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The surprising story of David Michell (2)

July 2017 | by Paul Brown

In September 1943, the children and staff of the China Inland Mission school at Chefoo were forcibly moved by the Japanese to Weihsien Internment Camp on the north-east coast of China. David Michell, a 9-year-old at the school, was caught up in all this.

He recalled: ‘One of the first arrivals had described Weihsien as follows: “Bare walls, bare floors, dim electric lights, no running water, primitive latrines, open cesspools, a crude bakery, two houses with showers, three huge public kitchens, a desecrated church and a dismantled hospital, a few sheds for shops, rows of cell-like rooms, and three high dormitories for persons who are single”. It was to this scene of destruction and despair that we now came’.

Hard conditions

With the Chefoo arrivals, the number held in Weihsien rose to over 1,400, all living in an area of about 150 yards by 200. The number of children there was now about 500. The Chefoo group numbered 65 adults and 141 children, numbers of whom, like David, would still have been under 10 years old.

‘Nine of us boys were in a room about 12ft by 16ft. By night we unrolled our little mattresses and bedding bundles out from the wall, five down one side and four down the other. At the far end, we had a bench on which we placed our wash bowls. In the middle were our cabin trunks, which served as desks, chairs, tables, playing equipment and sometimes beds. This one room was our bedroom, classroom, living room, dining room, and playroom’.

‘Every able-bodied person was given regular work to do. In the kitchen most people worked a twelve-hour shift and then had two days off. Many of the older boys took turns at pumping water up into the water tower for the camp supply.

‘We younger children did things such as transporting water from one side of the camp to the other and carrying the washing, which our teachers had tried to scrub clean, often without soap or brushes.

‘We also sifted through ash heaps to try and find pieces of coke or unburned coal, and gathered sticks and anything else that would burn, to try to keep warm through the winter. Undetected by the teachers or Japanese soldiers, we sometimes sneaked into the Japanese part of the compound and climbed the tall trees looking for dead twigs or branches.

‘Food and freedom were probably the major topics of conversation. The camp was organised into three kitchens, staffed by internees. Hands that were totally unaccustomed to the culinary arts were soon turning out fancy-named items, which appeared on the daily menu board.

‘These mysterious products completely belied their humble origin from turnips, eggplant and cabbage, with occasional squid, fish, or what could aptly be described as “no-name” meat. Actually, it had a name: it was either horse or mule!

‘Morning, noon and night, we lined up in long queues for our portion of food and then sat down at rough-hewn tables and benches. Servers had to try and be scrupulously fair or there were complaints’.

Appalling sanitation

A typical camp menu would be: breakfast — two slices of bread (often hard and flat if the yeast supply was low), millet or sorghum porridge, with sugar on rare occasions; lunch — hash or stew including mushy eggplant, popularly called SOS (‘same old stew’!), occasionally dessert; supper — usually soup, often a watered down version of SOS.

‘Second helpings were very rare. When one five-year-old discovered that she was allowed a second drink of water at playtime, she shouted excitedly to the others, “Hey, everybody, seconds on water!”’

‘Sanitation was appalling. All agreed that the camp’s health committee had one of the hardest tasks. The sewage system consisted of open cesspools, one of which was only yards from the side windows of our room.

‘Gangs of Chinese coolies, with buckets hanging on each end of a pole across their shoulders, came in each day to fill up and splish-splash their way up to the gate and out into their little fields. The fetid stench floated in the kitchen/dining hall area where we were eating, or on summer nights it hung low over the camp in sultry, pungent clouds.

‘One boy had the misfortune to fall head first into one of the cesspools. Happily, his brother’s frantic yells meant his sufferings were fairly short-lived. Help reached him after his fourth dunking and, to the great relief of all, “Cesspool Kelly” as he came to be known, was pulled out and revived.

The noisiest night-time entertainment by far, came from the rats … To try and cut down the menace of rats and flies, rat-catching and fly-catching competitions were organised’.

One syndicate of one adult and two boys won the prize for catching 68 rats. David himself managed to catch 66 flies during one Sunday school lesson! Catching and killing bed-bugs was another necessary task, and David was once stung by a scorpion that he had not managed to rid from his bed.

Eric Liddell

In David Michell’s account, one section is entitled ‘Of all the world’s great heroes’. It starts like this: ‘Weihsien was a place of heroes … A situation like Weihsien is fertile soil for producing people of exceptional character. In our eyes, for instance, our teachers were heroes in the way they absorbed the hardships and fears themselves and tried to make life as normal as possible for us’.

But there was one man in Weihsien who stood out above them all, and that man was Eric Liddell. Born in China of Scottish missionary parents, he became an outstanding athlete in Scotland, where his family had returned.

He famously refused to run in the 100 metres in the 1924 Olympic Games, though he was favourite to win, because he wouldn’t run on a Sunday. He entered the 400 metres instead and won in a new world record time. Later he returned to China as a missionary, marrying a Canadian missionary ten years his junior. He saw his pregnant wife, with their two children, safely on their way back home, intending to follow them shortly. But he was too late and was also incarcerated in Weihsien.

Eric lived in the room immediately above that of David and his schoolmates. ‘He was an outstanding example by his kindness and self-sacrifice. He taught science to the older students, even drawing all the apparatus for chemistry experiments, so that the Oxford exams could be taken.

‘He put up a shelf — a valuable item of furniture, even if it was only a piece of wood — for a white Russian prostitute in the camp. She said of Eric that he was the only man who ever did anything for her without asking for favours in return.’

Selfless service

‘Often we would see him carrying a heavy load for one of the older people, or walking with a young person for whom Weihsien imprisonment had brought life to a dead stop. He helped to answer questions and turn the questioning to faith in God and hope that freedom would indeed come, some day…

‘As chairman of the recreational committee, he helped organize the athletic events and … sports days … umpiring barefoot soccer games … He always inspired enthusiasm; strong as he was in his conviction about Sunday not being a day for sports, he even agreed to referee the games of some children, whose parents let them play on Sundays, when he found them fighting over the game.

‘To us young people in camp, he was known as Uncle Eric. To us he stood out as kind and friendly, with his ever-present smile and gentle, Christ-like manner … He loved children and gave a lot of time to … us … because we were the youngest without our parents. Though … he missed his family very much … he wasn’t looking for pity. To accept with quiet serenity the will of God was the hallmark of his life…

To be concluded

Paul E. Brown is a retired Grace Baptist pastor, living near Lancaster