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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When assessing the success of the Chindits’ missions, The Times of India concluded that Orde Wingate’s 3,000-man force had dealt the Imperial Japanese Army a deadly blow in the Burmese jungles, ripping the aura of Japanese invincibility to shreds while scoring significant triumphs over the invaders.

Propaganda is a wonderful thing.

The truth of the matter is that, while Wingate’s charges were able to disrupt Japanese communications and rail services to some degree, they weren’t nearly as successful as The Times of India made them out to be.  It didn’t take long for the Japanese to figure out that these Long-Range Penetration groups were supplied solely from the air, and once they did, the soldiers searching for supply lines to attack were recalled and the hunt for the groups intensified significantly.

Towards the end of March (a little more than one month into the mission), the Chindits were recalled from Burma but, at this point, several of the groups (there were seven in total) were more than a 1,000 miles deep, and had an arduous journey of extraction ahead.  And the return trip was more dangerous, with the Japanese in hot pursuit from both the front and rear.

One by one, each group crossed the Chindwin River and made their escapes.  The group with Wingate was actually the first to reach safety.  Three days later, Fergusson’s Column Five reached India with the Japanese just six hours behind them.  The last of the Chindit groups (Column One), led by Lieutenant Dominic Neill, didn’t arrive until June 6, 1943.  As they crossed the Chindwin, they were told that Japanese pursuers, which had been dogging them for days, were but thirty minutes behind.  Operation Longcloth had ended.

Of the 3,000 men that began the expedition, fewer than 2,200 returned.  And of those, only 600 were ever fit to serve in the military again.  An estimated 205 Japanese soldiers had been killed.  Neill, reading the newspaper accounts, probably chuckled at the reports as he said, “I killed a lot of lice…not too many Japs.”  Mike Calvert’s Column Three probably saw the most action, and not all that much overall.

But in southeast Asia in 1943, any positive news was pounced on.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster gives a good summation when he writes, “Still, having seeped into Burma, smashed a spoke of Japan’s defensive wheel, and emerged to tell about it, Orde Wingate and his Chindits – no matter what the reality – were heroes worldwide.”  In fact, Prime Minister Churchill was so impressed with the results, fact or fiction, that he seriously considered putting Wingate in charge of all British and Indian troops in India.  The idea was quickly (and probably wisely, given Wingate’s extreme eccentricity) quashed by senior commanders.

But the Chindits had proven that, given good supply logistics and extreme dedication to task, the Long-Range Penetration mission had potential, and Operation Longcloth was a mission that verified that potential.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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As World War II approached its conclusion in the Pacific, one could make the statement that the U.S. Navy dominated the action in the theater.  And that would be true.  One could also make the statement that, in May of 1945, the U.S. Navy was the only one involved in sinking Japanese ships out there.  And that would be slightly less true.

The incomparable Max Hastings has put together sort of a two-part series dealing with the War’s final year.  Armageddon covers the action in Europe (and is a must-read).  In the volume covering the Pacific, entitled Retribution, Hastings writes that “Britain’s Royal Navy was embarrassed by its difficulties in sustaining a small fleet alongside the great American armada off Okinawa.  In the spring of 1945, however, it conducted a series of little actions which helped to revive its battered self-esteem.”  We’ll look at one of those today, as it’s significant for a couple of reasons.

On May 15th, intelligence revealed that the Japanese heavy cruiser Haguro (shown above), escorted by the destroyer Kamikaze, was making a supply and evacuation run to the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean.  The British Navy’s Force 61, consisting of five destroyers, headed off to engage.

If you recall back to when we discussed the Graf Spee, it’s not the number of guns, it’s the size of the guns.  So while the British held a numerical advantage (5 ships to 2), they were overwhelmingly outmatched by the Haguro’s 10 8-inch guns.  Royal Navy Captain Martin Power decided this engagement was best held at night, but make no mistake, with British pride on the line, there would be battle.  Martin’s admiral let that be known in no uncertain terms when he sent the following cable:  “You should sink enemy ships before returning.”

And that’s what they did in the early morning hours of May 16, 1945.  The HMS Venus picked up the Japanese ships on radar at an astounding 68,000 yards, and they rapidly closed in.  In a confused melee of shot and torpedoes, the Haguro and Kamikaze put up a good fight, inflicting significant damage on the destroyer HMS Saumarez.  But the Haguro was punctured by four torpedoes and, shortly after 2:00am, slipped beneath the surface.  The British quickly departed the scene (to be out of range of any possible land-based enemy aircraft before dawn), leaving the Kamikaze to fish sailors from the water.

The significance of this rather minor battle between a handful of ships is two-fold.  First, it was the last ship-to-ship engagement of the World War II.  And second, it was (and still is, as far as I know) the last gun battle between major surface ships ever fought.

Recommended Reading: Retribution

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Good news…a laptop has been ordered to replace the dead one and should be here next week.  I’ve never purchased a “whole” computer from Newegg because I usually just buy all the parts and assemble it myself.  But assembling a laptop?  Due to their fragility, I would have preferred to buy a laptop locally, but Newegg has been such an awesome company for everything else, I figured why not.  And the machine was what us computer nerds refer to as a “smokin’ deal.” Anyways…

When we last left General Stilwell, he was making his way out of Burma with more than 100 others.  Their destination:  Imphal, India.  But with nearly 150 miles of the worst jungle terrain in the world in front of them, and Japanese soldiers behind them, this was about as much a “frying-pan-and-fire” scenario as one could create.  And what’s more, Stilwell’s group was doing it on foot, aided by a few pack mules.

As they hacked their way through vine and branch, unwelcome friends began showing up.  First came the oppressive heat and humidity.  Temperatures and humidity percentages hovered around 100, and the thick canopy of trees blocked nearly all the relief any breezes could have given.  Some of the less experienced cut the sleeves and legs off their clothes for improved ventilation, which provided little relief but offered perfect attachment points for mosquitoes, leeches, and other insects.

Stilwell continued to push.  Of course, the insects brought their friends as well.  Dysentary and malaria started making their presence known, slowing the group and putting lives in danger.  As the 11th of May rolled into the 12th, the rains came.  These first opening salvos of the monsoon season drenched the men and women as they poled bamboo rafts down the Uyu River.  But the skies cleared sufficiently that afternoon for a supply plane to spot them and drop supplies, including desperately needed meat and medicines, particularly quinine (to fight malaria).

On May 14, 1942, the skies opened up again, but in the distance, a group of huts could be seen.  Stilwell had reached the town of Kawlun.  Located on the Burmese-Indian border, it was the first real sign that safety was at hand.  A British district official had been sent to meet them, bringing with him doctors, pigs to slaughter and roast, and food carried on fresh pack mules.

It would be another six-day journey on foot to finally make it to Imphal, but in Kawlun, the danger was behind them.  The exodus from Burma had been completed, but even as Stilwell left, he was already plotting his return.  Though beset with dangers and debilitating illness, not a single person had been lost (as Stilwell had promised).

And among the recovering was Major Frank Merrill.  His exploits in this week-long journey amounted to merely following Joe Stilwell, but he would be back as well, and the “crystal ball” used by Today’s History Lesson sees him in the future.  But while we might view their escape as a success, for Stilwell it was a retreat of defeat.  Victory would only come via a return to drive the Japanese from the jungles.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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“They were a ragged line of 114 tired and hungry people – Americans, British, Indians, and Burmese; civilians and soldiers alike – and they were now on the run from several thousand Japanese troops that were clawing through the jungle after them, only fifteen or twenty miles behind.

The year was 1942.  It was May, always the steamiest month in south Asia’s nation of Burma, where – in the late spring – daily temperatures surpass one hundred degrees and the humidity hovers near 100 percent, day and night.”

Before them stood an army General, all signs of youth washed from his face by nearly 60 years of life experience, though not from his body.  General Joe Stilwell didn’t play nice, he didn’t cater, and he certainly didn’t mince words.  Maybe it was the environment in southeast Asia that did it to the generals.  The extreme conditions of the jungle must have caused military leaders to sharpen their focus to a razor’s edge, such that all lesser issues became little more than a hindrance.  We saw it with Wingate as well.  Out here, it was about survival, and little else mattered.  The scorching heat, the suffocating humidity, the brutally hostile terrain, all combined to form a deadly enemy.

In early 1942, another deadly foe entered the fray.  The Japanese, bent on their conquest of southeast Asia and the Pacific, had entered Burma in mid-January and pushed relentlessly southward.  The following month General Stilwell had arrived…Burma was his first command.  But it was already too late, and Stilwell, a career soldier, knew it.  He watched the disaster unfold in the steamy jungles as the enemy swept through.

The evacuation of officers and staff members began that first week of May, and when the last C-47 departed, Stilwell was not on it.  Refusing to leave any of his men behind, he packed the plane with others, saying he “preferred to walk.” In truth, they possessed a handful of vehicles, but one-by-one, they had given up the ghost.  As they did, Stilwell had each one fully scavenged and then burned.  By the 6th, those were gone.

And as Corregidor and the Philippines were in the midst of surrender, Stilwell sent his final message to headquarters in India, saying he and the rest would be making their way on foot for Imphal, 140 miles away.

The following morning, which on the calendar read May 7, 1942, the group of more than 100 departed.  With the Japanese bearing down, Donovan Webster describes the scene in his book The Burma Road“…Stilwell stood in a jungle clearing and addressed the group.  He advised them that, due to limited supplies of food, a minimum of fourteen miles per day had to be traveled.  He then reminded everyone that only personal discipline would ensure their survival, and – as he had the evening before – offered that anyone believing that he couldn’t follow orders should speak up, so he could be issued a week’s rations to find safety on his own.  No one lifted a hand.  ‘By the time we get out of here,’ Stilwell concluded, ‘many of you will hate my guts.  But I’ll tell you one thing:  You’ll get out.'”

And with that they set off, Stilwell leading them at the army’s prescribed marching pace of 105 steps per minute.  Only time, fortitude, and willpower would determine if they would survive.  Stay tuned

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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The 77th Indian Brigade’s first mission into Burma met with limited success.  In case you don’t recall, this group of fighters, better known as the Chindits, had stepped into Burma to take on the Japanese forces in February of 1943.  Their long-range penetration mission was something of a tactical experiment, and it was organized by the more-than-a-little-eccentric Orde Wingate, a Colonel who quoted extensive passages of the Bible and walked around with an alarm clock strapped to his wrist.

His “missionary” work in Burma, called Operation Longcloth, succeeded in disrupting some of the Japanese communication and rail services, but met with heavy casualties.  Of the 3,000 men than began Longcloth, more than 800 were killed, captured, or died of disease.  And 600 of those that returned were too wounded or sick to remain in active service.

But Wingate, now a Major General, knew how to “accentuate the positive…eliminate the negative”.  Talking up the successes of the mission, he gained the ear of Prime Minister Churchill, and he gained the opportunity to give it another go.  In fact, Wingate’s testimonials at the Quebec Conference inspired U.S. Army leaders, including President Roosevelt, who then started planning similar forces of their own (a subject we’ll tackle at some point in the future).

The second mission, named Operation Thursday and begun in early February of 1944, was much larger (involving a full division still called the Chindits) and had at its command its own mini “air force”, charged with close air support and dropping supplies.  The jungle warfare in 1944 (like 1943) was fraught with peril.  Diseases, hunger, and a more prepared enemy made the going very difficult.  But worse was to come.

On March 24, 1944, General Wingate was returning to Burma from a troop-morale visit in India when the B-25 Mitchell in which he was a passenger crashed into the Indian hills west of Imphal, killing everyone on board.  All that could be identified of Wingate among the charred wreckage was his helmet.  As the heart and soul of the Chindit forces, his loss staggered the men.  His good friend and subordinate Mike Calvert said, “We were numb from the shock.  We could not yet understand or appreciate the consequences.  It was like going smoothly along in an aeroplane when the navigator comes in and says, ‘The pilot has died of heart failure.  There is no copilot and none of us knows what to do.’ “

General Slim bypassed Calvert, who may have been a logical choice to succeed Wingate, because Slim deemed “Mad Mike” nearly as eccentric (and therefore unstable) as the now-dead General.  Instead, he brought in Major General Joe Lentaigne, one of Wingate’s unit commanders, to carry on.  While Letaigne was well-versed in Wingate’s methods, he had often been critical of them, which put him at odds with a good deal of the force.  It may be true that the Chindits didn’t always like Orde Wingate, but they were fiercely loyal to him.

Regardless, it’s safe to say that any man appointed to take over would have stood in General Wingate’s shadow.  His were big shoes to fill.  But the despite the darkness that descended over the Chindit forces on this day, there was still a battle to be fought, and an enemy to be defeated in the Burmese jungles.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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General Orde Wingate was a rather mysterious man.  In his book The Burma Road, Donovan Webster describes him as “brilliant and blazingly eccentric“, simultaneously “the British army’s most respected – and most distrusted – officer“. 

He was a fourth-generation military man and, having been born to devoutly Christian parents, he himself was also deeply religious, having memorized large passages of the Bible’s Old Testament.

His Gideon Force (named after his favorite Bible character) accomplished great things in Ethiopia in 1941 (and we’ll likely visit those exploits in the future), but his lack of communication got him into tremendous difficulty with his commanders, so much so that, despite his victories, he was packed off to Cairo and summarily demoted from the rank of colonel to major.

Depression set in and, combined with malaria, had a devastating effect on Wingate.  On July 4, 1941, Major Wingate unsuccessfully attempted suicide, but for his efforts earned six months of rehab and psychiatric treatments.

Deemed fit to command again, Wingate returned to action…this time to Burma.  He arrived in February of 1942, and it was already too late to salvage what, to this point, was a Japanese rout.  But Wingate foresaw the usefulness of a group of men not unlike the Gideon Force – guerillas going behind enemy lines in deep penetration missions, and so he went to work with the 77th Indian Brigade.

He may have been a Christian, but his training espoused little grace and almost no mercy.  He wanted his men diamond-hard and chiseled on the anvil of toughness.  All training movements were performed on the double.  Men were required to forage for their own meals, which meant dinners of frogs, insects, lizards.  Illness ran rampant through the 3,000 trainees, but Wingate had little sympathy…there were no hospitals or pretty nurses behind enemy lines.

Donovan again records one of Wingate’s tirades.  “Everyone is taught to be doctor-minded.  Although it is all right in normal civilian life, where ample medical facilities are avialable, it will not apply to us in the jungle.  You have to diagnose your own complaints and then cure yourselves…We shall not stop for you, for our very lives may be jeopardized by waiting for stragglers.  If you are sick, you are of no use to us – you are an unwanted liability.  We shall leave you to effect your own salvation.”  Wingate didn’t mince words.

The training was brutal, but rather than cause bad blood and resentment in the men, it galvanized them.  They worked together to help one another eat, stay well, and stay alive.  They developed tactics with both precision and flexibility, to the point that there were very nearly telepathic in their actions.

And Orde Wingate had taken to calling his men “Chindits”, a mis-pronunciation of “Chinthe”, the half-man, half-lion statues that guarded the doors of Burma’s Buddhist temples.

At the end of 1942, Wingate’s men were ready, and then General Archibald Wavell delivered the news that circumstances had forced him to cancel the Chindits expedition into Burma.  Orde Wingate (now a colonel again) came unglued, castigating the General for nearly two hours until, unbelievably, Wavell relented.

And on February 13, 1943, Operation Longcloth got under way as the Chindit forces, broken into seven groups like tynes on a fork, began crossing the border from India into Burma to fight as guerillas behind enemy lines.

The next month or so would determine if Wingate’s Ethiopian success could be duplicated in the dense jungles of southeast Asia.

Recommended Reading: The Burma Road

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The dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki is usually considered the final act of the Second World War.  It was not.  Just hours before Bockscar took to the air with its single-bomb payload, the final offensive action of the war began.

When the war ended in Europe, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin began shuttling troops eastward.  At the Yalta Conference, he had promised an ailing President Roosevelt that Soviet forces would take offensive action in the Pacific no later than three months after hostilities ended in the west.  And in the early morning hours of August 9, 1945 (precisely three months after Germany’s surrender), 1.5 million men, thousands and thousands of planes, tanks, guns, and calvary crossed the border into northern Manchuria.

Max Hastings, in his terrific book Retribution, recounts Russia’s official war history.  It says, “The Soviet Union’s aims…were…the provision of security for its own far eastern borders, which had been subjected to threat again and again by Japan;  the fulfilment of obligation to its allies; …to hasten the end of the Second World War, …and the restoration of the USSR’s historic rights in territory which Japan had earlier seized from Russia.”

But it’s pretty safe to say that Russia’s official history got the priorities exactly backwards.  Stalin’s massive offensive in the east was little more than a land grab…the taking of territory from a country with almost no way to defend itself.  The Japanese saw it differently, with one officer stating bitterly, “It was if they were burglars breaking into an empty house.”

In fact, the United States had rather hoped that they would be able to force a Japanese capitulation before the Soviets entered the war.  But its call for unconditional surrender was repulsed by the Japanese, who were secretly trying to negotiate with the Russians (with whom they still had a non-agression agreement, hoping for a “less-than-unconditional” threshold).  All the while, the Russians dragged out the peace talks, while moving their military pieces into place.

When the first atomic weapon was dropped on Hiroshima, the Russians feared the Japanese would simply surrender, closing their window of opportunity on an easy acquisition in the east.

Fortunately (for the Soviets anyway), the Japanese waffled for two crucial days after Hiroshima, and the final Soviet armies moved into position.  And on the August 8th, the Soviet Union abrogated the non-aggression pact with Japan.  Then next morning, as war was about to end in the Pacific, it was just beginning again along the Russian border.

Recommended Reading: Retribution

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As I’ve mentioned before (and as many of you know), the time from December of 1941 until May of the following year was pretty much Japan’s “time on top”.  They ran wild in southeast Asia.  Thailand was invaded on the 8th (along with Malaya) and quickly fell, formally aligning with the Japanese on December 14, 1941.  Hong Kong fell on Christmas Day, after a week-long siege, and Kuala Lumpur fell on January 11th.

And that doesn’t include their success in the Pacific.  Tarawa and Makin Atolls in the Gilbert Islands (which we discussed in some detail in November) were occupied at this time.  Wake Island was overrun, Guam captured, and Borneo invaded.  The biggest prize, the Philippine Islands, came into Japanese hands as a late Christmas gift, falling on December 26th.

All in all, a bunch of big-time victories for the island country desirous of an empire.

As mid-January rolled in, the Japan’s design on conquest continued largely unabated, with Burma taking on the roll of “next target”.  Thailand’s quick fall in December gave the Japanese freedom of movement through the country, allowing them to assemble on the Thai side of the Kra Isthmus (that long strip of land hangs on the east side of Burma and on Thailand’s western border).

Japan’s goals in Burma were largely focused on capturing Rangoon.  As the country’s most important seaport, it fed supply lines in that ran into China…supply lines that Japan really wanted cut.  In addition, the capture of Burma provided a western buffer that protected their gains in Malaya and Dutch East Indies.

On January 15, 1942, the hammer fell as Japan crossed the border and invaded Burma.  This marked the beginning of a battle that would last for more than three years, really only ending when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan surrendered.

For me, the CBI (China/Burma/India) theater has been largely obscured by both the Pacific War and the War in Europe.  If you like to study WWII, maybe it’s been that way for you as well.  So hopefully, as time goes on, we’ll discuss this relatively unknown conflict, and shed more light on it.

Recommended Reading:  The Burma Road – I’ve just started Webster’s book and I’m already learning stuff, which tells you how little I actually know about the CBI.

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The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor is the watershed event in World War II history for Americans.  And rightfully so, as it brought the United States into the conflict.  But from a Japanese perspective, it was a move largely designed to keep us out of the War and, as such, was merely an operation to protect the real Japanese objectives…bringing the entire Pacific region under the flag of the Rising Sun.

One of those “real” operations was the invasion of Malaya, to which we alluded when discussing the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales in December.  Japanese troops landed at the northeast coast city of Kota Bharu on December 8th (the same time as the Pearl Harbor attacks, but on the other side of the International Date Line) and began working south.  Opposing them were British, Australian, and Indian forces, as well as a regiment of Malayan soldiers.

The Allied defense of Malaya was pretty much doomed from the start.  The British had hoped a strong naval presence at Singapore would act as a deterrent to Japanese aggression, but no significant naval force arrived until late October of 1941 (the Repulse and Prince of Wales), and we know what happened to them.  But more than that, the Allies had no armored answer to the Japanese tanks that landed and moved south, and the Japanese Zero, at this early stage, was vastly better than any plane the Allied air forces flew in the Far East.  And Chennault’s Flying Tigers were tied up in China and Burma.

Moving south and west, the Japanese fanned out and, within a month, had captured the northern half of Malaya.  Allied forces were pushed southward towards, and then through, the western city of Kuala Lumpur.  On January 11, 1942, Japanese forces entered Kuala Lumpur and took it with almost no opposition.  One of Japan’s main objectives, the British-owned city of Singapore, was now just 200 miles away.

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Claire Chennault is certainly not the most recognizable name in the annals of World War II.  And the American Volunteer Group (or AVG) he headed in Burma in 1941 probably doesn’t cause instant recognition, either.   But the photo on the left should give you a pretty good idea of where we’re headed.  Indeed, Chennault’s relative obscurity makes him the perfect subject for Today’s History Lesson.

Born in Louisiana in the 1890’s, he joined the Army and learned to fly during WWI.  Health issues and conflicts with commanding officers caused him to resign in 1937, but he was soon flying again in Southest Asia as an air advisor, training Chinese pilots.

In August of 1941, war was in full swing in Chennault’s backyard.  As Japan ripped through China, Chennault formed the American Volunteer Group.  Because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military, he threw out much of their training.  But because he wasn’t part of the U.S. military (and we still weren’t at war), aircraft acquisition was also a problem.  But a clandestine deal between the Roosevelt government and Chiang Kai-shek provided Chennault with Curtiss P-40 Warhawks, pretty much the best plane in the U.S. inventory at the time.

Thailand fell to the Japanese in early October 1941, and the Burma Road, China’s last main supply route, was now threatened.  Chennault’s group stepped it up.  The AVG knew the Warhawk couldn’t compete with the Mitsubishi Zero in a turning dogfight, so their training emphasized loose formations and slashing attacks that used the Warhawk’s superior speed in a dive and heavy armament to best advantage.

On December 20, 1941, Chennault’s men took to the skies for the first time.  The Japanese bombed Kunming on the 18th, and came back expecting little resistance, so they sent no air cover for their bombers.  The P-40’s, with bright red shark teeth painted on the radiator cowling, proceeded to chop the bomber group to pieces, with only one actually returning to base.  The Chinese rejoiced, and newspaper headlines lauded Chennault’s pilots as “Flying Tigers”.

The name stuck, as did the reputation.  Over the next 6 months, the Flying Tigers would engage Japanese airpower hundreds of times, knocking down 300 of their planes while losing just 32 of their own.  Fewer than 20 Tiger pilots would be lost…half of those in accidents.

In July of 1942, the Flying Tigers would be absorbed into the USAAF, and Chennault was rejoined with his military cohorts, this time as a Colonel.  But in that short half-a-year, the Flying Tigers became synonymous with the P-40 Warhawk and helped create the mystique that surrounded the World War II fighter pilot.

Recommended Reading: Best Little War Stories From World War II

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With the Japanese attacks at Pearl Harbor on the December 7th, World War II ceased being mostly about Europe and Russia and became truly a global conflict, as the vastness of the Pacific Ocean now became a battleground.

As war with Japan approached, the British felt a growing concern for their territories in Southeast Asia.  In late October, the British Navy sent two of their best warships, HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, to Singapore to act as deterrents to Japanese aggression.  The battleship Prince of Wales might be familiar to readers of Today’s History Lesson, as just 7 months ago she was in the Atlantic trading blows with the mighty German battleship Bismarck.  The Repulse was a battlecruiser, a ship with battleship-sized guns and engines, but somewhat less armored as the lighter weight offered greater speed and agility.

All this firepower did little to intimidate the Japanese, who began their attack of the East Indies and Malaya on December 8th (the same day as the Pearl Harbor attacks, just on the other side of the International Date Line).  Admiral Tom Phillips (aboard the Prince of Wales) set out to oppose the landings but, failing to do that, ordered his fleet back to Singapore.  He had left Singapore without air cover, and without a functioning surface radar, but he (along with the British Navy and most non-Japanese navies at that time) felt that aircraft couldn’t mount effective attacks against capital ships.

So when the ships were spotted by a submarine on the morning of December 10, 1941, and subsequently attacked by nearly 100 Japanese aircraft, the British Navy got a rude surprise.  The Prince of Wales was hit by 6 torpedoes, the Repulse at least 4.  Both ships would sink, becoming the first capital ships (not sitting in Pearl Harbor) to be sunk by aircraft.  As hard as this loss was for the British, it paled in comparison to the losses they would suffer at Japanese hands over the next several months.  The Japanese were on a roll and, right now, no one was going to slow them down.

Recommended Reading:  Jane’s Fighting Ships of World War II – No WWII library would be complete without this massive reference.

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Many people believe that Japanese expansion in the Pacific Ocean began with the attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  But in truth, territorial conquests had begun more than a decade earlier in China.  The Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931 and had, over the next 6 years, moved steadily westward into the mainland.  Many historians believe the Sino-Japanese War began in Manchuria, but frankly, the actions were pretty one-sided, so “war” was, in some sense, too strong a word.

By the time 1937 rolled around, the Japanese flag flew over a significant portion of China, including all the areas around (but not including) Beijing.  Which brings us to the Marco Polo Bridge.  Named after the famous explorer and trader who visited China sometime around the year 1300, the Bridge was (and still is) located just south of Beijing in China.  And as one of four chokepoints leading into the city, it was vital to the Chinese, particularly as the Japanese already held the other three as July arrived.

The Japanese were on the west side of the bridge, the Chinese on the east side, near the small village of Wanping Town.  The story goes that a Japanese soldier crossed the bridge and went missing in the town.  On July 7, 1937, the soldier’s superiors demanded that they be allowed to cross the bridge to locate their comrade, and the Chinese refused.  So at midnight, the Japanese rushed the bridge, the Chinese, and Wanping Town…and the battle was on.

Keep in mind that, in 1937, Japanese forces were extremely well-trained and well-equipped with modern weapons, tanks, and an air force.  In fact, part of their training had come in China during the previous six years.  The Chinese, on the other hand, were very poorly prepared to deal with their aggressors.  Fighting with mostly swords and a few guns and mortars (and nothing that could destroy a tank), they stood little chance of victory, save in the weight of sheer numbers.

The Japanese captured the Bridge on July 8th but, with those superior numbers, the Chinese would retake the Bridge next day…temporarily.  And then it was quiet…temporarily.  But the fuse had been lit, and within days the Bridge and Wanping Town would fall to an all-out Japanese assault.  With the final barrier to the city taken, the fall of Beijing could not be far behind.

The incident at the Marco Polo Bridge was the opening shot in another, often-overlooked, theater of World War II.  A theater where millions of soldiers would die, and millions more innocent civilians would be slaughtered.

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