After a rescue in China 70 years ago, finally a chance to say 'thank you'

Mary Previte of Haddonfield will travel to China to personally express her gratitude to Wang Cheng-Han, the last member of a group of rescuers who liberated her and over 1,000 others from a Japanese prison camp in World War II.

Mary Previte believes there are special times when a simple thank-you note just will not do to express gratitude.

So she plans to embark on a journey this week halfway across the world, to hand-deliver a personal thank-you more than 70 years after a heroic deed saved her life.

Previte, of Haddonfield, will travel to China to personally express her appreciation to the last member of a daring group of seven rescuers who liberated her and 1,500 others from a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

It took 18 years for Previte to locate the last man - Wang Cheng-Han, who was the Chinese interpreter for the liberation team. They were reunited last year when they spoke by telephone.

"It is the end of a dream to actually have found all of the heroes and have an opportunity to see them face to face," Previte, 83, said this week. "It's really an opportunity to say thank you."

Wang, 91, is the only surviving member of the liberation group. Previte made contact with four others in the late 1990s, and found the widows of two others. But she said she couldn't rest until she showed her appreciation to the rescuer she knew as Eddie Wang.

"They were all over," Previte said. "I said, 'I am going to take a pilgrimage and thank every one of them.' "

Previte will also take with her well wishes she has gathered from other internees living in the United States and abroad, as well as proclamations and tributes for Wang from the U.S. ambassador to China, Max Sieben Baucus, and State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who wrote that Wang was "deserving of the highest commendation and praise." U.S. Rep Donald Norcross (D., NJ.) entered Wang's name into the Congressional Record for his "selfless acts and service."

"If you and your brave comrades hadn't saved us, I would probably have died before I reached 19," Pamela Masters-Flynn of Placerville, Calif., another former internee, wrote in a letter to Wang. "Thank you for giving me 70 more years of living here on earth with all the wonderful people who touched my life along the way."

Wang and six other paratroopers liberated the Weihsien Civilian Assembly Center on Aug. 17, 1945.

They rescued Previte, who was 12, her grandfather, her three siblings, and about 1,400 others who had been imprisoned at the camp. Her family spent nearly four years there in captivity.

Previte's missionary parents had left her and her siblings at a boarding school in China in 1940. The parents resumed their work until the end of the war. Her grandfather Herbert Hudson Taylor, a retired missionary living on the grounds, was also interned.

The Japanese army captured the school shortly after the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. About 200 students and teachers, mostly Europeans, were sent to the prison camp.

The detainees endured horrible living and working conditions. Previte and the others were also forced to work.

When the U.S. rescue planes arrived, the captives had no idea that the Japanese had surrendered and the war was over. It was the first time that Wang, then 20, parachuted from a B-24, a grandson has said.

Wang, a retired engineer, lives in Guizhou province. Previte plans to travel to Hong Kong to meet up with a nephew, James Taylor, a missionary who speaks fluent Chinese, who will escort her in China.

Previte has plenty of questions for Wang. She wants to know more about the mission - where did it originate and who were the pilot crew members who flew the bomber?

"All these years I wondered who would dare jump from a low-flying bomber and rescue people they don't know," Previte said. "I wanted to find out, what makes people become a hero?"

Wang kept the names of the American soldiers in a notebook and recorded details about the mission, according to his grandson, Daniel.

The men had met days before the assignment, which was commissioned by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), forerunner to the CIA.

Because Japanese guards were standing at the camp with guns loaded, the men landed in a nearby cornfield to carry out the "Duck Mission" to liberate the camp. The jubilant prisoners pushed past guards.

"After morning roll call, about 9:30 we heard a plane," Peter Bazire of Bath, England, wrote as a teenager in a Weihsien camp diary entry that he asked Previte to share with Wang. "Everybody rushed out and we found out that it was American."

After the liberation, the former captives were reunited with loved ones and settled around the world. Many have died. Some survivors meet periodically for reunions and stay connected through a Weihsien camp website, which helped Previte find Wang last year.

Previte, a former New Jersey assemblywoman, easily found the other rescuers. She located Stanley Staiger, the mission's commanding officer, in Reno; Tad Nagaki in Alliance, Neb.; James Moore in Dallas; and James Hannon in Yucca Valley, Calif. She found the widow of Raymond Hanchulak in Bear Creek, Pa., and Peter Orlich's widow in Queens, New York City.

"My life has been made so beautiful with these friendships," Previte said. "This is the last stop on my pilgrimage to find my heroes."

mburney@phillynews.com

856-779-3814 @mlburney