Monday, February 25, 2013

Strange Baseball - Weihsien Internment Camp

Spring training games have started, so let's have a seasonally appropriate week of Strange Baseball History.  First up,  I offer the story of baseball as played at the Weihsien Internment Camp during World War Two.

By way of background...

At the beginning of the Pacific War the Japanese rounded up all civilians in China who held Allied citizenship.  The degree of confinement was loose at first but eventually most were sent to internment camps.  Although the conditions in these camps were exponentially better than those endured by Allied POWs, there were still the cramped quarters, boredom and poor rations common to wartime captivity.

The story of Weihsien was told marvelously by a young American named Langdon Gilkey in his very worthwhile book  Shantung Compound.  Information on "baseball" as played in the camp comes from that source with many additional tidbits from another delightful source Weihsien, which contains the stories recalled by the many children of the camp, now grown to thoughtful maturity.

Weihsien Internment camp was within the walled confines of a former Protestant mission.

It was not a very large place in which to confine 1500 to 2000 men, women and children, but it was at least a rather versatile facility with a hospital, school buildings and dormatories left over from its prewar life.  And down in one cramped corner was a ball field.  Former internees debate the exact dimensions of it, but it is fair to say it was more softball than base ball sized.  No doubt it would have been built over by additional housing were it not also used for the daily roll call counts.

Prisoners always devote most of their attention to their greatest concerns....their future and their next meal.  So memories of lesser things such as baseball games tend to be fragmentary, especially in the case of those who were children at the time.

It is recalled that:

There were adult teams based in part on where the internees came from.  The Tientsen Tigers, the Peking Panthers, and most capable of all a team variously called the Padres or Fathers.  The latter of course was made up of Catholic priests, led by a remarkable man named Valerian Schott, said to be the fastest "thinker, thrower and runner in camp" despite being short, stocky and good natured.

Early on players coming from another smaller interment center had to adapt on arrival at Weihsien.  Apparently in their previous compound the dimensions of the field were so constrained and geometrically odd that they were all required to bat left handed to keep from losing all the balls over an outfield wall.  And unlike most ball yards, a wall with armed guards.

There is brief mention of a casual game between an internee All Star team and the Japanese guards.  Despite using a "Japanese rubber ball" for the contest the Westerners won handily.

There were also teams for children and young people.  Girls were taught softball by a Nazarene missionary named Mary Scott.  Evidently she was a former "tom boy" from an Indiana farm family.  She was in fact good enough that she would occasionally sub in for the men's teams.

In the back woods of rural China news traveled slowly.  So it came as a considerable surprise when on 16 August, 1945, a plane appeared in the sky above the compound.  It was an American B-24 flying low.  From it came seven parachutes.  The internees en masse simply rushed out the front gate past the perplexed but fortunately hesitant guards.  A team of Army paratroopers had descended from on high like minor gods.

The officer in charge strode up to the Japanese commander and announced that the management of the camp had just changed.  Nobody quite knew how this would turn out, as it was exactly one day after the Japanese Emperor had issued his "Imperial Rescript" asking his people to accept surrender.  But cool heads prevailed and freedom arrived at Weihsien suddenly and without bloodshed.

The baseball diamond saw some interesting events in the days that followed.  On August 20th there was a gala Victory dance held there with the back stop decorated with E. A. and V. standing for England, America and Victory.

On 23 August there was a special game held between English and American teams.

On August 26 the original liberators of the camp were replaced by a somewhat bedraggled bunch of regular army types.  It was quite the let down, and by now the internees were in a sullen mood, understandably ready to leave for home.

It fell to an Army captain, given the grace of a pseudonym by Landon Gilkey, to be the Morale Officer who tried to cheer the internees up.  Among his various failures to do so was an event without parallel in the annals of warfare and of baseball.

Since liberation the camp had been receiving regular airdrops of food and medical supplies.  Now idled B-29 bombers from Saipan would swoop in low and drop containers in a nearby field.  Sometimes the parachutes worked, sometimes not. The men of the camp would be close by waiting, this being a necessary but hazardous had to be quick or Chinese peasants would grab as much as they could.

I shall let Langdon Gilkey tell the tale:

"Once the none too bright captain in charge of our morale, Captain Spofford-who will be described later-had, in preparation for a children's party, spread a yellow parachute over the backstop of the soft ball diamond.  It was on this open space that all the women and children of the camp used to gather to watch breathlessly the "drops on daddy" as one child put it.  Evidently the pilot of a B-29 took this yellow marker to be the drop signal, and let go with a large load right on the target.  To the horror of those of us looking on helplessly from the fields, we saw twenty or so cases crash among the terrified mothers and children and ten more go singing through the roofs of several rooms.
Again, by some astounding miracle, no one was injured."

I suspect that a little research would uncover the true name of "Captain Spofford".  He really deserves recognition.  He did after all, accidentally call in the only airstrike in history directed against a baseball diamond.  And a friendly one at that!

An image of Weihsien taken from one of the B-29 supply planes.  Map of camp is super imposed.  Ball field in upper left corner.

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