Dr. David J Michell

Dr. Michell tells of his experiences of Eric Liddell in the Weihsien Camp.

If you saw the Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire, you will recall the jolt you felt as you read at the close those words about one of the heroes of the film:

Eric Liddell, missionary,
died in occupied China
at the end of World War II.
All of Scotland mourned.

I remember seeing Eric Liddell just the day before he died. For more than two years of our wartime captivity our school was interned in the same camp he was. That day he was walking slowly under the trees near the camp hospital beside the open space where he had taught us children to play basketball and rounders. As usual, he had a smile for everyone, especially for us children.

The athlete who had refused to run on a Sunday in the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris, but who later won the gold medal and created a world record in the 400 meters, was now, twenty-one years later at the age of forty-three, reaching the tape in his final race on earth. We knew nothing of the pain he was hiding, and he knew nothing of the brain tumour that was to take his life the next evening, on that February 21, 1945.

Sent to this same camp in Weihsien in August 1943 with many other missionaries’ children, I will forever share with all the other hero worshippers of my age that vivid memory of the first sight of the man whom other prisoners described excitedly as the Olympic gold medalist who wouldn’t run on a Sunday.

Eric Liddell stood out among the 1500 people packed into our camp that measured only 150 by 200 yards. He was in charge of the building where we younger children, who had already been away from our parents for four years because of the war, lived with our teachers. He lived in the very crowded men’s dormitory near us (each man had a space of only three by six feet) and supervised our daily roll call when the guards came to count us. One day a week “Uncle Eric” would look after us younger children, giving out teachers (all missionaries of the China Inland Mission and all ladies) a break. His gentle face and warm smile, even as he taught us games with the limited equipment available, showed us how much he loved children, missing his own so very much.

Eric Liddell helped organise athletic meets. Despite the weakening physical condition of people as the war dragged on, the spirit of competition and camaraderie in sports was very good for us. Young and old watched excitedly, basking in the aura of Olympic glory as Eric Liddell ran in the race for veterans, his head thrown back in his characteristic style, sailing through to victory. Besides basketball, soccer and rounders, Eric Liddell taught us his favourite hymn:

By still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side;
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain;
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change He faithful will remain
Be still, my soul, thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.

These words were a great comfort to one of our missionaries who was not only separated from her husband throughout the war, but whose son was accidentally electrocuted by a bare wire running to one of the searchlight towers.

Eric Liddell often spoke to us on I Corinthians 13 and Matthew 5. These passages from the New Testament clearly portray the secret of his selfless and humble life. Only on rare occasions when requested would he speak of his refusal to run on the Sunday and his Olympic record.

But once “Uncle Eric” thrilled us with the story of the time he was persuaded to run in an extra race at an athletic meet in North China. The problem was that the race was scheduled just half an hour before his boat was due to leave to take him back to the college where he taught. Failing to have the boat’s departure delayed, he arranged for a taxi to take him from the track to the boat. Having won the race, Eric was just about to leap into the waiting taxi, when the national anthem was played, followed straight off by the Marseilles, forcing him to keep standing at attention as the minutes ticked by. The moment the music stopped he leapt into the taxi, and the vehicle sped off, reaching the wharf in under twenty minutes. By this time the boat was already moving out from the dock. But when a wave just then momentarily lifted the boat nearer, Eric threw his bags on board and then took a mighty gazelle-like leap managing to land on the back of the moving boat.

Not only did Eric Liddell organise sports and recreation, through his time in internment camp he helped many people through teaching and tutoring. He gave special care to the older people, the weak, and the ill, to whom the conditions in camp were very trying. He was always involved in the Christian meetings which were a part of camp life. Despite the squalor of the open cesspools, rats, flies and disease in the crowded camp, life took on a very normal routine, though without the faithful and cheerful support of Eric Liddell, many people would never have been able to manage. Particularly grateful for his visits and encouragement were the daughter of a widow in camp and a Roman Catholic nun, both critically ill and quarantined in the camp morgue.

Eric was one of those responsible for keeping law and order in camp. Ours was a world in microcosm, with prisoners representing nearly twenty nationalities. When we boys were caught climbing the tall trees in the Japanese part of the compound, how glad we were that it was he and our teachers who dealt with us, and not the Japanese guards!

For Eric Liddell death came just months before liberation. He was buried in the little cemetery in the Japanese part of the camp where others who had died during internment had been laid to rest. I remember being part of the honour guard made up of children from the Chefoo and Weihsien Schools. Also present were Jim Taylor and Steve Metcalf. Jim Taylor, great-grandson of Hudson Taylor, later became General Director of the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, with more than 1000 missionaries. Steve Metcalf served for nearly 40 years in Japan as an OMF missionary. Steve’s most cherished memory is Eric’s gift to him of his running shoes just three weeks before he died. Though tied together with string and patched with tape, those shoes were a priceless possession. None of us will ever forget this man who was totally committed to putting God first, a man whose humble life combined muscular Christianity with radiant godliness.

What was his secret? He unreservedly committed his life to Jesus Christ as his Saviour and Lord. That friendship meant everything to him. By the flickering light of a peanut-oil lamp early each morning he and a roommate in the men’s cramped dormitory studied the Bible and talked with God for an hour every day.

As a Christian Eric Liddell’s desire was to know God more deeply, and as a missionary, to make Him known more fully.