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WWII prisoners of war in China reflect on their captivity

Jaclyn Harold
Created: January 11, 2020 10:54 PM

(ABC 6 News)-- Two former World War II prisoners of war reunite to share the story of captivity.

On Saturday, Rochester laid to rest a respected Mayo Clinic physician, Dr. John E. Woods.  And, as family and friends gathered in the city for his funeral, two former prisoners of war were reunited. Dr. Woods was a fellow prisoner of war when the Imperial Japanese Army seized boarding schools in China during World War II.

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John Woods, Richard Phillips and Hakon Torjesen attended boarding schools in China back in the 1940's. Tensions were already high between China and Japan. Then, the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, "On Pearl Harbor Day, they came in, and said this school now belongs to the Emperor," said Phillips. 

Both Torjesen and Phillips attended Chefoo school in Yantai but had never crossed paths. Woods was a student at another boarding school that was also held hostage, "Neither one of us has any recollection of seeing the other," said Torjesen. 

The two were later relocated to another detention camp in Weihsien where Dr. Woods was being held. And this is how their stories matched without ever actually intertwining, "Within a few months of us getting there, you guys left," said Torjesen. 

According to Phillips, they weren't treated like a prisoner of war. They were cared for with quite a bit of kindness. Phillips says that before being transferred to a different camp, their guard went to view the new conditions to tell them how to prepare for the transition. 

A doctor secretly delivered a message from Phillips to his parents who were in "Free China" as they called it, by hiding the small note from the 11-year-old on the back of a prescription bottle. They were also allowed to still conduct school and church as they would have outside of captivity. Both gentlemen said that teachers in the school became their surrogate parents. And these same teachers helped to shield them from the harsh reality of what they were going through, "Teaching staff suddenly found themselves responsible for a couple of hundred kids who had no access to their parents and really did a miraculous job," said Torjesen.

They were later released in exchange for Japanese prisoners.

71 years after they were taken captive, Phillips and Torjesen met in October 2014. Phillips and Dr. Woods met a month later, in November of 2014.

Though the passing of Dr. Woods is what brought Richard and Hakon together again, they say their experience will keep them together forever.

Hakon shares that he didn't talk about his experience for about 70 years, but he has recently begun to share his time while being imprisoned during World War II in the hopes of their time under the Japanese Army's control to be remembered. 


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