November 26 [Year Unknown]:
“There’s no place like home,” was a line made famous by Dorothy in the 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz. Four years later, there were 1,500 people who could relate to that line, but they didn’t get home with red slippers. They were aboard the Gripsholm Ship.
For two years, the passengers had been civilian prisoners in Japanese internment camps, and among them were Helen Burton of Bismarck and the Kops family of Lawton, North Dakota. On this day in 1943, the North Dakotan repatriates relaxed in New York before beginning another long journey to their final destination: home.
The return home, however, would prove to be bittersweet. Right after leaving the ship, the repatriates were bombarded by the press. The journalists confused and overwhelmed the repatriates, but the Fargo Forum reporter, Ruth Fairbanks made Paul Kops right at home. “North Dakota!” Paul said after refusing to speak with other reporters. “Well! That’s different. Let’s start talking!” Similar sentiments were shared by Miss Burton. The Kops family and Helen comfortably spoke to Miss Fairbanks, and shared their experiences in the camps.
In her interview, Fairbanks learned that Paul Kops, his wife Theresa, and two sons had moved to Shanghai, China in 1937. There, Paul practiced law until being taken into the internment camp at Pootung, near Shanghai. Overcrowding and bad food made the stay uncomfortable for Paul, where 60 to 125 men shared a room in an old tobacco company. “Food was bad,” said Paul. “At first there was a little fish. Then by summer, no fish but water buffalo mean, and the rice deteriorated.”
Meanwhile, his wife and children were taken to the Santo Tomas camp in the Philippines after attempting to reach home in 1942. The situation at Santo Tomas was not quite so crowded, but Theresa still worried for her children’s and husband’s health.
After interviewing the Kops family, Fairbanks visited with Helen Burton. Helen had been a merchant of a gift shop, the Camel Bell in Peking for many years. Although proud of her home state, Helen was more of an expatriate, and did not wish to leave her home in China. Even as life in the city grew tense, Helen stayed in her apartment and “[took] each day by itself.” Meanwhile, she held going away parties for friends being sent to internment camps. Finally, her time came and she was sent to Weishien with 1,800 other men, women, and children.
Conditions were also terrible at this camp, but Helen learned to manage due to her many years experience as a merchant in Shanghai. She bartered with Chinese outside of the camp for clothing and other supplies. She said, “You would be surprised at how a shortage in a wardrobe here and there could be filled through barter.”
This is just some of what the repatriates shared with the press. The repatriates were, however, reluctant to disclose much more about their experiences in the camp.
They feared upsetting another Gripsholm trip for other prisoners stuck in camps. Regardless, they did not feel they suffered too badly. According to Helen, “Now that we are reading and hearing all the fine things that the American soldiers are doing and knowing the things that are taking place in their lives, our experiences are nothing.”
By Tessa Sandstrom
“North Dakota’s Kops family regain weight on Gripsholm,” Fargo Forum. Dec. 3, 1943: 6.
“Fine spirit of N.D. Repatriates not dulled by war’s misfortunes,” Fargo Forum. Dec. 6, 1943: 1.