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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
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