How I Found My World War II Heroes

AMERICA HAS HEROES: I KNOW THEIR NAMES
Mary Taylor Previte

Who can forget that August day? Who can forget those heroes?

When I was a child, I could understand the mad excitement of August 17, 1945 -- a sweltering, windy day -- seven men parachuting at only 400 feet from an American bomber to liberate 1,500 Allied prisoners in the Weihsien internment camp. I was 12 years old, interned for three years by the Japanese and separated from my parents for five and a half years. I had never seen grown ups so dizzy with joy. I had never seen such hysteria. They were weeping, screaming, dancing, waving at the sky.

We trailed these gorgeous liberators everywhere. With the wonder of children, we cut off pieces of their hair for souvenirs. We begged for their signatures, their buttons, their insignia, pieces of parachute. We sat on their laps. We made them sing the songs of America —“You Are My Sunshine” and “Maresey doats and doesey doats and little lambsey divey.” We sang these songs until the grown-ups held their ears.

But I was too young to understand the miracle of seven men—against how many Japanese? -- risking their lives to rescue me and 1,500 prisoners whom they didn’t even know.

As I grew up, I wondered about that miracle. I thought about heroes like that. Who were these men? Where could I find them after all these years? In Japanese records? In American military records? I had no idea. But I had their names.

In 1997, when I was running for political office, a New Jersey State Senator—my running mate—asked me to substitute for him at a Saturday night banquet reunion of World War II veterans—a banquet in a hotel located only ten minutes from my house. He wanted me to honor the group with a thank-you proclamation from the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, a thank you for their service to America. These are veterans of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association, my running mate told me.

China-Burma-India veterans! I had never heard of this group before. But I felt the goose bumps ripple up my spine. “China-Burma-India veterans. That’s who rescued me,” I said. So to prepare for that Saturday night, I dug into my treasure chest and typed out the names of our Weihsien heroes.

The banquet hall was filled with 150 men and women in their 70s and 80s -- all American veterans who had served in the China-Burma-India theatre of operations during World War II. They had assembled from the north eastern region of the United States. When my turn came at the microphone, I read the thank-you proclamation from the New Jersey Legislature. Then I said, “I know it was not an accident that I was invited here tonight to substitute for Senator Adler.”

I told them the miracle story of August 17, 1945 -- an American B-24 ”Liberator” bomber flying low over the treetops of the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center. I was a child, I told them, watching parachutes drop from the belly of the plane, dropping into the gaoliang fields beyond the barrier walls.

Weihsien went mad. With 1,500 other prisoners, I dashed for the gates.

I poured out the story—prisoners bursting through the gate and into the fields to welcome seven angel liberators. I told about the Salvation Army Band up on a mound by the gate, playing the Victory Medley to welcome these sun-bronzed American heroes.

“I brought their names,” I said. Slowly, clearly, I read each name into the microphone. “Major Stanley Staiger, Ensign James Moore, 1st Lt. James J. Hannon, T/4 Raymond Hanchulak, Sgt. Tadash Nagaki, T/5 Peter Orlich, Eddie Wang.”

I paused. I was hoping against hope. “Is any one of my heroes in this room tonight?”

I was greeted by silence. I was greeted with men and women weeping. But when the banquet ended, they crushed me in their arms. They told me to write these names down in their national magazine. “Write their names, their rank, anything you know about them.” They told me to write that I was looking for all of these heroes—to include my name, address, and telephone number.

So I wrote a notice for their national magazine.

At the banquet, one veteran from the state of Maryland became so excited by my story that he took my list of names. A few days later, a fat, brown envelope arrived in the mail from Maryland. He had done a computer search for every telephone number in the United States that matched the names of my heroes. Out of how many million Americans, he had listed pages and pages of names, addresses, and phone numbers.

Somewhere in those pages on my kitchen table were the whereabouts of my World War II heroes. I was campaigning door-to-door for a seat in the New Jersey General Assembly, and I had no idea where to start. Should I phone? Should I send out letters -- ”Are you the Stanley Staiger who liberated the Weihsien concentration camp in China, August 17, 1945”? Should I include self addressed, stamped, return envelopes?

Some of my self-addressed envelopes returned with loving responses: “God bless you in your search.”

But still no heroes.

The first break came in September, 1997. I couldn’t believe it! The call came from a woman who lives ten minutes from my house. She had read in the “China-Burma-India Veterans Association Soundoff” magazine that I was looking for men who had liberated Weihsien. She had served in Burma as a nurse, she said. “My sister lives next door to Raymond Hanchulak,” she told me. Hanchulak was the medic on the Weihsien rescue mission. She gave me the telephone number in Bear Creek Village, Pennsylvania.

I decided to make my telephone calls on Sunday nights. Sunday night calls gave me a cheap 5-cents-a-minute rate.

When I asked for Raymond Hanchulak, the woman who answered the telephone, asked me the purpose of my call. My words stumbled; Raymond had liberated 1,500 Allied prisoners from a Japanese concentration camp. I wanted to say thank you. I heard her gasp. “My Raymond died last year,” she said. Here was a widow begging me for every detail I could give her about her hero husband. “He was trained in secrecy,” she said. He had gone to war from the ethnic enclaves of Pennsylvania’s mining region. He had been a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was trained not to talk. Until I told her, Helen Hanchulak had never heard her husband’s Weihsien story.

I began to have misgivings. Would I find only widows? I knew I needed to speed my search.

My list included only one Peter Orlich. Peter Orlich was the radio operator—and the youngest member of the rescue team. A lady answered the phone when I called. Another widow. Carol Orlich told me that Peter had died four years before. But she knew Pete’s Weihsien story. She had corresponded with him throughout the war. She told me he had volunteered for the rescue mission. She told me that he had feared being excluded because he wore glasses. So as he stood in the physical examination line, he tucked his glasses into his pocket. He listened to each man in front of him reading the letters on the eye chart. He passed the exam by memorizing the letters. On his first practice parachute jump, his glasses flew up onto his forehead so he couldn’t see. For the jump to liberate Weihsien, Pete taped his glasses to his head.

Taking a gift from the bottom of a drawer in Pete’s bedroom bureau, Carol Orlich mailed to me one of the treasures of my life today—a piece of silk parachute embroidered with the rescue scene and autographed by each of the liberation team. A woman internee had given it to Pete as a goodbye gift when the team was leaving for Tsingtao. Carol wanted me to have it.

Now I had found two widows. I knew time was not on my side. My telephone bills provide a history of my search. On a Sunday night, I phoned Alliance, Nebraska, deep in America’s heartland, hoping desperately to connect with the only Tadashi Nagaki on my list. Nagaki was the Japanese American interpreter on the rescue team

“I’m calling for Tadashi Nagaki,” I said.
“Speaking,” he said.

I began to cry. I had found my first hero. We chattered for an hour. I was full of questions. A widower, Tad farms beans, and corn, and sugar beets on his farm outside Alliance and is most comfortable with the solitude of his tractor. So I had to pull. “What did it feel like to have all of us children following you around?” I asked.

“Like being on a pedestal,” he said. I knew that was the understatement of the century. They were heroes. They were gods. Tad remembered a girl cutting off a chunk of his hair so she’d have a souvenir.

Tad said he could help me find Jim Moore in Dallas, Texas. Their families had remained friends for more than fifty years, exchanging cards at Christmas time. Bless my soul! I wanted to hug the world. I had dreaded the task of phoning more than 150 James Moores on my list.

Jim Moore bowled me over with his story. He was the child of missionaries to China, he said—just like me. He had attended the Chefoo School for children of missionaries—just like me. When he graduated in 1936, he returned to the United States, graduated from college, started law school, and joined the Federal Bureau of

Investigation (FBI). After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Chefoo School’s alumni magazine announced that the Japanese had captured the school and marched it to internment camp. Jim could picture it all—his teachers, the little brothers and sisters of his classmates, all marched off and locked up. The magazine listed his classmates already serving in the military.

By this time, Jim had a wife and two children. Because the FBI was already protecting America’s homeland, the rules said he didn’t have to go to war. His heart said something else. He had to go. Jim Moore resigned from the FBI, joined the Navy and the super-secret OSS, signed up to go to China because he could speak Chinese, and volunteered for the rescue mission. When he parachuted into the goaliang fields outside Weihsien, the first person he asked to see was “PA” Bruce, head master of the Chefoo School. Jim had retired from a career in the CIA when I found him.

I had come to a dead end in my search. I couldn’t find Major Stanley Staiger. I couldn’t find 1st Lt. Jim Hannon. Jim Moore promised to help me search. With a retiree’s time and the skill of an intelligence professional, he didn’t take long.

One morning, he phoned me at work to say he had found Stanley Staiger. He had searched in a program listing every driver’s license in the United States and found Staiger in Reno, Nevada. “I talked with him today,” he said.

Forget about the 5-cents-a-minute phone calls! I used my personal credit card at my desk at work and phoned at the high priced, middle-of-the-day rates. Stanley Staiger was fragile and recuperating from a fall and a broken hip. Here was the hero — wasn’t he ten feet tall? -- who had lead the mission that rescued Weihsien, hoping out loud to me—once a little girl he had rescued—the hero-rescuer hoping out loud that he’d be able to walk again.

I promised him. “Anyone who had the guts and spizerinctum to lead a mission that rescued 1,500 people is definitely—guaranteed—going to walk again.”

In December, Jim Moore phoned again. He had found Jim Hannon in Yucca Valley, California. I connected by phone again.

As I found each hero, I telephoned the newspapers in each of their towns and trumpeted the news: “Your town has a hero in its midst.” Our heroes made headlines that they had never made after World War II. Today, when I tell this story to students in schools and colleges, I bring the names and addresses of our rescue team and ask students to write to the men and the widows. Tad Nagaki and Peter Orlich’s widow each says they have a heaping box full of these letters and Valentine’s day cards made by adoring children. I phone the men on holidays and send cards on their birthdays. My heroes have become my friends.

Four months after I was sworn into office as an Assemblywoman, the agency of retired FBI agents flew Jim Moore and his wife from Dallas, Texas, for a surprise—and very public—reunion with Jim Moore and me on the floor of the New Jersey General Assembly. I wept. No-nonsense legislators wept. Even cynic TV cameramen wept.

My heart said it wasn’t enough. So late in 1998, I started my pilgrimage, crisscrossing America to say thank you to each one of these heroes face to face. I went looking for the soul of Americas and it is beautiful.

Who are these men? The war snatched Stanley Staiger out of business studies at the University of Oregon. After the war, he never returned to college. Tad Nagaki was a Nisei farm boy who didn’t speak English until he went to a tiny elementary school in America’s heartland. His immigrant father had come to America to work on the railroad and sent for a “picture bride” from Japan. Jim Hannon was the youngest of a very large family and an adventurer who had mined for gold in Alaska. He, himself, had escaped from a German concentration camp in 1944. Raymond Hanchulak came from coal mining regions of Pennsylvania and served his whole career in the military, including service in Vietnam. Jim Moore was son of Southern Baptist missionaries to China and the only college graduate in the group. Growing up in the Queens, New York, Peter Orlich was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. But his family needed Pete to work to help support the family, not go to college.

I’m still looking for “Eddie” Cheng-Han Wang, the Chinese interpreter on the mission.

What a journey of joy to honor these heroes in public and private meetings—in church, civic groups, veterans’ meetings and conventions! I celebrated Stanley Staiger’s 81st birthday with him in Reno, Nevada. What a journey! Face to face, I have honored each of the six Americans on the team or his widow.

I could never say enough thank yous. Some people say America has no heroes. I know their names.

(Mary T. Previte, 351 Kings Highway East, Haddonfield, New Jersey, 08033, USA.)

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