Category: Behind The Chapters

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.




(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), Nambu Pistol, Printed 10-05-19.

(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.


The Burma Road, (behind the chapters 2) “Bye Bye, Lucky” Chapter 37

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.


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

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, (behind the chapters 1) ‘The Shweli Slide’ Chapter 24

On their way to Mong Wi, after winning their battle in Tonkwa, the 475th and the 124th had to cross a mountain range down to a bivouac area east of the Shweli River. If it were Monsoon Season, the men might not have been able to scale the mountain at all, due to the mud the rains caused. This was during the dry season, but as luck would have it, when the 124th crossed the mountain, intermittent rains poured for three days, so close together that the ground could not dry. They needed to cut stairs into the mountainside in order to scale down to the river. This was a challenge, and men and mule both succumbed to the mud and often slid their way down to the water.

The Shweli is Burma’s swiftest river, and they needed to cross over it to their bivouac on the other side. The troops found a bridge built by the Chinese, who were assisting the Allies with fighting the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek’s 1st Chinese Regiment had a small outpost overlooking the river, but most of their troops had crossed and moved on before the 475th and 124th arrived.

To assist with their crossing, the Chinese had built a flimsy bridge, approximately 400 feet wide. When the 475th arrived, they found the bridge neglected and the strong current of the Shweli had already wrought much damage. They had to repair the pontoon structure, so they used local bamboo for flooring and secured the poles with jungle vines (as there were no ropes or cables). They covered the flooring with dirt, grass, and mantas (six-foot square tarpaulin provided to wrap supplies in a pack saddle).

When the 124th reached the Shweli River, heavy stomping on the rickety bridge from the men and mules of the 475th, along with the swift passage of the river now swollen from rain, destroyed the structure once again, so the 124th had to make repairs before they could navigate over it. When they did cross, the mules were unloaded, allowing them to travel over the bridge without packs. The men carried all of the equipment, including the extremely heavy parts of the Howitzer cannons they used. The 124th crossed all day until midnight. The men who had made bivouac first, now lay in comfortable bedding cut from rice-straw stacks. They helped those still crossing in the total darkness by shining their flashlights, guiding troops who were stumbling over fallen trees and sinking in the thick mud. These men took care of each other like brothers.

They were not permitted open fires, and the air drops for supplies (including food rations) did not happen for a couple of days, as the planes could not tell where to make the drop. The hungry men would hear them circling overhead, but no rations made it through. Morale could have easily cracked for anyone suffering these harsh conditions, but the men of the 124th were able to joke about the situation. Humor kept them strong and alert and allowed them to endure until better conditions were met. This was the makeup of a typical Marsman.

They faced their second range of mountains between the river they had crossed and their destination in Mong Wi. Here, the elevation was so high that greenery was sparse and the trees were almost bare. The weather was cold, wet, and sometimes icy, so fires were allowed. This seemed bizarre, as back in Myitkyina, where the enemy threat was lighter, fires were not permitted. But here in the heart of enemy territory they could light one. This was because conditions in this part of Burma were more treacherous than the enemy. The threat of the terrain had to be dealt with first, or they might not survive to fight.

When on lower ground, in an open hillside, the men decided to rest and tied their mules to a local tree. Unknown to them, this tree housed a huge beehive. The mules disturbed the tree limbs by eating the foliage, and the bees attacked. It was mayhem as the soldiers had to quickly untie the mules while under ambush. The men survived quite well, with only a few injuries, but three mules died.

Overall, these men faced great hardships while trekking over hostile terrain in order to confront the Japanese. It was thought there would be a battle near Mong Wi, but the Japanese had deserted the village and moved on. Arrival at Mong Wi allowed the men a short respite from tedious hiking, and they learned they could barter with the natives for delicious chickens and even a cow or two. Parachutes and cigarettes were coveted by the Burmese and could be exchanged for tasty provisions, like fresh vegetables and poultry. However, their vacation soon ended, and the troops moved on again in pursuit of the Japanese. But, aside from lone snipers, the Marsmen would not meet their enemy in full force until they reached the Hosi Valley near Namhpakka.


This information was learned from: “Marsmen In Burma” by John Randolph. You can order a copy of this book (hard copy $25, paperback $15), which was hard to find, but I finally did at:

Another excellent source of information about the Mars Task Force can be found in Dr. Troy J. Sacquety’s “Over the Hills and Far Away”.  Dr. Sacquety is a civil affairs branch historian with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. He may make this in-depth journal article available to you if you request it at

I highly encourage you to check out these references, as the story of the Mars Task Force is compelling and should be known.


© 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.