Weifang, China 60th Anniversary of the Liberation of Weihsien Concentration Camp
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By: Mary Taylor Previte
Rescue from the Sky at Weihsien
Navy Ensign Jim Moore tensed with the rush of adrenaline as the B-24 flew above the Chinese fields. The six-man, American rescue team raced against the clock to prevent the last minute massacre of Allied prisoners -- he shuddered -- the massacre of his school, his teachers by diehard Japanese guards.
Moore had not faced combat before, but today he was electric with the picture swirling in his head. Somewhere beneath the bomber, his own school, his own teachers were now almost within his reach. But for now they were clutched in the bloody hands of Japan. Moore knew too well. Japan had earned its grisly reputation: Rape, enslave, execute civilians. Massacre prisoners. Or prisoners could be kept alive for prisoner swaps, like bargaining chips.
The American rescue team had set out only one day after the Emperor had announced Japan's surrender. The bomber had started 600 miles away that morning and now circled over fields of ripening broom corn, searching for the "Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center." Fifteen hundred Allied prisoners were somewhere beneath them. It was 9:30 A.M., Monday, August 17, 1945. Flying at 2,000 feet and armed only with scanty photographs and information, the crew scanned the landscape, trying to locate the camp. They had few clues. They knew only that Allied internees were being held in a Japanese internment camp, a compound somewhere outside a sleepy town called Weihsien (pronounced WAY-shyen).
When the bomber drew no enemy fire, it circled lower in buffeting winds, then lower, hugging the terrain at 500 feet. The drone of the plane posed a frightening provocation for artillery pointed to the sky. The team knew that anything could be in the fields below. Bandits, guerrillas, Chinese communists, Chinese Nationalists, Japanese -- they had all bloodied themselves for this territory.
Amid the horror of atrocities and death camps, feel-good stories still spin out of World War II. In my book, the story of Ensign Jim Moore ranks very near the top. This is the saga of James Walton Moore, Jr., born to a family who believed in miracles. It is the story of his part in the rescue of 1,500 Allied prisoners and the Chefoo School -- his Alma Mater -- imprisoned in the Weihsien Concentration Camp in China.
I was a student in the Chefoo School. I was a child in that camp.
They were spilling from the belly of a low-flying plane, dangling from parachutes that looked like giant silk poppies, dropping into the gao liang (broom corn) fields beyond the barrier walls. August 17, 1945. Every former Weihsien prisoner can tell you exactly where he was that sweltering August morning when the heroes came. Six Americans parachuting from the sky, dropping from a B-24 "Liberator."
One of them -- Jim Moore -- James Walton Moore, Jr. -- was a Chefoo School boy, one of our own.
Jimmy Moore's parents were Southern Baptist missionaries from East Texas when they settled in Chefoo in China's Shantung province with Jimmy and his sister, Martha Jane. It was 1920. Jimmy was just a year old -- the family's first and only son. They lived in a compound just off Mule Road and near the Chefoo School, a boarding school founded in 1881 to educate the children of British and American missionaries. Jimmy started as a day student at the school in 1926. Chefoo teachers taught Bible stories and miracles every day. Every student could scamper to the heavens with endless stories about God's rescuing His people: Moses delivering God's children out of captivity into the Promised Land, ravens feeding the hungry prophet Elijah in the wilderness, God's closing the mouths of lions to protect Daniel in the Lion's Den. Yes, miracles!
Even after 80 years, Jim Moore still remembers the winters when steamers became icebound in the harbor, and students ice skated on tennis courts near the school. Chefoo (now called Yantai) was a picturesque, seaside city in north east China, tucked between the hills of Shantung Province and the Yellow Sea. At the very proper Chefoo School, students wore uniforms, missionary teachers expected proper, Victorian-style manners. Teachers were known as "Masters." Jim remembered his favorites: Masters Gordon Martin, Bruce, Duncan, Chalkley, Welch, Harris, and Houghton. Who could forget teachers like these?
With his classmates, he played Prisoners' base in the Chefoo School Quad, watched billowy-sailed, wooden junks in the harbor, and challenged the waves in row boats named "Hero" and "Leander." The school always named its row boats from Greek mythology. He took the launch to the white sands of Lighthouse Island across the bay. Long before television or movies came to China, he sat spellbound when Masters Martin and Houghton read Kipling aloud to the boys during lazy winter.
In the Chefoo Boys' School, Jimmy Moore brought glory in athletics to the Carey team. The school named its teams after pioneer missionaries. William Carey was an English Baptist, long dead, who had pioneered Christian missionary work in India in the early 1800s. Jimmy Moore captained the Carey soccer team and its boating crew. He earned a certificate for swimming five miles. At six feet tall, he starred as a runner. Once famous as the home of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Chefoo had become an outpost for British business. On Saturdays, Jimmy Moore and his teachers played the city's foreign business team in cricket and soccer.
He was 16 years old when he passed his junior Oxford exams in Chefoo in 1936, opening the door to Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. There, he earned his B.S. and met Pat, the woman he would later marry.
As the war heated up in Europe, he took a clerk's job at the F.B.I. in Washington, D.C., and started studying law at night. A few months before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he married Pat.
In America, every able bodied young man was going to war. Everyone bought war bonds. Posters said UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU. In round-the-clock shifts, women built battleships and airplanes. At home, women knitted socks for soldiers and wrapped bandages for the Red Cross. Jim’sChefoo School alumni magazine listed "Chefusians in the Forces" -- six serving in the Royal Navy, forty-nine in the Army, twelve in the Royal Air Force, four in nursing. He knew so many of them. The magazine listed classmates killed in the war.
Then he read the horror: A carefully-worded story in his alumni magazine said his Chefoo School had been captured, imprisoned in Japanese hands.
By now he was Special Agent James Moore of the F.B.I. He and Pat had two babies. On assignment, he searched for draft-dodgers and fugitives, chased down rumors of German agents in California. Yet something else kept hammering on his mind: Teachers and students in his beloved Chefoo School had been marched and shipped and trucked in lorries to the Weihsien Concentration Camp. He could picture it all -- Japanese troops rampaging through the countryside, executing civilians, massacring prisoners. In his mind he could see a kaleidoscope of terror -- little children, his teachers locked up behind barbed wire and walls -- school children, bayonet drills, guard dogs, prisoner numbers, roll calls.
Home and whatever else that was dearest to him were still dear, but this horror was pushing them into the background. It was a daily tug of war. In Washington, J. Edgar Hoover preached security -- said F.B.I. agents had important jobs to do to protect America without facing the guns overseas.
So why did Jim Moore choose to go to war?
You read the school's alumni magazine, Moore says today, lists of classmates who have died in the war. You read the news -- your school -- your Alma Mater -- marched into concentration camp. You could see it in your head. Your teachers, the little brothers and sisters of your classmates -- little children who looked for "cats' eyes" shells at the beach where you had played, little children who panted and puffed up Adam's Knob where you once climbed in the hills behind the city -- little children, all of them prisoners.
"He HAD to go...WANTED to go," says Pat, his wife. She was terrified to have him leave and frustrated that her husband wanted to go when he didn't have to. None of it made sense to her.
Moore heard that the super-secret Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.) was looking for people with a China background. He could speak Chinese, the language of his childhood. Jim Moore resigned from the F.B.I. When the O.S.S. let him choose an Army or a Navy commission, he chose the Navy because its $6 per diem gave him more to send home to his wife and children. He would go to China. A new thought took root in his mind. He would sign on for the rescue mission.
The O.S.S. gave him the rank of Ensign, trained him, and sent him to Kunming, China's "City of Eternal Spring." Kunming was an outpost at the China-end of the Burma Road that crossed the Himalayas. G.I.s called these mountains "The Hump." In Kunming, 6,000 feet above sea level, he went through jump school -- the only American -- with 14- and 15-year-old Chinese soldiers learning to parachute from a C-4. A plan formed in his imagination. He would support Chinese Nationalist forces in Shantung province. It prickled in the back of his mind. Yes, yes! The concentration camp was in China's Shantung province. In Shantung, he would be within reach.
Back home in Texas, Pat Moore worried. "The high point of my day was going to the mailbox," she says. "I didn't know where Jim was or what he was doing. I'd send him pictures, keep him up to date about the children." Trained to keep secrets, Jim rarely wrote.
America closed in on Japan in late summer, 1945. Reports reached American headquarters in China that Japan planned to kill its prisoners or use them as bargaining chips. Everyone knew recent history -- Bataan, Singapore, Manchuria, the rape of Nanking. Japanese troops had rampaged through one defeated country after another, enslaving "comfort women," slaughtering civilians, and exploiting prisoners of war. In Weihsien, Japanese guards passed on their grisly message: When the war was over they would shoot the prisoners then fall upon their swords. Prisoners could see what looked like a death trench outside the walls of the camp.
Rescue became a gut-wrenching priority. American commander, General Albert Wedemeyer, ordered agencies under his control to locate and evacuate POWs in China, Manchuria, and Korea. It was a daring plan that tempted fate. Wedemeyer pulled together six-man rescue teams with medical and communications specialists and interpreters. Six-man teams against how-many armed Japanese? O.S.S. had two assignments: rescue prisoners and gather intelligence.
If you knew the Japanese, you knew these rescue missions might be death traps. Moore asked the rescue and development branch to cut down cavalry boots and to convert his .38 belt holster for the left side. He would be ready.
Heading for Japanese prison camps, Americans threw nine rescue missions together at the last minute, all under code names of birds: Magpie (heading to Peiping), Duck (Weihsien), Flamingo (Harbin), Cardinal (Mukden), Sparrow (Shanghai), Quail (Hanoi), Pigeon (Hainan Island), Raven (Vientiane, Laos), Eagle (Korea). The 14th Air Force was ordered to provide the necessary staging areas.
Moore signed on to the Weihsien rescue team called the "Duck Mission." The waiting was over. A day after the Emperor announced Japan¹s surrender, the O.S.S. launched the teams. The six Americans bound for Weihsien flew from Kunming in a B-24 "Liberator," named "The Armored Angel" headed for an O.S.S. base in Si-an. They were Major Stanley Staiger; Ensign James W. Moore; 1st Lt. James J. Hannon of the Air Ground Aid Service; Nisei interpreter, Sgt. Tad Nagaki; Sgt. Raymond Hanchulak, medic; and Cpl. Peter Orlich, radio operator. In the early morning of August 17, they took off for Weihsien. A young Chinese interpreter, "Eddie" Cheng-Han Wang, accompanied the team.
Yes, the war was over and they were flying into Japanese-held territory to locate and rescue Allied prisoners a humanitarian mission. But would Japanese in these outposts know that Japan had surrendered? Would it be peace? Or would it be guns bristling like needles, pointing at the sky? Twenty-four years old, Moore itched for action. He had been sitting around Kunming way too long. His Chefoo School, his teachers were beneath them on the ground, somewhere hidden in the unending panorama of villages and fields of ripening grain.
The pilot had trouble locating the camp. They circled. Then, "There it is." Moore jabbed his finger towards a walled compound tucked among the fields, crowds of people waving hands, waving clothing at the American plane. A small air strip stretched across a field not far beyond the camp. Should they land the bomber? Was the air strip mined? Should they jump?
Team commander, Major Stanley Staiger made the decision: If the worst came to worst, he said, you lose fewer men and less equipment if you jump. By dropping lower, you give the Japanese less space to shoot you and your parachutes.
It was a miserable day and the plane, ill-designed for a parachute drop. To prepare the bomber for the drop, someone had removed panels from the bomb bay door and closed the hole with a makeshift plywood cover. The B-24 now hugged the ground at a gut-wrenching 500 feet. The rescue team sat poised on the edge of the makeshift opening. With a small push, Moore was on his way. Strong winds buffeted the fast-opening British parachutes.
Nineteen forty-five had brought a sweltering summer to the camp, now awash in every kind of misery -- plagues of rats, flies, bed bugs. Our Chefoo School teachers organized us children into competing teams of fly killers, teams of rat killers. With food supplies dwindling, teachers sent us foraging for weeds to eat. Some prisoners had lost 100 lbs.
We would win the war, of course. The grown-ups told us so. We kept ourselves alive with hope. So on Tuesday evenings, all so clandestinely in a small room next to the camp's shoe repair shop, the Salvation Army band practiced a Victory Medley, created to celebrate whoever rescued us. But who would that be? America? England? Russia? China? So they played a joyful mix of all the Allied national anthems. Because the Japanese were suspicious of this "army" with its officers and military regalia, the Salvation Army had changed its Chinese name from "Save the World Army" to "Save the World Church.”
The Salvation Army had guts. Right under the noses of the Japanese, Brig. Stranks and his 15 brass instruments practiced their parts of the Victory Medley each week, sandwiching it between "Happy Days Are Here Again" and triumphant hymns of the church -- "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," - "Rise Up, O Men of God." We would be ready for any victor.
In 1939, with so much turmoil around us before the war started -- starvation, anxiety, distrust -- Mother was determined to fill us children with faith and trust in God's promises. But how do you anchor children for the storms of war? The school teacher in her decided that the best way to do this was to put the Psalms to music and sing them every day. So with gunboats in the Chefoo harbor in front of our house, and with Chinese guerrillas limping behind us, bloodied from their night time skirmishes with Japanese invaders, we sang Psalm 91 and Mother's music at our family worship every morning. We learned the psalm "by heart": "Thou shalt not be afraid...He shall give His ANGELS charge over thee to keep thee...."
Like a needle stuck in a gramophone record, the words kept playing in my head: "He shall give His ANGELS charge over thee to keep thee...."
Angels, angels, angels.
In 1940, Mummy and Daddy had returned to their far away missionary service in northwest China. Now, separated from them by warring armies, Jamie, Johnnie, Kathleen and I had not seen Daddy and Mummy for five and a half years.
It was Friday, August 17, 1945. In a scorching heat wave, I was withering with diarrhea, confined to my "poo-gai" mattress atop three side-by-side steamer trunks in the second floor hospital dormitory. Inside the barrier walls of the concentration camp, I heard the drone of an airplane far above the camp. Sweaty and barefoot, I raced to the dormitory window and watched a plane sweep lower, slowly lower, and then circle again. An awe-struck, scrawny 12-year-old, I watched in disbelief. A giant plane emblazoned with the American star was circling the camp. Americans were waving from the bomber. Leaflets drifted from the sky.
Beyond the tree tops, its belly opened. I gaped in wonder as hot August winds buffeted giant parachutes to the ground. Angels!
Weihsien went mad. It was instant cure for my diarrhea. I raced for the entry gates and was swept off my feet by the pandemonium. Prisoners ran in circles and pounded the skies with their fists. They wept, cursed, hugged, danced. They cheered themselves hoarse. Very proper grown-ups ripped off their shirts and waved at the B-24 "Liberator" circling overhead. Wave after wave of prisoners swept past Japanese guards into fields beyond the camp.
A mile away we found them -- six Americans -- standing with their weapons ready, surrounded by fields of ripening broom corn. Advancing towards them came a tidal wave of prisoners, intoxicated with joy and free in the open fields. Ragtag, barefoot, and hollow with hunger, they hoisted the American major onto a bony platform of shoulders and carried him back to the camp in triumph.
In the distance near the gate, the music of "Happy Days Are Here Again" drifted out into the fields. It was the Salvation Army band blasting its joyful Victory Medley. When it got to "The Star-Spangled Banner," the crowd hushed.
"O say, does that star-spangled banner still wave, O'er the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave."
From up on his throne of shoulders, the 27-year-old American major struggled down to a standing salute. Up on a mound by the gate, a young American trombonist in the Salvation Army Band crumpled to the ground and wept. He knew what we all knew. We were free.
Jim Moore recalls it after more than 60 years. "People running out from the camp," he says, "people clapping us on the back, the prisoner band playing as we got to the gate. I felt like a hero."
The Japanese put down their arms.
Inside the camp, the first person Jim Moore asked to see was his former Chefoo School"s Head Master "Pa" Bruce. In an emotional reunion, Moore, 6 feet tall and wearing cut-down cavalry boots and the khaki uniform of the United States of America, towered over his emaciated head master. There stood Chefoo teacher Gordon Martin, who had played soccer with Moore, and Mr. Houghton, who had played field hockey. There was Mr. Welsh, who had officiated in Chefoo's intramural games. Steely teachers wept. Chefoo students celebrated. My 12-year-old heart turned somersaults.
Grown prisoners wanted American cigarettes -- their first request. That's not what we children wanted. We trailed these gorgeous liberators around, begged for their insignia, begged for buttons, begged for their autographs, begged for chewing gum and swapped the sticky wads from mouth to mouth. We begged them to sing the songs of America. They were sun-bronzed American gods with meat on their bones. Who could look at these men and not want to be like them? We followed them day and night, like children following the Pied Piper. We made them gods. We wanted to sit on their laps. To capture a souvenir, girls cut off chunks of the men's hair. In the cool of the August evenings, our heroes taught us the songs of America. I can sing one still:
"You are my sunshine, my only sunshine; You make me happy when skies are gray. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don¹t take my sunshine away."
Back in America, The Associated Press trumpeted the story on August 20, 1945: YANK TEAMS RISKED DEATH TO BRING AID. "Chungking, China (AP) American rescue teams parachuted into Japanese-occupied areas at the risk of instant death to bring food, medical aid and encouragement to about 20,000 Allied prisoners of war and civilian internees.... The teams were parachuted down to nine places -- from Manchuria to Indo-China...."
The war was over.
Side bar/post script: After it was over
Late in 1945, Pat Moore learned by reading the local newspaper in Texas that her husband had won the Soldier's Medal for liberating Weihsien. Today, Jim Moore remains shy of admitting he's a hero. He says he did what any American would have done.
More than sixty years later, Weihsien prisoners still remember. Hardly a week goes by without former prisoners -- from Australia, New Zealand, England, Belgium, Canada, the U.S.A. -- on an Internet memory board, winging the globe with their memories of that day -- AUGUST 17, 1945 -- FREEDOM DAY, the day the Americans came.
After the war, Jim Moore was assigned to the U. S. State Department and served as American Vice-Consul in Tsingtao and later in Calcutta. In 1950, he returned to the United States and worked for the Central Intelligence Agency until he retired in 1978.
As the decades passed, I could never understand why six Americans would parachute -- defying death -- to rescue 1,500 people they didn't even know. It was beyond my imagination. I wanted to know these men. I wanted to know what makes an American hero.
In 1997, in a series of miracles and with the help of China-Burma-India Veterans Association, I tracked them down. What words would ever be enough to thank a man who risked his life to give me freedom? Talking to them by telephone, sending them cards -- it didn't feel like thanks enough to me.
So I started my pilgrimage -- crisscrossing America to visit each one of them face-to-face to honor them -- Jim Moore, Ray Hanchulak, Pete Orlich, Tad Nagaki, Stanley Staiger, Jim Hannon. I went looking for the soul of America. And it is beautiful!
Each one is different: Jimmy Moore, a former FBI agent and the son of missionaries to China. Tad Nagaki, a Japanese-American farm boy who didn't speak English until he went to school in a small, Nebraska town. Jim Hannon, an adventurer who had prospected for gold in Alaska. Major Stanley Staiger, an ROTC student, snatched from his third year at the University of Oregon. Raymond Hanchulak, a man from the coal mines and ethnic enclaves of Pennsylvania. The youngest of the team--21 years old -- Pete Orlich, a kid with a scholarship to college, but whose family needed him to go to work, not go to school -- who memorized the eye chart so he wouldn¹t be excluded from the rescue team because he wore glasses. Pete taped his glasses to his head when he parachuted to liberate the Weihsien Concentration Camp that day.
I found them in New York, Nevada, Nebraska, Texas, Pennsylvania, and California.
On holidays I call them on the phone, four heroes and two widows. I send them cards. I call them to say thank you. I often tell their story to school children; the boys and girls send to my heroes hand-made Valentines and hero letters. More than 85 years old now, they all act modest. They say they¹re not heroes.
Some folks tell me America has no heroes. They're wrong. I see the face of heroes in the weathered faces of these six men and the thousands of American men and women who look like them. These are the heroes who saved the world. Yes, America has heroes. I know their names.
September 10, 1945: Four Taylor children and two classmates eating cake and ice cream to celebrate their freedom. They were flown out of Weihsien Concentration Camp that morning to the OSS base at Hsi-An (now called Xi-An). Mary is second from the right. Her sister Kathleen is cutting the cake.
Taylor Family Reunion picture: Mary, age 13, Jamie, Kathleen, Johnny Taylor with their parents, Reverend James and Alice Taylor in Fenghsian, China. They were re-united 9/11/1945. after 51/2 years of separation. Until their reunion, they had never seen their their little brother Bertie, almost 5 years old.
. Four members of the 7-man "DUCK MISSION," who liberated the Weihsien Concentration Camp in Shantung Province, China, on August 17, 1945. (Left to right): Raymond Hanchulak, Stanley Staiger, Tad Nagaki, Jim Moore.
August 2005 - Arrival & Welcome -
August 17, 2005 - Weihsien Camp Liberation Ceremony and Memorial Park -
AMERICA HAS HEROES, I KNOW THEIR NAMES How I Found My Weihsien Heroes By: Mary Taylor Previte
Who can forget that August day? Who can forget those heroes?
When I was a child, I could understand the mad excitement of August 17, 1945 -- a sweltering, windy day -- seven men parachuting from only 400 feet from an American bomber to liberate 1,500 Allied prisoners in the Weihsien internment camp. I was 12 years old. I had never seen grown ups so dizzy with joy. I had never seen such hysteria. They were weeping, screaming, dancing, waving at the sky.
We trailed these gorgeous heroes everywhere. With the wonder of children, we cut off pieces of their hair for souvenirs. We begged for their signatures, their buttons, their insignia, pieces of parachute. We sat on their laps. We made them sing the songs of America; "You Are My Sunshine" and "Maresey Doats and Doesey Doats and Little Lambsey Divey." We sang these songs until the grown-ups held their ears.
But I was too young to understand the miracle of seven men against how many Japanese? -- risking their lives to rescue me and 1,500 prisoners whom they didn't even know.
As I grew up, I wondered about that miracle. I thought about heroes like that. Who were these men? Where could I find them after all these years? In Japanese records? In American military records? I had no idea. But I had their names.
In 1997, when I was running for political office, a New Jersey State Senator (my running mate) asked me to substitute for him at a Saturday night banquet reunion of World War II veterans‹a banquet in a hotel located only ten minutes from my house. He wanted me to present the group with a thank you proclamation from the Senate and General Assembly of the State of New Jersey, a thank you for their service to America. These are veterans of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association, my running mate told me.
China-Burma-India veterans! I had never heard of this group before. But I felt the goose bumps ripple up my spine. "China-Burma-India veterans. That's who rescued me," I said. So to prepare for that Saturday night, I dug into my treasure chest and typed out the names of our Weihsien heroes.
The banquet hall was filled with 150 men and women in their 70s and 80s -- all American veterans who had served in the China-Burma-India theater of operations during World War II. They had assembled from the north eastern region of the United States. When my turn came at the microphone, I read the thank you proclamation from the New Jersey Legislature. Then I said, "I know it was not an accident that I was invited here tonight to substitute for Senator Adler."
I told them the miracle story of August 17, 1945 -- an American B-24 "Liberator" bomber flying low over the treetops of the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center. I was a child, I told them, watching parachutes drop from the belly of the plane, dropping into the gaoliang fields beyond the barrier walls.
Weihsien went mad. With 1,500 other prisoners, I dashed for the gates.
I poured out the story, prisoners bursting through the gate, into the fields to welcome seven angel liberators. I told about the Salvation Army Band up on a mound by the gate, playing the Victory Medley to welcome these sun-bronzed American heroes.
"I brought their names," I said. Slowly, clearly, I read each name into the microphone. "Major Stanley Staiger, Ensign James Moore, 1st Lt. James J. Hannon, T/4 Raymond Hanchulak, Sgt. Tadash Nagaki, T/5 Peter Orlich, Eddie Wang."
I paused. I was hoping against hope. "Is any one of my heroes in this room tonight?"
I was greeted by silence. I was greeted with men and women weeping. But when the banquet ended, they crushed me in their arms. They told me to write these names down in their national magazine. "Write their names, their rank, anything you know about them." They told me to write that I was looking for all of these heroes, to include my name, address, and telephone number.
So I wrote a notice for their national magazine.
At the banquet, one veteran from the state of Maryland became so excited by my story that he took my list of names. A few days later, a fat brown envelope arrived in the mail from Maryland. He had done a computer search for every telephone number in the United States that matched the names of my heroes. Out of how many million Americans, he had listed pages and pages of names, addresses, and phone numbers.
Somewhere in those pages on my kitchen table were the whereabouts of my World War II heroes. I was campaigning door-to-door for political office, and I had no idea where to start. Should I phone? Should I send out letters -- "Are you the Stanley Staiger who liberated the Weihsien concentration camp in China, August 17, 1945"? Should I include self addressed, stamped, return envelopes?
Some of my self-addressed envelopes returned with loving responses: "God bless you in your search."
But still no heroes.
The first break came in September, 1997. I couldn't believe it! The call came from a woman who lives ten minutes from my house. She had read in the "CBIVA Soundoff" magazine that I was looking for men who had liberated Weihsien. She had served in Burma as a nurse, she said. "My sister lives next door to Raymond Hanchulak," she told me. Hanchulak was the medic on the Weihsien rescue mission. She gave me the telephone number in Bear Creek Village, Pennsylvania.
I decided to make my telephone calls on Sunday nights. Sunday night calls gave me a cheap 5 cents a minute rate.
When I asked for Raymond Hanchulak, the woman who answered the telephone, asked me the purpose of my call. When I told her, I heard her gasp. "My Raymond died last year," she said. Here was a widow begging me for every detail I could give her about her hero husband. "He was trained in secrecy," she said. He had gone to war from the ethnic enclaves of Pennsylvania's mining region. He had been a member of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and later served in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He was trained not to talk. Until I told her, Helen Hanchulak had never heard her husband¹s Weihsien story.
I began to have misgivings. Would I find only widows? I knew I must speed my search.
My list included only one Peter Orlich. Peter Orlich was the radio operator and the youngest member of the rescue team. A lady answered the phone when I called. Another widow. Carol Orlich told me that Peter had died four years before. But she knew Pete¹s Weihsien story. She had been corresponding with him all through the war. She told me Pete had volunteered for the rescue mission. She told me that he had feared being excluded because he wore glasses. So as he stood in the physical examination line, he tucked his glasses into his pocket. He listened to each man before him reading off the letters on the eye chart. He passed the exam by memorizing the letters. On his first practice parachute jump, his glasses flew up onto his forehead so he couldn¹t see. For the jump to liberate Weihsien, he taped his glasses to his head.
Taking a gift from the bottom of a drawer in Pete¹s bedroom bureau, Carol Orlich mailed to me one of the treasures of my life today a piece of silk parachute embroidered with the rescue scene and autographed by each of the liberation team. A woman internee had given it to Pete as a goodbye gift when the team was leaving for Tsingtao. Carol wanted me to have it.
Now I had found two widows. I knew time was not on my side. My telephone bills provide a history of my search. On a Sunday night, I phoned Alliance, Nebraska, deep in America¹s heartland, hoping desperately to connect with the only Tadashi Nagaki on my list. Nagaki was the Japanese American interpreter on the rescue team
"I'm calling for Tadashi Nagaki," I said.
"Speaking," he said.
I began to cry. I had found my first hero. We chattered for an hour. I was full of questions. A widower, Tad farms beans, and corn, and sugar beets on his farm outside Alliance and is most comfortable with the solitude of his tractor. So I had to pull. "What did it feel like to have all of us children following you around," I asked.
"Like being on a pedestal," he said. I knew that was the understatement of the century. They were heroes. They were gods. Tad remembered a girl cutting off a chunk of his hair so she'd have a souvenir.
Tad said he could help me find Jim Moore in Dallas, Texas. Their families had remained friends for more than fifty years, exchanging cards at Christmas time. Bless my soul! I wanted to hug the world. I had dreaded the task of phoning more than 150 James Moores on my list.
Jim Moore bowled me over with his story. He was the child of missionaries to China, he said, just like me. He had attended the Chefoo School for children of missionaries, just like me. When he graduated in 1936, he returned to the United States, graduated from college, started law school, and joined the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the Chefoo School's alumni magazine announced that the Japanese had captured the school and marched it to internment camp. Jim could picture it all, his teachers, the little brothers and sisters of his classmates, all marched off and locked up. The magazine listed his classmates already serving in the military.
By this time, Jim had a wife and two children. Because the FBI was already protecting America¹s homeland, the rules said he didn't have to go to war. His heart said something else. He had to go. Jim Moore resigned from the FBI, joined the Navy and the super-secret OSS, signed up to go to China because he could speak Chinese, and volunteered for the rescue mission. When he parachuted into the goaliang fields outside Weihsien, the first person he asked to see was "PA" Bruce, head master of the Chefoo School. Jim had retired from a career in the CIA when I found him.
I had come to a dead end in my search. I couldn't find Major Stanley Staiger. I couldn't find 1st Lt. Jim Hannon. Jim Moore promised to help me search. With a retiree's time and the skill of an intelligence professional, he didn't take long.
One morning, he phoned me at work to say he had found Stanley Staiger. He had searched in a program listing every driver's license in the United States and found Staiger in Reno, Nevada. "I talked with him today," he told me.
Forget about the 5-cents-a-minute phone calls! I used my personal credit card at my desk at work and phoned at the high priced, middle-of-the-day rates. Stanley Staiger was fragile and recuperating from a fall and a broken hip. Here was the hero -- wasn't he ten feet tall? -- who had lead the mission that rescued Weihsien hoping out loud to me, once a little girl he had rescued, the hero-rescuer hoping out loud that he'd be able to walk again.
I promised him. "Anyone who had the guts and spizerinctum to lead a mission that rescued 1,500 people is definitely‹guaranteed‹going to walk again."
In December, Jim Moore phoned again. He had found Jim Hannon in Yucca Valley, California. I connected by phone again.
As I found each hero, I telephoned the newspapers in each of their towns and trumpeted the news: "Your town has a hero in its midst." Our heroes made headlines that they had never made after World War II. Today, when I tell this story to students in schools and colleges, I bring the names and addresses of our rescue team and ask students to write to the men and the widows. Tad Nagaki and Peter Orlich's widow says they have a heaping box full of these letters and Valentine's day cards made by adoring children. I phone the men on holidays and send cards on their birthdays. My heroes have become my friends.
Four months after I was sworn into office as an Assemblywoman, the agency of retired FBI agents flew Jim Moore and his wife from Dallas, Texas, for a surprise (and very public) reunion with Jim Moore and me on the floor of the New Jersey General Assembly. I wept. No-nonsense legislators wept. Even cynic TV cameramen wept.
My heart said it wasn't enough. So late in 1998, I started my pilgrimage, crisscrossing America to say thank you to each one of these heroes face to face. I went looking for the soul of Americas and it is beautiful.
Who are these men? The war snatched Stanley Staiger out of business studies at the University of Oregon. After the war, he never returned to college. Tad Nagaki was a Nisei farm boy who didn't speak English until he went to a tiny elementary school in America's heartland. His immigrant father had come to America to work on the railroad and sent for a "picture bride" from Japan. Jim Hannon was the youngest of a very large family and an adventurer who had mined for gold in Alaska. He had escaped from a German concentration camp in 1944. Raymond Hanchulak came from coal mining regions of Pennsylvania and served his whole career in the military, including service in Vietnam. Jim Moore was son of Southern Baptist missionaries to China and the only college graduate in the group. Growing up in the Queens, New York, Peter Orlich was offered a scholarship to Columbia University. But his family needed Pete to work to help support the family, not go to college.
I'm still looking for "Eddie" Cheng-Han Wang, the Chinese interpreter on the mission.
What a journey of joy to honor these heroes in public and private meetings, in church, civic groups, veterans' meetings and conventions! I celebrated Stanley Staiger's 81st birthday with him in Reno, Nevada. What a journey! I have honored each of the six Americans on the team or his widow.
I could never say enough thank yous. Some people say America has no heroes. I know their names.