Seven Decades Later, Previte Connects with Liberator
by Shelly Castorino
Friday, May 15 2015.
Kids dream of superheroes flying through the sky and saving them from the villains below. For 12-year old Mary Taylor Previte and her three siblings held prisoner at the Weihsien Concentration Camp in China during World War II, their dreams came tile when seven heroes flew down from the sky.
On August 17, 1945, members of an operation named Mission Duck jumped from a B-24 bomber to liberate prisoners held at the Weihsien. concentration camp. "I remember that day," recalls Previte, who is now 82 and lives in Haddonfield. "A B-24 was flying very low and circling the camp. We could see the star on the side of the plane so, we knew they-were Americans."
One by one, a team of six Americans and one Chinese interpreter, descended from the sky waiting for their parachutes to open. Each was very aware that communications may not have reached all
Japanese war supporters and that there may be sharp shooters taking aim at the floating ducks. When the men landed, prisoners from the camp ran out of the front gate to meet them.
"We had so many questions and we wanted to touch them," said Mary. `They were strong and healthy, they had meat on their bones," she recalled.
Living in the concentration camp since the age of nine, Mary had no idea if the war was over or who won.
"These men risked their lives for us, we were total strangers to them but they came to free us," she said, holding back tears. All of the kids in the camp followed the soldiers around with admiration. They brought chewing gum, candy and other treats that no one had seen for years. They taught the kids songs, including "You are my sunshine" and played softball with them while they waited for supplies and departure arrangements for the 1,500-plus prisoners. The kids wanted to know everything about the flying heroes who were gods in their eyes.
When Mary and her siblings were liberated, their parents were still working in China. The four Taylor children departed Weihsien on the second plane and- were reunited with their parents and their new younger sibIing. The excitement. of leaving did not allow young Mary to properly thank her heroes.
In 1997, Mary was an Assemblywoman in Southern New Jersey. She was asked by her colleagues to present a proclamation to a China Burma India veteran's group in Mt. Laurel. After reading the proclamation, Mary asked if anyone in the audience knew her heroes from her childhood who liberated the concentration camp. Mary recited each of their names, Major Stanley Staiger, Jimmy Moore, Jim Hannon, Sgt. Tad Nagaki, Sgt. Peter Orlich, Ramond Hanchulak and Eddie Wang, a Chinese interpreter.
"That question started a firestorm of interest," said Mary. "One man in the group was an intelligence officer and was able to provide phone numbers and locations for anyone living in the United States with the same name as the six Americans."
After years of going through the list of names and numbers, Mary was successful in her quest to thank her American heroes. Four of the six were still living and she was able to thank each in person. For the heroes who had passed away before Mary located them, she shared her story of gratitude with the widows of the remaining two Americans.
One widow had a piece of the actual parachute used during Mission Duck. On it was an image of the B-24 bomber and the names of each man who parachuted to the camp. That piece of parachute was photographed and included in a book about memories of Weihsien. The original is at the Smithsonian.
That piece of parachute included the name of Eddie Wang, the Chinese interpreter on the liberation mission. "Finding Eddie Wang in a country with over a billion people is next to impossible," said Mary. "Until one day in 2015, almost 70 years after being liberated from Weihsien, I received an email from a man claiming to be the grandson of Eddie Wang."
Daniel Wang, who is currently living in South Carolina with his wife, was busy fulfilling a promise to his 90-year old grand father Cheng-Han "Eddie" Wang, who asked Daniel to locate his six comrades from World War II. During Daniel's Internet research, he found many entries on a Weihsien community website and the name of Mary Previte who often asked for information about Eddie Wang. Daniel reached out to the woman seeking information about his grandfather.
"Imagine the surprise to read an email from Daniel Wang, who lives in South Carolina," said Mary. After all of these years, Mary had to be certain she was communicating with the correct Wang. "I asked so many questions, and Daniel was able to confirm the answers through his grandfather, who is still living in the Guizhou Province in China at the age of 90 -- unbelievable!" she said.
Mary wanted to make certain Eddie was well enough to answer her questions without too much stress. She has friends who are Chinese Americans who happily agreed to sit in on the conference call for Mary to speak to Eddie and help with any language barriers.
On Sunday, May 3, Mary spoke to 'her seventh hero. "We spoke for over an hour," said Mary. "I cannot believe I found Eddie Wang and he is healthy and living in China. Daniel even sent pictures from Eddie's 90th birthday to me."
Both Eddie and Daniel Wang were surprised to learn that a 12-year old girl in the camp was still looking for every single man in the rescue team. "It must be something so important to her life,", said the younger Wang. "I knew my grandfather was in World War II, but I didn't know many details until I began to contact Mary, as she asked my grandfather a lot of questions through me."
All Daniel knew about his grandfather's experience in the war was that he was in a rescue mission but they didn't fire any shots against the Japanese army. Daniel said he mistakenly thought his grandfather was working with the Flying Tigers.
Since communicating with Mary, Daniel learned the entire story of. what his grandfather did before he joined the army and after the war was over. He also became aware of how deeply that rescue mission influenced the former internees in the concentration camp.
With the 70th reunion of Weihsein taking place in August, Mary was asked to write the preface for a book about the concentration camp that will be published and distributed in China. With many of the remaining internees unable to make the trip to China for a reunion, books and websites help the group remain connected.
For Mary, some of the most important life lessons learned took place when she was a child living in China.
Mary's parents were missionaries and the family prayed every morning. Her" mother taught the children a singing version of Psalm 91 which says "...if you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter, no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home. For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go..." And the heroic angels came through for Mary and her family 70 years ago. Written on the side of that B-24 bomber with the six Americans and Eddie Wang was "the Armored Angel" and all seven have now been accounted for and appropriately thanked for their heroism by that little girl from Weihsein.