Morale of Marsmen in Burma

 

            Cultural viewpoints change significantly from one generation to another, and it is often difficult for social scientists to shed their own perceptions when assessing and evaluating the viewpoints of people of earlier times.  During the 1960’s, American public opinion turned decidedly against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War to such a degree that the leaders of our country chose to leave this conflict, thus resulting in a communist victory.  This would be the first time that the United States lost a war.  This was not due to any failure on the part of our brave servicemen who fought there, but rather the loss of the resolve of our leaders, who caved in to the media-aroused American public.  The Vietnam legacy has continued to haunt our national psyche ever since.  It is sometimes difficult for many people under the age of 70 years or so to get past these preconceptions.  In recent years, American military operations have often taken our men and women to foreign battlefields where it is at times very difficult to distinguish or friends from our enemies, and our objectives, both short-term and long are often very vague.  In today’s world, soldier morale has become a tangible and vital concern of governments prosecuting wars.

            How different this situation was during World War II.  The totalitarian regimes, the unbridled aggression and the genocides practiced by the Axis powers against much of the free world left no doubt who were the “good” countries and who were the “evil” ones.  The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 galvanized American public support in favor of U.S. entry in the war in ways not seen since, with the possible exception of the 9/11 terrorist attack.  Truly, our survival as a country and of the free world at-large was hanging in the balance.

            This past spring, I asked W.B. “Woody” Woodruff about the morale of our servicemen stationed in Burma during World War II.  He answered,

            Morale was no problem in World War 2, as we had no choice and our fate as a

            nation was at stake.  All made the same sacrifice. In today's situation, where few

            go back for 3 or more tours [of military service} while most have no tour at all, a

            different outcome may be seen.

True enough.  American men volunteered for military service in record numbers.  Not to do so, or be turned away for medical reasons became a source of personal embarrassment for many men who stayed in civilian life.  And once they received their basic training, many a GI hoped to be sent to known battlefields “where the action was,” perhaps Italy or to England to get ready for the invasion of Europe.

            George W. Haupin and buddies eagerly anticipated begin sent overseas for military action.  On June 15, 1944, in a letter home to his parents, he wrote,

            We had a flag day ceremony yesterday with the major and colonel complimenting

            our fine work in developing as a fighting unit so fast.  The chaplain also offered a

            nice prayer in which he wished us safety in our ventures overseas.  I can’t get

            over the major’s last statement which was “Good luck men, and may you have

            good health, clear sailing and good hunting.”  All this really sort of made your

            spine tingle with patriotism in knowing that everyone is behind our outfit, and

            wishing us luck!

Over fifty years later, George would write,

            We had no fears.  It was one for all, and all for one.  We were young and on an

            adventure.  Another thing, in our outfit, no one was a “leaner” on others.  We all

            seemed to have a strong interdependence which we exhibited in our day-to-day

            life.  But we were all supportive of each other.  Each one was expected to fulfill

            his responsibilities.

His unit, the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pack) soon found themselves on a troopship sailing across the Pacific Ocean bound for Bombay, India.  India had long been the prize jewel of the British colonial empire, which also included the neighboring country of Burma.  In the decades preceding the War, a great deal of world public opinion had turned decidedly against British colonial policies in general, and in India specifically.  Many considered these policies an outrage to freedom-loving countries of the world, so it must have been with some mixed feelings that Americans disembarked from their ship in Bombay in late August, 1944.  In his memoir, George W. Haupin wrote,

            …We were transported by truck to the Indian narrow gauge railroad train and

            travelled on it three or four days right across two-thirds of the middle of India

            leaving from Bombay.  It was a slow train with open windows.  It had benches on

            both sides of the cars on which we sat facing each other.  There were lots of flies

            and we went through so many dirty and smelly little villages.  When we stopped,

            the people would crowd to the trains, and we could buy bananas from them.  We

            ate Army K and C rations the whole trip, and bathroom facilities consisted of one

            car with a hole in the floor and you could see the tracks underneath.  The people

            were so poor, and their living conditions so primitive, and India was so hot and

            humid…I was very disillusioned with India, for all the people [were] so poverty-

            stricken and poor that it makes me sick to think about it.

            After a brief stay in a camp in India, my father’s unit boarded transport planes and was taken over “The Hump” to the Myitkinya airfield in Burma.  After a 15 mile hike, they arrived at a site along the Irrawaddy River which would be named Camp Landis.  Initially, the busy pace of setting up the camp, settling into life there, and securing the surrounding countryside kept the men occupied and somewhat upbeat.  But as time passed, the disease-bearing insects and contaminated water began to take their toll, and the men began to get sick.  Many needed to be evacuated for diseases such as malaria and typhus. The men who remained began to wonder when they would see action, and found themselves wishing they had been sent to some place more in the middle of ththe action.  On November 1, 1944, in a letter home to his parents, George Haupin wrote,

            Another day is ended, and here I am writing again by my own devised lamp.  I

            took a beer bottle, filled it with a mixture of gasoline and oil and used a piece of

            tent rope for a wick.  There are five fellows in each tent, but at the present, I’m

            the only one in my tent—I hope the other fellows will come back soon, for I feel

             rather funny being in a tent by myself….It’s funny, but when I sit here writing, I

            wonder if it’s worth coming way over here, and fighting for a dense, desolate

            country like Burma, when it isn’t even ours.  Maybe I have the wrong slant on the

             things, but I don’t think they should send Americans to a place like this to die

            from diseases and much less, the Japs.  I receive letters from some of the fellows

            back there in the states, and honestly don’t believe they realize a war is going on

            over here.  If they’d been here a few nights ago, they would have realized it, and

             they might have become more sober in respect to this war.  Just think of the many

            fellows who have given their lives over here—and for what!  To liberate a god-

            forsaken country whose people are too ignorant to realize all that we are doing

            for them.  I admit they’re a very splendid people as far as friendliness is

            concerned, but why could all these Burmans [not] organize a small army from

            their many natives, and help drive out the Japs themselves, instead of serving just

            as scouts, guides and guards for our American forces?  Maybe I’d better stop all

            this complaining, but I feel a lot relieved to get this off my chest.  Please

            disregard everything I’ve said, for I didn’t mean it.  I realize we’re all fighting to

            preserve freedom everywhere in the world where subjugation has emerged.

            George would not have much longer to wait. About two weeks later, his unit was on the march south, heading into combat with the Japanese Army.  By January of 1945, they were fighting for their lives  on the Nawkham Ridge, overlooking the Japanese-defended Burma Road.  On January 28th, 1945, two days after he witnessed a good friend of his torn apart and killed by flying shrapnel, George Haupin wrote,

            As I’m sitting here writing, I’m still in the best of health, and am doing my best to

            keep up spirits.  Sometimes the fellows morale gets very low way out here—

            thousands of miles from nowhere, fighting for some nondescript hills which you

            wonder if they’re really worth the loss of life we’re paying for them.  But then

            some one must drive these yellow devils out of here—and you can bet your life

            we’re doing it.  You read in the papers about the [Chinese] and British troops

            taking many towns and cities in Burma, But very little of our American boys

            fighting on the fronts here.  I want you to let the folks know back home that

            there have been hundreds and hundreds of Red-blooded American boys killed

            over here.

            Within a few weeks, the battle for the Burma Road would be won, and the men of the Mars Task Force would move on to better camps with better food and living accommodations.  Not long after that, when they arrived in Kunming, China, they traded their combat fatigues for the more presentable “suntans”, and life became a bit more “civilized.”  As the war slowly but gradually ended, the main questions on most of the men’s minds became how soon they would return and what they would do when they got there.  These were much more optimistic and encouraging “worries” than those that were experienced in prolonged combat conditions. 

            This article will close with the thoughts of Richard F. Bates of the 475th Infantry, who has written about his thoughts on morale during his experience in the Burma Theater.  In January of 2011, he wrote,

                        I was reminded of this topic when I recently read an article in Time that

            debunked the claims of the grief counseling industry that their techniques were

            valid when used on people who had witnessed a tragedy in a public setting such

            as a school...  The stages were denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

                        Infantrymen in combat went through a gradual change in psychology as

            our fighting in Burma lasted for weeks and months.  Our emotional makeup

            changed from optimism born of ignorance to fatalistic acceptance as reality

            intruded.  The reality that we grappled with was caused by becoming aware that

            we were not likely to escape injury or death.  I suppose that the equivalent of the

            false states of grief in our case would be optimism (denial), depression (fear) and

            fatalism.

                        Initially we were apprehensive but optimistic.  Our instructors convinced

            us that if we became effective soldiers, our chances of being wounded would be

            slight.  We did not know that the men in the rifle battalions were being wiped out

            at an appalling rate.  We did not know that the tactics taught and used at the

            platoon through division level were faulty ones that had resulted in defeats and

            great casualties.  Those who were sent to Europe had no idea that the German  

            tactics and infantry weapons were better than ours.  None of us who wound up in

            Burma knew that the climate produced many deadly diseases, or that the

            Japanese soldiers were so fanatic and merciless.  We did not know that being

            assigned to the infantry was a guarantee that most of us would be killed or

             wounded.

                        As our days in combat lengthened from days to weeks, then months

            without a break, we began to realize that our chances of survival were much

            lower than we had been taught.  We became depressed.  Being under fire was a

            fearsome experience that resulted in periods of deep depression after the

            accelerated metabolism and frenetic physical activity of combat.  We were

            exhausted by combat and nerve strain.  Mercifully, coping with danger, our

            duties, and the weather gave us little time to dwell on our situation.

                        By the time we survivors of our first campaign began the next one we knew

            each other, knew what was expected of us, and knew how to meet those

            expectations.  We were a community of comrades who would not let each other

            down.  We accepted the terrible survival odds and adjusted to them as a group.

            Humor made its appearance in the form of jokes about near-misses.  We were

            able to talk about which of our comrades would receive our equipment and

            personal items.  We became fatalists; “what will be, will be” became our

            philosophy.  We were now mentally tough enough and mutually supported enough

            to reject any options other than doing our duty as a group.

      

            

© George P. Haupin 2012