go to home page

The Salvation Army Band in Weihsien: 1943 to 1945

Article put together by Peter Bazire

I was born in Szechwan in 1930 and made the long journey with my family to Chefoo (now Yantai) in 1935. My parents joined the teaching staff, and my elder brother and I settled into school life very happily.

My mother, Mrs Eileen Bazire, B.Mus., took charge of music in the school and she soon had Theo and me learning musical instruments: piano and violin respectively. I did not practise as much as I should, but a flair for music (perfect pitch, a good sense of harmony and an unusual memory) carried me along.

Later my mother assembled an orchestra for 10 to 17 year olds, which I joined when I was 10. We played simple, but enjoyable, pieces and gained experience in ensemble playing.

(All standing) from left to right
Donald Littler, Adjutant Fred Buist, Marcy Ditmanson, James Dempster, Peter Bazire, Doug Sadler, Josh Clarke, Major Henry Collishaw, Gene Huebener, Steve Shaw, Norman Cliff, Major Ollie Wellbourn, Ian Sowton, Major Charles Sowton, Major Len Evenden, Brigadier Len Stranks.

I now fast forward to Sept. 1943 when we in Chefoo were taken to Weihsien to join the many who had already come from other parts of N. China. After this great upheaval and settling into Camp life, it was so uplifting, soon, to hear the Salvation Army Band, and indeed the Weihsien Symphony Orchestra in a concert later that month. Little did I know in those first few weeks that I was to become a member of the band (with Donald Littler, the youngest players) and later on to play in the orchestra. Those two years in Weihsien, building on the foundation in Chefoo, transformed my musical life. An older Chefoo boy, Wally Desterhaft, was repatriated, along with others, to the USA soon after we arrived in Weihsien. He kindly gave me his trumpet and so began a new chapter in my music life.

The SA Band was put together in the spring of 1943 by Brigadier Len Stranks, soon after many people had arrived in Weihsien. There was a strong nucleus of Salvation Army officers, plus two sons, and they were augmented by a few other players. Brig Stranks conducted, and he also played the E flat bass (tuba).

Early that autumn I was kindly invited to join the band. My classmate Doug Sadler had blown my trumpet at a Chefoo concert and Adjutant Fred Buist, the principal cornet player, who heard Doug, invited him to join too, and supplied him with a cornet. Norman Cliff from Chefoo also joined, and played the trombone.

Here I must mention the kindness of Brig Stranks’ younger daughter Mrs Joyce Ditmanson/Cotterill for letting me quote excerpts from Marcy Ditmanson’s diaries. Joyce herself also supplied me with valuable information, both from Peking days and from Weihsien itself.

In Peking, in early 1943, Brig Stranks heard that the Japanese had ordered all ‘alien’ personnel to be ready to go to Weihsien. He cycled to all the compounds and asked people to bring musical instruments and music to Weihsien. He put some brass instruments between mattresses and tied them together in pairs to protect the instruments. His elder daughter Nelma carried his viola strapped onto her back.

I gradually learnt enough to play the 2nd cornet part for hymn tunes. It took some time before I could join fully in playing more difficult music such as marches.

Let me quote from Marcy Ditmanson’s diary: Sept 28 (1943)

“ ... I’ve joined the Salvation Army band. It gives me something to do, and gives me good practice on my cornet. We practise on Tuesday evenings in the sewing room, and play three times a week at meetings or the open air….”

I well remember the cold winters, and how we cornet/trumpet players could not wear gloves as the valves were too close together. Our hands and lips were chapped but it did not occur to us to stop playing.

Let me turn again to Marcy’s diary, an entry on Feb 27th 1944;

“…..I had pancakes today after a two-hour clothes wash. I mixed in my week’s egg with yesterday’s bread porridge, and added some flour, baking powder and salt begged off Gene (Huebener). It was quite a treat. Finished just in time for band-playing at 11.30. We played marches and hymn tunes for about an hour and a half, -outside the hospital, near the Italian camp, and in front of building 23. A lot of people turned out to hear us. Two new pieces are being written in camp for the band,- a march by Gene, and a selection by Major (sic) Stranks and Mrs Bazire….”

We now move on to July 4th, and a most fascinating entry in Marcy’s diary:

“We’ve celebrated the ‘Fourth’ with a full day’s program of athletic, religious and social events, with the whole community, regardless of nationality, either participating in or enjoying the goings-on. We had to have permission, of course, for the celeb(ration)……..We had a special church service at 11:45, well attended by both Am(ericans) and Brit(ish). The band played. Most of the selections we played, (Am)erican) were instrumented in camp: “Star Spangled Banner”, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” “God Bless America”,…..The (base)ball game in the evening was between the Am(ericans) and the (Brit)ish). It was a closely fought game…..The band played from its march books in between innings. At the close of the game we played “God Bless Am(erica)” and “My Country, ‘tis of Thee”. All the spectators, numbering 5-6 hundred, I suppose, stood at attention as we played the latter piece. It was a most impressive moment. To the Br(itish), of course, we were playing their nat’l anthem; to the Americans one of the best- loved patriotic hymns……”

July 5th(1944):

“There have been some repercussions from yesterday’s celebrations. The Jap(anese) objected to our playing ‘national anthems’. (Answer to the Japanese) “‘America’ is not a national anthem”. (Japanese) ‘Well then why did everybody stand at attention when it was being played?’ Stranks was warned by Schmidt (the Discipline man) on orders from the J. not to play any more patriotic airs….”

It has occurred to me: what did we use for valve oil then? Perhaps some members of the band had valve oil, but I think I spat on my valves for lubrication!

There is an entry in Sept 30th (1944) in Marcy’s diary which is interesting in itself, and which has a bearing on band practice:

“…..The scouting movement here has gotten into trouble thrice during the past week or two.

A cpl(couple) of boys were caught pacing out a certain area within the camp and drawing a map based on their findings. An order promptly came forbidding the sketching or painting of walls, bldgs or other structures along the main walls of the camp.

Chefoo boys ran afoul of the authorities a few days later because they had a campfire. The J(apanese) wanted to know where the logs came from. They could only see it as wasting precious fuel, and they threatened reprisals. So no more campfires.

Last night the rangers had their regular meeting in the Kindergarten room. Sergeant Pu Hsing Te (Marcy wrote the Chinese characters) somehow took offence to this and stopped the gathering, taking the leader, Miss Phare, down to the guardhouse. The upshot of it all was that the compound in which the campfires and meetings were held had been declared “out-of-bounds” after dark. In that compound are also the book-binding room, barber shop, shoe-shop, post office, electric power house and sewing room. Hereafter our band practices, which were held Monday nights in the sewing room, will be held elsewhere, probably in the church….The band too met with disfavor.

Thursday night. It was playing just outside the church per custom to draw people to the evening. meeting inside. Serj. Pu Hsing Te came along, took Brig. Stranks down to the guard-house and reprimanded him for playing outside the church without permission. The band had perm. to play inside, but not outside! Serj. Pu Hsing Te is not very popular.”

“Oct 1. Sunday…..
The band played outside the church again tonight, but were stopped by the J. We were told hereafter not to play after dark. It is all right to play inside tomorrow.”

Here is an interesting and amusing story kindly told me by the Rev Joe Cotterill, who will be 90 in March 2007.

“ Gene Huebener, who played the tenor horn in the band, had an interest in helping boys in Weihsien. One of his activities was to get boys to construct recorders in bamboo. So up to a dozen boys would gather in Gene’s dormitory, much to the annoyance of the other men who slept there, and be shown how to make recorders from sticks of bamboo, and then how to play them. It was the latter which annoyed his fellow dormitory members! But the boys enjoyed it and profited from it.

“Unfortunately one of the boys later developed appendicitis, and a slither of bamboo was found in his appendix!”

We come to February 1945. It was a bitterly cold winter. On Feb 18th the band was playing outside the hospital where Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner, was lying seriously ill. He sent a request to the band to play one of his favourite hymns, “Be Still My Soul”, to the tune “Finlandia”. At the time we did not know that Eric would not have much longer to live. The memory of playing that day will live with me for ever. It was such a privilege, playing for our great hero, Eric.

(1) Standing:
Steve Shaw, Donald Littler, Adj, Fred Buist, Doug Sadler, Josh Clarke, Peter Bazire, Marcy Ditmanson, James Dempster, Major Len Evenden.
(2) Crouching:
Major Ollie Wellbourn, Norman Cliff, Gene Huebener, Brig Len Stranks, Major Henry Collishaw, Ian Sowton, Major Charles Sowton.

We move on to the summer of 1945 and to that most glorious, most memorable of days: Aug 17th, when we were liberated by the American paratroopers. Again let Marcy speak:

“Aug 17, 1945. Brigadier Stranks got the band together and we lined up on an elevation overlooking the north wall (by the gate) and began playing national airs and marches. The band struck up “God Bless America” and the “Stars Spangled Banner”. About fifty Pao An Tui from Weihsien had arrived and were lined up outside the gate. The band played “Sam Min Chu”, (the Nationalist national anthem), and the Chinese all stood at attention, cheering and clapping when we had finished.”

I well remember that occasion. I had hoped to go out through the gate to enjoy the freedom of being in the surrounding countryside, but someone (Doug?) had brought my trumpet along, so instead I enjoyed playing in the band. Later I joined in the activities outside the camp.

I should add that earlier that summer we began practising the national anthems of all the countries represented in the camp, but NOT the top line, so as not to arouse the suspicion of our guards. These tunes were arranged as a medley by a band member, and on Aug 17th, we of course played it with all the melodies.

Again, may I remind readers that excerpts from Marcy Ditmanson’s diaries have been used by permission from Mrs Joyce Ditmanson/Cotterill.

A Footnote:

After coming to England in Dec 1945, I hardly ever played the trumpet again, except on Christmas Days for a few years when I would play “Christians Awake, Salute the Happy Morn” first thing in the morning. If any of the family were asleep, they were soon wide awake!

Peter Bazire in 2007. (Bath - England)

In 2000 my three children had my Weihsien trumpet restored for my 70th birthday. Later I joined the Bath Spa Training Band. I occasionally play 3rd cornet in the main Bath Spa Band in their lighter concerts. The violin is still my main instrument.

I have played in the Bath Symphony Orchestra (amateur) for the last 43 years...