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Navy ensign Jim Moore tensed with the rush of adrenaline as the B-24 Liberator flew above Chinese fields at 500 feet early on the morning of August 17, 1945. He was one of six men sent on a daring mission to locate the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center and then jump into the Japanese prison and rescue 1,500 internees before the Japanese had a chance to carry out their threat to murder them. This would be Moore’s first combat jump, and down below were men and women who had been teachers and classmates of his at the Chefoo School.

Moore grew up in Chefoo with his parents and sister. The family of Southern Baptists had come to the village in Shantung province to serve as missionaries in 1920 when Jimmie was just a year old. As soon as he was old enough, Moore attended the school, where he excelled in athletics and made friends with children from across the United States and various corners of the British empire.

In 1936 Moore returned to the United States to attend Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, where he earned a degree and met his future wife. Fluent in Chinese, after graduation Moore took a job as a clerk for the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., while he studied law in the evening.

Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an issue of the Chefoo School alumni magazine arrived at Moore’s home. One article listed “Chefusians in the Forces”—six serving in the Royal Navy, 49 in the British army, 12 in the Royal Air Force and four in nursing. Moore went on to read a carefully worded story that reported the school had been captured and the students and staff interned by the Japanese.

Moore, by now an FBI special agent, could have remained at home in the United States, but the article about the school’s capture haunted him. He could picture it—Japanese troops rampaging through the countryside, executing civilians, massacring prisoners. His mind’s eye saw a kaleidoscope of terror behind barbed wire: schoolchildren locked up, bayonet drills, guard dogs, prisoner roll calls—unknown horrors endured by former classmates, teachers and friends.

Moore wanted to do something but he did not know what until he heard that the supersecret Office of Strategic Services (OSS) was seeking people familiar with China. The missionaries’ son was a perfect choice. When given the option of an Army or a Navy commission, he chose the Navy for its $6 per diem, which enabled him to send more home to his wife and children.

The OSS gave him the rank of ensign, trained him and sent him to Kunming, an outpost at the China end of the Burma Road that crossed the Himalayas. In Kunming Moore went through jump school— the only American in the class—with 14- and 15-year-old Chinese soldiers learning to parachute from a C-47. Between jumps, a plan formed in his imagination: He would try for an assignment supporting Chinese Nationalist forces in Shantung province, where he would be within reach of the prison.

Moore would have to get there quickly. As the United States closed in on Japan in late summer 1945, reports began to reach U.S. headquarters in China that the Japanese intended to kill prisoners held at their many camps or use them as bargaining chips with the Allies. Given their well-known history at Bataan, Singapore, Manchuria, Nanking and elsewhere throughout Asia, such an eventuality seemed all too possible.

Rescue became a priority. The American commander, Lt. Gen. Albert Wedemeyer, ordered agencies under his control to locate and evacuate POWs in China, Manchuria and Korea as quickly as possible. To accomplish this, Wedemeyer pulled together six-man rescue teams that included medical and communications specialists and interpreters. The teams had two assignments only: Rescue prisoners and gather intelligence.

Nine rescue missions were quickly organized; each would attempt to reach a specific prison compound at one location. Each location was code-named after a bird: Magpie (heading to Peiping, present-day Beijing), Duck (Weihsien), Flamingo (Harbin), Cardinal (Mukden), Sparrow (Shanghai), Quail (Hanoi), Pigeon (Hainan Island), Raven (Vientiane, Laos) and Eagle (Korea).

As soon as Moore learned where the Duck team was headed, he signed on to it, and the day after Emperor Hirohito announced Japan’s surrender, the OSS launched its teams. The six Americans bound for Weihsien flew from Kunming in a B-24 Liberator named The Armored Angel for an OSS base in Sian. The team included Major Stanley Staiger; Ensign James W. Moore; 1st Lt. James J. Hannon; Sergeant Tad Nagaki, Nisei interpreter; Sergeant Raymond Hanchulak, medic; and Corporal Peter Orlich, radio operator. In the early morning of August 17, they took off for Weihsien. A young Chinese interpreter, Cheng-Han “Eddie” Wang, accompanied the team.

Although the war was technically over, the Allies were still unsure of what the Japanese reaction would be to Americans landing in their midst. Moore didn’t care. He had been sitting around Kunming way too long. His Chefoo School and his teachers were below him on the ground, somewhere hidden in the unending panorama of villages and fields of ripening grain, and their plight had haunted him for years.

With no idea of the camp’s exact location, the pilot had trouble locating it, but he eventually shouted out, “There it is!” Moore jabbed his finger toward a walled compound tucked among the fields, crowds of people waving at the American plane. A small airstrip stretched across a field not far beyond the camp. Should they land the bomber? Was the airstrip mined? Should they jump?

Team commander Major Stanley Staiger made the decision: If worse came to worst, he said, you lose fewer men and less equipment if you jump. By dropping lower, you give the Japanese less space to shoot you or your parachute.

It was a miserable day and the plane was ill-designed for a parachute jump. To prepare the bomber for the drop, someone had removed panels from the bomb bay door and closed the hole with a makeshift plywood cover. The B-24 now hugged the ground at a gut-wrenching 500 feet. The rescue team sat poised on the edge of the bomb bay. One small push, and Moore was on his way. Wind quickly filled the fast-opening British parachutes.

The author’s firsthand account of joyous liberation at the age of 12 follows. The perspective gained by years of reflection since then has given her a deep appreciation of the heroism of these men.

When that day began, I had no idea that the hour of my liberation was at hand or that one of my rescuers had attended my old alma mater. I was withering with diarrhea, confined to my “poo-gai” mattress atop three side-by-side steamer trunks in the second-floor hospital dormitory. From inside the barrier walls, I could hear the drone of an airplane far above the camp. Sweaty and barefoot, I raced to the dormitory window and saw the aircraft sweep lower, slowly lower. I watched in disbelief as the giant plane emblazoned with an American star began circling the camp. Americans were waving from the bomber. Leaflets drifted from the sky.

Beyond the treetops, the airplane’s belly opened. I gaped in wonder as hot August winds buffeted giant parachutes to the ground. Weihsien went mad. I raced for the entry gates and was swept off my feet by the pandemonium. Prisoners ran in circles and pounded the skies with their fists. They wept, cursed, hugged, danced. They cheered themselves hoarse. Very proper grown-ups ripped off their shirts and waved them at the plane circling overhead. Droves of prisoners swept past Japanese guards into fields beyond the camp to greet the new arrivals.

A mile away we found them—six Americans—standing with their weapons ready, amid fields of ripening broom corn. They must have been confused by the tide of prisoners, intoxicated with joy and free in the open fields, advancing toward them. Ragtag, barefoot and hollow with hunger, the prisoners boosted the American major onto a bony platform of shoulders and carried him back to the camp in triumph.

In the distance near the gate, the music of “Happy Days Are Here Again” drifted out into the fields. It was the Salvation Army band blasting a joyful “Victory Medley.” When it got to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the crowd hushed.

From up on his throne of shoulders, the 27-year-old American major struggled down to a standing salute. The Japanese guards laid down their arms. Up on a mound by the gate, a young American trombonist in the band crumpled to the ground and wept. He knew what we all knew. We were free.

Inside the camp, the first person Moore asked to see was his headmaster, “Pa” Bruce. In an emotional reunion, Moore, 6 feet tall in the khaki uniform of the United States of America, towered over his emaciated headmaster. Next there was teacher Gordon Martin, who had played soccer with Moore, a Mr. Houghton, who had played field hockey, and Mr. Welsh, who had officiated in Chefoo’s intramural games. Steely teachers wept. Chefoo students celebrated. I was back among my old schoolmates and teachers, and my 12-year-old heart was turning somersaults.

Adult prisoners wanted American cigarettes—their first request. That’s not what we children wanted. We trailed these gorgeous liberators around, begging for their insignia, for buttons, for their autographs. We begged for chewing gum and swapped the sticky wads around. We begged them to sing the songs of America. They were sun-bronzed American gods with meat on their bones. We followed them day and night like we were following the Pied Piper. We wanted to touch them and sit on their laps. Eventually, however, the time came when we were separated from our heroes and repatriated, and we started our lives anew.

As the decades passed, I wanted to know these men who had become my heroes. With the help of the China-Burma-India Veterans Association, in 1997 I was able to track them down. Talking to them by telephone, sending them cards—it didn’t feel like thanks enough to me. So I began my pilgrimage crisscrossing the United States to visit each one of them face to face and to honor them: Jim Moore, Ray Hanchulak, Pete Orlich, Tad Nagaki, Stanley Staiger and Jim Hannon.

I found them all, each with a different story: Moore, the former FBI agent and the son of missionaries to China; Nagaki, a Japanese-American farm boy who didn’t speak English until he went to school in a small Nebraska town; Hannon, an adventurer who had prospected for gold in Alaska; Staiger, an ROTC student, snatched from his third year at the University of Oregon to put on a uniform; Hanchulak, a man from the coal mines and ethnic enclaves of Pennsylvania; and the youngest of the team, Orlich, a 21- year-old kid with a college scholarship whose family needed him to go to work instead, who memorized the eye chart so he wouldn’t be excluded from the rescue team because he wore glasses. Pete taped his glasses to his head when he parachuted to liberate the Weihsien concentration camp that day.

I found them in New York, Nevada, Nebraska, Texas, Pennsylvania and California. On holidays I call them. I send them cards. I say thank you. I often tell their story to schoolchildren who send my heroes handmade valentines and letters. Those still living are more than 85 years old now, and modest. They say they’re not heroes. They’re wrong. In their faces—and the faces of many other Americans like them—I see heroes who saved the world. Yes, America has heroes—and I know their names.


Originally published in the August 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here