In December, 1939, as the world was spiraling into World War II, Bill McDougall quit his job as a reporter for the Salt Lake Telegram, an evening newspaper published by the Salt Lake Tribune to compete with the Deseret News, and boarded a ship for Japan. Reporters want to be where things are happening, and the Far East was certainly one of those places. After a stint on the Japan Times, an English language newspaper published in Tokyo, he moved up to a position as United Press correspondent in Shanghai. He was there, in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and the United States was plunged into the war.
He effected a daring escape to Nationalist China, then to Calcutta, but he was not out of the action yet: as the Japanese juggernaut proceeded through southeast Asia, he rushed to the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) where the Allies hoped to stop it. They could not. As the island of Java fell, McDougall fled aboard a Dutch ship, but it was too late: the next morning, Japanese airplanes caught up with the ship and sank it. Although McDougall and a few other survivors reached the island of Sumatra in a lifeboat, they were almost immediately captured, and they spent the next three years in various Japanese prison camps.
During that long internment, McDougall was able to get out only one postcard, so his parents and his two sisters were almost totally unaware of his fate. That did not mean that he and they were not always in each others' thoughts and prayers, as the following touching letter to his mother indicates:
Palembang Internment Camp
November 19, 1942
Today is your birthday. A little while ago I heard a Mass which was said especially for you. I hope that, across the thousands of miles of distance which separates us today, you feel the love in my heart for you and know, somehow, that my prayers are being offered for you. . . .
Many and poignant are the thoughts which well into my mind this morning-all thoughts of you and Papa and the family. One of my memories goes back a long way-to a summer night you and I sat on the porch and talked until late. It was during my high school days. I told you how I wanted to travel and see the world. You agreed that traveling was a good thing, but that sometimes it was hard on mothers whose sons were on the other side of the world. I said I didn't see what difference the distance made-whether they were only a few hundred miles apart or several thousand, that in either case the fact of separation was the same. But you told me some day I would understand. And now the day has come when I do.
My one wish today is that you are happy and well. And my one hope today is that when all this war is over we will sit on the front porch of a summer evening and talk. What stores of subjects will we have to discuss!
I love you, Mother, with all my heart. May God specially bless you on this, your birthday, and keep you safe and well until we meet again.
The letter was never mailed, and McDougall was able to hand-deliver it over three years later after his liberation. In his gratefulness to God for his rescue from the Indian Ocean and survival of the horrors of the prison camps, he resolved to become a priest. He was ordained at the Cathedral of the Madeleine on May 11, 1952 and later became, as Monsignor McDougall, rector of the Cathedral.
On this Mothers' Day it is well that we read and reflect on this touching birthday tribute to one great mother by an appreciative son. And those of us who lost our mothers before we were able to write such a letter look forward to the day when we can express similar sentiments in person on the Other Side.