Tag: Mules

One of the Mars Task Force’s War-Mules (photo 9)

PFC Ronald Knuth, Battery C 612 Field Artillery Battalion, Gun Crewman T4 took this photo.  This is a typical mule utilized by the Mars Task Force to transport sections of the 75 mm Pack Howitzer cannon, ammunition, and supplies.

This photo is by courtesy of Ronald Knuth’s daughter, Sue Knuth Bailey, and is gratefully received.

 

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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.

Footnotes

(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.

https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/american-actress-and-dancer-ginger-rogers-with-actress-news-photo/592441145?adppopup=true

(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.

Jack’s Story, Part 1: Induction, Basic Training, and Specialized Training (veteran’s & family stories 2)

Here are some notes that my father, John Michael Halloran (Jack), wrote about his experience of serving in the armed forces during World War II.  I’ve applied some minor edits, but these are basically his own words.  This blog includes his memories from induction through Specialized Training.  His notes about actually arriving in India, then serving in Burma, will follow in a subsequent post.

Induction

“I received a letter from the draft board in July of 1943.  I was told to go to an address to be graded for the service.  They designated me as “One-A”, (i.e., fit for military service).

I received a letter from the draft board to appear on a date in August.  I was still in high school (in my senior year), and I worried that not finishing school might ruin my life.  One of my friends said that I should talk to his father who was on the draft board.  His father looked at my papers, made a call to St. Ignatius High School, then told me to bring the papers to the draft board on a certain date and tell them that I was in my last semester of high school and would like to graduate.

The draft board said they could not draft me if I was in my last semester of school.  They called St. Ignatius, who told them that my graduation would be in August of 1943, then the draft board told me that on my graduation day, after the ceremony, I was to board a train at 5:00 pm to go to Fort Ord.”

Fort Ord: Basic Training

“At Fort Ord, we were issued two blankets, two pair of khaki shorts (underwear), fatigue shirt and pants, dress uniform pants and blouse, and a cap.  Also issued were: shaving soap, shaving brush, three khaki handkerchiefs, two pair of khaki socks, and a pair of brown boots.

When we got to Fort Ord we were lined up in a narrow hallway.  As we walked forward we saw a bar over the doorway, with several soldiers standing there.  I wasn’t sure if I would hit the bar, so I ducked my head.  They immediately said, “Go left.”  I went left, and when I got into the room I felt like a pigmy–everyone was taller.  They were 6’2, 6’3, 6’4, 6’5, 6’6, and 6’7.  An officer came in and told us, “I hope you’ll enjoy being in the Mountain Battery.  We’re headed for Muskogee, Oklahoma.”  (1)

Camp Gruber: Specialized Training

“We were lifting 75-mm cannons that broke down to five sections: breechblock, carriage, cannon, right trail, and left trail.  The five parts each went on a type of saddle that was placed on a mule.  There were ten ammunition mules carrying the 75-mm shells, with five shells on each mule, for a total of fifty shots.

The mules we got were wild, right off the range, and we had to rope them, try not to get kicked, and get them used to the saddle.  They were skittish when we loaded the gun parts and the ammunition on them.

The camp was Camp Grubber, in Oklahoma.  We started walking the mules each morning, afternoon, and early evening.  Next, we put saddles on then walked the mules three times a day.  Finally, we practiced putting the artillery loads on the saddles.”

Camp Carson: Specialized Training

“At Camp Carson we hiked with the mules up so far on Pike’s Peak.  We had down sleeping bags and we slept in the snow. 

We accumulated most of the items on the captain’s list.  (2)

When training was over, we broke camp at Carson and were split into three groups: about 40% of our troop went to New Orleans with the mules, about 40% of our troop went to Santa Ana and shipped out, and, finally, about 20% of us (me included) went by ship to Bombay, India.”  (3)

Post Script

I think Dad was planning to write about his experience in Burma.  He was reading the history tome Burma Road, (4) and The Marauders, (5) some years before he passed.  I think these books jogged memories of his time in Burma, and he probably considered compiling these thoughts into a memoir.  I wish he had, as the notes I did find are good, although brief and incomplete.  Even still, there are details in these notes that, along with his verbal stories, inspired the writing of my fiction novel The Burma Road.

 

Footnotes

(1)  According to his verbal account, the bar above the door at Fort Ord was there for the officers to easily spot who was six feet, or taller.  If the private ducked while attempting to miss the bar, this indicated he was tall enough for the Mars Task Force.  He was then instructed to turn left.  The men who turned left were trained for a special long-range penetration unit being formed to fight in Burma.  The other men, who were told to go right, were trained for the European Theatre, or other factions of the war.  The Mars Task Force required men of strength and height, as they were packing sections of the Howitzer cannons onto the backs of mules.  They needed strength and height to load, and unload, the heavy parts.

(2)  Dad told me he and his friends were commissioned by their captain to scavenge around the base looking for items on a wish list.  These were hard to come by objects which the captain needed but which were in short supply due to war-rationing, things such as typewriters and writing pads.  Dad, and his buddies, would scout for things during the day, then go “lift” them (i.e., steal) at sunset, when they were less likely to be caught.  One of the desired supplies, a typewriter, was spotted sitting next to an open window, and they went back after dark and confiscated the booty. Their captain was much wiser, and he stored the prized typewriter inside the barracks, out of sight, where no one could steal it.

(3)  I wish I could ask my dad about his memories of shipping out to Bombay.  According to Ken Laabs’ memoir (6), B Company went to New Orleans with the mules, then shipped to Calcutta.  I don’t know why Dad was not shipped with this group, as he was also in B Company.  Was he reassigned companies after he arrived in Burma?  Or, are his recollections a little off?  Sadly, I’m not able to ask him, as he passed in 2009.  So, I’m writing The Burma Road using Ken’s notes as my guide, as I have very few details about Dad’s trip to Bombay.

This discrepancy did present the need for creative story telling when I wrote this part of the novel.  I wanted Jack Holloway to ship to Calcutta, but I had to include fictional details about why he didn’t herd the mules to Lido, Burma, then further on to Myitkyina.  In my novel, he stays behind at Camp Dum Dum (the camp’s real name, by the way) and later takes a train to Lido.  From Lido, he flies on a C-47 to Myitkyina and is under immediate attack when he gets off the plane.  This additional change from Ken Laabs’ memoir allowed me to include both Dad’s details about the train ride, and Art Naff’s story about being under fire at the air field.  Art is a Mars Task Force veteran that I met and interviewed at the 2016 and 2017 Mars Task Force Reunions.

(4)  Burma Road, Nicol Smith, 1942. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc.

(5)  The Marauders, Charlton Ogburn, Jr., 1959. Harper & Brothers, Publishers

(6)  Mars Task Force, 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk), Attached to the 5332nd Brigade (Prov). Unpublished memoir by Ken E. Laabs. Photocopied 2017.

 

© 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.

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.