Read e-book A Soldiers Letter About His Adventures on the Burma Road During World War II
All rights reserved. To a man, every one of them believes the road they hacked across India's steep Himalayan passes and down through the steaming jungles of Burma into China during World War II has disappeared, destroyed by time. They say the route itself exists only as a memory, that the road's two stringy lanes-now more than sixty years old-certainly have been devoured by landslides and rain and swampy jungle vegetation.
But now, step after step-and in the cool of a mid-January morning-my feet are moving up the same gravel pike the Old Soldiers have cautioned me about. I'm walking between walls of jungle that rise from the roadside like green tapestries a hundred feet tall; setting off for the places where the Old Soldiers' friends died, their own sweat fell, and-perhaps more than anything-where the nightmares that still find them were seared into place so firmly that, when they're jolted awake in their beds at night, they can still taste the acrid gunpowder smoke and feel the jungle's leeches beneath their damp cotton uniforms.
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In the morning light, the pavement ahead crooks hard right, twisting back on itself and disappearing over the brow of the next forested hill. Here, near the road's beginning, just a few miles northeast of the crowded Indian ghetto of Ledo, the road's original gravel and asphalt ispitted and broken. Its shoulders disintegrate at the forest's edges, and in some places potholes stretch across the pavement's width, leaving it striped with breaks. Still-contrary to what the Old Soldiers believe-the road exists. Thirty feet wide and snaking ahead beneath mature trees dripping with vines, it bends uphill toward green-draped mountains.
It slides past barracks for Indian army border patrols and the jungle huts of tribal natives, its course run by motorbikes, buses full of coalfield workers, and trucks hauling illegal harvests of teakwood, despite such cutting having been outlawed years ago. This place is so far at the world's edge, it seems, nobody cares what goes on here. Above me, inside a cloudless sky, the sun is clearing the treetops, its yellow footfall dapples the roadbed. The air is moist and sixty-five degrees. Jungle mists spill from the forest, their faint fog softening the sunlight around me.
Through the surrounding trees, gray parakeets dart among branches. An oxcart creaks past, carrying sections of a teak trunk lashed to its bed. One of India's sacred bulls wanders the road just ahead: it's white furred-with one of its horns painted glossy green, the other yellow-and it seems supremely unconcerned by the vehicles that swerve to avoid it.
I stretch my back, having spent last night on a plywood bed in the Hotel Raj, a toilet-and-cold-shower-down-the-hall cell off a cobblestone bazaar in Ledo's crowded downtown. All night the locals came out to stare at the hotel's second-floor balcony from the plaza below, shouting greetings to me, the visitor. Then they'd stand on the cobblestones and gaze upward, expecting me to step onto the narrow balcony and wave. Across the alley, in a small and dingy restaurant, a fire flickered in the mud oven, heating curries and illuminating the restaurant's soot-blackened walls.
A handful of kids shouted to me as they played netless badminton in the alley. For a half-hour, my only response to the welcome squad below curled from the air vents of my room, as smoke from burning mosquito coils drifted into the night sky. She was four feet tall and skinny, her shiny black hair cropped at her jaw. She had dark skin and deep black eyes, and she was all smiles and "Where you come from?
Six months earlier, they'd moved into a room up the street from Bangladesh. Djela's father, she said, had relocated to Ledo to be a laborer in the town's coal mine. Then she handed me one of the two broken-stringed badminton racquets she was carrying, and we began to smack a little plastic shuttlecock up and down the alley over an imaginary net. After a few minutes, I thanked Djela for the game.
Then I walked through the spice shop that was the Hotel Raj's ground floor-watched like a zoo animal the whole time-and returned to my second-floor room. Wooden telephone and electric poles from World War II-glass insulators still in place-hopscotch the pavement, their webs of wires long gone. Back in late , when this road was first being laid by American engineer battalions, no Allied commander or soldier would have believed that, over the coming twenty-seven months, as they chiseled this track over mountains and slapped it across swamps at a mile per day, the Japanese would devil them for most every foot.
Before the road was complete, Japanese snipers and artillery shells and disease and accidents would kill more than one American soldier for each of the road's eleven hundred miles. Back at the road's beginnings in and '43, they also wouldn't have believed that for every Allied combat casualty in the war's China-Burma-India theater of operations, fourteen more soldiers would be evacuated sick or dead from malaria, dysentery, cholera, infections, jungle rot, and a previously unknown infection called brush typhus.
They wouldn't have believed that, before the road's journey was over, the theater's beloved but irascible commander-the American General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell-would be removed; that their eccentric and death-defying special-forces leader-Lt. General Orde Wingate of the British army-would be killed in a shocking accident; and that, perhaps worst of all, the road they fought for and died to build would be deemed obsolete even as it was being finished.
Before he was done there, Stilwell could do little more than lean on the scrap of dog-Latin he'd made famous as his motto: Illegitimati non Carborundum. You aught to have heard the row all his mates kicked up. These chaps are good fighting men. At one time I carried one for a long time until someone took a fancy to it. I used it for chopping wood so I could get a brew on.
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At long last we came to our new destination. We had one or two little scraps on the way, but nothing of great excitement. They held us up for a while and that was about all, until one night we were on the side of a road and a patrol of Japs came along. Some of them got by. This particular night our officer congratulated me in getting one of our wounded chaps in. It was a terrible job and I was thankful when it was over. One terrible experience I had was being left behind in the jungle with a sick man. I had to carry on the best I could with him; he would walk about 50 yards and then flop out.
This went on for about three hours.
We were now absolutely left on our own. He kept crying out for water. We came across some stagnant water; he wanted to drink that, but all I could do was to fill my hat and cool him off with it. Things were not looking too good what with animals knocking about and goodness knows where the Japs might be. All I could do was to stick to the trail. Very soon we came to where the trail forked, so the sick man flopped out again while I went to satisfy myself which way to go. About ten minutes later I came back, and I never had such a shock in all my life.
There were about twenty of our men on the trail that I had just left. One of the officers was attending to the sick man while another one started asking me all about it. I told him the situation I was in. Well we rigged a seat up on one of the mules and off we went. It took us an hour and a half to catch the rest of the column up. They happened to have stopped at a village. I heard afterward that we had both been reported missing. After that only an N.
Some of them used to drop out on purpose for a rest. The sick man I had with me was so ill that he was flown out by plane, so I never came across him again.
Two or three weeks went by and the rain started to come, days on end we were just wet through, never knowing when next you would be dry. This is what we had to fight in. To make it worse leeches were getting on one everywhere. The best thing is to burn them off with a fag-end. I bet Dad knows what that means, and it took us all our time to walk at all. We blew up 24 of his ammo dumps. It was like a great big firework display.
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We captured a hospital, which we used later for ourselves. From this hospital I picked up a lovely Jap coat. It fitted me down to the ground. Only wished I could have kept it, but it was no good carrying extra weight. Various colours where dropped containing different things we needed; in fact everything was dropped, including all our clothes, boots, food, wirelesses, guns etc. During a bit more fighting we had the Chinese with us I had one or to narrow shaves, but I suppose I just happened to be one of the lucky ones.
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We lost some of our boys but Japanie had lost a lot of his and we were sent back for a rest. It was still raining cats and dogs and everybody was just about fed up and browned off with it all. Then off we start on the march.
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- A Soldier's Letter about His Adventures on the Burma Road During World War II by Peter Trunce.
This state of affairs carried on for 28 miles. Sometimes we came across good roads but only for a mile or two at a time. Americans were working on this strip and they treated us real well. At this camp I saw my first picture in the last 19 weeks. It was good to get a wash and a shave my first for the last three months and some clean clothes to put on.