To: Dr. David Michell
From: Mary Taylor Previte,
former prison mates converged on
of the camp were there -- Mrs. Cora
Hanna and Mr. Roy Seaman -- both
in their 90s. Chefoo school teachers and students and one from the camp's
Salvation Army contingent were there -- some with their spouses and children to
learn more of their family history. Some brought scraps of rescue parachutes,
treasured sketches drawn by
What do you remember after 45 years when time buffs away the rough edges?
How, fascinating what you DON'T remember! No memories of stinking latrines. No S.O.S. -- Same Old Stew -- and hunger gnawing at your gut. No prowling Alsatian guard dogs.
Instead, your eyes glaze with gentle wonder at the soft web of memories -- the doll chest crudely fashioned out of Red Cross-delivered Velveeta cheese boxes; the flying propellers launched from twisted string and empty wooden spools, and stringed acorn "konkers" for toys; the sugar-rich Christmas pudding gathering dust on the shelf over your bed, too rich for a hunger-cramped stomach; the trousers made of winter blankets. We discovered after 40 years you cherish mainly the tender snapshots of the soul.
What peculiar tenderness! Joy and singing and classmates hugging. Gentle tears. Memories tumbling over memories.
After a sumptuous Chinese feast, Edith Bell Riegler set the tone .with a lovely tribute to Chefoo teacher, Mrs. Eileen Bazire, artist, violinist, pianist, morale-builder. Mrs. Bazire was the inspiration behind the Weihsien's weekly Saturday night keep-your-chin-up entertainment, Edith recalled. When morale in camp reached rock bottom and she couldn't get anyone to entertain, Mrs. Bazire borrowed high heeled shoes, a long, chiffon evening gown -- with only a half-length slip available, Edith recalled. "She sailed down the aisle as a grande madame and romped all over that keyboard in a concert that brought the audience to its feet. She brought the house down. Elegance and Beethoven, indeed, beneath barbed wire!
Around the memory circle, Jackie "Skinny Bones Banana” Graham dragged us back to current events classes -- and angry Japanese guards rummaging through the camp to find a radio they insisted the prisoners had to have. How else could we know the news? "Well, the camp did have a radio," Jackie told us. You could tell he knew. "I guess I had earned a bad-boy reputation in the camp. I'd scale the forbidden wall and raid the Japanese vegetable gardens to trade for cigarettes." This was Jackie's super secret, delicious memory, told for the first time publicly after 43 years. "One of the camp bachelors -- they called him 'Lucky' -- recruited me--daredevil -- for some kind of secret, to trade a blown out radio tube from the camp's secret radio for a good one in a radio inside one of the buildings over the wall in the Japanese compound." After forty years we began getting the picture: clandestine maps and diagrams, practice sessions for a twelve year old spy, cover-up. Through the blur of memories we could see a pint-size classmate, Jackie Graham, 70 lbs., not even 5 feet tall, slithering over the barrier wall. "The window in the Japanese compound was open a bit," Jackie recalled. "I pushed it open, climbed in, found the radio and switched tubes. They had even given me a bag of dust to spread around to cover my marks. Leave everything the same. 'Lucky' never told me where the prisoners' radio was. They were afraid I would talk -- threatening me never to tell even my closest friend." Jackie, who travelled half a continent to the reunion, is now retired Colonel John Graham, having served in later years in the U. S. Army paratroop unit that had liberated the Weihsien Concentration camp.
Maida Harris Campbell recalled Jimmie Harrison's taming two glossy rooks in the square enclosure behind Kitchen Number One. " 'Jackie' and 'Billy' " Jimmy said, "were fledgings handed over the wall to me by a Chinese boy. At first I kept them in our bedroom upstairs in the hospital -- with my roommates Doug and Murray Sadler and Peter Bazire -- I taught the rooks to talk. “His taming those rooks, Maida said in reminiscing, boosted morale -- "It was a way of saying we still had control over something."
hours, we remembered the daily triumphs -- earthy victories over bedbugs and
rats and flies. If you panic at the summer's plague of flies, you organize the
schoolchildren into competing teems of fly-killers.
If you shudder at the rats scampering over you at night, you set up a
Rat Catching Competition with concentration
recalled how we adored the seven brave American paratroopers who liberated
Weihsien: how we trailed them when they walked up and down the lanes, when
they ate, and when they went to the latrines; how we confiscated their buttons
and insignia for souvenirs; how we children would climb on their laps,
and adolescent girls wished they could. And suddenly the group burst into
are my Sunshine, my only Sunshine. You make me happy when skies are gray."
I was a wide-eyed twelve-year-old again, dreamstruck by a sunbronzed American
soldier, singing at twilight to an adoring audience. We were not in
"...You'll never know, Dear,
How Much I love you.
Please don't take my Sunshine away "
And then ,we were on our feet, drawn to this circle by a common bond, singing the familiar Chefoo song, "Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things..." From beside me, I felt Marjorie Harrison Jackson's arm slip round me -- Marjorie, my Weihsien roommate, maker of coalballs with me, co-stoker with me of our dormitory's potbelly stove. A lump clogged my throat and the tears coursed warm on my cheeks.
was a lasting gift our teachers gave us, preserving our childhood -- and faith
-- in the midst of that bloody war. Forty million people died before that
madness ended, thousands in death marches, thousands more in grisly
concentration camps. Yet in a tiny, walled compound shadowed by
Those who attended were
George G. Bell
Mary Bell Boomer
Maida Harris Campbell
(Dr. Roy Campbell)
Enid Graham Fischer
John (Jackie) Graham Grant
Hanna Grace Harris
Marjorie Harrison Jackson
Mabel Andrews Johnston
Dorothy Andrews Kerlin
Dr. David Michell
Mary Taylor Previte
Edith Bell Reigler
Dr.(and Mrs)John H. Taylor
Dr. Dickson Vinden
Roxie Hanna Wilson