the jockey committed his life to Christ.
Eric did more than talk about his faith. He lived it out in the most practical ways. He would volunteer for the unpleasant tasks that others shunned ― cleaning the latrines or the filthy chore of making fuel by rolling balls of coal dust mixed with clay. When the camp teenagers broke their hockey sticks, Eric single-handedly kept them in repair. He tore his bed sheets into strips to tape the splintered shahs, and for an adhesive used a foul-smelling fish glue. He was always careful to work at this task well removed from the dwelling areas so the odor would not offend.
The youth, and particularly teenagers, were Eric's special love. From the outset he organised and managed youth activities, especially sports programs. The lone student in his chemistry class was Joyce Stranks, then sixteen. "Of course, we had note books." says Joyce, "so Eric proceeded to write out an entire textbook by hand. He had taught chemistry at the school in Tientsin and was an excellent instructor. I still have that book penned in his meticulous handwriting. I value it among my most precious treasures. Of course there were no test tubes, chemicals or other equipment, but in imagination we would perform all kinds of experiments. He would describe the mixing of certain chemicals, and then I would have to explain the reaction.
"At this time." Joyce remembers. "he was also writing his manual for Christian discipleship. It was later published under the title, Disciplines of the Christian Life. His purpose was to provide youth with a practical guide for their spiritual growth.
In the section on the morning quiet time, he suggested starting each day with six questions:
- 1 .
Have I surrendered this new day to God, and will I seek and obey the guidance of the Holy Spirit through its hours?
What have I specialty to thank God for this morning?
Is there any sin in my life for which I should seek Christ's forgiveness and cleansing? Is there any apology or restitution to make?
For whom does God want me to pray this morning?
What bearing does this mornings Bible passage have on my life, and what does He want me to do about it?
What does God want me to do today and how does He want me to do it
The camp teenagers came so frequently to Eric's dorm that his exasperated roommates finally devised a flip-card sign reading. "Eric Liddell is in/out, by turning the card to “in” or "out". Eric could keep the youth posted as to his whereabouts.
"I have a beautiful memory of Eric." says Meredith. "Returning from the camp hospital late one night, I passed the youth activity center. Eric was still there, bending over a chess hoard to teach some of the boys the intricacies of advanced attack and defense".
It was the youth, too, who most insisted upon visiting him in the camp hospital before he died. Marcy remembers that the first symptoms of Eric's illness came in the form of severe headaches. Then he became forgetful. One doctor suggested he was having a nervous breakdown. This bothered Eric who reasoned that Christians living as God intended shouldn't have nervous breakdowns. In order to improve his memory and help him concentrate, he began to read and memorize segments from The Tale of Two Cities. In the book a memorable passage depicts Sidney Carton facing the guillotine in the place of his friend, Charles Darnay. Carton's long soliloquy, eloquently expressing his view of life, was a section Eric memorized.
Eric was never one to solicit sympathy, and Meredith remembers that even after his move to the hospital, few knew the seriousness of his condition. Joyce, a 16-year-old now, was one of the many teenagers who, to the annoyance of Eric's devoted nurse. Annie Buchan, would flock into the men's ward to visit their hero. Incredibly, in spite of the excruciating pain, Eric continued to teach and counsel the youth, using his book of discipleship.
By coincidence, in another ward of the hospital at this same time Christine Helsby was recovering from a near-fatal bout with typhoid fever. One Sunday afternoon, February 18, 1945, just three days before his death, Eric came into the women's ward to borrow a hymnal. In a letter to his wife, Florence, then in Toronto, he was quoting from the hymn, "Be Still, My Soul." Characteristically he wanted to be sure of accuracy. Eric spotted Christine, waved his hand, and flashed the wonderful broad smile, which even the pain of his last ordeal had not erased. It was the last time she saw him.
Joyce Stranks visited Eric the morning he died. In their study of his book on discipleship they had come to the portion on surrender. "Although I had accepted the Lord as a child of seven," Joyce says, "it was not until this time in my life when, as a result of Eric Liddell's influence, I personally surrendered to the full will of God."
That morning Joyce arrived at the ward ten minutes early. But, impatient to see her teacher and friend, she entered anyway. As they went through the lesson, Eric looked at Joyce intently and said, "Surrender. surren ...."Those were his last words. The next instant a terrible spasm convulsed his body. Alarmed, Joyce burst into tears and hurried into the hall, calling for his nurse. Annie came running, scolded Joyce for disturbing Eric, and quickly put a screen around his bed. Within minutes he was gone. A post-mortem revealed a massive, inoperable brain tumor growing on the left side of his brain.
Funerals in the Wei Hsien prison camp were common enough during those dreadful days, but there was no funeral like Eric's. Meredith remembers that, "The wave of sorrow which swept over Wei Hsien was unbelievable. His was by far the biggest funeral held in the two-and-one-half years of our stay in the prison camp. The church accommodated 350 people and was full, but more stood outside than were inside. Rev. Arnold Bryson of the London Missionary Society conducted a memorable service. There were no long, flowery eulogies, but sincere praise to God was voiced for this one who had such far-reaching influence. One of the missionaries testified. 'His was a God-controlled life. He followed his Master and Lord with a devotion that never flagged, with an intensity of purpose that made men see both the reality and power of true religion. "
Impressive was the fact that not only the missionary community attended Eric's funeral, but many others whose lives Eric so powerfully impacted. .Among them were the usually cynical business people, government officials, and even prostitutes. Marcy explains that. "Unlike many missionaries, Eric seemed able to relate to everyone. Of course his celebrity status made him welcome in any conversation. But more than this, he had an unassuming, natural quality that gave him rapport with almost everyone he met. Everybody regarded Eric as a friend."
It was a cold February day when they buried Eric Liddell. Meredith remembers a piercing wind swirling patches of lightly falling snow. The simple casket was carried on the shoulders of eight missionary colleagues. Immediately behind was the honor guard, Eric's pupils of the Che Foo School, marching two by two.
Eric Liddell was dead, but the influence of this amazing man who had somehow discovered the secret of living wholly for his Lord and for the sake of others, would continue to touch generations to come.
Meredith and Christine Helsby (left) still speak of Eric Liddell with a special reverence. As for Marcy and Joyce (above), they later married and served the Lord as missionaries in Taiwan. Marcy Ditmanson is now a practicing orthopedic surgeon in St. Paul/Minneapolis and Joyce is a sought-after Christian speaker and author. They named one of their sons Eric, and he, in turn, named his daughter Erica.