Tag: Camp Landis

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.


(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.


(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.

Training Camps, Mars Task Force (history 1)

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.