REEDSVILLE - It was the horror of all horrors for a mother with four young children. They were captured by the enemy- maybe dead. Would she ever see them again?
As missionaries in China during the 1930s and '40s, Alice Taylor and her husband were carrying on the work of their grandfather, J. Hudson Taylor, one of the first and probably most well-known missionaries to China.
Because the Taylors were hundreds of miles inland, it took weeks for them to hear the news that America was at war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Sentinel photo by MICAIAH WISE BILGER
Mary Taylor Previte tells her story of spending three years in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. Captured at age 9 while attending boarding school in China, Previte and her siblings were separated from their missionary parents for 5 1/2 years.
When Alice heard the news, she knew the Japanese had taken her four children from their boarding school on the China coast.
"Oh my sakes! The Japanese have my children," she cried and ran to her bedroom in tears. Thoughts ran through her mind of the horror stories she had heard about the treatment of prisoners: Would they rape her teenage daughter? Would they use her sons as cannon fodder?
But as she was weeping, she heard a familiar voice: It was her former pastor from her childhood church in Wilkes-Barre.
He said, "Alice, if you look after the things that are dear to God, he will look after the things that are dear to you."
Getting up from her bed, she thought: "The Chinese are dear to God, and my children are dear to me."
At that moment, Alice Taylor made a pact with God, trusting that if she and her husband continued their work in China, God would keep their children safe.
Mary Taylor Previte, the youngest of Alice's daughters, today tells the story of her childhood in a Japanese concentration camp and her mother's "pact" with God.
Recently visiting Reedsville to speak at Kish Valley Grace Brethren Church, Previte took time to speak with The Sentinel and tell her story.
A retired teacher, youth worker and New Jersey district representative, Previte spends part of her free time speaking at churches, conventions and retreats, when invited.
There, she tells her story of her mother's faith and her own experiences in a concentration camp:
While her mother and father traveled throughout China, Mary, her siblings and classmates went to a boarding school with other missionary children.
On Dec. 8, the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Japanese soldiers came to the school. They brought a Shinto priest who performed a ceremony rededicating the school to the emperor of Japan.
For four months, the school continued to operate in the building under the surveillance of the soldiers. But when the military decided to use the school as a headquarters, the students and staff were marched into Weihsien, a Japanese concentration camp in Shantung Province, China.
As they walked toward their prison - a place where they would live for three years - Mary, her classmates and teachers sang, "God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength," refusing to let their circumstances squelch their faith in God.
The camp included approximately 1,500 people, from prisoners of war to anyone who the Japanese deemed suspicious.
"'Enemy aliens' - that's what they called us. They gathered us up so we were not about, causing trouble."
"We ... marched, carrying what we could. We hadn't been locked in before. Now we were not allowed out."
Now at a concentration camp with prisoner numbers, bayonet drills, electric wire and roll calls, Mary's teachers worked to establish some normalcy for their students.
She and her classmates still were required to get up on time, make sure they were "clean and tidy," wash themselves and mend their clothing.
"School will go on," the teachers said, and so it did.
Children sat on the floor or on steamer trunks to do their lessons. Even during roll call, teachers had them recite Morse code. No opportunity to learn was squandered.
"Our teachers would say, 'You are going to get out of this place, and you will have to compete with the boys and girls in other schools.'"
Each child received one little notebook a month. If they used it up before the month was over, they got up, erased it and used it again.
One Christmas, the teachers managed to give every child a lap slate - though how they got them, the children never knew.
"Can you believe that some teachers continued Boy and Girl Scouts?" Mary received a badge for learning the folk song "Swanee River" while she was in Weihsen.
"We embroidered our own badges, because there was no way we could buy them."
"We even went to school in the summer, so we would not get into mischief."
Other prisoners also helped to keep the children entertained during their years in the camp, including Olympic athlete Eric Liddell, best known by the movie "Chariots of Fire."
Uncle Eric, as the children called him, set up activities and competitions for the prisoners.
A delight to the children, during competitions Uncle Eric "was always on our (the children's) team, so we always won."
Liddell also taught many Bible lessons to the children, but the one most impactful to the prisoners was his sermon on the Beatitudes.
The goal to work for is "to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Liddell taught. "That means that we need to pray for the Japanese."
Along with sports, there also was music. Unlikely as it was, members of a Salvation Army Band also were prisoners in the camp - and they brought their instruments.
They were the team that kept people's spirits alive.
The band's only dilemma was which national anthem to prepare for their rescuers. Who would free the prisoners? British, Americans, Russians, Chinese?
The band prepared a medley including all the anthems and practiced every week in front of the camp commandant's office.
As the years went by, things began to deteriorate.
"Food was glop, and it got worse and worse."
The prisoners received no china or silverware. Instead, they used an empty tin can or a soap dish to eat.
Still, teachers kept the students faithful to God and their education. As the teachers walked around the tables, watching the children eat, comments like "Sit up straight" or "Don't talk while you eat" were not uncommon.
The teachers required the children to have the same manners as the royalty in Buckingham Palace.
Here in the story Previte paused. "Have I told you about terror yet? No, I haven't."
"I don't remember being miserable," Previte said.
Their comfort and strength were found in the faithful examples of their teachers and in the words of Bible verses, she said.
"Our teachers made us memorize from the Bible every day. Our parents did the same before the war."
Previte burst into song, recalling a Bible verse her mother put to music before their captivity: "He shall give his angels charge over you to keep you ..."
Both parents and teachers taught the children to look to God, she said. "They anchored us in the word (Bible)."
By 1945, "people were getting downright scrawny." Some men had lost as much as 100 pounds.
In August, Mary came down with dysentery. As she was laying on a bed of steamer trunks, Mary heard an airplane.
As the noise got louder, the now 12-year-old girl jumped out of bed to see an American airplane so close to the ground that it nearly clipped the trees.
Parachuting down from the "Armored Angel" were the camp's saviors - 15 American soldiers.
All of the camp's 1,500 prisoners rushed to the gate to welcome them.
"The prisoners were out of their minds weeping, crying, laughing, waving their shirts or cloth."
Their bony hands hoisted the soldiers up onto their shoulders through the gate where the Salvation Army Band was playing, "O say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free and the home of the brave."
"We all knew we were free."
During the next few days, the solders were treated like gods. Buttons, autographs or strips of cloth from their clothes or parachutes were prized souvenirs. All the children wanted to touch them and to sit in their laps. The children begged them to tell stories about America, and the soldiers taught them songs like "You are my sunshine."
"It was adoration of the highest magnitude."
On Sept. 11, 1945, the Taylor children returned home to their parents. It had been 5 1/2 years since the children had seen their parents.
The children fell into their mothers arms, overcome with the joy of homecoming.
Amid the chaos of their family reunion, Alice Taylor knew God had fulfilled his promise.
"Alice, you looked after the things dear to me, and I looked after the things dear to you, too."
"It's a story of faith and of God's love ... even in such a horrific time as World War II," Previte said.
However, when Previte tells her story, people often approach her saying, "Isn't that a tragedy?" she said.
Previte said she respond to them: "'Isn't that (story) something beautiful?' It has shaped my own life."
Previte then tells them of the events that followed: In 1997, she successfully tracked down all of the Americans who liberated the camp, she said. Though it took her about a year, she visited every soldier or his widow, she said. Everywhere she went, local newspapers hailed the men as forgotten heroes, she said.
She sent their addresses to her former classmates and asked them to send thank you cards, she said.
Only one soldier remains alive, a Japanese American farmer who lives in Nebraska, she said. She still contacts the man every few months, she said.
"Do you see how the experience has been a blessing to me, to many people?" she asked. "My story has blessed so many people. I've told it from one side of America to another."