India-Burma

Unit I A.F.S., India, left the United States in April, 1943, arriving in Bombay the following July. They had a long wait, utilized in training courses and manoeuvres to fit them for operating in the special conditions of the front on which they were to work. They lived often in some luxury, in comfortable barracks, with the use of tennis courts, officers' clubs, etc. They dined with native friends, tried boar hunting, bathed in the rivers, saw temples; towns, and villages, burning ghats and towers of silence, Indian dancing, and fakirs with their weird tricks. All interesting, all things that would have been fascinating to do in peace time; but training, however much spiced with sight-seeing, is difficult for impatient boys to endure when they have brothers and friends in Italy and the Pacific islands. They thought themselves the "The Forgotten Unit". But in fact their training has stood them in good stead.

In December, they were moved up to the Burma front. As one boy wrote: "We've started work now; carried our first patients awhile ago, so at least we can feel that we have a little share in helping this war..." They were working under most difficult conditions mountainous country, winding "roads", sometimes thick in dust, sometimes deep in mud. The first M. A. S. (Motor Ambulance Section) evacuated more than a third of the casualties in the first big battle on this front after the arrival of the A. F. S. last December. Their amusements were no longer looking at temples and fakirs: "Our lads at ..... occasionally amuse themselves by walking four miles through the bamboo thickets to the river to watch the Jap officers in swimming."

At that time we, in the United States, heard little from this area. Then we began to read in the papers reports of action along the Burma frontier, and, more lately, of the exploits of American and Chinese troops and of British air-borne forces in the interior. On April 3 almost the anniversary of the departure of the First Indian Unit we had definite assurance, for the first time since the Japanese advance into Indian territory, that all twenty-seven of our drivers who had been cut off were safe. Twenty of them were isolated in an outlying position, presumably still working for the troops to whom they were attached. The remaining seven men had made their way to headquarters, where they found the staff officers driving ambulances to help in the emergency. Almost immediately afterwards, headquarters itself was cut off, and at the date of writing, it has not been relieved. By the time this is published, the Battle of Imphal (or whatever it may come to be called will be old news, but in Field Service annals, it will take its place beside Bir Hacheim and Tobruk, Termoli and Anzio. The India Unit, just one year old, has earned its place as a full-fledged member of the A.F.S.; no one can call it "The Forgotten Unit" now.

AFS Letters, 1943-1944. No. 24. Published at AFS HQ, 60 Beaver Street, New York.

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  Bibliography

Don Moser, ed. China-Burma-India. New York: Time-Life. 1978.

The men who fought in Burma were up against one of the world's worst climates and some of its most forbidding terrain. They had to scale jagged mountains, hack their way through almost impenetrable jungles, cross swiftly flowing rivers and pass over dusty plains where temperature ranged as high as 130° F. Some units were forced to beat their way through razor-sharp elephant grass; others, using roads, found their way blocked by mounds of debris pushed up by the Japanese. In the mountains, the roads were sometimes so narrow that tanks crept along with half the outside track hanging over the edge.

The monsoon added its own torments to the fighting. In some places it rained as much as 15 inches a day, and soldiers were mired up to their calves in porridge-thick mud. Diseases and vicious biting and stinging insects were rampant. Men came down with malaria, dengue fever, cholera, scabies, yaws, mite typhus and dysentery. At one point casualties from tropical illness outweighed those from combat by a ratio of 14 to 1, with malaria accounting for 90 per cent of the cases. Swarms of black flies drove men to frenzy. After heavy rains, trees and bushes became so heavily laden with bloodsucking leeches that one officer described the foliage as looking like a "wheat field waving in the wind."

Gordon S. Seagrave. Burma Surgeon Returns.. Norton: New York, 1946.

We soon found that it was also a no man's land with regard to climate. Assam has the world's heaviest rainfall but at least the rain has sense enough to fall in season. Burma weather is beautifully regular. But that of Hukawng follows no rules whatsoever. It makes all its own climate and every bit of it wrong. July was supposed to be the rainy season, so we had weeks of beautiful weather. We shivered in Tagap in the hot season. As we marched along it was the middle of the dry season, so it poured steadily for a month. This was the country through which Stilwell's engineers had to build their road from Ledo to China, and build it without hard rock with which to surface it---nothing but clay and soft river rock.

Through these torrents of rain the Chinese had marched down the Refugee Trail two days ahead of us and with animal transport. As a result we were continually to our knees in mud even when going up the steepest of hills. At every step you had to yank your leg out of the mud with an angry suck and sink it in to the knee again as you put it down. Stilwell's pace, with a ten-minute rest every hour, had to be abandoned at once. We were lucky when we didn't stop for oxygen every ten minutes. And when the deep mud no longer hampered us we growled inwardly at the lack of mud, for then the path, sloping in every direction at once, was so slippery that we were continually negotiating the road on our behinds. Ground leeches were everywhere. I had always thought people were exaggerating when they claimed that leeches could suck a man to death, but I'm sure that many of the refugees must finally have succumbed to leeches.

Trevor N. Dupuy, ed. Asiatic Land Battles: Allied Victories in China and Burma. New York: Franklin Watts. 1963.

There were two reasons why Stilwell and British General Wavell decided to wait until the fall of 1943 to begin their reconquest of Burma. In the first place, they knew that it would take about a year to build up strength to prepare their defeated troops for a new offensive operation. Secondly, the climate of Southeast Asia is such that heavy and continuous monsoon rains make military operations almost impossible for half of every year. The rains begin in May and last into October, so the Allies planned to complete their preparations in time to start back into Burma when the dry weather began around November, 1943.

In the meantime, Wavell decided to try to restore the confidence of British troops by two small operations in the coming dry season of 1942-43. In the first of these, one division was to make a limited offensive in the coastal region of southwestern Burma known as the Arakan. The Japanese had very few troops in the Arakan, and because of mountains and lack of roads they would not be able to send in reinforcements easily. But the British advance in the Arakan in December, 1942, was too slow and too cautious. The Japanese sent reinforcements, then counterattacked, and early in 1943 they drove the British back to the Indian frontier.

Scott Gilmore. A Connecticut Yankee in the 8th Gurka Rifles. A Burma Memoir. Brassey's: London, 1995.

When Gilmore's 4th Battalion is finally deemed ready to be put to the test as part of General Bill Slim's Fourteenth Army, it plunges into battle in the jungle-covered mountains of the Indo-Burmese border. He and his comrades fight their way across the dry plains of central Burma, execute a dangerous crossing of the mile-wide Irrawaddy River, and press on to Rangoon, enduring a hostile climate and tenacious Japanese opposition. As Gilmore moves up in responsibility to company commander and engages in night reconnaissance patrols and set-piece attacks, his experiences give a forceful picture of the fighting in one of the most difficult and remote theaters of World War II.

Antony Brett-James. Ball of Fire. The Fifth Indian Division in the Second World War. Aldershot: Gale & Polden, 1951.

"The Medical Services of the Division, under the A.D.M.S., Colonel D. Panton, had great problems to face and overcome. Along the Tiddim Road the Field Ambulances took up a new function. Because the road had been closed behind, and no casualties could be evacuated, the Main Dressing Stations became Field Hospitals with a hundred or more beds. Feeding utensils were held only for the authorized twenty-four patients. Though expanded in this way, the hospitals had still to remain mobile and follow the Division at each stage of its advance. And this could only be achieved by opening as far forward as possible, closing as the rearguard overtook them, and then leap-frogging one another. Jeep ambulances, some of them driven with great skill and daring by volunteers of the American Field Service, proved a success, for they could go in places barred to the ordinary ambulance. Yet, for all their mobility, these jeeps gave an exceedingly rough ride across the ground where they. alone could be used, and such journeys exhausted the sick and were hell to the wounded. The sole alternative---hand carriage on stretchers---was too slow and wasteful of man power."

A. Tegla Davies. Friends Ambulance Unit. The Story of the F.A.U. in the Second World War, 1939-1946. London: Allen and Unwin, 1947.

Before the first main party of reinforcements for the Middle East had left England in July 1941, before the first clinic had been opened in Syria, over a year before the section arrived in Ethiopia, four members of the Unit had landed in Rangoon. A vast new field was open, and the challenge of China's suffering millions evoked from the Unit a wholehearted response. There was never any difficulty in finding volunteers for China. And internally the China Convoy, with members drawn from many nations, provided an invaluable opportunity for demonstrating international co-operation in the relief of human need.

In the summer of 1942 the threat of Japanese raids took a smaller section to Calcutta. No serious raids developed, but flood and famine supervened. The Unit was faced with urgent and exacting demands. Here too, collaboration with American Friends enhanced the value of what work was done.

So immense was the need in China and India that the efforts of less than two hundred men and women over four or five years were in some ways little more than a gesture of goodwill. But they were a gesture, and that in a field in which the sowing of goodwill and understanding were of paramount importance.

John Frederick Muehl. American Sahib.. New York: John Day, 1946.

John Muehl saw India as few Americans, few Britons, and few Indians ever have the chance to see it. He was with the American Field Service, attached to the British Indian Army, and wore British uniform. "I could travel the length and breadth of the country, with the blessing of the Raj but without its stigma. I was a 'pukah sahib' in the Poona Club, a tommy in the Lady Lumley Canteen, an American tourist in Gorpuri Bazaar, and simply a friend to Raman and Singh."

He mingled with the Sikhs and Gurkhas and other Indians who fought under the British not for love of empire or for hate of Japan but for their board and keep. "Nay British sahib---American sahib," he would say when Indians showed reluctance to talk with him. Admiration for America was great enough---though it turned to suspicion by the end of this war in which America seemed to make common cause with the Raj---so that this phrase usually broke down the barrier. And AMERICAN SAHIB is John Muehl's journal of a year. It is an inside story of appalling poverty, famine, and political ferment among the Indians, and of bungling, brutality, and hypocrisy on the part of the British rulers. Fortunately for the reader, the dark picture is lightened with humor and with a sense of the patient philosophy that sustains India.

Gordon S. Seagrave. Burma Surgeon.. Norton: New York, 1943.

The United States Army speaks of these girls of ours as Seagrave's Burmese nurses. The nurses are not Burmese. Only Than Shwe is Burmese. But I don't mind. The other girls were born Karen, Shan, Kachin, Taungthu, and so forth, but we wouldn't tolerate their remaining Taungthu, Kachin, Shan, and Karen. We wouldn't tolerate any race differentiation. They had to be bigger than their race or we had no further use for them. At first Kachin would clique with Kachin and Shan with Shan. The old man didn't approve. He fought them tooth and nail. The head nurses would report errors of conduct of girls of other races, not of their own. The old man would disgrace himself by getting downright angry. An occasional Karen would start chumming with a Shan, a Kachin with a Taungthu. The old man would praise them from the pulpit on Sunday when it was his turn to preach. Now race has nothing to do with any of them. They are much bigger than their race. Little Bawk and Chit Sein, Kachin and Shan. When Bawk goes off on sick leave Chit Sein mopes around and. gets sick herself. The Shan girl can't live without the Kachin. Koi and Saw Yin, Shan and Karen. Roi Tsai and Lu Lu, Kachin and Karen. Lu Lu thought I didn't approve of her friendship with Roi Tsai, and for months she couldn't work, until the matter was straightened out. Kyang Tswi and Esther, Kachin and Karen. United by a wholehearted decision that our fellow worker Paul Geren was a present-day incarnation of God, they couldn't be separated.

J.H. Williams. Elephant Bill.. Rupert Hart-Davis: London, 1950.

IN the XIVth Army our soldiers varied in colour from white, through every shade of yellow and brown, to coal black. The animals we used reflected a similar variety. Pigeons, dogs, ponies, mules, horses, bullocks, buffaloes and elephants, they served well and faithfully. There were true bonds of affection between men and all these beasts, but the elephant held a special place in our esteem. It was not, I think, a matter of size and strength. It was the elephant's dignity and intelligence that gained our real respect. To watch an elephant building a bridge, to see the skill with which the great beast lifted the huge logs and the accuracy with which they were coaxed into position, was to realise that the trained elephant was no mere transport animal, but indeed a skilled sapper.

I could never judge myself how much of this uncanny skill was the elephant's own and how much his rider's. Obviously it was the combination of the two which produced the result, and without the brave, cheerful, patient, loyal Burmese oozie our elephant companies could not have existed. And we should have had no oozies had it not been for men like "Elephant Bill" and his assistants. It was their jungle craft, elephant sense, dogged courage, and above all the example they set, which held the Elephant Companies together under every stress that war, terrain and climate could inflict on them.

They built hundreds of bridges for us, they helped to build and launch more ships for us than Helen ever did for Greece. Without them our retreat from Burma would have been even more arduous and our advance to its liberation slower and more difficult. We of the XIVth Army were---and are---proud of our Elephant Companies whose story "Elephant Bill" tells so modestly but so vividly.

Frank Bonham. Burma Rifles.. Crowell: New York, 1960. [fiction]

At Margherita, he left the plane. "You can catch a ride with one of the trucks going down The Road," the pilot told him.

He wandered from the field in search of the motor pool, feeling lost. Trucks slammed through their gears, careening up and down the road. He saw engineer and signal outfits drilling with their special equipment, and a few combat units in the field. An ambulance with a red cross on its top lumbered in and headed for the hospital---the only area Jerry knew.

He asked several men where the Second Battalion was, and all gave him the same answer: Second had gone "down The Road." Everyone referred to "The Road." The construction of the Ledo Road was easily the most important project of its kind at the time in Burma. Important or not, it was up to him to find his own outfit on The Road. There had been a couple of battles down The Road already---at villages bearing the exotic names of Nzang Ga and Lanem Ga. Details were few. The actions hadn't amounted to much, it was said. Only a few dead.

At Ledo, Jerry caught a ride with a Chinese truck driver leaving for Shing, as the troops around Margherita called the village of Shingbwiyang, near General Stilwell's jungle headquarters. They had not gone a hundred yards when he became convinced that he would never survive the ride. The Chinese soldier drove furiously, a cigarette fuming in his lips like a punk-stick, changing gears with a shrill scream of metal teeth, and frequently running so close to the edge of the cliff that clods of red earth were thrown over. It was no comfort to see the rusting hulks of trucks which had gone over.

  John Masters. A Road Past Mandalay. Bantam: New York, (1961)1979.

Burma still contained thousands of enemy, but they were retreating ahead of us, fighting tenaciously all the while as only Japanese can, and trudging along side paths and tracks through the jungles while Slim launched his spearhead straight down the main road towards Rangoon. Pete and I were there one sunny morning on the outskirts of Meiktila, our jeep parked well off the road, when Bill Slim personally let slip the final advance. I had not seen him close to since Persia, three and a half years earlier, but he said, "How's it going, Jack? Pete driving you mad?"---and then I stood back, wishing I had a camera, as Slim, 4 Corps Commander (Frank Messervy), and three divisional commanders watched the leading division crash past the start point. The dust thickened under the trees lining the road until the column was motoring into a thunderous yellow tunnel, first the tanks, infantry all over them, then trucks filled with men, then more tanks, going fast, nose to tail, guns, more trucks, more guns---British, Sikhs, Gurkhas, Madrassis, Pathans, Americans---young men of the American Field Service, the most popular and admired group in the Army.

John Patrick. The Hasty Heart. Comedy-Drama in Three Acts, 1944.

SCENE: The interior of a hut (basha) which is being used as a convalescent ward in a temporary British General Hospital somewhere within the South East-Asia Command.

The masking border which comes below proscenium arch is uneven and is painted to look like thatch.

There are three doors. One, D. L. opening on, leads to the outside. When this door is opened we see above it a cook-shed with its own door opening into the shed. The roof of the cook-shed extends to what would be the downstage wall of the hut, thus forming a porch. On the edge of this roof we can see the edging of the thatching. Beyond the porch we see the jungle. There is a low door U. C., opening off into the Nurse's office, a shed attached to the back wall of the hut. On the wall of this office is a bulletin board to which are attached various reports and orders. There is a door U. R., opening off into a shed, which is the lavatory.

There are three windows: One U. L. C., one U. R. C., and one D. R. below the lavatory. Through this window we can see the mud wall of the lavatory. It is covered with a tropical vine. Through the up-stage windows we see the jungle [a painted drop, with clumps of bamboo bushes in the foreground]. The windows have large overlapping bamboo shutters hung on the outside. They are opened or closed by means of a long bamboo pole attached to the inside, C. of the shutter. This pole fits into a niche in outside window-sill, thus supporting the shutter when opened. The bottom of the walls of the hut has a wainscoting of horizontal strips of bamboo. Above this wainscoting is woven bamboo matting, attached to the large poles of bamboo which run from the floor to the roof. The roof of the hut is thatch [painted burlap], and slopes from the front down toward the back. A large bamboo pole runs across the hut from the L. wall to the R. wall over the beds toward their head. From this pole various smaller bamboo poles form braces for the side walls and the roof. From this pole are hung mosquito nettings over each bed. These nettings are attached by tape to a wire ring. The wire rings are attached by wire to the back wall to keep them from swinging too freely. At the back of each wire ring are two loops of tape. When the matting is rolled up these loops are used to support each end of the rolled net.

Under Construction