One of the first major battles for the Marsmen was held at Tonkwa, a small town south of Bhamo, Burma. The 1st Chinese Regiment, who were fighting with the Allies, had just recently captured Tonkwa. This town was strategically valuable due to its location directly on the north-south route to and from Bhamo, where the Chinese were fighting the Japanese. The route made an ideal retreat for the Japanese if they wanted to escape, and could also be used by them to bring in reinforcements. The Mars Task Force’s mission was to relieve the Chinese army of their occupation of Tonkwa and maintain Ally hold. (1)
Defending Tonkwa was difficult and fraught with abundant opportunity for heroism. The 2nd Battalion’s I & R platoon was sent to scout ahead on December 9th, 1944. They met no resistance from the Japanese until they reached Mo Hlaing, a small village about a mile northeast of Tonkwa. Here, all hell broke loose and three platoons of enemy soldiers descended upon the unit. This skirmish was the Marsmen’s initial taste of real battle. Before the I & R platoon could escape, the first Mars Task Force casualty was claimed, Pvt. Walter C. Mink. He posthumously received a Bronze Star. (2)
More acts of bravery would follow. John Randolph, in his Marsmen in Burma, tells of squad sergeant Wilbert A Netzel who scuttled under a barrage of hot lead while leading four of his men out of the range of fire. He was badly injured, and earned a Bronze Star for his efforts. (3)
Another soldier, Lt. Norman R. Berkness of the 3rd Battalion’s Headquarters, was positioned as forward observer and gave directions to the 2nd and 3rd Battalions for where to aim mortar. He was unlucky enough to be hit three times on the 15th of December.
The first time, a sniper’s bullet took the lobe of his ear. The second time, only minutes later, he suffered a long gash on his cheek from an enemy rifle. But like a true Marsman, the lieutenant refused the aid of the medics and continued fighting. (4) An hour further into battle, the lieutenant’s unit fell under fire from a Japanese Nambu, a semi-automatic pistol which uses low pressure 8 mm cartridges, but could be equipped with type 90 tear gas grenades. (5) Berkness assessed the situation and realized the thick jungle growth prevented him from taking out the Nambu operator with traditional mortar, so he deserted cover and snuck up on the Japanese soldier, attempting to terminate the threat with man-to-man combat. But before he reached the enemy soldier, the Nambu fighter fired on him, shattering his right leg. Later, he was evacuated to safety, where he received a Silver Star for his bravery. (6)
The Marsmen received word the next day that Bhamo had fallen to the Allies and was successfully occupied by the 1st Chinese Regiment. This welcome news must have felt like salve on the men’s morale. (7)
In a slightly humorous recount of an injurious scuffle, Colonel Thrailkill and Major Lattin were on their way to F Company’s Observation Post when Thrailkill sighted a Japanese officer escaping a trap. Thrailkill crawled to what he thought was a better position, aiming to get a good shot, when the enemy soldier spotted him and tossed a grenade his way. It literally bounced off the colonel’s buttocks before exploding, but, unfortunately, it cut shrapnel into Thrailkill’s back and neck. Major Lattin then killed the offending Japanese soldier with a bullet to his head. (8)
Thrailkill evacuated with the other wounded, but returned to battle in Namhpakka a month later. Sadly, he was killed by a Japanese artillery shell while planning coordinates for a mortar attack on an enemy convoy traveling the Burma Road. (9)
In my novel, The Burma Road, I’ve used Lt. Norman R. Berkness’s experience to plot the battle. In Chapter 25, “Tonkwa”, Georgie is the hero of the day. Much like Berkness, he has the spunk to take on a Japanese Nambu fighter. Georgie is headstrong, daring, and makes a fearless sacrifice, putting the safety of his unit before his own. I don’t want to spoil the read, so you’ll have to peruse the chapter to find out how he fares during the one-on-one combat. I hope it holds your interest as surely as Randolph held mine when he recapped the action at Tonkwa.
(1) Marsmen in Burma, John Randolph, 1990. Curators of the University of Missouri, page 95:
(2) Ibid., page 95.
(3) Ibid., page 96.
(4) Ibid., pages 97-98.
(5) Wikipedia.org, Nambu Pistol, Printed 10-05-19. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nambu_pistol
(6) Marsmen in Burma, ibid., pages 97-98.
(7) Ibid.,page 98.
(8) Ibid., page 96.
(9) Ibid., page 174.
© 2019 Jeanne M. Halloran, all rights reserved
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