The men of the 612th and the 613th served as cannoneers, mule skinners, or both. I did not know what my father’s assignments were, but he had in-depth knowledge of the 75-mm pack Howitzer (the cannon), and he often talked about the mules. It was my impression that he worked closely with both.
The 75-mm pack Howitzer, nicknamed the “Howzer” by the men, was 75 mm in caliber, weighed 341 pounds, was 59 inches in overall length, and had a range of 9,760 yards. Although categorized under “light” artillery, these cannons were actually very heavy and needed to be broken into seven parts when stored on the backs of the mules who transported them. (1)
The sturdy mules carried these cannons over hundreds of miles of stream, fast moving rivers, and up and down mountain switches. They crossed jungle, which the men had to hack through, and tramped over soggy rice paddies. The men of the Mars Task Force had to be at least six feet tall in order to be assigned to this long-range penetration outfit, and they had to have backs and joints in good shape. This was necessary because lifting the heavy parts off the mules, and assembling the cannon, took greater than average height and strength. (2)
The men were trained to put the Howzers back together with breakneck speed. Officially (if my memory from conversations with Dad serves me correctly), this was done in under two minutes. Dad said his team broke the official record, and got the Howzer up and running at least thirty seconds faster.
Each battalion of the 475th and 124th had four batteries, which included three firing batteries (A, B, and C). Each firing battery had four Howzers each, and were known as gun sections. In these gun sections, the cannon was manned by one corporal (who was the gunner), and five cannoneers (who were all Private First Class soldiers). Various roles were assumed when manning the gun: assist with elevation and pull the lanyard, load and unload ammunition, set the fuse and charge for range (two men did this), and ready the cannon for its direction of fire. Additionally, ten more men loaded and unloaded the ammunition and cannon parts from the animals. (3)
The mules came over to Burma by ship. Three Liberty ships were used for transport: the USS Dearborn (under Captain Powling’s command), the USS C.W. Fields (under Major Stephenson), and the USS W.S. Halstead (under Captain Joseph Carney). My dad never mentioned the ship on which he sailed to India. He was in Battery B, so I assume it was the Halstead, as this was the ship that Kenneth Laabs (also in Battery B) took.
The Halstead was 300 feet long and had four main cargo holds. Three of them were reserved for the mules. The last cargo hold housed the mule packers, approximately forty of them. (4)
Kenneth E. Laabs has some great stories about riding these ships over to India, and a hilarious tale about herding the animals in Calcutta to a remount station about a mile away from the pier. I am in the process of obtaining his written permission, I will later include in my blog excerpts from his memoir, which is about his time serving with the Mars Task Force.
After victory in Namhpakka, the mules were sent from the battlefields to Myitkyina, Burma. Around May of 1945, these mules were then transported to Kunming, China, in three groups, called “serials”. There were 240 men and 900 mules. This man-count included officers and men from the 13th Medical Battalion. These serials traveled a distance of 750 miles by foot, a definite challenge for both man and beast.
The mules were delivered to Chinese units training in Kunming in hopes of continuing combat in Burma. Unfortunately, some of the animals had to be destroyed as they caught a communicable blood disease called “surra”. Veterinary personnel administered a program of testing and isolation in attempts to treat the sick animals, and there were hopes a new drug being developed might help. But on September 1, 1945, word came down through the ranks to destroy all infected mules. (5)
In the research I have conducted, nowhere does it mention how these animals were destroyed, but perhaps I just haven’t come across those documents yet. My dad remembered because he was in the unit that killed them. According to my father, they herded the animals into a gorge and rigged the surrounding mountains with explosives, then had the rocks and boulders crush the mules.
Other veterans I’ve spoken with remember shooting the mules first, before crushing them with debris from the explosion. This makes more sense; perhaps my father forgot this detail, perhaps not. In my chapter dealing with the killing of the mules, “Bye Bye Lucky”, I currently have it written as Dad told the tale. I may decide later on to revise this chapter and include the other men’s details, as well.
While all this happened when my father was in his teens, at 84 years old he was still bothered by having killed the mules. He felt this loss deeply, and with pain, and I imagine others did, too. The mule skinners were close to their animals, some even joking that they took better care of their charges than they did of themselves.
The officers overseeing the assignment never bothered to tell Dad why he had to kill them, and I did not find out about the blood disease until I conducted research years after my dad’s death. My father went to his grave holding onto this guilt. It’s sad for me that I cannot tell him now why he was given these orders. But, I began research for The Burma Road seven years after his passing, and this is just unfortunate timing.
In tribute to these pack animals, I am telling their story. I hope to bring to light their vital part in transporting the Howzers to the battlefields. The success of the Mars Task Force’s mission depended, in part, on these mules. You could even consider them a special four-legged infantry. They earned their place in history, and most definitely in my novel.
(1) Details about the 75 mm Pack Howitzer from:
Weapons of World War II by G. M. Barnes: Skyhorse Publishing, 2014, page 114.
(2) Details about the requirements for assignment to the Mars Task Force from an article:
“With the Mules in Burma” by W. B. Woodruff, Jr. and John J. Scanlan. Photocopied 2017, larger volume, title unknown.
(3) Details about the organization of firing batteries and assigned roles from article:
“Over the Hills and Far Away” by Troy J. Sacquety. Photocopied 2016 from Vol. 5, No.4 of larger volume, title unknown.
(4) Details about the Liberty ships and the layout of the Halstead from memoir:
Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017.
(5) Details about the move to Kunming and about the mules being destroyed from an internet article:
“Mules for China” by Captain John A. Rand, article on website, “The Long Riders Guild Academic Foundation: The world’s first global hippological [study of the horse] study”. Printed 8-16-19. http://www.lrgaf.org/military/mules.htm.
Other sources include conversations with veterans of the Mars Task Force who attended the Mars Task Force Reunion in Columbus, Ohio, in 2016; and in Dallas, Texas, in 2017; and from conversations with my father.
© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved
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