Betsy Herold Heimke’s Christmas story has candy, a turkey drumstick and soldiers at the front door.
It was night. Light glistened on bayonets. The soldiers barged in and ordered her family to leave the next day. Take food, they yelled. This may take a while.
Heimke was 12 and “so scared I had no spit in my mouth,” she later wrote. She would wear the same shoes for the next three years until American tanks arrived at Bilibid prison in the Philippines in February 1945.
Heimke is now 85 and lives in Overland Park. Her story of internment as a young girl during World War II tells of mean men, hunger, rats, blood-soaked mattresses, clogged toilets and, most of all, a fear that it would never end.
She watched her mother struggle daily to keep the family together and fed. People died around her. Her father’s ribs stuck out like steel bars.
No one should expect any Louie Zamperini-like absolution from her.
Zamperini was an American bombardier who was held as a POW and tortured by the Japanese after his plane went down in the Pacific. Part of his story, as told in the best-selling book “Unbroken” and now a movie that opens Christmas Day, is that after the war he traveled to Japan and forgave the guards who mistreated him.
When asked whether she could do the same, Heimke lifted her eyes from her scrapbook and locked onto those of her questioner.
“He’s a better Christian than I am,” she said of Zamperini. “I’m not there and doubt I will ever be.”
Heimke’s parents are dead. So is the big brother, Billy, who was with her in the camps. She’s all that’s left of the family the Japanese soldiers came for that night during a roundup of Western families.
And nearly 70 years after being freed, her voice still breaks when she tells her story of internment.
Like when she repeats what her mother whispered to her nearly every night at bedtime: “One day, the Americans will come.”
Betsy Herold’s parents had gone to the Philippines in 1922 to teach school. Her father later worked for a timber company. The family lived near Baguio on the island of Luzon. She went to school with children from other British and American families.
And then came December 1941.
“My father always had the radio on,” Heimke said during an interview in the living room of her apartment at the Tallgrass Creek retirement community in Overland Park. “That’s how we learned about Pearl Harbor.”
Not to worry, her father told the family. Hawaii is 5,000 miles away. They would be fine.
The next day, when she and other school kids saw planes in a V formation flying overhead, they yelled at the Americans to “bomb hell out of Tokyo!”
But the planes were Japanese, and they dropped their bombs on Camp John Hay, a nearby U.S. Army installation. Several soldiers died in the attack. Japan was making its push for superiority in all of the region.
More enemy planes came in the following days.
“Some flew so low you could see the fur collars on the pilots,” Heimke remembered.
Her parents, fearing occupation, sent her and her brother north into the jungle to a timber outpost associated with her father’s business. But her mother wanted them home for Christmas. Heimke was glad to return but dismayed that blankets covered the windows, making the house “like a tomb.”
On Christmas Day 1941, they had the traditional meal. Even candy. But unlike previous years, no packages arrived from Sears Roebuck. Air raid sirens blew and bombs fell. The family spent part of the day in a shelter, young Betsy clinging to her turkey drumstick.
The next day, Manila was declared an “open city.”
“We had no idea when we went to bed that would be the last night we slept in a nice bed for three years,” Heimke said of the following night.
That’s when the Japanese soldiers pounded on the door.
With the families gathered the next day, Dec. 28, a Japanese officer — so short his sword clanged on the floor — climbed atop a table. He wore a pith helmet and told them they were now prisoners of the emperor.
“Oh, he thought he was so important,” Heimke remembered.
The family would spend the first part of their internment at Camp John Hay, which had been abandoned by the Americans. Betsy had never heard her father curse before, but she heard plenty when the captives were crammed 500 or more into barracks built for 40.
“The first night, my mother fed us a can of peaches,” she said.
Men were later segregated from women. Toilets backed up and the food was bad. Parents told their teenage daughters to look unattractive for fear they would be made to entertain Japanese officers.
Four months later, Heimke and the other captives were moved to Camp Holmes, on the outskirts of Baguio. This was their longest stop. A school was started for children. Billy got a girlfriend.
But in all that time, Heimke remembers only one Red Cross package coming to her family. Coffee, powered milk, cheese and shoe polish.
“Shoe polish!” she exclaimed in the recent interview. “I’d much rather have gotten food than shoe polish. We were hungry.”
Next stop was the infamous Bilibid prison in Manila, which held American forces captured from Corregidor and Bataan. The amenities included feces- and blood-soaked mattresses, cockroaches, rats and only two paltry meals a day.
Two months later, artillery rumbled in the distance.
The Americans were coming, just like her mother told her. True to his word, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, having been forced to withdraw his troops three years earlier, had returned.
“The shelling was so loud at times it shook my toenails,” Heimke said.
During this time — February 1945 — the Japanese acted jittery at roll call. Then the shelling stopped. Soldiers with the 37th Infantry Division arrived and the Japanese were gone.
Heimke’s family quickly reunited. One of the first meals provided by the Americans was scrambled eggs. Her father asked how they got eggs across the Pacific.
“Powdered,” a soldier told him. “They’re pretty bad.”
They were wonderful, Heimke thought. Later that day, she heard a radio station from San Francisco announce that American forces had liberated Bilibid prison in the Philippines.
“I broke down and cried,” she said. “It was finally over. And we had made it.”
She and her brother went to live with relatives in the United States after the war. Her parents returned to the Philippines to help rebuild.
“Want to see the most handsome man in the world?” Heimke asked in her living room.
The photograph was of her husband, Karl, who had flown bombing missions in Europe during the war.
They met on a blind date and had been married 62 years when Karl died in July.
Today her life revolves around her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“She’s strong,” said her daughter, Sally Karst, a schoolteacher in Olathe. “You never know for sure, but I would think some of what happened to her back then made her that way.
“Here we were — she’s cleaning house and taking care of us, and we didn’t know any of that. She told me when I was 12, the same age as she was when all that happened.”
Karst was in the seventh grade. A teacher had assigned her to do a story on someone who remembered World War II. She asked her mother.
“She sat me down and told me,” Karst said. “I think maybe she was waiting for the opportunity. From then on, the war wasn’t just places and dates. This was what happened to my mother and her family.”
Heimke remembers it all in detail. It probably helps that she wrote a book, “Bring Cup, Plate & Spoon,” about those days in captivity.
Maybe because it remains so clear is why she isn’t ready to forgive the Japanese guards, as Zamperini did. But she was different from him. Zamperini, who died this year, was a grown man. He had been an Olympic runner who enlisted in the Army Air Corps when war became imminent.
She was a scared young girl who didn’t ask for any of it, and she saw it all happen to her family.
Toward the end of a recent interview and talking about Zamperini — maybe, just maybe, Heimke showed a crack toward forgiveness.
“Besides,” she said, “those guards that were mean to me, they’re probably already dead.”