Captain Richard Hale


The Mars Task Force in Burma: A Personal Memoir

By Captain Richard W. Hale, USAR (Ret)

In June 1994, my local paper published an Associated Press column titled “World War II: Fifty Years Ago.” It stated that the conquest of Myitkyina by Merrill’s Marauders in June 1944 had enabled the opening of the Burma Road, the overland supply route to China. To me, that was typical of the distortion of the history of World War II in what many of us who served there have come to think of as the most forgotten unit in the most forgotten theater of that war. That unit was the Mars Task Force, the brigade that, working with the Chinese, actually enabled the opening of the Burma Road in January 1945, not June of 1944.

The Mars Task Force (MTF) was the successor to the Marauders, and had absorbed many former members of that unit. These two were the only American infantry combat units to serve on the mainland of Asia in World War II. Unfortunately, most histories of the period either ignore the MTF altogether or refer to it along the lines of a “new brigade in the image of the Marauders,” which was not quite correct.

Myitkyina was the main Japanese base and airfield in North Burma. It had to be captured, both to negate the constant harassment of “The Hump” flights by Japanese fighters based there, and because it was the junction point of the new Ledo Road coming out of India with the road network of pre-war Burma. The new route had to pass through there in order to link up with the Old Burma Road near the Chinese border.

The Marauders had been fighting and marching over difficult terrain since February 1944. They moved out of India with about 3,000 men, but by the middle of May, they were down to about 1,300. Combat casualties were outnumbered by exhaustion, malnutrition and disease, mostly typhus, malaria and dysentery.

By the time these remaining Marauders climbed over the 6,000-foot Kumon range to seize the Myitkyina airfield from the surprised Japanese on May 17, they were about done in. When the town of Myitkyina itself actually fell on August 3, all but about 200 had been evacuated. The battle was eventually won by the insertion of two battalions of Combat Engineers from the Ledo Road, plus MPs, truck drivers, clerks, and bakers; any men that could be found were pressed into service from the rear-echelon in India, along with infantry replacements fresh off the ships.

The official designation of the Marauders was “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional).” Its army code name was GALAHAD. The name “Merrill’s Marauders” was coined by a newsman. The name stuck, despite the fact that Brigadier General Frank Merrill was only in charge of the unit for very short periods (he had a number of heart attacks, and had to be evacuated), and was never in combat with the men. His deputy, Colonel Charles N. Hunter, was the man actually in charge throughout the crucial stages of the Marauder campaign. In any case, during the battle for Myitkyina, the original Marauders came to be called “Old Galahad,” and the replacements “New Galahad.”

After Myitkyina was captured, the Combat Engineers went back to work on the Ledo Road, while everyone else moved north, about ten miles, into a campsite on the west bank of the Irrawaddy River, named Camp Landis in honor of the first Marauder killed in Burma. Most of the Old Galahad men were sent home. The New Galahad survivors were assigned to the newly created 475th Infantry Regiment (Long Range Penetration Regiment, Special), which became part of the also newly formed 5332nd Brigade (Provisional), dubbed the Mars Task Force.

The final input of manpower for the 475th Infantry was the arrival in early October of myself and 599 other cavalry-trained troopers from the Cavalry Replacement Training Center at Fort Riley, Kansas. We were flown in to Myitkyina from the troopship in Bombay, and trucked to Camp Landis in the dark. When we woke up the next morning, we were in the infantry. This was quite a surprise, considering that we were still outfitted with cavalry gear, including two pairs of boots, the spurs we were awarded after graduation from training (a cavalry tradition), riding breeches, and special cavalry raincoats.

Our group was originally intended to be used as fillers for the 124th Cavalry Regiment, which arrived shortly thereafter, but we were instead hijacked to bring the 475th up to strength. The 124th was a Texas National Guard unit. By the time they got to Burma, the Texan contingent was down to about half. One of my high school classmates from small-town Ohio was a medic in the 124th. He was quite shocked when I looked him up to say hello.

Why all the cavalrymen, but no horses? The answer of course was mules, mules and more mules. I do not recall ever seeing an exact figure, but we had at least 3,000 mules in the MTF. The Marauders had a terrible time handling their 700 or so mules. Except for a few country boys, most of the men did not have a clue, and both men and mules suffered unnecessarily.

The obvious answer was to use cavalrymen. Cavalrymen in World War II were taught to fight as infantry, the horses were reserved only for fast travel over difficult terrain or hit and run raids. There was no yelling, “Charge!” with sabers flashing, although we did practice firing the .45 pistol at pop-up targets from the back of a galloping horse. It is fair to say that not everyone qualified, but I thought it was wonderful fun.

The key skill was that we had been taught how to take care of our horses, whether for riding or as pack animals. It was fairly easy to transfer those skills to the mules of the MTF. The only riding mules were reserved for the wounded and very ill. The pack mules carried the 81mm and 60mm mortars, the .50 and .30 caliber machine guns, and ammunition, plus feed for the mules.

The Marauders were primarily infantry. The Marsmen were a much more mixed bag. The 475th contained about 3,000 men while the 124th had about 2,000. These troops were to provide the main combat strength. However, in support we also had major elements that were lacking for the Marauders and the Chindits (the British Long Range Penetration Group that was the model for the Marauders), and proved to be a major handicap in their operations. Added to our basic infantry strength were the 612th and 613th Field Artillery Battalions (Pack), three portable surgical hospitals, and a half-dozen quartermaster and veterinary pack troops, bringing the total to well over 6,000 men.

A final component not to be overlooked was the hundred or more Kachin guerillas assigned to the MTF. As they had done with the Marauders, these small, sturdy young cutthroats, and the American sergeants and lieutenants from OSS Detachment 101 who directed them, were in many respects our secret weapon. They were our guides, our advance scouts, and they provided flank security in the jungles and mountains far beyond what it would have been possible for us to do. They also killed a lot of Japanese in the process. More on them later.

I was an assistant machine gunner in the Company “I” weapons platoon. This was half the size of a rifle platoon. We had two Browning .30 caliber light machine guns and an 81mm mortar. To support those weapons we had about a dozen mules and, as best as I can recall, about 18 GIs for gunners, ammo carriers and four non-coms. Except for the non-coms, each of us had a mule in our care. The non-coms were all leftovers from New Galahad, and with one exception, rather useless. Unlike the other platoons, we did not have an officer; a staff sergeant was in charge.

I soon regretted volunteering to be a machine gunner. While the rifleman carried everything he owned on his back, he was self-contained. After a day’s march, he could wash in a river or stream, eat and sleep, maybe pull some guard duty. The next morning he could wash his face, have a quick canteen cup of coffee with lots of sugar (and canned milk if we were lucky), maybe a can of “C” rations, and he was ready. Those of us with mules had to unload them in the evening (the pack saddle weighed about 100 pounds, the usual load 200), rub them down, check and clean their hooves, and water and feed them. Then we could look after ourselves. The next morning it all happened in reverse, less the rubdown and the hoof check.

The 475th marched out of Camp Landis in mid-November, was ferried over the mighty Irrawaddy River by an American Engineer unit (they were building a pontoon bridge, which was ready in time for the departure of the 124th). Another friend from my hometown was in that unit. We marched down a fair, pre-war road south toward Bhamo. That city was under siege by the Chinese, so we bypassed it to the East.

I still have a vivid memory of passing along the side of a small mountain, with a clear view of the city to the north. As we did so, B-25 bombers flew in from the south at our eye level, firing the 75mm cannon in the nose, and then dropping bombs as they passed over the city. I have discussed this with an officer with experience in that model B-25 who disagreed, but I swear that every time the gun fired, you could see the airplane lose airspeed, drop 50 feet or so, and then resume flying.

South of Bhamo, we almost experienced casualties from “friendly fire.” Camped on the side of a steep hill, we were permitted to light fires after dark, which was highly unusual. My section was high up, our mules down below. At one point, we got up and walked down the hill to the next group. A few minutes later our fire blew up, throwing shrapnel, burned wood and hot ash in all directions. It seems that one young man, henceforth called “Dopey,” had left his pack uphill from the fire, with grenades attached to the webbing. One grenade came loose and rolled into the fire. Fortunately, the only damage was some holes in our packs and a couple of ruined canteens.

We saw our first action early one morning in mid-December near a village called Tonkwa, when the 2nd and 3rd Battalions replaced the Chinese 22nd Division, which was going back to China. We were dug in on the edge of a large, overgrown paddy field when the Japanese, having crawled up close, launched a Banzai charge at first light. They made a mistake by preceding that attack with a ten-minute artillery barrage, so we were more than ready for them. These were troops of the elite 18th Division: the conquerors of Singapore. They were unaware that they were now facing American troops, not the Chinese, though they would soon find out.

The charging Japanese ran into a firestorm of .30 caliber bullets from our two machine guns, a dozen or so BARs (Browning Automatic Rifles), and 30 or 40 aimed M-1 rifles. The Chinese always used a lot of ammo, but most of it was wild firing. I do not know how many of the 220 Japanese dead credited at Tonkwa we killed that night, but they broke off that action and never tried it again against our portion of the perimeter.

Our small platoon had one casualty. “Dopey” caught a Japanese bullet in the leg and had to be evacuated, which was rather ironic. While we were digging in, our sergeant inquired as to where Dopey was. As it turned out, he had decided, on his own initiative, to protect our rear, though it was already covered by a rifle platoon. Bringing him back where he belonged caused him to be wounded.

The Japanese 18th Division bumped into us on their way to relieve their comrades at Bhamo. After that city fell on December 15, they gradually broke off their confrontation. The only other action I recall that I participated in at Tonkwa was when Alan Phail, my gunner, and I were attached to the platoon of Lt. “Jungle Jim” Applegate for an attack on a Japanese strong point. At one point, the three of us realized we had gotten out ahead of the platoon, and found ourselves trying to dig in with our noses while under enemy machine gun fire. Fortunately, it was an area of heavy jungle, and the Japanese could not see us any better than we could see them. We did drive them out and overrun their position.

Alan and I had made special preparations for this attack. Carrying the 35-pound or so “light” machine gun took both hands, and he had to carry his carbine across his back. I had a similar problem with the 15-pound tripod in one hand and a 20-pound box of ammo in the other. We were afraid that if an enemy soldier popped up out of nowhere we would be unable to defend ourselves.

We chopped about fifty rounds off a belt and loaded the gun, then wrapped a rag around the barrel so he would not burn his hand. Not ideal, but better than before. In my case, I hung the tripod from a rope around my shoulder and kept the ammo box in my left hand, leaving my right hand free for the carbine. It was awkward, but it worked. We never needed that arrangement, but we felt safer.

After a rest break at Christmas, the 475th moved out to the east across a chain of mountains and the wide, fast and deep Shewli River. It was an exhausting journey that took more than two weeks. The mountains were about 6,000 feet high, and one morning we woke up to find that water left in a steel helmet had a skim of ice on top. At least it was warm crossing the river on a rickety bamboo bridge. Some mules were lost, along with their gear, although all of ours made it over.

Our objective was the line of hills on the east side of the Hosi Valley, which overlooked the old Burma Road. The original plan was to establish a block on the road itself, putting us behind a mixed bag of regiments from the Japanese 49th, 55th, and 56th Divisions. Since they had heavy artillery, tankettes armed with 40mm guns, and many times our manpower, the plan was changed to that of a “fireblock” from the hills. The commanding heights were more defensible, and our 75mm artillery, 81mm mortars, and .50 caliber machine guns could reach the road. These weapons were supplemented by air-dropped 4.2” mortars, which could throw an HE (high explosive) shell equal to a 105mm round up to three miles.

Approaching the Hosi Valley down a smaller valley from the west, “I” Company was in the lead. My best friend in the company was Jack Gullette, a scout. Nearing the main valley, Jack moved out into an open area, and was cut down by a Japanese machine gun firing from across the small valley. We immediately went to ground behind the partial cover of some terraced rice paddy walls, and raked the other side of the valley with machine gun and mortar fire, even though we could not pinpoint the enemy’s location.

After an hour or so we moved out, and walked by Jack’s huddled body with no more interference. I have never understood why the Japanese fired on Jack alone, when they could have caught many more men in the open if they had waited. After the Burma Road battle was over, I visited the site. The Japanese had dug a ten by ten-foot, six-foot deep hole with a firing step under the tree line at the base of the hill. It was totally camouflaged by native vegetation, and could not be seen from 50 feet away. I have no idea if our random saturation of the area killed the enemy in the hole or not.

Our small weapons platoon was assigned the task of guarding the back trail on the west side of the Hosi Valley. The 1st Battalion was assigned the southern end of the Hosi Valley, the 3rd Battalion the northernmost of the two major hills overlooking the Burma Road, and the 2nd Battalion the southernmost of the hills. The 1st had no problems, and the 3rd occupied its hill without opposition. The 2nd Battalion had a different situation, noted below.

After dark on the 17th, my sergeant came to me and said that several men were going back to collect Jack’s body, and asked if I wanted to come. To this day, I cannot recall why I said no. Had it been a stranger, I would have certainly gone; but I just could not face seeing Jack’s body again. I think my sergeant understood.

Early the next morning the Japanese launched a ferocious Banzai attack on the 3rd. We could hear the screaming and constant gunfire, but could do nothing to help. It was a bad move on the part of the Japanese, they were attacking up a rather steep hill, which slowed them down and made them even better targets. The enemy tried again the next morning, with the same result.

Back to the 2nd Battalion: They turned out to have the toughest job of all the 475th. The “hill” could more properly be described as a “ridge.” It was higher than the other hills, about 400 feet above the valley, and had sides so steep that flanking movements were impossible. Called Loi Kang Hill after the name of the village on top, it was occupied by at least a company of well-dug-in Japanese troops. It was also a threat to the rest of the force. From their high elevation, the Japanese could see everything going on in the valley, and used their radios to call in artillery strikes after the airdrops, when the evacuation planes were using the rice paddy airstrip, or any other activity in the wide-open valley.

Despite pounding by our artillery and mortars, and air strikes by P-47 fighters, it took more than ten days of heavy fighting to clear the ridge; and even then the 1st Battalion had to assist by attacking the ridgeline from the south. After the ridge was captured, things quieted down a bit for the 475th, if it possible to call constant bombardment by the Japanese heavy artillery “quiet.”

The main action shifted to the 124th Cavalry, which arrived at the valley three days after the 475th. They were assigned the task of clearing the hills north of those held by the 475th, and heavy fighting ensued, as the Japanese tried to hold on to every last piece of real estate. For the moment, let us go back to the 475th.

From our rear guard position, our only source of water was a spring in the middle of a north-facing open glade, about a quarter-mile down a path through heavy trees. There were open paddy fields to the next hill, about 500 yards. We were certain that there were Japanese on the other side (at least until the 124th arrived), but it was too far for rifle or machine gun fire, so we got careless.

On the second afternoon, I took my carbine and a load of canteens and went off alone to the spring. I had nearly finished when I heard a 105mm cannon fire off to the north, and a couple of minutes later the shell landed about fifty feet up the glade from me. I was only slightly concerned, as I thought it was a short round aimed at the 612th Field Artillery, which I knew was located on the far side of the hill. When a second shell landed about fifty feet downhill from me, I realized I was in the center of an artillery “bracket”. It seemed absurd that the Japanese would waste 105mm shells on a lone GI, but there it was.

I could hear more shells on the way, and it was too far and too late to make a run for it, so I curled up into a ball in a slight hollow next to the spring. The next shell landed about 20-30 feet up the hill from me, and I could hear the shrapnel whistle over my head. Now I was really scared, since the fourth shell was likely to either land on me or slightly downhill, meaning the shrapnel spray would hit me. The next shell did land about 20 feet below me, and I was hit, not with shrapnel, but with mud! I think the shell came down in the runoff from the spring, and buried itself just deep enough before exploding that it saved me.

I could not hear another shell on the way, so I got up and ran like hell! I have always wondered if the Japanese artillery spotter had a perverse sense of humor when he did not fire that fifth shell to the center of the bracket, or simply gave up in disgust. On my way back to the platoon, I met my sergeant coming down the trail, alone. All he said was, “We thought you were dead!” I think I replied, “So did I.”

Back on the line with Company “I,” another good friend, Mose Hart, told me of his experience during that first horrific Banzai attack. Mose was a Tommy-gunner, and was standing up in his foxhole firing, when he wondered why the kid who was sharing the hole was not up shooting his rifle. It turned out he was in the bottom of the hole, curled up and crying for his mother! Mose complained to his platoon leader the next day, and the kid was banished to what passed for our rear area.

My second artillery incident happened near the end of January. “L” Company had been ambushed while on a combat patrol. The company commander, a platoon leader, radio operator and six others were killed. Several friends of mine from Fort Riley were in that platoon, and the next day I walked around the perimeter to check on them. They were alright, though still in shock. On my way back, I was about 50 yards from my own foxhole when I heard one of the big guns fire, and the express train rumble told me, and everyone else, that a 155mm shell was coming our way.

The other members of my platoon were watching, and yelled for me to run, then ducked down under cover. Again, it was too late to run, and I spotted a slit trench about ten feet away and made it in one long dive, just before the shell landed approximately where I had been walking. When my friends looked up I was gone, and they thought I had been vaporized until I climbed out of the empty slit trench.

We were always under threat from the Japanese big guns, but other than that, my last big close call came in the middle of a very dark night. I was on watch, and wanted a cigarette to help keep me awake. We usually lit up under a blanket, and kept the butt shielded. However, someone had sent me one of the new “flameless” lighters, consisting of a flint, a wheel and a length of punk of the kind we used to light fireworks back home. The punk was supposed to glow hot enough to light the cigarette, without any flame.

Without taking cover, I flicked the wheel. Nothing. Flicked it again. Nothing. On the third flick, a bullet whacked into the tree log about a foot over my head (at this point we had roofed nearly all of our foxholes with logs and dirt for some protection, however dubious, against the Japanese artillery). I belatedly realized that just the spark of the wheel against the flint lit up the bunker for a split second. The first flick drew the attention of a Japanese sniper, the second flick gave him my location, and he fired on the third flick. Again, I think a hill saved my life. The sniper’s line was perfect, but the fact that he was firing up a steep hill threw his aim off a bit.

I have written about the Japanese 105mm and 155mm guns (some accounts call them 150mm). I have not mentioned the enemy weapon that caused us even more heartburn: the Japanese 77mm mountain gun. We called it the “Whizz-Bang,” because it fired such a high velocity shell that all you heard was a bang, a whiz, and another bang, so fast that you did not have time to seek cover. The good news was that being a direct-fire weapon they had to bring the guns in close enough that our 75mm artillery and 4.2” mortars could reach out and neutralize them.

Through all of this, the Japanese kept trying to bring up ammunition and reinforcements over the Burma Road, and we kept blasting them with artillery, mortars and machine guns. Some of our patrols would slip down and place mines, but this was less effective than the HE rounds. Some Japanese trucks and tankettes did manage to get through at high speed, but not many.

We had regular support from the Air Force, in the form of regular bombing and strafing runs against suspected locations of the enemy artillery, mostly by P-47s. The enemy never fired when the planes were around, but every now and then the planes would hit an ammo dump, and the resulting explosions drew cheers from those of us watching the show. The only problems we had with the Japanese air force were occasional nighttime visits from a “Washing Machine Charley,” which would drop a few small bombs and then fly away. They never did any damage.

We got close-up with one P-47 pilot. He came climbing up our hill from the north at dawn one morning. His plane had been hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire, and he had bailed out south of our position. He had somehow avoided capture. Wearing high-top tennis shoes, he walked up the Burma Road in the dark until he heard Japanese voices, then turned off the road and climbed into our lines.

We gave him breakfast, and then several of us walked with him down to the little airfield. He climbed into a Piper Cub and waved goodbye, just as we heard a 105mm shell coming our way. We ducked into the nearest slit trench as the pilot of the Cub slammed his throttle to the wall. He was airborne when the shell landed under his left wing, and flipped the Cub over on its side off the runway, joining several others that had been damaged in one way or another. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.

I do not mean to ignore the 124th. As I mentioned, they experienced heavy fighting clearing the hills to our north. The most memorable of those battles took place on February 2, just a few days before it was all over. Lt. Jack Knight led his “F” Troop to clear an enemy strongpoint, and became the only ground combat soldier to be awarded the Medal of Honor in the CBI. The award was made in May 1945, and read as follows:

On 2 February 1945, near Loi-Kang, Burma, First Lieutenant Jack L. Knight, 124th Cavalry Regiment, Mars Task Force, led his cavalry troop against heavy concentrations of enemy mortar, artillery and small arms fire. After taking the troop’s objective and while making preparations for a defense, he discovered a nest of Japanese pillboxes and foxholes to the right front. Preceding his men by at least 10 feet, he immediately led an attack. Single-handedly he knocked out two enemy pillboxes and killed the occupants of several foxholes. While attempting to knock out a third pillbox, he was struck and blinded by an enemy grenade. Although unable to see, he rallied his troop and continued forward in the assault on the remaining pillboxes. Before the task was completed, he fell mortally wounded. First Lieutenant Knight’s gallantry and intrepidity were responsible for the successful elimination of most of the Jap positions and served as an inspiration to the officers and men of his troop.

While the 124th was clearing their hills, several Chinese regiments were sitting on other hills to the north of us. One regiment, more aggressive than the others, established an actual roadblock, but was badly mauled by the Japanese and had to pull back off the road. However, help was on the way.

Back in the spring of 1944, the Chinese had crossed the Salween River Gorge, the de facto China-Burma border, and tried to move south. Moving slowly, failing to coordinate their attacks or consolidate their gains, they were ignominiously pushed back across the border by probably not more that a regiment of Japanese. This time the Chinese had several advantages. The American-trained Chinese troops from Bhamo joined up with the Chinese Yunan Armies, called the “Y Force,” in mid-January at the junction of the Ledo Road with the old Burma Road near the Chinese border. That meant the new road was open all the way, and the supply trucks began to roll.

Another important advantage, other than numbers, that this force enjoyed was provided by another long-unheralded American unit, the First Provisional Chinese-American Tank Group. This was the only Chinese unit in the CBI commanded by an American, Colonel (later Brigadier) Rothwell Brown. He was also the only experienced tanker. At its height, the Americans in the group numbered 29 officers and 222 enlisted men.

The tank group had M-3 Stuart Light Tanks with the 37mm gun. Exact numbers of the Stuarts have proven elusive, but they probably started out with 60, then were divided into two battalions, all crewed by Chinese. They were eventually reinforced by 17 Sherman M-4 Medium Tanks with the 75mm gun, which were formed into an all-American platoon. Only a few of the Americans were tank crewmen. They manned assault gun companies, drove armored bulldozers to clear the way for the tanks, or maintained the equipment under very difficult conditions. They were after all working with Chinese peasant solders, most of whom had probably never ridden in a motor vehicle until they were drafted.

The tank group had seen its share of action in North Burma, working with both the Marauders and the Chinese, and on more than one occasion they tipped the balance in favor of the Allies, who were up against the ubiquitous Japanese 18th Division. Unfortunately, they had to be withdrawn to Assam at the start of the monsoon season in spring 1945, as the roads and trails became too slippery for them to operate. This was doubly unfortunate for the siege at Myitkyina, as there seems little doubt that their presence there could have shortened that battle by many weeks.

In any case, by December the tank group was ready for more action. They had moved south from Myitkyina to support the Chinese attack on Bhamo, but arrived too late. Instead, they moved on east to join the Y Force. The Chinese came pushing down the road at a rapid clip, mostly riding in trucks, with the tanks acting as their spearhead, which I suspect is the main reason they moved so fast. They passed through our area during the night of either the 3rd or the 4th of February without even slowing down.

We learned after the war that the Japanese commander knew his position was hopeless, and had asked for permission to withdraw. It was granted, on the condition that he bring his artillery and motor transport with him. Since that was impossible, the Japanese simply abandoned everything and slipped away on foot on the trails beyond the eastern hills of the Burma Road.

While we suspected from the decreased Japanese activity that something of the sort might be happening, it did not deter the MTF from enjoying the show the Chinese put on. Along with artillery, tank guns, flares and the sound of motor vehicles, the Chinese advance was preceded by a quarter-mile wide curtain of tracers. As I have mentioned, the Chinese were always prodigious users of ammunition, but this was truly remarkable, when you consider that only one in five bullets in a machine gun belt was a tracer.

The tankers fought on with the Chinese down the old Burma Road to Lashio, and were then disbanded. I read somewhere than an American captain and his crew eventually delivered the tanks some 1,700 miles to Canton, in South China, after the war was over. For this, the Chinese gave him a medal.

As for the Mars Task Force, we could now relax a bit for the first time in many weeks. We were declared to be in administrative bivouac on February 8, one day after my 19th birthday. A few days later, we moved down the Burma Road a few miles and set up a camp under multi-colored parachutes from the supply drops. It took us away from the stench of the poor dead mules that did not have the cover of foxholes against the Japanese artillery, the shell holes, and the now polluted small river that was our only source of water for everything.

We had one final visit from the Japanese air force. Some accounts say it was a false alarm, that an Allied fighter plane buzzed the encampment. Not unless the Allies were now flying Zeros with large orange circles on the side and wings! Our machine gun sections had a better view then most, as we had been out on a nearby ridge zeroing in new barrels. The Zero came in from the south for a low pass, turned and came back over the camp, then flew off. For some reason he did not open fire. The camp was pretty sprawling, but he could still have caused quite a few casualties.

We had two sets of visitors from the outside world. I was standing naked up to my knees in a stream, a skinny kid who had lost 35 pounds, washing my fatigues, when Lt. General Dan Sultan, the commander of the India-Burma Theater, rode up on a saddle mule. We had an amiable chat, but for the life of me, I cannot recall the conversation. I was distracted by the glare of the next man behind the General. I had never seen him before, but somehow knew it was the putative commander of the Mars Task Force, Brigadier John Willey.

None of us had ever seen him before, since he directed the campaign by radio from Myitkyina. I assumed he was glaring at me for appearing naked in front of this distinguished group. How the hell was I to know? In any case, General Sultan did not appear to be concerned. John Randolph, author of Marsmen in Burma, wrote that Willey was a former Marauder, but I find no record that he was, only a staff officer for Gen. Stilwell.

The next visit was from Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, the commander of SEAC (Southeast Asia Command). He said nice things about us, and hinted at what many of us expected, that we would soon be fighting on south on the left flank of the British 14th Army attack on Mandalay and Rangoon.

Mars Task Force casualties up to that point were 122 KIA, with 573 wounded, about equally divided between the two regiments. The 475th had 929 men evacuated for wounds and illness.

The situation in China changed our future. The Japanese had a million troops in mainland China, and launched what proved to be their final offensive against the portion they did not occupy. While their main objective was to overrun the forward B-29 bases that were the largest threat to Japan, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was afraid they might go all the way.

Now that the Burma Road was open, Chiang lost interest in Burma, and demanded the return of all his troops. For good measure, he also demanded the Mars Task Force. General William Slim, the commander of the British 14th Army, was furious and appealed to Mountbatten to prevent the loss of the MTF. Washington, however, had grown so tired of dealing with Chiang that they gave in.
The Chinese troops were flown out first. Starting in early March, the MTF left its mules behind and was flown to Myitkyina, then over “The Hump” to Kunming, China. By the time we assembled, the Japanese had already overrun the B-29 bases, and their offensive petered out.

Air transport being in short supply, it was decided that the MTF would not be returned to Burma. The left flank task was turned over to OSS Detachment 101. They had already started to disband, as their Kachin guerillas were far out of their home turf. With the new task, many Kachins volunteered to stay, and the OSS picked up new fighters from the pro-British Karen and Chin tribes as they moved south. The guerilla force eventually numbered more than 10,000, and they inflicted horrific damage on the Japanese fleeing towards Thailand ahead of the British 14th Army. Again, that is another story.

By late April, both the 475th and the 124th were in China, and we were broken up into small groups and assigned to train Chinese troops all over Western China. I spent the rest of the war teaching troops of the First Heavy Mortar regiment how to handle the 4.2” heavy mortar, given to the Chinese as mobile artillery. Mobile? As best I recall the base plate weighed 150 pounds, the tube was 100 pounds, and the bipod 50 pounds. The whole rig was carried on a steel cart with two heavy-duty bicycle wheels. We were stationed up in the boondocks near a town called Lushien, and did our training on the banks of the Yangtze River.

At the end of the war, we reassembled in Kunming, and it was decreed that “high-point” men, which meant all combat veterans, would be sent home. “Low-point” men were to be sent to Shanghai, “for further duty.” Then it got frustrating. We spent two months in Kunming waiting to be flown back to India, then four months in various camps on the outskirts of Calcutta waiting for our troopship. It was a converted Victory ship named the Marine Angel. We called it the Lost Angel.

A real kick in the teeth happened in mid-December. I got a postcard from a kid who had joined us as a replacement after we arrived in China. The card was mailed from Iowa. He wrote that they were not needed in Shanghai, so they were put on one of the many empty ships and sent home!

We boarded the ship in Calcutta in mid-February, and arrived in Seattle in mid-March, then onward by the Great Northern Railroad to Camp Atterbury, Indiana.

I had joined the Army Reserve on Marsh 21, 1943, in order to participate in the ASTRP (Army Specialized Training Reserve Program) set up for qualified 17 year olds. After high school graduation, I was sent to the University of Kentucky until the Army decided that it would not need all those engineers and canceled the program. Then on to Fort Riley. By a strange coincidence, I was discharged at Camp Atterbury on March 21, 1946!

 

© George P. Haupin 2012