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Surviving the Japanese Occupation: insights from the Story Powerline
Tuesday, October 25, 2022 by Becky Cerling Powers

I opened a treasure chest of fascinating stories when my mother’s cousin Laura Richards died in 1981. A friend of Laura’s sent my mother a collection of old letters, mostly ones that Laura had sent from China to U.S. relatives and friends, giving information and telling stories about the orphanage that Laura started in North China in 1929.

Some letters raised questions for me, like one from U.S. Navy Chaplain Harold Flood who wrote that he discovered Laura’s orphanage when he entered Beijing with U.S. marines in 1945 to set China free from Japan. He and his men brought food to Canaan Home’s 115 orphans, who included many severely handicapped children and ranged in age from tiny babies to teenagers.

Chaplain Flood said that Laura cared for all the children by herself. I thought he must be mistaken, and later I learned that he was – but only slightly mistaken. When the U.S. declared war on Japan, the Japanese were occupying China, and they viewed Americans like Laura as their enemies. They often killed Chinese people who helped Americans and sometimes killed those people’s families, too. So when the two nations officially went to war, all but two of Laura’s Chinese volunteer helpers stayed to help.

But even with two helpers, how could it be that Laura had kept 115 children healthy, clean, clothed and fed through 8 years of Japanese occupation? She had no modern conveniences like a sewing machine to make the children’s clothes, or a wash machine for laundry, or even indoor plumbing for bathrooms. Coal was scarce for heating buildings in the freezing winters, and money to buy it was even scarcer. And how had she fed the children? The Japanese government confiscated the farmers’ harvests to feed their soldiers. Many Chinese died of starvation. So, even with two adult helpers, how could Laura possibly take care of over 100 children?

In 1990, I found out. I began searching to find people who could tell me more about the orphanage, and one of them put me into contact with some of the former Canaan Home orphans, who sent me long letters from China describing memories of their childhood. They wrote that from the time they were babies, Laura taught them to pray to Jesus for their needs and to work hard at their level of ability, living out the motto she taught them: “The older help the younger, and the stronger help the weaker.”

From the time they were toddlers, the orphans learned to do what they could for themselves and to begin helping others. As they grew, they received more practical training and increased responsibility.

Before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Chinese volunteers taught school at the orphanage. At that time, school age children attended school half the day and did chores the other half under adult supervision. After the U.S. declared war and it became so dangerous for Chinese volunteer teachers and child workers to help in an American run facility, all but two volunteers left and the children’s school ended.  

Under Laura’s supervision, the children doubled up their workday. Older children supervised younger ones, working in teams of three to six to do all the work needed to keep the family going: carrying water in buckets from the spring for drinking, cooking and doing laundry; sewing, mending, and washing all the family’s clothes by hand; cooking all the meals; and cleaning their buildings, including their outhouses (no indoor toilets!) Laura, who was a nurse, trained the older children to nurse sick children, to make formula and feed newborns around the clock; and to care for the babies, preschoolers and the severely handicapped children.

As much as possible, the orphans raised food for the family. They raised chickens for eggs and meat and goats for milk and meat. They worked hard in the garden to grow vegetables to feed the family, and they ate everything from the garden that they could. Adults and older children ate the leaves and stems of sweet potatoes – food that was normally considered pig feed – saving the sweet potatoes themselves for the babies and a few disabled old men who lived with them. When they ran out of food from the garden, the boys foraged beyond the orphanage ground for wild greens, wild vegetables and tree leaves – anything edible they could find. (Foraging beyond the orphanage gates was too dangerous for the girls.)

The Japanese invaders confiscated the farmers’ harvests to feed their soldiers, so the Chinese people experienced a terrible famine. The Japanese military rationed deflated bean dregs for people to buy for food in the markets. Deflated bean dregs had formerly been used for fertilizer. Sellers adulterated all the millet flour and corn flour with material like ground-up peanut shells. People tried to make their millet stretch by mixing it with sawdust before eating it.

The most destitute people peeled the bark off trees and ate it mixed with clay. By the end of the winter 1943, the trees in and around Beijing were stripped of bark. When the orphan boys went outside the orphanage compound on errands for the family, they saw the dead bodies of people who had died of starvation lying scattered here and there. 

The neighbors living near the orphanage kept expecting the children to die, too. But strong family cooperation, loyalty, hard work and God’s answers to their prayers saved the children’s lives during the Japanese occupation.

Today I would say that researching Laura’s story helped me become a better parent in many ways. Most obvious was the inspiration she provided through the example of praying in complete dependence on God for strength and supply to raise her children. But she also inspired me to focus on training our children to work as a team and to develop the heart and the skills needed to care for those younger and weaker than themselves.

© by Becky Cerling Powers 2022

Use with attribution only www.beckypowers.com

Resource: You can read more about Laura’s story in Laura’s Children: the hidden story of a Chinese Orphanage by Becky Cerling Powers

 

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