Sat, Feb 12, 2011 - Page 3 News List

INTERVIEW: ‘Fireproof Moth’ recalls experiences during White Terror

A US missionary couple, Milo and Judith Thornberry, played a key role in Taiwanese democracy activist Peng Ming-min’s escape to Sweden during the White Terror era. Milo Thornberry has written a memoir of those days, titled ‘Fireproof Moth: A Missionary Couple in Taiwan During the White Terror Period.’ He talked with contributing reporter Dan Bloom about his and his then-wife’s experiences

Bloom: After being deported from Taiwan in 1971 and returning to the US, you were blacklisted by the US State Department and denied a passport for 19 years. How can a government do that to its citizens?

Thornberry: Initially, before returning to America, our mission board in New York wanted to re-appoint us to another location in Asia. A university in Hong Kong and a seminary in the Philippines invited me to teach. In the visa application process, our board was informed by both Hong Kong and the Philippines that the US State Department had asked them not to grant me a visa. So we returned to the US.

My passport expired and I didn’t try to renew it until 1990 when I wanted to spend Christmas with my son in London. The renewal didn’t come. I was taken aback, surprised. A friend told me the passport renewal would never be permitted. I called one of my US senators in Georgia and asked his office to inquire. The next day, his assistant called back and said, “What in the world did you do in Taiwan? There are so many flags on your file that the senator cannot get access.”

The tone of the assistant was one of incredulity, not judgment. A former senator who served on my advisory board offered to rally support from the senators from Georgia and Alabama [his home state].

I do not know how it happened, but on the day I was supposed to fly to London with my two daughters, a black limousine pulled up in front of my house and two guys wearing trench coats, dark glasses and hats rang the bell.

One asked me my name and then handed me a small brown envelope. They said nothing else, walked back to their car and drove away.

Inside the envelope was a new passport valid for 10 years. My girls and I made the flight to London and we celebrated Christmas with my son.

Bloom: Not allowed to resume your vocation as a missionary outside the US, how did you reconcile yourself to this fate?

Thornberry: Once out of Taiwan, I knew that two of my best friends were in prison in Taiwan and were suffering torture of all kinds. One was able to get a letter out about what was happening to him, and we were able to get it published as an op-ed piece in the New York Times. Peng was in exile.

I learned that whenever one of my former students at one of the seminaries came to the US to study, they were interviewed about me by the FBI. They wanted to know if I was a “bomb thrower.” I was a liability to my Taiwanese friends and I reluctantly cut off nearly all contact with them.

Knowing what my friends in Taiwan had to endure while I was simply sent out of the country was and is the hardest thing.

I did not write my memoir of those days earlier in my life because I didn’t want those friends to get hurt again. Even after the end of martial law, I didn’t know what would happen in Taiwan.

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