November 2003 Issue By Mr. Jim Fletcher The men in this story were asked to do more than the average soldier. Their daring skill succeeded where other tactics failed. They were trained in hit-and-run guerrilla warfare - making raids deep in enemy territory and hitting the enemy where they least expected. In turn, these men trained and led native tribesmen in a shadow war against the Japanese. The V-Force had become such a nuisance to the enemy that they put a price of ten thousand rupees on the head of each one of these men. I didn't think that was very much for my head, but I guess that was a lot of money back then. Every man knew if he was captured, he would be tortured and shot and, in some cases, beheaded.
Very few Americans knew the hardships the Kachins endured when the Japanese invaded their homeland in 1942. The Kachins had very few weapons with which to fight the enemy - a few knives, spears, crossbows, arrows and some old-type flint guns. The Japanese terrorized the helpless Kachins by killing the men and young boys and raping the young girls. Some were even burned alive in their villages, while others managed to escape the massacre and fled deep into the jungle. This is why the Kachins hated the Japanese with a passion. They wanted to kill as many of them as possible and drive them out of Burma.
The formation of the V-Force provided the Kachins, as well as the Naga, Chin and Kuki peoples, an effective means for fighting the Japanese. The detachment that worked out of Ledo, and had some eight American officers, forty American enlisted men, and around 150 Kachin tribesmen. The Americans relied on the British for their knowledge and help in recruiting the invaluable Kachins, who were the backbone of the organization. The British knew where to find the best and smartest men and boys, most of whom were only 15 years old.
The Kachins were fearless mountain people who in some ways resembled the famous Gurkhas of Nepal. They worshipped spirits called nats and placed food in a bamboo container outside their village for the nats to eat; no one was to offend these invisible spirits that they worshipped. The Kachins were given a name by the people of Burma - "Wild Men." Ethnically they are known as the Jingpaw people who migrated from Mongolia. The Kachins taught the Americans how to use punji sticks; the sharpened bamboo stakes that were made needle-sharp and then tempered in fire. These stakes were "poisoned" with rotten pig's liver or with human dung. They would place these stakes well hidden on both sides of the trail. When the enemy patrol came down a trail and was fired upon, the Japanese would dive for the bushes beside the trail. Many of them were killed in this manner. The Japanese also used short punji stakes concealed on the trail to pierce the foot. Longer punji stakes were concealed at longer heights to penetrate the thigh and stomach. They also used deep pits dug on the trail and covered with vegetation and dirt. Most of the time it was a quick death. Even if it did not kill the soldier, the victim's wound would become infected from the poison, thus disabling the soldier.
The Kachins were unmatched as jungle fighters; they had a sixth sense that detected the Japanese long before the Americans could do so. Undaunted by the monsoon rains, they could find their way along faint jungle trails and bamboo thickets. The Kachins liked Americans from the beginning and called all of them "Duwa," which meant "Big Chief." The Americans' most important assignment was to recruit as many Kachins as they could and teach them how to use automatic weapons, grenades and explosives. In return, the Jungle-wise Kachins taught the Americans quite a few tricks about the jungle. Those who have seen the Kachins ambush enemy columns, blow bridges, and risk their skin to save an American life, never miss a chance to praise their courage. The Kachins kept a close watch on movements of the enemy and rescued hundreds of American airmen who had crashed behind enemy lines. They led the famous Men-ill's Marauders to Myltkyina using a back route so little known that the Americans were able to deploy around the city and attack with complete surprise. In the one year of their existence, the Kachin V-Force ambushed Japanese patrols, wrecked bridges and captured and destroyed vitally needed enemy supplies.
The men who returned to Burma in late 1942 and early 1943 were up against one of the most formidable enemies - the terrain, one of the worst living and fighting conditions in the world. The men had to wade in mud, climb jagged mountains, cut through thick jungle trails, and cross rivers on flimsy rafts that were sometimes swept miles downstream. The lowlands were not much better. Everyone was forced to hack their way through razor sharp elephant grass up to six feet high. When the monsoons came, it rained as much as 15 inches in a day. Valleys were turned Into rivers and some of the rivers rose as much as 25 feet in one day. Many of the men had jungle rot from wearing wet boots.
In addition to the harsh terrain, bloodsucking leeches were everywhere. Thousands clung to trees, bushes, grass and the ground. Dropping off low branches onto you, they would work their way to your arms and legs. Sometimes you did not feel the bite until you saw blood streaming down your arms and legs. Leeches injected some sort of anesthetic and an anticoagulant to keep the blood flowing. Each leech could suck a teaspoon to a tablespoon of blood from a person. After a leech sucked all the blood it could hold it would drop off, but the blood would continue to flow. The leeches would also inch unnoticed to your fly and Into your pants; they would then gorge themselves on your blood, and you would only know it when you saw the blood around your crotch. You might face big trouble if the leech had latched onto your penis. Cigarettes, rock salt and a spray disinfectant were used to remove them; if you tried to pull the leeches off, the head would remain buried in your skin, causing a bad sore. If the sore was neglected, it would rot the flesh to the bone. On some of the trails, the leeches were so thick on the leaves of the bushes lining the trail, it appeared that the bushes were being touched by a slight breeze until you noticed that the leaves were not moving, only the leeches.
The Kachins told us of men and women who lay down to sleep at night during the retreat of Burma and never woke up; the leeches had drained all of their blood from their bodies. Besides the leeches, thousands of mosquitoes were in the air, night and day. Swarms of blood-sucking flies would descend after the rain stopped and drive you crazy. Snakes and other animals were everywhere.
The drinking water had to be boiled at all times, but nearly everyone came down with some kind of fever. Cholera, typhus, malaria and dysentery were common among the men. Typhus was probably the worst fever because very few survived it.
Those who served In this jungle hell will tell you It was the worst experience of their lives. Besides everything else, you never knew when you would run Into an ambush by the enemy. The terror that each man felt left an indelible mark. Some of the men became nutty as fruitcakes. Doctors said 18 months was the limit for anyone to stay in this jungle, but most of the men were there for 2-1/2 to three years. Some would never come back. Most of the men were paid only twice in that time. But then, most money was worthless In the Jungle. We were told to take silver rupees If we planned to take any money into the Jungle. The natives would not accept paper money, but they liked the silver rupees because they could make ornaments out of them to wear on their clothing. Our group was furnished opium that was far more valuable to trade for information, food, coolies and many other things.
Toward the end of 1942, the Japanese were making raids on the American airfields in Assam. They were destroying American fighter planes and supplies destined for China. General Stilwell sent groups of American visual air radio teams deep in the jungle behind enemy lines. The mission of these teams was to warn the Americans back in Assam of incoming Japanese raids on the air bases. One of these radio teams was known as "KC8."
On October 1, 1942, they set up a station at a village called Hklak-Ga, located deep in Naga headhunter country in northern Burma. Master Sergeant Peter J. Kuntz was in charge of the group, who was from the 51st Fighter Control Squadron. The men in the group were Adams, Craig, Shaffer, Potts, Thrailkill, Phillips, Bubrick, Griffith and Kuntz. This station was able to give the American airfield a 55-minute advance warning.
On one occasion, the early warning enabled our fighters and ground forces to shoot down 38 of the 46 attacking Japanese airplanes. When the Japanese learned where the early warning originated, they sent Japanese ground forces to attack and kill everyone in the village. Although most of the villagers escaped into the jungle, the Japanese killed those who remained and burned their village. The radio team had been given warning of the attack by the Kachin tribesmen. After hiding their radio and equipment, they made a fast retreat to safety in Assam. Two of the KC8 radio team members, Daniel A. Bubrick and Martin Thrailkill, later transferred to the Kachin V-Force. Bubrick was killed in an ambush in October 1943, near Sharaw-Ga in the Hukawng Valley.
The men who were assigned to return to the jungle with the V-Force were Oscar Creel, James Medlin, George Phieler and myself. General Boatner issued an order for those who were going with the V-Force that stated:
Following breakfast this morning, the following named individuals will not eat any more meals except those which they prepare themselves: S/Sgt. George R. Phieler, 32082534, H.C.T.; Cpl James S. Fletcher, 34012139, H.C.T.; Put. Oscar J. Creel, 16028349, H.C.T. and Pvt. James M. Medlin, 19015425, H.C.T.
There will be no evasions of this order. The purpose of this order is to teach you to cook before you go into the jungle and also to check to see that you have all the necessary cooking equipment that you will need.
The above names soldiers witt initial this order.
By command of Brigadier General Boatner: Headquarters Combat Troops, Ledo Sector. We were told how to survive and what to do about the many leeches we would encounter. We were told to never sleep on the ground and to cut all growth from the sleeping area; this would guard against snakes and scorpions. The Kachins would build lean-tos and platforms for us to sleep on to keep dry. We were warned never to drink water unless it had been boiled at least 20 minutes due to cholera and dysentery. We were taught how to cook rice in a section of green bamboo and how to think as they did.
After I had been with the Kachins for a while, I began to wear the native bamboo rings around my arms and legs and that made the Kachins very happy because it showed I was one of them. I also wore bamboo hats and sometimes I wore the native longyi. One of the reason that I dressed as much like them as I could was that if there was an enemy ambush, the Japanese would shoot the Americans first.