Girl Scout Camp

By Noah Graff

Girl Guides log book in Weihsien Concentration Camp. 1941

On Thanksgiving our family goes around the table and each one of us tells what we’re happy about and thankful for in our lives.

What’s fascinating about humans is how one person can feel miserable by a certain set of circumstances, while a different person feels happy and thankful about the same scenario.

National Public Radio’s “This American Life” ran a story earlier this year chronicling a group of girl scouts held captive in a Chinese concentration camp during World War II. In 1941 a group of mostly British and American children, who were attending a boarding school in the city of Chefoo, China, were shipped off to a concentration camp called Weilsien after the Japanese invaded the country. Their teachers also were sent to the camp, but the children’s parents, mainly missionaries, were sent elsewhere.

In the camp, the teachers took it upon themselves to maintain the dignity of the children, enforcing strict rules of conduct in an environment which could have easily resulted in a collapse of standards of discipline. For instance, when the children were served their meager meals of bread and water the teachers would correct the students if they had poor table manners such as slouching or chewing with their mouths open.

There was a large troop of girl scouts among the children, called “Girl Guides.” The Girl Guides’ leaders, known as Brown Owls, sought to run the troop as if it were any other Girl Guide troop whether in a concentration camp or not. They kept up the spirits of the girls by giving them tasks to earn merit badges and making them sing songs. The girls had contests to see who could collect the most coal shavings left over by the guards, which the prisoners would then recycle to make their own coal bricks to keep warm. The positive energy of the children inspired the depressed adults in the camp when they saw the kids always smiling, singing and insisting that everyone keep washing.

The radio program interviewed Mary Previte, one of the Girl Guides, who at 82 years old recounted her experience in Weilsien with such enthusiasm that it almost seemed as though she was describing life at summer camp, rather than a concentration camp.

She said that she couldn’t feel depressed when they sang beautiful songs, such as Psalm 46, with the words, “God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength. And on it goes. In trouble we will not be afraid.” She said the songs made her and the other prisoners feel safe and gave them the spirit they needed to survive.

We can’t ignore all the hardship and problems swirling around in the news and in our own personal lives, but if life ever feels unbearably bleak and joyless, think of the girl scouts in the Chinese concentration camp who could feel happy and safe just from some leadership, merit badges and songs.

Listen to the NPR podcast here:

Question: What are your favorite memories as a boy scout or girl scout when you were kid?

Share this post

11 thoughts on “Girl Scout Camp

  1. Steve Ignots

    I remember cold weather camping, building and racing a home made sled. I remember being cold and wet and nevertheless having a great time.

  2. Jack

    When I was a Cub Scout, must have been late 60’s, we did a skit on littering.
    We were all suppose to make signs to protest litterbugs.
    My teenage sister made me a sign. It read: “Make Love Not Litter”
    At that age I didn’t know what that meant.
    We put on our skit marching around with our signs.
    I remember my friends Mom’s reaction, her jaw almost hit the floor.
    I can still see her face.

  3. Noah Graff

    Top Cub Scout Memories Include:

    Going camping with my dad on the “Dad Lad Overnighter.” He’s an excellent writer, but not an experienced camper. It rained, water got in the sleeping bag, and it was a cold, soggy, mosquito filled night.

    The Pinewood derby, where we would make our own wooden cars about 12″ x 3″ that we would race down a track. I engineered the car’s design by emulating the aerodynamics of a fish (maybe my most technical moment). Got 3rd place in our whole troop of a ton of scouts. At least over 100.

    “Dad Lad Cake Bake”: Attempted to create a cake in the shape of a Cubs hat. By an organic turn of events the “Cub Hat Cake” was retitled the “Blue Volcano Cake.”

    Meeting my best friend Justin, whose mom was the den mother.

  4. Gordy

    Great stuff. It was 1973, some time in early January; in the Kettle Moraine Forest. When we went to sleep, with hot rocks inside cotton socks to preheat our sleeping bags, it was just starting to snow. The leaders were still around the fire drinking beer, building a fire that would burn through the night, and talking when the boys headed to the tents. When I woke in the morning, the sides of the tent were all pushed in, but it was actually quite warm. When I looked out the front flap, there was about 2 feet of relatively powdery snow. The part that will stick in my mind forever if the hole in the snow from which smoke from the previous nights fire was coming out through. We jumped right up and turned those coals into a fire 10 feet high so as other scouts woke up they could warm up and dry off by it. 25 years later I became a leader, and let me tell you, that experience could never happen again. I have raised 2 eagle scouts who have been everywhere from Boundary Waters to Seabase, but they never got to see anything like that.

  5. brawlerman

    Great memories of scouting, The weekend camping, summer camp at El Ranco Cima in central Texas and especially Philmont in New mexico, trading lodge patches, Snipe hunts, running around in the woods, learning to cook the most delicious food over an open fire. I still have all my scouting stuff at home.

  6. Ben

    Wisconsin, circa 1964. Nicolet National Forest Campout Weekend. Tents, chopping wood, making (burning) popcorn on the fire pit and a 5 mile hike with back packs. It resembled a pre-military camp for boys. We all had fun and it turned out to be a lifelong lesson of experiencing the great outdoors.

  7. Brad Rasmussen

    Many Point Scout Camp, my favorite memory was when my older brother Bart beat up my oldest brother Brett at summer camp, Brett was a bully and was always picking on the younger kids and Bart beat the snot out of him and left him crying in the dirt for about a half hour. Brett is still a bully but he never messed with his younger brother Bart again.

  8. Lloyd Graff

    Noah’s piece reminded me of the great movie “Bridge on the .River Kwai.” The Major held his troops together with discipline and a stiff upper lip. A wonderful David Lean film with Alec Guiness and William Holden set in a Japanese prison camp in Burma. It became a contest of endurance between the Japanese Captain and the British Major. Fascinating choices to be made by the characters, with magnificent script and acting.

  9. Lloyd Graff

    Scouting for me was primarily dumb craft projects. The only memorable part was playing in the Cub Scout baseball league which was my first taste of competitive sports. Graduated to Little League and high school sports. I don’t know if scouting is into sports today?

  10. Jack

    In Boy Scouts camping at Peninsula State Park in Door County. That was fun. Caught my first Coho Salmon. Some scuba divers were there, they had hundreds and hundreds of lures they found while diving. A few were probably mine.
    Man that was a long time ago.

  11. Kurt

    Winter camping in Michigan in 1972. Temperature was in the low teens and several of the scouts melted the toes of their boots while standing next to the fire trying to keep their feet warm. We had a blast the next day sledding and having snowball fights.

    To answer Lloyd’s question, Boy Scouts in not into traditional sports like baseball or football, but there are opportunities to do lots of other outdoor sports such as sailing, shooting sports, cycling, and others. There are also opportunities for at the High Adventure camps to do whitewater rafting, BMX and mountain biking, as well as an extensive skate park at the newest camp in West Virginia.


Comments are closed.