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In gratitude

By Xing Yi and Dong Xianwu ( China Daily)

Updated: 2016-08-05

A former New Jersey politician comes to Southwest China to find her hero, Xing Yi and Dong Xianwu report in Guiyang.

It is a cool afternoon in Guiyang, capital of Southwest China's Gui-zhou province, when Wang Chenghan puts on a traditional Chinese suit and waits to meet an old friend.

He hasn't seen Mary Previte in decades.

On Aug 17, 1945, two days after Japan had announced its surrender in World War II, a B-24 bomber took off from China's southwest. Onboard were six US soldiers and Wang, who was then a Chinese interpreter. The operation, dubbed "duck mission" was to rescue hundreds of people imprisoned by the Japanese in Weifang in East China's Shandong province.

Previte was in that camp, too.

"I never thought the day would come," Previte says, crying with joy upon seeing Wang, now 91.

Previte, 84, has come from New Jersey to Guiyang to thank Wang for the help that changed her life.

The Weihsien Interment Camp was one of the largest detention centers established by the Japanese for civilians from Allied countries living in northern China during World War II.

The rescue team did not know what to expect from the armed Japanese guards despite their surrender. The plane flew low while approaching the camp. Then, the door opened and they jumped.

"When I jumped out of the plane, the wind made me dizzy. I almost lost consciousness. Then a pain in my shoulder woke me up. I saw the ground," Wang recalls of his landing in a sorghum field near the camp. "It took fewer than 10 seconds."

And it was Wang's first time parachuting. Then 20 years old, he had only received basic simulation training on the ground. They didn't have to fight with the outnumbered Japanese guards to take over the camp, and were welcomed by thrilled internees, who didn't know they were free until they saw the US plane.

Recalling her memories of that day, Previte says: "I had a stomach pain and was in bed, but I heard people crying and shouting outside ... They rushed out of the camp gate to welcome the heroes.

"When I saw the American plane hovering, my ache disappeared."

In the following weeks, the rescue team registered the interned civilians by nationality, then coordinated with the Allies to send them back home.

Telling his story, Wang, who was then known by his English name Eddie, says: "Every night after dinner, Mary and other little children would play softball with me. We had a lot of fun together and became good friends."

Previte spent three more weeks in the camp before being transferred to Xi'an in northwestern China to reunite with her missionary parents.

As the war ended, Wang went back to university and continued his studies. After graduating in 1948, he worked as a teacher, and later as an engineer.

Previte and her parents returned to the United States, where she worked in the education sector before being elected to the New Jersey assembly in 1998.

In the 1990s, Previte decided to find the soldiers who had liberated the Weihsien camp, so that she could express her gratitude to them in person. It was not too hard for her to locate the US soldiers, although two of them had died by then. But she couldn't find Wang, who didn't tell anyone except his family members about the heroic mission.

It was by chance that Wang's grandson, who works in the US, saw Previte's posts on a Weihsien camp survivors' website that finally brought the two together over the phone last year.

Recalling how she found him, Previte says during a meeting with Wang in Guiyang: "When we were talking on the telephone and you said that Betty (Previte's friend) taught you dancing. I thought: 'OK, this is for real'."

Wang is the only man still alive from the team of rescuers.

"This is the last chapter of my pilgrimage to find my heroes," says Previte. "They all said that they are not heroes. But to all of us who were in the Japanese camp, they became heroes when they jumped out of that plane."

Previte hasn't come alone. She has brought several "thank you" messages from others. The letters were written by US ambassador to China Max Baucus, New Jersey state senator Stephen Sweeney, Donald Norcross, a congressman from New Jersey, and several former internees from all over the world.

"If you and your brave comrades hadn't saved us, I would probably have died before I reached 19," wrote former internee Pamela Masters-Flynn from California.

"Thank you for giving me 70 more years of life ... with all the wonderful people who touched my life along the way."

In another letter, Audrey Nordmo Horton from Norway says: "I was one of the few Norwegians you rescued. So in Norwegian I will say, tusen takk - a thousand thank yous - and I will add in English a million more."

Contact the writers through xingyi@chinadaily.com.cn

In gratitude

Mary Previte, a survivor of a prison-of-war camp, meets her rescuer, Wang Chenghan, in Guiyang. Photos By Yang Jun / China Daily

 In gratitude

Wang Chenghan shows a photo of survivors of the Weihsien camp in Shandong province. In 1945, he joined a rescue operation in the Japanese interment camp.

(China Daily 08/05/2016 page20)

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