How to Survive as a POW

A seldom-discussed chapter of the Pacific War provides an example of the power of positivity during times of crisis.

On the morning of December 8, 1941, tens of thousands of American and British civilians living in China woke up to learn that the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor had been bombed by Japanese forces. Their nations were suddenly at war with Imperial Japan. The Japanese had invaded China years earlier, and the troops stationed there wasted no time turning these Westerners—who were now part of the enemy—into prisoners of war. “They appeared the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked,” Mary Previte told the Trumpet. “We were now the prisoners of the great emperor of Japan, they said.”

(Listen to the interview with Mary Previte on this episode of The Sun Also Rises:)

Previte had just turned 9 years old when the Japanese stormed her boarding school. Her parents were working as missionaries in central China, while she and her siblings lived in Shandong province on the country’s east coast. There they attended the Chefoo School, which had been established to give British and American children living in China the chance to receive a Western-style education in English.

Before Pearl Harbor, Mary’s time at Chefoo had been peaceful. But after the attack and the subsequent declaration of war, the situation drastically changed. “[T]hey began going through the campus and the buildings and putting seals with Japanese writing, saying, This belongs to the great emperor of Japan,” she said.

For a year, the Japanese let Mary and her schoolmates and teachers continue living on the Chefoo campus. But it was located on a choice piece of seaside real estate that the Japanese soon determined would be useful for military purposes. “They wanted this beautiful school to be a Japanese naval base,” Previte said.

So in November of 1942, the soldiers herded up the Chefoo prisoners and relocated them to a concentration camp three miles across town. The camp consisted of four medium-sized houses, each of which had 60 to 70 students and teachers crowded into it. “We did not have even one inch between mattresses on the floor,” she said.

The camp was cramped, the people hungry, and the situation bleak. But one of Mary’s teachers made a decision that changed everything for her and the other children.

Structure, Gratitude, Merit Badges

“She just decided she was going to start a Brownie group,” Previte said. This young teacher decided that in an effort to preserve the students’ childhoods during the war, she would work to keep them full of optimism and gratitude—and busy learning and earning merit badges.

Several other Chefoo teachers joined the effort: Previte remembers Miss Ailsa Carr, Miss Beatrice Stark and Miss Broomhall, all between the ages of 20 and 25. For the boys, they set up a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout troop. For the older girls, they established a Girl Guide unit (known as Girl Scouts in the United States).

From the beginning, the teachers decided to operate these youth units as if they were the same as those in peacetime. Concentration camp or not, they were going to be orderly, cheerful, productive and polite.

“[W]e were to have nice manners like the princesses in Buckingham Palace,” Previte said. “You could be on a wooden bench, eating out of a soap dish or an empty tuna can, and you might be eating boiled animal brains or what the Chinese would feed their animals, and the teachers would come up behind you and say ‘Mary, do not talk with food in your mouth. There are not two sets of manners, one for the concentration camp and one for Buckingham Palace in England.’”

The Move to Weihsien

After around 10 months in the camp, the Japanese moved Mary and the other prisoners again. They shipped them by boat, train and truck to the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center. At this larger concentration camp, the Chefoo captives joined some 1,200 other prisoners of war, mostly from Europe and Great Britain.

“There were men, women and children, old and young. People were born there, and people died there,” she said.

In Weihsien, there was a little more breathing room, but food remained scarce, and many prisoners were starving. Previte says they learned to eat certain weeds growing in the camp, such as pigweed, for calories.

The prisoners learned to eat certain weeds growing in the camp, such as pigweed, for calories.

Some prisoners also developed a system of bartering over the compound walls, which was hazardous because of the punishment dealt out to anyone engaging in it. But by this system, they occasionally obtained eggs. In such rare cases, the pows learned not to let any part of them go to waste. Her teachers would grind the shells into powder and feed it to the children by the spoonful. The adults said “that was pure calcium for us, and for our bones,” she said.

Mary’s days were filled with arduous work—mopping floors, cooking, scrubbing clothes, swabbing latrines, pumping water, and carrying and burning trash.

The relocation to Weihsien, the unending scarcity of food and the laborious drudgery did not put an end to the youth organizations. By this time, Mary was 11 and had graduated from the Brownies to the Girl Guides.

She remembers that twice a day, the captives lined up for roll call, and the soldiers were often late to arrive to take count. Mary and the others in the youth troops did not let this time go to waste. While waiting, “we were practicing for our semaphore and Morse Code,” she said.

The practice paid off. Mary eventually earned a merit badge for getting the Morse Code down, and one for semaphore. She also remembers earning a badge for folk singing and another for learning to build a fire. “I don’t know where the teachers got the matches for us,” she said, “but somehow or another we would have a little tin can, and we would figure out how to make a little grate inside the can, and practice lighting a fire inside it.”

Adversity Becomes Opportunity

Earning merit badges for such activities as Morse Code and kindling fires is fairly standard around the world for members of these youth organizations. But for the children in the Weihsien camp, there were a few unique activities.

For example, in the summers the Weihsien prisoners suffered severe bed bug infestations. “They would get you at night,” she said, “and you would wake up in the morning and find a little trail of bites up your legs, arms and tummy.”

But in this trial, the teachers saw an opportunity for the children. “They said, ‘OK, we’ll make it an adventure,’” Mary remembers. Each child would let one fingernail grow longer than the others, and at a designated time each weekend, they would all wage meticulous war on the pests. “Every Saturday would be ‘The Battle of the Bed Bugs,’” she said. “You went through every crack and cranny. If you had a pillow, you would go through the seam, to kill any egg or any bug. That was the game!”

Bed bugs were not the only pests the prisoners had to battle. “Sanitation was horrible,” Previte said. “We didn’t have nice toilets to flush.” The poor hygiene conditions spawned multitudes of flies, which could potentially spread diseases.

The youth troop leaders again turned adversity into opportunity. “They said whoever gets the most flies will get a prize,” Previte explained. She remembers one occasion when her younger brother, John, won a weekly competition. “I don’t know how many thousands of flies he got in a little can,” she says, but he “got the prize!”

During the winters, the prisoners had to fight against a different enemy: the cold. Each room was furnished with a pot-bellied iron stove, but the Japanese did not give the prisoners coal. They only gave them access to coal dust, which pows had to transport from the soldiers’ barracks to the prisoners’ dorms.

“We little girls in that dormitory, 13 of us, would make a long line of girl, bucket, girl, bucket, girl, bucket,” she said. They found this bucket brigade to be the most efficient way to move the heavy dust into the dormitories. The process took hours, but Mary and the others passed the time faster by singing. “We would make a little tune,” she said, and then burst into the very melody that was the soundtrack to their toil: “Many hands make light work; many hands make light work!”

Mary’s teachers also created a game to see which pair of girls could get their stove the hottest. Mary became overwhelmed with emotion remembering that on one occasion, she and a friend won. “Can you believe this? I’m remembering from more than 70 years ago the pride that I felt when Marjorie Halverson and I got the pot-bellied stove red hot with the fire we started,” she said.

Father, Mother and Teacher

Previte said that the champions of this story were the young Chefoo instructors who led the youth troops.

Even as Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaya fell to the Japanese, and even as Burma collapsed and the Philippines was invaded, the teachers kept the children from succumbing to dread. “I did not see my parents for 5½ years,” she said. “So think of this: A teacher becomes substitute parents, but they absolutely were not going to let us forget that God was taking care of us, and that they were going to take care of us.”

“[Our teachers] absolutely were not going to let us forget that God was taking care of us, and that they were going to take care of us.”
Mary Previte

Even knowing the atrocities the Japanese had committed in the Nanking Massacre, and even as the Weihsien prisoners slowly starved as the years went by, the teachers kept the children focused on their education, on earning merit badges, on making the best of what they had.

“Did we lose weight?” she asked. “Absolutely. Were we undernourished? Absolutely. Yes, there were terrible conditions, but the teachers were protecting us with everything they could.”

Conveying Gratitude

Previte said it was only after she reached adulthood that she was able to understand the peril that she and the other children had faced during the war. It was only then that she could grasp the enormity of the Chefoo teachers’ achievement. She said for a child to endure those squalid conditions and still say, “Wow, we did great!” after successfully completing a given activity or earning a merit badge was “an absolutely amazing triumph.”

In 1985, decades after the American forces had liberated the Weihsien camp, she tracked down some of her teachers to thank them. She asked Ailsa Carr what it was like to bear that heavy burden, during a time when the Japanese war machine was devouring more and more of Asia and becoming more ruthless.

Mary’s former teacher told her that she knew the Japanese were digging mass graves outside the Weihsien compound walls. Carr added: “I would pray to God every night that He would let me be one of the first when they lined us up by the death trench and began shooting.”

“I said, ‘Miss Carr, I had no idea. I had no idea,’” Previte said.

Not many situations in life would be as hopeless as a rat-infested, bed-bug ridden, tragically overpopulated and starving concentration camp. And the desolation of life there could have easily overcome Mary Previte and the others of the Chefoo School.

But that did not happen.

Mary Previte is now 84 and living in New Jersey, where she served as a representative of the sixth legislative district from 1998 to 2006. It was some 75 years ago when her teachers established those youth units that shielded her from hopelessness. Speaking about it, she bursts with childlike joy and energy, sounding like she is 10 years old once again. “What a gift those teachers gave to us!” she said.

The teachers’ gift was that they enabled the children to entrust their anxieties to them. This helped them stay positive, productive and grateful through it all.

In 1 Peter 5:7, followers of Christ are instructed to do likewise toward God: “Throw the whole of your anxiety upon Him, because He Himself cares for you” (Weymouth New Testament). Psalm 55:22 assures us that God is more reliable than any physical teacher could ever be in helping to shoulder our worries: “Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you; He will never allow the righteous to be shaken” (New American Standard Bible). The Bible also tells us, in Philippians 4:8, that it is vital, during times of crisis and calm alike, to maintain positivity: “[W]hatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

When any of us is in the midst of a time of trial or crisis, with our anxieties entrusted to God, and with our minds set to remain grateful and positive, we too can survive—and grow.