Rescue from the Sky at Weihsien
By: Mary Taylor Previte
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 Japan¹s 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
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 family¹s 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, and 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 holidays.
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’s Chefoo 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 camp¹s 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.
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 Chefoo¹s 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 men¹s 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.
You¹ll never know, dear, how much I love you.
Please don’t 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 wouldn’t 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 they’re 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.