Who Lives? Who dies?

The following is excerpted from a recent interview with Peter Talbot, my father-in-law and a survivor from the Weixian Japanese Internment Camp, China, recalling the camp and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan, August 6, and August 9, 1945.

-by Nigel Best

“Though I didn’t know it in the moment, my life was about to change when I heard the engines of a plane way overhead. After it had passed I noticed seven small dots against the backdrop of the afternoon clouds.

“For days prior to that, something had been causing great concern throughout the camp. The guards were acting very, very nervously, and the camp commandant hadn’t stepped out of his office to collect the head counts of prisoners. This had never happened before. Everyone seemed to be on edge.

“A rumour began to be whispered around the camp-- that we were all to be shot, that trenches had been dug for our bodies. It was believed that the guards would return to their home country to make one last stand against an impending invasion by the USA.

“My father was so worried, he had recounted the cyanide pills hidden inside a locket around his neck to ensure he had one for each of us. If the moment came, he would give one to my mother, my older sister, my baby sister, himself, and me.

“All five of us had arrived at the camp by train three years ago. We had been allowed one suitcase each. The first night, we’d been given a blanket then told to sleep on the concrete floor. We were eventually assigned two small rooms with beds, although one room was shared with another family.

“The tolling of a bell summoned us to the roll call. This was to become part of life. We were assigned open areas where we stood in families and were counted twice a day by a Japanese officer, sometimes with a pistol in his hand. Very soon we learned to count in Japanese.

“The morning roll call was a frightening time for us. As children, we were so afraid that if we forgot our number there might be a punishment. Often, those who misspoke were slapped or beaten, child or adult.

“We soon learned to bow to the soldiers and to salute when passing a Japanese flag. We called the flag the poached egg and out of sight of the guards much disrespect was shown.

“My best friend Johnnie cannot forget his memories of camp and refuses to talk about it. One day he kicked his ball past the electrified wire. He tried to retrieve when a guard knocked him to the ground and held his bayonet to Johnny's throat. The poor boy thought he was going to die. When he was released, there was a spot of blood on his neck. Some of the older guards showed compassion, but the Korean guards were the worst. Perhaps they had to prove themselves to the Japanese.

“That first day, as we looked around, we saw the outline of a twenty foot high wall topped with barbed wire. The entire compound was a quarter of a mile square. There were guard towers in each corner overlooking the camp, and rows of small rooms (12 by 12 feet) now for family units.

“There was an auditorium where all religious services were held, and a hospital but no equipment, and three kitchens. In our kitchen the cooks were Dutch priests and the dishwashers were nuns. They were always cheerful. Breakfast was ​goaliang or red sorghum. Lunch was a watery soup. The evening meal was a stew of old vegetables with a trace of meat if it was available.

“There were two long bathhouses with showers. These amenities served two thousand people for three and a half years. The lavatories were trenches and the open cesspools were emptied by 'honeypot' men, Chinese workers who came into the camp to clean.

“Each nationality-- British, Canadian, American, Dutch-- voted a representative to a communal make-shift council. Left to its own devices, it made the everyday decisions about the camp. Thus, latrines were cleaned, cooking was organized, and school for the children was implemented.

“There was a job for everyone. The only person who refused to work was the wife of the U.S. ambassador. She had been asked to help clean the latrines!

“There was no school for me. I was unruly, wouldn’t pay attention, and eventually was thrown out of the classroom. This left me free daily to my own distractions.

“I watched when the men from the fields brought in vegetables for us, as they spat small pieces of chewed paper onto the ground when the guards were distracted. Retrieved by the adult internees, it was how the Chinese got news to us of the war outside the walls of the camp.

“Once in a while I would walk over to a part of the fencing and stare at the rotting corpse of a man as it slowly disintegrated. Whatever had been his crime, he’d been shot and left on the fence to slowly decompose. I guess it was a warning to us all. Eventually there was nothing but his bones inside what remained of his clothing.

“Mostly I would just play in the dirt, living inside my young imagination. I’d sometimes stare over to where Eric Liddell-- the Scottish sprinter later canonized in the movie, Chariots of Fire-- held sway over his students at the camp school. He died in the camp just months before its liberation.

“There were other times I sat and listened to my parents’ stories of a life before the Japanese invasion, before the Japanese soldiers came to our home giving us 24 hours notice that we were to be sent from our home in Tianjin to the camp.

“My father would recall negotiating with the Chinese workers at the coal mine he managed, about how he averted a strike. My dad had gone to work there after leaving the British army in India. He married my mother, and left for China, which is where I was born.

“My parents were employed by the Kailan Mining Administration, a coal mining company with headquarters in Tianjin. It was a joint Belgian/British enterprise. The administrators were British, and the engineers were Belgian. My parents were sent into the hinterland of Hopei province to join other foreigners who administered three mines. These were reputed to have at the time the highest output of coal in the world.

“I recall how my parents would both find pleasure in talking about the grand parties at the homes of ex-pats from Russia, France, Italy, and England.

“My mother liked to gossip about Wallace Simpson’s brothel in Tianjin. Mother would make subtle jokes about the small ‘member” of the recently abdicated king, and how Wallace was his saviour in ‘that department.’

“They spoke of the arrival of the Japanese forces. Mostly, my dad would recall his not helping the Japanese run the coal mine, knowing that the coal would only be used to power the Japanese military machine.

“My mother would whisper about her latest black market trading with the local villagers. Mother had scratched out bricks behind our beds that could be removed then replaced, thus creating a small portal to the outside world. Having five languages at her disposal, she was able to negotiate items throughout the camp, items brought in through that hole in the wall. She would exchange watches and jewelry for eggs, food, sugar or alcohol.

“One day, I overheard my parents talking about what to do if our family were marked to be sent away to the facilities the Japanese had created for human medical experiments. My mother reassured my father that her spies outside had told her that the communists were constantly dynamiting the railroad tracks and railroad bridges to ensure that no-one could leave the camp.

“(At the end of the war, the Americans gave the Japanese scientists their freedom in exchange for the results of their studies. Some went on to be employed by American companies. So much for ethics when the chips are down.)

“The Japanese commandant of our camp only stepped into the affairs of the camp when larger issues arrived. He wasn’t particularly happy the day the American Red Cross mistook the red cross on the top of the camp infirmary for the drop location of food and medical supplies. Tins of fruit salad had crashed through the roof killing three patients in their hospital beds.

“The commandant also had to intervene when the U.S. christian missionaries interned in the camp decided they were not going to share the recently delivered parcels of food, cigarettes, booze, and other items that arrived from the American Red Cross. The parcels of goods had arrived overland by mule. The U.S. contingent at camp decided it was all for them as it was the American Red Cross that had provided the goods.

“A huge argument erupted amongst the different groups of nationalities. Eventually, the commandant issued a decision that unless everyone shared, no-one would receive any of the goods. The debacle had created a rift amongst the camp.

“Then came this strangeness about our camp. Rumours were running rampant. We are to be shot so our Japanese guards could return home to defend their country; that the communists were nearing and our guards had remained to defend us; the guards would not leave as they were afraid to be captured and executed by the Chinese armies.

“The biggest rumour was that the U.S. army had invaded Japan, and the Japanese emperor was about to surrender the war.

“The rumours ended that afternoon when that plane flew over the camp. The seven dots in the sky turned into Six American soldiers and a Chinese interpreter slowly drifting down on parachutes into the Courtyard of the Happy Way, the Chinese name of the internment camp. The Japanese immediately put down their weapons and surrendered to the Americans, the commandant ceremoniously turning over his sword in acknowledgment of the surrender.

“The war was over.

“Almost three months later, my family flew back to our home in the north of China. Civil war had now taken hold of the country.

“We stayed until, just over two years later, my father died from lung cancer. Over 10,000 people attended his funeral, a testament to his honour amongst the Chinese and the ex-pats he had known.

“My mother then moved us to England. Thinking back, I’m not sure when I really became aware of the atomic bombs that were dropped on Japan, bringing about the war’s conclusion.

“I’m empathetic to the suffering of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s just that on the other side, I and thousands of people at internment camps and prisoners of war camps throughout Japanese war-occupied territories were set free by the dropping of those bombs. My family was able to able to begin our lives again.

“How does a person reconcile one’s own existence against that of those who suffered from the atomic bombs? I have my family, my children, my grandchildren. I’m alive because of the bombs.

“Since the war I have wrestled with the thought as to who really decides who has to die and who can live? Is it a god, or is it just fate? I wish I knew an answer.”