Yangongpokpi- in 1944 site of a furious battle
Revisiting WW II Battlefields in the North East of India
Lands of Early Dawn, INA, Indian National Army,Battle of Kohima,Wellington Massar, The Hump, The Aluminum Trail,Garrison Hill, Stilwell, Ledo Road,Maj. R.A.J.Fowler, Charles Pawsey,L.A.Pick,Col.Torikai,Gen. Sato,Gen. Slim,Capt.Abdul Majid, Gunner Majhi Khan, Major Navin Rawley, Lt.Ayappa, 2nd Lt.Lahiri, John Harman
To the world, our Tom was just a soldier, To us he was the whole world.
- Mom and Dad
Epitaph for a 19 year-old soldier at the World War II cemetery on Garrison Hill, Kohima.
This serene, well-kept, terraced cemetery has manicured lawns, geometrically arrayed graves bordered with flowering plants. Bushes and trees bordering the perimeter are so carefully selected that some portion blooms
month. People stroll about or rest under its trees. It is difficult to imagine that this peaceful retreat, these very terraces, were once the scene of a
fierce and bloody battle
, where 55 years ago men fought each other for a few metres of ground.
Then, this hill was perpetually shrouded in swirling mists of clouds and cordite. The shattered leafless pines, firs and oaks looked like grotesque dancers transfixed. A dense forest teeming with life had been stripped. Violence and destruction were everywhere. Bodies lay putrefying where they fell, one on top of the other, bayoneted, blasted, bombed to bits or clubbed. Some could be buried, time and lull in the firing permitting in shallow graves, which would burst once the bodies bloated. Others lay rotting- Japanese and Allied soldiers- together in death. To reduce the stench, lime, as essential as water, was airdropped for the beleaguered. As the graves were made months after the fighting was over, both friend and foe lie buried here, though the 1287 headstones tell a different story.
This cemetery maps the limit of the Japanese advance into India. In April-June 1944, the bitterest hand-to-hand battles of the Second World War were fought here. A knoll just above the Kohima Pass (1,600m) dominating a strategically vital 280 bend in the 225-km long Dimapur-Imphal road (see map). Today, at its base, it is surrounded by a long row of untidy shops, long line of parked cars, unruly traffic and a road as rough as the one in use then. On this very spot had stood the DC's bungalow. A pretty house with a neat garden in front and a utilitarian vegetable patch at the back. On the terraces behind were the club house and the tennis court. All around, the forest-smothered mountains glowered. To the south rose the thickly-wooded, kilometres-long ridge, culminating in the summit of Japfu (3043m). Below this ridge and along the Imphal road were a number of hillocks on which the Indian and British soldiers had been surrounded. At the beginning of the siege the garrison at Kohima under a resolute Col. Richards held all these hillocks but was gradually forced back until only one remained - Garrison Hill. This was where the DC's house, the garden, the club house and the tennis court were.
Three thousand Allied soldiers. African, British, Indian, and Nepalese, had been surrounded by 15,000 Japanese. The siege lasted 64 days. 7,000 men from both sides were killed.
The War struck North East India on March 28, 1944 when a column of the Japanese 138th Regiment commanded by Col.Torikai overwhelmed a detachment of Assam Regiment, Rajputs and West Yorkshires at Jessami, a town in Ukhrul district of Manipur, at the very spot where now is the camp of a Border Roads detachment.
Of Vinegar and Roads
..Stilwell,The Hump,The Aluminum Trail, Ledo Road
As the Japanese were advancing towards India's borders in the North-East, the Allies were weaving a road over the Patkai hills through northern Burma to Kunming in south-west China, so that they could, together with Chiang Kai-shek's forces, strike down at the Japanese forces concentrated in central Burma. This road was pushed through bureaucratic and other difficult jungles by the American General Stilwell, popularly known as "Vinegar Joe," on account of his caustic comments, which were normally directed at the "limeys" (Britishers). This road, 1800 km long, is known as the Ledo or Stilwell Road. The labour was largely Indian, and some Chinese and Burmese. It was "volunteered" by the British owners of the tea estates that were sprinkled all over these parts. At night the labourers were kept in camps surrounded by barbed wire, with the more restless ones in chains. This was the practice till 1962. To make them work more and to suppress hunger, opium from Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh was given to them every day . Some descendants of these opium contractors are still supplying opium, but mostly to truck drivers.
In 20 months this road snaked through the hitherto inviolate jungle mountains, where even foot tracks were few. Black, brown and yellow men tolled shoulder-deep in streams, belt-deep in mud. The whites supervised. Bulldozers were buried when rain-soaked shelves collapsed and slid into streams 300 m below. After heavy rain, which is frequent here, the road would sink out of sight. Incessant toil in torrential rain, humid heat and damp cold played havoc with men's health. As one soldier said, "You've got to be insane to do this job, but it helps."
Stilwell, never one to be still, moved on. The road followed. Down it flowed soldiers, the paraphernalia of war, and water. The maker of the road was another American General, L.A.Pick, who had designed the Missouri dam. On the Ledo road he had more water than he could have ever wanted. Once when Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander, was flying over this road he asked for the name of the river flowing beneath. He was told: "That's no river. Its the Ledo road."
Vinegar Joe Stilwell - extract from "the Road to Mandalay" by John Masters Vinegar Joe Stilwell, the American General supervising the attack on Burma from the north, was not as legendary as the American accounts depict. He was a pompous, inconsiderate officer not at all finicky about taking credit and heaps of publicity for acts not done by him or by his Chinese and American troops. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 21 of The Road to Mandalay by John Masters who, apart from several other non fiction works, has written the famous novel - Bhowani Junction. "…….The thunder of the battle for Mogaung has ended at alast. Mike Calvert has taken it. Sorry the Chinese have taken it. They come across the Mogaung River the last day and clear out half an acre at the northwest corner and Stilwell announces to the world that his Chinese have taken Mogaung. Casualties in the battle for Mogaung: 77 Brigade – 800; the Chinese – 30. Calvert has not lost his sense of humour though he is so angry he can hardly see straight. He signals to Stilwell that as the Chinese have taken Mogaung, 77 Brigade will proceed to take Umbrage. The stuffed baboons try to find Umbrage on the map."
But this road was one of WW II’s monumental and most wasteful follies. The first convoy left Ledo, near Margherita (now in Tinsukia District, Assam) on 10th January, 1945 and after 1 month and 18 days reached Kunming on the 28th of February, 1945. Only 3 convoys could get across, before this road costing innumerable lives was abandoned to the jungle in June after the monsoon struck. Many bridges were washed out. Amazingly, it was a one-way road. The truck drivers after the end of their long haul had to be airlifted back. This road was planned by the US foot soldiers of WW II like Stilwell and his boss General George Marshall, Chairman of the US War Department. They sniffed at air freight. By the time the Ledo Road opened 800,000 tons of supplies hadalready been transported.
It were the pilots (US & Chinese some of whom are buried in Jairampur, Arunachal Pradesh) of the private China National Aviation Corporation (CNAC) and to a much lesser extent those of the US Air Transport Command who delivered all the oil, ammunition, medicines, and rations to Kunming from Dinjan, Chabua and Mohanbari bases near Dibrugarh. This was over The Hump - the high & spectacular but non-Himalayan mountains between Dibrugarh Assam, India & Kunming, Sikang, China. They would fly, usually successfully, in the most horrible weather continuing even during thunderstorms and mists and burning planes on the tarmac. In the Great Storm of the 6th and 7th of January, 1945 in the NE of Assam and North of Burma 55 planes were lost with their crew. Yet, more than 1500 planes had crashed while flying over The Hump. It was also called the Aluminium Trail.Wreckages are lying from Dhubri (West Assam) and Misa (Nagaon, Upper Assam) to the Mishmi Hills (Lohit district, E. Arunachal Pradesh). Wreckage of some planes can still be seen in several Meju Mishmi homes between hayuliyang and Walong in Lohit District of East Arunachal Pradesh.
On May 2, 1945 Yangon (then Rangoon) port was captured by the British and on the 7th of May the first ship reached Yangon from Calcutta. The Ledo Road was never used again. There are plans now to reopen the road but many years will have to be spent to widen it and rebuild the many bridges over the many streams.
The crew of these planes (usually Dakota’s and DC 47s) especially those of the CNAC ran a very successful business smuggling gold and medicines. Each flight could take up to 60 (26 kgs or so) pounds of gold, apart from medicines and Chinese currency. The gold was bought in Calcutta for about US $ 40,000/- a kg and then sold by the crew for a commission of 25%. They would be paid in Chinese currency (CN), which in 1943 could be exchanged at 60 to 1 US $ in Kunming whereas in Calcutta the artificial rate was 30 to 1 US $! Later the rate in China was 300 to 1 US $ and the profits became ten times as much. Two airlines and many other businesses were started from this money after WW II ended. As was to be expected, the Customs officers in Dibrugarh were a busy lot. Seizing upto 20 kgs of gold in a single operation!
(Sources: The Aluminium Trail by Ms. Chick Marrs Quinn; Flying the Hump by Otha C. Spencer; Over The Hump: Airlift to China by William Koenig; Flying Tiger Joe's Adventure Story Cookbook by C. Joseph Rosbert, Born to Fly The Hump by Dr. Carl F. Consteinand Saga of CNAC #53 by Fletcher Hanks),An interview with a World War II Bomber pilot.
More links about The Hump
Today, part of this road near Pangsau Pass is again covered by forests and the old foot tracks are being used by the Kachins who come to India to barter cloth, opium and precious stones for essentials. Till a few years ago the jungle was thick and dark. Today the axe is active again in the service of an important peacetime activity – commerce. Magnificent trees are being cut to produce plywood.
* * *
An honest bureaucrat's frugal lifestyle had been partially responsible for the prolonged Kohima struggle. Charles Pawsey, the then DC of Kohima, was in 1922 the first DC to own a car there. In those days conduct rules were strictly followed. As the job of building a road to his house had to be paid from his pocket, a lot of corners were cut too sharply. Such was the road on which a tank had to be brought up to turn the tide. Even the DC's little car could not negotiate the bends till it reversed once. A trivial personal matter of making both ends meet was to prove so costly in a great battle 22 years later.
What was the HUMP?...
I’ve flown up and down the airways From Hartford to Cooch-Behar, And have flown on instruments hours on end With a line on a single star. Up where the oxygen’s needed, Down where its gusty and rough, When the radio compass is bouncing around And the going is really tough. I’ve flown from Natal to Ascension When the scum wasn’t cleared from the sump. But its nothing compared to the thrills you get In a ship flying “Over The Hump.” By 2nd Lt. JD Brughel, 1st Transport Group, US Army, July 1943, Dinjan
Autumn 1940: Japan’s Imperial Army held China’s coastline and most air routes in a strangle hold. The only lifeline to keep the Japanese busy fighting the Chinese could be from the North East of India. If bases were established here, they would be closest to the territory in Western China that the Kuomintang under Genl. Chiang Kaishek could call their own. About 800 kms of air miles separated Dibrugarh in Assam, India from Kunming in China. The Stilwell Road, still undreamt of, would be 1700 kms long.
5th of May, 1942: The elite Japanese Red Dragon Armoured Div was close to the Kilometre deep Salween Gorge- China’s back door. If they crossed it China would be out of the War. The Chinese soldiers and Flying Tiger P-40s somehow managed to hold them back.
Now they had to be supplied. Airbases came up around Dibrugarh. Dinjan, Chabua, Dum Duma and Mohanbari. Supply and emergency landing strips were built quickly along the Brahmaputra and across present Bangladesh. Calcutta became the hub.
By October 1942 the airlift was operational. Flights by the US Air Transport Command (ATC) began on the 1st of December, 1942. The Brahmaputra Valley floor at Chabua in Upper Assam is only 30 mtrs above sea level. Three minutes after flying ENE the N-S aligned Patkai Range (average height – 1500 m) has to be crossed. Then the low level Yu and Chindwin Valleys of North Burma. They are bordered on the East and ENE by the Kumon Bum range. A series of 14,000 to 16,000’ (4200 to 4800 m) high ridges separate each of the Valleys of the West Irrawady, East Irrawady, Salween and Mekong Rivers.
There was an awful ridge of; 15,000’ (4500 m) average height between the Salween and the Mekong called the Santsung Range. This was the main ‘Hump,’ which gave its name to the whole frightening mountainous mass. The air route, which crossed it, was called “Over The Hump.”
Pilots had to struggle to get their heavily laden planes to fly thousands of feet above these mountains. Several big names had flown this route. Among them, Barry Goldwater a US Presidential hopeful in 1964, and Mrs. Chiang Kaishek who was an experienced pilot.
The weather changed minute by minute, and kilometer by kilometer. From the low altitude steamy jungles of Assam to the mile high plateau of Western China weather was the biggest problem. Thunderstorms hit without warning. Turbulence was greater than seen anywhere. If one escaped these icing took over. Winds blowing at about 160 kmph would bounce off steep ridges to create updrafts and down drafts over the Valleys. Planes would drop at the rate of 5000’ a minute and then could be suddenly whisked upwards at the same speed.
The planes were DC 3(Douglas C 47 or Dakotas), C 46 (Dumbos) and C-54s.
Pilots always had a problem. If the weather was good they had the Japanese Zeros on them and if the weather was bad they had a most uncertain time. Plain sailing? They never had it. Many airplanes were blown so far off course that many wrecks were strewn from Lohit in East Arunachal Pradesh, India to Tibet, China.
This was the first time in aviation history that such a massive airlift worked. The age old habit of supplying only by land and sea had undergone a sea change. Air supply was now the best key to support attacks, consolidate and defend.
The British were unprepared for such a lightning attack. Earlier the Allies had been chased out of Burma into India through these very routes in a swift and successful move that was concluded in the winter of 1943. While the Allies consolidated their position in Manipur and built the road to northern Burma and China from Ledo in Assam intending to retake Burma at an opportune time, the Japanese created a diversion in the coastal Arakan mountains of western Burma. Masses of Allied troops and aeroplanes were hurled there.
Just when the Allies were congratulating themselves on containing the Japanese in Burma, they were attacked in a massive hook right next to the heart of the British bases at Imphal and Dimapur. The panicked British recalled forces from all over India, and withdrew from the Arakans. Helped by the Americans, who supplied most of the planes and war material, and the then subject countries who supplied most of the men (Indians formed two-thirds of the war effort), an unprecedented holding battle was successfully waged.
From Pangsau Pass (1,129m) in east Arunachal in the north to Moreh and Behiang in Manipur to the south this easternmost portion of the North-East was engulfed in an all-encompassing war. The areas where the battles were fought were numerous (see map). Fifty five years ago, tanks thundered where carts filled with golden paddy now ply. The skies were dark with Blenheims, Dakotas, Hurricanes, Mustangs, Spitfires and Japanese Zeros. The now unused airfield of Korengei (it has a school at its edge and the still functional airstrip is used to learn driving), 8 kms north of Imphal, had 600 landings and takeoffs a day. I have visited all the battlefields, tried to imagine the movements of victory and death, and it seems so difficult to visualise the action and the anguish. Instead of the sounds of war one now hears a cicada, a startled thrush, a waterfall, a deer in flight, or children at play, or at Lokchak lake, frenzied activity to set up a hydroelectric plant. In the midst of droning trucks and milling crowds, forgotten are yesterday's booming guns and dying soldiers.
This area is no stranger to war; it has known fighting since the beginning of recorded history, and most probably even centuries before. The Koch and the Cachari races fought each other without respite for generations, till the Ahoms, peoples of the great Tai races of Burma, invaded the area. They ruled firmly for 700 years till 1825 when by the Treaty of Yandaboo the British supplanted the Burmese. Though in the 15th and 16th centuries the Assam Valley, parts of Manipur and Cachar had good roads, years of strife had ruined them.
Communications were difficult till the tea plantations were started in the 1830s, followed by coal mining in the 1860s, and oil exploration in the 1880s (the first oil well in India was spudded in Digboi in 1886). By 1850, steamers were plying up the Brahmaputra as far as Dibrugarh, from where the first rail way line was laid till Ledo in 1888. Despite the improved transport network and efficient control, violence persisted. The Nupis (women’s) Rebellion, which sparked a bigger conflagration against the British in Manipur in 1891 and the several revolts by Nagas and others kept the British tense. Communications improved, but only by rail and river.
Only during the Second World War was the need for a good road felt, and then the present Assam Trunk road was repaired along the same alignment as the ancient trail made by the 16th century Koch King. Nar Narain, and his brother Chilarai.
By April 4, the Allies were bottled up at Kohima (from Kew-hima, meaning land of the Kew flower) Gen.Sato had established his 31 Division's headquarters in the remote hamlet of Ukhrul (1920 mtrs), between the Chindwin river in Burma and the Imphal-Kohima road Kohima was to become the Stalingrad of the Indo-Burma front - the springboard to victory for the winner.
In an area just 180 m x 225 m on Garrison Hill a brigade was stranded. At a couple of places the opposing trenches were within 15 meters of each other. The stench of death and waste mingled with dust, din, courage and cowardice. Thirst too. As the water supply sources were with the Japanese, water sewed inside tyre tubes was dropped from planes flying at tree top level. Gen. Slim, the Army Commander for the Burma campaign, wrote in his book "Defeat into Victory" "Sieges have been longer, but few have been more intense".
All firepower was concentrated on Garrison Hill. The relieving allied forces, unable to come closer, had set up their big guns at Jotsoma, 10 km away. Baluch, Khatak, Maratha, and Sikh gunners would rain shells with remarkable accuracy just outside the fast-shrinking perimeter in which their fellowmen were stuck. A charming garden had been reduced to bloody rubble, with a chimney standing black and twisted against the sky, emphasising the grim wasteland-like appearance. After one particularly murderous night, each side was left holding a part of the garden with the tennis court as no man's land between them. A lone Japanese sniper sitting in a cherry tree at the eastern edge of the tennis court had ensured that no side won a game. It had been deuce for 20 days. The tide turned the Allies' way when, after losing three tanks and two bulldozers, Sgt.Waterhouse of the 149 Royal Armoured Corps brought his Lee tank up to the tennis court. Game set and match for the Allies.
There were several heroes in the Battle of Kohima. On the Allied side was John Harman, who won a posthumous Victoria Cross for repeatedly charging Japanese bunkers alone.Wellington Massar, a Garo, got a Military Cross for setting up a machine gun atop a billiard table in the bombed club house and preventing the Japanese from getting across the tennis court. Capt.Abdul Majid, Gunner Majhi Khan, Major Navin Rawley, Lt.Ayappa, 2nd Lt. Lahiri of the Indian Army and many others were all recognised for their bravery. Of the Japanese nothing is known except that many of them died. The Japanese, whose stubborn bravery won reluctant admiration from even the bitterest Britisher, suffered the most. At Kohima 5,000 of them were killed against 2,000 of the Allies.
Before attacking British India the Japanese had done their homework well. They had organised mules, buffaloes and elephants for transport, while the Allies got bogged down with their mechanised vehicles in an uncoordinated retaliation. In several British despatches reluctance was expressed for killing elephants while the killing of men was reported gleefully. In fact, at places they were so exaggerated that Stilwell commented: "My men are killing the same Jap over and over again." The Japanese had even introduced a special currency for the occupied areas. It was in Rupees (the Burmese currency is Kyats) and cents. About a decade ago I stumbled across it being used in a remote border settlement near Tusom in the north of Manipur. I managed to obtain a few such notes by bartering clothes.
I spoke to several Indian veterans of this war about the alleged Japanese brutality. They said the Japanese were not cruel to them. One such eyewitness was the late Maj. R. Khating, MC, MBE, ex-Chief Secretary of Nagaland and ex-Ambassador to Burma. He was part of the V Force that had caused much havoc behind the Japanese lines. The Japanese were hard no doubt, and were very contemptuous of prisoners, themselves preferring suicide to capture. This is why for many thousands of Japanese casualties in India only about 600 were taken prisoner.
Had the Japanese continued their tactics of engaging, encircling and then bypassing the enemy they would have effortlessly reached, by mid March, the narrow defile of Nichugard, which is today dominated by nothing more lethal than a college. So easy to defend was this site that the Allies would not have got past it in a month of blue moons. The Japanese would have breathed down Dimapur’s railway junction and perhaps taken it too. This was not to be. Generals Sato and Mutaguchi of the 15th Japanese Army and their senior General Kawabe of the Burma Area Army Headquarters argued interminably with each other, till the initiative was lost forever.
By June 6, Kohima Ridge was in the hands of the Allies. They could now move towards Imphal to lift the siege there. However, the resistance did not diminish. At every possible spot on the road fierce battles were fought by the retreating Japanese. The speed of the bloody advance towards Imphal was just five to six kilometres a day. Yet the troops were glad to have left the awful confines of Kohima Ridge.
The relieved and the relieving troops could not forget the shallow muddy trenches, dismembered limbs, empty cartridge cases, ammunition boxes and abandoned equipment, the debris of numerous assaults. And the stench of so many things rotting. The most lasting impression was caused by the litter of war- piles of biscuits, dead bodies black with flies and scattered silver from the DC's bungalow. This is where the war cemetery now stands. A huge brooding cross at the side of the tennis court nudges people to remember what is best forgotten. The lines of the tennis court have been etched in concrete. A few months after the war was over, a huge rock obelix was hauled up the steep Kohima slope and fixed at the base of the present day cemetry. Its jagged and rugged sides were not honed. Its rough texture was not polished. In its middle is a shining plaque on which is written: “When you go home Tell them of us and say, For their tomorrow We gave our today.”
These lines were written by JM Edmonds. Beyond Kohima the advantages of the ground were with the Japanese. The 140 km road to Imphal is gouged out of steep cliffs, that keep slipping. Even today it is still unstable. The mountains are immense and steep, and in those days were heavily wooded. A brigade could be hidden on any one spur. The road could be commanded from a hundred positions easily. While the Allies threw their entire war effort into the battle, the Japanese had a manmade disadvantage. Their supplies were not reaching them. Their extended lines of communication were being eroded. Yet the determined Japanese gave ground obstinately. All along a difficult road, bloody battles had to be fought- Viswema, Phesama, Zakhama, Mao, Maram, Tadubi, Karong and Kanglatombi. Bridges had been blown up, and in heavy rain this spelt waiting, and waiting meant more men lost. This beautiful land had to go through more devastation. Several sections of the Indian National Army (INA) had also entered Manipur along with the Japanese. Their attack on the airfield at Pallel was courageous and had impressed the Japanese. Even the British had to concede grudging admiration for the 'jiffs', as they were contemptuously called. It is sad that while in the Indian Army bases of the North East there are several memorials to those British soldiers killed in action, there is not one for the INA or any of its soldiers. Apparently, the Indian Army has still not decided how to class them- as patriots or as deserters. Meanwhile the totems to the British are spruced up regularly, as Col. Brown's Gate at the Assam Regiment Centre, Shillong testifies.
Researchers studying the diaries of Japanese and Allied soldiers in north-eastern India found gems of wry, terse replies, humour and poetic descriptions. Considering that these were recorded during battle, they testify to the remarkable composure and courage of the witnesses. When Gen.Sato, whose famished troops were not getting the promised supplies received a signal from Gen. Mutagushi congratulating him on capturing Kohima, he shot back: "It is not your congratulations we want, but food and ammunition."
A Staff Captain from the Royal Norfolk noted in his diary: "April died in a pall of black cloud. May came in with a burst of bright sunshine and blue skies... Flowers, pink, blue, mauve and yellow, came racing across the mountains in a never-ending pageant.... for wild, dark, lush beauty, there's nothing to touch Assam." And for understatement, Maj.Lowry of the Queen's wrote: "We had a 50 per cent stand to all night but we were virtually all awake. It poured with rain throughout, and it was one of the noisiest nights imaginable.... fire from machine guns was punctuated by grenade and mortar fire. Three of the enemy bunkers were only ten yards away. It was all a trifle unpleasant."
Then there was the doughty Maj. R.A.J.Fowler of 1st Punjab, who read Shakespeare avidly in search of suitable passages that he could translate to exhort his troops. Whether these had any effect on an already courageous lot, one cannot tell, but his translations are worth repeating: "Come the three corners of the world in arms and we shall shock them. Naught shall make us rue..." from "King John" became in Urdu: Dunya ke char konon se larne dena, aur ham log unke kafi mardenge. Kuch bhi nahin hamko afsosi denge.
On April 4, the Imphal plain was also attacked by the Japanese, who had occupied some of the heights around Imphal. North of Imphal, the Nungshigum fort overlooking the Koreingei airfield was captured. To the southwest the Japanese and Netaji Subhash Chander Bose’s Indian National Army (INA) advanced, up the Tiddim road through Churachandpur till as far as Moirang, where on April 4, 1944 the Indian Tricolour was first unfurled on the mainland. There is a memorial to the INA there, and till recently the Springing Tiger’s statue used to dominate the entrance. No more. It was blown up recently by insurgents. After a slow progress the Japanese were 10 km south of Imphal, fighting for the strategically important Red Hill of Maibamlokpa Ching on May 27. Air attacks and heavy shelling could not repulse the Japanese till Lt.Weir in a tank managed to clear the way for the Gorkhas to storm in. There is a recently built Japanese memorial to the more than 3000 of them killed. The Allies lost 2000. Today, a radio beacon sits atop the small hill, which is close to the Imphal airport, guiding civil airplanes.
To the southeast, the Japanese and the INA reached as far as the outskirts of Pallel, above which they clung grimly till the Shenam Pass (1321m) for three months. They harassed the Pallel airfield (Kakching), which has a para military camp and paddy fields now, and cut all the other routes to the Kabaw and Yu valleys in the plains of Burma. Interestingly, at Khongjom near Pallel another fierce battle had been fought by the Manipuris against the British, who had invaded this beautiful valley from Burma in 1881.
The only way that the surrounded Allies around Imphal could be supplied was by air. Five airfields had been made in this attractive valley (height 892m). The planes, after their run to the Imphal plain, would return to Hailakandi near Silchar to the west every evening. From Hailakandi too Wingate's Special Force was flown into Burma's northern areas of Mogaung, Hukawng, Myitkina and Indawgyi Lake to meet Stilwell's troops. This force was ferried in specially-built gliders that could carry 60. Once released there was no turning back. Many crashed into the jungles barely having enough life left in them to radio back: 'Soya Link' - their code for disaster. Soya was one ration that was disliked by all soldiers of all nationalities. These areas in Burma are now notorious for opium cultivation and heroin production.
Airplanes were the most dependable means for ferrying the war effort. The allies had straddled the North East with airfields. Some are still in use. Like the ones in Upper Assam. Dum Duma, Dinjan, Chabua, Mohanbari. Some in Lower Assam like in Goalpara and Bongaigaon are not. At the Sainik School, Mornoi, Goalpara lies a Harvard D Mark – IIB two seater that is being gradually stripped of its skin and dignity. Similar skeletons lie all over. Flights over the treacherous Burma Hump to Kunming, China used to take off from these runways.
The battle for the Manipur valley of the Imphal plain and the roads to Burma that radiate from it, like spokes from a hub, was long and bitter. It sucked into its vortex the hills around. The Imphal plain, which was a lake aeons ago, is 30 km x 60 km in area. It is circled by steep hills rising up to 2,000 m to 2,500 m. The soil is fertile, the vegetation lush, the climate salubrious, and the people good-looking, lissome and graceful. They played polo (kanglei) many centuries before the British made it popular, and they had a state ballet centuries before the Russians or the French had even thought of having one. To this peaceful valley headed the hounds of war. Behiang, Churachandpur, Bishnupur, Pallel, Yangpokpi and many other picturesque hamlets suffered from a pitiless War. With difficulty the tentacles of death and destruction were loosened.
The last act of the War was played out in the Land of the Mellowed Sun, another name for Ukhrul (1920 m). It lies 80 km to the northeast of Imphal, and is quite close to the Burma border. This was the location of the headquarters of the Japanese 15th and 31st Divisions. Inhabited by the gentle, hitherto peaceful and educated Tangkhul Nagas, it had become the rallying point for the retreating Japanese soldiers.
The terrain here was so forbidding and so thick with jungle and impenetrable growth that it had very few foot tracks. Most were single file ones. "There were among the giant trees, shrubs with glaucous leaves so thick on the ground that it was hard for a man to move about. Parts.... were never touched by the sun, and there the vegetation was dark, fungus-encrusted and stinking. Some of the fungii were luminous and glowed eerily at night, giving the jungle an air of phantasmagoria." There are few jungles with such undergrowth in the entire North East today.
It was nightmarish ground to fight in. Yet fight they had to. Litan, Sangshak, Changnga, Kharasom, in fact the entire Somra hills, bore the savage thrust of the tanks, aerial bombing and a determined infantry. To the sanctuary of Ukhrul's steep ridge headed the Japanese, sick, starving and emaciated, but with their spirits intact, hoping to find some relief from the snowballing troubles.
To Ukhrul were also headed columns of the 7th and 20th Indian Divisions and the hardy Chindits from Kohima and Imphal, passing as they marched, the abandoned guns and vehicles of their adversary. Lying on the long, monsoon-washed, muddy trail were corpses, frail and gaunt. By mid July 1944, pushing through blinding rain, crossing the steaming valleys, clambering up mountain tops wreathed in cold mists, the Allied columns had singed Ukhrul's lofty ridge and captured it. With forests blazing, Ukhrul had had its baptism of fire. And till today peace has not returned there. There is an another war on in this beautiful land. Indian fights Indian.
In the season when orchids are in full bloom and the hills are alive with magnolias and primulas, the road to Moreh and Tiddim was secured at the cost of immense affliction. The distance between Moreh in India and Tamu in Burma is only 5 km. Between them flows the river Lokchak to meet the Yu and then the Chindwin. Trying to take the bridge over the Lokchak, more than 2,000 soldiers perished. The road had dead bodies at very step, and derelict vehicles to block every step. Moreh is now a bustling commercial town, peopled almost entirely by refugees from Burma, mainly Tamils. It is now a sanctuary for Burmese students fleeing the wrath of an undemocratic Government in Burma.
After Ukhrul, Moreh and Tiddim were retaken, Gen. Slim called a halt to rest his tired troops, and to prepare for the last battle in Burma that would end the threat to India. As if by consent, Mutaguchi also called back his troops across the Chindwin to Mandalay and Meiktila. It was the height of the monsoon, and to continue the fighting in the Kabaw valley of Burma would have been suicidal. The Kabaw valley, also known as Death Valley, where Tamu and Tahan nestle, accounted for 10 percent of all casualties because of malaria and dysentery. These two places now deal death of a different kind- they are flourishing centres for heroin and amphetamines.
The anniversary of the Battles of Kohima and Imphal used to be observed with some regularity in England as well as Japan. In June 1965, about 700 survivors of the 58th Regiment gathered at the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo for a memorial service.They had tried to contact British soldiers, whose bravery had impressed them, to invite them to this ceremony. None came. Capt. Susumi Nishide wrote: "We still have a strong nostalgic feeling for Kohima... something beyond hate."
Brig.Arthur Swinson, who served at Kohima, has observed in his book "Kohima" that as far as the Japanese soldiers are concerned all bitterness towards their former adversaries seems to have disappeared. He quotes from a letter from a Japanese veteran: "Our greatest wish is that our children will never go to war as we did".
Recently, I met an Englishman and mentioned this Japanese invitation to the British for a common memorial service and they not responding. He, who had been too young during the War to have any reason for rancour, said very bitterly, "Can you blame us for not joining? Look at what they did to us." Forgetting conveniently what they had done to India, at Jallianwala for instance.
In some hearts, this unreasonable spite still flourishes, but is steadily disappearing. After all, the Japanese are an economic power, and not to be trifled with. Descendants of the Japanese soldiers still visit Kohima and Imphal every year. Many Novembers ago I met some. One of them was the father of a soldier killed then, and he did not have any malice towards anyone. They wanted to forget the violence and hate that had doomed their loved ones. Their only wish now is that the Indian Government would allow them to erect a memorial of their own in Kohima and Imphal. There is an impressive one now at the foot of Maibamlokpa Ching. The Allied soldiers' cemeteries commemorating Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, are at Digboi (near Ledo), Imphal, Kohima and Guwahati. There are numerous graves with rough-hewn headstones or crosses that one stumbles upon in the jungles (e.g. near Nampong) where these battles were fought. The fiftieth anniversary was observed with dignity and subdued ceremonial splendour by the erstwhile Allies in Imphal in April 1994. No one invited the Japanese who had had their memorial service earlier, to which no other combatant was called.
The trees on Garrison Hill planted after the War are stately now. A cherry tree planted from a sapling of the original near the tennis court from which a Japanese sniper harassed the Allies that had grown to full height died a few years ago. Another one has been planted. In the large Kohima village, now part of the state capital and pulsating with life, near a haunting inscription 'Lochaber No More' to the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders, taken from the opening lines of a Scot dirge, children play and pigs forage. Even now rusty mess tins and bits of tanks that have escaped scavenging for decades can be seen there. The track on which the bulldozers and tanks drove up to the DC's bungalow is now a leafy lane with steps. Numerous trees have untraceably hidden the hideous pattern of the War.
Yet time stands still in some of these parts. In 1987, I found a village near Shakti (North of Moreh) on the Indo-Mynmar border using currency that had been printed by the Japanese for the areas that they had occupied during the War. After bartering boots, rice, kerosene. utensils and clothes I got a thick wad of this interesting money. Residue like this of a brutal war keep surfacing to remind of the horror that once was.
Peace, sadly, has not yet returned to this hapless land. After the War this land was never the same. The paths charted by tanks had become roads. With this the physical and geographical remoteness of this area ought to have ended. It did not. As this region has different peoples, following different customs and religions, looking different, intolerance and suspicion have distanced them from the rest of India. The roads and airports have failed to bridge this gap. Cultural centres and interminable seminars have failed to treat the malaise of mindless violence, alienation and mutual suspicion. Continuing unemployment and threat of worse to come, and most economic activity in the hands of non North Easterners keep stoking fires of discontent that no one is serious about extinguishing, or even understanding why they burn.
This beautiful land and its charming people still yearn for peace and it is elusive. Our armed forces are alert and are often killed in attacks without warning. Not infrequent also are incidents of one village being forced by the armed forces personnel to burn another village; or old men, women and children being made to stand in the cold and the rain from dawn to dusk every day for 30 days in July and August. Torture is not unheard of. Deaths in ‘encounters’ are common, especially while escaping from maximum security army camps. These and many other incidents have been painstakingly catalogued by Nandita Haksar, B.D.Das and Hrishikesh Roy, lawyers from Delhi and Guwahati, who had filed public interest litigation cases in the Guwahati High Court with some success.
Fifty years of freedom have not changed the life of the people in this region, especially in the hills. With fortified army camps and watchtowers sneering down at every village, can one fault the residents for protesting, especially when as much concern is not shown for their economic uplift as for their 'security.' No water. No market for their crops. Not much medical aid. To supplement their incomes some folk have taken to cultivating cannabis illegally, to buy which North Indian traders come from the plains right up to their villages. For this ganja they get 20 times more money than what they would have got for cabbages, which they themselves would have had to take to a distant market. To escape the pain of a bleak future many young have taken to drugs. It is no coincidence that addicts are most in areas with insurgency and military activity.
Studying descriptions of these battles, I searched in vain for any mention of the plight of the civilians. None cared to estimate or bothered to write about how many must have perished in the indiscriminate bombarding and shelling. Tangkhuls of Ukhrul, Kabuis and Zomis of Tamenglong and Chandel or Meteis of Manipur Valley have suffered and contributed immensely towards a foreigners' war.
In a badly rhymed but fact-filled epic poem in two volumes entitled 'Manipur and the Second World War' by Sanasam Gourhari Singh, a Secretary to the former Maharajah of Manipur, there are some references to the privations the people went through. As many as 20,000 houses were occupied by the British in and around Imphal. A war tax was levied on an unwilling people, who had themselves tried to evict the British in 1891. No wonder the British soldiers were not cheered when they liberated the villages, as they were cheered in Europe.
If these peoples are trusted, treated as friends and equals, and honest efforts to improve their economic lot are made, no one need question their patriotism. Even now a protest for better roads or a bus service is often needlessly misinterpreted as treason and incipient terrorism. In broad daylight people can be killed by official bullets as well as by insurgents ones. Innocence is no protection. With such obduracy, it is not surprising that peace eludes this alluring land. The dreaded midnight knock or an ambush is still not unknown.
The people are willing, but will they get a chance? Or do we have to wait for more epitaphs such as
Good Night Daddy
found on a grave in the Imphal War Cemetery?
(From Lands of Early Dawn a book about the North East of India written by Romesh Bhattacharji and published in 2002 by Rupa & Co.,Ansari Road, Daryaganj, Delhi 11002 ISBN 81-7167-963-3)