As the setting is developed in the first couple of paragraphs, it might be any typical peaceful opening scene; just a boy sheltering from the rain on a boat with his pets. Except that the rain dripping on the boy’s sleeping pig is coming through a bullet hole in the roof.
During China’s war with Japan concurrent with WWII, Tien Pao, a young Chinese boy, has fled with his family from the invading Japanese. They escape from their burning village on a sampan on the river– Tien Pao, his father and mother, his baby sister, the family pig, a dishpan with three ducklings in it, and a rice mill. For many days and nights, the family rowed the boat against the river’s current until they were safe from the Japanese. But now they are in a strange city with no money or food.
When they arrive at the village of Hengyang, the father and mother leave Tien Pao on the sampan with the pig and ducklings while they go to the American airfield to work. Mother carries the baby sister on her back. The sampan accidentally breaks loose from the river bank, and Tien Pao is carried back downriver, toward the Japanese.
Before Tien Pao can get to shore, the sampan is carried past Tien Pao’s burned village, which is now occupied by the Japanese. Once he is on land, he has to start the long walk upriver to find his family again. He decides he must take the pig, but he has to let the ducklings go free on the river. His only other possession is half a bowl of rice.
We are never told how old Tien Pao is, but surmising from his behavior, and the fact that he’s big enough to help with the boat while the family is fleeing their village, but not big enough for his mother and father to take with them to work, I guess seven or eight years old. Even if he’s older, my heart breaks as he scrambles through the mountains, trying to avoid his own people because he doesn’t know for sure where the Japanese are. He climbs and stumbles without food until he can’t go a step further. Then he eats a couple of handfuls out of the bowl of rice, but won’t allow himself to eat all of it. He will need that for later. I can’t help picturing my grandsons in a similar situation. Lord, save them!
From high on a hill, Tien Pao witnesses an American plane attacking a Japanese convoy. Trucks explode and crash into each other. “The driver pitched through the glass into the flames of the truck ahead . . The awful, unearthly screams of horses rent the air and beat against the cliff. Tien Pao dug his fingers into his ears, but it was as if the screaming went on inside him. His skin went tight with horror, but he kept looking, he couldn’t tear his eyes away.”
The plane is hit by Japanese bullets, and crashes while Tien Pao watches. He sees that the airman has escaped the plane, but now has to escape from the Japanese. In his anguish for the airman, Tien Pao accidentally yells a warning to him, then the Japanese begin to shoot at Tien Pao as well. Tien Pao and the airman manage to find each other, and now neither one is alone. They don’t understand each other’s language, but “It didn’t need words.”
Tien Pao and the injured airman are helped by a band of Chinese guerillas, one of whom takes Tien Pao within sight of the town where his parents had been working. The Japanese are already there, and the town is on fire. Tien Pao wonders if his parents could still be in the burning town. The guerilla says, “If I know a father, he will wait until the last moment in the small hope that you may return. If I know a mother, she will wait until the Japanese are in the streets and their bayonets at her back before she gives up a firstborn son.”
Once inside the town, an old hag helps Tien Pao get onto a freight train that is packed with fleeing people. A soldier helps Tien Pao stay on the train because Tien Pao reminds him of his son whom he hasn’t seen for seven years. Maddeningly, the train stops and starts, and Tien Pao watches as something goes wrong with the passenger train on the track next to them, and it begins backing into the station again. It is overwhelmed by the Japanese.
The sixty fathers are the Sixteenth Bombardment Squadron in whose barracks Tien Pao finally finds himself in safety. Through an interpreter, Tien Pao is able to tell them his entire story and, of course, they all want to take care of him. When the doctor comes in to advise the men what Tien Pao should eat after he has gone so long without food, he asks Tien Pao what he has been eating. “I had four bowls of rice, but mostly I ate leaves. I didn’t like grass.”
Tien Pao is grateful for everything the men do for him, but he can’t be content with his sixty fathers until he knows for sure that he won’t ever find his father and mother and baby sister.
This is a heart-stopping, heart-wrenching story. Tien Pao’s situation is nearly unthinkable for Americans who have never had war come to their country– right into their towns. It’s almost unbelievable that a child could survive as Tien Pao does. But we know that people are capable of amazing feats of courage and tenacity when they are driven by love.
I have included some of the more intense scenes, because I want you to be aware that parts of the story could be too grim for young children. This isn’t a typical DeJong story. But I also believe that, when they are mature enough for the difficult details, our children need to hear stories of this kind of perseverance and strength of character.
As unbelievable as this story may seem, the inscription, which I included in the caption under the cover photo gives us a clue that at least some of the details are probably true. All the short biographies of DeJong that I looked at online include the fact that he was in the air force in China during WWII. I was only able to find one entry with a bit more detail. This book must have been both a tribute and catharsis for DeJong.
“The House of Sixty Fathers is based on Meindert DeJong’s actual experience, During World War II. Mr. DeJong was official historian for the Chinese-American Composite Wing, which was part of Cbennault’s famous Fourteenth Air Force. A young Chinese war orphan, the Tien Pao of this story, was adopted by DeJong’s outfit. The boy chose DeJong as his special “father,” and the two were devoted to one another. Mr. DeJong wanted to bring the boy back to the United States with him, but because of legal complications he was unable to do so. However, the men in the outfit left the youngster well provided for when they returned to America. The Communists then took over that section of China, and DeJong has never heard what happened to the boy.” https://bookroo.com/books/the-house-of-sixty-fathers
You may find further description and an inside view of the book at biblioguides.com