Set behind enemy lines in Burma, this New York Times bestseller is “easily one of the best novels to come out of World War II” (Los Angeles Times).
American soldiers and native Kachin troops battle Japanese forces behind enemy lines in the Burmese jungles. But during the brutal campaign to gain territory in the unforgiving tropical landscape, Captain Reynolds and his band of special operations soldiers and guerrilla fighters struggle to find self-awareness, and even love, in the midst of the trials of combat.
One of the youngest officers to serve in Merrill’s Marauders and OSS Detachment 101—precursors to the Green Berets and Central Intelligence Agency—author Tom T. Chamales brings an unparalleled level of authentic detail and raw intensity to this work of fiction based on his real-life experience in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Never So Few is “an extraordinary and powerful book,” unflinching in its portrayal of wartime sacrifice and violence (Kirkus Reviews, starred).
The basis for the movie starring Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, it offers “dramatic, exciting, and concretely detailed accounts of battle action,” and joins the ranks of other classic war novels such as From Here to Eternity and The Naked and the Dead in bringing later generations to the frontlines and into the inner lives of the brave men who served (The New York Times).
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About the Author
He was the youngest officer to serve in Merrill’s Marauders and OSS Detachment 101. (The OSS was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the US Army Special Forces, commonly known as the “Green Berets,” trace their roots to Merrill’s Marauders.)
At the age of twenty-one, he was a captain and stationed in Burma, where he commanded the 3rd Battalion of American Kachin Rangers. He was also the tactical commander when the main Kachin forces were joined (a force of about two thousand guerilla troops). He served the entire Burma campaign through the Lashio victory, and also took part in the invasion of Rangoon serving nearly two years behind Japanese lines. For his service, the Kachin people bestowed on him the title “Duakaba,” which means “high leader.” Col.Aaron Bank, the founder of Special Forces, wrote a personal inscription to Chamales on the inside cover of his copy of Never So Few, commemorating Chamales’s early contributions to Special Forces.
In civilian life, Chamales had a variety of occupations including hotel manager, horse book operator, fishing guide, and manager of a fashionable restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island. Chamales tragically passed away in a fire on March 20, 1960, at the age of thirty-five.
Read an Excerpt
Never So Few
By Tom T. Chamales
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1957 Tom T. Chamales
All rights reserved.
The sun departed in a last burst of gold and red. Down on the road in the valley the rancid odor of powder and smoke mingled with the purple color of death and the fired wet jungle sputtered in the dusk. The living things of day returned to their hovels and the living things of night stretched and tautened their muscles.
High above the jungle line in the pine forest of the Kachin Hills of North Burma after a swift nine mile uphill march the weary men returned to camp. There had been no wounded today and it had been several weeks since anyone had been killed.
The camp was on the side of a hill just off the top. To the north was a higher hill where they had a strong outpost. The Dua, which was what the little brown men called Con Reynolds, would have preferred to put his perimeter there but it had no water, so he had outposted it heavily. The Dua was a cautious man when caution did not cost anything. He had outposted all the trails that led down the two hills into the valley, and those that came from the south, and he had spotters in all the native villages to the north. All the men knew of these outposts and felt quite secure with their position on the hill. Now they formed a circular perimeter defense and when night came they would post guards after arguing about the password.
Con Reynolds sat on the ground, a bamboo cup of scotch in one hand a cigarette in the other. Between his legs rested his bush hat and on the hat was a map. He was looking at the map and dictating a message to Niven the radio operator:
19 DEC 43--POSITION UNCHANGED.
AMBUSH at 10.62–11.73 CO-ORDINATES. EXECUTED AT ELEVEN HUNDRED. ESTIMATED 24 JAPS KILLED. POSITIVE SIXTEEN KILLED. TWO SUPPLY TRUCKS DESTROYED. NO CASUALTIES. CAPTURED DOCUMENTS NOT DECIPHERED. AGENT BETTY REPORTS LARGE TRUCK AND TROOP CONCENTRATION AT 15.24–12.53 CO-ORDINATES. SUGGEST AIR. POSSIBLE AMMO DUMP.
WHERE IS THE PRIEST. THANKS FOR SCOTCH. TAKE AIR-DROP AS PLANNED.
"Can you code it in time, Jim?"
"I think so," Niven said, looking up from his writing pad. He was a tall thin young man with smooth skin and gold rimmed glasses and gentle features. He got up from his squatting position and walked away.
And Nautaung from the opening in the clearing a little below the camp watched them. The old Kachin rested his back to a large flat rock from where he could see the road in the valley and the camp in the pines. His Mongolian eyes squinted into the departing sun now warm on his wrinkled brown face. It was the time of day when young unperceptive men would become lonely and talk loud. It was the time of day when the knowing man thought best.
Nautaung was an old man and an old soldier and very quick and very wise. He did not like this business that had come up between the Kachin Subadar Major La Bung La and the white Dua. Where La Bung La was there would always be trouble. Nautaung would have to give the Dua credit; his instinct was good. The white man had seen through La Bung instantly, but it was a dangerous thing for the Subadar Major and the white officer to hate as they hated. Something else bothered the Dua too. Something that had nothing to do with this guerrilla war. Was it the monkey? No. It was better since the Dua had the monkey. It was something else. The monkey was not a bad thing.
Nautaung studied the white man. The Dua had dark quick eyes and all day long his goatee had shone reddish brown in the sunlight but now in the darkening forest it appeared almost black. He was a tall slender man but large in the shoulders, with high cheek bones and square cut features.
Nautaung thought of his own years with the Burma Rifles and all the white officers he had served under and what a fine looking officer this American made. But he was different. Different from the British and different in many other ways too. White man, you are a river Nautaung thought. Did not your father teach you that? Where is the source from which you flow?
Con looked up from the map and reached into the breast pocket of his khaki shirt and pulled out a piece of paper. He read:
18 DEC 43 HDQS 1900 HRS
PEARSON TO DANNY AND CON:
YOU WILL BE GLAD TO KNOW STILWELL GIVEN COMMAND ALL CHINESE FORCES TODAY. URGE STEPPED UP OPERATION UNTIL CHINESE PUT INTO ACTION. LEDO NOW IN DANGER. YOU ARE ONLY ACTIVE FIGHTING ALLIED FORCES NORTH BURMA. DO BEST. SCOTCH IN NEXT DROP.
Con folded the paper slowly, looking across the darkening valley to the other side of the Burma Road. He was thinking about Danny. Danny the Englishman with the shaved head and the monocle, over there somewhere with his three hundred men. Six hundred and fifty men between us while the American-fed Chinese 38th and 22nd Divisions sat on their ass on the India Burma border. Forty to fifty thousand battle seasoned sons of Nippon against six hundred and fifty Kachin Scouts and eight white men.
Con could hear the elegant voice of Danny now. It's amazing, old chap. Simply amazing they don't become pissed you know and come after us in force. No one, Con thought, could say "pissed you know" in a more cultured manner than Leftenant-Colonel Danny de Mortimer fourth cousin to The King himself. Step up the operation! Danny would do it. Well, so would he. Constantine Theothoros Reynolds would do it too. But please Mr. Stilwell put some pressure on soon or they will become pissed you know.
Con put the message back in his pocket and drank from the cup of scotch. He folded the map carefully and put the map into the map case and put the map case into the pack. Then he rested the pack on the large root of a big pine, set the angle of the pack correctly and stretched out full resting his head on the pack.
What day was it? Was it the day before or the day after in Chicago? What difference did that make now? The cool dampness of the earth penetrated through his khakis to his hot tired body sending a blanket of flesh bumps over him. This was a better feeling than he'd ever had on Michigan Avenue. And he'd never smelled fircones as sweet as this up in Wisconsin, but he'd been so busy there that he really never had time to notice it.
He'd better get some rest now. Oh God how good this damp earth felt. But rest. Tonight could be the bad night he'd been expecting; He searched with his hand for his bush hat. He found it and set it squarely over his face.
And Nautaung watched. The Dua was sleeping now. Or was he sleeping? The old man fanned himself slowly with his bush hat. He wore green jungle pants and blouse, the uniform of all the men, but he wore the pips of a Subadar and he had on shoes.
The Dua stirred restlessly, Nautaung saw. That was not good. So far they had been very lucky. The Dua had pressed his luck. That was good. That was the only way to stay lucky. It was when you tightened up and stopped pushing that things went bad. That is why it is bad for a soldier to worry. A soldier lost his feeling when he worried. That was when he tightened up. A man was either good or bad, Nautaung knew.
That was the way of his people. White men were different. He didn't know why. Could it be that this man was good and that he was bad also. Never in his long life had Nautaung thought that it would be possible to be both. Not even with white men. It was confusing. Problems could be solved only when they were not hurried. He had always known that. Patience, his father had taught him, was the essential virtue. If you had patience and time you could solve any problem. For the benefit of his own people he must help the Dua.
The sun disappeared completely leaving a valid array of its color in the distant horizon. The wind began to change and the first north breeze swept cool across Nautaung's face. Why did he like this white man above all that he had known? Even more than the missionary priest Father Barrett. Why did he feel that the white man was almost like a son to him? Didn't the white man have a father of his own? Ayee! But how the Dua could fly through the jungle and on the trail. What fine ambushes he makes. His father would never believe a white man could make such fine ambushes. That was a real ambush today and they had been lucky.
The radio generator began to whrrr on the other side of the hill drowning out the excited voices of the young Scouts in the camp. The old Kachin set the bush hat on the back of his head and reached into his breast pocket and took out a cigarette. He inspected the cigarette almost tenderly and then lit it inhaling slowly. What fine cigarettes these Americans make, he thought. The British could not make cigarettes like these.
A stronger, cooler breeze came from the north and Nautaung knew it would be cold again tonight. Then he heard the crackle of a twig as someone approached. It came from the rear. He listened and knew in his mind before he really heard the footsteps that it was the Subadar Major himself.
Nautaung did not look up. The steps came nearer and nearer and then stopped beside him and out of the corner of his eye he saw the boots of La Bung La planted firmly to his left, only then did he look up slowly exhaling from his cigarette. He saw the clean jungle pants and it flashed through his mind that La Bung had bathed in the stream already. Then up to the green jungle blouse with the gold brocade pips of the Subadar Major and to the dark shiny face of La Bung the old man looked, then at the black British Infantry beret that La Bung wore cockily on the right side of his head.
La Bung smiled and the right corner of his mouth rose slightly higher and wider than the left and quivered. "Old man, are you tired?" he said archly.
"It has been a long day," said the old Kachin looking directly at La, so that La Bung looked away from him and down into the valley where it was still smoking from the ambush.
Staring at the valley with his contemptuous, tyrannical eyes. "That was a fine ambush I made today. Was it not old man?" La Bung said earnestly still looking down into the valley.
So now it is his ambush, Nautaung thought. "We were lucky," the old man said impassively.
La Bung lit a cigarette. It was getting very dark in the valley now. He looked at the old man fleetingly. "Why didn't you move those men to the flank when I pointed? You could have ruined the ambush." He threw his head back and looked over the old man waiting.
"You could not see for the bush. I had placed two men there earlier, young Subadar Major," Nautaung said quietly.
"What do you mean, old man?"
"I mean, young Subadar Major, that before you arrived from the rear I had men to protect our flank. But you were in such haste you did nothing but point." Nautaung looked up at La Bung. "Why didn't you come forward and tell me if you worried so?"
La Bung half smiled and the right corner of his mouth quivered. He said very militarily: "Subadar Nautaung. You should not move men without my permission. You're an old soldier. You know that."
"That was in the Burma Rifles and the Kachin Rifles. The regulars."
"So?" questioned La Bung hating the calm wiseness of the old man, wondering why they had ever let him come out of retirement.
"This is a war of the hills. This is not line duty like the Rifles. The Dua says that each Subadar is responsible for his own men. I will protect mine, young Subadar Major," Nautaung spoke surely.
"The Dua is a child. He knows nothing of soldiering. Look, he lets the men burn fires in plain view of the road in the valley. Two nights now he has let the men burn fires. He is dangerous, that white man," La Bung said intently.
"He is a good officer, La Bung. He is young but he has learned much of hill warfare and jungle warfare. He thinks well. And he is not afraid. Are you afraid of the fires, young Subadar Major?" the old man said fixedly.
"It is not good policy. Suppose they come up in the hills after us. The book says not to burn fires."
"There is no book now, young Subadar Major. This is not the Burma Rifles."
"The white man is a fool. He is too familiar with the men," La Bung said spitting some tobacco from his mouth. "Do you know we move in the morning?"
"Yes," the old man said.
"How do you know this?"
"The Dua told me coming up the hill."
That was another reason La Bung hated the white man. He could not understand how he had become so close to Nautaung. White officers did not get close to Subadars. It was not done. But this white officer who did everything a new way talked long hours with Nautaung and even ate with him. The old man had sold him out. Now he felt that the white man could see through him just like the old man could. La Bung could not speak up to the white officer, because he had never been able to speak up to any officer. So he saved it up until it almost tied him in knots and then he would take it out on Nautaung, but he only felt worse when he was done with the old man and he could not understand this; yet in spite of his rage he came back to the old man again and again. Well, he was a Subadar Major and he had soldiered. When a soldier had it over a man with his rank and he handled it right he could get him just as sure as the bookmakers in Rangoon would get all your money if you bet them strong enough.
"Do you know why we move, old man?" La Bung asked glacially.
"Yes, to take an air-drop," the old man said calmly.
"Old man, I trust you only," La Bung said in preemptory tones. "I must place you in charge of the mules again. And of the air-drop again. For there is no one else I trust."
The old Kachin had known this was coming and made mental preparation for the detail coming up the hill. He was tired now, he looked at La Bung La and the young Kachin looked away. Nautaung noticed that La Bung La did not have his binoculars hanging from his neck. He had never seen a military man love a piece of equipment like La Bung loved his American Army binoculars. "Where, oh Subadar Major, are your pretty binoculars," Nautaung said concernedly.
La Bung groped to his chest turned his head right and left, up and down, his quivering mouth opened in lost surprise. He walked away rapidly and Nautaung could hear him yelling for a detail to go to the stream to hunt for his glasses.
To himself the old man laughed. Outwardly he did not laugh. In his eyes he smiled. They were making a monkey stew. It smelled good and he was hungry but he would not eat until late. Eating dulled his thinking and this was the best time of day to think.
Con Reynolds did not sleep but drifted into that mental blankness brought only by a great physical tiredness. The quality of his denials with himself for the past week had been of such immensity that now the silent impressions began to turn like the wheels of a locomotive. Slowly at first, becoming a spinning current of the intricate happenings of his youth until the train of his thinking gained traction and his mind was hummingly occupied.
Since he had come to the hills all his past was suddenly sublimated and the impetus and depth of old fortunes and misfortunes had clarified so that the fears and trouble were gone but the emotion remained and moved him now more than at their inception. It was only now that they began to embody reality, no longer thinking of the pleasures of life, rather of the despair. And in this facing of the past he learned a new kind of pain. At first it had frightened him but he knew that eventually he had to face it as he had to face everything else.
But what was that thing about him? This catalyst effect that he had on people and events so that as soon as he approached a scene things always began to happen? He knocked on a door and when he went in destiny walked beside him invisible and unannounced. Like the time he was in Chicago on his last leave before shipping out.
He had been with friends and they had been on the town. He was the only one in uniform, a man of patriotic devotion and destined for military glory they said, and he had gotten a little drunk and pretty soon he couldn't stand their vagaries anymore.
They were in a night club in the loop when he had a sudden urge to talk to the only friend he had who was up in Wisconsin. It was in the middle of the summer. So at eleven o'clock he called Van Burbank on the phone and told him that he was shipping out and leaving Chicago the next day. Con had urged Van to come in so they could have that final drink together. Van said that he would leave within the hour and Con had waited all night in the club and when Van didn't show he went home. At home there was a message that Van was in the hospital in Lake Forest and Con had rushed up there at once. When he walked into Van's room he said Con was not to think it was his fault. Con didn't know what he meant until Van told him that he and his mother had started to drive in and Van had fallen asleep at the wheel and his mother had been killed going through the windshield.
Con had one more day of leave but as soon as he knew that Van was going to make it he left town immediately.
Excerpted from Never So Few by Tom T. Chamales. Copyright © 1957 Tom T. Chamales. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received an electronic copy of this novel from Netgalley, the estate of Tom T. Chamales, and Open Road Integrated Media, Inc. in exchange for an honest review. Thank you all for sharing this hard work with me. This novel was originally published in 1957. Tom T. Chamales writes about war and the world with such clarity and precision that it pains you to read the words. I am very grateful this novel was re-issued by Open Road for whole new generations to appreciate. Mr. Chamales died very young but his soul lives on in this novel. This opus covers the re-taking of the Burma Road overrun by the Japanese in 1942, to the reopening of the road to Allied forces and supplies in 1945. The Burma Road was over 700 miles long, completed in 1938 by over 200,000 Burmese and Chinese laborers through very rough, mountainous country controlled by the Kachins and the Karens, world renowned Burmese guerilla fighters. Never So Few also covers some of the the training and the initial battles of Merrill's Marauders, the forerunners of our Special Forces today. But most importantly, Never So Few opens for us the hearts and minds of soldiers and support personnel through harrowing months and years of battle isolated from safe havens and loved ones. Before it is over we understand the debilitation behind the term battle fatigue and the cost of 'real estate'.