Honoring John Woods

Hakon Torjesen of Kenyon, left, and Richard Phillips of Oakdale, pose for a portrait with a photograph of the late Dr. John Woods on Jan. 11, 2020 at the Charter House in Rochester. All three were held captive by the Japanese during World War II. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

When Hakon Torjesen and Richard Phillips heard that Dr. John Woods had died, both knew they needed to be at the funeral. 

The three men's lives have been intertwined since the 1930s, though they don't recall meeting until 2014. Still, Torjesen, who lives in Kenyon, and Phillips, who lives in the Twin Cities suburb of Oakdale, are connected to Woods, a former Mayo Clinic plastic surgeon who died Dec. 11 at Charter House in Rochester, not so much by time spent together but by experience shared.

All three, as teenagers and children of missionaries, were held prisoner at the Weihsien Internment Camp in Shandong Province, China, during World War II. The camp, run by the Japanese, was operated as a place to hold citizens of Western countries who had been living in northern China at the outbreak of the war.

But before the camp, Torjesen and Phillips — along with siblings of each — were students at the Chefoo School, a British boarding school in the town of Yantai for children of Westerners living in China.

"The Japanese were already in Yantai, had been there for several years before Pearl Harbor Day," Phillips said. "But on Pearl Harbor Day, they came in and said this school now belongs to the emperor."

School Turns To Prison

Torjesen, who is a few years older than Phillips, said that the two didn't know one another while at the school. 

"You know how kids are," he said. "You know the people a year ahead of you or behind you. But that's it."

But both remember how their lives changed, even as teachers at the school, which became a sort of prison, worked hard to keep things normal for the hundreds of children who suddenly found themselves captive. 

Honoring John Woods

A photograph of the late Dr. John Woods is held by Hakon Torjesen of Kenyon, left, and Richard Phillips of Oakdale on Jan. 11, 2020 at the Charter House in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"Apart from being very crowded and having trouble with food, I'd say we were treated kindly," Phillips said. 

One Japanese officer showed concern and treated everyone kindly. Torjesen said the man was likely a Christian. A black book held secretly in the officer's pocket looked like a copy of the New Testament. 

But there was fear. Phillips remembers seeing soldiers doing bayonet drills, which was both exciting and concerning. News, food and mail were delivered via a Swiss consul, though there was never enough of any of them.

Parents And Surrogates

"Our school staff did things to keep things going normally," Phillips said. That meant keeping the students active with sports, learning and chores. One teacher wrote a song based on Psalm 47 and had the children sing it as they marched. 

"I think the teachers knew the dangers much more than the kids did, and for us kids they tried to make things as normal as possible," he said.

Torjesen and his two siblings were lucky, in a way. His mother was at the school while it was occupied by the Japanese, and she stayed with them when they were later moved to the internment camp. 

However, his father had been killed by a Japanese bombing attack before Dec. 7, 1941. 

Phillips' parents were both alive, but had been in "Free China," specifically the western province of Gansu, doing missionary work when Pearl Harbor happened. 

One day, a Chinese doctor came through and said he could get a note out if it was written on the back of a prescription label. Phillips, then about 11 years old, wrote a note letting his parents know that he and his sister were alive. While the note eventually did reach his parents, no reply was possible. 

Coming Together, Going Apart

Woods went to a different school, and at the start of America and Europe's involvement in the Pacific theater of the war, he was held at that school under house arrest with his parents. 

Eventually, the Japanese wanted all the Westerners rounded up in a few locations, and Woods, from his school, and Torjesen and Phillips all found themselves at the Weihsien Internment Camp. Again, the two remaining men do not believe they knew one another in the camp of maybe 2,500 people. 

One person at Weihsien they did remember meeting was Eric Liddell, the Scottish missionary and former gold medalist from the 1924 Olympics whose life was chronicled in the movie "Chariots of Fire."

"He was absolutely everybody's friend," Torjesen said. "We all knew him and we all loved him."

For the Americans — Woods and Phillips; Torjesen was a Norwegian citizen at the time — the stay at Weihsien did not last long. An exchange of American citizens for Japanese prisoners was made. The Americans were shipped out in 1943 on the Swedish ship MS Gripsholm.

Torjesen, meanwhile, stayed behind until the camp was liberated in 1945. 

Lives Of Service

Woods eventually graduated from Case Western Reserve University Medical School before becoming a medical missionary in Ecuador. After moving to Rochester and becoming a plastic surgeon, Woods continued a life of philanthropic work, helping found Hunger Elimination Program/Channel One Regional Food Bank and the Rochester Medical Relief Mission Group Inc.

After applying for U.S. citizenship at age 17, Torjesen applied to be a foreign service officer for the United States, serving in Laos during the 1960s. 

Phillips and his wife, Lillian, took up missionary work like their parents before them, serving in Africa and Southeast Asia. In fact, the Communist government of Vietnam took the couple prisoner at the end of the Vietnam War, and Phillips once again found himself a missionary prisoner in Asia. 

Growing up the children of missionaries brought the men together, and Torjesen said their shared experience must be behind the lives of giving all three men lived.

"I think missionary kids, by definition, sort of become world citizens," Torjesen said. "They grow up with the sense that there is much more going on than us and our country."

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