Author: Gigi Halloran (aka: Jeanne M. Halloran)

The Burma Road, (photo 11), PFC John M. Halloran at Kunming, China

What a wonderful surprise I had when I found an old photo album of my father’s with some photos from during the war.  This is him in Kunming, China, where he trained the Chinese 1st Regiment on how to use American weaponry and on jungle warfare.  He wrote over the photo, and it is damaged, but because he did this I know where the photo was taken.  I felt like I won the lottery when I discovered this.  Dad brings a smile to my face when he writes, “A hard day’s work,” on the picture!  That is so like him to add quirky comments to his photographs.

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© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved

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.

The Burma Road, (photo 10), PFC Roland J. Knuth’s Ship Pass

PFC Ronald Knuth, Battery C 612 Field Artillery Battalion, Gun Crewman T4 took this photo.  This is typical of the Marsmen’s humor when leaving the safety of home to face the dangers of war awaiting in Burma.  Private Knuth is on board the General H. I. Butner bound for India (the first stop en route to Burma), when his shipmates mocked up this “Domain of the Golden Dragon” initiation pass.

Some of the Marsmen took the Butner, but according to Ken Laabs, others took one of the three Liberty ships: the USS Dearborn, the USS C.W. Fields, and the USS W.S. Halstead. (1)  The Liberty ships docked in Calcutta, India.  I don’t know where the Butner ended up, but it is possible this is the ship that my father boarded, which he reports docked in Bombay, India. 

I love how the men took the experience of heading for an exotic foreign land and made it into a parody, mocking a secret society initiation of a brotherhood sharing the “silent mysteries of the Far East”.

This photo is by courtesy of Ronald Knuth’s daughter, Sue Knuth Bailey, and is gratefully received.

Footnotes

(1)  Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017. 9.

© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved

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.

Burma Road 1

 

 

The Burma Road, (behind the chapters 3) “Tonkwa” Chapter 25

One of the first major battles for the Marsmen was held at Tonkwa, a small town south of Bhamo, Burma.  The 1st Chinese Regiment, who were fighting with the Allies, had just recently captured Tonkwa.  This town was strategically valuable due to its location  directly on the north-south route to and from Bhamo, where the Chinese were fighting the Japanese.  The route made an ideal retreat for the Japanese if they wanted to escape, and could also be used by them to bring in reinforcements.  The Mars Task Force’s mission was to relieve the Chinese army of their occupation of Tonkwa and maintain Ally hold. (1)

Defending Tonkwa was difficult and fraught with abundant opportunity for heroism.  The 2nd Battalion’s I & R platoon was sent to scout ahead on December 9th, 1944.  They met no resistance from the Japanese until they reached Mo Hlaing, a small village about a mile northeast of Tonkwa.  Here, all hell broke loose and three platoons of enemy soldiers descended upon the unit.  This skirmish was the Marsmen’s initial taste of real battle.  Before the I & R platoon could escape, the first Mars Task Force casualty was claimed, Pvt. Walter C. Mink.  He posthumously received a Bronze Star. (2)

More acts of bravery would follow.  John Randolph, in his Marsmen in Burma, tells of squad sergeant Wilbert A Netzel who scuttled under a barrage of hot lead while leading four of his men out of the range of fire.  He was badly injured, and earned a Bronze Star for his efforts. (3)

Another soldier, Lt. Norman R. Berkness of the 3rd Battalion’s Headquarters, was positioned as forward observer and gave directions to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions for where to aim mortar.  He was unlucky enough to be hit three times on the 15th of December. 

The first time, a sniper’s bullet took the lobe of his ear.  The second time, only minutes later, he suffered a long gash on his cheek from an enemy rifle.  But like a true Marsman, the lieutenant refused the aid of the medics and continued fighting. (4)  An hour further into battle, the lieutenant’s unit fell under fire from a Japanese Nambu, a semi-automatic pistol which uses low pressure 8 mm cartridges, but could be equipped with type 90 tear gas grenades. (5)  Berkness assessed the situation and realized the thick jungle growth prevented him from taking out the Nambu operator with traditional mortar, so he deserted cover and snuck up on the Japanese soldier, attempting to terminate the threat with man-to-man combat.  But before he reached the enemy soldier, the Nambu fighter fired on him, shattering his right leg.  Later, he was evacuated to safety, where he received a Silver Star for his bravery. (6) 

The Marsmen received word the next day that Bhamo had fallen to the Allies and was successfully occupied by the 1st Chinese Regiment.  This welcome news must have felt like salve on the men’s morale. (7)

In a slightly humorous recount of an injurious scuffle, Colonel Thrailkill and Major Lattin were on their way to F Company’s Observation Post when Thrailkill sighted a Japanese officer escaping a trap.  Thrailkill crawled to what he thought was a better position, aiming to get a good shot, when the enemy soldier spotted him and tossed a grenade his way.  It literally bounced off the colonel’s buttocks before exploding, but, unfortunately, it cut shrapnel into Thrailkill’s back and neck.  Major Lattin then killed the offending Japanese soldier with a bullet to his head. (8)

Thrailkill evacuated with the other wounded, but returned to battle in Namhpakka a month later.  Sadly, he was killed by a Japanese artillery shell while planning coordinates for a mortar attack on an enemy convoy traveling the Burma Road. (9)

In my novel, The Burma Road, I’ve used Lt. Norman R. Berkness’s experience to plot the battle.  In Chapter 25, “Tonkwa”, Georgie is the hero of the day.  Much like Berkness, he has the spunk to take on a Japanese Nambu fighter.  Georgie is headstrong, daring, and makes a fearless sacrifice, putting the safety of his unit before his own. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll have to peruse the chapter to find out how he fares during the one-on-one combat.  I hope it holds your interest as surely as Randolph held mine when he recapped the action at Tonkwa.

 

 

Footnote:

(1)   Marsmen in Burma, John Randolph, 1990. Curators of the University of Missouri, page 95:

(2)   Ibid., page 95.

(3)   Ibid., page 96.

(4)   Ibid., pages 97-98.

(5)   Wikipedia.org, Nambu Pistol, Printed 10-05-19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nambu_pistol

(6)   Marsmen in Burma, ibid., pages 97-98.

(7)   Ibid.,page 98.

(8)   Ibid., page 96.

(9)   Ibid., page 174.

 

 

© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved

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.

 

One of the Mars Task Force’s War-Mules (photo 9)

PFC Ronald Knuth, Battery C 612 Field Artillery Battalion, Gun Crewman T4 took this photo.  This is a typical mule utilized by the Mars Task Force to transport sections of the 75 mm Pack Howitzer cannon, ammunition, and supplies.

This photo is by courtesy of Ronald Knuth’s daughter, Sue Knuth Bailey, and is gratefully received.

 

27

 

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.

Jack’s Story, Part 1: Induction, Basic Training, and Specialized Training (veteran’s & family stories 2)

Here are some notes that my father, John Michael Halloran (Jack), wrote about his experience of serving in the armed forces during World War II.  I’ve applied some minor edits, but these are basically his own words.  This blog includes his memories from induction through Specialized Training.  His notes about actually arriving in India, then serving in Burma, will follow in a subsequent post.

Induction

“I received a letter from the draft board in July of 1943.  I was told to go to an address to be graded for the service.  They designated me as “One-A”, (i.e., fit for military service).

I received a letter from the draft board to appear on a date in August.  I was still in high school (in my senior year), and I worried that not finishing school might ruin my life.  One of my friends said that I should talk to his father who was on the draft board.  His father looked at my papers, made a call to St. Ignatius High School, then told me to bring the papers to the draft board on a certain date and tell them that I was in my last semester of high school and would like to graduate.

The draft board said they could not draft me if I was in my last semester of school.  They called St. Ignatius, who told them that my graduation would be in August of 1943, then the draft board told me that on my graduation day, after the ceremony, I was to board a train at 5:00 pm to go to Fort Ord.”

Fort Ord: Basic Training

“At Fort Ord, we were issued two blankets, two pair of khaki shorts (underwear), fatigue shirt and pants, dress uniform pants and blouse, and a cap.  Also issued were: shaving soap, shaving brush, three khaki handkerchiefs, two pair of khaki socks, and a pair of brown boots.

When we got to Fort Ord we were lined up in a narrow hallway.  As we walked forward we saw a bar over the doorway, with several soldiers standing there.  I wasn’t sure if I would hit the bar, so I ducked my head.  They immediately said, “Go left.”  I went left, and when I got into the room I felt like a pigmy–everyone was taller.  They were 6’2, 6’3, 6’4, 6’5, 6’6, and 6’7.  An officer came in and told us, “I hope you’ll enjoy being in the Mountain Battery.  We’re headed for Muskogee, Oklahoma.”  (1)

Camp Gruber: Specialized Training

“We were lifting 75-mm cannons that broke down to five sections: breechblock, carriage, cannon, right trail, and left trail.  The five parts each went on a type of saddle that was placed on a mule.  There were ten ammunition mules carrying the 75-mm shells, with five shells on each mule, for a total of fifty shots.

The mules we got were wild, right off the range, and we had to rope them, try not to get kicked, and get them used to the saddle.  They were skittish when we loaded the gun parts and the ammunition on them.

The camp was Camp Grubber, in Oklahoma.  We started walking the mules each morning, afternoon, and early evening.  Next, we put saddles on then walked the mules three times a day.  Finally, we practiced putting the artillery loads on the saddles.”

Camp Carson: Specialized Training

“At Camp Carson we hiked with the mules up so far on Pike’s Peak.  We had down sleeping bags and we slept in the snow. 

We accumulated most of the items on the captain’s list.  (2)

When training was over, we broke camp at Carson and were split into three groups: about 40% of our troop went to New Orleans with the mules, about 40% of our troop went to Santa Ana and shipped out, and, finally, about 20% of us (me included) went by ship to Bombay, India.”  (3)

Post Script

I think Dad was planning to write about his experience in Burma.  He was reading the history tome Burma Road, (4) and The Marauders, (5) some years before he passed.  I think these books jogged memories of his time in Burma, and he probably considered compiling these thoughts into a memoir.  I wish he had, as the notes I did find are good, although brief and incomplete.  Even still, there are details in these notes that, along with his verbal stories, inspired the writing of my fiction novel The Burma Road.

 

Footnotes

(1)  According to his verbal account, the bar above the door at Fort Ord was there for the officers to easily spot who was six feet, or taller.  If the private ducked while attempting to miss the bar, this indicated he was tall enough for the Mars Task Force.  He was then instructed to turn left.  The men who turned left were trained for a special long-range penetration unit being formed to fight in Burma.  The other men, who were told to go right, were trained for the European Theatre, or other factions of the war.  The Mars Task Force required men of strength and height, as they were packing sections of the Howitzer cannons onto the backs of mules.  They needed strength and height to load, and unload, the heavy parts.

(2)  Dad told me he and his friends were commissioned by their captain to scavenge around the base looking for items on a wish list.  These were hard to come by objects which the captain needed but which were in short supply due to war-rationing, things such as typewriters and writing pads.  Dad, and his buddies, would scout for things during the day, then go “lift” them (i.e., steal) at sunset, when they were less likely to be caught.  One of the desired supplies, a typewriter, was spotted sitting next to an open window, and they went back after dark and confiscated the booty. Their captain was much wiser, and he stored the prized typewriter inside the barracks, out of sight, where no one could steal it.

(3)  I wish I could ask my dad about his memories of shipping out to Bombay.  According to Ken Laabs’ memoir (6), B Company went to New Orleans with the mules, then shipped to Calcutta.  I don’t know why Dad was not shipped with this group, as he was also in B Company.  Was he reassigned companies after he arrived in Burma?  Or, are his recollections a little off?  Sadly, I’m not able to ask him, as he passed in 2009.  So, I’m writing The Burma Road using Ken’s notes as my guide, as I have very few details about Dad’s trip to Bombay.

This discrepancy did present the need for creative story telling when I wrote this part of the novel.  I wanted Jack Holloway to ship to Calcutta, but I had to include fictional details about why he didn’t herd the mules to Lido, Burma, then further on to Myitkyina.  In my novel, he stays behind at Camp Dum Dum (the camp’s real name, by the way) and later takes a train to Lido.  From Lido, he flies on a C-47 to Myitkyina and is under immediate attack when he gets off the plane.  This additional change from Ken Laabs’ memoir allowed me to include both Dad’s details about the train ride, and Art Naff’s story about being under fire at the air field.  Art is a Mars Task Force veteran that I met and interviewed at the 2016 and 2017 Mars Task Force Reunions.

(4)  Burma Road, Nicol Smith, 1942. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc.

(5)  The Marauders, Charlton Ogburn, Jr., 1959. Harper & Brothers, Publishers

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

 

© 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.