by Norman Morse of Williton in Somerset
It was with great interest that I read the article by Major John Hill in issue 119 of DEKHO! The article related to the documentary made by Charles Wheeler and his BBC team to commemorate VJ Day.
It was with special interest, that I read of the train journey made by the team, from Myitkyina through the “Railway Corridor” to Naba Junction and beyond. How I remember that much battered and shell torn railway track as it was, when I first saw it in mid July 1944.
At that time, however, the American railway battalion of Northern Combat Area Command had partially restored the line and the so called “Jeep Railway” was up and running as far as Moguang, some thirty miles south. The American engineers had fitted flanged metal wheels to standard road going jeeps. The jeeps, then positioned at each end, pulled and pushed a number of hastily constructed flat bed wagons.
After hitching a ride, it was quite an experience clinging on to anything that came to hand, bombing along at all of thirty miles an hour, forty with a following wind!!, and being entertained by an American escort, blazing away with their semi-automatics at everything that moved in the surrounding jungle.
The “Jeep Railway” was to prove invaluable in the following months to the British 36th Division, of which I was a member in the advance south. Like any “sharp end” soldier, there would be experiences during my North Burma service that I would always remember. One such experience that readily springs to mind, when I think of those long gone days, was the “meeting up” if you can call it that, with “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell. As a member of the 10th Bn Gloucesters advance party, we had flown in from Dibrugarh the previous day, after three months active service with the 14th Army in the Arakan, followed by a short break, at Shillong where the battalion was brought up to strength.
There was about sixty of us in the party, a handful from each Company, the majority of us being “buckshee Privates” of which I was one and a couple of junior NCOs with a Captain, as I recall from Headquarters Company in charge. It was the middle of July 1944 and our small squad was gripped in the throws of a considerable “shake-up” by our Officer in Charge, the reason being there had been an eleventh hour message that the “Boss Man” no less than Stillwell himself, was going to pay us a visit to welcome our small British detachment to his command personally.
The current “flap” was, to a degree, fully justified because by no stretch of the imagination where we in a fit state to be reviewed and inspected as the General’s visit would most certainly entail. “Scruffy” would have been a monumental understatement. However, our general appearance was completely unavoidable, the rest of our kit had not arrived, all we had was what we stood up in.
After arrival at the airstrip at Dibrugarh the previous day our entire party had been shoe-horned into two American Air Force Dakotas and to lighten the load, our small kit had been restricted to the barest of minimums. There was positively no room for cleaning gear, not that it would have made any difference had there been in the conditions that prevailed at that time. We had been wallowing in a sea of mud, since our Dakotas slithered to a standstill on Myitkyina’s only serviceable runway. The monsoon season was at its height and when we arrived the rain was falling like there would be no tomorrow and it was still belting it down some twenty four hours later.
We were drawn up in three rainwashed mud splattered ranks, outside our temporary HQ, the total of which comprised of a ramshackle stilted “Basha” (long deserted by its rightful Burmese occupants) and a couple of supply drop parachutes, strung up between the trees.
Our situation was a mile or so from the airstrip up a narrow rutted track, scarcely the width of a bullock cart, hemmed in on all sides by thick jungle. Suddenly the sound of over revved engines, as their jeep drivers fought for grip, heralded the approach of the Generals entourage. Our Captain, who had been nervously gazing down the track, pulled us up to attention. The jeeps skidded to a halt where upon the Gurkha escort smartly vaulted out and quickly and quietly disappeared into the dense undergrowth.
The General clambered from his vehicle in a more leisurely manner, at which our Guard Commander gave the order “General salute, present arms”. This manoeuvre was accomplished with reasonable dexterity, considering the conditions, although on completing the final drill movement, instead of a crisp thud in unison, as would have been the case on a bone hard parade ground, we only succeeded in giving ourselves a reverse shower bath, as our right feet came down hard on the waterlogged ground.
I am sure that at the moment, the thought of “Fred Carno’s army” would have instantly crossed our minds.
Once on “terra firma”, the General surveyed our rain swept ranks without comment. Then after a lengthy pause commanded in a quiet trans-Atlantic drawl, “Stand the men easy, Captain”. Our officer commanding, duly complied with the order, quickly followed by anticipating the General’s next intention “Open order march”. At precisely that moment as if by magic, the rain stopped abruptly, a fierce sun broke through the leaden clouds and we visibly began to steam up as the General moved between the ranks.
A small and wiry man in stature, dressed in the same gaitered fatigues as any other American GI the only indication of rank being four tiny painted stars on the front of his steel helmet.
We had heard that “Vinegar Joe” was getting on a bit but not to the extent that was significant as he moved in closer. General Stiliwell was certainly no spring chicken. Here was our detachment, all about twenty years of age or so and this man could be well into his sixties, certainly old enough to be a grandfather to most of us. (Note: In 1944 General Stilwell was 61)
He was in no hurry as he moved from man to man, his steady piercing eyes, behind steel rimmed glasses, seemed to bore right through you. Everyone of us had a quiet word from him in turn like “How long you been out here son?” or “Where you from?” or simply “Glad to know you son”. A truly remarkable man who without doubt left a lasting impression on our little band of “Brits”. On finishing his somewhat impromptu inspection, the General moved out a few paces turned and faced our squad. We waited wondering what he was going to say - we could hardly be complimented for our “smart turn-out”, we needn’t have worried, however, the General was most patronising in the best possible way. He went on to say “I asked for a British unit to assist me in this sector”, the General eyeballed us once again with his penetrating gaze, he continued ‘They sent me you guys and I like what I see and I’d like to tell you that if you fellas are representative of the 36th then I’ve got myself a damn good outfit. Welcome aboard, glad to have you and I’m sure we’ll get on fine.” At this juncture, the rain started to fall heavily again, the General continued quite unabashed, the rain now cascading off the rim of his steel helmet like a miniature waterfall.
“So I just want to say, let’s get this Goddam war wrapped up and get the hell out of here, see you around, so long, and stay lucky” and as he turned to go with a wry grin added “Sorry about the weather”.
We “presented arms” again, Stilwell acknowledged with a sweeping Yank type salute, the Gurkhas emerged from the dripping undergrowth, still smiling in their usual way, General and escort, boarding their jeeps, each executed a wheel spinning three point turn, churning the muddy morass to an even greater depth and the convoy was on its way rapidly disappearing down the track from whence it came. Our Captain obviously relieved that things hadn’t gone too badly after all, allowed himself a somewhat sheepish grin then promptly dismissed us with a “good show chaps, well done “, and so ended 36th Division’s unforgettable welcome to Northern Combat Area Command. In the following months a strong camaraderie was to develop between 36th Division and the Americans largely due, I am sure, to the foundations laid by the Stillwell welcome!!
For six months we were to rely almost entirely on air drops. The 10th US Air Force Dakotas never let us down, flying through appalling weather. In the early days of the advance, they appeared with clockwork regularity. Our close support aircraft were also supplied by the Americans, Mustangs, Tomahawks and the distinctive twin fuselage P.38s.
Within days of our advance party’s arrival at Myitkyina, the whole of 36th Division had touched down and had embarked on the first “leg” of what was to be a formidable “slog down the corridor” with all its milestone memories, good bad and indifferent.
Pinwe is well remembered for the major stand by the Japanese army and probably the biggest battle the Division faced in its entire deployment in North Burma; the Gloucesters, 6th South Wales Borderers and 9th Royal Sussex, being particularly badly hit. Among the many officers and men from the Battalion who died at Pinwe, was our popular medical officer Captain Gould, RAMC, killed with five of his staff. The Royal Scots Fusiliers eventually and appropriately, entered the town on St Andrew’s Day, 30th November 1944.
Taunggi is well remembered for its darker side, the ghastly crater into which the Japanese had unceremoniously thrown two hundred of their dead comrades before they hastily withdrew, was a sight not easily forgotten.
On the other “side of the coin” I have many pleasant memories of BMH Panitola and of a lovely QA in particular, Sister Francis. I remember, at one stage, I was moved from the surgical ward where I had been admitted with a bullet wound, into the small isolation ward with infective hepatitis and malaria.
At the time I was the only patient in isolation, stuck on my own and missing the lively atmosphere of the surgical ward. I was “lonesome” and going through a gloomy period. During her evening rounds her cheerful greeting of “How have we been today then, laddie?” followed by a five minute “natter” and dare I say it, the occasional illicit cigarette, did wonders for my morale.
I also remember spending a pleasant Christmas at Katha, while our battalion was in reserve, gazing across the Irrawaddy, drinking beer and singing carols with some of the boys from an American Signal Platoon, who had come “up the road” to join us. While at Katha, we restored and cleaned up the small dilapidated C of E Church much to the great joy of our Chaplain, Padre Jack Sparrow, and when we moved on, carved into one of its beams were the words “Restored by the Gloucestershire Regiment 1944”.
Khonka is remembered if only because this is where I “celebrated” my 21st birthday on 2nd February, 1945 and then on to the Shweli river at Myitson, where after crossing unopposed, we ran into trouble, defending the crossing at Nammic Chaung, where it joined up with the wider Shweli. For five days we, that is “D” Company, were completely cut off from the rest of the battalion, who in turn became isolated from the rest of the Division. After many anxious moments, bombarded and “Banzied” and with little “ammo”, food or water left, a party from the South Wales Borderers and one of our own Gloucester Companies finally fought their way through to our now much depleted Company and the situation was resolved.
The town of Myitson was recaptured days after our “mini” siege ended by the Divisions newly acquired 26th Brigade and, at that time, my Burma experience was about to end.
My malaria had relapsed again and I was back in hospital, first at 66 IGH Manipur Road and then at the BMH Shillong, where eventually I celebrated the Japanese capitulation with the rest of an ecstatic ward.
I completed my Far East “stint” of “three and four” with the 1st Bn Gloucesters at Jhansi and returned to UK on 6th September 1946 by the MV “Queen of Bermuda” with many, many memories.
One really outstanding memory and above all was the welcome by General StilIwell at the very outset of our North Burma campaign. “Vinegar Joe” with all his “crusty” and fearsome reputation on that distant rainy day, did not come across anything like that to our little band of Brits at all. To the contrary he left us with the distinct impression that after all he really was “just one of the lads”.