Provisional OSS Platoon in a Night Recon, Arakan Coast, Burma, Oct 1944 – Apr 1945, India – Burma Campaign, by Capt Martin J. Waters.

This archive covers the operations of a provisional OSS Platoon, in a series of night landings made on the Arakan coast of Burma during the period from Oct 1944 to Apr 1945. In order for the reader to understand the role of amphibious forces in the Burma Campaign, it will be necessary for him to become more fully acquainted with the campaign itself.

The operations of American, British, and Chinese forces in Burma were so greatly over-shadowed in the newspapers and news-reels by the campaigns in Europe and the Pacific islands that many home-coming soldiers and airmen from CBI (China Burma India) felt that they should carry leaflets describing the Burma Campaign. The writer of this monograph is in effect including such a leaflet for the benefit of the average reader, who, if he is at all typical, doesn’t even know where Burma is located. Actually, Burma deserves particular mention as the land which conquered its conquerors.

The Japs who struggled through the humid jungles, the gushing mountain streams, the muddy paddy-fields, and the almost vertical ascents and descents of the northern and western mountain masses became so exhausted physically, so depleted in numbers by the ravages of malaria, dysentery, scabies, and jungle sores, and so short of supplies (which could not be easily replenished over those torturous routes to the north and west) that their mad gallop across Thailand and the flat-lands of southern and central Burma slowed down to little more than a blind stagger at the India – Burma border. And then the monsoon rains came to seal off the mountain passes into India with a wall of mud. Just as truly as Napoleon’s troops had been stopped by the scorched earth of Russia, the forces of Hirohito were beaten by the jungles of Burma in May 1942. By the time the Japs had caught their collective breath, extricated themselves from the mud, and regrouped their units, they found the British, Indian, and Chinese troops dug in on the India-Burma frontier in forces strong enough to bar the way to the open plains of Bengal and Assam.

Through the years that followed, Burma remained a thorn in Hirohito’s side. How he must have hated that green hell which stood between him and his cherished dreams of linking forces with Hitler at the Dardanelles and Port Said. With the Japs effectively halted, at least temporarily, the Allied forces could begin to think of measures that were not purely defensive in nature. The Allied Chiefs of Staff worked out the lines of command and issued directives covering the missions of the polyglot troops assembled and assembling in India.

Britain’s dominant interest in Burma was recognized by the investment of Gen Archibald Wavell as Commander in Chief of all forces in India. Chiang Kai Shek was named commander of the China area and Gen Joseph Stilwell, at Chiang’s request, became the Generalissimo’s Chief of Staff as well as Commander of the Chinese Expeditionary Forces, all this in addition to his duties as Commanding General of all American forces in China – Burma – India (CBI). Stilwell had first appeared in Burma as head of an American Military Mission with orders to supervise the distribution of lend-lease aid to China and to do everything in his power to aid the Chinese war effort. This mission was now amplified to include the opening of a land route to China as soon as practicable, with the expansion of air-supply via the Hump route as a stop-gap in the interim. A large-scale allied counter-offensive in the remaining months of 1942 was, however, out of the question, although, on purely tactical grounds the counter-blow should have been delivered while the enemy was licking his wounds – that is to say, immediately. The British high command was reluctant to move too many troops out of India for fear that the Hindus would seize the opportunity to call for a general uprising. This situation, plus the need of out posting a 700 mile front, absorbed most of the divisions then available in India. So, initially, Wavell concentrated his energies on purely defensive measures.

The Indian divisions which had been mauled in the Jap invasion of Burma were refitted, restored to full strength, and regrouped with virgin divisions to form the two army corps which were to improve and man the defenses on the India – Burma frontier. Of these, the IV Corps, with headquarters at Imphal was made responsible for the Patkai and Manipur Hill tracts in the northwest; and the XV Corps took over the Arakan Hills defenses in the southwest. Meanwhile, Stilwell, handicapped by the humid, pestilential training-base location assigned him by Wavell, had tremendous problems of his own. His only seasoned ground troops, the 38th and 22nd Chinese Divisions had been seriously decimated during the retreat through Burma. Those of the 38th Division who had not been killed or wounded in battle crossed into India in a fair state of health; but the 22nd Division was caught in the monsoon near Fort Hertz, and most of the soldiers who dragged themselves across the Indian frontier had to be hospitalized for malaria, dysentery, jungle ulcers, and malnutrition. Lastly, Chinese soldiers flown in from China to bring these divisions up to strength were primarily paddy-field recruits who, therefore, had to be trained from the very beginning.

Nevertheless, Stilwell stated that he could place the 38th Division in the field by early 1943. Since the Hukawng Valley, the area assigned as the Chinese zone of operations, was, in its northern terminus, only lightly held by widely scattered Jap outposts, he believed that one division would be ample to secure a firm foothold in North Burma, initially, and additional footholds, subsequently, when the rehabilitated 22nd could take the field again. True, the shifting of enemy troops from the northwest to the Hukawng Valley area could probably stop the Chinese cold, but a properly synchronized offensive by the British IV Corps in the Imphal area would prevent the reinforcing of the Hukawng Valley forces, might, initially, even divert a few regiments away from the valley. This then was the plan which Stilwell laid before Gen Wavell and the Generalissimo in late ’42. Chiang Kai Shek agreed to the employment of the 38th Chinese Division on this mission, but the British balked at a large-scale offensive for the reasons already mentioned above. The resultant compromise plan limited British participation to a raid by Gen Orde Charles Wingate’s LRPG’s (Long Range Penetration Groups) in the northwest and to a diversionary attack by XV Corps on the Arakan front.

The Chindits and the first long-range jungle penetration mission.

On Wingate’s arrival in March 1942 in the Far East, he was appointed colonel once more by Gen Wavell and was ordered to organize guerrilla units to fight behind Japanese lines. However, the precipitous collapse of the Allied defenses in Burma forestalled further planning, and Wingate flew back to India in April, where he began to promote his ideas for jungle long-range penetration units. Intrigued by Wingate’s theories, Wavell gave Wingate a brigade of troops, the Indian 77th Infantry Brigade, from which he created a jungle long-range penetration unit. The 77th Brigade was eventually named the Chindits, a corrupted version of the name of a mythical Burmese lion, the chinthe.

By August 1942 he had set up a training center near Gwalior and attempted to toughen up the men by having them camp in the Indian jungle during the rainy season. This proved disastrous, as the result was a very high sick rate among the men. In one battalion 70% of the men went absent from duty due to illness, while a Gurkha battalion was reduced from 750 men to 500. Many of the men were replaced in Sept 1942 by new drafts of personnel from elsewhere in the army. Meanwhile, his direct manner of dealing with fellow officers and superiors, along with eccentric personal habits, won him few friends among the officer corps; he would consume raw onions because he thought they were healthful, scrub himself with a rubber brush instead of bathing and greet guests to his tent while completely naked. Wavell’s political connections in Britain and the patronage of Wavell (who admired his work in the Abyssinian campaign) protected him from closer scrutiny.

The original 1943 Chindit operation was supposed to be a coordinated plan with the field army. When the offensive into Burma by the rest of the army was canceled, Wingate persuaded Wavell to be allowed to proceed into Burma anyway, arguing the need to disrupt any Japanese attack on Sumprabum as well as to gauge the utility of long-range jungle penetration operations. Wavell eventually gave his consent to Operation Longcloth. Wingate set out from Imphal on Feb 12, 1943, with the Chindits organized into eight separate columns to cross the Chindwin River. The force met with initial success in putting one of the main railways in Burma out of action. But afterward, Wingate led his force deep into Burma and then over the Irrawaddy River. Once the Chindits had crossed over the river, they found conditions very different from that suggested by intelligence they had received. The area was dry and inhospitable, crisscrossed by motor roads which the Japanese were able to use to good effect, particularly in interdicting supply drops to the Chindits who soon began to suffer severely from exhaustion and shortages of water and food.
On Mar 22, The Eastern Army HQ ordered Wingate to withdraw his units back to India. Wingate and his senior commanders considered a number of options to achieve this but all were threatened by the fact that with no major army offensive in progress, the Japanese would be able to focus their attention on destroying the Chindit force.

Eventually, they agreed to retrace their steps to the Irrawaddy since the Japanese would not expect this, and then disperse to make attacks on the enemy as they returned to the Chindwin. By mid-March, the Japanese had three infantry divisions chasing the Chindits who were trapped inside the bend of the Shweli River. Unable to cross the river intact and still reach British lines, the Chindit force was forced to split into small groups to evade enemy forces. The latter paid great attention to preventing air resupply of the Chindit columns, as well as hindering their mobility by removing boats from the Irrawaddy, Chindwin, and Mu rivers and actively patrolling the river banks. Continually harassed by the Japanese, the force returned to India by various routes during the spring of 1943 in groups ranging from single individuals to whole columns: some directly, others via a roundabout route from China. Casualties were high; the force lost approximately one-third of its total strength.

Thus, January 1944 found XV Corps launching a halfhearted attempt to take Akyab, an island air-base on the northwest coast of Burma. The 14th Indian Division crossed the India – Burma frontier and advanced southeast in two columns, one on the north side of the Mayu Range, the other on the south side. As initial objectives, the north column hoped to capture Rathedaung, the south column Foul Point, the southern tip of the Mayu peninsula. In February, Gen Wingate slipped his LRPG columns across the India – Burma frontier from the IV Corps’ Imphal area and disappeared into the jungle. Wingate’s primary goal was the North Burma railroad system which he hoped to sever by multiple widely separated demolition charges in two general areas, namely: Mandalay and Lashio.

Meanwhile, the Chinese 38th Division marched towards Ledo where it was to remain until such time as the success of British diversionary efforts would make its Invasion of Burma propitious. But things were not going well on the Arakan Coast. After pushing through Jap outposts, both columns of the 14th Indian Division ran into determined Japanese resistance; both columns suffered heavy casualties. When subsequent attacks failed to dislodge the enemy, the campaign was officially recognized as a failure. The withdrawal, accomplished in the face of continuous harassment by Jap infiltration units, was finally completed in April, whereupon the division was relieved and sent into the interior of India for a general overhauling.

Wingate’s efforts, though widely publicized, were of no particular benefit as a send-off to the Chinese 38th. After three months of the cruel physical and mental torture which is an integral part of the game of hide-and-seek with a numerically superior enemy, the LPRGs had succeeded in blowing up the rail-lines between Mandalay and Myitkyina in several places, but Lashio was still many days’ march away – too far for an exhausted group of men who had already seen too many of their number fall by the wayside. Wingate gave the order to disperse which, in the vernacular of the LRPG meant to break up into small units and head for the India – Burma border on divergent routes.

Of these small units, some made their way across the India – Burma border; others crossed over into China; many were never heard of again. Wingate claimed that two-thirds of his unit emerged. Veterans whom the writer knew personally said the actual figure was closer to one-third. But whatever the casualty toll, it was out of all proportion to what was accomplished in the way of damage to the Japanese supply lines to the north. Three B-25’s could have done the same job in a few hours.

Gen Chiang Kai Shek’s reaction to these failures was not without justification. He ordered Gen Stilwell to tear up his plans for the Chinese invasion of Burma. Accordingly, Stilwell placed elements of the 38th Division on outpost duty to protect the American engineer units at work on the Ledo Road (this road that would one day connect with the Burma Road via Myitkyina and Bhamo) and ordered the balance of the 38th back into training camp. Thus the results of the opening campaigns of 1943, in terms of progress made towards the destruction or surrender of the enemy forces in Burma were just about zero; and Wavell’s India Command, which had the power of yea or nay over any and all projected offensives in Burma, began to feel the impact of a thoroughly aroused and very impatient Stilwell.

Joseph Stilwell’s vinegary remarks apparently carried to high places. At any rate, two meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the first in June, the second in August, produced important changes in the CBI. The first conference resulted in a directive that reiterated the doctrine of all possible aid to China. ‘Aid’ was stated specifically to mean, first, an increase in tonnage flown over the ‘Hump’, and second, a land invasion of Burma effective in October, the end of the monsoon period. The second conference produced a complete revamping of the High Command in India. The India Command under which Stilwell, though the commander of all Chinese and American forces in India, was subordinate to Gen Wavell for operations, was superseded by a new command structure, henceforward to be known as SEAC (Southeast Asia Command). Wavell’s India Command was stripped of all tactical powers and became an administrative and training command only. Adm Louis Mountbatten became SEAC’s Supreme Allied Commander. His staff consisted of Gen Joseph Stilwell, Deputy Chief; Gen Sir Richard Peirse, Air Commander in Chief; Gen George E. Stratemeyer, Deputy Chief to Peirse; Gen George Gifford; CiC, British Ground Forces, Gen Claude John Eyre Auchinleck, Commander in Chief, India; Gen Raymond A. Wheeler, Chief Administrative Officer, and Gen Albert Coady Wedemeyer, Chief of SOS.

The Combined Chiefs of Staff’s plan for the Invasion of Burma was given the code name of ‘Capital’. The troops which it called upon to march against the enemy were probably the most polyglot group ever assembled under one command. Stilwell’s 38th and 22nd Chinese Divisions, later to be reinforced by an American unit, Merrill’s Marauders, were to lead off the invasion by advancing from Ledo into the Hukawng Valley; Mogaung and Myitkyina were the objectives. The 14th Army (IV and XXXIII Corps – Gen Slim), composed of British, Nepalese, Indians, Burmese, and East Africans was to follow a generally south-easterly direction from Imphal in attacking across the Chindwin River towards Mandalay. The XV Corps Indian and West African divisions were to make a second stab at Akyab by advancing southeast on the Mayu Peninsula.

Two additional units were directed to operate in the zone of the interior with the mission of harassing the Japanese lines of communication, particularly in the zone of action of Stilwell’s Chinese forces. One of these units, consisting of several companies of Kachins organized by Col Ray Peers, Commanding Officer of OSS Detachment 101, was already on the ground with hide-outs throughout the Kumon range all the way from Shingbwiang to Myltkyina. The other unit, a new Wingate LRPG, was scheduled to be glider-transported to three landing areas between Bhamo and Indaw (except one column which was to proceed on foot from Ledo to Lonkin).
According to plan, Stilwell’s 38th Division pushed off towards Shingbwiang in late October, fought timidly at first but gradually developed confidence, and had actually won a few minor victories (at the expense of the Jap 13th Division outpost units) by the time the 22nd Division joined it in January 1944. The fall of Maingkwan and Walawbum on March 7 marked the debut of the Merrill’s Marauders who blocked the Japs in the rear while the 22nd and 38th steamrollered the enemy front and flanks.

The same period, however, found the British in an extremely embarrassing position on both of its fronts. On the Arakan front, the XV Corps’ 5th and 7th Indian Divisions had crossed the frontier in December 1942 in a repetition of the ill-fated January 1943 scheme of maneuver, that is, in two columns, one on each side of the Mayu Range. Buthidaung held out against the 7th Division, but Maungdaw fell to the 5th Division on January 1, 1944. The gain was short-lived.

Elements of the Jap 55th Division, employing the same tactics which had so demoralized the original defenders of Burma in 1942, slipped several divisions between the 7th Division and its left flank guard, the 81st West African Division. Before the British were aware of the Jap strategy, the enemy forces had seized Taung Bazaar and, shortly thereafter, the Ngakyedauk Pass, thus encircling the 7th Division. Thanks to airdrop, the 7th managed to hold out while the XV Corps Commander, Gen Christison, sent additional troops to its rescue.

The 5th Division swung north to attack the Ngakyedauk Pass from the East; the 36th Division and the 26th Division marched south from the reserve area in Chittagong, the former joining forces with the 5th division effort, the latter pressing an attack on the eastern side of the pass. Contact with the 7th Division was finally gained by the capture of the pass on February 23. Thereafter the British forces shifted south again and had captured Razabil and the tunnels between Razabil and Buthidaung when a serious penetration of the IV Corps area on the northwest Burma border called for the transfer of the 5th and 7th Divisions to the Imphal front.

As of the middle of April 1944, therefore, Gen Alexander Christison, with only one division, the 25th, to replace the two lost to him, and with the monsoon ready to break in a few weeks, decided to consolidate the ground gained. He ordered the 81st West Africans to close in to the west, established them on a defense line from Taung Bazaar to the 26th Division positions at Sinzweya. The 25th Division occupied the link from the western extent of the 26th at the tunnels on to the east through Razabil and Maungdaw to the sea. The second Arakan Campaign was over.

Why had the 7th and 5th Divisions been so suddenly diverted from the Arakan to the 14th Army (specifically the IV Corps) front? The 14th Army had obviously gotten itself into trouble. In carrying out its phase of the Capital plan, the 14th Army’s IV Corps, consisting of the 23rd, 17th, and 20th Divisions, had pushed forward in March 1944, advancing cautiously and with old-school-tie strategy for a survey of the ground of future maneuver.
But the Japs struck first. Three Jap flying columns, totaling three divisions, but off the 17th Indian Division at Tiddtra; threatened the 20th Division rear at Tamu; and, by-passing the 23rd Indian Division at Ukhrul, appeared to be well on the way to Imphal and Kohima, the seizure of which would be tantamount to slamming the back doer on all the allied troops then operating in North Burma. In other words, the middle of March found the Burma Campaign hanging by the thinnest of threads. Stilwell was undoubtedly doing a great deal of worrying during this period of threatened Jap interdiction of the very important Bengal and Assam railroad, the supply lifeline of his Chinese and American troops in Burma; but he kept his fingers crossed and ordered his troops to continue their advance.

On one point all fronts were not in unanimous agreement for the first time during the campaign: the British had to act positively and aggressively, and they couldn’t afford to fumble this ball. Too much was at stake; half measures would not suffice.
The first step was to save the committed divisions of IV Corps from annihilation. With the aid of the 23rd Division, the 17th Division finally fought its way out of encirclement at Tiddim. Both divisions withdrew to Imphal where they were joined by the 20th Division. In order to relieve the beleaguered battalions of mixed troops at Kohima, all other commitments in CBI area were momentarily shelved. Sufficient planes from the American ATC in Assam were diverted from the Hump supply service to transport the 5th Division, with all its impedimenta, from the Arakan to Kohima.

The XXXIII Corps was ordered to march from the center of India to Kohima without delay. Lastly, the 7th Indian Division was flown up from the Arakan early in April. Thus to the 14th Army’s two corps fell the responsibility of stopping the Japs, the IV Corp at Imphal and the XXXIII Corps, plus the 7th Division, at Kohima.
Hit for the first time by a determined British effort, and with the monsoon arriving in May to unleash buckets of water from the skies, the Japs were in the end no match for troops which could be supplied by air when ground routes turned to quagmires; but it was a long, desperate uphill fight for the 14th Army. By mid-May the sieges of Imphal and Kohima had been lifted and the Japs had passed to the defensive. By mid-July Ukhrul had been retaken by the British; by Aug 19, the last Jap resistance units had been ejected from India.

Pursuit, now became the 14th Army’s primary mission, and, for the first time, was undertaken despite the monsoon, though at the reduced rate dictated by muddy roads and trails and the exhausted condition of the battle-scared troops. Stilwell meanwhile had forged steadily ahead, probably, however, with one eye fixed anxiously on the 14th Army front. After a grueling 70 mile march in rugged mountain rain forests, the Marauders descended upon Myitkyina and seized the airstrip before the surprised Japs could put up an effective defense.
However, the inability of the Marauders to follow up their initial success (due to exhaustion and sickness) resulted in the hurried commitment of green American and Chinese troops who fled in panic in their first encounter with the enemy garrison of Myitkyina town. The Japs, taking advantage of the temporary confusion, brought in reinforcements and dug themselves in in sufficient strength to withstand the Chinese-American attacks until Aug 3. Thereafter, Stilwell, too, went over to the pursuit but also on a limited scale due to the necessity for regrouping and refitting his forces. The first seven months of 1944 were the decisive months in the campaign to retake Burma; and August, as the month in which the British, Chinese, and Americans stood victorious on the north-central, northwest, and southwest battlegrounds, was the turning point in the campaign.

The crucial battles, which by odd coincidence had taken place practically simultaneously on three fronts, swept away the misconceptions, prejudices, and archaic military doctrines which had stood in the way of a vigorous concerted attack on the enemy ever since the grim days of 1942. Now, for the first time, all military leaders in CBI were willing to accept a few fundamental truths, namely: that the Chinese and Indians, when properly led, could match the Japs man for man and gun for gun, and beat them; that hoary tradition to the contrary, troops could, and should, fight on through the monsoon rather than move back into the hills and face the prospect of fighting over the same ground again with the return of each dry season; that the logistical headache imposed by hyper-secret agencies was one known as the OG (Operational Group) Command. This command, with headquarters located in Washington, was charged with the responsibility for the recruiting and training of military personnel, both officer and enlisted, for assignment to small, well-integrated platoons whose mission would consist of long-range penetrations into enemy areas for purposes of destruction, straight reconnaissance, or a combination of both. Whatever the specific mission of a specific OG platoon, however, it was manifest that the platoon survival would depend exclusively on the intelligence, resourcefulness, and courage of the men comprising it; where it was to go, there would be no supporting arms, no friendly adjacent units, and no reserves to succor it when it got into trouble.

End of Part 1 – Go to Part 2 (below)

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