go to home page

What did Weihsien Camp look like?

by Norman Cliff:

The early arrivals at the camp found a compound which had been a flourishing American Presbyterian mission centre. Over the front gate of the former mission were three Chinese characters "Le Dao Yuan", meaning "Courtyard of the Happy Way". Would this phrase prove apt for the two and a half years ahead of them? The property had deteriorated amid the changing fortunes of the war. It had been looted by Chinese bandits and then occupied by Japanese soldiers; and then vacated and left to deteriorate further. The roads were strewn with rubble, the toilets choked, and the remains of desks and tables were lying around on the roads, having been broken up for firewood. It was some months before some form of order and cleanliness was achieved through the hard work of the early internees.

Among the prisoners there were a variety of skills, from artisans to executives. Soon an effective administration had been set up to co-ordinate the activities of some 2,000 people of all ages and nationalities. Committees were set up to handle each aspect of camp life - General Affairs, Discipline, Labour, Education, Quarters, Medical, Supplies, Engineering and Finance.

As regards the general layout John Hersey in his novel "The Call" described the camp as follows:

" The compound was large - more than five acres. But it was nevertheless a prison.

To the right of the main gate stood the Church, and beside it the athletic field. Running southward were two straight alleys, on both sides of which stretched about a dozen rows of long narrow one-sided buildings - evidently former student dormitories. Beyond these dorms to the south were two large classroom buildings, and farther, strictly out of bounds to the campers, were spacious courtyards with several substantial brick houses, formerly occupied by missionaries - now sheltering the Japanese camp authorities in fine style. To the east stood a large hospital building, with tennis courts and a basketball court beside it. "

In September 1943 another repatriation took place. 390 Americans and Canadians from Weihsien and Chefoo travelled on the Teia Maru to Goa, where an exchange of prisoners took place. They proceeded on the Gripsholm go to Don Menzi's story to the United States. Just about the same time, on 16 August, 440 Catholic priests and nuns were transferred to Catholic compounds in Beijing, leaving in Weihsien 10 priests and 5 sisters.

In August 1943, overlapping slightly with those who were repatriating, 450 prisoners, mostly children of the C.I.M. schools, came from Chefoo. They were fortunate in that the camp roads had been cleared of litter, the rooms had been cleaned, the toilets were hygienic, and the kitchen, though with poor menus, was being smoothly run.


The weather in Weihsien went to extremes - freezing cold in winter end oppressively hot in summer. The main needs in the camp were adequate food and suitable clothes. Morale in the camp kept remarkably high up to the end of the 1944. Mrs. Beatrice Lack, on the Chefoo School staff, later wrote:

" There was much unrest as the third winter approached. The food was very poor, and quite a number of people failed to carry out duties for which they were rostered. The Camp Committee therefore faced a difficult situation, for jobs essential to the health of the camp were not being done, and this necessitated a call for volunteers. "

A reprieve came - first and last time in January 1945, when American Red Cross parcels arrived in Weihsien - for the first and last time in the war. There was much of nutritious value in these parcels - powdered milk, tinned butter, spam, cheese, chocolate, sugar, coffee, jam, salmon end raisins. Thus the energy to do the heavy manual work was lifted briefly, only to slip down again soon afterwards.

The size of the Weihsien community varied from 1,500 to 2,000, and was affected by the departures of Americans for repatriation end of the Catholic priests end nuns to Beijing, and the arrival of the Chefoo group. The list of deaths is surprisingly small, considering the conditions under which the civilian prisoners had to live.