The Japanese occupied Burma at the beginning of World War II. In 1943, Burma became nominally independent under Japanese control. During the Second World War, Burma was a battleground between the Japanese Army and the Allies. The Burma and Ledo Roads, linking India to China, were built as a vital supply route for Chiang Kai-shek in China. Even though it was built with great ingenuity, determination and courage, they were completed late in the war and in the end served little practical purpose.

In December 1941, after a Japanese assault that lasted only a few hours, the Thais surrendered to the Japanese. During the raid a bomb fell in the main post office but failed to explode. When the Japanese invaded Bangkok they immediately occupied Chinatown (Sampeng) and turned the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce into a command post. The Thais signed a treaty with Japan, allowing the stationing and transit of Japanese troops in exchange for the preservation of Thailand’s sovereignty.

In 1942, the Japanese unexpectedly swept into Burma from Thailand. Some Japanese units entered Burma from the jungles of northwestern Thailand where they had encounters with tigers and elephants. The Japanese won a string of victories against Chinese and British troops and finally captured the key town of Yenangyaunh near the Burmese oil fields, which the British destroyed before withdrawing.

The only seriously resistance against the Japanese in the Indochina campaign was in Burma, where the American Volunteer Group, better known as the Flying Tigers, shot down dozens of Japanese planes. The Tigers flew a hundred P-40 fighter planes that were sent to China after the passage of the Lend Lease Act in April, 1941.

Albert John Harris wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “I fought in Burma and Malaya during WW2 and went there in December 1942. I lost some good friends being in the Infantry but looking back it was a fantastic experience especially in Burma. We actually used elephants there and in the jungle you could be 50 yards from a Japanese and not know they were there. When the Japanese attacked Burma their lines of communication were widely stretched. They had attacked so many countries and areas that they never had enough ships. After what had happened in Malaya and Singapore the Japanese thought they could frighten the British to leave India. By 1943/4 we had 1 million Indian troops (5 to 1 British). [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

Describing the fighting at the height of the British retreats from Burma in April 1942, General Sir William Slim wrote: "More Japanese were coming in from the east and were reported on the river. The situation was grave. At half-past four in the afternoon, Scott reported on radio that his men were exhausted from want of water and continuous marching and fighting. He could hold the night, he thought, but if he waited until morning, his men, still without water, would be so weakened they would have little or no offensive power to renew the attack. He asked for permission to destroy his guns and transport and fight his way out that night."

"I thought for a moment...Then I told Scott he must hang on. I had ordered a Chinese attack with all available tanks and artillery for the next morning. If Burma Division attacked then we ought to break through, and save our precious guns and transport." Later he faced his staff and "putting on what I hoped was a confident cheerful expression, 'It might be worse!'...One of the group, in a sepulchral voice, replied in a single word, 'How?'...I could cheerfully have murdered him." The fighting in Burma during the entire war was costly for both sides. About 180,000 of the 305,000 Japanese Imperial Army soldiers stationed in Burma died.


Burma Road

What is called the Burma Road was actually two roads: 1) the roughly 600-mile-long Burma Road, built in 1937 and 1938 between Lashio, Burma and Kunming, China under Chiang kai-shek to bring supplies through a backdoor of China after the Japanese invaded China; 2) and the roughly 500-mile-long Ledo Road (See Below). The roadS cost 1,133 American lives, roughly a man a mile.[Source: Donovan Webster, National Geographic, November 2003]

The straight line distance from Ledo to Kunming is about 460 miles. The Burma and Ledo Roads, built through some of the world’s most difficult terrain in India, Burma and China, covered more than twice that distance and hooked southward to avoid the Himalayas. The idea was ultimately to use the roads for an invasion of China and from China an invasion of Japan. Churchill called the entire project “an immense, laborious task, unlikely to be finished, until the need for it had passed.” The project was not completed until just six months before the war ended.

The Burma Road was the major overland supply route to China after the Japanese took over much of coastal China in 1937 and 1938 and blockaded its seaports. It was built at a break-neck pace, often by Chinese laborers forced to work for the Nationalists for two years without pay. When it was finished it was little more than a supply track that could only be used by trucks in the dry season.

The Burma Road was built by 160,000 Chinese laborers with virtually no machinery. One worker, who worked on the road between Ruili in Burma and Kunming in China told National Geographic, “It was not easy. I was a boy. In 1937 the engineers came through with stakes, marking where they wanted the roadway. We worked seven days a week, from sunrise to sunset.”

Book: The Burma Road by Donovan Webster (Macmillan, 2004)

Kunming, Lashio, Ledo and Hump Fliers

left Kunming in the Yunnan province of southwest China was the main distribution point for supplies arriving from the Burma and Ledo Roads. It was controlled by the Nationalists forces of Chiang kai-shek even after the Japanese claimed Burma in May 1942. In the early stages of the war entire factories were moved to Kunming to keep them out of the hands of the Japanese.

Lashio in Burma was a critical entrepot for the Allies in Southeast Asia. Food, fuel, medicines, and other supplies reached Lashio by railroad from Rangoon and were then carried by truck to Kunming.

Ledo in India was connected to the port of Calcutta by rail. It was the main source of material to China after Lashio and the Burma Road were captured by the Japanese. Ledo was important to the British mainly as a coal source. In the 1870s, a 2.4 billion metric ton coal supply was discovered here and the railroad was built primarily to bring this coal to Calcutta.

After the Burma Road was cut off military cargo was brought into China by "Hump Fliers" who flew through 15,000-foot-high passes in the Himalayas. Planes flying over the "Hump" arrived in Asia from America via South America and Africa. On their missions they departed from India and flew over the mountains on the China-Burma border to Kunming.

About 1,000 planes went down over China during World War II. A total of 607 of them were hump fliers. Others were Flying Tigers who fought for the Nationalists.

Flying Over the Hump

Describing his flight from Kunming to India, Ronald Schofield wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “I was then 'flown over The Hump' to Dingjan in Assam, India, then to Dum-Dum near Calcutta the following day. 'The Hump' is a region in Western Yunnan consisting of high mountains running in long ranges from north to south. The Salween, Mekong and Yangtze Rivers run parallel to each other in spectacularly deep trenches separated by snow peaks. [Source: BBC’s People’s War website]

There were no seats, no crew, no gunners, and no wireless operator, only a pilot. The loss rate was more than 25 per cent. The pilots were paid in gold American dollars and allowed two hundredweight of 'profitable goods' (ie smuggled contraband) on each trip. But it was better than walking! [Ibid]

My pilot was a Texan who never took the cigar out of his mouth for the whole trip. To avoid being attacked by the Japanese, we had to fly through the gorge of the Kali Gandaki River, which is much deeper and longer than the Grand Canyon, and cuts through the Himalayas. The mountains on each side soar to over 28,000 feet, but the plane couldn't fly this high. [Ibid]

The pilot said in a broad southern American drawl, 'See those mountains over there’ They're thirty thousand feet! Wanna know the ceiling of this kite? Eighteen thousand feet! We're lookin' for a pass that is fifteen thousand feet---sometimes we find it --- sometimes we don't...' I didn't ask what happened if we didn't find it, but you can guess! [Ibid]

Divine Landing After Flying the Hump to Kunming

Recalling an experience in 1945, Jorgen Jorgensen, 1st lieutenant in 33rd squadron 513 group, wrote in The War Experience: “I remember my arrival in Kunming from Calcutta, India, and the Army issue of following: fleece-lined boots, fleece-lined flying overall type leg and body cover, fleece-lined bomber jacket, and the dual gloves to keep my fingers from freezing at the high altitudes I would be flying. The 45 caliber semiautomatic pistol with a 9 bullet magazine was given with the warning: always carry the pistol and holster when flying because if the time comes and you crash or must bail out, your only protection is the 45. Always save the last bullet for yourself. The soldier issuing my gear demonstrated how to do the final act. Stick the muzzle of the gun in your mouth and tilt the barrel up at a 45 degree angle, pull the trigger. You wonder why he said all this. It is because there will be no search party if you go down. There are bands of enemy soldiers that are experts in pain: pulling out all your finger and toe nails; tying your body to the ground over a newly planted crop of bamboo that will grow through your body while you die a horrible death. Another death is by being strapped spread eagle and deprived of water. To die without water will probably drive you out of your mind before the end comes. [Source: The War Experience Memories of World War II]

“I checked all the controls, gauges etc. The engines were running smoothly and the gyro-compass was keeping us at elevation and direction without any manual interference. I went back to day dreaming. My thoughts sent me back home with my wife. We were married a few months before I was sent to China. Our families live on neighboring farms. I did not want to think of things that might happen. I checked with our navigator who said we were on course with a correction for wind direction. Based on our present flying air speed of 180 mph, he said we should reach the Kunming radio signal soon which would get all information as well as our radio compass indicating the direction, in degrees, to the radio field tower. The navigator will give me a five minute warning to expect the radio contact. [Ibid]

“It had been about six hours since we started from the time we began our compass setting for Kunming. I was getting anxious. After about 10 minutes our navigator came forward and said we must be lost because we should have made radio contact 15 minutes ago. All I saw was 3 faces of a pasty gray and not a word was said: we all knew what was ahead. [Ibid]

“The first thing that came to mind was to bail out, but then there would be no hope of survival. I said to to make a best guess what direction that would at least bring us a little closer to the field. I had this overpowering feeling to make a 60 degree turn to the left, and do it immediately. All 6 gas gauges read “E” so I decided to start at the rear tanks. I would then sequence tank selection from rear, center and front tanks. I had to keep the engines running as long as possible. We had to get as close as we could to the field to have at least a chance of being found before entering the fires of hell. [Ibid]

“I reduced the rpm on both engines until we had an air speed of 130 mph, the air speed below which would cause a stall. A stall would send our plane into a nose dive that I could not pull us out of. I then set the left and right engines to the rear gas tanks selection. I started a slow descent to aid in maintaining and gaining air speed. We were in this dense fog and I realized we might run into an unseen mountain, but what choice did I have? [Ibid]

“No radio contact, but we continued. My mind was keeping on the same compass setting. I do not remember the length of time before we made contact. As soon as we made radio contact, our radio operator called the tower. The tower answered by telling us we had been given up for dead, crashed, and gone up in flames. He thought it was a ghost calling in. I was concentrating on the sound of the engines, the first engine, the left one started to cough, ready to quit. I switched to the left center gas tank and the engine started to run smooth again. This game continued where the engines alternately started the cough and I kept switching tanks. The time now came where both engines were on the final front fuel tanks. The left engine coughed and died. Only the right engine was running. [Ibid]

“All of us were straining to see any sign of the field. We were still under the blanket of dense clouds and fog. I could see the rock strewn ground below, the huge rock formations that looked like rock ice cream cones turned upside down. We were below these formations and, flying between them. I maintained my original 60 degree setting. I estimated we started about 1500 feet above ground when I first heard the tower radio. I maintained our gradual descent. [Ibid]

“Soon the final engine died. I had my copilot lower the flaps to full down to help keep us in the air as long as possible. I thought I could see a strip of concrete. It was the beginning of the runway. I saw this concrete and I could not believe my eyes. We had a chance of living if we could at least have the two front wheels reach and contact it, The tail wheel could hit the ground which would just give us enough drag to slow us down. I put all my strength into pulling on the control column to keep the nose up, and not cause a stall. Another miracle was that my flight direction was in line with the center line of the runway. [Ibid]

“I was told it is impossible for a C-46 to glide, that the loss of engines would be an absolute crash. We did glide well enough to have our two wheels reach and make contact with the runway. I managed to keep the plane on the runway until we came to a stop. The runway was alive with fire engines, meat wagons, and tractors coming at us for any aid needed. The tractor hitched the nose of the C-46, and pulled us to the end of the runway, and off the runway. As soon as we were parked, the doors opened. Both the navigator and radio operator departed never to be seen or heard from of again by me. I tried to get out of my parachute and safety harness. I then tried to get up but my legs refused to move. I was lifted out of my seat and taken out of the plane. I do not remember anything until later when I found myself laying on a bunk. [Ibid]

“After getting back to home, I did a simple calculation. Based on a speed of 130 mph at 50 miles, starting at the moment I received the radio signal, I found it was a 23 minutes and 5 seconds to make our landing. I also found that if I had taken any other than a 60 degree left turn and at the very time that I did, I would have missed the runway and crashed. The drop in speed of 130 mph. to an almost sudden stop would probably have caused a leak in some of the 55 gallon drums filled with highly flammable gasoline. And if that didn't do us in, we would have been crushed by the safety harness that kept us in our seats. If I had taken a plus or minus .017 degree deviation from 60 degrees at time that I did, we would have missed the runway by 28.9 miles. If I had not made the 60 degree turn when I did, it would have been impossible to line up with the runway. There is only “one” combination of time and direction from any approach direction that would have allowed us to land safely. I am certain there was DIVINE intervention, we were meant to live. [Ibid]

Flying Chinese Soldiers to Kunming

Jorgen Jorgensen, 1st lieutenant in 33rd squadron 513 group, wrote in The War Experience: Our mission as army pilots was to aid Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Chinese nationalists in the war against the communists under the leadership of Mao Zedong in 1945. My copilot and I met the Chinese raw soldiers at the C-46 cargo plane and we were to fly them to a designated field from Kunming, in southwestern China. We looked at these seemingly half starved peasants with no uniforms, but just a cotton undershirt and pants that looked like cotton underwear. They were all wearing straw conical straw hats and fiber sandals with bare feet. They each had a pair of bullet-loaded belts slung like a cross against their chests. Each had a rifle. There was a leader who understood a little English. [Source: The War Experience Memories of World War II]

After loading the troops, we closed the doors of the plane and put on our parachutes. The parachutes were dual purpose so that in case the main chute failed to open, the second chute should. The main parachute formed our seat and the other chute formed our back cushion. As we flew, it was a clear day and all was well. But soon, we started to smell smoke coming from the back of the plane. My copilot went back to find all the Chinese huddled around a fire. My copilot managed to put out the fire and asked why they had started a fire in the plane. The answer was they were cold and wanted to warm up. We were happy to finally land and deliver these troops. We both were thankful they did not try to shoot us while we were in the air. [Ibid]

Flying Over the Hump Crash

During World War Two, nearly 1,000 Americans and 600 planes were lost over Myanmar due to bad weather and Japanese guns while flying from India to China. About 730 Americans remain unaccounted for, according to the U.S. Defense Department. Many planes doing the Over the Hump run crashed in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, a remote region of dense jungles, high mountains, poor roads and an ongoing insurgency.

Military historian Frank McLynn wrote in his 2010 book, "The Burma Campaign": "Take off was often in heavy weather with no radar, no traffic control and inadequate radios. After fighting through zero visibility, the pilots would often get above the cloud canopy into clear air to find a plane flying straight at them; mid-air collisions were frequent." Pilots spoke of being "tossed about like an egg in a tin" by roiling clouds and savage crosswinds that could tear an airplane apart. In 1943 alone, nearly 400 airmen went down, with only 125 of them rescued.

Denis D. Gray of wrote: “Forced to skim the ground under a 100-foot (30-meter) cloud ceiling, fighting rain and wretched visibility, the C-47 Skytrain probably proved an easy target for Japanese gunners. Packed with ammunition, the aircraft exploded, plunging into a jungle that swallowed it up for 57 years.” One of those on board was Clarence Frantz. “Clarence had volunteered in 1941, serving in the U.S. Cavalry until it was disbanded. He was then sent to fly as a radio operator on resupply missions along a 600-mile (965-kilometer) route between northeastern India and China, dubbed the "Skyway to Hell" and the "Aluminum Trail" for the number of planes that didn't make it. [Source: Denis D. Gray, AP, March 14, 2012 **]

“Clarence's plane, according to accounts pieced together from the MIA search and other sources, took off from India, made it over a Himalayan range known as "The Hump" but probably veered off course as it prepared to drop desperately needed food and mortar shells for embattled U.S. troops at Mytikyina in northern Burma. Japanese ground fire appears to have brought down the aircraft some 60 miles (96 kilometers) northwest of Laiza. Searchers, delayed by poor weather for 2 1/2 days, scoured the area for 66 hours but found no trace of the two-engine plane. **

“The JPAC [Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command] team discovered a number of airplane parts along with six teeth and bone fragments. Two of the crewmen were identified through DNA testing, and the others were confirmed dead from other evidence. All seven were buried with full honors in 2010. Robert Frantz, the only one of six brothers and sisters still living, received an identification bracelet that was found at the crash site; their mother had given it to Clarence. Before his death at age 24, he had mailed an engagement ring to his high school sweetheart. "But he never got home to get married," Robert said. **

Ledo Road

right The Ledo Road was built between 1942 and 1945 between Ledo in India and the Burma Road. U.S. Gen. Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, the abrasive commander of Allied troops in the region, insisted the project would work.. Gen. Lewis Pick was the chief engineer of the Ledo Road. Known to some as “Pick’s Pike,” he told his engineers in 1943: “The road is going to be built---mud, rain, and malaria be damned!” It is sometimes called the Stilwell Road.[Source: Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2008]

The U.S. spent almost $149 million to build the Ledo Road at the request of Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek. It took a little over two years to build. It was roughly 500 miles long and opened up a new supply route, as well as an oil pipeline, from India to China. Military strategist felt the road was necessary to supply China in the war. More than 28,000 Americans and 35,000 Asian workers participated in the project. Not long after the thankless job was done, two atomic blasts finished the war with Japan, and a hard-won passage that soldiers called "the Big Snake" was abandoned to the rain forest.

Construction of the Ledo Road began in 1942. The first true bridge was built over the Khtang Nall in northeastern India In October 1943, American-trained Chinese divisions entered Burma from Assam, India and drove down the Japanese road from the Hukawag Valley in northern Burma. In February 1945, Gen. Pick led a convoy into Kunming.

In 15 months construction battalions moved 13.5 million cubic yards of earth to cut the roadbed. the New York Times correspondent Tillman Durbin said there was enough dirt to build a 10-foot-high, three-foot-think wall between New York City and San Francisco.

Building the Ledo and Burma Roads

Willaim Stronks wrote in a letter to National Geographic : “I was an officer in the 1340th Engineering Battalion. With very limited equipment we built every pile-driven bridge from Ledo to Myitkyina. Chinese troops were brought in to cut down trees and hand-hew them into 12-inch-by-12-icnh timbers. We used elephants brought in from India to drag the timbers to the bridge site, using a portable generator, we worked day and might. We lived like gypsies and moved our camps from bridge to bridge—often before any bridge was available.”

An engineer and shovel operator who worked the project told National Geographic, “It was crazy, and it was miserable. Every day was the same. Up at dawn, sweat and work until dark. It was so hot sometimes, where we’d lay concrete, it would be dry in an hour. We’d cut a stretch of road over some jungle mountain, and the monsoon would wash it out. But we kept going. We had no choice.”

Obstacles included landslides, man-eating tigers, swarms of bugs, leeches and mosquitoes, vertical jungles and 150 inches (380 centimeters) of rain in the three month rainy season. Crews worked at night under light provided by diesel fuel burning in sawed off oil barrels. The Ledo Road was nicknamed the “man a mile road” for the frequency in which workers died. Hundreds were killed by disease, accidents and Japanese attacks, mainly from snipers and mortars. More were killed from disease and starvation than from fighting.

Stillwell and Merill's Raiders

Generals Stillwell and Merrill
Stillwell commanded the Allied forces in the China-Burma-India theater and was the first foreign commander to lead regular Chinese troops in combat. His mission was to keep China fighting, drive the Japanese out of Burma and reopen the Burma Road. The Ledo and Burma Roads were sometimes collectively called the Stillwell Road in his honor.

Stillwell was a controversial figure. He described himself as impatient and vulgar. In his diaries he referred to the Japanese as "bow-legged cockroaches," Chiang kai-shek as "ignorant" and "grasping," British supreme allied commander Lord Lois Mountbatten as a "glamour boy," and Roosevelt as a "rank amateur in all military matters" prone to "whims, fancy and sudden childish notions." One of the few people he admired was Mao Zedong

Stillwell had been the unofficial commander of several Chinese divisions that, with British help, defended Burma against Japanese attack. Stillwell, was driven out of Burma in 1943 in a legendary march from Myitkyina after the completion of the Ledo Road to the pipelines from India. But returned two years later to help drive the Japanese out of Burma.

Another important American fighter in the China-Burma theater was Frank Merrill. He headed an American commando unit, known as Merrill's marauders, that landed in China on parachutes and gliders and helped reinforce the Nationalist forces.

Black American Soldiers Build the Stilwell Road

Most of the men ordered to make the Stilwell Road were African American soldiers sorted into Army units by the color of their skin. The Los Angeles Times reported: “As World War II raged, they labored day and night in the jungles of Burma, sometimes halfway up 10,000-foot mountains, drenched by 140 inches of rain in the five-month monsoon season. They spanned raging rivers and pushed through swamps thick with bloodsucking leeches and swarms of biting mites and mosquitoes that spread typhus and malaria. Some died from disease or fell to their deaths when construction equipment slid along soupy mud tracks and dropped off cliffs. Others drowned, or were killed pulling double duty in combat against the Japanese. [Source: Los Angeles Times, December 30, 2008]

Evelio Grillo was one of the African-American that helped build the Stilwell Road. He told the Los Angeles Times he had to suffer the indignities of racial segregation on the 58-day passage to India aboard the Santa Clara, where the only comforts were reserved for the white officers. Grillo remembers most of them as vulgar racists, and wrote in his memoir, "Black Cuban, Black American," that the road builders assumed that the white men giving them orders in Southern drawls had been selected because they were "deemed to know how to handle black men."

The black GIs had to bunk in the ship's windowless, foul-smelling hold, stewing in the "stench cooked up by the sweat, the farts and the vomit of 200 men," he recalled in the memoir. "White troops had fresh water for showering," Grillo continued. "Black troops had to shower with sea water. White troops had the ample stern of the ship to lounge during the day. Black troops were consigned to the narrow bow, so loaded with gear that it was difficult to find comfortable resting places."

Things only went downhill in the jungle. In a letter home, handwritten on Red Cross stationery and dated June 7, 1943, Grillo was looking forward to taking leave in a big city where he could sit on a toilet again. "We'll just have to make the best of whatever comes until such time as this nightmare shall spend itself," he wrote, "and a box of candy or a bunch of flowers shall again be thought of as some of man's most effective and most important 'weapons.' " Grillo fought off malaria 14 times during the war.

The men who built the road weren't honored for their feat until 2004, when the Defense Department marked African American History Month at Florida A&M University. By then, most of the veterans were long dead. The Pentagon could locate only 12 to invite to the ceremony in Tallahassee, and only six were well enough to travel, the American Forces Press Service reported at the time. When Grillo was asked: “Do you think Winston Churchill was right when he said it was a waste of lives building the road?" Grillo closed his eyes and nodded.

Serving in Burma

Albert John Harris wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: “When we flew into Burma I was 21 and our Officer was younger than me, he was just out of Sandhurst. He was what we called a VC man, we wondered where he got his information on Japanese fighter planes! We were flying into Burma in a Dakota with 29 fully equipped soldiers and behind me there were 4 parachutes. We flew at 8000 feet over thick jungle during the monsoon season. The officer told me to put the Bren gun (there were no doors on the plane) towards the open door and lay on the corrugated floor with the muzzle pointing outwards. When I asked the officer what would stop me sliding out---he said 2 other men would hold my ankles! All 3 of us would have gone out the plane if we had done this. The plane was yawing and pitching. I asked the Officer if he had told the pilot because all I would have shot was the tail of the plane. That was my introduction into North Burma. We all felt that life in the war was very cheap. [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

We were under the command of the Americans General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and our job was to take over from Merills Ms.. who had captured Mychyna Airfield and reopen the Ledo Road. Originally the Burma Road went up through into Mandalay and supplied China with arms. By occupying Burma they shut the road so the road was reopened further north by the allies. It was a fantastic feat of engineering. We were in Burma for 18 months and all supplies were dropped by parachute the whole time from Dakota planes. The American Dakota planes could accommodate 29 fully armed soldiers, fly on one engine, not fast but reliable. From 1936 for the next 20 years ½ million of these aircraft were built. They were made under licence in Japan. The Japanese called them Topsys. They are still flying somewhere. Fighting in the jungle, there were no front lines, they could get round you and we could get round them. We formed perimeters and waited for their attack. Fighting was mostly at night. The Japanese were masters of camouflage---you could almost walk on them before you realised they were there. It meant that we had to stay in our positions for long periods and could not fire mortars or use the guns.

Our first experience was in the Arakan in 1944. Whatever they did we were never surprised. There was a hill called 551 like a block pyramid---you could not get up to the top except on your hands and knees as it was sheer. They picked this place because it covered a tunnel going through the road to Buithidang and by holding this hill 551, they controlled the road. They could not reinforce it because we were surrounding it . No one really knew how many Japanese were up on top of hill 551. We were there with the largest field gun in Burma, 7.2 inches and the shells weighed 94 lbs. It was like a turkey shoot, the air was so clear you could see 4 ½ miles as the crow flies without your field glasses and they were firing these field guns every day from 9am till 4pm. Our planes (RAF Vengeance Dive Bombers) fired bombs too, 2 x 500 lb bombs strapped to each wing. Eventually the hill was reduced in size by 6 ft! We could not believe that the Japanese were still at the top of hill 551 and it took 2 attempts to capture it. These Japanese troops were crack troops who had captured Singapore---their best troops called the Imperial Guard. In one night 5000 Japanese marched from Buithidang. In 12 hours they marched 30 miles (or more really considering the terrain). All they had was what they carried on their backs and their mules. Their idea was to capture these big guns and go on to India . We were the second lot of troops to relieve battle of the Admin Box---they weren’t. They died of starvation, the Admin troops held their ground. They were supplied by air for 3 weeks. The wounded in the field hospital were bayoneted . In the end no one surrendered to the Japanese. Bodies were left in jungle where they fell. For the Admin Troops of the 7th Indian Division the Battle of the Admin Box in the Arakan Yomas must have been a nightmare. I never saw one Japanese plane, we had air superiority. Japanese supplied by Burmese---plenty of rice around. [Ibid]

“Although I came from London it was amazing how quickly we adapted to the noises, heat, monkeys of the jungle. A panther used to come to our camp every night because we had taken his water hole! He didn’t attack us---there was no chance against a Bren gun! We had boa constrictors, tigers. We were 7000 feet up and had the monsoons---when they started they came across the Bay of Bengal, the cloud was almost at sea level. I reckon we had 200 inches of rain in 2 or 3 months. You could be on dry land and the following morning be in 2 feet of water. It affected the equipment---you filled up your mess tin with food and walked back to your bivvy and the food was swimming in water. Luckily the rain was warm! Temperatures were100 degrees F. We were ready to take Malaya in 1945 (Operation Zipper scheduled for 9 September 1945) when the 2 atom bombs were dropped on Japan. This saved hundreds of thousands of lives because 10,000 Chinese communists in Malaya 1948 held up the British for 2 years. There were 100,000 allied troops and if fighting the Japanese had continued many lives would have been lost. [Ibid]

Long Trek from Burma to China

Describing what he did after he got stranded in Burma after the Japanese captured Mandalay, Ronald Schofield wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: In 1942 I found myself in Burma, in the Shan States. I was 22 years old and had been in the army for a few years already, but it was still a long way from Batley in West Yorkshire where I had been brought up![Source: BBC’s People’s War website]

“I was stuck in the middle of nowhere and had to find somewhere to go before the Japanese came. There were no proper roads. Even now the area is very desolate. A small group of men and I decided that the only way out was to walk out. We had to cross the foothills of the Himalayas, which rise to over 8,000ft. There were many rivers, which ran in steep gorges and were difficult to cross. To cross we had to climb down 2,000ft through very thick jungle. The wide, fast-flowing river at the bottom was made up of 'ice melt' water from the mountains, so it was very cold. Once we had crossed the river, we then had to climb all the way back up to 8,000ft. [Ibid]

“The jungle was so thick that we couldn't walk in a straight line. We often walked five or six miles to climb back up to the top of the gorge, which may only have been three quarters of a mile as the crow flies. On the map it looks as though I walked about 400 miles, but in reality, because of the number of rivers to cross and the difficult terrain, it was much further. When we got to the top of each gorge, we would look back and could see the other side. We had probably only travelled half a mile and it had taken several days. [Ibid]

“ I had a map made of silk, so that it could be stuffed into a pocket. However, only parts of this region were mapped. Most of the map was just white! I still have this map on my wall today. Even a current map of the area describes the roads as very primitive and there are still large areas of the map that are shown as 'Relief Data Incomplete'. The villages were very small and we didn't dare stay in them for health reasons. We always camped a mile or two away, and usually upstream. The villages were always by a mountain stream and the people who lived there drew their water from upstream and used the lower stream as a sewer. [Ibid]

“Our route: On 28 April 1942 we left Kentung in the Shan States in an old lorry, heading north west. Day 4 - Mongnoi, Wa State. On foot with ponies. Day 11 - Crossed Nam Loi River. Originally heading for Lashio but we changed plans here and decided to head for China. Day 12 -Tolou, Wa State. Day 22 - Crossed Nam Lan River. Now in China. Day 27 - Ta Ya Koi, Yunnan Province, three miles from Mekong River. We were warned not to go to crossing point at Sau Mao as it was held by Chinese army deserters and bandits. Camped up river. Day 28 - Crossed Mekong River. The Mekong River is approximately 2,800 miles long. It runs in steep gorges for most of the upper course. Where I crossed the river the gorge was an incredible 8,000 feet deep. [Ibid]

“Day 29 - Crossed Taku River. Camped here. Day 41 - Hsia Pa. Crossed Black River. Day 42 - Tung Kuan. A broad cultivated valley. Day 48 - Yuan Chiang Chou. A walled city approximately 1,600 feet above sea level. Camped here preparing to cross the Red River. The delta of the Red River is in Vietnam. Day 51 - Crossed Red River. Day 56- Hsin-Haing Chou. Also called Ishi or Yu-Hsi. Start of motor road to Kunming. We did the last 80 miles in a battered old lorry! What luxury! [Ibid]

“I got to Kun Ming after 62 days of walking. I am quite a tall man and when I got there I was very, very thin and weighed less than eight stone. We had to eat our ponies on the way to stay alive. In Kun Ming I stayed with the American Volunteer Group (AVG), who were American civilians flying fighter planes and transport planes for China. [Ibid]

Fighting in Burma

20080218-USA-C-Burma-2 jap tropps nat arc.jpg
Japanese soldiers fighting
Both in the The Allies supplied the Nationalists forces of Chiang kai-shek in Kunming using the Burma Road. In the spring of 1942 the Japanese captured Lashio, during their conquest of Burma, and cut off the Burma Road and severed the Allies overland supply line to China. The worker quoted above said, “The Japanese came up the road from Burma. They asked: “Are you a farmer, a laborer, or a rifleman?” If you said you were a rifleman, as three in my village did, the Japanese shot you.”

During the Burma campaign the Japanese often attacked in the middle of the afternoon because they knew that is when the British took their tea time breaks. The Allies parachuted pigs from planes to fed starving populations. Among the colorful characters who took part in the effort was British Gen. Orde Wingate., the head of the legendary Chindit guerillas. He was given his job after a failed suicide attempt and often conducting meetings in the nude while he scrubbed himself with a brush.

The Japanese suffered in Burma. When food supplies ran short, men subsisted on rats, frogs and boiled grass. In some cases they used gasoline to clean their wounds and keep maggots from eating their flesh. By one estimate more 180,000 Japanese soldiers were killed or died of illness in Burma.

Kachin guerillas that fought for the Allies cut of the ears of the Japanese, which left them terrified that they could not ascend to heaven because their bodies were not intact. For their part the Japanese killed their wounded so they could not be captured and killed Allied soldiers instead of taking them prisoner so they wouldn’t be slowed down.

Describing his experience in Burma in World War II one former Japanese soldier told the Washington Post, "So many friends of mine were killed...I hated war. I didn't like fighting I could not tell the general, but I could tell my friend. He died in Mandalay. He died from cholera and lack of food. He was 27. I will go to Mandalay and pray for him." Another Japanese soldier recalled how when the frogs suddenly stopped croaking it meant that British warplanes would soon pass overhead and drop their payloads.

Ronald Needham wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: "We were in the wilds when we were surrounded. I was going for a shave. There was a hill about 500 to 600 yards away where some men were digging in. I was told they were from the Ox and Bucks (Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire) Regiment. I waved to them and walked on as they waved back. I was part-way through my shave when all hell broke loose. There were bullets everywhere. It was the Japanese on the hill! [Source: BBC’s People’s War]

“I was a Bren gunner and ran back to my post at the edge of some trees. I remember there being a Mahratta unit with us. The attack went on for two hours - bullets all over the place. While we were firing a bloke came crawling through the undergrowth on his stomach. "Just you three?" he asked. We said, "Yes," and he replied, "Right. Breakfast's up!" So we crawled through the wood to a hedge and then ran through an open space to some bushes about 20 yards away. Then we ran to the side of a hill another 20 feet or so away. Round the corner they were cooking breakfast. I remember how strange it seemed to be in the middle of a battle and be called to breakfast. At least we could eat in peace! [Ibid]

“On another occasion I was blown up. I can't remember a thing. I woke up days later being asked for my name by a chap. I was told a shell had landed close by. I wasn't wounded. It just shook my brains apart. I was sent home soon after that." [Ibid]

Allies Retake Burma

right Stillwell’s troops invaded Burma from India in October 1943. Around the same time a force of British Chindits known as Wingate's Raiders advanced from the south. The fighting turned in the Allies favor after these veteran jungle fighters defeated the Japanese 15th Army at the battles at Kohima and Imphal

Stillwell’s forces engaged 3,500 Japanese soldiers defending Myitkyina, a strategic port on the Irrawaddy River. The Battle of Myitkyina was fierce. It lasted for ten weeks from May to August in 1944. Some of the fighting was done by Chinese troops under U.S. command. Before the siege was over and the Allies claimed the Myitkyina on August 3, 1944, a total of 790 Japanese were killed and 1,180 were wounded. The Allies suffered 1,244 dead with and 4,139 wounded.

In September 1944, more than 9,000 Chinese and 2,000 Japanese were killed at a battle in Tengchong, China. Here above the raging Salween River, Chinese tried to reach the top of an imposing, 26-mile-long ridgeline on Songshan (Pine Mountain) after a month-long battle that left 1,300 Chinese and 7,675 Japanese dead. Many died in hand-to-hand combat. Sixty-two pairs of Chinese and Japanese soldiers were found dead in each other’s grasp.

As part of Operation Dracula, British soldiers led by Gen. William Mith moved southward and captured Mandalay and Rangoon. Forces under Britain’s General William Slim recaptured Rangoon after a six month campaign.

The Burma Road opened completely between India and China in January 1945, allowing supplies to more easily be brought into China. On May 8, 1945 Supreme Allied Commander Lord Louis Mountbatten declared the Burma campaign a success even though sporadic fighting continued for several weeks. The victory signaled the collapse of the Japanese effort in Southeast Asia.

Searching for U.S. World War II MIA in Myanmar

The remains of 730 Americans still missing from World War II have yet to be found in Myanmar. Denis D. Gray of wrote: “Most of the MIAs were airmen flying some of the war's most dangerous missions as they hauled supplies to beleaguered Allied forces over snowy Himalayan ranges and boundless jungles. Most of the crash sites are known to be in the country's northern Kachin state, a remote region of dense jungles, high mountains, poor roads and an ongoing insurgency. The Kachin ethnic minority have been fighting for autonomy from the central government for decades. [Source: Denis D. Gray, AP, March 14, 2012 **]

“Continued conflict would certainly place many areas off-limits to US search parties, although the rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) is decidedly pro-American. Kachin and American soldiers forged close bonds fighting the Japanese and the bush-wise guerrillas rescued many downed airmen. KIO spokesman La Nan, interviewed at the rebel headquarters here, said the Kachin were ready to help once a peace agreement is reached. “When the country is at peace, we hope that we and a new [American] generation of their descendants will be able to identify their human remains,” he said.

Tasks of the Hawaii-based JPAC include the search for 1,680 missing servicemen from the Vietnam War and 74,180 still unaccounted for from World War II. In Burma, many sites would require landing zones for helicopters—scarce in the country—to be cut out of triple canopy jungle. As many as 30 sites already investigated or excavated in 2003 and 2004, when the US was forced to pull out, would probably be revisited. Some remains from those searches have yet to be identified. “Just the sheer numbers of missing make it very important. There's a lot of work left to be done there, a huge potential. We are in a waiting mode but incredibly excited,” JPAC’s Marc Geller told AP.

Hunt for WWII Spitfires in Burma

In January 2013, a team of British aviation enthusiasts arrived in Myanmar to search for cases of British Spitfire planes said have been buried in Burma at the end of World War II. The team was led by farmer and former businessman David Cundall, who said the planes were buried in wooden crates about nine meters under the ground.

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Cundall “led a 21-member team digging and surveying for several weeks in 2013 near Yangon's international airport in Mingaladon, convinced that dozens of the planes were buried unassembled in wooden crates at the end of the war in 1945. He maintains that more than 100 Spitfires — famously used against Nazi bombers during the 1940 Battle of Britain — sit some 25 to 40 feet underground, their fuselages wrapped in brown grease paper, their joints covered in tar to protect against water damage. He says he knows their rough location based on survey data, aerial photography, ground-penetrating radar and the recollections of military veterans. But extensive searching has turned up nothing. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, February 22, 2013]

AFP reported: “Rumours that dozens of the iconic single-seat aircraft were buried in 1945 by Britain, the former colonial power in Burma, had excited military history enthusiasts, but surveys at Yangon airport in the Mingaladon district have failed to bear fruit. The project backer, Belarus online game company Wargaming, said the team "now believes, based on clear documentary evidence, as well as the evidence from the fieldwork, that no Spitfires were delivered in crates and buried at RAF Mingaladon during 1945 and 1946". Lead archaeologist Andy Brockman said the investigation into the stories of buried Spitfires was undertaken in the spirit of US television forensic police series "CSI" (Crime Scene Investigation). "We followed the clues in the documents, period maps, pictures and air photographs; we talked to surviving witnesses, and visited the 'crime scene' in order to turn our study in the archives into facts on the ground," he said. "As a result we believe that the legend of the buried Spitfires of Burma is just that: a captivating legend about a beautiful and iconic aircraft." [Source: AFP, February 16, 2013 ^]

“In a statement released late Friday, Wargaming said the search for Spitfires in Myanmar was rooted in persistent rumours that began among servicemen in "the bars and canteens of South East Asia" as early as 1946. It added that no surviving witnesses had actually seen planes being buried and that its research in British archives had failed to produce any evidence of the arrival of the aircraft in Burma in the latter months of the war. The sponsor of a British-led team hunting for dozens of rare World War II Spitfires said to have been buried in Burma has abandoned the search, saying stories of the stashed planes are merely "legend". ^

Japanese and the Anti-British Movement During World War II

The outbreak of World War II fueled an anti-British insurgency movement in Burma. Burmese and ethnic group leaders—including Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Gen. Aung San—initially joined hands with the Japanese Imperial Army. Gen. Aung San, future Burma leader Gen. Ne Win and other activists were called the Thirty Comrades and received military from the Japanese Imperial Army. They became leaders in the Burma Independence Army (BIA), which was formed in Thailand. The Thirty Comrades were known to the military leaders of the independence movements as the “Thakins.”

Some Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort. Other Burmese, such as the Thakin movement, opposed Burma's participation in the war under any circumstances. Ba Maw served as the first prime minister of Burma. but he was forced out by U Saw in 1939 who served as prime minister from 1940 to 1942.

The British did not take kindly to the efforts to extort concessions from them. They issued an arrest warrant for Aung San, who escaped to China. The Japanese offered him support and he briefly returned to Burma to enlist the aid of twenty-nine young men who went to Japan with him to receive military training as the so-called "Thirty Comrades." The Japanese quickly declared Burma independent when they occupied Bangkok in December 1941. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Aung Sang, the BIA and the Japanese in World War II

Evan Osnos wrote in The New Yorker : In 1942, when Japan invaded, the Burmese, including the fiercely singleminded young revolutionary Aung San, Suu Kyi’s father, joined in the fight against the Allies. Three years later, Aung San turned his troops against the Japanese and helped liberate the country alongside the British, signing an agreement to guarantee Burma’s independence within a year. The achievement made him a secular saint—the lone Burmese leader who had gained the trust of a range of ethnic groups. His face appeared on the currency, but he never lived to see it.”

Aung San co-founded the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) with other Thakins in August 1939. Marxist literature as well as tracts from the Sinn Féin movement in Ireland had been widely circulated and read among political activists. Aung San also co-founded the People's Revolutionary Party (PRP), renamed the Socialist Party after the World War II. He was also instrumental in founding the Bama htwet yat gaing (Freedom Bloc) by forging an alliance of the Dobama, ABSU, politically active monks and Ba Maw's Sinyètha (Poor Man's) Party. After the Dobama organization called for a national uprising, an arrest warrant was issued for many of the organization's leaders including Aung San, who escaped to China. Aung San's intention was to make contact with the Chinese Communists but he was detected by the Japanese authorities who offered him support by forming a secret intelligence unit called the Minami Kikan headed by Colonel Suzuki with the objective of closing the Burma Road and supporting a national uprising. Aung San briefly returned to Burma to enlist twenty-nine young men who went to Japan with him in order to receive military training on Hainan Island, China, and they came to be known as the "Thirty Comrades". [Source: Wikipedia +]

When the Japanese occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung San announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942. The BIA formed a provisional government in some areas of the country in the spring of 1942, but there were differences within the Japanese leadership over the future of Burma. While Colonel Suzuki encouraged the Thirty Comrades to form a provisional government, the Japanese Military leadership had never formally accepted such a plan. Eventually the Japanese Army turned to Ba Maw to form a government. +

During the war in 1942, the BIA had grown in an uncontrolled manner, and in many districts officials and even criminals appointed themselves to the BIA. It was reorganised as the Burma Defence Army (BDA) under the Japanese but still headed by Aung San. While the BIA had been an irregular force, the BDA was recruited by selection and trained as a conventional army by Japanese instructors. Ba Maw was afterwards declared head of state, and his cabinet included both Aung San as War Minister and the Communist leader Thakin Than Tun as Minister of Land and Agriculture as well as the Socialist leaders Thakins Nu and Mya. When the Japanese declared Burma, in theory, independent in 1943, the Burma Defence Army (BDA) was renamed the Burma National Army (BNA). +

Burmese and Aung San Turn Against the Japanese in World War II

The reluctance of the Japanese to hand over more power to the Burmese helped spark an anti-Japan movement. Not long after the Japanese took control of Burma it became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was deceived. In disregard to BIA’s plans, the Japanese captured Rangoon. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state on 1 August 1943, but this was just another facade. [Source: Wikipedia +]

Disillusioned, Aung San began negotiations with Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe, and Socialist leaders Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein which led to the formation of the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) in August 1944 at a secret meeting of the CPB,the PRP and the BNA in Pegu. The AFO was later renamed the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League(AFPFL). Thakin Than Tun and Soe, while in Insein prison in July 1941, had co-authored the Insein Manifesto which, against the prevailing opinion in the Dobama movement, identified world fascism as the main enemy in the coming war and called for temporary cooperation with the British in a broad allied coalition which should include the Soviet Union. Soe had already gone underground to organise resistance against the Japanese occupation, and Than Tun was able to pass on Japanese intelligence to Soe, while other Communist leaders Thakin Thein Pe and Tin Shwe made contact with the exiled colonial government in Simla, India. +

There were informal contacts between the AFO and the Allies in 1944 and 1945 through the British organisation Force 136. On 27 March 1945 the Burma National Army rose up in a countrywide rebellion against the Japanese. 27 March had been celebrated as 'Resistance Day' until the military renamed it 'Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) Day'. Aung San and others subsequently began negotiations with Lord Mountbatten and officially joined the Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). At the first meeting, the AFO represented itself to the British as the provisional government of Burma with Thakin Soe as chairman and Aung San as a member of its ruling committee. The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945. Negotiations then began with the British over the disarming of the AFO and the participation of its troops in a post-war Burma Army. Some veterans had been formed into a paramilitary force under Aung San, called the Pyithu yèbaw that or People's Volunteer Organisation (PVO), and were openly drilling in uniform. The absorption of the PBF was concluded successfully at the Kandy conference in Ceylon in September 1945. +

Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons; Gensuikan;

Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2014

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