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.

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.

“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.

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, “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.

Last updated April 2014

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