2017 READING CHALLENGE
This year is coming to a close, which means it’s time to […]
Langdon Brown Gilkey
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The letter arrived in late February, 1943, at the door of the house I shared with five bachelor teachers in Peking. Rumors had been going around for weeks that the Americans and the British who were then in Peking would be sent "somewhere to camp." Some said we would be shipped to Japan; some said Manchuria; some, a Chinese prison. These stories increased in volume and in flavor; something was going to happen soon, we knew. So it was with anxious concern that I tore open the long, white envelope.
In stilted English sentences, the official letter announced that "for your safety and comfort" all enemy nationals would be sent by train to a "Civilian Internment Center" near Weihsien. This was a city in Shantung Province, two hundred miles to the south. The letter went on to declare that "there every comfort of Western culture will be yours." For our own well-being we could send ahead a bed or cot and one trunk apiece. We were to bring our eating utensils with us. Beyond these items we were allowed only what we could carry by hand. Meanwhile, the letter concluded, we were all to make preparations for this "rare opportunity" which the Japanese government was providing us.
How do you prepare for an internment camp? No one in the British or American communities knew - nor did anyone know exactly where we were going or what life would be like when we got there. Further rumors told us that the camp would be in an old Presbyterian mission compound, but beyond that we had no information. I pictured a life of monotony spent in a prison cell, and so rounded up copies of Aristotle, Spinoza, and Kant. Another man, who took seriously the travel-brochure promises of the letter,lugged his golf clubs along. We were both wrong. Wiser heads in the community advised us all to bring blankets, towels, and basic camping and household equipment. They did say to be sure to pack some books, and if possible, musical instruments in our trunks. We were advised also to take our share of necessary medicines. Committees made up of the few doctors and nurses among us were formed to see that the latter items were bought and distributed so that each of us would bring some medicines with us. Everyone tacitly agreed that since the trunks might not arrive for weeks at this remote spot, we had better carry with us as much in the way of extra warm clothing and woolens as we could.
On March 25, we Americans met in the former United States Embassy compound. On the great lawn surrounded by the empty and mindless buildings of an officialdom long since fled, a motley crowd had gathered with all their varied equipment. There must have been about four hundred or so, males and females of all shapes and sizes, from every segment of society, ranging in age from six months to eighty-five years. The only thing we all seemed to have in common-besides our overloads of possessions-was a queer combination of excitement and apprehension. Were we bound for a camping vacation or the torturer's rack? Because of the uncertainty, our emotions see-sawed, voices were loud and tempers short.
The group of teachers from Yenching University of which I was a part, were, of course, familiar to me. Yenching was a privately owned Anglo-American university near Peking, one of ten "Christian Colleges" in China, with Chinese students and about one-third Western faculty. In our group were older professors, someyoung instructors in their twenties like myself, graduate students of Chinese like Stanley Morris, as well as numerous women professors. I also recognized the doctors from the Peking Union Medical College, the missionary families from the leading Protestant Boards, and some of the businessmen. The latter had been helping to provide leadership for the Americans in Peking since the beginning of hostilities a year and a half before, when we found ourselves captives of the Japanese and confined within the city walls of Peking.
But most of this varied crowd was new to me. There, a few feet away, for example, stood Karl Bauer, tall, straight, strong and sour, an ex-marine and ex-pro baseball player. Karl was never known to smile; for him everything that happened was an irritant, and everyone hostile. As we came later to know, he was capable of generating with less reason, more unhappiness in himself and others than anyone I have encountered before or since. Standing near him was a wan, paper-thin ghost of a man, with dirty, torn clothes, scraggly beard and sea-green complexion. His name proved to be Briggs, and he was the captive of a dope addiction that was slowly eating away what flesh remained his own.
By way of contrast, near the steps of the deserted Embassy office building was a knot of what were obviously wealthy older women. All wore furs and elegant hats. A few, I was told, were wealthy widows who had been living in retirement in Peking many years, and some were world travelers who happened to be caught and held in North China by the suddenness of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Further away, by the long-deserted American Ambassador's residence, were what seemed to be hundreds ofRoman Catholic priests, monks, and nuns. They were missionaries, who had been seized in Mongolia, and brought here from their monasteries to go to camp with us. The panoply of civilian life in all its wonderful and amazing variety seemed to be represented here.
We stood waiting for orders. Each child clutched his teddy bear; single persons and families alike stood surrounded by the miscellaneous heaps of bags, duffles, coats, potties, and camp chairs-all this assorted gear, in spite of the stem Japanese warning that we must bring only what we could carry.
That warning had been issued in earnest. At noon sharp, a Japanese officer shouted through a megaphone that everyone must pick up his own belongings and carry them by hand to the railway station. A horrified gasp swept through the crowd...
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