Internee recalls Struggles


Japanese camp was a matter of survival for 10-year-old girl.


May 6, 1995.


The Capital-Journal


Ten-year-old Emily Pederson and tier sister Mary. They both had whooping cough. Fourteen-year-old Walter didn't but there was no telling when he might come down with it too.

A sickly child. Emily was rheumatic: she could hardly walk without medication.

It was no time to send them to an internment camp without their mother, but the Japanese didn't care. The three were the children of an American Marine. Japan was at war with America - and in control of this part of China. They would join other Caucasian nationals at the 'civilian assembly centre' outside Weihsien in Shantung Province, a 14 hour train ride from Tientsin.

Their mother. Margarethe Koehler Pederson, on the other hand, was a German national. Japan and Germany were allies in the war against the Western imperialists. There was no reason she couldn't continue to live in Tientsin s German concession. All she had to do was to wear the 'Hakenkreuz' -- the Nazi swastika.

'She got down on her knees to that Japanese officer and begged him in Japanese and Chinese and German and English to let her go." Emily Bryant recalled recently in Topeka. "And finally he said. 'all right, all right, all right... You can go.' It took us all day for mother to go through this because they kept telling us that the officer we needed to see was in another part of town. So we would walk there. And they'd tell us he was in another part of town. We ended up back where we'd started. He'd been there all along.

"The cruelty of the Japanese, to me, is fact.

"They were pretty friendly with us until they stopped us from going to school and then one day this Japanese officer and four soldiers with guns and bayonets walked in and said. Pack one bag. You have 24 hours and you're leaving.'

"Mother packed one basket and one little suitcase. Everything else was packed in eight big green wooden crates with 'U.S.M.C.' on'em. We kids slept on em. But all that had to be left.

The landlord told us after the war that the Japs just went in there and busted it up with axes.

"They took us by truck to a big open place and dumped everything out of our luggage and made us repack it. And then when we got to the train station they dumped everything out again and made us repack it.

"We ended up way out in the boonies. That's where the camp was. The camp had been a mission at one time."

Like many cities in China, the mission was walled, with a main gate 20 feet-tall and 15 feet wide. About a mile in circumference. it contained more than 3,000 civilians of all ages. In the spring of 1943, when the Pedersons arrived, most of the internees were Americans and British;, but after about a year "they brought in a bunch of Italians" - testament to the fact that fascist Italy had surrendered, on the other side of the world.

Other prisoners supervised the children, but Japanese soldiers supervised the adults, even inside the compound.

"We were SO interned! They had barbed wire on top of these walls, electrified wires 3 feet away from the wall, 9 feet away from the wall, and then a moat. Of course they had these gun towers all over the place. When we were playing, they always had a (soldier) in the tower watching us.

"They allowed us to have an army cot, and my grandmother (still living in Tientsin) got something similar to a rollaway bed. and so we had two army cots and a rollaway bed. I slept with my mother, and my brother and my sister each had a cot. "That was the total of the furnishings in their bare 8-by-8-foot cubicle.

"There were a lot of nice Japanese soldiers. They would tell us they didn't want to have us there, it was just war. But the bad ones were bad! There were a lot of bad ones and mean ones, too. One time they put my brother up against the wall" and threatened him with swords because he had pulled a notice off the wall.

"Rain had washed away the writing and it was half blown off by the wind, so he pulled it off." Bryant said.

"They did torture some people.

They killed a lot of Chinese. " And she recalls once at roll call when a couple of boys - playmates of hers - were jumping at a low-hanging electric wire in the compound. A guard in a tower nearby watched until both grabbed it. Then he turned on the power. Both boys were electrocuted.

"There are a certain amount of horrors that you see in war, but they never had to send us to psychiatrists." said Bryant. "A child's life is not as serious. If I'd been my mother trying to keep three kids alive, I'm sure it would be a totally different story.

In the camp, all prisoners had to work. Bryant's mother worked in the camp laundry. And in her spare time she took in other prisoners' washing, for cigarettes or other valuables.

"Just washed like the Indian women do on rocks, only she scrubbed sheets on the table. We would get packages now and then from outside the camp, from my grandmother, and the (Japanese) would go through them and take out what they wanted. They would leave some cigarettes in there for her. We used to go out before daylight and pick up the cigarette butts and take all the tobacco out, and I'm sure that's what killed her."

Emily and Mary cleaned fish in the camp kitchen. "We never got to eat it. I don't eat fish today as a result of it, because of the smell."

Walter pumped water to keep a reservoir filled to a specified level. "We drank well water from the pump.

The internees got three poor-quality meals a day, but "it was never enough. Mostly boiled bread, bread porridge for breakfast." It was no wheat bread. "It wasn't bread as I've ever eaten. Sometimes it would be burnt, sometimes it would be moldy. We never got milk or anything like that. We got mutton stew. A lot o gruel made with this red grain called "gaoliang' (a kind of milo). For school the lunch was a slice of bread when they had it with salt and pepper on it.

"Spent three birthdays in camp. I weighed 60 pounds when I got out

and I was 13."

A Girl Guide in the camp (British equivalent of the Girl Scouts), Emily cared for the sick and elderly and, when none of the. guards was looking, paced off the dimensions of the compound to draw a map of it.

"They gave each one of the girls a big skein of yarn. I made a vest, and then I took it apart and made a pair of mittens. I wore one pair of shoes which the Red Cross gave us for three years. We only wore shoes in the winter.

"We had a potbellied stove, and we got one bucket of coal a week. We made our own coal balls out of coal dust and mud," so the ration would stretch farther. "Then we had to guard `em, because the other people would steal'em.

"We would leave early in the morning and go dig in the garbage pile to get the clinkers. Sometimes there'd be a little bit of coal left."

Finally, a defeated Japan surrendered, and in September 1945 U.S. occupation forces arrived in Tsingtao, a port city several hundred miles east-southeast of Weihsien - but the GIs didn't know of the existence of the internment camp. Meanwhile, the Japanese guards had promised the camp inmates that they would all be killed.

With the aid of local Chinese villagers, two men managed to escape under the wall and make their way to Tsingtao and U.S. authorities.

Suddenly one October day a big American plane flew over the camp, dropping thousands of leaflets - and bundles containing food and medicine. The Japanese fled. "So of course we opened the gates. Those gates hadn't been open in almost three years.

"After they circled the camp, they went out a distance and dropped eight paratroopers. Then they brought in more troops after that."

The Japanese never came back, she said.

Because it took another two years to track down Sgt. John Pederson and make arrangements to send the family to California. Margarethe took her children back to Tientsin, "because my grandmother was there and my uncle. My grandfather by then was in Kobe, Japan. So he gave us this house to live in in Tientsin. The Russians had made a cafe and house of ill repute out of it. They allowed us two rooms to live in on the side of that building."

The Communists were already in charge in Tientsin, and food was not much more plentiful for the Pederson children than back in the camp. "We ate a lot of fried grasshoppers," Bryant recalls. "You could get a handful for 10 cents! You could just break the heads off. They were crunchy, too."

In 1947, after an 11-year separation, the family was reunited. The children went back to school - and to their separate careers. They are scattered again, now. The Marine and his longsuffering bride are dead. Walter is a retired U.S. Army command sergeant major living in Texas. Mary lives in Florida. And Emily and her husband, James, a Santa Fe Railroad employee, came to Topeka from Albuquerque three years ago.

I love Topeka, you know," said Bryant. "I had to cross a river like that every day on a sampan to go to school. This does remind me of some of the pleasanter years before the war."

But even here, there are sudden, unintended reminders. "Every time the siren goes off here at noon on Mondays. I'm right back under the raid!"