A Starving Chinese Waif Who Became An American Millionaire Toasts the Sailors Who Twice Rescued Him

updated 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

First, rewind: to 5 a.m. on the Shanghai waterfront, late autumn, 1945. Raked by an icy wind, Machinist's Mate Tom Hilt stands watch on the foredeck of a Navy repair ship, the U.S.S. Pandemus. Suddenly he hears—could it be?—a child sobbing in the night. Hurrying to the rail, he looks down. On the dock he sees a naked Chinese boy, shivering and weeping as he attempts pathetically to dry his sopping garments in the engine room exhaust.

Now, fast-forward: to the apple country of eastern Michigan, an hour's drive north of Detroit, on a sunny autumn afternoon last month. Memories bubbling up as the beer goes down, 28 former members of the Pandemus crew, now well into their 60s, have assembled with their wives in the dining room of a popular golf club to celebrate their third reunion. Tom Hilt is there and, believe it or not, so is that once-wretched little Chinese boy. But the starving dock rat known as Han Lin has evolved into a lean, vigorous gentleman of 55 named Peter Han—the host of the party, the owner of the golf club, the wealthiest man in the room.

So how did a Shanghai ragamuffin turn into a Michigan millionaire? "It's an incredible story," says Han. More to the point, it's a story with a heart: a gentle epic about a child who clung to hope, about plain, decent people who moved heaven and earth to save him—and about the eternal truth that in life's darkest moments love (and true grit) can somehow find a way.

Han was born in 1933, and destiny dealt him a bad hand. When he was 8, his father died and his mother sent him to live with his grandfather in Japanese-held Shanghai. "My step-grandmother was cruel," he remembers, "so I ran away and lived on the docks. I went days without eating. People lay dying in the streets."

Han was 12 when the Pandemus steamed into Shanghai harbor at the end of World War II. Tom Hilt first noticed him when the ship's cooks were handing out leftovers to the kids on the dock. "Han was the chief honcho," Hilt remembers. "He distributed the food, making sure no one took more than his share. He didn't eat a thing until everyone else had some." But that night somebody tossed a pail of filthy water over the side—and it landed on Han's head. Hustled to the ship's infirmary, Han was in sorry shape. "His head was covered with big open sores," Hilt recalls. "Scurvy, from malnutrition. But the doc said we could get him well if we could keep him for a while."

Without permission—Japan's surrender left discipline lax—Hilt put the boy in crew's quarters. "It was like I had died and gone to heaven," Han says. "Lots of food, friendly people, a warm bed. I owe my life to those sailors." Whip-smart, he learned to cuss like a bos'n's mate and won a nickname: Salty. He also learned to run small motorboats and keep them shipshape. "You only told him something once," says crewman Tom Kennedy, "and he had it better than you did."

In 1946, facing transfer, Hilt and Kennedy raised $225 and entered Han in a Roman Catholic boys' school in Shanghai. "I asked Father Martin to give Han an education and send me the bill," Kennedy says. "I never got one." Han cried when his friends left: "I didn't think I'd ever see them again." But he enthusiastically converted to Catholicism and emerged as a student leader.

Then in 1949 Shanghai fell to the Communists, and Father Martin was carted off to jail. At first, Han visited him every day to deliver a smuggled packet of food. But when the Communists ordered him to recruit fellow students, Han faced a crisis of conscience. "As a Catholic I believed that Communism was evil," he says. "I asked Father Martin what to do. He gave me the name of a priest in Beijing and told me to go there."

When a travel permit was refused, Han decided to escape to Hong Kong. Many had died in the attempt, and for Han the venture was doubly dangerous because he carried a letter from Tom Kennedy in one shoe. If the authorities found it, he would probably be shot as a spy. "But I wouldn't have given that letter up for my life," Han says. "It was from my friend in America."

Three times Han tried to cross the border. Three times he was caught and thrown into a detention camp. "In that situation," he says, "you learn to think smart." So for the fourth attempt he prepared carefully: He bribed a camp guard to give him extra food, wore a Communist student's uniform and sewed some money into his sleeve. This time, at the age of 18, he completed his dash to freedom. "Nothing," he says, "is scary after that."

In Hong Kong, Han went to work as a handyman and studied English at night. Soon he was able to write to Tom Kennedy, who sent him money and clothes and asked if he wanted to come to America. "It's my dream," Han wrote back. Kennedy made contact with Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson, who appealed to Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Four years later, after Kennedy guaranteed that his protégé would never become a public charge, Han arrived—on July 4, 1955, almost 10 years after he had come aboard the Pandemus.

For Kennedy and his wife, Marie, who were raising three young children on his modest income as a tool-and-die maker, sponsoring Han was an iffy undertaking. "It's not every wife," Kennedy says gratefully, "who lets you bring home a total stranger." But right from the start Han pulled his own weight. Trained as a woodworker in Father Martin's school, he refinished the basement and second floor of Kennedy's house, found work with a neighbor who remodeled houses and then got a job in a cabinetmaker's shop—all within three months of his arrival. A little later he was hired by General Motors to make wooden models of body designs, and so began a steady ascent through the styling division. In 1977 he became chief modeler in GM's Cadillac studio, and in 1986, when he took early retirement, Han was the man in charge of Buick's model-making staff.

But success is not the only theme of Han's American adventure. There is a love story here too, and it began in 1957, when he decided, at the suggestion of his godson in Hong Kong, to look up the young man's aunt, who was visiting Chicago. "I didn't know Chinese people in this country," he says, "and I thought it would be nice to talk to someone." Han flew to Chicago and rang the bell. "I was expecting someone about 50," he says, "but then the door opened, and there stood this beautiful young woman! I fell in love right away."

The lady's name was Mei-Po, and she worked as a companion for a wealthy Englishwoman. For three years, while Mei-Po traveled with her boss, Han courted her by mail. At last Mei-Po said yes, and in December 1960, Han flew to London to marry this young woman he had seen only once. "If her face had changed," he says, "I was going to get right back on the plane. But she was as beautiful as I remembered." Han and Mei-Po now have four grown children: Theresa, 26, Mary, 25, Lisa, 23—all college graduates—and Peter Jr., 20, a University of Michigan sophomore. "My life," Han says, "is full of wonderful stories."

Not the least impressive is the story of the golf course in Romeo, Mich. It was a run-down nine-hole loser when Han bought a piece of the action in 1978. A year later he sold his handsome four-bedroom house, bought out his partner and moved his family into a ramshackle bungalow near the clubhouse. Total investment: $375,000. In 1986 he left his job at GM, and while Mei-Po ran the club's restaurant, Han worked 17 hours a day to renovate the course. The result is an 18-hole layout that last year made a $200,000 profit.

From November through February, Han and Mei-Po relax in their Florida condo and travel abroad. Last year they visited relatives in China and Hong Kong, and next month Han will teach model-building in a car factory near Shanghai. "It's a chance," he says, "to give something back."

So was the Pandemus reunion. After a hearty buffet supper prepared by Mei-Po, Han spoke a few heartfelt words to his friends. "Your sizes and shapes have changed," he said, "but I'm sure your hearts are the same. I asked you here to show off my success and introduce my family—and to tell you that I wouldn't have any of this if it weren't for you."

—Brad Darrach, and Margaret Nelson in Romeo

From Our Partners