TIENTSIN, May 10 ― American Marines with preconceived ideas of life in a Japanese concentration camp will lift an unbelieving eyebrow when they hear of Weihsien. The Tientsin internees on the Shantung peninsula saw no atrocities.
The town of Weihsien is 80 miles northwest of Tsingtao and 25 miles inland from the Gulf of Chihli. Here 1,500 Occidentals ― 700 British, 300 Americans and smaller groups of Dutch, Greek, Italian, and Belgian nationals were confined from March 24, 1943, until October 17, 1945. What precipitated their internment by the Japanese was the seldom mentioned declaration of war on the Allies in January 1943, by Wang Ching-wei's puppet government in Nanking
Formerly an American Mission School, the camp .was surrounded by an eight foot wall with corner watchtowers, guards, electrical barbed wire, and other Alcatraz accessories. Inmates lived in long rows of one-room mudstucco huts. Standard room dimensions were nine by 12 feet, two or three persons to a room. Inside the cubicle of the more ingenious inmate could be found a mud: stove with stove-pipe made of tin cans, chairs that once were wooden crates, expedient tables, a trunk, suitcases, and two beds. Plumbing facilities were comparable to those back on the islands; outdoor showers and strict shower hours, outhouses, no running water. Food consisting mainly of bread porridge, tea, sweet potatoes, and weak soup was proffered service style to long lines of internees.
Community, affairs were handled by a nine man committee of prisoners granted an amazing amount of power by a lenient and, reasonable Japanese commandant. The latter, it was rumored, spent time: behind barbed wire in the United States before repatriation via an enemy alien swap. Time spent possibly at, White Sulphur Springs, had softened the commandant to such a degree that he allowed the committee to offer suggestions and to register complaints. As the war drew to a close, these complaints became demands. Among other painless regulations the Japs called for two daily roll calls and a ten o'clock curfew.
Each prisoner had a job. Men hauled carts of flour and coal in the same back breaking fashion that the Taku Road coolies do the work today. Women were nurses, cooks and pan washers. Everyone took a turn at latrine duty and tried their hand at manning, the pumps. Such occupations were novel to most, painful and filthy to all. But somehow a group of people, any group, will rise to meet a situation. The prisoners at Weihsien were no, exception.
As the war progressed and the committee widened its scope of activities under the temperate commandant, recreational committees planned baseball and football games, stage productions, musical concerts and weekly dances. The fact that one of Tientsin's better dance bands was interned almost intact in Weihsien added a professional flavor to the entertainment.
The Japanese as masters were ineffectual and pathetic as well as indulgent. The extreme form of punishment was a meaningless slapping around and eventual confinement in the Japanese section. Their propaganda attempts to lower camp morale included a bizarre tale about the death of Deanna Durbin in child birth and a story about Carmen Miranda losing both legs in an automobile accident. Apparently the Nips thought Carmen's legs were of more vital interest to the inmates than the death of F. D. R. They failed to capitalize on the tragic truth. Towards the war's end half of the Japanese guards were involved in black market operations with the other half trying to apprehend them.
Two men disguised as coolies, an American and an Englishman, ventured and accomplished escape over wall and barbed wire to join a Chinese guerrilla band which operated only a few miles away. Through the efforts of these two, news of Allied victories began leaking into Weihsien. As the Japanese tide ebbed westward across the Pacific, spirits in Weihsien rose, defiance and black market activities increased. Particularly effective at this latter avocation were the missionaries and priests whose meditations led them on long walks by the, prison walls. With the Scriptures before them in their right hand, the holy men would trade over the wall with sympathetic Chinese peasants with their left.
The long awaited rescue came on August, 1945. Peace rumors had been circulating in camp for a week. When confronted with a demand for information, the Nip commandant refused to confirm or deny the news ― which action on his part was really confirmation enough. About nine o'clock the morning of August 17, a large transport with an American flag painted on the body circled the camp uncertainly, finally dropped seven paratroopers. Weihsien tenants, imprisoned two and a half years, stormed the gates to swoop down upon their "rescuers", an unarmed AUS peace team.
--- did you read that we were rescued by "an unarmed Australian humanitarian mission"??
In fact, we were rescued by a fully armed team from a well-trained American commando ready to fight for it if ever the Japs counterattacked. The Japanese Emperor, HiroHito had made a radio broadcasted surrender speech just two days before. The American GIs were parachuted from a B-24 bomber with visible stars and stripes painted on its fuselage and wings. Furthermore, in the camp, young & valid men were ready to help the American soldiers with what they had --- butcher's knives, axes, etc. ...