OMAHA, NEBRASKA, January 11, 1998
World War II "Angels" Are Not Forgotten
BY PAUL HAMMEL
WORLD HERALD STAFF WRITER
Alliance, Neb. - Tad Nagaki doesn't feel much like a hero. He said he was just following orders during World War II when he parachuted into a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp to liberate the 1.400 captives.
But to one of the prisoners, then 12 years old, Nagaki and his five colleagues were an answer to five years of prayers.
"We were missionary kids. We were always taught to put our trust in God," Said Mary Taylor Previte. now 65 and living in Haddonfield, N.J. "In the Bible, He said He would give His angels charge over thee to keep thee. And what happened? We had six American 'angels' fall out of the sky."
For Nagaki. a 77-year-old sugar beet farmer, the heroic story from 1945 had become a distant memory of his service behind enemy lines in China and Burma with a top-secret unit of Japanese-Americans.
JEFF BUNDY / THE WORLD HERALD
TAD NAGAKI: The Alliance farmer was recently contacted by a woman he helped free from a concentration camp in China in 1945.
But the tale is now being retold in newspapers across the country thanks to the efforts of Previte, who through luck and persistence was able to track down her rescuers during the past few months. Now. 52 years later, she has been delivering her personal thanks to the paratroopers or their widows.
"There are not enough thank-yous on earth for rescuing someone from a concentration camp," Previte said by telephone from New Jersey. "And they don't feel it's such a big deal."
Particularly Nagaki. "it was a duty," he said. "If it had been anybody else, they would have been willing to do it."
The circumstances of war led to the first contact between the Panhandle farmer and the young girl who is now an authority on corrections programs for juveniles and a recently elected member of the New Jersey State General Assembly.
Some odd twists of fate led to their reunion.
Previte (pronounced "preh-vuh-tee") was a 7-year-old student in a boarding school on the coast of China when war with Japan broke out.
Japanese soldiers took over the school for use as a military base and shipped the students and teachers off to an internment camp at Weihsien in the northeast province of China.
The crowded camp held about 1,400 civilians, including many British and American citizens and Previte's two brothers and a sister. "They did not want enemy aliens on the loose." she said.
One prisoner, she said, was Eric Liddell, a Scottish missionary and Olympic track star made famous in the movie "Chariots of Fire." He helped organize games for the kids as a diversion from the cramped conditions and scant rations.
Previte's parents, missionaries with the Free Methodist Church, were stationed far inland and were never taken prisoner. Yet they would not see their children for 5½ years.
Nagaki was the son of Japanese parents who settled near Minatare, Neb.. in the North Platte river valley.
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
GRATEFUL: Mary Previte holds an embroidered piece of silk parachute that includes the names of her six American "angels."
He had enlisted in the Army before the war but after Pearl Harbor was recruited into a special squad of Japanese-Americans that worked behind enemy lines in Burma, China and India. He gathered information on troop movements and enemy installations and helped train resistance fighters as part of a unit of the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA.
When the war ended on Aug. 15, 1945, Nagaki's squad was transported from Burma to China and its mission changed to securing and liberating Japanese prisoner of war camps in Asia.
"It was more or less a humanitarian mission," he said. "We just went in to make sure nothing happened to the prisoners, if there were any emergencies and to see if we had to evacuate anyone."
Two days after the war ended, Nagaki, five OSS colleagues and one Chinese interpreter boarded an airplane to the Weihsien prison camp. Because a nearby airfield was still under guard. they parachuted into a cornfield near the camp.
For the prisoners, who had not been told that the war was over, the sight of a low-flying American B-24 and the soldiers floating to the ground created a near riot, Previte said.
It turned into all-out bedlam as word spread that these were their liberators.
"The whole camp went berserk," Previte said. "People started to cry and scream and dance. Some people just charged out of the gates. It was mass hysteria. People knew the war was over."
The captives, she said, hoisted some Americans on their bony shoulders in celebration. A Salvation Army band, which was among the captives, struck up "The Star-Spangled Banner."
Nagaki said there were worries about whether the prison camp guards knew whether the war was over.
"There was some doubt if you were going to get shot or not, but that part didn't enter into our minds." he said. "When they said we were going to help POWs, we were all ready to go."
The guards retreated to their barracks after the Americans landed. The camp was freed without incident.
Previte and her siblings soon were reunited with their parents. Nagaki returned to the States, where he married a Japanese-American woman he met on a blind date during the war, and he began farming with three brothers near Alliance.
The story might have ended there if Previte hadn't stumbled into some leads in relocating her rescuers.
In 1985, she obtained the names of the OSS squadmen from a declassified document but had no way to trace where they were living.
Then, last May, a veteran General Assembly member asked her, a freshman representative, to substitute for him in giving a speech before an East Coast veterans' reunion. Previte said she had never heard of the China-Burma-India Veterans' Association before, but figured the invitation was not an accident.
After her speech, she related her World War II story and read off the names of the six rescuers.
The names were reported in the association's newsletter and in a national military magazine. By October, she was contacted by a widow of one of the men who was living in Pennsylvania.
Soon afterward, she located another widow, this time in New York. She provided Previte with a piece of silk parachute on which she had embroidered the names of the six rescuers. It not only encouraged Previte, but also provided correct spellings for a couple of the men's names.
Then, a veteran gave her a list of possible telephone numbers for the six men. While there were about 150 listings for "James Moore," the list led her to telephone Tad Nagaki in November.
"I was just sitting here reading and watching the evening news," Nagaki said. "and someone said, 'Do you know me?' No. Should I?"
Nagaki. whose wife. Butch. died 1½ years ago, helped Previte find Jim Moore in Texas. Moore, in turn, helped her locate the final two men in Nevada and California.
"It's just a miracle." Previte said. "It's like a whole family has been connected together by this miracle."
She discovered ironies in her search: One of her rescuers had attended the same missionary school in China as Previte, and Nagaki's wife had been imprisoned in an American relocation camp for Japanese-Americans during the war.
Since locating her liberators, Previte has talked many times with them or their widows. Nagaki sent her photographs, and she sent back clippings of stories that have appeared in papers in Philadelphia, New Jersey and Dallas.
Previte said such heroism should not be forgotten.
Nagaki, meantime, expressed surprise about the recent publicity about a long-ago incident. "I've been leading the quiet life." he said. "I never figured I was a hero or anything."