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Sept. 11, 2000, 11:00AM

Former captive recalls U.S. liberation of camp

Copyright 2000 Houston Chronicle

By the morning of Aug. 17, 1945, Mary Taylor Previte, the 12-year-old daughter of missionaries in China, had been a Japanese prisoner more than 3 1/2 years.

When she awoke that day in a prison camp near the city of Weihsien in a coastal area of northeast China, she was still recovering from a bout with dysentery and diarrhea.

"I can remember lying there feeling horrible," Previte recalled, "and then I that was getting closer."

She sprang from the top of a steamer trunk serving as her bed, and through a barrack window she glimpsed a low-flying four-engine aircraft.

Appropriately enough, it was an American B-24 Liberator bomber, and she shortly spotted six parachutists dropping from the aircraft's bomb bay.

"Believe me, that was an instant cure for diarrhea," Previte recalled.

She shared the story of her camp's liberation at a recent gathering here of veterans who had served in World War II's China-Burma-India theatre.

"I decided to run for the prison gate and be one of the first ones to welcome whoever it was," she said, "but it seemed that everyone else got there first."

The camp's prisoners had had no way of learning that Japanese leaders had agreed to surrender unconditionally three days earlier.

Similarly unarmed, six-man teams like the one coming to Previte's prison camp were in the process of going to other Japanese camps.

Altogether about 30,000 prisoners, military and civilian, were being successfully freed.

In her camp, she recalled, "Everyone went berserk, weeping, hugging each other, pounding the ground. Men were taking off their shirts and waving them because they wanted to be sure those in the plane had spotted the camp."

Ignoring the Japanese guards, she said, "people just pushed out the camp's gate, something that previously could have got them shot."

Men who were "just skin and bones, who had lost 100 pounds" lifted these "six beautiful, young Americans on their shoulders and carried them into the camp."

There, Previte says, a Salvation Army Band welcomed them with a specially prepared "victory medley" that it had been practicing for a long-hoped-for day of liberation.

It was an amalgam of Happy Days Are Here Again, strains of the national anthems of the Allied powers and excerpts of hymns.

She says that as the band played the part of the American anthem, Major Stanley A. Staiger, leader of the rescue team, slid from the shoulders of the prisoners to a standing salute.

And then, she added, "A young American trombonist in the band crumbled to the ground and began to weep. He knew what we all knew. We were free.

"There were some brief, very nervous moments, "Previte said, "but the Japanese must have known the war was over and turned over the camp.

"And did we love those American men. They were like the Pied Piper.

There was a trail of children wherever they went. Those guys went gaga over older girls like my sister, Kathleen, who was 17. (The girls) got insignias as souvenirs; younger children got pieces of parachutes."

Previte regards the camp's six rescuers as "guardian angels" who saved her life and notes that the name given the B-24 that transported them happened to be Armored Angel. She stays in contact with all of them or their widows.

In addition to Stanley Staiger, who lives at Reno, Nev., they were the late Raymond Hanchulak of Bear Creek Village, Pa.; James J. Hannon of Yucca Valley, Calif.; James W. Moore of Dallas; Tad Nagaki of Alliance, Neb.; and the late Peter Orlich of Whitesen, N.Y.

Previte notes the special significance of Moore's participation in the operation. The son of Southern Baptist missionaries to China, he was born there and learned to speak Chinese.

He had attended the same school in the city of Chefoo as had Previte, her sister and two brothers and their classmates being held at the Weihsien prison camp. It was set up for the children of missionaries and was called the Chefoo School.

The Japanese had claimed ownership of that school the day after their Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor and later moved the students and faculty to the Weihsien camp.

Moore had gone to live in America, graduated from Hardin Simons College in Texas, then became an FBI agent. That made him exempt from military service, but he felt a duty to contribute directly to the war effort.

So, over the objections of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, he joined the Navy and became an officer.

Because he spoke Chinese he was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency. He volunteered to participate in the rescue of prisoners at the Weihsien camp because he knew people from the Chefoo School were there.

When he arrived at the prison camp he immediately asked to see P.A. Bruce, the school's superintendent.

Previte, 67, who resides at Haddonfield, N.J., is director of an agency that assists juvenile delinquents in mending their ways. She also serves as an assemblywoman in the state legislature.

She speaks with reverence of the teachers and other adults at the Weihsien prison camp. They nurtured the children there and strived "to keep hope alive" that ultimately the Allies would win the war.

Of some 1,300 prisoners, mostly British and Americans, held there, she estimates that about a third were children.

Their teachers stressed that the Chefoo students continue their studies so as not to fall behind children in the free world. Thus they provided these youngsters a very structured life.

The prison camp was set up on what had been the campus of a Presbyterian school. A wide variety of people were held there, including businessmen, academics, physicians and entertainers.

The prisoners promoted cultural events ranging from plays to musical programs to philosophical discussions.

As time went on, Previte said, doctors in the camp became alarmed about how the camp's poor diet, especially insufficient in calcium, was affecting the health of children.

Those able to get eggs on a black market were asked to save the shells so that they could be roasted, ground into a powder and administered to children as pure calcium. Previte remembers how awful spoonfuls of that powder tasted.

About 15 years ago Previte gained an insight into what a brave front so many adults in the camp must have been putting up for the sake of the children.

This came when she visited the headmistress of the school, who was then living in England.

"I would pray every night," she confessed, "that when the Japanese would line us up and make us dig death trenches before shooting us, that God would let me be one of the first they would shoot."

Previte's parents, James Hudson Taylor II and Alice Taylor, Free Methodist Church missionaries, had been working in the Yellow River basin in central China before managing to escape advancing Japanese forces.

After liberation, Previte, her sister, and two brothers, James Hudson Taylor III, 16, and John Taylor, 10, and their grandfather, Herbert Hudson Taylor, 80, a retired missionary with them in the prison camp, were reunited with their parents for the first time in 5 1/2 years.

First, fighting between Chinese and Japanese forces, then the internment of the Chefoo School students and teachers had kept the family apart.