POW of the Japanese: Los Osos woman’s extraordinary saga of World War II

Virginia McCutcheon was imprisoned in a camp in China for nearly four years and often lived in fear of execution

ppemberton@thetribunenews.comMay 29, 2011 

JAYSON MELLOM — jmellom@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

As food became increasingly scarce at the end of World War II, a frightening rumor began to circulate about the internment camps in and around Shanghai.

The Japanese were going to kill all the prisoners.

“The Chinese told us about the gas chambers,” remembers Virginia McCutcheon, who was a British national in her early 20s at the time. “They said in three months, we’d all be marched to the gas chambers. But we really didn’t know that until the end, thank goodness.”

McCutcheon, 91, has since seen documents that seem to support that rumor. But, luckily, the mass executions never took place. In 1945, the Lunghwa civilian camp — made famous in the movie “Empire of the Sun” — was liberated.

“This is the day the Americans came into the camp and saved us,” the Los Osos resident said recently, pointing to an old black-and-white photo, depicting the joyous crowd from that day. “And, of course, we were all swarming around them.”

As Memorial Day approaches, most of McCutcheon’s fellow Lunghwa prisoners, including “Empire of the Sun” author J.G. Ballard, have now died. But McCutcheon’s memories of the war — tales of espionage, torture and hope — have lived on for 70 years.

“I remember when I was really young, going to bed, my prayers would be, ‘And please, God, let there not be any more war,’ ” remembers her daughter, Ginny Palmer, a Los Osos resident who grew up with stories of the camp.

Grew up in Shanghai

While McCutcheon considers herself British — and speaks with a polite, upper crust English accent — England was never really her home. The first 27 years of her life were spent in Shanghai, China, where her father was in the import/export business. When she was born, Shanghai was a capitalist haven, with a thriving economy and vibrant night life.

After 1900, Shanghai had become the center of global capitalism, said Andrew Morris, chairman of the history department at Cal Poly. And the French, British and Japanese sought to take advantage of Shanghai’s economy.

But around the time of World War I, he added, the Japanese decided they were better equipped to rule Asia than the Westerners and began work to conquer China. “What they had in mind was an Asia ruled by the Japanese,” he said.

Meanwhile, even after her father left his family when McCutcheon was 12, her mother, Gladys Lumsdaine, was determined to stay. “My mother liked the Paris of the Orient and said, ‘No way — I’m not leaving Shanghai.’ ”

While China and Japan had been embroiled in incessant conflict, Shanghai, being an international city, seemed immune. But in 1932, the Japanese — as part of their plan to conquer China in six months — took on the Chinese in Shanghai.

“The fighting in Shanghai was actually pretty brutal,” Morris said.

Surprised and humiliated by tough opposition from the Chinese, the Japanese retreated to Nanking, where they planned to teach the Chinese a lesson.

“For five years, there’s no fighting in Shanghai,” Morris said. “But the Japanese are still all over the place.”

As Shanghai became a place for espionage, the Japanese committed terrible atrocities in Nanking, killing more than 200,000, committing rapes and torture.

By 1937, the aggressive “incidents” escalated to full-out war, with combat returning to Shanghai. At one point the Chinese, trying to fight back, devastated their own city — killing many civilians — in what is known as the Battle of Shanghai.

“A couple of trucks were parked outside this big hotel, and they were picking up arms and legs,” McCutcheon remembered.

After a while, she said, gore became common.

“You accept everything when you’re in a situation like that. You’ve seen so much. You’ve seen Chinese heads on stakes when the Japanese were coming in. Even living in Shanghai in the cold winters before the war, I’d step over a frozen body. They hadn’t gotten around to pick it up. That’s how you kind of grow up in a place like that. … It toughens you.”

Eventually, the Japanese turned their attention to the British nationals living in Shanghai. McCutcheon remembers arriving to work one day to see her office surrounded by Japanese military. While she worked at a seemingly apolitical wine import/export business, her boss, William Gande, was head of the British espionage.

“I walked in, and, of course, they were all swarming around the office,” McCutcheon said. “They smelled a rat.”

As they focused on Gande’s office, McCutcheon rushed to her own space.

“I went to my desk and tore up one thing that maybe had some names on it,” she said. “I knew who was involved in the British espionage. I knew the big wigs who were all part of it.”

According to Gande’s 1964 obituary from the Marin Independent Journal, he later received the king of England’s commendation for his war service. But before that, he was sent to prison, where he was tortured.

“Bill had every fingernail pulled out to try and make him talk,” McCutcheon said.

A longtime family friend, Gande eventually married McCutcheon’s mother. But first McCutcheon and her mother were sent to Lunghwa, a former air cadet camp. Meanwhile, McCutcheon’s brother, who made it out of Shanghai before the round-ups, became a pilot for the Royal Air Force and an Olympian, competing in the pentathlon for Great Britain at the 1952 Helsinki games.

Sadly, Jack Lumsdaine, a decorated war pilot, died early, crashing while test piloting a plane for the Canadian Air Force in 1966.

“It stalled, and he couldn’t pull out,” McCutcheon said.

Radio is smuggled in

When the Japanese began rounding up British and Americans in Shanghai, the prisoners were allowed to take a mattress and a trunk filled with possessions to camp. McCutcheon remembers taking “Honor Bright,” a 1936 novel about Boston aristocrats, by American author Frances Parkinson Keyes.

“Everybody took a book into camp,” she said. “We formed a library.”

Before going to camp, a Scottish banker named William McCutcheon had managed to sneak a radio in, allowing the prisoners war updates.

“We were all warned: Don’t act like you’ve heard anything,” McCutcheon said. “But it was hard.”

Had the Japanese discovered the radio, William McCutcheon would have been beaten — or worse. But he had already tempted fate.

“He was interviewed by Art Linkletter on his show, talking about how he was one of the guys chosen by the bank to smuggle the last of the gold bullion out on the last ships as the Japanese were beginning to open the major bombing of the port,” said Palmer, their daughter.

Palmer’s mother worked with William McCutcheon at the camp kitchen — “one of the romantic things was sharing cabbage,” Palmer said. But they didn’t date in camp. Mostly, they were focused on one day leaving camp.

“We were so optimistic,” Virginia McCutcheon said. “Everybody said, ‘OK — another three months.’ If we’d known we were going to be in there three years and eight months. ...”

As food became scarce, meals were limited to rice and water. And while McCutcheon never witnessed any beatings or killings, there was a sense that things could get worse. But then finally freedom arrived in the sky.

“We knew that we hadn’t been forgotten,” McCutcheon said. “And then, of course, when we saw that first plane come over with the American flag on it, then we began to get more excited. But we didn’t want to show too much exuberance; the Japanese would be mad and probably knock us off.”

After the war, McCutcheon and her family went to Hong Kong, and William McCutcheon eventually sent for his old kitchen mate.

“It was scary,” she said. “I’d never had a date, never been out to dinner with him. Only seen him in these raggedy old shorts.”

The McCutcheons moved to Los Angeles, where William started the California branch of the Hong Kong Bank in 1958. William died of a heart attack when his wife was just 53, and Virginia moved to Los Osos to be closer to her family in 2005.

Now 66 years since her camp was freed, her three children think the experience still shapes her personality.

“I think it helped her to not sweat the small stuff and realize the priorities that really count, like life and family,” said Barbra Mousouris, another daughter, in Santa Barbara. “She’s such a strong person, and that is something she got from her time in the prison camp.”

McCutcheon still has fond memories of Shanghai — and her home is filled with Asian art. But she doesn’t plan to return to the city, which — after years of Communist rule — has once again become a capitalist haven.

“I don’t want to see it today,” she said. “Now you have all these skyscrapers. It’s like Manhattan.”

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