Ken Laabs’s Story, Part 1: Herding the Mules to Burma (veterans & family stories 3)

 In Ken Laabs’ memoir, he has an amusing tale about arriving at the port in Calcutta, India, with the war-mules.  The 612th, B Company, had traveled by ship from New Orleans.  When they arrived, they herded the animals into Burma by both train and on foot.

“We arrived at the docks near Calcutta, India, in the late afternoon.  We unloaded the mules, tied them to a picket line on the dock, and then at about sundown began transporting them to the remount station about a mile away.  The mules were wild and very difficult to handle.  My recollection of this incident is that each of us was to lead three mules tied together by the halter-shanks.  This proved to be a very difficult situation.” (1) *

The exhausted men soon tired of this tedious task and were open to suggestions as to how the mules could be easily, but safely, taken to the station. Ken explains:

“On the second trip someone came up with a “Brilliant Idea”, which was to post men at each intersection between the dock and the remount station, then chase the mules to the station.  What a laugh this turned out to be.  Forty of the mules escaped down a street we had missed covering.  Sgt. Ted Tompor, Cpl. Joseph Wondoloski, and Cpl. Don Beck followed those bounders through the streets of Calcutta all night long.” (2)*

When I read this, I was beside myself, howling at the image of these rowdy half-breeds bobbing down the streets of Calcutta, with the B Company Marsmen in hot pursuit.  Give a group of young men a monotonous task, such as herding mules to their nearby corrals, three head at a time, and you have the makings of a potential harebrained scheme.  Remember, there were 400-plus animals. Someone was bound to think of a crazy plan.

But the story gets more interesting…Ken continues:

“Some of the locals had habits of sleeping in the streets, doorways, or wherever they felt like lying down.  Can you imagine the rude awakening when they opened their eyes to a group of Missouri mules come running at you in the middle of the night?  [The mules] went down alleys, into swamps, everywhere and nowhere.  [The men] never being able to catch them, at six in the morning were relieved from duty.  I understand from Captain Carney, that after searching for about four days, all the mules except four were recovered.” (3)*

Again, reading Ken’s account, the image of Indian locals awakening to the errant mules leaning over them and even chewing on their hair, had me in stitches.

I was inspired to use this incident in my novel The Burma Road.  In Chapter 18, “On To Calcutta”, my character Bradson comes up with the half-baked idea to herd the mules into one large mob.  Bradson, who has the brains to devise seemingly feasible, but not well-thought-out plans, is always the one to come up with asinine schemes. We are not disappointed when his plan backfires.  Using Ken’s memoir as motivation, I describe the hilarious antics of the mules, scattering helter skelter through the streets of Calcutta.

From the remount station, the mules were then relocated to Burma, which Ken describes below:

“After a few days of rest at an army camp close by called Camp Dum Dum, we took our mules from the Remount Station and began the process of loading them onto a narrow gage railroad train.  We still had 600 or 700 miles to go to where the rest of our Battalion was waiting.  Each of these boxcars was about 26 feet long and looked like they had come out of the early nineteen hundreds.  Each car held four mules with their heads facing toward the center of the car.  The center area held bales of hay, some water, and one mule-packer.” (4)*

Although my dad John M. Halloran told of landing in Bombay, not Calcutta, he said he joined up with the men transporting the mules. Here’s how he put it:

“We boarded an old decrepit train that had wooden slats, and we crossed India to the edge of Burma.  We got the mules calmed down and started exercising them.” (5)*

Dad vividly recalled this train ride as the most painful ride of his life.  The wooden slats of the seats crisscrossed, and burned dents right into the seat of one’s pants.  He was in extreme pain for the entire trip.

I am not sure if Dad had his facts mixed up, or if he joined B Company after they arrived in Burma, but his journey from the United States to India was not from the United States to Calcutta, then Ledo, but from the United States to Bombay (now Mumbai), then to Assam:

“We went from Bombay, India, to Assam, India,” he wrote. (6)

In Ken’s memoir, the trip to Burma by train ended near the beginning of the Ledo Road, which was under construction. Ken describes the situation:

“We traveled by railroad approximately 450 miles, as far as the train went toward the Burmese Mountains, having changed trains once.  It seems that at the train’s end, we had reached the beginning of the construction of the Ledo Road.  The road was being built by the Army Corp of Engineers.  Brigadier General Lewis A. Pick was in charge of this huge project.  Supplies would be brought by ships to the ports of India, then transported by train to the Ledo Road, which connected with the Burma Road, and finally to Kunming, China.  This route was completed later in the war, eliminating the hazardous flights over ‘the hump’.  That was one of the main reasons [why] we were there, to roust the Japanese out of this area so the road could be completed and war supplies could be delivered to the Chinese Army.” (7)*

In my research I learned that until the Mars Task Force freed the Burma Road from Japanese occupation in late 1944, supplies were flown by C-47s over the Himalayas, the mountain range nicknamed “the hump”.  This was a dangerous mission, and freeing up the Burma Road became the main focus of the China-Burma-India theatre in 1944.

The Lido Road was being built to connect the trains from India to the Burma Road, which was a bit further south within northern Burma.  The beginning of this road in Lido was also the end of the line for the trains from India.  Ken has some interesting memories of traveling with the mules down this newly built road:

“There was a lot of activity at this point, road construction of all kinds.  As we walked by them on their freshly grated dirt road, we could hear comments going back and forth.  They were amazed at the large group of us and, of course, of the 400-plus army mules.  Engineers attempted to sell us booze as we passed them along the road.  They had transported this liquor under the seats of their trucks from Calcutta, for a price.” (8)*

Then, Ken adds (perhaps with a touch of humor):

“Of course, we would have no part of this illegal sale of liquor.” (9)

I learned that the destination for these mules was Camp Landis, quite a long trek away.  The officers in charge of Ken’s unit tried to devise a way to get them there that was quick as well as feasible.  This proved difficult as  Ken describes:

“We tried to load our mules onto some of the Engineer’s 6×6 trucks, but the idea was abandoned as the mules stood up too high in the trucks, making them dangerously top heavy.  Next, an attempt by Capt. Joe Carney, and helpers, was a ‘Midnight Requisition’ to obtain 58 McClellan Riding saddles so we could all ride some, and herd the rest of the mules.  Needless to say, they got caught in the act and had to give them all back.  So guess what?  We had to start walking with the mules up the Ledo Road toward Camp Landis, where the rest of the Battalion was waiting for us.” (10)*

Ouch!  That must have been hard on their feet, I thought when I read this.  But these men braved the miles and brought those mules to Landis by foot. Here’s Ken:

“Soon, the road construction crews were left behind in the distance, [and] except for an occasional survey crew we were on our own and without the benefit of their new road.  I cannot recall how many miles, or how many weeks, this trip took from the end of the train tracks, up the Ledo Road, to Camp Landis.  Just guessing, I would say 200 to 300 miles.” (11)*

Can you imagine walking that distance? As I was reading Ken’s account, to give myself perspective, I realized it is approximately 240 miles from San Francisco to Reno, Nevada, traveling I-80 East. And for them it could have been an additional 60 miles on top of that!  Here’s Ken again:

“However, we were all in fine walking condition upon reaching our destination where the rest of the Battalion was waiting.  I believe we arrived in Camp Landis shortly after the 23rd of October [1944].  The mules were turned over to the Battalion and we settled down to army life.  Here we had showers and above all cooks and chow lines.  We were even treated to a stage show.  The star being Pat O’Brian, his copartner was Jinx Falkenberg. (12)  I’m sure anyone who reads this will remember her in the white shorts and a tennis racket.  We had a good time that night.  I almost forgot, we each were given a six-pack of beer.  That really hit the spot.” (13)*

Ken’s memories, and those of the other veterans I’ve interviewed, are priceless stories that must be preserved for future generations.  In my readings, I’ve found that real life experiences are more dramatic, and often more humorous, than fiction.  Each of these Marsmen have valuable and entertaining stories.  I hope the chapters inspired by these tales in my novel  The Burma Road do justice to the adventure.  It’s my intention to honor these veterans’ memories.

*There is minor editing by me in these quotes.

Footnotes

(1)  Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017. 13.

(2)  Laabs, Mars Task Force. 13.

 (3)  Ibid.

(4)  Ibid.

(5)  Unpublished notes by John M. Halloran. 2007. p.2.

(6)  Ibid.

 (7)  Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017. page 14.

(8)  Ibid.

(9)  Ibid.

(10)  Ibid.

(11)  Ibid.15.

(12)  I could not find a non-copyrighted photo of Jinx Falkenberg, but the following link has a nice picture of her with Ginger Rogers:

Getty Images, Ginger and Jinx, printed September 13, 2019.

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/american-actress-and-dancer-ginger-rogers-with-actress-news-photo/592441145?adppopup=true

(13)  Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017. 15.

 

Excerpts from Kenneth E. Laabs’ memoir are gratefully received, and reprinted with his express written permission.

 

© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran

 

No portion of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or use of any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission from the author.

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