21 Jul 2015

Feature interview - Mary Taylor Previte

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 21 July 2015

When Mary Taylor Previte was nine years old, she and her brothers and sisters were attending a boarding school in China while their parents did missionary work. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Japanese soldiers marched into her boarding school in China and sent everyone to a concentration camp.

She’s 82 years old now, and her memories of that time are vivid. “They shipped us by train then by truck like animals in a truck to the Weihsien concentration camp where we ended up with 1500 allied prisoners” Previte tells Afternoons. “When we were marched off to concentration camp, the whole school started singing ‘God is our refugee and our strength, he will take care of us in trouble, we will not be afraid’. There we were marching into camp signing that song. And our teachers kept that up through the war.”

Her teachers started the Chefoo Brownies and Girl Guides inside the camp. “We had all these things going on that made us feel safe. A child is protected in their souls by a feeling of structure and predictability,” Previte says. “We would practice how to build a fire with one or two matches. These are things Brownies all over the world were learning how to do. These kinds of things distracted us from the fact we were hungry and we did not know when we would see our parents.”  She did not see her parents again until 1945.

The Brownies in camp earned badges. “We had teams of two. Marjorie Harrison and I, I can remember the victory. We were the team that got the pot belly stove red hot more times than any other girls in our dormitory. I can remember that at the age of 82 that I was the best at getting the pot belly stove red hot,” Previte says.

Scottish Olympic athlete and Rugby player Eric Liddell, made famous by the film, Chariots of Fire, was one of the prisoners of Weihsien.  The children called him Uncle Eric Mary says. He died in the camp. “Someone at his memorial service said this was Jesus in running shoes” Previte remembers.

On August 17, 1945 a team of American soldiers with a Japanese interpreter librated the camp. They parachuted in from a B24 Bomber. “The people rushed out to the fields to these six Americans and picked up these heroes and carried them to the gates of the camp and there was the Salvation Army Band playing,” Previte tearfully recalls.

She has spent the last 18 years tracking down all the men who rescued her. She found the last one just a few months ago. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of her camp will be celebrated in August.

Get the RNZ app

for easy access to all your favourite programmes

Subscribe to Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan

Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)