The story of Squadron Leader RG Johnson's remarkable escape through Burma after being shot down over the Yaw Chaung.
On Jan 14th 1945 28 Squadron RAF was based at Kalemyo, in the Kabaw Valley, Burma. I was O.C. 'A' Flight. British Forces had just crossed the Chindwin River about 16 miles to the east and were also pushing south in the Kabaw Valley and into the Gangaw Valley.
In the early morning of the 14th I was briefed by the A.L.O. to do a reconnaissance of roads, bridges and waterways in the Pokakku - Pagan area along the Irrawaddy River. This was about 150 miles S.S.. East from Kalemyo. The object was to determine the Japanese lines of communication over which troops and supplies were being transported. My No. 2 (or weaver) was FL/LT Gavin Douglas an experienced Pilot but this was to be his first operational mission. We got airborne at about 8 A.M. and travelled to the target area at low level. It was a nice sunny day and the flight was uneventful as we skimmed over trees and paddy fields. I did a close inspection at low level of roads and bridges and then headed south along the Irrawaddy. No Japanese had been seen and only a few bullock carts were moving on the roads. As we went south Douglas was about 25 feet off the water and line abreast on my port side.
A short distance south of Pagan and at a point where a small chaung came in from the east I saw some movement. I swung left crossing close behind Douglas to check it out. I then saw a large river boat a short distance up the chaung and a dozen or more men were loading large petrol or oil drums. It was only seconds since I first swung left and I was now in a steep turn around the mast of the boat when there were two heavy impacts on my aircraft. I knew at once I had been hit with fairly heavy flak. I headed N. West across the river gaining some height and told Douglas over the radio that I’d been hit. There was a hole in the bottom of my aircraft between my feet and glycol was spraying up. The other strike must have been on the engine. A quick check of the instrument panel indicated I was at about 1588 feet, engine temperature was rising and oil pressure was almost zero.
Smoke was coming from the engine. I was now west of the Irrawaddy and approaching the Yaw Chaung. It looked too rough for a forced landing so I decided to bale out. I told Douglas by radio of my intention and just before I Pulled the wireless Plus I heard him say “good luck old chap”. I was losing height, but stayed with it until I was passing over a village on the west bank of the Yaw Chaung. At that point I was very low so jettisoned the canopy and tried to climb out. I had difficulty standing up so jettisoned the escape panel on the starboard side and rolled out. I saw the tail plane pass in front of my face then pulled the ripcord.
It seemed only a second or so until I landed with a jar and tumbled sideways. I was on top of a ridge with a deep gully to the north. My pistol was missing, probably caught on the aircraft as I rolled out. I snapped off my escape kit from under the parachute seat cushion and ran to the west along the ridge.
Within a few minutes I heard voices so I went into the gulley. The wireless cord was a bother so I yanked the earphones from my helmet and stuffed masks cord and phones into a hole in the ground. I ran west along the gulley. About 5 minutes later I heard a lot of yelling then saw people about 500 yards away running toward me along the ridge on the north side of the gully. There were others on the south ridge ahead of me.
I climbed the north ridge and slid down a steep slope, the only cover was low scrub bush. By chance I slid into a shallow depression in the hillside eighteen inches or so deep and the bush was more dense at this location. I burrowed in pulling the foliage over me then remained motionless. The voices were suddenly loud and very close.
I carefully slid my knife out but otherwise did not move. People came so close I thought they would hear my heart pounding but I was not discovered. At one point I looked up the hill and saw a Japanese soldier with a rifle on top of the ridge. The talking and shouting wou1d sometimes be close to me and sometimes at a distance and there was also the barking of dogs. I decided to stay under cover until dark and during the long wait I debated with myself the pros and cons of surrendering or fighting if I should be discovered. I decided that if there was only one I would try to silence him quick1y but otherwise I’d surrender and hope for the best. It was an immense relief when darkness came and all was quiet.
I waited another hour or so before leaving my hiding place then climbed to the ridge and followed it west. I moved very cautiously stopping to listen at frequent intervals, and then the ridge levelled out. I continued west until I was getting close to a village. I gave the village a wide birth and was then in rough undulating terrain with thin bush. Walking was difficult and tiring. With the first glimmer of light. in the sky I found a hiding place among roots of an old dead tree. It had been washed out some and was almost like a cave. After prodding around for snakes I crawled in and contemplated the events of the night and previous day.
I dozed off and on and as the day progressed I occasionally heard aircraft in the near distance which sounded like Hurricanes. They were probably search aircraft from 28 Sqdr,. Having managed to avoid capture and to get even a. short distance away was great boost for my moral. All was quiet and I judged I must be at least a few miles beyond the village I had passed. I had been using my escape kit as a pillow. How fortunate I was to have such a well stocked kit and I thought back to the time I had sewn it together by hand.
Regulation escape gear was a coverall type of garment with a lot of pockets for maps etc. I had found the garment much too hot to wear when flying low level behind a heat producing Rolls Royce Merlin and the pockets were not too adequate anyway. A lot of our missions were a long way behind enemy lines and I had concluded that if one were to survive in a hostile environment It would be necessary to be self-sufficient for a reasonable period of time.
I cut up some khaki trousers and fashioned a square bag the size of a parachute cushion with a slit, in the center for the harness. I sewed it by hand and put buttons on a flap at the top. Two straps also made of cloth were sewn on. I extended the tabs which normally held the sponge cushion on top of the parachute so the kit, which when filled was 3 to 4 inches thick, would fit under the cushion.
It was now time to take stock of supplies and to decide on a plan of action. I had 3 metal tins containing Horlicks tablets (malted milk waifers about 3/4 x 1 x 1/8 inches), Benzedrine tablets, chewing gum, fish line and hooks,salt tablets, needle and thread, mepacrine tablets, water sterilizing crystals and some bandage and sulpha powder. I also had a bar of hard chocolate, a canvass water chargal , a flashlight with good batteries, a money belt (Indian Rupees),a. magnifying glass, a metal mirror and maps and compasses. The best compass was a. regulation marching compass with luminous dial with V sight and mirrored top for taking back bearings. My wrist watch was also luminous. The maps I had for the mission covered the area over which I would need to travel but I had others if I wandered too far astray. One map was of the lower Chindwin area on a scale of 1/500 000 with contours of 580 feet arid the other map was a 1/4 inch (1 inch 4 miles) with contours of’ 250 feet. Magnetic deviation was about one degree east of grid north.
As a reconnaissance pilot I was familiar with map reading so with a good compass and maps I was confident of being able to “steer a course”. I was wearing heavy leather boots, thick woo1 socks, tropica1 weight green battle dress and a. flying helmet now without earphones. I had a clean white handkerchief and a regulation knife with a 7 inch, thick blade. I studied the maps and decided on a course. I would walk on a bearing of 270 degrees aiming to strike the Yaw Chaung where it was joined by the Kin Chaung about 16 to 18 miles west of my approximate present position. From that point, the Yaw C. extended west for about 1 miles and thereafter the flow was from the north down a long valley. The map indicated there was a track more or less following the chaung and I would then be heading almost due north and could follow the mountains until I got into the Gangaw valley. Our forces had been advancing in this direction when I left. I estimated It might take me 24 to 30 days to reach Gangaw.
I counted the Horlicks and on a ration of 6 per day there were enough to last 38 days. I would nibble sparingly of the chocolate until it was gone. The immediate problem was water and I was already very thirsty. The map indicated I would be in barren rough country to begin with but there was some small chaungs marked where I should be able to find water. Ken MacVicar 0. C. ‘B’ Flight, had crashed behind Jap lines and made his way back just two weeks prior to my bale out and since he was close to a village he had been obliged to make contact. The villagers professed to be friendly but within a half hour the Japs appeared and MacVicar was very fortunate in being able to avoid capture for this reason I decided to avoid contact with Burmese if at all possible. It would be safer to travel by night and hide during the day and additionally I’d conserve energy when it was cool. Travel by night would be slower but I concluded safety and conservation of energy were more important. I repacked my kit with the flashlight on top and put one tin containing Horlicks in a breast pocket and a 1/4 inch map in another pocket. I had a piece of string tied to the marching compass which would be tied to my web belt.
I felt very good about having made all these plans and was anxious for nightfall so I could get moving. Two Horlicks for breakfasts two for lunch and two just before dark did not do much to satisfy hunger and it was not easy to swallow a mepacrine tablet without water. I tried chewing some grass and in particular the roots, hoping to get some moisture but the taste was dreadful and my mouth and tongue felt dryer than they had before. I studied the map, committing to memory the general rise and fall of the ground and any salient points I might be able to pick out at night, especially the chaungs.
I did not start when it was twilight but waited until it was truly dark. The sky was clear and having noted a compass course I used a bright star in the western sky as a guide. Later that night I discovered the constellation of Orion was due east and since it was so readily distinguishable I used it constantly. There was only scrub bush in the rough hi1ly country and no sign of habitation. The first stream bed I came upon was absolutely dry. Using my knife and hands I dug 2 to 3 feet but there was no sign of moisture. On two other occasions that night I came upon dried up streambeds and although I dug a number of holes there was no moisture to be found. By the time the sky started to lighten I was feeling very tired and quite discouraged at not finding water. I convinced myself I’d be more fortunate the next night so sticking to my plan I found a fairly dense clump of bush that would provide both concealment and shade.
The night had been quite cool but the day was hot and again I had difficulty swallowing the mepacrine and Horlicks. I dozed off and on and resisted the urge to move on by daylight. I studied the map and when darkness came set off using the stars as guides. My efforts at finding water were a repeat of the previous night, no luck at all. By the time the sky brightened I was very tired and in very low spirits. Again I found a place to hide and keep out of the sun. By this time I realized how essential it was to avoid the sun and to rest as much as I could.
According to the map I should have come upon at least two tracks in the arid country and I had decided to follow either one of them north to a village and a source of water. I had not found them and concluded there was a chance the map was inaccurate or the tracks were no longer used and had drifted over. I had not had a pinpoint on my location so there was no way of being certain I was on my intended course. I was discouraged with the situation and at times visualized simply perishing in the bloody barren part of the country. I’d never be found and the vultures would make short work of me. I thought often of my family in Canada and wondered if they knew what had happened. At times I dreamed of guzzling quarts of ice cold milk and eating all sorts of nice food.
It was now the 4th day and it was obvious I had not travelled the number of miles as planned. Digging for water took a lot of time and by this time my fingers were raw and sore. I was afraid of infection. As well, it had been necessary to stop to rest frequently the previous night. I decided not to dig for water as it seemed of no avail and I would then he able to cover more ground. I set off again after dark and had walked only an hour or so when I had to stop for a rest. I do not remember starting up again but suddenly found myself stumbling along and shortly came to the terrifying realization the kit was not on my back. I was in a state of panic and alternately cursed and cried as I searched for it. I eventually calmed down and started a. systematic search trying to retrace my steps in a series of square search patterns. It must have been about 3 hours later that I found some of my tracks in sand and there was the kit in the place I had stopped to rest. At this point my curses changed to prayers and I was so exhausted I fell asleep and did not awaken ti11 day1ight.
I had been keeping track of the days by making marks on the map and continued to do so although I don’t remember much of the next 3 days and nights. My tongue was swollen, my throat parched and I seemed to have a continuous high temperature. It. was after midnight on the 7th night when I came upon a bullock cart track which ran north arid south. I followed it north and soon realized I was walking in soft mud. I hurried along and soon found myself in water a few inches deep. I gulped and gulped until I regurgitated. I had been gulping half mud and half water. Realizing the water was used as a watering place for water buffalo I looked for the deepest part and drank some clearer water. After soaking the water chargal I filled it with reasonably clear water and tied it to my web belt with the cloth straps from the chargal. Lady luck was again with me and I was on “cloud 9”. I felt that a village would not be far off and that there wou1d probably be a source of water such as a stream. I continued north, found the village, and since all was quiet circled it at a short distance but did not find any water. I followed the track north and when daylight was near found a hiding place a 1/4 mile or so west of the cart track. The vegetation was ‘now reasonably dense so it was not difficult to find a safe place.
Although I heard voices in the distance I slept more than usual during the day. I was confident I would now be able to find a stream and resolved I would not stray very far from water at any time. I sipped sparingly of the murky water which I’d doctored with sterilizing crystals and about 1/2 remained at day‘s end.
Again I waited until the sun was welt below the mountains in the west then headed north looking for the Yaw C. I lost the cart track in some unexplainable way and found myself in quite dense bush. Progress was slow so at daylight when all was quiet I decided to continue walking for an hour or so to make up for lost time. After a short time I suddenly found I was close to the edge of what appeared to be a clearing. On moving cautiously forward I saw a native woman with a basket on her head walking along a path toward me. Thinking she had not seen me I dropped to my knees. She came slowly toward me, peering into the bush with a wide grin on her face and it was obvious she was aware of something. I tried to pretend I was a dog by making barking noises but she was not fooled. She parted the bushes so I stood up and stepped forward. Her expression changed abruptly. I pointed to her basket and by signs indicated I wanted something to eat. She shook her head and at once hurried off in a northerly direction along a cart track.
I crossed the track and open area then crouched in the bush. The woman did not look back but I could then see she was going directly to some huts. Almost at once a. number of native men brandishing bamboo staves and shouting ran out from among the huts in my direction. I ran away from the track and was making a lot of noise in my haste. The shouting was getting louder so I scrambled into a very dense clump of bush, pulled twigs arid leaves over myself, then remained still. The shouting came closer then started to fade and I realized the natives were following the track thinking I had gone in that direction. I moved off to the west, stopping frequently to listens and after a. few miles found a good hiding place. Although I was almost exhausted when I stopped I was so apprehensive of having been followed I slept very little during the day and vowed I’d stick to night travel only. On pondering over the map I could not come to a. conclusion as to my position. I finished off the little water remaining in the chargal and felt I’d have to find more soon. It was obvious I was still south of the Yaw C. but since it swung north in a big loop I might still be more than a night’s travel from It. My spirits alternately soared and sagged depending on immediate events and I think that having no one to share problems with induced a very lonely feeling. I was tempted to try the Benzedrine but since I had been told that the high it produced was followed by a low I resisted the impulse.
The next night was uneventful other than very difficult walking in dense growth over hilly terrain and I did not find any water. Insects were now more plentiful but since it was the dry season fortunate1y there were no leaches. Spiders caused some concern as during the day I saw innumerable large webs with great hairy spiders waiting patiently for their prey. I did not know if any were poisonous but since they were so obnoxious looking I avoided them like the plague. However, when moving at night I wou1d sometimes resort to crawling through some particularly dense areas because there was less growth close to the ground. At times I would sudden1y find my face enveloped by a web which stuck to my beard. Even after a lot of clawing and tearing at it, there was always a lingering feeling of something crawling down my neck.
The following night I was still not sure of my position and due the denser growth the stars were not always in view. It was impossible to hold a steady course. I resorted to using the compass more often and occasionally when I felt it safe I would shield the flashlight with my handkerchief so only a glimmer of light was visible and try to relate particularly high rises of ground to map contours. It was obvious I covered a lot of ground without advancing a great distance. However there was always something to be thankful for and I was at least not being chased and my strength was holding up. Long after midnight I came upon another cart track and on following it to the north, I found another water hole. Much 1arger and deeper than the first one. Putting my handkerchief over my face I sucked water through it and soon felt quite refreshed.
Having filled my chargal I looked for the village which was no doubt not far away. The ground was now sloping away sharply in front of me and I suddenly heard a dog bark. On creeping forward I saw a lot of bashas and could smell wood smoke along with the aroma of food. Thinking I might be able to find a cooking pot with some dregs in it I started to enter the vi1lage. Other dogs began barking but they did not follow when I made a hasty retreat. I heard voices as some villagers were awakened. I decided that as long as I had Horlicks trying to steal food wasn’t worth the risk. The sloping of the ground indicated the vi11age may have been near a stream so I moved away to the west for a distance then followed the slope to the north. Although it was not yet daybreak I began to hear voices and other sounds not too far away so I decided I’d find a hiding place for the day. I went back into the densely covered hills and had entered a small clearing on the side of a hill when all at once I heard an anima1 bark. I had heard the same sound several times during the night and it didn’t sound like a dog’s bark. I’d had no problem with wild animals so far but this was quite scary. I had stopped and was motionless when suddenly a small deer burst from the bush into the clearing, wheeled away and gave another loud bark as it crashed back into the bush. I saw a short white tail and heard other deer jump into motion and crash off through the bush. (I learned later they were Muntjacs).It was a decided relief to know the fierce sounding bark was not made by some ferocious animal. It was quite cool so I thought I’d rest at the edge of the bush until the sun came out. In a. short time I began to feel the warmth of the sun and drifted off to sleep. I was suddenly aware of something but didn’t know what had triggered the feeling. I had become accustomed to awakenlng yet remaining motionless until I was aware of my surroundings and on this occasion I heard nothing but did feel a slight movement on my legs. Still without moving I glanced down arid saw a snake about 3 feet long slithering across my legs just below the knees. It continued moving and disappeared in twigs arid leaves along the side of the hill. I thought it was a cobra. It was the only snake I saw on my trek although there were undoubtedly plenty them around. It was for this reason I had chosen to wear heavy boots and gaiters as part of my flying gear.
I had water in my chargal and moreover felt I was getting close to the Yaw C. I was in a confident mood when I set off on a westerly course that night arid sure enough it wasn’t 1ong before I found the elusive stream. I considered it a. real milestone as I’d now be in country where map reading would be easier and water would no longer be a problem. I could hear a gurgling sound in the near distance and soon found the junction where the Kin Chaung came in from the south. I stripped off and wallowed in the cool water rinsed my chargal thoroughly and refilled it.. With my boots and clothes in a bundle which I held over my head I forded the Kin C. After dressing I set off alone the gravelled bank on the south side of the Yaw C. The stream did not follow a straight course but I was making good time. It. was so much better than walking through the forest. I was aware my boots made quite a noise on the gravel and before daybreak heard the sound of natives and water buffalo a short distance ahead. I stopped at once and a voice called out as if hai1ing me. There was some conversation and the voices came closer so I scrambled up the bank, into some thorn bushes and remained quiet. The natives did not climb the bank but I heard them going to and fro, along the gravel. After a time all was quiet so I moved off into the hills and found a hiding Place for the day.
I was absolutely elated at having found the Junction of the two streams. There should now be no problem following either the Yaw C. as it wound it’s way down narrow valleys or the track which was more or less parallel to it. When the Yaw swung off to the west, just north of the village of Pasok there was a track that led north through the mountains to Ti1in and thence to Gangaw.
I was now in very hilly country - the beginning of the Chin Mountains, covered mostly with bamboo forest. The walking was not too difficult so I decided to move more or less parallel to the stream until I was beyond the village before I went down for water. At one point I went into a depression between two hi1ls and sudden1y the bamboos were alive with monkeys. They seemed to be everywhere - shrieking and howling, and obviously very agitated. I had seen monkeys attack and claw a friend of mine when he teased them with a banana. The antics of this horde were terrifying to me. I retreated up the slope and was thankful they did not follow farther than the crest of the hill. Although it meant a lot of walking I gave the narrow valley a wide birth and eventually went down to the stream to wash up and fill the chargal. The remainder of the night was uneventful and at daybreak I again took refuge in the high hills away from the stream.
That night I was still heading west when I came upon a cart track and the junction of a small chaung. Thinking I was in the vicinity of the village of Hnetchaung where the Yaw swung north I crossed the Yaw and followed a track leading north. The track soon petered out so I did a zig zag course trying to find the Yaw C. again. When daylight came I had not found it and I realized I was lost. I finally climbed a high Peak to find a landmark. From this position I saw that the hills sloped away to the east and almost at the horizon I could see the sun shining on a broad river that curved down from the north at a point where a smaller river joined it from the west. I recognized it as being the junction of the Kyaw River and the Yaw Chaung. Looking to the west where the mountains rose sharply I saw a prominent peak which I tentatively identified as being a spot height (7923’) marked on the 1/4 inch map near the village of Kanpetlet about 20 miles to the S.W. I took a back bearing with my compass and an approximate fix on my position. I was about 4 miles north of where I thought I should be. Having traversed a lot of hilly country I decided to rest during the day as usual and retrace my path to the Yaw C. at night.
As the sun was sinking behind the mountains I headed south and in due time came to the Yaw C. and picked up my intended course once more. By daybreak I was near the village of Kyaukleit and found a thick bush in which to hide for the day. I had not noticed a shrine or place of worship when I went into hiding but during the day women and children came to visit the place which was only about 150 feet from where I was hiding. I could hear voices and sounds from the village throughout the day and was not able to get much sleep.
When darkness came and the villagers seemed to have bedded down I moved off to the west looking for the village of Hnetchaung where the Yaw came down from the north. I forded a stream and when I could not find the cart track I was looking for recrossed the stream and eventually found the village which I circled before going back to the stream again. On approaching the water I was suddenly aware there were about half dozen people stretched out sleeping and there were a number of rafts on which were large wicker baskets. I was about. two feet from one man. He was covered with a blanket and his head was on a pack. I was certain he was a Japanese as there were boots on his feet. I had walked across gravel and it was miraculous the sound had not wakened them. Moving with extreme caution and keeping a watch at the sleeping men I walked backwards untill was off the gravel. I found the track I had been looking for and followed it north. I skirted one more village and by daybreak had reached the village of Pasok. I found a place to hide in the hills overlooking the large village and fell asleep.
The sun was well above the horizon when I was awakened by the sound of voices singing and chanting. I covered myself with twigs and leaves and remained quiet. The singing came very close on the hillside below me and I could see group of about 20 native men. They had long, wide bladed knives with large handles with which they proceeded to chop down bamboo trees. As they worked they sang. The path they had followed up the hill was below me and I was relieved to see they were working their way down the hill. This continued until afternoon so again I did not get too much rest.
When darkness came I found the cart track and followed it to the north. I had travelled for a few miles when I heard bullock carts creeking down the track towards me. I hid in the bushes until they passed then continued walking. I had not gone far when I came upon a cart stopped on the track. The terrain was such that I could not pass it readily without being seen. Natives did not generally move about at night but I knew that the Japanese did so I decided to detour. I went across country back to the Yaw C. and followed the stream until it was time to take cover for the day. There was no sound or other indication such as smelt of smoke to suggest there was any habitation near so I washed my socks and spread my clothes to dry while I basked in the sun. I dozed during the day and pondered on the events of the past week or so. I was now at a higher altitude .and the nights were quite cool. This was particularly noticeable when I was wet from wading across streams. There had been no rain. I hadn’t been able to find any berries or other edible growth. The horlicks seemed to provide a reasonable amount of energy but frequent rests were necessary. I’d lost considerable weight and had twice sewn tucks in the waistband of my trousers. The waist was adjustable with straps but the adjustment had not,been enough to take up the slack. The web belt supported my knife and water chargal but did nothing for the trousers and they were a rea1 nuisance when they sagged. Despite the difficulties I was convinced that moving at night was my best option. If our own forces had made any gains I might encounter Japanese forces at any time.
As twilight deepened I pushed on, crossed one stream then another. I was in an area of sparse vegetation when I heard a low flying twin engine aircraft approaching. I hurriedly got my flashlight out and when the aircraft was near flashed in morse code, dit,dah,dah,dah, for J the first letter of my name. I did this a few times and was certain I’d seen the navigation lights flash in recognition. The aircraft did not circle but disappeared on a northerly course. It could have been RAF or Japanese, I had no way of knowing. Later that night I was trying to pick up a cart track and had been in quite dense bush when I came upon a clearing bounded on two sides by a hedge. I thought I was probably near a village but had not heard any sounds or detected any unusual aromas. I’d Just started to cross the clearing when there was a sudden shrieking and screaming of monkeys in the trees to my left. They came down from the trees arid spread around the clearing. They seemed to be quite large, at least two to three feet high and one large one came toward me making growling noises. I found some twigs and pebbles and threw them at him. He became all the more agitated and jumped around in a menacing way. I was starting to panic when I pulled my flashlight from the top of my kit and shone it at the 1arge anima1 who was now about ten feet away. As soon as the light went on there was louder screaming and the entire pack of them rushed for the trees. I could hear them shrieking as they crashed of through the trees. I lost no time in going in the opposite direction jumping a hedge into another clearing and then off into more bush. I do not know if they were monkeys or apes but they seemed to be larger than the monkeys I had encountered previously . I moved away from the area, found the cart tracks and fo11owed it til1 day1ight.
I was hiding in bush near an open area on the side of a hill when a DC3 came along the valley flying low. I hurriedly got my metal mirror out and tried to attract attention by reflection of the sun. There was no response and the DC3 did not come back. however it was an exciting development. The DC3 with side door open and at such a 1ow a1titude probab1y meant it was looking for a drop zone. It could be that our forces which had been pushing south toward Gangaw had made a really great advance and were now south of the Garngaw Valley or perhaps there was a V force (organised natives) operating somewhere in the hills. I did a lot of speculating but there was no way I could arrive at any conclusion other than to feel I might not have to travel as far as Gangaw after all.
After dark I went back to the cart track headed north arid due to the recent aircraft activity was more cautious than ever, pausing often to listen for unusual sounds. At about midnight I felt I should be getting close to the village of Mi—e so I was moving only a hundred yards or so at a time. All at once I was aware of voices in the bush on the east side of the track. I crept closer and concluded the language was not like any I had heard used by natives. Keeping close to the bush I crept along the track and saw the glow of some fires through the bush. Very shortly I came to a stream and was looking for a shallow place to cross when I heard a rattle of stones on the other side of the stream. I ran behind a clump of thorn bushes and crouched on one knee with my knife in my hand. I remained motionless for quite a time when suddenly there was a splash and clatter of stones. A figure, with rifle and bayonet extended rounded the thorn bush. I dived at him and we both sprawled on the ground. I lunged with my knife hitting him on the back but there was no penetration. He started to roll over. My right hand, which had been my support as I lunged, happened to be on a fair sized rock. I swung the rock in an overhead motion and hit him in the face just as he rolled. There was no sound from him and he did not move. I got to my feet, splashed across the stream.. and went as fast as I could along the track. After about two hundred yards the track went across some open ground. I hurried on and was on the upgrade of a slight rise when a Japanese soldier appeared walking toward me. He was very close when I saw him and I instinctively felt that to run would be fatal. I slouched by him and as soon as I reached some bush I took cover. Almost immediately about 20 or more Japanese came along all carrying packs and rifles. There was also a couple of bullock carts. I remained in the bush at the side of the track and very shortly a large number of Japanese passed by, perhaps a hundred or more. I moved away from the track into the hills and pondered as to what my next move should be. Just at daylight I crept back down to the track and saw another small group of Japanese pass by. I went back into the hills and found cover for the day.
It seemed the Japanese might be retreating so friendly forces should be somewhere in the general area, but perhaps only an LRP. If there were more .Japs to the north of my position it was possible they could take a different route in retreat and our forces might by—pass the Mi—e area. Now that I was getting close I gave considerable thought as to how I might make safe contact. In dense country one’s view was very limited so it was impossible to observe troop movements from a distance. By the time anyone was within sight it was too late to run. I’d just have to take a chance.
I thought I’d avoid the cart track and instead head across country to the north in the direction of the village of Lessaw so at dusk I started to move. I soon saw some camp fires ahead and decided not to risk trying to pass them. On returning to the track I heard voices so retreated back to the hil1s. I was feeling very frustrated but didn’t want to make a bad decision after all the many nights of struggle. During the next few hours I heard the sounds of fighting in the distance to the north. There was the sound of what I thought to be mortars and also the rattle of automatic weapons. It was spasmodic and it was hard to judge the distance due to echoes in the valley but I concluded it might be 3 to 4 miles away. I remained in my safe place and during the day all was quiet. My second tin of Horlicks was almost gone so I thought I’d get the last tin opened and ready for use. To my dismay it was not in the kit. It may have f.allen out when I had the struggle with the Jap back near Mi—e. At any rate there were only 6 Horlicks left. I decided to try the benzadrine so about 6 pm I ate 2 Horlicks and a Benzedrine.
When it was dark I swallowed another benzadrine and went back to the track. Al1 was quiet so I headed north. When I came to a small village I took off boots and socks so as to make less noise and then walked straight through . I didn’t stop to rest that night and just before daybreak I estimated I should be quite near Lessaw. I moved off the track and found cover on the side of a hill about 50 feet below a ridge. Almost immediately I heard the plodding of animal hoofs the creak of leather and jingle of chains. Not knowing if they were friend or foe I remained hiding.
During the day I saw DC3’s dropping supplies at the east end of the long valley in the vicinity of a couple of knolls. At dark I finished off the Horlicks and took a couple of Benzedrine tablets before I started to move that night. I did not walk on the track but rather in the bush and parallel to it in an easterly direction. I did not want to be caught in the open by surprise. The Benzedrine did it’s work and by daylight I was at the east end of the valley. There had been some gunfire during the night but due to the dense growth I could not pinpoint it. It was now quite light and from my position on a ridge I could see the 2 knolls so decided I’d go in that direction. I went down the hill, passed close to some huts and saw 2 natives. They in, turn saw me but I Just kept on going. I hiked across the valley to the closest knoll and climbed to it’s top. I thought this would be a good vantage point from which to spot the drop zone if the DC3’s came back. I took my chargal from my be1t and leaned down to rest it against a large tree. At that moment. I heard movement and at once saw 3 Indian soldiers coming over the crest of the hill. It flashed through my mind that I was safe at last and started to raise my hands. The soldier nearest to me had an automatic weapon at about his hip level and just as I raised my hands he pulled the trigger. There was the swish of bullets around me before I dived behind the tree. I yelled in English “ Do not fire, I’m a British officer”. There were another couple of bursts which thudded into the tree and threw up dirt from the ground. I yelled again, this time in Urdu. No answer arid no sound. I pulled out my handkerchief, waived it around the tree and shouted again. Sti1l no sound. I thought they might be circling around the knoll so I jumped up, scrambled down the hill and across the valley to the closest hill and bush. I ran along a ridge for a short distance then hid under some dead, fallen trees. Al1 was quiet the remainder of the day. I thought the Indian soldiers must be part of a long range patrol which could be wel1 in advance of the main forces. With no Horlicks tablets and feeling the let down from the Benzedrine I concluded I was in a “now or never” situation. My bursts of energy at night were getting shorter and I was having to rest more frequently and although the Benzedrine had a short range effect, I didn’t think I could make it through the hills to Gangaw. After much agonizing I made a decision in the late afternoon. I stripped off to the waist so as to expose my white skin, carried my battledress top and kit by hand and started back along the ridge. If I encountered Japs s I ‘d have to rely on running or hiding but if I came upon our own forces perhaps they’d see I was white skinner and hold their fire. I walked down into the valley and after a mile or so I heard voices through the bush ahead. I crawled forward and saw a group of natives in a dried up gully. There was about a dozen men and also women and children. There were cook ing pots over fires. I watched them for a short time then decided to risk making contact. As I scrambled down into the gully the women and children ran off but the men remained. By sign language I indicated I wanted some food. Their expressions were neither friendly or antagonistic but they were obviously apprehensive. I guessed they may have been obliged to leave their village because of the recent fighting. I sat down with legs crossed and the men crouched in a semicircle in front of me. I desperately wanted to show them I was friendly so got out my last small piece of chewing gum, broke it in two and handed a piece to an older native who seemed to be in authority. I chewed my piece and he did likewise. He broke into a grin and chattered to the other men. Suddenly they were all smiles, the women and children came back, and as result of signs and gestures I was given a bowl of rice. I ate more than I should have under the circumstances. The old man handed me some sort of a cigar which I think was rolled up bamboo leaves. It was not pleasant but I had a puff or two just to please him. I had a card in my kit with several native dialects in phonetic phrases and I tried to converse with them. The only words which triggered a response were UNGLI and JAPONI When I repeated Ungli over and over the old man pointed to the south west. Again by sign language I indicated I wanted him to take me to the Ungli. He nodded but indicated that first we would sleep and when the sun came up we would go. I thought of MacVicar’s experience when natives had professed to be friendly and I felt suddenly very uneasy with the situation. I got slowly to my feet and indicated we should go now. He didn’t seem too pleased but nevertheless nodded. I indicated he should walk ahead of me and took a boyof slight stature with me. A couple of other men trailed behind. For what it was worth I made sure the old man saw my hand on my knife.
We walked down the valley through sparse bush for several miles and suddenly came to a stream. About 100 feet ahead of me a group of Indian soldiers were washing themselves in the stream and a soldier with a rifle was standing guard on the bank. We walked up to him and I said “Commanding Officer kidhur hai” He looked at me and casually said “Udhur hai Sahib“ and nodded to his left. He sloped arms and off we went natives included. Within half a minute we walked into .a shallow ravine where the officers of the 4th/l4th Punjabi Regiment were having their evening meal. After explanations and introductions I gave the natives metal rupees from my money belt before they departed. I ate more food and was sorry for having done so.
I cannot remember the Colonel’s name but he was most understanding and solicitous as to my wellbeing. He was much interested in knowing where I had encountered the Japanese and fortunately, due to the 1/4 inch map, I was able to be quite specific. He eventually said they would break camp at daylight and head for Mi—e and that I would go by jeep to him where DC3’s were landing with supplies and the main force was presently located. He summoned the three soldiers who had shot.at me in the morning and they explained they had thought I was part of a Jap patrol so after firing a couple of bursts they went to get reinforcements. I bedded down in a shallow slit trench but didn’t sleep too wel1 because of fierce stomach cramps. At dawn the Colonel gave me a rifle with part of the stock missing, a bandolier of ammunition and suggested we should keep a sharp lookout as his regiment had pushed quickly through the hills in pursuit of the Japanese and he didn’t think any troops had followed to mop up. Jap stragglers they may have missed. We set off in a jeep, myself, an Indian drlver,.an Indian medical officer and a wounded Chin hillman who had been with the regiment.. The Chin was strapped on an overhead stretcher but since he kept rolling off we soon diaguarded the stretcher and tied him in the front seat. The track was extremely rough and we had about 20 miles to cover. We had gone about 4 or 5 miles when I saw a lot of brown skinned men on the track ahead and they quickly disappeared in the bush. The jeep came to an abrupt halt and I scrambled behind a large rock. The Chin was tied down but the two Indians had also dived for cover. When I found courage to peek around the boulder I saw a British officer, nattily dressed in bush hat, shorts, socks complete with tabs and he was walking toward us. I stood up and he said.” It’s OK chaps - we are a Chin Patrol”. We chatted for 5 minutes or so. He was part of V force and had been operating alone in the Chin Mountains for more than a year organizing native resistance. Supplied mostly by air he gathered information and generally tried to harass the Japs from time to time. He said they had been in the Pasok area a week or so ago and if I’d known might have been able to contact them. Before we parted company he told us we would come to two knolls in a valley about 4 or 5 miles along the track. He warned us not to try to pass the knolls without contacting his friend by whistling as loud as possible. Otherwise we might be shot.
We did as he suggested and in response to several whistles a tall red headed Irishman came out of the dense growth and introduced himself. He too was a V force operative working with a group of Chins. (I can’t remember his name). We had lunch with him - hard tack and canned cheese. He said that under normal circumstances he could have alerted forces at Tilin of our coming but due to having been surprised by Japs a few dads ago had lost some gear including his radio.
We pressed on and arrived at Tilin where the medical officer dropped me off at a landing strip. When I approached the pilot of the first DC3 to come in and explained my position he merely said he was very sorry but he had strict orders not to take any passengers. I was utterly astounded that he wouldn’t take me as by this time I was a sad looking sight with scruffy beard, thin as a bean pole, tattered battle dress but still with wings and rank stripes on my tunic. It. was just as well as it turned out because at that time I had need to find a latrine which I did with some haste. I practically exploded and it occurred to me this was the first. bowel movement I’d had since the third day after I had bailed out. Feeling considerably better I went back to the strip to try the next aircraft. This time the pilot - an Australian was very sympathetic and agreed to take me to his destination at Imphal main strip. After we were airbourne I talked him into dropping me off at Kalemyo. He told me 28 Squadron, was no longer there but 221 Group H. Q. was nearby. On landing I went up to the tower and called Group H.Q. by land line asking for Air Commodore Vincent. The AOC was a fine person and knew every pi1ot in his group. His aide-de-camp answered the phone and I heard him say to another person, “he says he is F1t/Lt Johnson of 28 Squadron.” I could hear the AOC say in a loud voice,” Johnson., Johnson, where in the hell IS he?” He then came on the line and after a few words said his staff car would be there in, a few minutes to pick me up.
At Group H.Q. I was greeted by Air Comm. Vincent and General Stratomyer who was visiting at the time. It was the 6th of Feb and I remained at H.Q. until an intel1igence officer, Sqdn/Ldr Huxtable flew in from Calcutta to debrief me. I returned to 28 Sqdrn at Yeu in central Burma a few days later. A few months after this I was notified I had been awarded a Military Cross. Presumably the info I had given the CO of the Punjabi regiment had been of some value. In about April I was sent to visit all forward area squadrons lecturing on escape and evasion.
Sqdn/Ldr R.G. Johnson M.C. J7810 R.C.A.F. (Retired)