The Burma Road, a novel–Brief Overview

The Burma Road, a novel–Brief Overview

History of the Mars Task Force

My father was a Private First Class with the Mars Task Force.  He worked on the 75 mm pack Howitzers that they fired, which were transported on the backs of mules.  Later in life, I spent many mornings while visiting him in Santa Rosa, California, listening to his war stories.  I knew most of them by heart as he told the same tales again and again.  After he died, I felt his personal history needed to be set down and recorded for future generations.

During World War II a small brigade, the 5332nd (known as the Mars Task Force) fought against the Japanese in Burma.  Although this China-Burma-India theatre of the war is not well known, the Mars Task Force’s efforts were vital.  They freed the Burma Road, which was the only trade route accessible to China after Japan captured all of its sea ports.  Once Japanese soldiers took possession of Burma Road, supplies had to be flown from India over the Himalayas—which was risky and often unsuccessful.  Many of these brave pilots died during these trips.  The C47s they flew could not carry large loads of fuel, and they sometimes ran short before navigating the full expanse of mountains.  Also, the height of the peaks themselves posed threats.  It became necessary to free Burma Road and allow supplies to be trucked through Burma into Kunming, China.

My novel The Burma Road tells my dad’s story through fictionalized characters.  After his passing I attended a few reunions of the surviving men of the Mars Task Force, and their families, and heard more stories from these amazing veterans.  These additional tales, similar in content to my dad’s, added more color and texture to the story.  I am so grateful to these veterans, and their families, for sharing their history with me, and for keeping the memory of the 5332nd alive. I am also thankful to the other World War II veterans I have interviewed, such as John Moran (who fought in the Battle of the Bulge).  They broadened my perspective on what these men faced.  One of John’s stories was the direct inspiration for my chapter Shininchi Ishi, in which I hope to show how compassion can prevail even when enemies come face to face.

The Mars Task Force fought with the Allies, and consisted of three regiments; the 475th Infantry Regiment (my dad was part of Company B), the 124th Cavalry Regiment (but for the most part, horses were abandoned for mules), and the 1st Chinese Regiment.  Attached to the 475th and 124th were also 3 platoons each of Kachin Rangers (vicious Burmese natives who acted as guides, spoke some English, and were known to carry the ears of Japanese soldiers they killed on their ammunition belts).  There was also a Command Group with units for veterinary services, medical personnel, translators, and the 164th Signal Photo Company.

There were two major battles that the Mars Task Force fought: (1) the battle at Tonkwa, and (2) the one in the Hosi Valley near Namhpakka.  Travel to both these sites required long, tedious treks through jungle and high mountain switchbacks.  The mountains rose from 450 feet at road level to close to 5,000 feet, all pure granite.  The men traveled on narrow elephant trails with barely enough room for them and their mules.  The terrain in Burma was probably the worst of all the theatres in World War II.  If the dysentery, wild tigers, or days with no air drops for rations did not get to the men, the strenuous hikes for days on end under unbearable conditions did.  The menacing terrain was a foe as formidable as the Japanese. 

But these men were trained for long-range penetration outfits, and they could and did face the horrors which stood before them.  The men of the Mars Task Force emphasized the “B” in the word “brave”, being everything it connotes.  They were a powerful, strong, and highly capable unit, and each man in this brigade was built for battle.  In boot camp, you were not selected for this particular training unless you were at least 6 feet tall.  This was most likely due to how much strength it took to quickly assemble the cannons from the parts stored on the mules, and because the main part of the cannon took both height and strength to lift off the mules.  These men were big, larger than life, both physically and internally.

After their second main battle, and before the end of the war, with the dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most of the men of the Mars Task Force were sent to Kunming, China, to train the Chinese regiments there.  I feel this was because these men were so highly skilled in jungle combat, and victorious in winning back the Burma Road.  Their know-how was a valued commodity, and it seemed they were needed more to train the Chinese than to continue fighting.

The British command, also fighting in Burma, and the Chinese, were left to finish off running the Japanese out of southern Burma.  But the Japanese surrendered following the nuclear attack, and all fighting came to an abrupt halt.

I have spoken with many veterans of World War II, and they were all proud to do their part to secure our freedoms, which we often take for granted.  But almost all of them are adamant that we can never see a war like this again.  The cost of global warfare is far too high, so many precious lives were lost.

Once, I was discussing my novel with a medical technician, who looked as if he might be Japanese.  This made me consider those who were on the “losing” side.  He stopped his work, took a breath, and said, “There are no winners in any war.”  Wiser words were never spoken.  It’s this message from these veterans, and others, which gave me the theme of “loss” which runs through my novel. 

Jack Holloway, the main character based on my father, experiences hardships no youth of eighteen should have to know.  But that’s what war does. War makes a man, or woman, suffer as no other ordeal can.  War is the ultimate affront to one’s soul. And it’s because of this that soldiers will offer their lives for peace.  In this sense, The Burma Road is a metaphorical treatise for the end of nuclear aggressions, and war itself.

In writing this novel it is my intention to leave you with a full sense of Jack’s nightmare, and how he found his ability to rise above these losses and find his inner peace.

© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved

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