Daily Archives: 22 March 2006

Along the Road out of Burma, 1942

By the middle of May [1942], with the monsoon beginning, the situation was desperate. Thousands had already died and the survivors were almost all diseased, starving and totally demoralized by the constant rain. The route through the Hukawng valley to Assam was the worse of the two remaining escape routes. It was a green hell of mud, human excrement and chaos snaking through the hills. The lower parts of the valley consisted of huge tracts of thirteen-foot-tall elephant grass or stretches of near impenetrable jungle, broken up by small paddies which quickly became lakes of mud. Higher up, the track became more precipitous and the jungle thicker. Near-starving people ate poisonous fruits from roadside shrubs or rotting food from tins. If they collapsed with diarrhoea, they were left behind to perish. Even healthy males could travel no more than eight miles a day in a sea of mud which stretched for mile after mile across the mountains. The only way to make progress was to slither along the roots of trees by the side of the track. Women and children collapsed and drowned in the mud. Cholera became epidemic as exhausted people sheltered in bivouacks to escape the rain and relieved themselves on the floors. Porters refused to touch the dead so they lay decomposing until medical staff arrived with kerosene to burn them. The butterflies in Assam that year were the most beautiful on record. They added to the sense of the macabre as they flitted amongst the corpses….

Some brave people helped others. Frank Sinclair Gomes, an Anglo-Indian telegraphist from Maymyo, three times rescued people from the river at Mogaung, on the southern edge of the valley, saving a Gurkha and a Madrasi woman and her child as their boats overturned. Two Gurkhas died as they tried to rescue starving people on the far side of another river by putting a rope across. All along the route hundreds of Kachins and Naga villagers helped, providing food and transport. They were the mostly unacknowledged heroes of the civilian evacuation, as they were to be the heroes of the later military resistance to the Japanese. Hundreds of thousands of refugees tramped through their lands, polluting their homes and bringing disease and death with them, but their traditions of hospitality were too strong to wither even in this crisis….

Pathetically weak in social services of all sorts, the Indian authorities had to fall back on one of the few efficient organizations in the subcontinent: the Assam Tea Planters Association. Alongside forest officers it was the planters who gave a semblance of order to the chaos….

These people, many of whom were Scots, seemed to come into their own in the crisis. ‘Planters,’ one wrote, ‘are practical, early rising, hard-working people,’ good at dealing with scholarly government officials as well as ‘mobs of ignorant workers’. Many had fought in the First World War and were from factories and business, not from universities. They were particularly adept at handling ‘men, materials, money and motor transport’. Despite their reputation, they had long since given up polo and fishing trips. The planters supplied their greatest resource, labour. As early as February 1942 the government asked the Tea Association for assistance on military projects in the northeast, 25,000 men for the Manipur road and 75,000 for the northerly road from Ledo into Burma. By March every small railway station had its contingent of tea-garden labourers ready to entrain. Each one was equipped with a hoe, two blankets, sufficient food for a fortnight and a hurricane lamp. They were sent off to build roads and carry supplies but many never returned, dying of cholera and exhaustion.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 182-185

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