My father did his boot camp at Fort Ord in Monterey, California. From there, he moved on to Camp Gruber which is near Braggs, Oklahoma in the Cookson Hills, approximately 14 miles southeast of Muskogee, Oklahoma. The 612th and the 613th were activated at this camp on December 17, 1943. Which, coincidentally, was Dad’s nineteenth birthday. The 612th was populated by soldiers from nine different U.S. Army posts, the 613th was filled by soldiers from Fort Bragg, North Carolina. (1)
According to Kenneth Laabs’ memoir, the men arrived in Oklahoma in the dead of winter, with snows about three feet deep, and with the chilling Oklahoma Prairie winds blowing. He would’ve froze like ice, if not for his heavy GI Overcoat. I’m sure the extreme cold must have been shocking for Dad, who was raised in the tepid winters of San Francisco. The majority of men stationed at Gruber were from the Midwest and the eastern states, many from New York or New Jersey. For them, freezing winters were probably commonplace. But a few, like my father, were from California, and must have been stunned by the cold, dry climate. Ken remarks that the few recruits that hailed from the west (Washington, Oregon, and California) soon adjusted and found ways to overcome the harsh weather.
It was in Gruber that the men were introduced to their mules. They were taken down to a railroad siding to a train of cattle cars. The cars were filled with mules, from Missouri, and a lot of the men had never seen nor dealt with mules at any point during their lives. For some, the strange braying sounds emitting from the cars came as a complete shock. They did not know what to expect and stood looking at each other in confusion. They were soon shown halter shanks, and how to snap them around the mules’ necks. It was then that they were given the news that they had seen the last of their 6×6 trucks, and would be walking from then on. Dreams of riding in armored cars, jeeps, or any type of four-wheeled conveyance were shattered. Their transportation was the reliable built in model – their own two feet.
After intensive field artillery training at Gruber, Dad moved on to Camp Carson, which is in El Paso County outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado. According to Ken’s memoir, this was around the beginning of 1944. Carson housed rows of stables for the mules, and was surrounded by hills and mountains – perfect for long-range penetration training. It was here that they learned how to saddle the mules, pack loads, and tie rope hitches. They also learned how to clean and bind the hooves of their mules.
In addition to working with mules, the men were also trained on the 75 mm pack Howitzers, commonly referred to as the “Howzers”. They practiced loading and unloading the cannons on their mules, and firing Howzers under many different conditions. I assume this was to ready them for accomplishing these maneuvers no matter what circumstances they faced during battle. It was here that they understood the reasoning as to why only towering men were chosen for this outfit—it soon became apparent that lifting the cannon parts onto the Howzer was impossible if you were not at least six feet tall. The Howzers were broken into seven sections, which were then loaded onto special attachments on the packsaddles. These parts were heavy. The tube, or barrel, weighed 240 pounds, while the remaining parts ranged from 180 to 200 pounds each. The mules did not like being handled while the men loaded the gun. If the soldier wasn’t careful, the mule showed its displeasure by kicking, and this was painful for the unsuspecting. (2)
Dad had some humorous memories of his time at Camp Carson. He remembers a foot locker inspection where his captain found some “non-issue” items in his locker. Rather than being punished, Dad was requisitioned by the captain to “find” (i.e. steal) various items on his wish list, as if on a scavenger hunt. The captain needed hard to come by articles, like typewriters and yellow writing pads. Dad, and his buddies, found all the requisitioned items, including the typewriter, which was easily spotted sitting by an open window. The next day, Dad’s captain had all his desired booty. The unsuspecting unit officer who lost his typewriter had no idea what became of his equipment, because Dad’s captain did not leave it exposed in plain sight. The unspoken rule in these camps seemed to be: possession is nine-tenths of the law.
The men continued training on their mules throughout their stay in Carson. Each of the four Howzers in a firing battery required seven mules each to carry the broken down gun sections, for a total of twenty eight mules per unit. About fifty five more mules carried the food, ammunition, grain, and miscellaneous supplies. This came to nearly eighty plus mules in each gun battery. I’ve read that the Mars Task Force had more than 900 mules in total. The men trained vigorously, practicing loading and unloading the guns on their mules until June of 1944, when they left Carson.
At this point, the men of the 612th, Company B, moved down to New Orleans, and boarded three Liberty ships. They sailed with the mules to India, and docked in Calcutta. From there, they traveled with their charges by rail approximately 450 miles into the Burmese Mountains. They disembarked near Lido, Burma, and traveled the rest of the way by foot down the newly built Ledo Road. Their destination was Camp Landis, near Myitkyina, Burma. Myitkyina had recently been reclaimed from Japanese occupation by the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), most commonly known as “Merrill’s Marauders”.
The remaining men of the 5307th who were left to fight the Japanese after winning back Myitkyina, are commonly referred to as the “New Galahad”. These were newer recruits relieving the original Marauders who had succumbed to the harsh conditions and were exhausted from battle. These original marauders were sent back stateside to recover, and the Galahad replaced them at the front lines. Later, when the 5332nd Brigade was created to take over from the 5307th, some Galahad men joined the Mars Task Force and shared their jungle know-how through training classes at Landis. Their first-hand knowledge of what to expect from the fierce terrain, and of a ruthless enemy, was priceless.
Camp Landis, about twelve miles north of Myitkyina, was accessible by foot or vehicle over narrow, dusty roads that stayed dry, except during monsoon season. Myitkyina had a coveted air strip, that the Japanese wanted back, but on which new Mars Task Force recruits were easily flown in on C-47s. Once they arrived in Myitkyina, the men traveled the short distance to Landis by foot or truck, and received further training. They learned to use a few new weapons: flame throwers, bazookas, and 4.2 mortars. Later, it was decided that the flame throwers and 4.2 mortars were not easily transported on the backs of the mules, so these weapons were discarded.
The men learned infantry and jungle combat, which some had not trained for yet, as the 613th started out as a cavalry unit. They were taught the lore of the jungle, how to make a good trap using what was naturally found in the terrain, and basic jungle security. They went on field trips into the wilds, learning to live off the land and how to work with the natives, using them as “beaters” when pursuing tigers for fun. John Randolph humorously reports about this in his book Marsmen In Burma, joking that no tigers were successfully caught. They took long, tedious marches with full field equipment, and these trips took their toll. Many men caught malaria and typhus even before seeing battle. The men were trained on how to dress to protect themselves from the typhus mites, and they practiced digging fox holes.
When time permitted, the men did laundry by washing their fatigues in the clear, cold waters of the Irrawaddy River. The Burmese natives showed them how to remove dirt and grime by beating their clothes against rocks or logs. Soap, however, was a rare commodity and was only accessible to those friendly with a mess or supply sergeant.
But it was not constant work, the men had access to two outdoor theaters, where those who were lucky watched shows sitting on boxes, while others found seats on the ground. The USO brought them high-caliber acts, such as Jinx Falkenburg and Pat O’Brien. They were also entertained by singer and actress Ann Sheridan—best known for her role as Mae Kennedy in the movie San Quentin (1937) with co-stars: Pat O’Brien and Humphrey Bogart. During World War II, many Hollywood celebrities toured with the USO to remote theatres and braved perils while visiting combat zones. While Myitkyina had recently been reclaimed from Japanese occupation, there were still ongoing skirmishes to win the air field back–no one in the vicinity was safe. (3)
It seems that the rigorous training these men endured probably saved their lives. As Lord Louis Mountbatten pointed out during his visit to Burma on February 18, 1945, casualty statistics were in the Allies’ favor. Allies in this locale were the British, Chinese, and American troops, along with Burmese Kachins—fierce natives assisting the units as guides and scouts. In this China-India-Burma Theatre, the ratio of Allied men killed to enemies annihilated was: four Japanese soldiers to one Allied man.
The Mars Task Force’s numbers exceeded even this outstanding quota with six and a half Japanese soldiers to one Marsman. As sobering as these statistics are, we must remember these represent actual human loss and should be honored with due respect to the cost of American and Japanese lives. However, it is apparent that the men of the Mars Task Force fought smart, fought hard, and proved it with their survival numbers. Neither harsh terrain, nor enemy fire, could easily take them down. (4)
A number of chapters in my novel The Burma Road include stories that take place at Ord, Gruber, Carson, and Landis. These come from my research, Dad’s memories, and the veterans of the Mars Task Force’s own experiences as told at their reunions, or written in their memoirs. Chapter 33, “Catching Our Breath”, includes an episode with Lord Mountbatten as he addresses the troops in Burma. Much of this chapter, and the inspiration behind Mountbatten’s monologue in this scene, come from recorded history in the books and articles I’ve read.
I find this information fascinating, as I hope you do. These stories are examples of where actual historical accounts are more dramatic and far more compelling than fiction. And while The Burma Road is fiction, I try to keep to the written or verbally passed down tales, where ever possible. When these men are gone, so are their memories—unless we capture them in some form for the future. Preserving the Marsmen’s history is what ignites my passion behind writing this novel. It is a labor of love, dedicated to my father and to the men with which he served. This story is my heartfelt gift to the families of these men, and is my effort toward ensuring the Marsmen’s legacy lives on.
(1) Details about the activation of the 612th and 613th from article:
“Over the Hills and Far Away” by Troy J. Sacquety. Photocopied 2016 from Vol. 5, No.4 of larger volume, title unknown.
(2) Details about Camp Gruber and Camp Carson from memoir::
Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017.
(3) Details about Camp Landis from:
Marsmen in Burma by John Randolph copyright 1990, by the Curators of the University of Missouri, pages 41 – 52
(4) Statistics from:
Marsmen in Burma by John Randolph copyright 1990, by the Curators of the University of Missouri, pages 211 – 212
Other miscellaneous details from article:
“Over the Hills and Far Away” by Troy J. Sacquety. Photocopied 2016 from Vol. 5, No.4 of larger volume, title unknown.
Other sources include: 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.