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William Taylor's life during World War II sounds like something from a Hollywood movie. And maybe it should be one.
Taylor was a civilian contractor on Wake Island in the Pacific when he was captured by the Japanese, shipped to mainland China and imprisoned for 3 1/2 years in a POW camp. Before he could be transported to a more brutal camp in Japan, he leapt off a moving POW train and hiked through occupied China to freedom. Mao Zedong, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, was so impressed by the American's daring escape, he went to meet him.
More than 60 years later, even Taylor can't believe his good fortune.
"It's a miracle," said the retired businessman and politician, 90, by phone from his home in Provo. "I was captured three times. I'm not an especially brave person. And I don't think I really did anything special. I had luck and help."
Luck, help and, ever since, a whale of a story. Taylor recounts this tale in Rescued By Mao: World War II, Wake Island and My Remarkable Escape Across Mainland China. Published by Sandy-based Silverleaf Press ($24.95), the new memoir is a compelling account of one man's wartime ordeal.
A native of Ogden, Taylor was 24 when he and other iron workers were hired for a nine-month construction job on Wake Island, a tiny atoll between Hawaii and Japan. It was August 1941 when he arrived on the island, which became home to some 500 military personnel and more than 1,200 civilians.
As its occupants would realize, the island was strategically located and therefore coveted by the Japanese. Taylor was at work the morning of Dec. 8, 1941, when news came that Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor. Several hours later, he spied a squadron of planes passing over Wake Island. He thought they were American until the bombs began falling. Three days later the Japanese tried to invade the island, but underestimated the strength of the U.S. resistance and were repelled. On Dec. 23, Japan returned, this time with larger forces, and captured the island.
In January 1942, Taylor and hundreds of other civilian and military prisoners were shipped to mainland China in the cargo hold of an ocean liner. After 10 months at a POW camp on the Yangtze River, Taylor was moved to a larger camp nearby, where he spent the next 2 1/2 years.
The camps were Spartan places with little food or heat, but the resourceful Taylor made the best of it. A newly devout Mormon, he had little use for the cigarettes that guards rationed to their captives and that prisoners treated like currency. So he traded them for extra food, blankets and other items that made captivity more bearable.
Taylor and the other prisoners were aware that if U.S. troops invaded Japan and China, the Japanese would likely kill themselves, and their prisoners, before surrendering. Fearing he would die if he didn't escape, Taylor was always on the lookout for a chance to flee. One finally came in May 1945, when he and his fellow prisoners were loaded onto trains bound for the coast and, eventually, Japan.
"I told myself, 'If you don't do it now, you'll never get another chance,' " he said. "You can't be thinking, 'Oh, I'm going to get killed.' "
Aided by fellow prisoners who kept an eye on the guards, Taylor and another man climbed out the window of a cramped railway car about 1 a.m. and leapt into the darkness. The train was moving about 40 mph, and Taylor injured his ankle in the fall. He was lucky; his companion broke his leg. Hearing search dogs, Taylor reluctantly left his friend behind and hobbled away alone. Later, he learned his friend had survived the war.
Skirting villages, sleeping in wheat fields and aided by kindly peasants, Taylor made his way across China. Once he was captured by Chinese soldiers sympathetic to Japan but escaped moments later, fleeing on a zigzag course to avoid gunshots. The next day he was found by Communist Party troops, who ferried him to safety and, eventually, Chairman Mao.
The two men had a brief conversation through an interpreter, during which Taylor praised the Chinese people and told Mao he would never forget their kindnesses. Three weeks later, Taylor was back home. Twelve days after that, U.S. troops dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.
"I wrote this book for my posterity . . . and my family," said Taylor, whose story has been featured in a History Channel documentary about Wake Island. He said his wartime experience made him more patriotic, a feeling that lingers today. "I love this country. And I'm more appreciative for all the liberties we have here."