Document Source: Operation of the 2nd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment (Special) during the Battle of Knight’s Hill in Burma, Jan 29 to Feb 2, 1945, Central Burma Campaign. Personal Experience of a Squadron Commander, Maj George B. Jordan.
(Definitive Version, Doc Snafu, November 5, 2022)
This historical analysis covers the operations of the 2nd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Special in the battle of Knight’s Hill January 29 – February 2, 1945. To orient the reader it is first necessary to consider briefly the sequence of events prior to the commitment of the Mars Task Force, of which the 2nd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Special was a part. Between December 1941 and February 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army conquered the Philippines, Thailand, the Dutch East Indies, and threatened Burma. For the American strategy to be successful, it was necessary then that China continue to engage a portion of Japan‘s south Asiatic flank. For this reason, the Allies planned to hold Burma, which was China‘s only remaining effective bridge of contact with the outside world. On February 18, 1942, Singapore fell and with it, the entire Malayan defense cordon was gone. The front was pushed north rapidly by the onrushing Japanese. In March 1942, Gen Joseph ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell assumed command of the Allied Forces. By mid-April 1942, the Japanese had pushed their attack through the dirt roads and jungle of Thailand and had hit the eastern flank of the Chinese lines at Loilem, destroying the 55th Chinese Division. At the same time, the center of the Allied line at Yenangyaung collapsed and the 1st Burmese Division was forced back. The remaining British forces withdrew over the Chindwin River into India, and the Chinese forces withdrew north up the gorges of the Salween River.
The combat efficiency of the Japanese forces was very high as was demonstrated by the force and speed with which their attack split the hastily assembled British – Chinese Army at Loilem and Yenangyaung into several parts. Thus, Burma was added to Japan‘s conquest. After Gen Stilwell walked out of Burma he issued his classic statement which described what happened to the Allies in Burma: I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it is humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.
WEATHER AND TERRAIN
The Japanese victory in Burma gave them control of all communication routes and also control of operational areas least affected by the monsoon. The monsoon season in the Burma area (periods of heavy rainfall) ends in October and the weather is comparatively dry and cold until March or May at which time the weather becomes unbearably hot and remains so until it is broken by the heavy rains which fall during the summer months. The weather as well as the terrain is an important factor to consider in military operations in Burma. The country is shaped like a hand and is an extension of the ‘Roof of the World’, bounded on all sides by high mountains. As the hand divides into fingers, so Burma splits into ranges running southward. These ranges are high, steep, and abrupt. Between the ranges flow four large rivers, the Salween River, the Sittang River, the Irrawaddy River, and the Chindwin River. It is along the valleys formed by these rivers that all-important communication routes are located. The Japanese believed that by controlling the coastline, rivers, and roads of Burma, their forces could effectively block any major allied force; and the only way an attack could be launched against them would be from the south through the Port of Rangoon.
In 1944, under the Northern Combat Area Command, the British 36th Division, the Chinese 1st, and 6th Armies, and the Merrill’s Marauders (5307-Galahad) began their long trek back to Burma. The drive of these forces culminated in the capture of the Airfield in Myitkyina on May 17, 1944, and the first phase of the Northern Burma Campaign ended. In the south, the British 14th Army, located at Imphal, was ready to drive eastward toward the plain above Mandalay.
NORTHERN COMBAT AREA COMMAND MISSION
The overall mission of the NCAC was to capture Lashio, secure the Stilwell Road, which had been built from Ledo in India to Myitkyina in Burma, and to insure an open land route to China. To do this the British 36th Division was to advance south along the Myitkyina Mandalay railway corridor. The Chinese 6th Army (22d and 50th Divisions) was to move south parallel to the British 36th Division, and the Chinese 1st Army (30th and 38th Divisions) was to move on the route Bhamo, Namkham, and Lashio. On July 26, 1944, General Order # 85, Hq USAF was issued activating the 5332d Brigade (Provisional), later to be known as the Mars Task Force. This force replaced the Merrill’s Marauders (5307-Galahad) which had been deactivated in August 1944.
The Mars Task Force was organized to operate as an LRPU (Long Range Penetration Unit). By definition, an LRPU is a special task force organized with the specific mission of operating deep in the enemy rear in contraction with larger units. The organization, as such, prevented the utilization of normal methods of supply and necessitated that Class I and Class 7 supplies be airdropped. The forward troops were supplied by air from Dinjan, requiring an air turn-around of 600 miles. March serials were of battalion or squadron size. They received supplies every three days. Class I supplies airdropped during this operation consisted chiefly of C or K rations supplemented by fruit juices and peanuts. This type of supply required a highly efficient means of communication and also created other special problems, including the evacuation of casualties. The evacuation had to be accomplished by liaison planes (L-5’a) from airstrips built by the using unit. Because of this situation, it was sometimes necessary either to evacuate casualties to the rear by mule or litter to an airstrip or to move them forward with their units. Hospitalization was jungle improvised, but the Medical Detachment did all that was possible until clearings could be made in which evacuation planes could land and take off. In this particular operation, units of battalion size were given objectives such as hills or towns. Generally, no boundaries were assigned restricting maneuver because some units were operating well forward of the Chinese divisions who were pushing the Japanese forces into trails and roadblocks which had been established by the LRPU.
The 124-CAV (S) (124th Cavalry Regiment Special) was reorganized by Memorandum Order dated September 28, 1944, into a Regimental Staff, Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Troop, and three squadrons. The term ‘special’ was attached to the 124th Cavalry Regiment because its organization differed from that of a regular cavalry regiment. This organization can best be shown by the following chart. Each squadron headquarters troop had an enlisted strength of 191 men and each rifle troop had a strength of 142 enlisted men. The 2nd Squadron had an authorized strength of 30 officers and 638 enlisted men but at no time did this squadron reach its authorized T/O strength. The 124-CAV was organized similarly to an infantry regiment, the main differences being that each rifle platoon was composed of three ten-men squads and each rifle troop had a weapon section consisting of one 81-MM mortar squad and one light machine gun section. The heavy weapons platoon of the squadron headquarters and headquarters troop was made up of a heavy machine gun section of four machine guns and one 81-MM mortar section of four 81-MM mortars. Mules were used for packing 81-MM mortars, machine guns, ammunition, kitchen packs, and radios.
An intensive jungle training program, consisting of a series of attack problems from the squad through the squadron levels was carried on at Camp Landis located eleven miles north of Myitkyina, Burma, during the months of November and December 1944. The training in this period emphasized the establishment and detection of ambushes, jungle lore, physical conditioning, perimeter defense, and the employment of platoons as security forces. During this period an ‘esprit de corps’ was built up through a friendly competitive, cooperative spirit among units in all phases of training, and special emphasis was placed on physical training. At the completion of this training period, all men were hardened, confident, and ready for combat. Their morale was very high as a result of this thorough training and confidence in their leaders.
ThE MARCH TO MONG WI
On December 17, 1944, the 124-CAV started its march to Mong-Wi, Burma, marching in three serials. The order of march was 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Squadron with Regimental Headquarters and Headquarters Troop marching with the 2nd Squadron. The formation used in the 2nd Squadron was a column of files. The column was organized with the I&R Platoon and the Kachin Platoon operating in front of the main body by an hour’s march followed by the war dogs, the point, the advance party, the advance guard, and lastly the main body. The terrain over which the regiment marched in the following weeks was mountainous and covered with jungle. In the Schweli River area, the hills were choppy and steep. On some days, as on January 3, 1945, the 2nd Squadron marched only eight miles all of which was uphill. The average gradient was 12% and it was found necessary after this march to let each troop set its own pace on the steeper gradients and when starching in the mud. The march schedule would generally evolve itself into marching for five or ten minutes, halting for a minute, and continuing on, taking either a five or a ten rest in each hour. Marching on these precipitous trails was strenuous and exhausting and required the utmost in physical endurance. On January 12, the 2nd Squadron arrived at Mong Wi, where the entire Mars Task Force was being assembled. During the march from Camp Landis to Mong Wi, the 2nd Squadron had marched a distance of 228 miles in twenty marching days, averaging 11.4 miles per day.
MISSION OF THE MARS TASK FORCE
At Mong Wi, the Mars Task Force was given the mission of capturing the high hill masses surrounding the Namhpakka Hosi Valley west of the Burma Road. This valley would give the force a valley suitable for supply and evacuation purposes and would furnish positions from which operations could be conducted to cut the Japanese lines of communications, destroy their installations, block their escape routes, and further the over-all-mission of the NCAC. At this time the Chinese 22d, 30th, and 38th Divisions were in the vicinity of Namkham pushing south.
The 1st and 3rd Squadrons of the 124-CAV moved out on January 15, and 16. The 2nd Squadron was delegated to stay behind with the brigade forward echelon as guard and reserve. It was necessary to insure that the airstrip at Mong Wi be held until such time as the main part of the Mars Task Force had reached its objectives. On January 19, the 2nd Squadron pulled in all trail blocks that had been established and with brigade headquarters attached, started moving to join the rest of the regiment. The squadron marched over mountain ranges rising to an elevation of 7400 feet and on January 29, it started the last leg of its march into its battle position. Tokyo Rose, (Japanese Broadcast to the US Troops) a few days later broadcasted that American paratroopers had dropped to this roadside position behind their lines. The Japs had not believed the march was possible.
THE SQUADRON SITUATION
On January 28, the day before the 2nd Squadron reached the Namhpakka Hosi Valley, the squadron commander dispatched his adjutant and one section of the I&R Platoon to procure information and to act as a quartering party to guide the squadron into its exact area of employment. As the squadron started down into the valley in a column of files from Man Ning, it was brought under sporadic artillery fire. This shelling lasted for about ten minutes when supporting artillery from the 613-FAB began delivering counterbattery fire. Even though the squadron was stretched out over two miles, there was no casualty from this shelling, primarily because the trail was on the side of a steep slope and had numerous turns that provided cover. Most of the Japanese shells exploded above or below the trail. The 2nd Squadron moved into the valley on the morning of January 29. The squadron commander went forward to the Regimental CP to contact the Squadron adjutant and the regimental commander. There he was issued a warning order to be prepared to attack, further details as to the time and place were to be sent to him later. Other than that he received very little information except that the 2nd Squadron was to be placed in the general area of Troop B. He also learned that the 2nd Squadron adjutant was not present and that he had left earlier that morning for the 1st Squadron area to watch Troop A make an attack.
Meanwhile, Troop A, commanded by Capt William A. Locke had launched one of the most successful attacks of the campaign against a Jap-held hill where 34 Japanese were killed against two killed and seven wounded in Troop A. Moving toward the general area formerly occupied by Troop E, the squadron commander met Col Ripstra, 1st Squadron Commander, and learned the entire situation. Troop B had been moved to the left of Troop A. Troop G was several miles to the rear, and the 1st Squadron’s defense was thinly held with very little depth. There was approximately a 200-yard gap in a draw between the 1st and 3rd Squadrons’ positions. It was obvious that the 1st Squadron needed support to hold newly won positions. After discussing the tactical situation with Col Ripstra, the 2d Squadron Commander made his estimate of the situation and issued an order to employ Troop F between the 1st and 3rd Squadrons; Troop E, 200 yards to the rear of the 1st Squadron to protect the flanks and the rear of the 1st Squadron; and Troop G was given the duo-mission of establishing a trail block and protecting the airdrop zone, which was a critical area and vital to the very existence of the command. The seven mortars of the 2nd Squadron were employed under squadron control and placed in a draw behind Troop F and the 3rd Squadron. The mortars were registered and concentrations planned to the front of the 1st Squadron, Troop F, and the flanks of Troops E and G.
At about 1600, the same day, the adjutant of the 2nd Squadron arrived at the CP and was asked by the squadron commander to account for his actions during the past five hours. The Adjutant replied that he had been watching Troop A make their attack. Irked at his nonchalance toward the mission he had been given, the Squadron commander informed him that he was relieved as adjutant because he had disregarded his duty and directed him to find himself a new home. At about 1700, a wounded Japanese prisoner (the second of two prisoners captured by the Regiment) was brought by the 2nd Squadron CP. During interrogation, the prisoner revealed that the 1st Squadron would be attacked twice that night in an attempt to dislodge it frost its newly won positions. At 2115, January 28, the Japanese opened up their first attack of estimated company strength with mortars, machine gun fire, and hand grenades from a draw northeast of the positions of the 1st Squadron.