"It is a general human weakness to allow things, uncertain and unknown, to set us up in hope, or plunge us into fear."

(Gains Caesar)



"Oh the joys of Weihsien! Oh the Weihsien day!

Good old Weihsien, tra-la-la-la-la-la-la!

We rise in the dark, and light the fires with coal that's really rocks,

We carry the water, collect the porridge, and empty the garbage box.

They cry 'pu hsing' at everything, we smile and shout ‘hooray'.

We'll live to see another year, and another Christmas Day.


Now we've come to the end of the song, and we hope it won't be long

Until we leave this Weihsien Camp-in that we can't be wrong.

So let's decide before we go that we will always strive

To whistle and sing a merry song in nineteen forty five."

(Author unknown. Tune: Solomon Levi)


         CHRISTMAS 1944 was now upon us. News from parents had for most families become sparse and spasmodic.


         Periodically during 1944 we had been given Red Cross letter forms to complete. With the issuing of these was a long list of prohibited matter ― the weather, camp activities, food and so on. The Japanese during the years following Pearl Harbor had become wise to the deeper meanings behind such messages as "Awaiting Uncle Sam's arrival", "John Bull urgently needed", "All is well. Tell it to the marines".


         The maximum length of the communication was twenty-five words, and the contents had to be straightforward with no double meanings.


         As we sat in front of those official forms struggling to decide what we could write without infringing any of the regulations framed about their wording, many of us decided that the only thing that mattered was that our parents should receive a piece of paper on which was our handwriting; the contents were immaterial. Just to receive that form meant that we were alive, however little it gave of personal news, so we took every opportunity to complete them. Later we were to learn that the Japanese censorship in the guardroom could not keep pace with hundreds of internees writing letters, and therefore proportionately few reached their destinations.


         Christmas was celebrated with meagre rations and few festivities, except singing which could not be rationed. During that year there had been periods when flour was our only stock in trade, and the menu had shown little variation from bread, bread porridge, bread pudding and bread-anything-else. There had been brighter periods when the slate outside Kitchen I had read "millet porridge, black tea, bread" for breakfast, "stew, black tea and bread" for lunch, and "soup, black tea and bread" for supper.


         Supplies were now lower than they had ever been, and spirits were following the same graph. The temperature too was unbearably low. Snow and frost were everywhere, with little coal dust from which to make our briquettes to burn in our stoves.


         "Can God furnish a table in the wilderness?" asked the Psalmist of old.


         One snowy day in January 1945, when I was working in greasy overalls over a kua (cauldron) in Kitchen I, a tall American nicknamed Skipper came running in and said, "Have a look at what's coming in at the front gate!"


         A moment later we were standing on Main Road, witnessing an unbelievable sight. Donkeys and carts were filing in slowly up the hill towards the church (the usual venue for such emergencies). Fifteen hundred boxes marked "American Red Cross" were unloaded.

         There were 1500 internees in Weihsien Camp one big box each! There was wild excitement at the prospect of having some good nutritious food and the possibility of enjoying delicacies we had not tasted for years. Since our arrival in "Courtyard of the Happy Way" we had not tasted fruit, milk, sugar or butter.


         But most excitement and surprises in this war period seemed inevitably to have their anticlimaxes, and this was no exception. Soon afterwards a notice appeared on the camp notice-boards announcing curtly that the distribution of parcels had been cancelled, as consideration was being given as to whether the donors intended them to go solely to the two hundred Americans in Weihsien.


         Two weeks of arguing and dissension among the American community followed, the majority of them being adamant that the boxes should be shared with all. A few families, in spite of their missionary status, spoke loudly about the "morality" of ensuring that the parcels were given to those for whom they were intended.


         Meanwhile the local Japanese authorities, perplexed at civilised Westerners haggling in this manner, consulted their headquarters for instructions on how to distribute the boxes. The decision from Tokyo was a wise and equitable one-one parcel for every internee.


         Soon a fresh date was fixed for the distribution of the parcels. We queued up at the church and then each struggled to his digs with a heavy cardboard box, three feet by one foot by one-and-a-half feet. Sitting at our beds, we eagerly ripped the boxes open. In each were four small sections, each with powdered milk, cigarettes, tinned butter, spam, cheese, concentrated chocolate, sugar, coffee, jam, salmon and raisins.


         Tea could now be drunk with milk and sugar. Bread, our staple, diet, could now be eaten with butter and cheese or jam. Cigarettes could be traded with smokers for further items of food. The long list of items lent themselves to all kinds of recipes and combinations.


         If these welcome supplies were used to supplement the official camp rations from the kitchen, and used in careful instalments, we could enjoy nutritious and tasty meals for at least four months to come.


         Social calls became popular. At roll-call we made dates to visit each other to try the latest menus and recipes. The White Elephant swung into action again, and as we cooked over the hot cauldrons in Kitchen 1 we would overhear the latest exchange rates for Red Cross food: one packet of cigarettes could be bartered for two bars of chocolate, two tins of spam for one of coffee, and so on, according to the law of supply and demand.


         The arrival of these supplies definitely saved the day for our community. Scrounging and quarrelling about rations and perquisites subsided as every family worked out its own method of spreading the food over as long a time as possible. Physical hunger and exhaustion were less acute, and with this the general morale was clearly lifted.


         During 1945 we became more and more convinced that the war was turning in our favour in Europe and in our own theatre of fighting in the Far East.


         Whispers in the camp indicated that Hummel and Tipton, who had escaped eight months previously, were about a hundred miles away in one of the many pockets of resistance against the Japanese, and that from there they were in touch by radio with Allied leaders in Chungking.


         Chinese cesspool coolies, who entered the front gate of the camp daily, were carefully searched by the Japanese guards who frequently hit them with their fists or with the butts of their rifles. One of these coolies came to the camp with news direct from Hummel and Tipton. The guards would search him carefully from head to foot, as with the others, and allow him through. Walking down Main Road towards a cesspool with his buckets over his shoulders he would spit onto a dump of ashes a message in waterproof paper. An internee waiting nearby would discreetly take the paper to the man involved in this operation.


         From this source word soon got around Weihsien that the Allies were on the initiative in Europe; that Britain and America had invaded France and were pushing the Nazis eastward while the Russian army was rolling southward and westward.


         A subsequent instalment of news told of V.E. Day. The Germans had surrendered to Eisenhower and Montgomery. This welcome news had little direct effect on our daily lives, except for one incident which happened soon afterwards.


         By this time I had moved back from the top floor of the hospital to a bachelor dormitory of Block 23, and was once again a roll-call warden. In the centre of this attractive building was the tower and bell which had been used in earlier days to call the Bible School students of the then American Presbyterian Mission to their classes. But now it was used by the Japanese to announce twelve o'clock noon every day, so that clocks and watches could be adjusted. In fact it rang at 11.45 a.m. one day and at 12.25 p.m. the next. We could only conclude that for security reasons the Japanese did not wish us to have the exact time.

In the middle of a night in May 1945 we awoke rubbing our eyes. The Block 23 bell was ringing. We sat up in bed and speculated anxiously as to why the bell should be ringing at that unearthly hour. Was the Japanese war now over as well as the European one? Was there some kind of emergency?


         Outside we could hear the heavy boots of guards, and shouts of anger in Japanese. Then a member of the Discipline Committee came in and said that everyone had to line up for roll-call outside in his or her usual group. Had some more fellow internees escaped?


         As a roll-call warden for Blocks 23 and 24 I went to all the bachelor and spinster dormitories in the two blocks, passing on the instructions. I passed the message on to the Mother Superior at the other end of Block 23 ― a number of American nuns in her room were sleeping under mosquito nets.


         We lined up outside, not very wide awake. The Japanese guard counted us with a pistol in his hand, pointing at each person as he was counted. His manner was abrupt. We could hear shouting and orders being given out at some of the other roll-call groups.


         As we tumbled back into bed the explanation for the crisis reached us. Months before V.E. Day one man had "dared" another that, as soon as the war in Europe was won by the Allies, his friend was to ring the tower bell at midnight. He had taken up the dare and carried it out. The Japanese were given the explanation for the bell ringing that same night, though the names of the offending internees were carefully withheld from them as recrimination would be certain and serious. But in spite of the explanation the Japanese were still convinced that the bell ringing had been the signal for a further escape ― hence the careful roll-call.


         Another source of information about the war was a pro-Japanese English newspaper, printed in Peking and distributed in small quantities in the camp. The statistics of casualties, sinking of ships and destruction of aeroplanes were heavily loaded in favour of the Japanese, the intention being to convince us that the Allies were losing the war in the Pacific. But it told us more than that.


         In the community at Weihsien was an executive businessman named Jackson from Tientsin who had been a military strategist. In his luggage were some detailed maps of the Far East war zone. With one eye on the Peking Chronicle and the other on the large maps, he was able to read intelligently between the lines and to make some fairly safe guesses about the true situation in the Pacific, and the directions in which the Americans were pushing.


         Jackson gave informal lectures on the war situation behind closed doors. With maps spread out on a bed in a bachelor dormitory and a baton in his hand, he quietly shared with an audience of some twenty men what he conjectured was happening to the east of us. We had a man on guard outside while the talk was being given. On at least one occasion the meeting was dispersed and the maps hurriedly put away at the approaching sound of Japanese boots.


         Jackson's thesis was irrefutable. However heavy the casualties claimed against the Americans might be the very mention of certain islands indicated at least where the battle was being waged. The mention over a period of months in this newspaper of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands, Manila, Iwo Jima and Okinawa was an unintended admission that the Americans had the Japanese on the run. To be fighting there the Americans must have advanced there!



End of Chapter.