Ex-CBI Roundup
October 1988 Issue

By Francis Russell of Time-Life Books

Deep in the jungle of Burma, the men of a swashbuckling guerrilla unit known as OSS Detachment 101 were tormenting the Japanese from behind the lines with deadly booby traps and ambushes.

Detachment 101 was the brainchild of Millard Preston Goodfellow, a former Brooklyn newspaper publisher and Boys' Club executive. Shortly after the United States entered the War, Good-fellow began preparing studies on the possibilities of intelligence and guerrilla operations in Asia. Goodfellow presented General Joseph W. Stilwell, American commander of Chinese forces in the China-Burma-India Theater, with plans for an OSS guerrilla unit that would operate behind enemy lines in Asia.

After a series of discussions Goodfellow convinced Stilwell of the soundness of the project, and the general gave his reluctant assent - but only on condition that the unit be headed by Captain Carl Eifler, a former U.S. Customs officer who had served under Stilwell in the Army Reserve.

The fortyish Eifler, then serving with the 35th Infantry in Hawaii, was a solid choice to turn the project into a reality. His prewar job along the Mexican border had made him an authority on smuggling and connivance. He was a big man, equally skilled at judo and boxing; he was also an experienced pilot and an expert shot. It was rumored that as a Customs agent he frequently discouraged illegal immigrants from swimming across the Rio Grande into the United States by shooting live bullets within inches of their heads.

Summoned to Washington in February 1942, Eifler was given carte blanche by the War Department to recruit freely among the armed forces. "From the start," Eifler recalled, "men were expected to volunteer blindly. They were advised they likely would be signing their own death warrants. Moreover, if a man indicated he was a hell-raiser or a glory-seeker, he was turned down." By the middle of March, Eifler and seven of his hand-picked recruits were on their way to Camp X in Canada for guerrilla and intelligence training; another 14 men trained at the new American camp in the Catoctin Mountains. Instructors at the two camps deemed the new unit ready for action a few weeks later, but it needed a name. Eifler suggested to an aide of Goodfellow's that it be called Detachment One. "No," replied the aide. "We'll call it Detachment 101; we can't let the British know we have only one unit.

While Eifler and his men had been undergoing training, Stilwell had taken command of a 50,000-man army in Burma, only to be forced into a 200-mile trek to India by the advancing Japanese, who defeated his army with night raids and ambushes - the very tactics Detachment 101 had been mastering.

Eifler and his men seemed to have a tailor-made assignment: Give the Japanese a dose of their own medicine. But when Detachment 101 reached New Delhi in mid-July, there were no orders awaiting it. Finally, in mid-August, an exasperated Eifler, by now a major, wangled a flight to Stilwell's new headquarters in Chungking, China. Stilwell was not expecting Eifler and greeted the OSS man with the kind of tongue-lashing that had earned him the nickname "Vinegar Joe." "I didn't send for you and I don't want you," he barked at Eifler, adding that Detachment 101 did not figure in his plans at the moment.

Eifler, who could be just as obdurate as Stilwell, pressed his argument and finally persuaded the general to let 101 launch an intelligence and guerrilla-warfare operation behind Japanese lines in Burma. Eifler was to set up a base in Assam Province in eastern India; from there, 101 could sabotage the roads and the single rail line leading into Myitkyina, Japan's main air base in north Burma. "All I want to hear," said Stilwell, "is booms from the jungle."

Eifler had been handed a forbidding assignment, one that meant operating in jungles that Churchill had once termed "the most formidable fighting country imaginable." Much of northern Burma was a virtually impenetrable thicket of rain-sodden vegetation. Within that thicket were swamps and mountains, kraits, cobras, man-eating tigers and leopards, wildly chattering monkeys and birds whose weird cries could send shivers down a man's spine. There were giant leeches and swarms of malarial mosquitoes and there was the enemy - hundreds of thousands of jungle-wise Japanese troops.

At Nazira, an Indian tea plantation right on the border with northern Burma, Eifler set up camp to train local recruits for his war against the Japanese. Some men he found in the ragtag remnants of the British Army in Burma; others he plucked from refugee camps. His most important recruits were a fierce tribe of Burmese known as the Kachins. More than any other group of recruits, the Kachins were thirsting to fight the Japanese, who had burned their villages and mutilated their women and children in a miscalculated attempt to intimidate them.

Eifler's recruits learned to send and receive in Morse code, to handle explosives and to use firearms. The Kachins took readily to the explosives and codes but they balked at the complexities of the machine gun. They preferred, they told Eifler, to use a shotgun, a weapon with which they were familiar. Accordingly Eifler wired Washington to send him 500 of the weapons.

"They said it was an unusal request," recalled Eifler, "and could I justify it?" Annoyed, Eifler wired back sarcastically, "I prefer muzzle-loaders. The natives can make their own black powder and use the nuts and bolts from wrecked vehicles for ammunition." For some reason, that request was not deemed unusual, and Eifler was sent 500 Springfield muzzle-loaders that had never been fired but had been carefully stored, gathering dust, in a warehouse since the American Civil War. The Kachins took an immediate liking to the muzzle-loaders and carried them throughout the Burma campaign.

The Kachins also used their own time-honored killing techniques, which they readily taught to the Americans. One technique was to set a booby trap with a crossbow and trip line. The trap could snare both game and Japanese. Another technique involved hiding sharp bamboo spears on either side of a trail ahead of an approaching enemy patrol. When the patrol was then ambushed, Japanese soldiers diving for shelter would impale themselves on the fire-hardened bamboo.

Detachment 101 came up with a few tricks of its own as well. One was a six-inch hollow spike topped with a .30-caliber cartridge and a pressure detonator. When a soldier stepped on the cartridge, it fired - ripping through his foot and often through his body. The spike, said one OSS officer, "caused untold apprehension among the Japanese. Even when we dropped the use of the device because the enemy was too alert, the threat slowed down the enemy advance."

Four months after he had faced Stilwell in his den, Eifler sent his first patrol out from Nazira, a 12-man unit known as A Group. Its task was to establish a base camp in Japanese territory and to sabotage the rail line into Myitkyina. On January 27, A Group parachuted into a small jungle clearing 100 miles south of Myitkyina, each man carrying food, arms and ammunition and a supply of Composition C, an explosive impervious to rough handling. The group moved swiftly through the jungle, covering 50 miles of rugged terrain to within striking distance of the rail line in two days. Working by moonlight, the men of A Group paired off to set a series of delayed-action charges of Composition C along the railroad. As they stole back into the jungle, the charges began exploding - destroying a total of five miles of track. In other operations, they also demolished one large bridge and several small ones.

Almost five weeks later, after a number of harrowing escapes in which they were doggedly pursued by the Japanese, 11 survivors of the original 12 A Group members reached Nazira. Stilwell had received his "booms" and 101 its baptism by fire.

Detachment 101's next undertaking was not so lucky. A six-man unit known as O Group was sent out in March 1943 to assist Air Transport Command (ATC) crewmen who had been downed in the Lawksawk Valley, 75 miles southeast of Mandalay, while flying from India to Kunming, China. Not far from O Group's drop point were two villages whose inhabitants were suspected by Captain Ray Peers, one of Eifler's top aides, of collusion with the Japanese. "As we made our last pass," recalled Peers, who flew with O Group to the valley, "we could see villagers streaming out from every direction, heading toward the drop zone. I couldn't get it out of my head that they were out to kill." Nevertheless, the drop took place as scheduled. Peers's premonition proved correct. A couple of days later a Tokyo news broadcast announced that six British spies had been dropped behind the Japanese lines in Burma. Three had been killed by villagers, the others captured and delivered to the Japanese authorities.

Despite the failure of 0 Group, Detachment 101 would eventually rescue more than 200 ATC airmen downed in the jungles of Burma. In one instance, 101's Kachins saved an airman facing death from his own crewmates. The man, a sergeant, parachuted into the boughs of a towering mahogany tree, breaking both arms in the fall. Dangling upside down and bleeding profusely, he regained consciousness just in time to hear three of the crew from his C-87 transport discussing his fate. They had been unable to climb the tree and were drawing straws to determine who would shoot him to put him out of his misery. One of the men had just drawn back the hammer on his .45-caliber automatic when a group of OSS Kachins appeared. They quickly felled a smaller tree against the mahogany tree to serve as a ladder and scampered 100 feet to rescue the sergeant. The next day, he and his crewmates were on their way to Nazira. By December 1943, rescues and assorted acts of sabotage against the Japanese had become practically routine. Detachment 101 could be said to be flourishing, as Eifler - who had been promoted to colonel two months earlier - proudly pointed out in a cable to Washington. He now had 29 field stations in operation in India and Burma and had recruited nearly 200 Kachin agents and trainees. Even the British, who initially had been cool to the unit's presence, were impressed, and asked Eifler's help in infiltrating agents of their own into Burma.

The increase of men and money enabled 101 to recruit more Burmese and intensify its harassment of the Japanese - blowing up supply depots, ambushing patrols and disrupting communications even farther behind the enemy's lines. Furthermore, 101's Kachins supplied vital information to the Tenth Air Force, stationed in Assam, India, for its bombing runs over Burma. According to Tenth Air Force records, the Kachins contributed 85 per cent of its intelligence on likely targets.

One Tenth Air Force report, dated August 14, 1944, noted that 1,000 Japanese "with considerable stores were located in Moda, a Burmese town that had been disregarded and never photographed" by aerial-surveillance planes. "Fighters loaded with demolition and incendiary bombs," the report went on, "attacked the town at once. Subsequently, 101 radioed that enemy casualties totaled 200 killed and a dump filled with ammunition and arms had been completely destroyed."

Eventually, 10,000 Kachins and more than 500 Americans would swell the ranks of Detachment 101 far beyond the most ambitious dreams of Preston Goodfellow. The Kachins accounted for 5,447 Japanese dead and another 10,000 missing or wounded while losing only 184 of their own number and 18 of their American officers.

Even Stilwell was impressed by the accomplishments of the doughty jungle-fighting unit, but he tended to be skeptical of the Kachins' tally of enemy dead. One day, he asked a Kachin how his people could keep such accurate records. The answer shocked him. The warrior answered by opening a bamboo tube tied around his waist and emptying it in front of the general to display a number of nondescript objects that resembled blackened dried fruit. "What are they?" Stilwell asked. "Japanese ears," replied the Kachin. "Divide by two and you know how many you've killed."

Stilwell never again questioned the Kachins' mathematics. And he never again questioned the value of the unorthodox warfare practiced so well by Detachment 101 of the OSS.

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