"Even though you have ten thousand fields, you can only eat one measure of rice a day. Even though your dwelling contain one thousand rooms, you can only use eight feet of space at night."
"In nineteen hundred and thirty-four
The sexes separate no more.
Co-Ed's the scheme for evermore,
Chefoo, Chefoo, for ever.
In nineteen hundred and thirty-five
The pirates captured us alive,
But British planes drove off the hive,
Chefoo, Chefoo, for ever.
In nineteen hundred and forty-two
They swiped our school and compound too,
But still we stayed in our Chefoo,
Chefoo, Chefoo, for ever.
In nineteen hundred and forty-three
They made us shift and travel by sea;
And we came to Weihsien C.A.C.,
Chefoo, Chefoo, for ever.
In nineteen hundred and forty-four
We hope to return to the well-known shore,
Our school's the same for evermore,
Chefoo, Chefoo, for ever."
(These fond hopes were penned in 1943, but were never realised.)
OUR FIRST WINTER in Weihsien Camp (1943) was now approaching. We had
been there some three months. By now we had got into the routine of camp
life-chopping wood, boiling water over primitive fires, supplementing our diet
of bread porridge, bread pudding and bread everything with such delicacies as
t'ang hsi (syrup), kao Bang (green beans), porridge
and tsao erhs (berries). Socially we were making valuable friendships with
Added to the business of living, eating and washing was the new problem of keeping warm in the Siberian type of winter. We had been freezing for several weeks in November, but in the first week of December small stoves were issued to each room. Throughout the winter small quantities of coal dust were distributed at irregular intervals.
Heath Robinson stove pipes were assembled by fitting together spliced jam tins. The pipe fitted into the stove and led out through a hole in the wall to the outside. Then there was the problem of fuel. Coal dust could not be burned in the condition in which it was issued. It was sifted, mixed with sifted soil in various ratios (one recipe for lighting the fire, another for banking the fire overnight and so on) together with water, and put out in the sun to dry as coal bricks. By careful rotation dozens of briquettes were prepared and dried in the sun. Wood was "scrounged" (a great Weihsien word) off trees and, by some, from kitchen supplies.
Then in addition to the little black stoves issued by the authorities, brick stoves were evolved with a standard design. Heat from the fire in this stove went around and behind an oven (which was a large peanut oil tin), and the smoke escaped up the jam-tin stove pipes. Thus there was scope for cooking, baking and keeping the room warm.
In this desperate effort to keep warm in this bitingly cold winter not only were coal dust, wood, jam tins and peanut oil containers at a premium, but bricks for the home-made stoves ― where could these be obtained?
One day the Japanese demolished a wall near the sports field in order to use the material for construction work elsewhere. To their amazement all the bricks disappeared overnight. Then a wall was demolished near the hospital for the same purpose. My grandmother was needing a stove in her room on the first floor of the hospital. Late one evening I borrowed a wheelbarrow, enlisted the assistance of my fellow student, Dick Vinden, and filled it with loose bricks from this demolished wall. We were pushing it through the darkness when a guard stopped us, and asked what we were doing.
Playing dumb was of no avail. "Ya men chu," he shouted ("Come with me to the guardroom"). To be taken to the guardroom was the most dreaded experience of camp life. We followed him a few steps, then he lost us in the darkness. The stove was duly built and served my grandmother and aunt for the remainder of the war.
Christmas came. We bought small presents for each other at the White Elephant, made little gifts from our limited supplies of wood, cloth and paper. We had games and parties, as well as a joint Christmas service in the camp church.
A group of us went from block to block on Christmas Eve singing carols, and we invariably ended each visit with this significant postscript:
"We wish you a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas, a merry Christmas;
We wish you a merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year,
And hope it won't be here!"
Imagine our surprise and amusement when on Christmas Day a Japanese guard off duty walked happily down the main road from the guardroom, singing merrily:
"Ha, ha, ha, hee, hee, hee,
Elephants nest on a rhubarb tree,
Ha, ha, ha, hee, hee, hee,
Christmas time is a time for me!"
The year 1944 came, and winter ended early in March. Supplies began to come intermittently. Such refinements as "adult education" and debating societies began to wane, and things more basic to our survival came to the fore. We became more and more resourceful amid our diminishing supplies. We patched up old clothes to keep ourselves covered. We explored new recipes to make spreads for our supplies of bread. Yeast was sometimes short, and one internee began research into making our own. We made squeegees and brooms for sweeping the floors.
Also visits from the Swiss Red Cross seemed to be less frequent, and consequently fewer medicines, drugs and letters arrived. "Comfort Money" was fast dwindling, and bartering for life's daily needs again became the order of the day.
Some Chinese peasants operating the black market had been caught red-handed by the Japanese and been brutally tortured, so this operation all but stopped.
became the prevalent sin. Every effort was spent acquiring fuel, food and
clothing. The fortunes of war produced some strange situations. One fine
British Jewish millionaire could be seen working regularly through a pile of
ashes behind Kitchen I, sifting and separating coke and partly burned lumps of
coal for his cooking needs. A leading
We were now coming to grips with the grim realities of life in a Japanese internment camp. Our bodies were tired with long hours of manual labour. We often went to bed longing for more food. Two slices of bread and thin soup were hardly a satisfying supper after a day of pumping water and carrying heavy crates of food.
I awoke on April 4th and realised that I was now nineteen. I had matriculated three years before, my classmates in the outside world were well on in their careers, and I was marking time behind electrified wires.
My religious faith was tottering a little, though I did not share this with my colleagues. Our prayers for release and liberty seemed of no avail. Was Christianity a mere academic exercise, or did it have some relevance in such circumstances as these, I asked myself.
"In the day of prosperity rejoice; but in the day of adversity consider. God hath set the one against the other that man should find nothing after Him". (Ecclesiastes 7: 14)
Was this at least part of my answer? The crutches on which I had been leaning ― liberty, food, clothing and the like ― were being slowly removed that I might "find nothing after Him". My thoughts went back to the baptismal service in 1940, when the crowds on the beach were singing:
"Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus,
Anywhere, everywhere, I will follow on.
Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus,
Anywhere He leads me I will follow on."
While waiting for the guards to come round during daily roll-call, we would look longingly over the wall through the barbed-wire fences beyond the fields under cultivation to the distant villages on the horizon as far as the eye could see.
From camp rumours ― bits of information which had come via cesspool coolies, and speculation ― we gathered that the countryside around us was not uniformly under Japanese control.
our camp was in the heart of Japanese occupied
Standing in one of the queues (of which Weihsien life had so many) one day Robin Hoyte, a fellow Chefoo student, nudged me. "Do you see those four chaps walking together?" he whispered. "Pearson tells me they are planning an escape."
were Hummel (a former English teacher at a Catholic university in
One Saturday evening in mid-June 1944 the news spread rapidly through the camp, "Hummel and Tipton have escaped." The effect on the humdrum routine of camp life was electrifying.
But after the initial excitement of such a dramatic development came a sense of apprehension, tenseness and fear. How would the Japanese react? Would there be serious recriminations on us? Would some of our privileges be curtailed?
Roll-call that afternoon took three times the normal duration. Over the months it had become loosely organised and carelessly administered. As a roll-call warden, waiting outside the guardroom to ring a bell as a signal that the community could break up and return to work, I had noted that the figures chalked up on the blackboard in the guardroom had one day totalled 1,492 and the next day 1,518, and so on, with little effort to account for the discrepancies.
But from now on it was an exercise computed with the utmost care. The Japanese guards would count us over and over again. The roll-call period was prolonged. The Guards were gruff and their attitude one of distrust. If rows straggled crookedly they shouted and swore.
Bit by bit details of the escape leaked out, and as we walked round and round the blocks when the day's work was over, in our little groups we shared excitedly but discreetly what we each had gleaned during that day.
Our camp leaders had been aware of the planned escape for that Friday night, but had planned to report the two men as missing on the Saturday afternoon, to ensure that the escapees had a reasonable start on their journey.
The commandant and his twenty-five guards were furious on hearing of the escape, and immediately made plans to recapture them. Soldiers with police dogs scoured the surrounding countryside unsuccessfully. The local press, we were told, gave a face-saving statement that seven had attempted to escape, and five had been recaptured. For two out of seven to get away was less serious than two out of two!
The nine men who shared their bachelor dormitory were arrested, placed in the church building for ten days, and subjected to prolonged interrogation. They all pleaded ignorance of any planned escape, and were released again.
I was working at the time in a shift cooking food in Kitchen I, and over the subsequent weeks the skeleton facts relating to their escape came out.
In order not to be missed in the routine of camp duties, Hummel and Tipton had taken leave from their shifts on which they had worked in Kitchen 1. They had also moved out of their bachelor dormitories and slept outside, so as not to implicate their room mates in any way.
They had calculated that on a certain night in June there would be a full moon, suitable for their escape across the Chinese countryside. Moreover, at a certain time this full moon would shine on the sentry's tower and cast a dark shadow across a large area of wall. At the guards would change, and the policeman coming on duty would do a routine inspection of the area around before mounting his watch-tower.
It was that short change-over period that enabled the escapers to escape and for which they had waited as planned. Two internees helped them through the two stages of electrified wires on to the field outside, where Chinese were waiting to assist in their getaway.
One of the effects of this successful escape was that the bachelors were moved from the top floor of the hospital (where they could see the open countryside and thus get ideas about escaping) to Block 23, nearer to the Japanese officers' quarters. The Japanese arranged for them to swap with the boys and girls of the Chefoo schools. I moved with the schools, getting a much coveted room to myself, which had just enough room for my mattress and improvised bedside table.
A guard off duty invited me to play him a game of chess. He took me to the officers' quarters at the far end of the camp from the gate ― a part I had been to only once previously to sweep and spring-clean some houses for Japanese officers moving in.
I sat in his room and looked round his abode simple, clean and cheerful. A picture of his sweetheart was on the wall. Uniforms were hanging up in the window to dry in the summer sun. He passed me a "ringo" (apple) as we played. It was hardly an inch and a quarter in diameter. I devoured it, small though it was. It was the only fruit I had tasted during the two years in Weihsien camp.
chess proved to be a most effective way of diverting one's mind from the trials
of those days-the shortage of food, the possibility of a Japanese victory in
Another pastime for me was learning French conversation. I had learned to read and write French, and had had good results in my Matric exams. Now was the opportunity to put theory into practice. The Belgian priests working alongside me in Kitchen I spoke French frequently to me, while I in turn helped them with English. Several evenings a week I went to the bachelor quarters of a Mr. Dorland for French conversation. Sitting on his porch in the dark (there was no electricity in the living quarters) we discussed architecture, theology and camp life in general. Rumour had it that Dorland was a spy for the Japanese, and so I steered the conversation along uncontroversial lines.
I also studied Chinese with a Major Littler of the Salvation Army, going through Genesis and the Gospel of Luke with him. I studied, on my own, Nunn's New Testament Greek which I had begun in Temple Hill Camp. It came easily to me, as its constructions were so similar to those of Latin. Also, I was in a group of boys studying Old Testament Hebrew under a London Missionary Society worker. We went partly through Davidson's Grammar, grappling with the complex verb system of that language. I sat a test on the book of Amos in Hebrew. All these studies were carried out with a view to preparing myself to be a missionary. I did not want the years in camp to go by with no preparation for some future career.
Included in this small group of keen Hebrew students was an Irish boy, Brian Thompson. Several years my junior, he was the life and soul of the group, always up to pranks. His mother was on the school staff, and he was the eldest of a line of young children.
One afternoon we were having roll-call on the overgrown tennis court outside the hospital. Five hundred men, women and children were in long lines, waiting for the Japanese guard and roll-call warden to arrive. Some were sitting on deck-chairs reading, others standing talking and laughing.
A school friend standing a few places away from me said to Brian, who was tall for his age and standing next to him, "I dare you to touch that wire." Over our heads going diagonally across the field was an electrified wire, running from the power station to the guard's watchtower behind us. Originally twenty feet from the ground, it had been sagging lower and lower in recent weeks.
Brian, standing with bare feet on damp ground, laughingly took up the challenge and touched the wire.
His fingers contracted around it. Letting out a desperate groan, he pulled the wire down to the ground; it narrowly missed dozens of fellow internees.
The following ten minutes were perhaps the most frightening in my life. Panic spread throughout the group. Brian's mother rushed to free him from the live wire, but someone thought quickly enough to hold her back, or she too would have been electrocuted. Screams and cries came from all sides, and pandemonium prevailed everywhere. Some calmer men slashed at the wire with their wooden deck chairs, which would not be conductors of electricity, and belatedly freed the victim, who was rushed in a lifeless state into the hospital, given artificial respiration but to no avail.
A shocked group of internees remained for the completion of roll-call formalities. For the rest of the evening we waited outside the hospital in the hope that Brian would be revived, but it was not to be.
A funeral service was conducted in the camp church the next day. Pa Bruce reminded us that while Brian had missed the roll-call that afternoon when the count was made, he had in fact answered a higher roll-call in the courts of heaven. We sang with heavy spirits but confident faith:
"When the Roll was called up yonder,
When the Roll was called up yonder,
He was there . . ."
was to hear after the war that one of the few pieces of news which reached my
Brian's sudden death left a solemn hush in my circle of friends.
Whenever free from shift work I was attending Anglican and Free Church services, was superintendent of a Sunday school of a hundred-odd children of many backgrounds and races, and was second trombonist in the Salvation Army band.
All these opportunities for worship and Christian fellowship were serving to strengthen my flagging faith, though there was still a persistent sense of purposelessness and frustration as the war dragged on. As far as my health was concerned I was suffering from amoebic dysentery and back aches, attributable to the conditions of hygiene and the hard manual labour in Weihsien Camp.
From the Roman Catholic priests (whom I greatly admired and came to regard as among my best friends in the camp-though I could not grasp the significance of their rituals and dogma) I had learned the habit of walking back and forth in the open for prayer and meditation. Kneeling at my bed to pray tended to put me to sleep from sheer exhaustion.
Into this situation came what I have come to regard as milestone number three in my spiritual pilgrimage. Back in the old Prep. School playground in Chefoo praying with a classmate on that Saturday afternoon eleven years previously, I had suddenly seen that God has no spiritual grandchildren, and that Christ was on the Cross for my sins and failures. Four years earlier was milestone number two when Father had baptised me on that summer day in 1940 in the bay in front of the schools, while the crowds on the beach were singing:
"Follow, follow, I will follow Jesus,
Anywhere, everywhere, I will follow on .. .
Early one morning I paced back and forth over the same tennis court where Brian had been electrocuted. A guard was on duty at his turret not far from me. At the basement of the hospital nearby was the camp laundry, where women were bringing out shirts and dresses to hang up in the sun to dry. In the hospital itself workers could be seen beginning the day's duties. I was hardly aware of all this as I looked over the wires of the camp wall towards the distant Chinese villages, thinking of God, my religious upbringing, my excellent matriculation results, my interminable period of internment, deteriorating health and vitality, my parents far away in Africa, the paucity of news from them ― and so on.
Walking back and forth half in prayer, half in introspective thought about my life in Weihsien, a Voice broke into my soliloquy, "Will you serve me in the Christian ministry?" I stopped in my tracks. It was as clear as any voice of a camp friend. I had wanted to be an accountant, to get some experience in the hurly-burly of commercial life, receive some theological training, and then return to the land of my birth to continue the work to which my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents had given so many years of their lives. Towards this end I had been studying Chinese, Japanese, Hebrew, Greek and Biblical subjects.
events were rapidly changing the face of
so, as with Moses tending his father-in-law's sheep on the hillside of
"I heard the call, ‘Come, follow',
That was all.
Earth's joys grew dim,
My soul went after Him .. .
End of Chapter.