Tag: Mars Task Force

Silencing The Mules, Mars Task Force (history 2)

In continuing my research into the mules who assisted the men of the Mars Task Force, I came across an interesting website.  This is Le Minh Khai’s:SEAsian History Blog.  I liked the post about mules dated October 14, 2014, titled: “The Silenced Mules of World War II Burma”.  In this article, a doctor, A. J. Moffett, is reported to have developed a procedure to cut off the mule’s vocal chords in order to silence them.  This procedure prevented the mules from braying, which was dangerous during the war as it alerted the enemy to the soldiers’ presence. 

Le Minh Khai states that it was Colonel Orde Wingate, a senior British Army officer,  who was looking into ways to silence the mules.  His First Chindit Force fought the Japanese in Burma during 1942 to 1943.  This was before the Mars Task Force came onto the scene.  I don’t know if this procedure was still in effect when the Marsmen arrived with their mules in 1944.  (1)

I will check this detail out with the veterans I am still in touch with.  (2)  But parts of my novel, The Burma Road, might have to be revised depending upon what I learn.  I am not sure how I will proceed if revisions are in order, I’ll decide later.

Emotionally, I have difficulty accepting that these officers mutilated the animals, although I understand the need for military maneuvers to be carried out in secret.  But as a pet owner and lover of all four-legged critters, I don’t like to read that their vocal chords were cut, no matter how good the reasoning was.  But war is harsh medicine that we take to cure a world without peace, yet the very words “war” and “peace” are contradictions.  Still, there are times when the unthinkable must be done, whether or not it is morally acceptable, in attempts to achieve a higher goal.  These are the moments when an officer must make difficult decisions—choosing one “wrong’ in order to prevent another.  If the mules needed to lose their vocal chords in order for the Allies to win against the Japanese, this might have been one of those times.

At any rate, Le Minh Khai’s article gives the mules back their voice.  It is well worth reading, being both informative and interesting.  Please check out the blog, details are in the footnote below. 

 

Footnote:

(1) Details about silencing the mules from an internet article:

“The Silenced Mules of World War II Burma” by Le Minh Khai, article on website dated 10-14-14, “SEAsian History Blog”.

Printed 8-23-19. https://leminhkhai.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/the-silenced-mules-of-world-war-ii-burma/.

(2) According to PFC Ken Laabs (as passed on to me through his wife, Beulah Bennett-Vernon) the mules never brayed.  He did not know for certain, but he thought they must have had the surgery to remove their vocal chords.  I have not decided whether nor not to revise my chapter, “Bye, Bye Lucky”, as the animal’s braying is an important aspect of the chapter, and contributes to Jack’s grief.  I’ll consider this, and decide later, before I publish.  Having the facts correct is important, but it might not be vital to the overall message of the book to have this detail included.

 

© 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.

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.

 

Footnotes:

 

(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.

 

 

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.

Footnotes:

(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. http://www.lrgaf.org/military/mules.htm.

 

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, a novel, Chapter 37, “Bye Bye, Lucky” (Excerpt 4)

It’s September 1st 1945, and we’ve been hearing rumors that surra, a contagious blood disease, has broken out among the herd.  I worry about my mule Lucky, but no one knows what’s going on.  There’s talk of a new drug being developed stateside that could be used, but all I’m hearing is gossip, nothing’s for sure.

We’re eating lunch, and Sarge comes into the mess hall and orders us to the corral.  “Chow time’s over, assholes, get there on the double!”  His face is scrunched up and he seems really pissed.  I wonder if it has something to do with Lucky.

“What’s up?” I ask.

“Just the same old shit,” he snarls.  “Those mules never hurt anyone.”

“What?” I ask.

“Nothing,” he snarls.  “Get over to the corral, now.  Move it!”

Bradson, Holt, and me gather our stuff and head out, but I’ve got a bad feeling. When we arrive, the veterinary officers are gathered at the front.  There’s about fifty of us just standing around.

Finally, a sergeant speaks.  “The animals are sick.  They got a blood disorder and it’s spreading quickly.  We’ve been collaborating with Chinese Combat Command, executing a strict program of testing and isolation.  But we just got word to destroy them.”

My heart stops.  Shit!  I hope Lucky’s not sick.

“Your orders,” the officer continues, “are to herd them to the gorge.  We’re gonna slaughter ‘em there.”

 Nausea passes through me.  Not again, I think.  When will this killing stop?  I’m sick of burying the ones I love.

Bradson just grins.  “Sounds like fun!  How’re we gonna waste ‘em?”

I glare at him.

“Gonna blow the mountains above the gorge.  It’ll crush the mules and bury them in the rubble.”

I’m stunned by the brutality.  This must be what’s eating Sarge.  He’s an ass, that’s a given, but that prickly cactus he calls a heart’s got some feeling.  And he should be mad; slaughtering these mules is just wrong.  “That’s not right, killing them,” I whisper to Holt.  “They’re as valuable as us gunners.  Shows no respect!”

Holt nods, his face white with shock.

This is unbelievable!  I think.  How can they give us these orders?

Bradson just spits.  “You morons don’t know how to have fun,” he says, nastily.  “This is gonna be one helluva mission!”

“Yeah, one helluva mission all right!”  I’m so furious I could deck him.  This is insane, I’m filled with rage—fuming like a one-legged cock losing its fight.

The sergeant isn’t finished.  “We’ve got our demolition crew out there now, setting the charges.  Orders are to get the sick mules over to the gorge.  Make it snappy!”

About an hour later, we’re standing at the bottom of the canyon with close to two hundred mules.  The steep, rocky cliffs surround us, and I shudder.  My stomach’s as tight as a fist.  I look up. The mountainsides are riddled with TNT.  Killed me when I found out Lucky’s one of the sick ones, but according to the vet’s diagnosis she’s got the disease.  I refuse to believe it.  “I’m so sorry, babe,” I whisper in her ear. “I’d give anything to save you.”

Holt looks over with wet eyes.  He seems to know what I’m feeling.  It’s only natural.  Been caring for our mules eighteen months.

Sarge must’ve seen this coming.  But if he knew they were going to kill them, he would’ve tried to stop it.  Failing to make a difference must be what’s eating him.

I look down at Lucky and my heart sinks.  She senses something’s up; she’s pulling on her tether and braying loudly.  Every pitiful whine shatters me.

“Hurry up!” a high-flown sergeant orders.  He tells us to secure our mules with the makeshift shackles we’ve fashioned. 

My hand shakes as I tie Lucky down and give her one last pat. “So long, angel,” I whisper, and I scramble up the mountainside.

After we’ve all gathered at a safe distance, the demolition crew blows both sides of the pass.  The sound is deafening as rubble thunders down.  I smell dust as it rises from the gorge, while boulders crush the helpless mules.   Debris thrusts into the air, then settles back to the rocks below.  A hard, tight mass fills me as I realize Lucky’s gone, and my already broken heart rips open once again.

“Holy shit, that’s a sight!” Bradson whoops.

I clutch my fist to keep from smashing it in his face.  He’s such a bastard! I just want to deck him!  Then, my anger’s too strong, and I aim my fist, slamming him with a solid one-two punch.  It lands smack in the face, and knocks him flat.  He quickly palms his bloody eye. Gonna have a bruiser, that’s for sure.  But the asshole deserves every purple inch.

Bradson’s furious and gets up, grabs me by the shoulders, and pummels me.

I taste blood as it streaks down my face, but I blast him again with ferocious venom.

He doubles over. “Gonna kill you, cocksucker!”

Holt squeezes in between us.  “Cut the crap!”

But we’re still pushing hard to get at each other, with Holt stuck in the middle. “I said cut the goddamn crap!” he screams.  He’s so loud my ears hurt.  “We’ll get thrown in the brig, you assholes!”

I finally step away, look Bradson right in his swollen eye, and scowl.  “Tell me you don’t deserve that!”   

He thrusts his body at me, and is just about to hand me another knuckle sandwich when he stops, spits, and glares out his bloody eye.  He swallows hard, then takes a step backwards.  “Okay, okay, I give up!  I know how it was with you and that mangy beast.  It’s a tough break, Holloway.  I get it.”  And with that, he storms off.

Holt’s just standing next to me staring down at the jumble of rocks below and shaking.  “We’re always burying someone,” he sputters.  “I’m sick of it, just fucking sick!

 

© 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:

http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-ran-dolph/marsmen-in-burma/hardcover/product-21800686.html

http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-ran-dolph/marsmen-in-burma/paperback/product-21798915.html

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 sacquett@socom.mil.

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.

 

The Burma Road, a novel, Chapter 24, “The Shweli Slide” (Excerpt 3)

It’s pure luck we’re crossing the mountains during the dry season. But our fortune changed, and we hit a freak storm. It’s been three days of constant showers. Thank God it’s no monsoon, but the rains have been so close together nothing has a chance to dry. We’re making our way to Mong Wi, and we need to get down this mountain to the east side of the Shweli River. But it’s a nightmare of a mud slide, and I have no idea how we’ll do it.

“This grade’s too steep,” Sarge says, frowning. “We’re gonna have to dig some steps.”

We all groan.

“Why the hell are we always first?” Bradson whines. “Those bastards in H-Squad don’t have to do a thing. We bust our buns cutting stairs, and all they have to do is climb ‘em.”

“Shut your trap, asshole,” Sarge glares, then turns to the rest of us. “Get your machetes and shovels out. I want to see pretty little rungs down the side of this damned mountain. Pronto! No more bitching.”

Bradson clamps up and starts chopping at the mud, his machete hacking up big clumps. We’re all working hard, but the mountain’s covered in slime, and we’re skidding around like greased pigs.

Suddenly, Bradson loses his footing and lands hard on his butt. He slips down the incline, building speed as he falls. Jabbing his shovel into the mountain to break pace, he groans, but the tool cracks in half as he continues to slide. Finally, he reaches bottom and tumbles right into the river. He stands up, shakes the water from his clothes, and spits.

“He looks really pissed,” I say, as he stares up at us, glaring.

We’re whooping with laughter—the sight of him skimming the mountainside on his ass was funnier than a Bob Hope comic routine.

BJ looks down at his wrist, pretending to be an Olympic judge with a stop watch.  “Private William Bradson has graced us with one beautifully maneuvered ass-dive down Shweli Slide, breaking the standing record in just one minute, fifteen seconds.”

“Give that donkey prick the gold,” I say. “He’s got great form.”

“Don’t forget the deduction for a broken shovel,” Sarge adds. “Too bad, it was almost a perfect performance.”

We all howl as Bradson wrings out his shirt. He’s not thrilled.

“Back to work,” Sarge says with a big smirk.  “You cocksuckers had your fun, now build my stairs.”

After about two hours of backbreaking effort, the steps are done. We’ve climbed down to the river, and are waiting for the rest of the troops to join us. But it’s a real rodeo, like having front seats at the local hockey game, as we watch the squads gingerly make their way down. It’s still pretty slippery, even with the steps we built, especially with a mule in tow. After about seven units climb down, the path is soggy again, and the men are sliding in the thick mud. H-Squad’s Sergeant Gray is at the top, mouthing off at his squad and waving a shovel in the air.

“Looks like H-Squad is gonna have some fun rebuilding our stairs,” I say, as I realize what the sergeant wants from his men. I’m happy, seeing their predicament. It’s not fair we have to be the only ones battling the mountainside. Those bastards need to share the burden.

“Serves ‘em right,” Bradson snorts. “They’re always cashing in on our hard work. It’s time they sweat like the rest of us.”

Just then, a mule-skinner leading his charge down the steps loses his footing. He lets go of the halter-shank and tumbles down the mountain, landing drenched from head to toe at the river’s edge. His mule, still fully loaded, is squatting on all fours and sliding down behind him. She flops completely over on her back, legs kicking, but miraculously finds footing and straightens up again.

“Well, I’ll be damned if that ain’t one graceful critter,” BJ drawls.

The mule then makes her way back down the trail in one piece, with the heavy load still intact.

“Gotta love my Molly,” the fallen mule-skinner says with great affection.  “Always lands on her feet, no matter what.” He walks over, adjusts her pack, and scratches her ear.

“Kind of like Bradson here,” BJ jokes.  “Only he always lands on his ass.

We all laugh, as Bradson stares back at us, fuming. He loves to dish it out, but can’t take it!

“All right, girlies,” Sarge orders. “Get to work! We got a bloody bridge to build!”

 

© 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, a novel, Chapter 27, “Midway to Namhpakka” (Excerpt 2)

I’m with my friends BJ and Bradson.  We’re in B Company, part of the 475th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Mars Task Force—a special long-range penetration outfit.  We’re on our way to Namhpakka, marching up a narrow elephant trail through the Burmese mountains.  The endless path switches back and forth and rises through rough rock until I’m dizzy.  Our column pushes forward relentlessly, like a powerful train on a track carved from granite.

We’re about halfway up, and I gaze over the side.  It’s a huge drop—further than three Empire State Buildings! 

BJ trembles as he grabs my arm and franticly points a quarter-mile ahead where C Company is making their way up the steep incline.  “Check out Silver’s mule!” he shouts.

I look up and see Private Silver struggling, anxiously grasping the mule’s tail, holding on for all he’s worth, but the spooked animal is in a crazed battle with the tight pass.  It fights wildly, scuffling out of control on the cramped ledge.  Suddenly, it charges ahead, pulling Silver behind like a tethered dog.  The soldier hangs on desperately, as his panicked mule stumbles, plunges forward, then skyrockets right off the cliff.

I’m stunned. We’re left here standing in the quiet, listening to rubble scuttle over the bluff.  The smell of hot, flying dust is thick in the air.  None of us can speak.  Then my heart flips to my gut as I realize Silver just fell 2,500 feet to his death.

“Mother Fucker!”  Bradson croaks, his eyes wide with terror.

We stop to refocus.  I grit my teeth and swallow the vomit that’s exploded in my mouth.  I turn and look at my buddies—their faces ashen.  It’s a few minutes before I can think. Silver’s gone.  Any optimism I felt about victory in Namhpakka crashed down that cliff with him.  I’m definitely up against two formidable foes: the Japs and this savage terrain.  But there’s no time to mourn.  We’re soon scaling the trail again.  We move forward, braving the torturous switchbacks that crisscross the mountain in one long, monotonous train.

Got to make bivouac before dark, I think.  Or I’ll be navigating blind.  I can’t get Silver’s dying out of my head.  It keeps replaying in my mind over and over.  This place’s a swarming viper’s nest.  But orders are clear: Keep going ‘til we reach Namhpakka—then crush those Nips and take Burma Road.

 

 

© 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.