In 2023, the Congregation of the Mission Western Province is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its mission in China. This series, They Left Their Hearts, tells the stories of those missionaries who went from their homeland to do the work of St. Vincent in China.
By 1940, 30 Vincentians from the Western Province of the U.S. were working in China in 14 mission houses in the Yukiang region of the country. Though China and Japan had been at war for several years, the rest of the world was on the precipice of being drawn into the conflict as well.
The surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in December 1941 demoralized the citizens and military of the United States and catapulted the U.S. into war with Japan. In an effort to improve morale, President Franklin Roosevelt charged his military leaders to devise a strike against Japan that would hit the heart of the empire – an air attack on Tokyo.
This surprise attack on Tokyo came to be known as the Doolittle Raid, named for 45-year-old Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle, who was chosen to lead the mission. Sixteen B-25 bombers took off from the U.S.S. Hornet’s flight deck on April 18, 1942. The raid resulted in the destruction of 112 buildings and damage to 53 more, along with 87 fatalities and injuries to hundreds of civilians.
Due to modifications that needed to be made to the airplanes in order for them to complete this secret mission, they were unable to carry enough fuel to return to the Hornet. Most of the crews were forced to bail out or crash land along the China coast. The Americans hoped for assistance from the local residents, and the airmen did receive aid from them and the missionaries who served in those areas.
Two flight crews were cared for by Vincentian missionaries. Fr. Wendelin Dunker, C.M., personally cared for one crew for several days, securing the aid of a German doctor for a seriously injured flyer.
The Japanese army already had a significant presence in China, so their response to the Doolittle Raid was swift and horrific. Those who rendered aid to the U.S. airmen were punished. Fr. Wendelin was based in the village of Ihwang and fled the Japanese advance along with other clergy, teachers, and orphans under the church’s care, hiding in the mountains. He returned to find packs of dogs feeding on those who had been killed in the assault.
“What a scene of destruction and smells met us as we entered the city!” he wrote.
Anyone who had helped Doolittle and his men was subject to unspeakable torture by the Japanese troops.
In July 1942, Fr. Wendelin wrote to the student newspaper at St. Mary’s of the Barrens, The DeAndrein, of a surprise nighttime attack by Japanese soldiers. Frs. Steve Dunker, C.M. (cousin of Fr. Wendelin), and Clarence Murphy, C.M., managed to escape their mission in Linchwan with little more than the clothes they were wearing, hiding in a corner of their garden until it was safe to proceed. Fr. Herbert Vandenburg, C.M., had left Linchwan a few days prior to this, taking with him about 40 orphans. The priests met up in Ihwang, where they joined Fr. Wendelin. Within hours of their arrival in Ihwang, machine gun fire rang out in the town as Japanese soldiers entered the gates. The priests and orphans were again on the run with nothing but a small suitcase that contained some money.
When the group stopped to examine what supplies they had, they realized that they had neglected to bring a chalice, wine, or Holy Oils that they would need for Sacramental use. They also realized that the Blessed Sacrament had been left in the tabernacle in the church at Ihwang. At great risk to his own safety, Fr. Wendelin snuck back to Ihwang under cover of darkness, consumed the Blessed Sacrament, and obtained a chalice and some wine so that they could celebrate the Mass, as well as Holy Oils for anointing the sick and the dying. He also brought back some clothing and other necessities.
After several days, Frs. Wendelin and Clarence returned to Ihwang to find that many town buildings had been burned and looted. A week later, Japanese soldiers returned to Ihwang, randomly killing more of its citizens while pillaging and burning. Each time the attacks came, the Vincentian priests returned to the mission to minister to and protect the people.
The atrocities were not limited to one area. In Yukiang, Fr. Joseph Kwei, C.M., was killed that same July. Fr. Humbert Verdini, C.M., and 38 children and elderly residents were also brutally killed. Vincentian Frs. Frederick Sageder and Michael Poizat suffered severe health issues related to the bombings or to torture.
Fr. Norbert Miller, C.M., wrote to his family of his experiences in November 1942. He described the destruction inflicted upon the priests’ residence at the mission in Yingtan using the terms “gutted ruins” and “naked chimney.” He and Fr. William Glynn, C.M., set about the task of rebuilding. Despite the horrors they endured, the Vincentians remained committed to bringing the love of God to their people, even if it meant risking their own lives.
Top photo: Chinese churches were not spared from attack by Japanese forces in China following the Doolittle Raid. The rear of Yig-tan Church is seen here following one such attack.
Middle photo: The missionaries hid in the hills as the Japanese Army of Occupation razed their mission and surrounding homes, pictured here eating a meal in the woods. Pictured from left: Fr. Tom Smith, C.M., Bishop Charles Quinn, C.M., Fr. William Glynn, C.M., Fr. William Stein, C.M., and Fr. Chin (first name not known).
Bottom photo: Fr. Wendelin Dunker, C.M.
The DeAndrein Oct 1942
The DeAndrein Dec 1942
The DeAndrein Mar 1943
The DeAndrein October 1943