Brave Admiral, say but one good word:
"What shall we do when hope is gone?"
The words leapt like a leaping sword,
"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"
THE SUMMER OF 1944 was a trying one for our Weihsien community. The physical and mental strains of internment life were taking their toll on internees, particularly those over forty. There were mental breakdowns, workers collapsing on shift with fainting and low blood pressure. Typhoid, malaria and dysentery were prevalent. There was consequently increasing absenteeism at work in the labour gangs and kitchen shifts.
The heat that summer was unbearable. Although we wore only khaki shorts (without shoes or shirts), the perspiration just poured off us as we went about our normal duties at work.
To quench our thirst we could drink only boiled water, as laid down by the camp's Health Committee. When the water had been boiled over a kitchen cauldron, it was put into a large kang to cool off. But if one was thirsty and the water in the kang still insipid, what was one to do? In moments of desperate thirst I drank on several occasions direct from the pump near the bakery, and this was no doubt the cause of the amoebic dysentery which later sapped my strength.
The nights were hot and trying. Mosquitoes buzzed around us persistently. Bedbugs in the mattresses feasted on us as we tossed on our beds. Throughout the night there was the pitter-patter of feet down the corridor to the toilet of those suffering from dysentery. Rats ran over us and became such a menace to the community that the Japanese authorities organised a competition to stamp them out.
Every rat killed was to be brought to a health official working at the bakery, entered in a book to the credit of the internee responsible, and then thrown into the flames of the bakery fire.
Three of us Chefoo boys clubbed together, and entered all catches under my name to increase our chances of winning the rat competition. Ordinary spring traps were one method tried, but it was found wanting, for many of the rats escaped from these contraptions with minor injuries. By trial and error we found the most effective method was as follows: a large piece of cardboard was placed on the floor. Over it was placed an inverted basin, which was leaning upon a thimble-shaped container filled with cheese and facing towards the inside of the basin. A rat would slip under the gap in the basin beside the container and nibble at the cheese. This made the basin slip over the container gradually and then lie flat on the cardboard with the victim underneath. The cardboard and basin were then lifted and the rat thrown into a bucket of water nearby. Sometimes a whole family of mice or rats was caught simultaneously in this way.
Lack, Hoyte and I took our dead rats regularly to Bloom, the health official, until against my name were thirty-five casualties. Another consortium of rat catchers had clocked up thirty-eight. Our team went into urgent consultation and as a result held back all catches until the last day of the competition ― surely a threat to camp health and defeating the very purpose of the competition! The opposition soared ahead in points and became rather confident, finally reaching fifty-six. But on the final day we brought along a box of thirty rats, making a total of sixty-eight. The prize was a tin of sardines, certainly a rarity at that time.
Not only was the Health Committee fighting a losing battle against disease and illness. The Discipline Committee was also up against the very real problems of "scrounging”, pilfering and the claiming of excessive "perks". At first the disgrace of being "posted" on the camp notice-boards, and consequently being deprived of certain privileges, was an effective deterrent, but under the pressure of hunger and economic shortage one's personal reputation was a lesser consideration than the filling of one's stomach. Missionaries and missionaries' children, and those in the religious community of the camp, were with a few embarrassing exceptions free from these selfish actions, though not exempt from the same temptations.
The Labour Department likewise faced crises hitherto unknown. Stokers, tired of scraping their sooty faces clean at the end of a day's shift work and with little soap, began to ask for cleaner jobs. Kitchen cooks in charge of teams of kitchen workers found their resourcefulness strained, feeding six hundred people with flour with which they had tried every variety of noodles, dumplings and bread porridge; they too asked for less onerous work, such as pumping water for fixed times each day. Others pleaded hernias, low blood pressure or advancing age as reasons for discontinuing manual labour.
But the plain fact was that certain jobs had to be done by someone to keep the large community running. Some of the Chefoo boys had now become old enough to pump water, and some of the older Chefoo girls were helping to peel vegetables. But this new source of labour far from solved the overall problems of dozens of internees having to work month in, month out, with little food, dwindling morale, and in extreme weather conditions.
Members of the Labour Committee, interviewing people to fill urgent vacancies, had to face the harsh reality that the desire to serve the community and do a job well, a spirit which had characterised the earlier years of camp life, was now on the wane. Here again it was noticeably those with religious faith to whom they largely turned to carry the extra responsibilities and do the unpopular jobs.
In my immediate circle of friends the virtue of thoroughness, promptness and going the second mile were constantly maintained. We cleaned the cauldrons till they were spotless, carried heavy crates of ashes out of the front gate of the camp and were often called upon to do extra shifts.
As I look back on the enthusiasm with which we worked, and then think of all that is required in these days as incentives to make men work ― promotion, overtime pay, bonuses, fringe benefits and the like ― I marvel at the way dozens of people in Weihsien tackled dirty and heavy work for long hours in trying conditions with no prospects of material rewards other than the occasional extra helping after the six hundred in Kitchen I had had their dollop of food.
Then, in addition to problems with hygiene, pilfering and labour was that of keeping the education going of those who, had they not been in camp, would still have been at school preparing for Matriculation.
The Chefoo school on moving to Temple Hill, then to Weihsien, had kept its identity as an educational unit, and to a remarkable degree had maintained a regular programme of studies; in spite of limited supplies of textbooks, paper and other necessary material they had kept abreast of their prescribed syllabi, leading up to the Oxford School Leaving Certificate.
we arrived in Weihsien children from
The year 1944, with all the problems I have mentioned, brought for me a bright and happy feature which offset many of the trials and tribulations of that period. A Salvation Army officer offered to teach me a brass instrument and invited me to join their band.
Adjutant Buist was a handsome and outgoing Welshman. In his little camp room (which he shared with his wife and small children) he patiently gave me lessons.
several weeks of training and practice I joined the band practice every Tuesday
evening as second trombonist. The Salvation Army had been treated with
suspicion by the Japanese since their arrival in
Present at our band practices in a small room next to the boot repair shop were ten Salvationists with four or five Christians from other denominations. We spent many happy hours learning Salvationist marches and hymns. To play the great hymns of the Church with brass instruments in such harmony and rhythm was an indescribable experience.
One of the officers had composed a medley of all the Allied national anthems. But when we practised it all the parts were played except the air, and so the tunes were not recognised by the authorities. Convinced that camp life would one day come to an abrupt end, whether by Russian, American, British or Chinese intervention, we were determined to have a suitable piece of music to play for the great occasion, whenever it was or however it was to happen. We practised it month after month, and the very process of playing the Victory March kindled in our hearts faith and optimism.
On Sunday afternoons we would gather on the grounds outside the hospital, and under the baton of Brigadier Stranks play:
"Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently thy cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain."
End of Chapter.