Missionaries versus the Imperial Japanese Army
April, 1942. Panay Island, Central Philippines.
The horrors of the Japanese occupation of China weighed on everyone's minds. Eleven families of American Baptist missionaries—and many other Americans—opted for the hide-and-hope option.
As they debated, defenses on Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, were crumbling. On April 9, the infamous 65-mile Bataan Death March began, resulting in the brutal deaths of thousands of Filipino and American prisoners of war.
And of course no one knew this, but somewhere to the northeast, Task Force 18 was steaming across the Pacific, carrying Jimmy Doolittle and his B-25 Mitchell bombers to their appointment with destiny: the Doolittle Raid. (See Cindy K. Stewart’s posts on this subject... and my upcoming novel, The Plum Blooms in Winter!)
A Filipino Baptist pastor, Reverend Dianala, offered a group of missionary families refuge. He proposed hiding them in a hamlet in the island’s interior. From that point, they could flee further into the rugged Cordillera mountains if needed.
Many other Americans developed a similar strategy and settled nearby. These included staff members from the former Iloilo Mission Hospital and from Central Philippine College, as well as some Americans involved in the mining industry.
James and Charma Covell
Among the Central Philippine College staff were Prof. James and Charma Covell. Jimmy, a graduate of Brown University, taught Bible and English for twenty years at Kanto Gakuin University in Yokohama, Japan. When a dangerous militarism began to crest there in the 1930s, Jimmy felt strongly that the Christian church in Japan was too willing to acquiesce.
|The Covell family in Yokohama. Peggy is the oldest girl.
Jimmy's antiwar activism became too noticeable to the wrong people. The Covells’ mission board concluded it would be safest to reassign them. Jimmy and Charma made the move to Panay in 1939, then in 1940 sent their three children back to the U.S. to school.
On the RunThe Americans' first hiding places lasted less than ten days. The Japanese aerial surveillance was unrelenting. They needed a spot with better cover.
Dianala suggested a new refuge--an unimproved forest canyon in a deep ravine accessible only by a precipitous footpath. The American families hired locals to build traditional grass huts, engineered a system of running water, organized a stunning space under a canopy of trees for worship, and named the place “Hopevale.”
Hopevale would be their home for eighteen long months.
If it sounds idyllic, it wasn't. Supplies dwindled. Shoes wore out. And the enemy closed in. There were many days and nights when the Americans left their rustic huts to cower in claustrophobic dugouts hidden beneath the forest floor.
AttackOn December 19, 1943, the Japanese staged an attack. The Americans got just minutes’ warning. A few escaped, slogging along streams and crawling through dense forest undergrowth. But the Japanese rounded up seventeen—five couples, three single women, a single man, and three young children.
The details of the martyrs' last hours aren’t known. Prof. Covell spoke at length with the Japanese commander. Whatever he said was compelling enough that the captain radioed his superiors for direction. But the response was resolute. The Americans would be executed. Man, woman and child.
Death was inevitable. The team made a small request—which turned out to be the note that resonated through history. They asked for a time of prayer together.
For the adults, the end was probably mercifully swift. Japanese soldiers were adept at severing a head with a single clean swipe of a katana sword.
Tragically, an unknown number of Filipino hostages unfortunate enough to be grabbed by the Japanese on their way in to Hopevale were also murdered.
|"Missionary Kid" Peggy Covell had a profound impact
on P.O.W.s she served--and ultimately, on
thousands back in Japan.
The Covells' oldest daughter, Peggy, learned of her parents’ wanton execution in the spring of 1944. She was a senior at Keuka Collage in Keuka Park, New York. As she worked through her grief and considered her future, she felt the Lord’s leading to do the thing that would stress her forgiveness the most—use her fluent Japanese to serve the soldiers of the very nation that had martyred her parents.
She took a position as a counselor at a hospital near Fort Collins, Colorado, treating Japanese prisoners of war. When asked why she was so kind to the prisoners, Peggy stunned the men.
“Because my parents were killed by the Japanese Army.” She explained that it was Jesus who'd washed away her hatred and given her love for all men—even enemies.
A navy pilot was deeply moved by Peggy's spirit of service. When he eventually returned to Japan, he told her story to his friend, Mitsuo Fuchida, the man who led the airstrike on Pearl Harbor. (I featured Fuchida’s story in my last post.)
Peggy’s stance mystified Fuchida, who
“...could not understand such enemy-forgiving love. I had never heard of people returning good for evil. I desired all the more to discover the source of this power…”
He determined to test the truth of her story. He researched her parents and their death. One detail especially intrigued him.
When Peggy's parents asked for that time to pray, what did they pray?
Then he encountered Jesus’ words in Luke 23:24. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
“Suddenly, I could understand the story of the American girl whose parents had been slain. Their prayer must have been the prayer of Christ.… The young girl’s love for the Japanese must be the answer to the prayer of her parents.”
Fuchida gave his life to Christ and became a powerful evangelist, bringing the message of God’s forgiveness through Christ to thousands of Japanese--but that was a tale for another post. :)
I've seen Peggy Covell called an "ordinary person," but nothing about the Covell family and their self-sacrificing commitment to the Lord strikes me as ordinary. Not Peggy's determination to obey God even when it was difficult. Not the Hopevale Martyrs' willingness to live out their lives as "sojourners in a strange land" for the spread of the Gospel.
To me the moral of the tale is this. If you follow hard after God, you never know what detail of your story He might make use of.
Giveaway: Back by Popular Demand!
Would you like to read Mitsuo Fuchida's own words about the impact Peggy Covell had on his life? Last month I gave away three copies of Fuchida's book-length personal testimony, From Pearl Harbor to Calvary. (Kindle edition.) The giveaway was popular enough that I'm going to repeat it! Register for the drawing HERE by Wednesday, January 31. You'll also receive updates on The Plum Blooms in Winter, my debut novel inspired by the story of the Doolittle Raid's "lost crews."
The Plum Blooms in Winter is an American Christian Fiction Writers' Genesis winner. Inspired by a remarkable true story from World War II's pivotal Doolittle Raid, the novel follows a captured American pilot and a bereaved Japanese woman who targets him for ritual revenge. It launches from Mountain Brook Ink this October! :)
I live just outside Phoenix with my husband, a third-generation airline pilot who doubles as my Chief Military Research Officer. We share our home with two all-grown-up kids and a small platoon of housecats.