Hoosier captive in China

I left the Dubois County Historical Museum with a few names and items I wanted to look into. Robert W. Greene was one of them.

From the museum, I learned that he was a missionary in China who was held by the Communists not long after they came to power in 1949. The museum had copies of his book, the TV show about his experiences, and the issue of Life magazine that featured him (May 19, 1952).

This Jasper native trained for the priesthood at nearby St. Meinrad. In 1937, he was ordained as a priest at the Maryknoll Seminary in New York and was promptly assigned to the mission in Guilin in the south of China, away from the war-torn areas. (China was in the throes of a civil war and had been invaded by Japan.)

In 1945, he returned to the States, but in 1947 was sent back to China, this time to Tungan in the same southern province to run a dispensary in the Maryknoll mission. WWII was long over but the civil war was in full swing. In 1949, the Communists took control of the country. The following year Father Greene’s troubles began.

In October 1950, the Communists confined him to his Maryknoll mission. After 17 months of this solitude, on April 3, 1952, he was dragged before a firing squad to be shot as a spy. Instead, he was bound and held against a wall with bayonets as he was interrogated for 8 days.

A Chinese mob gathered, including fellow parishioners and people he had helped with medicine from the dispensary. The mob was calling for his death. Greene was to be beheaded on April 13.

Instead, he was placed in a cage and paraded through three cities on the way to the border with Hong Kong. The procession to Hong Kong must have been quite a lengthy ordeal. Tungan is in Guangxi province, which does not border Hong Kong. Guangxi province borders Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong.

Greene’s harrowing experiences are chronicled in a 1955 book, Calvary in China, and a TV program, Crossroads: Calvary in China.

The Life magazine story about Father Greene, Red China’s Captured Americans, also mentions the numerous other Americans still held captive after Greene’s release: 42 imprisoned and 19 under house arrest. Three Americans had died. Phillip Cline, a diabetic who didn’t receive needed insulin, died after he was freed. Gertrude Cone died of starvation and cancer. William Wallace’s death was the worst and elicited a gasp from me. Like Cone, he died in jail; his beaten body was found hanging.

As I looked at all the photos and names of those listed in the article, I wondered at their stories. How many died in China? How many survived and made it back to the States? What did they all endure?

Greene himself lived a long life, dying in 2003 at the age of 92.


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