Fireproof Moth is a mystery worthy of fiction. That the memoir is true makes it hard to put down or to forget. When convinced that the secret police were going to arrange an “accident” to kill his friend, the missionary decided he had no choice but to help well known human rights leader Peng Ming-min escape from Taiwan. So successful was the getaway that when President Richard Nixon and Chinese Premier Chou En-lai met in Beijing two years later and wanted to know how Peng got out, neither of their vast intelligence systems could tell them. Even Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, who presided over Taiwan’s Stalinist-style police state, went to his grave without knowing that a group of non-government novices managed to get Peng out undetected.
Milo Thornberry believed God called him to be a missionary to teach history and live the faith he professed. Taiwan wasn’t his choice, but it was where the Methodist Church sent him at the end of 1965. Fireproof Moth: A Missionary in Taiwan’s White Terror is a 65,000-word account of how becoming friends with Peng led to a double life, one in which Milo taught church history at Presbyterian seminaries, and the other in which he and his wife secretly collaborated with Peng and two of his former students in a variety of human rights activities, all of which were illegal and some of which were considered capital crimes under martial law. The constant threat of discovery by Chiang’s secret police gave Milo his own taste of the White Terror. When police showed up at their door on March 3, 1971, Milo and his wife became the first missionaries arrested since the Nationalists took over the island in 1945. Although the Kuomintang leaked a panoply of charges to explain the arrest and deportation, Peng’s escape and the Thornberry’s other activities were not among them. Instead, officials in Taiwan reported them as terrorists. The line in Beijing was that they were CIA agents.
Although Thornberry did not suffer torture and imprisonment like Wei Ting-chao and Hsieh Tsung-min, nor Peng’s twenty-year exile from his homeland, Milo was blacklisted by the U.S. State Department and denied a passport for nineteen years. Not allowed to resume his vocation as a missionary outside the United States, he completed his doctorate at Boston University, trained missionaries, and served as a pastor in Alaska and Oregon. His role in Peng’s escape was not revealed until 2003 when Milo was invited back to the newly democratic Taiwan to be recognized for his human rights activities. Only in 2009 did he and Peng uncover the true reason for Milo’s arrest thirty-eight years earlier. As a personal story, Milo’s conflicts of conscience between ideals of justice, breaking the law, and being a guest in the country were not theoretical questions, but the daily cauldron in which he made his fateful decisions. As a political narrative, the author’s portrayal of life in the White Terror casts an eerie shadow on contemporary relations between the United States, China, and Taiwan.