by Jean Newland

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The extraordinary stories of the men held captive by the Japanese in Rangoon , what they endured and how they survived.


The extraordinary stories of the men held captive by the Japanese in Rangoon , what they endured and how they survived.

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Copyright © 2012 Jean Newland
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ISBN: 978-1-4772-8114-7

Chapter One

China-Burma-India "The Forgotten Theater"

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America was at war. Millions of American men thronged to recruitment stations to enlist. Their country had been attacked and they were ready to avenge this "dastardly attack" as President Roosevelt called it. America had become partially involved with the war already raging in Europe. President Roosevelt had been held from direct involvement because many Americans felt that America should remain neutral. In his election campaign, he had promised the American people that he would never send "our boys" to die on foreign soil again.

The First World War and tough economic problems were foremost in the minds of the American public. However, President Roosevelt felt the need to help our allies with the threat from the Axis powers. He proposed a plan to "Lend-Lease" supplies and arms to countries whose security was vital to the defense of the United States. These supplies would be repaid or returned to the United States after hostilities ended.

On March 11, 1941, bill H.R.1776 was passed by Congress a year and a half after the outbreak of the European war which started in September 1939 and nine months before the United States entered the war officially on December 8, l941. Because of that bill, America would begin the production of arms, planes, ships and other war materials. Upon conclusion of the war, Russian Premier Stalin would go on record saying that without the Lend-Lease program, the Allies would not have won WW II. A staggering 50 billion dollars was appropriated by Congress and it was designated for 38 countries. The breakdown for these funds was 31.4 billion to Britain, 11.3 billion to the Soviet Union, 3.2 billion to France and l.6 billion to China.

Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of Nationalist China, would retain control over the funds and supplies appropriated by Congress for the war effort in his country. While he had almost unlimited manpower in China, he desperately needed help in training them. He would also need arms, planes and supplies. Having been involved with a civil unrest, his ability to defend China was questionable. He planned (unknowingly to the United States) on stockpiling these supplies to help him later on to keep the communists at bay.

American men lined up to enlist because they wanted to defend and protect their country and families - they were not thinking of what might await them. Many would die, be wounded, or become prisoners of war. This story is about the men who fought and became prisoners of war in Burma. It was referred to as the China-Burma-India (CBI) Theater. It has also been called, many times, the "Forgotten Theater." These men and boys (yes, boys) bravely flew supplies and men from India to China over the Himalayas, after Burma was lost. This mountain range was the highest and most deadly known to fliers. Pressurized planes were still in the future; therefore, these planes had to carry oxygen tanks which made it more perilous.

They would also bomb Japanese strongholds in Burma to try to free Burma of Japanese control and to regain the very important seaport of Rangoon.

Many factors were involved, creating even more difficulties for these fliers. And China's political problems would play a big part in their mission.

In March of 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party), died. He was a well-liked leader and respected by the Communists as well as the Nationalists. Sun Yat-sen was followed by Chiang Kai-shek, who eventually emerged as the leader after a struggle with Wang Ching-wei. Chiang Kai-shek tried to purge the Communists from China by spearheading the Northern Expedition in an attempt to unify China and force the Communists out. He imposed a blockade and the Communists were forced to evacuate to Northwest China.

Chiang Kai-shek was socially conservative, promoting traditional Chinese culture. He rejected western democracy and democratic socialism and was in favor of an authoritarian, nationalist government. While he oversaw a modest reform, he was focused on fighting internal opponents and the Communists within China. When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, Chiang was still concentrating on his controversial campaign of systematical eradication of political opponents, namely the Communists.

In 1926, he controlled the three biggest cities in China: Canton, Beijing and Nanking. In 1928 under Organic Law, he was given what amounted to dictatorial powers over China. But because of the vastness of the country, he never had complete control.

On December 1, l927, Chiang married Soong-May ling after divorcing his wife and vowing to be become Christian. Soong May-ling would become known as "Madame Chiang Kai-shek." In 1937, Japan invaded China. His critics complained that Chiang was more concerned about maintaining control of his party than he was of putting together a coordinated campaign against the Japanese aggressors that would become a major problem for the Allies.

In December 1885, Burma was established as a province of the British Empire. The British began to permeate the ancient Burmese culture with foreign elements and customs, often weakened by the imposition of British traditions. In the 1930s anti-British riots led to the Government of India Act, and in 1937, Burma became a British crown colony with a limited amount of self government.

Out of these Burmese protests by the "Intelligentsia" and the monks, a law student at the University in Rangoon, Aung San, emerged. He launched a national movement for Independence for Burma. In 1941, Aung San along with twenty nine others (Thirty Comrades as they were known) left Burma and went to Japan for military training. They were promised that if they helped defeat the British that they would gain Burma's freedom. When Aung San realized that the Japanese would not honor their promises, he negotiated an agreement with the British to help defeat Japan.

On January 15, 1942, Units of the Japanese 55th Division moved into Burma. They also came through 3 Pagoda Pass into Moulmien; this is where they would later retreat to when abandoning Rangoon in 1945.

This conflict goes a long way in understanding the animosity held by some of the Burmese people in regards to the POWs. Not only were they terrified by the cruelty of the Japanese, but also loss of their dream of independence. In 1947, after the war the British did negotiate an agreement that Burma would be granted total independence from Britain. Tragically, Aung San was assassinated in 1947 and Burma has been, to this day under a dictatorship.

A very good depiction of the relationship between Nationalist China and Communist China was made by Louis Jones as he told his story at the 40th Bomb Group Association reunion in 1986. It was printed in their publication of March 1987, Issue #14 called "Memories." (Excerpted below)


I was an intelligence officer in the 45th. Nothing either interesting or important ever happens in the life of a squadron intelligence officer. However, I was lucky. I got a call one day from Col. Foss at Bomber Command headquarters who informed me that I had been selected to represent the XX Bomber Command on a fact-finding mission to communist Chinese headquarters. My primary assignment was to act as liaison between the communists and the XX Bomber Command. I was to determine to what extent they could be of assistance in recovering B-29 crews that might be down in areas they controlled.

At this period in history, the United States Government recognized Chiang Kai-shek as the political and military leader of all China. His nationalist forces were defeating the communists in the civil war that was underway at the time China was invaded by the Japanese. The communists were driven back into the mountainous and hilly region of North China. Their headquarters was located in Shensi province of Yenan.

Both the nationalists and the communists agreed that the common enemy was Japan and each waged war against the Japanese but in their own way. There was no attempt at coordinating efforts against the common enemy. The big difference was that the nationalists got military aid from the United States but the communists did not.

I joined the other members of the mission in Chungking, China and learned for the first time that our mission was to be known by the code name "Dixie Mission." The mission was composed of approximately 20 people, both officers and enlisted men under Col. Barrett, an old China hand. We had signal corps personnel, infantry officers, Navy officers, medical personnel, weather observers, two O.S.S. officers, two California Nisei who acted as interpreters of the Japanese prisoners, as well as two high ranking State Department men, and of course me.

At Yeana we lived in a walled compound area guarded by the Chinese and buttressed by a hill approximately 1,500 feet high. Our rooms were actually caves in the hillside. We bunked two to a cave. A wooden frame doorway covered the entrance to the cave. The doorway openings were covered with rice paper. There was a four foot overhanging that sheltered the entrance to all caves.

In meeting with the communist leaders, I emphasized that we were going to bomb Japan from bases in nationalist China and there was a probability that American flyers might come down in areas they controlled. They were eager to help.

Col. Barrett ordered eight of us to make field trips to evaluate the communist military forces. Of course, I spread the word that (1) all downed American flyers were to be harbored and kept safely together. (2) That Yenan was to be notified and everyone, crew members and rescuers, were then to wait for instructions. On these evaluation trips, we usually traveled in pairs. My fellow officer was Johnny Colling, a Captain in the infantry who spoke fluent Chinese. His specialty was demolition. We rode horseback and each of us had a pack animal for belongings. Two Chinese attendants were assigned to each of us. Due to the nature of the countryside and condition of the trails, we did quite a bit of hiking. On those occasions we led the horses. We wore American uniforms unless we were crossing Japanese controlled territory and then we dressed in Chinese communist uniforms. On the flats, we rode. We would be mixed in with approximately 15 other riders. We crossed flat areas at a trot and would have a company of infantry surrounding us moving at double time. In the mountainous regions, we traveled single file and again led our horses. The company of Chinese troops would be spread out about a mile in front and behind us. Immediately in front of me, running ahead on the trail, was a German shepherd dog that hated Japanese. He would never let us out of his sight. When the trail curved, he would sit and wait until we caught up to him before running ahead again. I was impressed by this dog and the Chinese let me keep him when we completed our travels. The dog usually slept at the foot of my bed. We knew that if we got in a "fire fight" with a Japanese unit and the Chinese were unable to protect us, we would be killed as spies since we were out of uniform. Nevertheless, both Colling and I thought we would be killed if captured, whether we were in or out of uniform. So, we had no hesitancy or misgivings about wearing Chinese communist uniforms. We lost one officer to the Japanese, he was captured, his hands were tied behind his back and his legs were tied at the ankles. He was made to kneel and was shot in the back of the head. A sword was also used. We later recovered his body.

Rescue materials other than medicines in survival kits were of little use if you were downed. Once in communist hands, you would be fed, clothed and you followed their instructions. Usually it wouldn't be too many days before word got to Yenan and we would begin arranging a pick up. The method of rescuing downed B-29 crews was to move them to an area where there was an airstrip. They were to stay concealed near the strip and wait. We came as soon as we thought the conditions were right. Many things were considered besides weather: Japanese troop movements, Japanese fighters, etc. We used a stripped down B-25, which was actually General LeMay's personal plane, to attempt pickups.

The rescue of George Varoff's crew was an example of how painfully boring it was to remain concealed near an airstrip sometimes from 10 days to 2 weeks. When the first attempt was made Varoff's crew was not there. They had gone to a neighboring village to be wined and dined as guests of the communists. Once it was determined the crew was not at the strip, the rescue plane took off immediately. They could not afford to stay on the ground any length of time because Japanese fighter bases were too close. There was nothing but pleas over the communist network to come again. The second attempt went smoothly. The entire crew of 11 got out safely.

General LeMay authorized a delivery of a plane load of medical supplies to the communists to show our appreciation for the rescue help they had given the XXBomber Command. (End of excerpt)

On December 11, 1941 when the Japanese invaded Burma, there were only a few units of the British Army and a locally recruited 1st Burma Division to defend Burma against 35,000 Japanese soldiers. So the Japanese had little difficulty in making early gains. The Burmese people were not happy being under British rule and were hoping that possibly the Japanese would allow them self rule. They found out that not only would this not happen, but that they were in for some very cruel treatment and unfortunate times. In their invasion of Burma, the Japanese closed the Burma Road which was the only overland supply route stretching from Northern India through Burma and into China.

General Harold Alexander was sent to Burma in January 1942 to command British and Burma forces. He related that "It was clear that the retention of Rangoon was impossible with the forces at my disposal, dispersed as they were with half of them already encircled. The day after my arrival I therefore ordered the evacuation to begin at daylight the following morning and the demolition of the port and its installations to be carried out thereafter as quickly as possible. I could not save Rangoon but I could save the Army, with luck. The loss of our base would be a most serious matter, as we had to depend on the scattered stores and dumps spread about in central and northern Burma. When these were used up, the Army would be crippled unless supplies could be sent over the mountains from India, but apart from a few mules' tracks, communications with India was non-existent. It seemed that we must do the best with what we had. With Chinese assistance, however doubtful, we should be able to at least make the Japanese advance into Burma slow and costly. Such were the thoughts in my mind when I ordered the destruction and evacuation of Rangoon."

There were virtually no roads in Burma; that was because it served the purpose of the Burma-India Steam Navigation Company which wanted to preserve a monopoly of carrying trade between Calcutta and Rangoon. The British believed the disease-ridden jungle that covered the mountains formed a natural barrier that made an offensive military campaign impossible. Unfortunately, for them, the Japanese had been trained to fight through the jungle and did not require long supply lines, as they carried with them their own food and ammunition.

As Rangoon was evacuated, the Lend-Lease stores were destroyed. Destroyed were 972 unassembled trucks, 5000 tires, 900 assembled trucks and Jeeps and 1000 machine guns with ammunition. However, the British and Americans were able to save some of the guns and ammunition that were transferred to them just before the fall of Rangoon.

On March 8, 1942, as the last British train left Rangoon, the Japanese marched into the undefended city from the west.

In March 1942, General Joseph Stilwell was sent to Burma by President Roosevelt to take charge of the Allied Command. He had asked for a command in Europe, but was sent out to the Asian theater.

He not only had an Engineering Degree, but he spoke Chinese. What General Marshall and the President had conveyed to General Stilwell regarding his command was not exactly what he found. General Chiang Kai-shek said that General Stilwell might have "Executive Control" but that he, Chiang Kai-shek, would retain control over the Chinese Armies as well as Lend-Lease supplies. This was to greatly restrict General Stilwell's ability to fight the Japanese. His first visit to Chiang Kai-shek was on March 7 1942. He began to see what an uphill battle he was in for. Chiang Kai-shek had complete control of supplies that were part of the Lend-Lease program. General Stillwell had little left to command. He was faced with the invasion of China and Burma with India in direct line to be next. He met with Chiang Kai-shek and Madame (as she insisted to be referred to). Time and time again when Chiang agreed to plans placed before him by General Stilwell, he would then reverse himself the next day or week. General Stilwell became so frustrated dealing with him that at one point he asked to be relieved, but was refused. He was asking that the Chinese divisions be released to him for combat which Chiang Kai-shek refused to do -and the Allies were unable to move him.

By the beginning of March the Japanese had four divisions in Burma, and General Stilwell was unable to get any real cooperation from Chiang Kai-shek. On May 6, 1942, General Stilwell sent his last message from his position in Burma, ordering his radios and vehicles destroyed and he and his group headed west on foot into the jungle toward India while the Chinese forces headed East toward China. With him were 114 people, including what was left of his own staff, a group of nurses, a Chinese General with his personal body guards and a number of British commandos, a collection of mechanics, a few civilians and a newspaperman. Leading by example, Stilwell guided the mixed group into India, arriving there on May 15, l942 without losing a single member of the party.

The Japanese knew that rubber was one of the few militarily vital resources that the United States was not self-sufficient in producing. The Japanese thought it critical that the Allies be denied access to Southeast Asia rubber supplies they believed the Allies would not accept peace terms favorable to Japan.


Excerpted from GUESTS OF THE EMPEROR by JEAN NEWLAND Copyright © 2012 by Jean Newland. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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