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Jazz in Occupied China: Black Jazzmen at the Japanese Prison Camp in Weihsien, China during World War II

Earl Whaley Band, Shanghai, China, 1937/Weihsien Prisoner-of-War Camp During World War II
Image Ownership: Public Domain/Image Courtesy of Palmer Johnson
Desmond Power, a third generation British subject born in Tientsin (now Tianjin), China in 1923, was incarcerated along with 1,500 other foreign nationals in 1943 in Weihsien, a Japanese Prisoner of War camp in North China during World War II.  In the article below, Power recalls Earl Whaley and other African American jazz musicians who were placed there as well and how their music lifted the morale of the prisoners.

I do not write this as a historian, nor do I have sources to which I can refer readers. I write simply as a contemporary and close comrade of some black jazz musicians with whom I was incarcerated in a Japanese prison camp in China during World War II. The war ended 67 years ago, yet most of my memories of the time and place remain intact though somewhat generalized.

Few need reminding that the Shanghai of the 1920s and 30s was called the "Paris of the Orient" for its profusion of extravagant nightclubs, cabarets, casinos, and bordellos, and that while the US was dragging itself out of the Great Depression, Shanghai was enjoying a boom, its nightlife going full tilt, attracting big names in the U.S. jazz world eager to cash in on the opportunities there.

As jazz band leader Earl Whaley told it, by the time he arrived there in 1934, most of the big names had come and gone, but there was no stopping him from cashing in. His seven man group, the Red Hot Syncopators, that had set Seattle, Washington’s jazz world ablaze was now doing the same at St. Anna’s Ballroom at 80 Love Lane, close by the Shanghai Race Course.

His popularity zoomed, not only with jazz lovers among the city’s 100,000 foreign residents, but also with the modern set among the local Chinese. For three long years, everything went Whaley’s way. Money was good, living cheap, and the racial demeaning of blacks so common in the U.S. at that time, was practically unheard of.

Then in 1937 disaster struck when Japan began its subjugation of China. Japan was not quite yet ready to take on the U.S. and its Allies (that would happen 4½ years later at Pearl Harbor) so its forces avoided Shanghai’s foreign settlements. However, those neutral zones did not escape collateral damage from the furious bombardment in which hundreds of civilians perished.

No wonder American jazzmen wanted out! They had not bargained on getting caught up in a battle zone. Buck Clayton, whose twelve man ensemble, the Harlem Gentlemen, had arrived in Shanghai the same year as Whaley, booked out on the next ship. He was good enough to offer his band passages back to the States, and all but bass player Reginald Jones, better known as “Jonesy,” accepted and sailed off.  

Whaley, who had decided to keep on going in Shanghai, faced a tough problem. His pianist, drummer, trombonist, and trumpeter headed back home without him. He was lucky enough to sign on black pianist F.C. Stoffer and to pick up Jonesy, who even before his Shanghai days with Clayton was already known in the jazz world, having starred at Harlem’s Cotton Club and in Charlie Echols’s fourteen piece orchestra.
Still missing a lead brass player, he negotiated with the Filipino, Lope Sarreal, who happened to be not only a star trumpeter but also an eminent promoter of musical and sporting events throughout the Far East. As it turned out, Sarreal signed up Whaley’s group to be featured performers in his own swing band.

The Lope–Whaley Swing Band continued playing in Shanghai but not for long, for by 1940 they were up north at Tientsin, close to the ancient capital, Peking, and under contract to play at the Little Club there.  Tientsin, like Shanghai, was under foreign domination, but its foreign population diminutive by comparison, its nightclubs fewer and less garish. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop “Earl Whaley and His Coloured Boys,” so named by the local press, from creating a sensation at the club. They became the talk of North China’s foreign communities throughout 1940 and most of 1941. Regrettably for Whaley, the club’s visitors included the owners of Peking Hotel, who made an offer to his guitarist, Earl West, he could not refuse. West, an original Red Hot Syncopator, left to start up his own group in Peking, Earl West and his Night Owls.  

Then it all ended for the cozy world of the Treaty Ports. At dawn on December 8th, (December 7th at Pearl Harbor) Japanese storm troops swarmed into the foreign settlements of Shanghai and Tientsin and the Legations at Peking. Allied nationals were ordered to remain strictly within the bounds of their settlements and to wear red arm bands denoting they were enemy subjects.

In Tientsin, with banks and businesses closed, many soon ran out of money and food. With help from the Swiss Consul, the Masonic Hall on Race Course Road was converted into a mess where Allied nationals could get a meal. Quite a furor was caused among the volunteer waiters vying for a chance to serve the table taken by Mr. Whaley and his famed jazzmen!

After their meal, the jazzmen would move to a seating area where there was a grand piano. The tallest musician, the handsome and debonair one, ran his fingers over the keys. Then, he drifted into We Three with such a delicate touch that the servers stood mesmerized. They soon learned his name was Stoffer. And it wasn’t long before they got to share jokes with him and with the clarinetist, Wayne Adams, and the boisterous happy-go-lucky bass player, Jonesy. But it was obvious from the start that the older one, Earl Whaley, was their leader and spokesperson. He was not a bit shy in telling his audience how he had put the band together in Seattle and brought it to Shanghai, and about their good and hard times there and their surprising success in Tientsin. Meeting at the mess hall nearly every day throughout the whole of 1942 and into the spring of 1943 allowed bonds to form between those jazz players and the British volunteer workers. 

Up until then, life under the Japanese seemed not all that hard to take, but soon rumors began sounding on all sides that they were preparing concentration camps throughout occupied China for the Allied civilians in their hands. For once, the rumors had truth in them. The 1,800 detainees in Tientsin, Peking, Tsingtao and other North China centers received official notice from the Japanese authorities stating that early in 1943 they were to be sent by train to a camp at Weihsien, deep in the heart of Shantung Province.

In March 1943, Earl West arrived there with the trainload of 300 prisoners from Peking. A day or two later came the larger contingent of nearly 1,000 from Tientsin, among them Lope Sarreal, Earl Whaley, Reggie Jones, Wayne Adams, and F.C. Stoffer. As they were about to pass through the camp’s main gate, Stoffer doubled up in agony. His appendix had ruptured. He was put on the next train to the nearest town Tsingtao, but he died before they could get him to hospital there.

The black jazzmen were still in shock over their cruel loss even as they were having to meld into the curious cornucopia of missionaries, academics, doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers, traders, shopkeepers, clerks, bar girls, and vagrants caught up in the Japanese dragnet.

And the Japanese put the onus entirely on the prisoners to do everything for themselves, from collecting raw rations to preparing and cooking meals on primitive Chinese stoves, collecting garbage, clearing drains, repairing buildings (all in decrepit state) and caring for the sick.

As days passed into weeks and the weeks into months, the prisoners fell into a routine that made life bearable but they were always under a shadow of not knowing what tomorrow might bring. For jazz lovers this concern disappeared altogether when the band voluntarily played for them at dances.   

Earl West was now the band’s leader. At a typical camp dance, there he’d be, a solidly built black American, standing with his group in a space cleared of tables in a kitchen eating area. He would begin by snapping off a catchy all-chords intro on his guitar that launched the combo into several bouncing choruses of Shine, he and Jonesy coming in with peppy vocals that had the dancing couples and spectators showing their appreciation with bursts of applause. Then off again he’d lead the band into two electrifying hours of old favorites, including sometimes a jaunty Coquette, sometimes Hold Tight, and more often than not for a grand finale, heating it up with an uproarious Nagasaki. 

What a boon those dances were for the romantically inclined, especially among the shy! Many a couple’s relationship started at a dance, some leading to marriage. Earl West’s union could not have been one of those, for he simply worked too hard leading the band. In April 1944, at a camp religious ceremony, he married the beautiful English/Chinese girl from Peking, Deirdre Esmond.  Not quite a year later, in January 1945, their daughter Fern was born in the camp hospital.

In the following weeks deep concern spread throughout the camp, when Earl Whaley was rushed to that same hospital suffering from acute appendicitis. Those who knew of Stoffer’s tragic end dared not think the worst. But thank God, Earl survived the surgery. When visitors were allowed, I found him in much distress, his stomach bloated with gas. At his request, I called for a nurse, but the high and mighty Sister of some Victorian Nursing Order blasted me and sent me packing.

Our internment ended with a suddenness that astonished us all. On August 17, 1945, a four engine U.S. plane flew over the camp, circled it once, twice, and then dropped a team of parachute troops within two hundred yards of the perimeter. The OSS team that took over the camp met with no resistance from the Japanese. Within days, squadrons of giant B29s were dropping great loads of food, medicine, and clothing into and around the camp.  

World War II might be over, but the Chinese Civil War between the Nationalists and Communists burst out into the open, cutting all road and rail traffic between Weihsien and the outside world.

During the crazy and, bittersweet time after we had been liberated but still behind barbed wire, I heard that Earl West wanted to see me. When I got to his hut, he held out his precious guitar and told me it was mine to keep. Of course, I refused. But he was adamant. He wouldn’t take no. To this very day, the man’s incredible generosity stuns my mind.

In late September 1945, U.S. Marine Corps officers at the port of Tsingtao managed to arrange a cease fire between the opposing Chinese armies to allow trains from Weihsien to get through, and two did before the line was blown for good. And in one of those trains the black jazzmen got away, all of them sound of life and limb. From Tsingtao, they sailed back to the United States aboard the USS Lavaca. I never had a chance to say good-bye, nor did I ever see any of them again.

I never found out what happened to Wayne Adams after he returned to the States, but I was shown Earl Whaley’s card after he had established himself as a real estate agent in Los Angeles, California during the 1960s. Jonesy alone made it back to a regular band according to eyewitnesses who met him in Vancouver (Canada) and San Francisco while he was touring the West Coast. Earl West’s daughter, Fern, told me that on arrival at San Francisco in October 1945, her parents decided to settle in the Bay Area. There they raised another daughter and two sons before Earl contracted lung cancer, from which he died on October 19, 1959, at the early age of 49.

After getting twelve good years use out of Earl’s guitar in China, England, and New Zealand, I handed it over to a Russian lad keen to learn the instrument. I’m sure Earl would have approved.

Sources:

Contributor(s):

Weihsien Prison Camp Survivor

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