Mary Virginia Herst: From POW in Thailand to Marine

Reflections of the interesting life of Mary Virginia Herst (daughter of Hardie H. Herst and Cora Mummey; granddaughter of Lucinda Jane McClelland and David Franklin Herst; great-granddaughter of Margaret Sales and William McClelland of Sangamon Co., Illinois; great-great-granddaughter of Jemima Brown and Thomas Sales (Sayles); g-g-g-granddaughter of Martha Thaxton and Thomas Brown of Sangamon Co., Ill.; g-g-g-g-great-granddaughter of Thomas Thaxton of Jemima Cobb of Caswell Co., N.C., Pendleton Dist., S.C., and Allen Co., Ky.) After the War, she married (unknown) Tompkinson, had sons Lee Tompkinson and Earl Tompkinson, and in 1970 married Willard Payne. She died in 2004, and is buried in the Argonia Cemetery, Harper County, Kansas.

As a missionary, Miss Herst began teaching at the Wittana Wittaya Academy in Thailand in 1939.  In 1941, she and other American teachers were captured by the Japanese army and interned in a POW camp.  As mentioned in the article, she was one of 1,600 passengers in the first exchange of prisoners between the United States and Japan in World World II, delivered home on the famous Asama Maru and Gripsholm in 1942.  The voyage of these “Exchange Ships” was tracked by newspapers all over the country, and is quite an interesting historical event.  From the Santa Fe New Mexican, 23 Oct 1942:

Virginia Herst, Who Spent Christmas as War Prisoner in Thailand, to Speak Here; Traveled Home on Gripsholm with Diplomats

Asked if life seems tame after being a prisoner of war in Thailand for six months, expecting to be there for the duration, but getting out to travel home with the diplomats on the “Gripsholm,” Miss Virginia Herst, former teacher at the Allison-James school who is in Santa Fe for a brief visit, replies:

“No, it seems lovely.  Everything is so beautiful and Santa Fe is a lovely place.”

Miss Herst has just arrived from Tucson, Ariz., where she is resuming her work as a home economics teacher in a Presbyterian mission school.  She will speak on her experiences in Bangkok, Thailand, where she was teaching at the outbreak of the war, in a public meeting scheduled at 6:30 Sunday evening at the First Presbyterian church.  The 6:30 hour has been set in order that Miss Herst may make connections to return to Tucson that evening.

Bombed by British

Her war experiences are particularly unique because she has been bomed by the British rather than by the enemy Japanese.  The Japanese took Bangkok quietly, and it was not until after the Japanese were there that the British began dropping their bombs to try to retake the country for the United Nations.  The war prisoners were allowed no information on what was in progress, but they heard the bombs fall and saw the fires over the city.

By that time Miss Herst was a prisoner in the university compound which had been surrounded by barbed wire and was under the guard of Thai police.

Preceding December 7 the teachers in the Bangkok Presbyterian mission school had been quite sure that the Japanese would come in there.  They kept in touch with the news at home through newspapers and magazines (also the New Mexico magazine, adds Miss Herst) although the publications arrived two months late.  They did not know of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but later learned that it was at the same time to within a few hours, that the Japanese also attacked Thailand.

The staff of the school for 400 girls in Bangkok, city of about 1,000,000 population, was immediately ordered to the American legation where they were kept for two weeks.  That was the only time that Miss Herst was directly under Japanese guard, for when they were moved to the internment camp, the Thai police took over.

Shakespeare in Camp

Within the camp, the prisoners conducted their life in as normal a manner as possible.  They had schools for the children, classes for adults, first aid and air raid precaution work, the latter under the direction of a British internee who had just returned from London.  There were 70 Americans in the camp, 12 Dutch prisoners, and some 300 British.

“We had ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and ‘the Merchant of Venice,'” Miss Herst recalls, “and we even invited the Thai officials and their wives and they came.”  Six months in internment gives plenty of time for the production of plays.

A Makeshift Christmas

It was just two days before Christmas that the prisoners were taken to the camp, which was the thing that was the most pitiful about it.  The parents of one 4-year-old American girl were careful not to mention Christmas, but the child remembered anyway and hung up her stocking on Christmas eve.  The parents were in despair, because there was nothing to give the child that might be construed as a gift from Santa Claus.  Miss Herst had been in charge of food at the legation and still had a little powdered milk, dried prunes and jam.  She sorted out a few prunes, another prisoner found a banana, and a little girl who had just come back from India produced two pieces of candy.  A scrap of wool yarn made a doll.  So the little girl was not disappointed when she awakened on Christmas morning and to make it all just right on Christmas day, the Thai girl who had been her nurse, also remembered the holiday and sent a doll.

Miss Herst says that food in the camp was hardly adequate but prisoners were allowed to supplement it from their own funds, buying it from outside the camp and cooking it themselves over charcoal burners.  Otherwise all ate together, on a ration that included chicken, water buffalo, spinach, sweet potatoes and green beans.  Such a diet would be “quite all right” occasionally, but served at every meal for six months it becomes another thing, Miss Herst points out.  “And the chicken is not like our chicken,” she adds, “nor prepared the same.”

Travel With Lights Ablaze

It was through the Swiss representative that Miss Herst finally obtained release, when she had thought she would be there until the war was over.  The war prisoners were exchanged to travel home first on the Thai ship “Vaisya” from Bangkok to Saigon; second on the Japanese ship “Assama Maru” [Asama Maru] from Saigon to Lorenco Marques; then on the Swedish “Gripsholm” to New York.  They stopped only at the two ports en route, and then at Rio de Janeiro, “and oh that was lovely,” adds this traveler.

They traveled under international protection all the way, with lights ablaze at night.  Two Thai warships escorted them to French Indo-China.  On the “Gripsholm,” the word “diplomats” was painted in letters three decks high on each side of the ship and was floodlighted at night.  There were three huge white crosses, one on each side and one on the stern.  Except for bits of wreckage in the water, they saw no sign of the savagery of war on the seas all the way.

There were 1,600 on the “Gripsholm,” and Miss Herst was happy to be traveling with the diplomats, feeling so much safer.  Also there has probably never been a more interesting group of people traveling together.

Questioned on the attitude of the people of Thailand toward the Japanese, Miss Herst points out that they still have a national feeling, hoping for a free country when the war is over.  She saw no evidence of Japanese brutality in the city of Bangkok but heard stories as bad as the worst about the conquerors treatment of the natives in country districts.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

From the Dallas Morning News, 18 Apr 1943:

Woman Held By Japs Sends Marine at ‘Em

PHOENIX, Ariz., April 17 (AP)–An Arizona woman who less than a year ago was a prisoner of the Japanese, has enlisted in the Marine Corp Women’s Reserve to free a Marine to fight the enemy in the South Pacific.

She is Mary Virginia Herst, 30, who since her return to the United States aboard the Gripsholm, has been teaching home economics at the Tucson Indian school.

 Miss Herst was a teacher in Thailand at the outbreak of war.  She was interned by the Japs at Bangkok.



Note: Another Thaxton descendant who was on the Gripsholm Exchange Ship with her family: Carrie Lucille Johnston, wife of Charles Moseley Eames, daughter of William Franklin Johnston and Anne Elizabeth Rogers, granddaughter of John Benoni Thaxton Johnston of Missouri.

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