Elden Whipple doesn’t mince words when he talks about his support for the Red Cross. “The Red Cross was a special gift to our family,” he says.
That gift was safe passage from Japanese controlled coastal China to the United States in the middle of World War II.
Foreign Nationals Held Captive
Whipples’ parents were missionaries in China. Elden Whipple, his sister and a cousin were students at a boarding school about a day’s train ride away.
To celebrate the holidays, the Whipple family rendezvoused at the historic port city of Qingdao, a part of China controlled by Japanese soldiers. The Whipples never imagined Japan would attack Pearl Harbor the night after their arrival and they would spend that Christmas and New Year as prisoners.
In fact the Whipples were held prisoner for the next 22 months, from December 1941 to October 1943.
Elden Whipple remembers the gradual tightening of Japanese control. The first year the Whipples were under house arrest. Adults could shop for groceries in the afternoon providing they wore prisoner armbands, and children came and went anytime their parents allowed.
Then things changed. All foreign nationals in Qingdao were housed in a cramped hotel. About six months later everyone was moved to a smaller inland city where the Japanese had taken over a medical school to hold more than 1800 foreign alien captives.
International Red Cross Facilitates Repatriate Exchange
Through diplomatic efforts, Japan and the United States agreed to an exchange of foreign nationals trapped away from home by the sudden outbreak of war—public officials, businessmen, missionaries and their families.
The United States chartered the cruise ship M.S. Gripsholm, which carried Japanese and German nationals to designated ports where they were exchanged for Americans and Canadians. Japan carried foreign nationals and returned Japanese nationals on the Teia Maru, a passenger ship under the control of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Exchanges were facilitated by the International Red Cross.
Eldon Whipple remembers the trip from China to India on the Japanese mercy ship. “There was a big banner with the Red Cross on either side of the Teia Maru to warn airplanes that this was a boat they should stay away from,” he says.
The Whipples boarded the Teia Maru in Shanghai on September 19, 1943, and sailed a circuitous route to India, dropping off and picking up foreign nationals along the way.
During the month long travel, the ship went around Indochina’s Cape St. Jacques, passing a Japanese troop convoy of about a dozen ships, up Vietnam’s Saigon River and through the perilous Straits of Malacca where U.S., British, German and Japanese patrol boats and submarines engaged in daily skirmishes.
The Teia Maru steamed on to Singapore where only a year earlier the British military had suffered the worst defeat in its history. Finally, there was the two-week journey across the Indian Ocean and more danger.
Safe passage that only the Red Cross could provide was a matter of life and death. During October and November 1943, the months the Whipples were on the Teia Maru, a British bomber sank an enemy U-boat in the Indian Ocean, a U.S. submarine sank a Japanese supply ship in the Straits of Malacca, 10 merchant ships were lost in the Indian Ocean and two merchant ships were lost in the Pacific Ocean.
On October 19 at a port in southwestern India, Eldon Whipple and his family walked off the Japanese-controlled Teia Maru and onto the M.S. Gripsholm manned by a Swedish crew. At the same time Japanese repatriates left the Gripsholm and boarded the Teia Maru.
In an hour-and-a-half, the exchange was complete. As the prisoner swap was taking place, more than 48,000 Red Cross relief packages were loaded unto the Japanese ship, bound for Allied POWs in Singapore, the Philippines and Japan.
The M.S. Gripsholm arrived in New York harbor on December 1. After two nightmarish years, the Whipples were home.
More than 1500 people arrived in New York City that December day. Eldon remembers many children traveling alone, and he was very much aware that he was one of the lucky ones whose entire family had returned.
Eldon also remembers Red Cross workers at the port, helping incoming passengers reconnect with their families.
More than 60 years later, Eldon still remembers an overpowering feeling of thankfulness. “Our family is grateful to God for his provision through the Red Cross for our release and safe voyage home during troubled times,” he says.