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

Sat, Feb 12, 2011 - Page 3

Dan Bloom: What does the title of your memoir mean?

Milo Thornberry: On March 9, 1971, the country director for the Republic of China at the US State Department wrote in a communique about our arrest: “There is no shortage of American graduate students, missionaries ... with both ardent views on Taiwanese independence and a willingness to conduct themselves as if they were fireproof moths.”

A ‘fireproof moth’ is a moth that gets close to the fire without being burned. It seemed to be an apt title for my book because, as US citizens, my wife and I did not suffer the same fates as our Taiwanese colleagues.

Bloom: When you became convinced that the secret police were going to arrange an “accident” to kill your friend, Peng Ming-min (彭明敏), you and your wife decided you had no choice but to help him escape from Taiwan. What role did you play?

Thornberry: We had read a story in Time magazine about the way East Germans were being smuggled out to the West. Someone from the West crossed into East Germany, gave their passport to the person to come out and after the person was out, they reported to their embassy that their passport had been stolen. In short, that is what we did in Taiwan. Peng flew out of the country on a Saturday night — Jan. 3, 1971 — and the next day he was safe in Sweden.

Bloom: You write in your book that Peng’s getaway was so successful that when then-US president Richard Nixon and then-Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (周恩來) met in Beijing in 1973 and wanted to know how Peng got out, neither of their vast intelligence systems could tell them. Even Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) went to his grave without knowing that a group of non-government novices managed to get Peng out undetected. Can you elaborate on this?

Thornberry: I am reasonably sure that the authorities in Taiwan, China and the US never knew. I’ll tell you why: First, in a declassified verbatim account of the meeting between Nixon, Zhou Enlai, and former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, Zhou clearly suspects that the US government got Peng out.

Nixon and Kissinger protest that they had no idea how he got out, a claim that is consistent with declassified State Department correspondence about our arrest. They had a lot of items on their list of real or imagined offences, but Peng’s escape was not among them.

The account of the interrogation and torture of our colleague Hsieh Tsung-min (謝聰敏) at the same time as our arrest indicates that while the authorities suspected Hsieh of being involved in the escape, they never linked me or my wife to the escape. He was not. He and Wei Ting-chao (魏廷朝) had not been out of prison long when we got Peng out. We knew they would be suspected and so never involved them in the escape at all. His torturers did their best to get him to link us to crimes they suspected we might have committed, but Peng’s escape was not one of them. None of the list of unofficially released charges against us by the Republic of China [ROC)]when we were arrested a year later ever mentioned a connection with Peng’s escape.

Bloom: Your book tells of how you had to live a kind of double life in Taiwan.

Thornberry: It’s a long story, but here it is: A Presbyterian missionary in Taiwan had known Peng before his arrest in 1964 [for publishing the Declaration of Formosan Self-Salvation] and dared to visit his family while he was in prison.

In 1966, soon after we had arrived, this Canadian missionary feared that Taiwan would not allow him back into the country when he went back to Canada that summer. For reasons best known to him, he decided to introduce us to Peng. We went to dinner at Peng’s home while he was still under informal house arrest, though we did not know about that when we went. When we left the house, we had our first direct experience with the police state. A Garrison Command jeep tailed our taxi until we got to the movie district in Taipei and quickly got out of the cab and walked into a coffee shop.

We were immediately attracted to Peng, and he to us. Over the next four years, despite the fact that he was under surveillance all the time [or was supposed to have been,] he came to our house every week. These visits were never detected by the authorities, and never showed up on any of the lists of our offenses against the ROC.

In these four years, we developed a packet of articles from international scholarly periodicals on the reality in Taiwan that we anonymously published and distributed to foreign visitors who wanted to know more about the country. We had no business trying to persuade Taiwanese of anything, but we felt we had an obligation to offer an alternative view especially to American visitors. In time, we also devised a plan to provide financial support for families of political prisoners in Taiwan.

Bloom: The constant threat of discovery by the secret police gave you your own taste of the White Terror era. Can you provide some details?

Thornberry: One example: When Hsieh was in prison the first time, he learned a postal code from a postal security employee who had been sent to prison for stealing money from letters. That code printed on every letter indicated whether it had been read, by which security agency, the time and desk through which the letter passed. In 1970 when Hsieh gave me the code, I began to see how an increasing number of letters to us were being opened and passed to the Garrison Command. Our mail of any significance was smuggled in and out through Hong Kong, but now I could see that my time in Taiwan was limited.

Bloom: When police showed up at your door on March 3, 1971, you became the first missionaries arrested since the Chinese Nationalist Party [KMT] took over the island in 1945. Although the KMT leaked a panoply of charges to explain the arrest and deportation, Peng’s escape and your other activities were not among them. Instead, officials in Taiwan reported you as terrorists. The line in Beijing was that you and Judith were CIA agents. How come they knew so little about what you were really doing?

Thornberry: According to a Colonel Wang at the Foreign Affairs Police headquarters when we were arrested, we were charged with “activities unfriendly to the Government of the Republic of China.” When asked to sign the arrest warrant, I refused to do so unless I was given a copy. He refused, so I didn’t sign.

The list of charges unofficially released later to the press and to the US State Department included terrorism, importing explosives, bombing the USIS [US Information Service] in Tainan the previous October and the Bank of America in Taipei in February 1971, plotting to overthrow the government, and others. We weren’t terrorists. We didn’t import explosives. We didn’t bomb the USIS or Bank of America, and while we wished for it, we didn’t plot to overthrow the ROC government. US State Department communiques make it clear that while the ROC made these charges,they refused to show any proof to the US.

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.