Window Three






I waved goodbye to my parents and two younger brothers as I boarded the coastal steamer in Shanghai to go to Chefoo. They were all going back to Hanzhong in Western China where my parents were missionaries. I was six years old and, although none of us knew it, I would not see them again for five years.


I was in the care of two female teachers from the Chefoo School, a boarding school for missionaries’ children, and I don't remember having any great emotions of grief at the parting. This is just the way life was. That's how I faced the next five years.


The Chefoo School had a reputation for being the "best school east of the Suez". It was run along the lines of an English public school and at times brought to mind aspects of "Tom Brown's Schooldays". It was divided into a Prep School, Girls’ School and Boys’ School.


The Prep School was housed in a large two storey building just across the road from the beach. Because of its position on Chefoo Bay, boating and swimming were high on the agenda of school activities. Not in winter though. The Bay sometimes iced over. Winters were cold, but I was not allowed to wear "longs" (i.e. long pants) until I was old enough to go to the Boys' School at about the age of twelve. Meanwhile I wore shorts in the summer and "plus fours" or knickerbockers in the winter. These buckled under the knee and knee length socks were pulled up to meet them.


There was keen competition, especially in the Boys School for honours in rowing. The climax of the competition came on Foundation Day when two crews were chosen to compete in the two racing boats called Hero and Leander. The crews consisted of a cox and four and there had been six weeks of eliminations to find the two best crews. Foundation Day was one of those special holidays that became weighed down with tradition. It was celebrated to remember the laying of the foundation stone for the first major building on 15 June 1896. The boat races were always on the afternoon before Foundation Day.


As with any good English Public School of that era, we were immersed in such subjects as Greek Mythology and Latin. So we knew that Hero was a priestess of Aphrodite the goddess of love. She lived in Sestos, a town on what is now the Gallipoli Peninsula on one side of the Dardanelles. Leander was a youth who lived across the Dardanelles on the Asian side in what is now Turkey.


They fell in love but Hero had made a vow of chastity so could not marry him. Still, every night Leander used to swim the channel between Europe and Asia guided by a lamp in Hero’s tower. One stormy night a high wind extinguished the beacon and Leander was drowned. His body was washed ashore beneath Hero’s tower. In her grief she threw herself into the sea and drowned too.


Hero and Leander’s story is inextricably bound up with the sea, and so our two racing boats were appropriately named after them.


I accepted Boarding School life and the fact that my parents were 1600 kilometres away in the west of China. I don’t remember having any great longings to be back in Western China. This was where I was, and whatever life doled out to me, that was OK by me. I slept in a dormitory with about a dozen other boys. There was a verandah just outside our window where we used to sneak out after lights out and savour the piquant flavour of fear of being caught by the teachers. We shared a large shower and toilet block, and there were small dressing cubicles which we used to prepare for our showers. However, on a number of occasions, due to some misdemeanour, I was placed in one of these cubicles alone and in the dark until well after lights out.


I refused to drink the hot milk that was served into individual cups and had gone cold by morning tea time. On one memorable occasion the skin on the top of the milk caused me to throw up, and spread my breakfast around the floor. But I loved the peanut butter spread on bread, as I could roll it off into a ball and save it in my pocket for future pleasure, usually mixed up with whatever else also occupied the pocket.


I was an average student, but excelled in reading and was placed two classes up for reading lessons. I suppose that I was lucky in having my Auntie Jesse living not far away. She was the nurse for the whole school, Prep School, Boys' School and Girls' School. On behalf of my parents, she bought me a full size bicycle for my birthday in 1941, of which I was immensely proud. Unfortunately, later in 1941 she left with a much loved teacher from the Boys' School, David Bentley-Taylor to get married in the Province where my parents worked.


I played with other children, but was just as happy by myself. I could be a bit of a loner. Alongside the playing field and running up towards the “San” or Sanatorium – the school hospital - was a shallow gully. When I was alone in that area, I used to duck down into the gully and then stomach crawl along it as far as I could go. The fact that it was “out of bounds” made this exercise doubly delicious.


There was a rowing boat placed at the edge of our playing field. It was of course high and dry and someone had supplied a ladder to use as a gangplank in our fantasized activities. One day I was playing with another boy on the boat and I threw the gangplank away as we “cast off”. Unfortunately the gangplank fell back on my fingers and I nursed a painful two fingers on my right hand for a week or two. Fortunately I am left handed. I still have the scars clearly on my index and middle fingers of my right hand over sixty years later.


I was playing by myself on the school playing field in early December 1941, after having been at the school for about a year, when I saw a Japanese soldier come in the gate in the wall that surrounded the school compound. He hammered a piece of paper on the gate then strode purposefully in to the school. This was the day after Pearl Harbour, and we were "confined to barracks". This was the beginning of our internment by the Japanese which would not end until August 1945.


The Headmaster and other leading business men were taken away by the Japanese, but were returned safely some days later - all except for one business man who died for unknown reasons while being questioned. Otherwise we carried on as usual, but were not allowed to go outside the school compound. It was about this stage that I discovered that the Japanese had stolen my bicycle. This war was becoming really unfair!


And then other things changed also. First of all we had to vacate the Prep School building and move to the Boys' School building. This did not last long before we were told that we were to be interned in an old Presbyterian Mission Compound at Temple Hill on the other side of Chefoo. We could not take much with us, and the Japs did not supply any sort of transport for us, so the older teachers went by rickshaw and the rest of us walked.


It was four or five miles away, and we had to walk up past "Moore's Fort", the house where my family had holidayed since my grandparents day. We passed the foreign cemetery where my great grandparents were buried. We trudged along the main streets of the town of Chefoo where we were objects of curiosity to the Chinese people as we walked with our Japanese guards flanking our serpentine column.


Brought up with a strong belief that God was in control, even in the worst of circumstances, we were soon singing under the leadership of the teachers, a song asserting that "God is still on the throne", much to the incredulity of both our Jap guards and the onlooking Chinese population.


Finally we made it up the hill to the compound in Temple Hill where we found that we had been allocated a building for the Prep School. Upstairs we found the boy’s bedroom was small with only enough room for us to sleep with a narrow margin between each bed. The girls had a similar setup in another room. Our room looked out onto a verandah on which a lot of our boxes and trunks were stored due to lack of space inside. We were bothered a few times by Chinese thieves who had climbed the compound wall which was topped with broken glass set in cement, and then climbed to the verandah from outside the building and rifled our possessions.


Downstairs, the couple of rooms available were used for lessons and dining. I can’t remember where the kitchen was, but the building was built on a slope and underneath were a couple of small store rooms. The main interest to me in the store room was the bin of chook food – some sort of mash – which I found very tasty.


Early the next morning we were called out to the front of the building where we had to learn to count in Japanese, so that we could respond clearly as we numbered off for Roll Call. "Ichi, nee, san, she, gwo, rocku, shichi, hachi, ku, ju." For the next three or four years we were called out for roll call at eight o’clock every morning. The residents of each building gathered in a suitable spot outside in two rows and numbered off. The two Jap guards then consulted their list to check that we were all present and accounted for. They then had to compile an aggregate figure after all the guards had reported their results. Only when this final figure satisfied the camp commandant were we able to go on with our day’s activities.


I wasn’t aware of the method by which the food was supplied to us, but once a pig was killed for the school larder. I heard the penetrating squeals as the poor beast ended its life, but did not actually see the deed being done. I did however follow the rest of the process using boiling water to remove the bristles.


I don’t remember any other animals in the compound, except on one occasion when a rabid dog came in the gate and ran wildly around the place. There was a fair bit of open space inside the walls, and so it was hard to capture the animal. The Japanese guards threw missiles such as half bricks at it, and at least one of them found its target, making the dog even more demented. I think it eventually found the gate and ran outside into the town. Goodness knows with what awful results.


Just inside one stretch of wall was a bamboo grove which extended about five or six metres out from the wall and stretched for about sixty metres. As this compound had once been a Presbyterian College of some sort, someone had built a small, hidden outdoor chapel in this grove. There was a log pulpit and log pews, enough to seat about fifteen people. I discovered this as I explored the place and imagined myself preaching in this beautiful haven. It was the first time that I had thought about what I might be when I grew up, and proved to be prophetic.


We were in this make do concentration camp at Temple Hill for almost a year when we were told that we would be moving to a bigger camp at a place called Weihsien. Before the War, the Chefoo School boasted about six or seven hundred students in the three sections, Prep, Boys’ and Girls’ Schools. Many of the parents of students had heeded the warnings or for other reasons had taken their children out of the school and returned to their homeland. So now there were less than three hundred students left altogether and only about a dozen in the Prep School. I don’t know how many teachers were still with us in total, but the Prep School had four lady teachers left.


When the time came to move, we packed our things and made our way down to the harbour where a tramp steamer was waiting for us. We climbed on board and found that our quarters were in the hold. We had a raised platform to sleep on either side of a central walkway. There was just enough room to spread out our blankets with almost no space between beds. A bucket was placed in the middle of the walkway for any necessary relief trips during the night. Some sort of makeshift curtain was place half way along to give the girls privacy from us and vice versa. Soon after we set off and while still in the harbour, a small motor boat caught up with us and loaves of bread were delivered for our two day trip around the coast. The baker had been running late and almost missed us.


It wasn’t a very pleasant trip. We were on board for two nights and we were glad to reach the harbour in Qingdao the following morning. We were then placed on a train and by late afternoon we were at the station of the walled city of Weihsien. At the station we were put on “buses”. These were tray trucks with low sides and all the luggage was placed on first and then we climbed on top.


It was only a few miles to the Weihsien Civil Assembly Centre which was to be our new home until – we knew not when. Soon the camp came into sight. We could see rows of huts and some taller buildings. There was a church and it was all surrounded by a high wall with electrified barbed wire running along the top of it. Here and there were guard towers, and as we approached the entrance we saw Japanese guards standing with their rifles and bayonets ready to welcome us.


The Chinese style of gateway had three Chinese characters written across the top of it and later I learned that they said, “Courtyard of the Happy Way”, for this had been another Presbyterian Mission Centre. It was about 200 metres by 150 metres in size and included a church, hospital, rows of small rooms to house the Bible School students, larger buildings for classrooms and staff houses for the American missionaries, teachers and doctors.


We drove through the gate and up the incline with what seemed like hundreds of internees standing on either side of the road to witness our arrival. We stopped, with the church and a playing field on our right. We were unloaded and gathered on the playing field while a camp leader read out the instructions about the camp to us and then we were assigned sleeping quarters. We were now a small part of the 2,000 or so people who had been interned in this Concentration Camp called Weihsien.


We were taken to one of the larger buildings called Block 24 and down into a very dank basement where we were given beds and bedding of a sort. My bed was a folding camp stretcher which was constructed of a piece of canvas stretched between two rails attached to folding legs. The rails were held apart with a removable wooden crosspiece at each end which kept the whole thing rigid. However on my bed the two cross pieces had been lost and so you could still sleep in it, but it sagged with your weight and the outside rails threatened to close in over the top of you. I actually loved this and found it rather cosy.


That room was our home for the first couple of weeks, and in that time two or three of us got “jaundice” as it was then called. There is something appealing about being sick in a boarding school. We were away from our parents and the teachers were mostly spinster missionaries who, having been called by God to work amongst the heathen in China, were then allocated, because of their training, to teach and live with a challenging bunch of missionaries’ children. In all the time that I was in the Chefoo School I do not remember any teacher putting their arm around me or showing any kind of physical affection to me. Except once. That was while we were still in Chefoo and I woke up about 10 or 11 o’clock one night from a nightmare. I must have called out and was obviously upset when a teacher came in to the darkened dormitory and sat on the side of my bed, put her arm around me and hugged me better. That hug stands out in my memory.


So being sick was another way of getting some kind of personal attention. I was taken out of my fold up camp stretcher and placed in a large double bed that stood at one end of the room. My skin had gone yellow. I was quickly nauseated by anything that was or looked like it was greasy. I had no energy. I was quarantined from the other children – as far as that was possible in the confined quarters of a prison camp. But I had, from time to time, the undivided attention and care of some of the teachers.


Soon after this our small Prep School was allocated more permanent quarters where we stayed for the rest of the War. It was in Block 23 and was on the ground floor. I imagine that it was a teacher’s flat in a former life. Block 23 was a large building with a bell tower in the centre. The front of the building had a long stone flagged verandah along its full length, and one end of this verandah led to a door which gave access to our quarters.


When you walked in the door you found yourself in a tiny hallway with a door straight ahead. This led into the teachers bedroom. By that stage in the school’s evolution we were down to three female teachers, Miss Carr, Miss Stark, and Miss Woodward. If you turned left in the small hallway, there were two more doors. The door on the left was the girls’ room. There were five girls left in the Prep School, and in the last room there were nine boys.


The boys’ room was a much larger room than the other two. We did not have beds but slept on mattresses on the floor. My bed was just inside the door. Every morning we had to make our beds and roll up the mattresses against the wall because this was the class room and living room during the day. Our trunks were placed in the centre of the room and we sat on these for classes. In that sense life went on as normal, but there were few supplies and we had to use the books which we had been able to bring in with us. Apart from that the teachers were probably most creative in trying to give us as normal an education as possible during those years.


I remember using slates and chalk for some subjects and activities such as maths, but we also had a few notebooks which we used until we got to the end of the book, then we turned the book upside down and wrote between the lines. There was a pot belly stove in the middle of the room, but fuel was difficult to get. We were able to scrounge coal dust and, learning from others in the camp, we mixed the dust with dirt and water, then formed them into briquettes. The didn’t burn very well, but had to do.


One of the activities I will always remember was the endless pursuit of bed bugs. These were pandemic and their total destruction was a constant fantasy. They seemed to hide in the cracks in the wall plaster during the day, and then when these warm bodies were comfortably settled in their beds on the floor, over would trot this army of bed bugs and proceed to graze all night on the ready supply of blood that was available. If you squashed them in the night, they left streaks of blood on your sheets and a strong and distinctive smell behind them. During the day we would use boiling water and pour it into any available crack, and use other means to block up cracks, but if we were at all successful it was hard to see the results of our efforts.


Along one wall of our room was a long bench which held basins and other items for our ablutions. We were able to buy soap from the Japanese, but no toothpaste, so for years I got used to cleaning my teeth with soap. I can still hear the teachers asking us if we had washed our ankles, behind our ears and between our legs. One teacher seemed to find a need to inspect the appendages between these latter items to see that they were clean.


We did not have access to much in the way of medical supplies or vitamin supplements. When the medical powers that be figured that we were all deficient in calcium, we collected egg shells, which were dried and powdered. A teaspoonful of this dry, choking powder was swallowed each day for a period. At another stage I was deemed to be anemic and in need of iron. This was supplied by the simple means of collecting rust from old metal and grinding it into a powder and administering it to me in the same way.


Day to day life inside a prison compound became normal after a while. We played marbles – “alleys” – in the dust outside, and also hopscotch. I collected labels off food cans that had been thrown away in people’s rubbish bins. It was amazing how many people must have brought in canned food with them. We used some of the larger cans to make small ovens by lining them with mud and cooking minute scones, although I think ‘scones’ is a rather grand name for what actually resulted from this effort. But like a lot of things that children do, the fun experienced during the effort made it well worthwhile, regardless of the result.


There were four kitchen/dining room complexes scattered around the camp. One was in the basement of the hospital and was a diet kitchen. The other three were numbered one to three and internees were allocated to one of these for their meals. We went to Kitchen One. I don’t remember the meals much, probably because they were not very memorable. What was memorable was the Menu Board on which the cooks used their creative writing skills to describe the coming meal in the most exotic terms. You would think that you were in the grandest hotel in the land. What was actually served was bread porridge for breakfast, watery stew in the middle of the day, and whatever was left over for the evening meal.


I remember mainly the things that broke the monotony. A couple of times we got Red Cross parcels and the main item of interest to me was the powdered milk that we could have. It was only a tablespoonful, but I still remember the beautiful taste of that powder mixed with a little water and eaten a lick at a time from the spoon. I also remember when we actually got pieces of meat you could recognize as meat. It was – I was told later – horse or donkey or some such animal. My fellow Prepites were not very impressed and so I was able to enjoy some extra pieces on that occasion. I think we may have had peanut butter sometime in those three years, because I remember walking around to the little yard behind Kitchen One and finding a man with a meat grinder, carefully grinding peanuts into peanut butter. I talked to him for a while, hoping that I might be lucky enough to get a lick, but it wasn’t to be my lucky day.


After breakfast, our teachers felt that we needed to be taught how to be regular, so we were sent off to the communal toilets to empty our bowels. This we did faithfully, and when we returned to our rooms, we would be asked by the teacher on duty, “Did you go?” and if we replied that we had not been able to “go”, then we were told to “Go and try again”, which we did, usually with positive results. These toilets were emptied into a cesspool which was accessed each day by some Chinese farmers who took the contents in wooden buckets carried on a pole across their shoulders – “honey buckets” we called them - to their fields to fertilize the vegetable crops. It always seemed to me to be an excellent and natural recycling process. One of the children in the camp fell in to one of these cesspools due to some tragic mischance. He survived, and the worst long term result of his accident was that he was from then on known as “Cesspool Kelly”.


Talk about tragic mischance’s reminds me of some deaths we had in the camp. I remember walking up one of the main streets of the camp and seeing the very spot where a young man had fallen from a tree and been killed just the day before. Bringing death closer to home, was the accident that killed one of the boys in our Chefoo Boys’ School. He had been with the others for the morning roll call near the hospital where they lived, and had jumped up to touch a low electric wire that had been loosened in the wind – possibly as a dare. Unfortunately it was very much alive and he was electrocuted.


To an eight or nine year old death was fascinating, repelling and scary all at the same time. When one of the nuns died, she was laid out in the small building that served as a morgue not far from the hospital. I found my way there one day, and as no one was around, I climbed in the broken window and stood and looked at her for quite a while. Later they had an official viewing of the body, and I queued up with the rest and had another look.


Eric Liddell the Olympic runner of “Chariots of Fire” fame was in our camp. He spoke at one of our Chefoo church services and told us about the famous episode when he would not run in an Olympic race because it was to be held on a Sunday. He was a truly great man and in my young mind was a true hero. Unfortunately he also died in the camp of a brain tumour, just months before the end of the War. In 2002, my brother Frank and I went to Weifang, as the town is now called. It is a city of some millions of people and is internationally famous as the world kite centre. We found the old camp site which is now the No. 2 Middle School and the only buildings still standing were a couple of the houses where the Japanese had been quartered and the hospital. But in a position just behind where the church used to be and next to the former front gate was an “Eric Liddell Memorial Garden”, which was locked up behind a wall and we were able to get access to it and take some pictures.


One night during our internment we were woken up and called out to a roll call as someone had rung the bell which graced the top of our building. We were kept outside until the Japanese were satisfied that no one had escaped. But on another occasion a couple of men did escape over the wall and joined with Government forces outside the camp until the end of the war. They were able to keep the Chinese Government in Chongqing up to date with information about the camp. At the end of the War they came back in with the American liberators and told us some of their adventures.


Inevitably the end of the War came. There had been gossip about the War being over, but no one knew for sure what was happening. At times we had seen planes flying very high overhead, and people wondered in the last few days whether they might be American planes. Then on 17 August 1945, about 9:30 am, a plane was heard to circle the camp. I rushed out to see what was happening and could see this front silhouette of a B24 bomber coming towards us at a low altitude. It was coming straight at us with its round body and two engines either side joined by the slim shape of the wings. and then we saw parachutes falling from it. It flew so low that we could see that it was aptly named “The Flying Angel”. We knew this was it.


This was the most exciting day of my life. I was 10½ years old and for the first time since December 1941, a month before my 7th birthday, I was going to be free. Seven parachutes floated to the ground outside the camp. There was no doubt about what we had to do. We had to be there to welcome them. It seemed like the whole camp, all 1500 of us, rushed down the incline to the entrance and through the gate, past the Japanese guards who were still standing there with their rifles and bayonets, but obviously unsure how to react. What did it matter. Out in the fields we found the 7 Americans who became instant hero’s. They were carried in on the shoulders of some of the men and soon had things sorted out peacefully with the Japanese. From now on they were in charge, and we were free.


By the end of the War, our caloric intake was very low, and so it was with great excitement that over the next few days tonnes of supplies were dropped by parachute just outside the camp. Because the loads were too heavy for the parachutes, many of the drums broke open and the canned peaches and chewing gum were scattered over the ground. At least those were the two items that I noticed and gorged myself on with some dire results. There must have been other items such as army field rations, because, later we were issued with packets of field rations and, on opening mine up I found not only chocolate and biscuits, but also cigarettes. I had only seen these in the mouths of strangers as none of the missionaries smoked. So I couldn’t resist this forbidden fruit and escaped to one of the guard towers, now unmanned, and climbed up the stairs and sat in a corner and tried my first cigarette. I don’t think I suffered very much because I did not know anything about drawback at that time.


We followed the Americans around wherever they went, and on one of these “hero sessions”, I was jumping over a bench and my arm got caught between the back rails. “Ouch!” However, such was my excitement and awe at being in the orbit of this newly discovered star, that I ignored it for the rest of the day. In bed that night I began to feel the pain, and late that evening I was taken to the hospital, where they were able to ascertain that I had a greenstick fracture of the Radius and my arm was placed in a plaster cast.


So it was that a few days later, six of us whose parents lived in the west of China, were flown out in a bomber which was stacked full of parachutes which had been used in the supply drop. As there were no seats of any kind on board, we spent the trip lolling about on parachutes in comfort, but me with my arm in plaster – a wounded warrior.


We were free at last.


End of Window 3. -- go to WindowFour (click on picture and go to next Chapter)