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Finding her angels

Good Housekeeping, May 2001

"real lives"

by Debra Gordon.

She was a prisoner of war in China, liberated by American troops.

Five decades later, she vowed to find her saviors and tell them what they meant to her.

At first the steady droning sounded like insects to 12 year-old Mary Taylor. She'd been too feverish and nauseous to even get up that stiflingly hot day; instead, she lay on a trunk that served as a bed in her wartime prison. Three years earlier, during the Japanese invasion of China, a boarding school for children of American and British missionaries had been occupied. The Japanese force-marched Mary, her sister and two brothers, and dozens of other students and teachers to a prisoner camp located in northeast China.

Weak from illnesses caused by the Weihsien camp's filth-they had no running water and little food-Mary struggled to reach the window as the whirring noise outside grew louder and people started shouting with joy. To her astonishment, she saw a plane flying so low she could see the red, white, and blue flag painted on its belly. The plane yawned open, and seven figures hurtled down, their parachutes bursting open. It was August 17, 1945. Although none of the Allied prisoners knew it, Japan had surrendered three days earlier. The plane, an American B24 bomber, had been sent by the Office of Strategic Services to liberate the 1,400 children and adults at the camp.

The soldiers wrested control from the Japanese and were soon surrounded by euphoric prisoners who, despite their frailties, hoisted the men on their shoulders. For the next few weeks, Mary and the other children trailed the bronzed, muscular young soldiers, snatching buttons off their shirts and clamoring for stories and songs from the United States. Most of all, these rail-thin youngsters, who'd subsisted for years on boiled animal grain and ground eggshells, begged for sticks of Juicy Fruit chewing gum, which the soldiers handed out with pleasure. "We were madly in love with them," Mary remembers.

In September 1945, the Taylor children were reunited with their Free Methodist missionary parents in central China-"My mother felt she had to measure us to know who was who"-and the family's life slowly returned to normal. As an adult, Mary settled in New Jersey. She married, becoming Mary Previte, and had a daughter.

As she got older, she thought more and more about the courage of the men who'd rescued her from Weihsien. "A kid has no clue," says Previte, now 68. "We told each other that God was going to send us angels, and these were God's angels. A child never imagines that someone could have died in the rescue."

In 1985 Previte obtained a copy of the declassified mission report listing the men's names, but didn't know how to locate them. Twelve years later she ran for a seat in the state assembly and won. During a campaign speech at the China-Burma-India Veterans' Association, she decided to explain her quest. Calls trickled in, and Previte made time to follow up each lead. To her sorrow, two phone calls led her to widows; she'd found the right veterans, Peter Orlich and Raymond Hanchulak, but they had already died. Orlich's widow sent Previte a piece of the parachute her husband had tucked away in his dresser.

Then came the breakthrough. "I'm calling for Tad Nagaki," she said to the voice on the other end of the phone in Alliance, Nebraska.

"Speaking," said Nagaki, 81. A Japanese-American farmer, he had returned to his native Nebraska after World War II.

The two of them chatted for an hour-about the camp, the rescue, the prisoners' adoration. During the next year she managed to track down three of the other veterans: James Moore, Stanley Staiger, and James Hannon. Mary called each of them and then crisscrossed the country to meet them. She even phoned the men's local newspapers: "Did you know you have a hero in your midst?" she asked.

Previte learned that the soldiers' mission had been high-risk. Each of the men stepped forward and volunteered, even after their base commander explained what it would take to liberate the camp - a low-flying plane in hostile territory. But to a man, the veterans today deny they deserve any special praise. "I am not a hero," Nagaki insisted to Previte.

But Previte feels differently. "They risked their lives," she says. "I could never honor them enough for what they did. And God gave me the opportunity to say thank you."

Debra Gordon

Good Housekeeping, May 2001