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Archive for the ‘China/Burma/India’ Category

When we last discussed the Chindit forces more than a year ago, we came to the conclusion that the perceived successes of Orde Wingate’s brainchild were greater than the actual success.  But we also realized that, in early 1943, any good news for the Allies was pounced on and broadcast to the masses back home.

Prime Minister Churchill was fascinated by Wingate and formed a friendship with the wildly eccentric military man.  When the Quadrant Conference began in August of 1943, Wingate was invited to join Churchill.  Based on his experience with the Chindits, Wingate presented a larger, more ambitious plan to the Allied Supreme Command.  Of course, President Franklin Roosevelt was in attendence, and took a keen interest in the proposals he heard concerning these “unconventional” forces.

He returned home, mulled it over for a bit, and then took action.  In his book The Burma Road, Webster describes it for us.  “…on August 31, 1943, in the United States – and throughout the entire U.S. Army – a call from President Roosevelt himself had gone out.  The request was for 2,830 army officers and troops to volunteer for ‘a dangerous and hazardous mission.'”  The men would need to be physically fit and trained in jungle warfare.

Borrowing heavily from pattern of the Chindits, the unit was officially called the 5307th Composite Unit and code-named “Galahad”.  The men came from jungle training camps.  Some came from the far flung island fights in the South Pacific.  Others came from army jails and psychiatric wards.  They were about as unconventional and could be.

And eventually, they would take the name that made them famous in the jungles of the CBI…the name of their leader, Brigadier General Frank Merrill.  Merrill was no stranger to the jungles of Southeast Asia.  He had been with General Joseph Stilwell as the region was overrun in 1942 as an Army Major.  He had accompanied “Vinegar Joe” on his walk out of Burma, developing a heart malady for his efforts.  And now he had his own version of the Chindits.

Merrill’s Marauders.  Born on this day in history by order of the President of the United States.

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Ok, so yesterday’s lesson involved the steel bridge on the Kwae Yai River in Thailand.  Today, we move 100 yards away…to the wooden bridge.  It was this particular bridge that was the subject of Pierre Boulle’s book and the award-winning movie adaptation.

Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen The Bridge on the River Kwai, so I don’t remember all the details.  But I seem to recall the climatic scene in which a wounded (and maybe dying?) Alec Guiness falls on the detonator that blows the wooden bridge to smithereens.

And this is where my frustration with movies “based on a true story” really comes front and center.  I know I’ve harped on this before.  The actual historical account had nothing to do with dynamite charges.  But had the director stayed true to the facts, I think the movie would have had just as great (and award-winning) an ending.  But such are movies.

With the steel bridge down, the Japanese now focused all their air defenses on protecting the wooden bridge still standing.  Seventh Air Force realized this, so the planners sent out a pre-attack mission of B-24s that would attack the air defenses surrounding the bridge and drop radar-confusing chaff.  Like yesterday, the focus narrows to John Sims and co-pilot Charles Linamen.  While again flying a Liberator, it was different aircraft, so new that it remained free of nose art.  And in this theater, no one wanted to fly a brand-new airplane, because enemy gunners zeroed in on them, thinking they were more advanced and deadly than the known marks.

And they sometimes had glitches.  The plane flown by Sims and Linamen had one glitch, and it showed up at the worst possible time.

Rolling in on the bridge, the first problem was obvious.  The pre-bomb attack planes were nowhere to be seen, and no defense suppression of any kind had been performed.  So Sims and his flight flew into a hailstorm of lead and fire.  Their first pass involved dropping a pair of thousand-pound bombs…but that glitch.  The ejector racks on Sims’ Liberator only allowed a single bomb to be released.

Donovan Webster gives us the play-by-play.  “But what a shot it was.  It was falling beautifully . . . down, down, down becoming smaller and smaller as it plummeted.  Finally, with an in-unison sigh from every crew member who had a vantage, the one-thousand-pound bomb hit the bridge squarely:  precisely at its center and between the two rails.  Seconds later, it exploded, taking out two wooden spans.”

The wooden bridge was down…and soon, so would Sims and Linamen.

They returned to take two more passes and drop their final bombs and, by that time, Japanese gunners had found the range.  The brand-new B-24 was hit by flak and heavily damaged.  But somehow they nursed their stricken bomber back to friendly territory before finally setting down on a sandy beach.  Just the account of the crew’s drama in their dying aircraft would be worth the price of admission to the theater.  The entire crew escaped with an incredible tale to tell.

It’s just a shame that most people know a very different story.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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French author Pierre Boulle’s best-selling book The Bridge on the River Kwai needs precious little introduction to old-time movie viewers.  Yep…I said that right.  I can say that because the movie based on the book was probably more famous than the book itself.  Set in World War II’s Thailand and starring William Holden and Alec Guiness, it’s a story of how these men build, and then destroy, a bridge.  Guiness plays the leader of the prisoners required to build a bridge on the Kwae Yai River so the Japanese can transport supplies.  Holden plays the American prisoner who escapes from the camp and is eventually tasked with returning to destroy the bridge.

But what you might not know is that there were two bridges.  The wood bridge, completed in February of 1943, is one the novel-readers and movie-watchers know.  The steel bridge was built 100 yards away and was finished in the summer of the same year.

And both bridges died on consecutive days in 1945.

While both bridges were valuable targets to the Allies, the steel bridge was the bigger prize, because it allowed for heavier traffic.  And since October of 1944, the Seventh Bomb Group had made it a high priority, mounting strikes against it and damaging it on numerous occasions.  But always the Japanese (with the help of their POW-slave labor) had repaired it.

However, on April 2, 1945, the Allies got it right.  One of the B-24’s sent to bomb the bridge, piloted by John Sims and Charles Linamen, flew through the gauntlet of anti-aircraft fire (the Japanese knew it was a valuable target as well), and placed their bombs perfectly in the middle of the bridge.  Two spans of the bridge became one with the River they were built to traverse.

And normally, the Japanese would have scrambled to get the slave labor to work.  But in April of 1945, in western Thailand, there was no steel available to the flagging war effort to support bridge building and repair.  The (steel) bridge on the River Kwai was down…permanently.

And as for the wooden bridge 100 yards away?…the one that got all the press?  Well, let’s take that one down tomorrow.

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“On January 12, 1945, World War II’s first overland-vehicle convoy from India to China fired up its engines and, with a slow and jerky rumble, began to organize along the road leading northeast out of Ledo, in northeast India.”  So begins the final chapter of Donovan Webster’s The Burma Road.  Led by General Lewis Pick, more than 100 vehicles were beginning the 1,100 mile trip to the supply warehouses in Kunming, China.  From the lowlands of the Irrawaddy to the Tibetan Plateau’s 10,000-foot peaks, this journey was slated to see it all.

It’s the convoy that General Joe Stilwell would probably have loved to lead.  It was he that, way back in 1942, had refused to be airlifted out of Burma as it was being overrun by the Japanese, choosing instead to lead a band of refugees out on foot 140 miles to Imphal.  And it was Stilwell who had brought the fight back to the Japanese in 1943 and 44, enduring the blazing heat, suffocating humidity, relentless rain, disease, and hunger.

However, Stilwell was no longer in Burma.  In fact, he wasn’t even in-theater anymore.  His ongoing battles with Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek had gotten to the point that President Roosevelt had to do something or risk losing his ally in China.  So as a diplomatic move, he recalled Stilwell in October of 1944.

But Vinegar Joe probably chuckled out the trip’s outcome.

A week into it, Pick’s “First Convoy” was forced to halt while the area ahead was cleared of the remnants of the Japanese army.  In the meantime, a much smaller convoy (just a couple of cargo trucks and a tow truck) had used part of the old Marco Polo Trail from Myitkyina and reached Kunming on January 22nd.  Immediately the “yeah, but’s” began in full force.  Lt. Hugh Pock’s little convoy hadn’t actually used the Ledo Road.  It didn’t follow the Burma Road in China.  The convoy, while carrying supplies, had no Lend-Lease provisions.  The arguing went back and forth.  Even with Stilwell gone, the same song and dance continued, just as it had for nearly 4 years.

But Pick’s large convoy eventually did get to move…only to be stopped again for three days for more mop-up work by the guys clearing the way ahead.  And on January 28, 1945, General Lewis Pick arrived at the China-Burma border, finding a red ribbon stretched across it.  With some degree of fanfare, he cut the ribbon.  The Burma Road, which had been declared open just the day before, had now seen its first “official” convoy.

In some sense, it was a sad occasion as well.  The efforts made to open the road to China and to keep her supplied (and thereby in the war against Japan) were largely negated by American successes in the Pacific campaign.  The original plan of attacking Japan through China had already been superceded by the advances made on the far-flung islands well off China’s coasts.  Webster writes that “the Burma Road had become obsolete even as it was being opened.  The war had evolved past an overland supply route from India to China.  Time had simply run out.”

Pick’s convoy continued the last half of its journey to Kunming, arriving there after another week of travel…and too late to make a noticeable difference.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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When last we talked about Eric Sevareid, he had jumped from a C-46 moments before it crashed into the Burmese jungles.  Twenty-two days later, on August 24, 1943, he was reunited with civilization.  And in between, there was quite a story for the young correspondant to tell.

With a plane still burning nearby, Sevareid and his fellow passengers had just gathered their wits when they found themselves in the company of natives.  There was some immediate consternation as several tribes in the area (most notably the Ponyo) were known head-hunters.  But their fears were short-lived…these short, dark-skinned men were Nagas, and they had helped Stilwell’s people in the past.

The Nagas took the men to their village, where they were fed and tended.  That evening, more survivors from the crash were brought into camp (remember, only the flight officer had been killed).  As they tended to their wounds, the drone of another plane overhead was heard.  From it parachuted Lt. Col. Don Flickinger, a surgeon, and two more medics.  The broken bones and other injuries could now be treated with proper care.

For nearly two weeks, the group stayed at the Naga camp, waiting for the rescue party and regularly supplied by air drops.  On the 14th, the rescue party arrived and, after a couple of rest days, they departed the Naga camp on the 18th.

The next six days were not much different that General Joe Stilwell’s evacuation from Burma more than a year before:  Up hills, down hills, torrential rains, incredible heat and humidity, leeches, and ubiquitous mosquitoes.  But with the advantage of continual supply by air, the trip was far more bearable.

Eric Sevareid and the others reached the bungalow of Philip Adams (who was not only the sahib of Mokokchung, but was also the leader of the rescue party) on the 24th, and that evening was spent eating a hot meal, imbibing adult libations, and listening to the incomparable crooning of Frank Sinatra.

Other than being with his wife and two children, life probably couldn’t have gotten much better for Sevareid than it was right then.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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As the early morning darkness gave way to sunrise, Eric Sevareid found himself sitting in the belly of a plane…he was not alone.  The 30-year-old correspondent was one of 20 passengers and crew aboard the new C-46.  Their location?…Chabua, India.  Their destination?…Kunming China.  The date?…August 2, 1943.  Sevareid was smack dab in the middle of the loneliest theater of World War II.

The CBI.

For more than a year, pilots of the Air Transport Command had been flying supply missions from India into China, working to supply Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces (and the U.S. Army Air Force as well) in their campaign against the Japanese.  These daring missions involved flying over the eastern Himilayan mountains, known in local-speak as “The Hump.”

The supplies that landed in China didn’t always end up in the proper hands, and the black-market was burgeoning in and around the drop-off point of Kunming.  Unscrupulous hoarders were earning immense fortunes selling supplies shipped from Indian bases where, as Donovan Webster writes, “troops were living on gruel, Spam, and rice, while those close to Hump deliveries in China grew fat on American-bought pork, beef, and chicken.”

Eric Sevareid himself would write, “When I saw the American establishment at Chabua, where hundreds of Americans and thousands of natives slaved in scorching sun or dismal rain to get supplies into China, I could not help feeling a certain resentment of the Chinese resentment of the inadequacy of these suppplies.  Our men were killing themselves and being killed every day in the effort. … There were at this time absolutely no amenities of life … It was a dread and dismal place. … They were trying to do too much with far too little.  Pilots were overworked, and when they had made the perilous flight to China and back the same day, having fought storm and fog and ice, they simply fell into their cots as they were, unshaved and unwashed, to catch a few hours of unrefreshing sleep before repeating the venture the next day.”

It’s not a pretty picture that Sevareid paints, and I’m sure the feelings he had accompanied him that morning as, with the sunrise, he lifted off with 19 others on one of these “ventures”.  And one hour into the flight, Eric became acutely aware of the dangers of the mission when the guy sitting next to him informed him that one of the engines had gone out.  These new C-46s had engines that were occasionally prone to vapor lock.  Still processing the implications, the dull roar of the plane noise was replaced by a shattering howl and blinding light.

The crew chief had popped the plane’s exit door and was ordering all the luggage and supplies to be pushed out.  Sevareid’s luggage was soon hurtling through Burmese airspace, along with the remaining cargo.  His last words aboard the plane, penned quickly in his notebook, read “Nine fifteen a.m.  Baggage out.  Left engine not working.”

Almost before he could think, he was nearly the plane’s last passenger.  Waiting a moment to clear a mountain (so his chute would have time to open, he prepared himself to jump, only to be thrown from the plane as it lurched to the left.  He gave himself a precious one or two seconds to clear the plane, then pulled the ripcord.  The force of the chute’s deployment ripped Eric back to reality.  He opened his eyes in time to see the oily orange fireball of the C-46 as it disintegrated against the mountainside.

As it turned out, there were numerous injuries among the passengers, but just a single fatality (the flight officer, later found still strapped in his seat).  And apparently the crew had radioed coordinates before the plane went down, because another plane flew over in short order and dropped supplies with a note that a rescue party would be coming.

But for Eric Sevareid, jungle life had been replaced, for the time being, with jungle living.

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Well, that was a 3-day “timeout” from writing that I didn’t intend to have.  There were topics about which I wanted to write, but one little thing after another conspired to keep away from the keyboard.  But as I was riding my bike home from work this afternoon, I saw my first Audi R8.  That event alone is worthy of press.  Bright black with chrome wheels…a sight to behold.  Now unless you own one of these masterpieces, you don’t just see one everyday.  And in a town of 5,000 people, having an R8 drive down the street elicits a response similar to the one I heard on Memorial Day, when our 4-year-old grandson first saw a Kool-Aid Fizzy tablet dropped in water…“Oooo…it’s a miracle!!”

The CBI is, in some sense, the forgotten World War II theater.  “CBI” is an acronym for China-Burma-India and, right away, even students of the war have to think hard to piece together any coherent facts.  I’m no different.  But at its simplest, the CBI is the story of Allied forces, supplied from India, fighting the Japanese in Burma, trying to open supply routes to China.  That’s pretty much it.

And while most of the fighting and dying took place in the awful jungles of Burma, it would stand to reason that the Japanese, at some point, would launch attacks into India to cut off Allied supply lines.  And that’s what they did in March of 1944 with the initiation of Operation U-Go (I think the Japanese military had at least a dozen Operation U-Go’s in the war…it’s like they were building cars or something).

The goal of Operation U-Go was the capture of the border towns of Imphal and Kohima, which would cut off Allied supply lines into Burma.  Begun on March 6th, General Renya Mutaguchi’s five infantry divisions (with some supporting armor) crossed the Indian border with good effect, cutting the road between the two towns and effectively isolating the defenders there.

But the story here was reinforcements, as fresh British and Indian forces were able to be flown in to augment the beleagured forces holding up the Japanese invaders.  For the Japanese, their lines of supply were just as bizarre and complex as the forces on the other side.  However, with the war turning against them elsewhere, it was much more difficult to actually keep their troops supplied.

By June, General Mutaguchi’s men were low on ammunition, starving, and battling disease.  He knew further offensive action was pointless because, frankly, very few men still alive could effectively fight.  And when the Fifth Indian Division reopened the road between Imphal and Kohima, Mutaguchi knew it was over.

In The Burma Road, Donovan Webster writes, “On July 7, in despair for his men and the slaughter that awaited them, Mutaguchi took his leave to a hilltop overlooking Imphal and chanted a Shinto prayer for help.  And, remarkably, the next day, July 8, full five months after Mutaguchi’s diversionary troops on the Arakan Peninsula had fired the initial shots in the ‘March on Delhi’, the Japanese were given orders to begin their withdrawal from India back into Burma.”

The Japanese would leave a trail of guns, broken tanks, artillery, and dead soldiers as the survivors limped away from the fight.  The orders to retreat, received on July 8, 1944 and a rarity for the Japanese, meant that Mutaguchi would leave the battle having suffered more than 55,000 killed and wounded.  What started with such promise was, up to this point, the largest defeat in Japanese history.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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