I WAS sent to an Indian-British general hospital about fifteen miles forward of Imphal today. Though my duties are supposedly diminished now, I am finding much more to keep me busy and interested. A convoy is running twice a day, bringing the wounded back here from the front. I have decided to make the run myself, provided Colonel Briggs has no objections. I hope I can get to know the Colonel, for he seems to be an awfully decent fellow. I would guess his age between thirty-five and forty, phenomenally young for the rank he holds. I was impressed, from the moment of our first meeting, by his air of real professional competence. He is the first surgeon I have seen out here whom I would trust with a dull boyscout knife in his hands.
It seems to be the policy of the Indian Army to send its best doctors to the forward area. I suppose we proceed on the very sound premise that their skill will count for the most up here. As long as there must be incompetents like Balfour, it is just as well to keep them in Poona. Their bungling is serious even there, but not half so serious as it would be in Tiddim.
The ride between here and Tiddim was pleasant. The ride between Tiddim and here was hell. On the way up I rode in the back of a staff car, talking to the driver and viewing the scenery. The time was passed very quickly and pleasantly; I was almost sorry when the trip was over. But I thought our return would take forever; it was the most terrible day I have ever spent.
I rode in the back of one of our ambulances, holding a tommy's intestines in place. There was a large lateral tear below the umbilicus, bandaged poorly and unsupported.
Every time we hit a bump the soldier screamed and his wound would open. Gradually, in spite of all my efforts, it was spreading and tearing across the abdomen. By rights, this fellow should have been unconscious if not dead, and through most of the journey he seemed delirious. But in sensible moments he apologized to me for all the trouble he felt he was causing. Again and again he would fumble for his pocket, trying to locate his paybook for me. "It must be here someplace," he repeated in spite of my assurances that I already had it.
At every turn his body would roll and his intestines would ooze out into my naked hands. I had washed them previously in turpentine, the only antiseptic I could find. But gradually Tommy slipped into a coma; before dropping off he asked me to sing to him. I tried to oblige, but my voice was shaky and all I could do was hum and whistle. As the sun went down the temperature dropped and the sweat on his body began to steam. I pulled the blankets away from his wound and found Tommy's stomach all over the stretcher.
I just learned that the Colonel has malaria which he hasn't reported to the hospital staff. I caught him sneaking an ounce of quinine from the medicine cabinet in his office yesterday. He insists that he "hasn't time to be sick," but I told him he didn't have time to be dead either. He took my advice in a friendly manner, but I'm sure it will have no result in action.
He explained the morbid anatomy of the disease and even showed me some slides of the parasite. But apparently the bug doesn't always show up under a regular routine check of the blood. Malaria isn't really serious when it is caught and dosed with quinine repeatedly. But undiagnosed it can lead to death of a most rapid or again of a most painful sort.
There is a patient in one of our malaria wards who went into the jungle with Wingate's Raiders. He was separated and lost in the hills for eight months, but he survived through the charity of the Naga tribes. He was fed and cared for, then delivered to us, sick from every known tropical disease. By some good fortune he has lived until now and has only a case of "B.T." left to lick.
When I was talking to him earlier this afternoon I asked him what he thought of Wingate. At first he politely refused to answer, but I could see that he felt little love for the Brigadier. "Tell me, Corporal, what do you think of him? I'm only asking out of curiosity," I prodded.
The corporal leaned forward and stamped out his cigarette. Suddenly he yelled, "I'll tell you, right enough!" This was the beginning of a long tirade that gradually grew from the excited to the hysterical. "I'll tell you what I think of him," he would pant , drawing breath between bursts of bitter invective. I tried to quiet him by persuasion and force; I warned of his health and I ordered him to lie down. But the corporal seemed not even to hear my words. He was talking to himself, not to me.
When I left the room I called the orderly, explaining that I was to blame for the trouble and that if I had not aroused him the corporal would never have lost his head. The orderly replied, "I understand, sir. But in any case I wouldn't have reported this. All of the men have exactly the same feelings, and right or wrong, I don't blame them much."
He averted his eyes while talking to me and tried to leave as soon as he finished, but I was rather surprised by this bitter agreement and I gasped without thinking, "You, too, Private?"
The orderly refused to answer directly, but he suggested, "Why don't you talk with some more of the Wingate crowd?"
I asked, "You mean there are more in this hospital? Why, Wingate came out over a year ago!"
The private replied, "Yes, sir, Wingate came out, but a lot of his men are still in the jungles. Every few days some starving brute shows up on the edge of the outlying camps."
I demanded, "Private, where are these others? Apparently there is more than meets the eye!"
The private agreed. "There certainly is if you've believed the slop you read in the papers."
I can hardly believe everything I have heard, and yet in spite of myself I suspect that much of it is true! I have just come away from the hospital canteen where four men gathered to tell me their stories. Three were extraordinarily bitter and I was almost willing to discount their tales as raving. But the fourth, though a youngster in terms of years, was a quiet old man in appearance and personality.
"What these fellows have said is true," he agreed. "I really can't add much or dispute with them. As far as I'm concerned, this Wingate expedition was one of the dirtiest atrocities of the entire war. I got married just a week before we shipped out of Blighty; I've a wife and a kiddie waiting for me now. I volunteered for the Wingate expedition because I was promised immediate repatriation when we returned. Yes, that was the promise that got us all, all of us who volunteered, that is. In a lot of cases, we were volunteered for; whole units were committed by their officers. Wingate wanted married men to begin with. He thought they'd have more of a will to return. Out there in the jungle that's awfully important, for sometimes you'd as soon lie down and die. Well, Wingate got his married men, and he led them out to a nasty job. But the tommy doesn't mind a nasty job, so long as he knows what he's doing, that is. A lot of our fellows dropped out by the wayside; they were left to die or they were shot by their friends. Even that was no more than we bargained for; the officers were with us and they shared our brew. But finally, when we had paved the jungle with bodies and were hacking our way back out to our lines, the Brigadier says, 'Fellows, home is that way,' then he climbs into a transport plane that has landed in a clearing.
"Well, all of the officers go out with Wingate, except a few sublieutenants and lieutenants. When the Nippos hit us, we're torn apart and every man lights out for himself. Finally I get back to this hospital bed and I figure, Lumme, I'll be home in a few weeks. That was just about ten months ago, and like all of the rest, I'm still rotting here."
I interrupted, saying, "But you're a sick man. They couldn't move you until you're well. I'm sure that once your condition has improved the authorities will keep their promise to you."
All of the men broke into a laugh. Another pounded the table with a fist. "Listen," he said, "we'll not get home until the war is over and done with. We're not sick. We're as well as you are." (To be truthful, he looked a little bit better.) "We'll stay out here so that we can't talk about the rotten mess Wingate made."
Right or wrong, this attitude is unanimous; every tommy will argue the position. More than once I have heard men say, "Just let me follow him into the jungle again!"
For supper tonight we had roast wild pig, the first real meat I've eaten for months, but I suspect that the energy I expended in killing the animal was greater than that which I derived from its flesh. Captain Raoul and I borrowed a gun from a sweeper; it was a rusty and treacherous flintlock muzzle-loader. All of the natives seem to carry the things, though I understand now why they seldom shoot them. Since neither of us is allowed a gun, we couldn't draw pistols from the unit stores. After much cogitation, Raoul came up with the idea of using one of these ancient pieces.
The sweeper supplied some powder and shot and showed us how to ram it home. But when he heard that we were out for wild boar, he suggested railroad spikes instead of the pellets.
"Railroad spikes? Why, you must be crazy!" Raoul and I screamed with our hands to our heads.
"No, sahib, railroad spike best load to use against dangerous game," was the sweeper's answer.
In the end we compromised on several links of chain, just narrow enough to fit into the barrel. At the insistence of the servant, I stuffed my pockets with a few of his well-chosen railroad spikes.
"Now, I understand that these things are dangerous," Raoul whispered when we were quite a way from the hospital. "We'd better climb up into a tree or on a rock and wait for a boar to come along."
I protested, "But you don't just wait for the things. You've got to do something to bring them to you. What kind of noise does a wild boar make? I'll try to imitate it and perhaps one will come."
Raoul replied, "But you shouldn't make the noise of the boar. You should make the noise of the female pig."
Side-stepping any clash with this Freudian approach, I said, "Well, they probably make the same basic sound anyway."
Raoul was adamant. "No, the female is higher."
So we both began impersonating female pigs. Every few moments we would look at each other and ruin the whole thing by our raucous laughter. Finally, to put an end to the merriment, we decided to face in opposite directions. In addition we stuffed our fingers in our ears so that the sound would not carry from one to the other. By this device we were able to insure against levity and settle down to the serious business. For several moments we both "oinked" loudly, then suddenly I saw the bushes part. I was reluctant to turn my head too fast, for I feared to frighten away the boar. Gradually, however, I looked to the side, to find two startled natives staring at us. I quickly drew my fingers from my ears and ceased the animal sounds I was making. But it was several seconds before Raoul saw the pair, then he too stopped with a sheepish grin. We tried to pretend a conversation, as if we were just passing the time of day. But our previous performance, plus the fact that we were in a tree, belied our very casual air.
One of the natives approached us timidly, addressing us in the Naga language. Fortunately Raoul knew enough to answer and to tell the fellow that we were hunting boar. There followed a long soliloquy which I took to mean that we were going at the thing incorrectly. This idea was confirmed when Raoul climbed down. Lowering the gun and following after, I broke through the bush where all three disappeared.
At last we came to what Raoul called a pig run, what looked like a well-beaten human trail. The two Naga tribesmen disappeared into the undergrowth and Raoul explained that they would flush a boar. We waited for what seemed like the better part of an hour, then suddenly there was a snorting and crackling of bush. A skinny little pig charged out of the jungle and down the path by which we were stationed. I knelt squarely in his onward course, leveling the gun with more than a tremor. The boar seemed not even to notice me; he tried to charge up the barrel of my weapon. I pulled the trigger and there was a deafening roar. The pig and I flew in opposite directions. It was hard to say who was hurt the more, but Raoul revived me and killed the pig.
For all the just criticism that can be leveled against them, British officers are seldom cowards. "In order to keep the upper classes alive," said one, "it is essential that as individuals we know how to die." Many of them, even in this forward area, go about armed only with their swagger sticks. It is not an act of sheer bravado, but an example of courage that strikes home to their men. Additionally, it makes the officer stand out as a leader, one apart from his troops. The swagger stick is the symbol of command and authority. It is to the officer as a rifle to his men. Traditionally, the officer spearheads an advance; he shouts commands to those behind him. He will stride into sure death in a withering cross fire, waving his troops on with the baton he carries. It is a costly way to fight a war, for it skims off the cream of a nation's gentility. But who can criticize the individual who demonstrates this remarkable loyalty to his group?
This courage is not confined to one class; it spills out through all of the ranks of the British. I long ago became quite convinced that the tommy was the world's greatest defensive fighter. Through hopeless odds he will cling to a post, fighting rear guard while others escape. He will never question the judgment of his officer, even when that judgment is his sentence of death. Through the retreat from Burma, Malaya, and Singapore, there was never an example of undisciplined rout. There were crowning stupidity and blundering officership, but never a cracking of tommy's morale. I think it is all the more of a tribute that he is able to fight valiantly under these conditions, that he is able to obey the commands he is given, even when he knows they may well be wrong. The Asia command has faltered badly. It has relied on strategy that is ten years outdated. It has tolerated officers who, since the Boer war, have sat in swivel chairs and relived their campaigns.
While the high command lounges around in Ceylon, enjoying the facilities for bathing at Kandy, the troops up here make up for their stupidity, so much bloodshed for so much swimming. This seems to be a forgotten front; someone said, "Oh, you there! Hold that line like a good fellow." Then he proceeded to ignore our existence. It would serve them all right if we were hurled back out. Only one thing has saved the British from humiliation, from abject assininity in this eastern campaign, and that is the nerve of the common soldiers. That is the downright guts of the tommy.
Britain, in some ways, is more like a corporation than a country; it is an unbalanced whole, internally complementary. Its business is the running of the world's largest empire, and toward that end all labor and skill is specialized. As in Plato's republic, there is a warrior class, self-effacing, standardized, relying on orders. And again as in the Platonic concept, there are the "men of gold," bred and educated to give those orders. The individual Englishman is unbalanced by my standards, like the Western farmers with their enormous right shoulders. When they stand in twos, officer and tommy, this specialization is of mutual advantage. But once in a while they do not stand in twos, and then their separate weaknesses show, for the tommy has all of the humility and the officer all of the education.
I was talking with some of our Sikh drivers this morning, with one in particular who has been up here for two years. He took part in both of the retreats from Burma and was disarmed because of his battle wounds. Somehow our discussion got around to propaganda and from there to the related topic of atrocities. Singh related a few common tales of Japanese mistreatment of captured tommies.
"But you know," said Singh at one point in the discussion, "not only Japanese atrocities, sahib. American, British, and Indian troops sometimes treat their prisoners just as brutally."
I was quite to the point of accepting this, for I had already seen cases to bear it out. "Are you thinking of anything in particular, Singh?" I asked, anxious for a more concrete discussion.
"Many things, sahib. Japanese prisoners are chained to trees outside our camps. Tommies laugh at them and call them their pets, but they do not give them water and pets die of thirst."
This practice was nothing of a shock to me, since I had seen some prisoners who had been treated thus. I asked, "What do you think accounts for this, Singh? Why are the tommies capable of such behavior?"
Singh replied, "Anyone is capable of it, sahib, when he has lived like an animal for too long a time. Whenever we are forced to live like animals, we soon begin to think and act like them."
Some of the tommies on this Chindwin front have been stationed here for as long as four years. They have slept and eaten in holes in the ground, living, thinking, acting indeed like animals. What Singh has to say bears a good deal of scrutiny. Men rather than policies are responsible for bestiality. I have seen examples of the most outrageous barbarism and of the most benign gentility exhibited by both armies. It is not unusual for an ambulance convoy to be permitted to run, unmolested, around a Japanese road block. Neither is it unusual for the wounded to be bayoneted. Everything depends on whom you meet.
Singh tells me that several months ago he was evacuating casualties to the regimental aid post, working under the very nose of the enemy, who had ceased firing to allow him to proceed in safety. He made about half a dozen trip to an outlying British pillbox-fort. Again and again all firing would cease whenever he drove between the lines. Suddenly, one of the British officers decided to capitalize on the enemy's "softheadedness." Piling the ambulance with ammunition, he ordered Singh to deliver it to the isolated post. Furious, but not daring to argue with a superior, Singh delivered the ammunition. When the Japanese saw how they had been tricked, they opened fire and demolished the ambulance. Fortunately for Singh, the post was relieved by a strong, narrow counterthrust. But to this day all Japanese troops in that area refuse to respect the British Red Cross. I am not sentimental enough to conclude from this episode that the Japanese are justified in their frequent barbarisms. But I am realistic enough to understand that there are good and bad Japanese, as Americans and British.
I have talked with gleeful Marines and soldiers who report burying Japanese alive on New Guinea. I have talked with a captain in the American Army who tells of bayoneting wounded in their hospital beds. Of course this never appears in the papers, just as the enemy's atrocities are ignored by Domei. But wherever Allied soldiers are gathered together, you can always find someone who will brag of his butcherings. Gasoline down the mouths of caves, lighted matches and screaming Japs; it sickens me as it sickens most others, but there are always a few sadists who are willing to try it. Atrocities are the work of an exceptional few. I have learned that from even this early contact with the war. For every plane that will bomb our ambulances, there are five that will circle and fly away. For every one soldier who will carve up the wounded, there are twenty who will offer their cigarettes. And yet atrocities are inseparable from war; they cannot be legislated or communiquéd away. As long as a hundred people will gather together to watch a lynching in our Southern towns, as long as they will enjoy their victim's suffering, munching on popcorn and carrying basket lunches, as long as they will scream their approval when the blowtorch is played on a human being's body, just so long must we be willing to accept the stories of American atrocities, committed against an infinitely less known people. I am not defending the barbarism of our enemy or saying that our own is as great as theirs. I am only lamenting the sad, sad truth that in every race, one out of every hundred people is a son-of-a-bitch.
We have three or four Ghurkas attached to the hospital and while they are friendly toward us, they chafe at the yoke. The Ghurkas are traditionally the fiercest of all Indians and are probably the best soldiers in the whole British Empire. But like so many fighting men, they refuse to work---at anything other than sheer slaughter, that is. Cutting wood and building fires is the greatest ignominy to those who are here. The weapon which they use is a masterpiece of cutlery, the heavy, curved kukri that is swung like an ax. Its edge is as sharp as a well-honed razor and the inward sweep gives a slicing action.
One of our Ghurkas has been home on leave and he returned this morning, long overdue. While the Ghurka is traditionally independent and cocky, he returned like a Greek or a pack mule, bearing gifts. I was really staggered by "Johnny's" generosity, for he gave me a kukri that was made by his father. My initials were carved in a sandalwood handle and Johnny assured me that it was a "pukah kukri." It was forged, he bragged, over an open fire and was wrought from the spring of an abandoned Dodge truck. I was forced to listen to a long speech in Ghurkali before I could lay an anxious hand on the weapon. Finally Johnny laid two anna pieces on a plank and cut them in two with a vicious swipe. He ran a moistened finger across the blade, then handed it to me for inspection and approval. I was amazed to find no nick in the edge, no tiny mark to tell where it bit through the metal.
Anxious to try my kukri out, I carried it into a grove of bamboo. The growth was fresh and green and brittle, so I swung on one trunk with all of my strength. I almost severed my opposite arm when the blade swung through, hardly slowed by the stalk. I slipped the weapon back into its case more gently than if I were handling a gun.
The Ghurka troops are organized on tribal lines, not in the usual War Establishment Table manner. Their regular chieftains are left in charge, official rank being added to their sufficient social status. The Ghurka boy is trained for war and is taught that all else is women's work. From the day of his birth he is surrounded by trophies, by the relics of his father's successful campaigns. Finally, when he is about to be accepted as a man and allowed to test his kukri against an enemy, the Ghurka youth must prove his strength and his ability to handle the tribal weapon. A bullock is staked in a public ground; relatives and friends are on hand to watch. With one blow from his kukri , the boy must sever the head of the bullock from its standing body. This accomplished, the boy becomes a man. Failing, he must remain at home another year. Normally the Ghurka is thirteen or fourteen when he succeeds in severing the neck of the animal.
In battle the Ghurkas are hard to handle. They abound in courage but are lacking in discretion. Frequently they throw their rifles away as soon as they face the enemy in a charge. Enormous fines are imposed upon them to force them to keep their rifles in hand. But no discipline or order seems sufficient to overcome their love of hand-to-hand fighting.
Frequently the enemy will break at the sight of them, turn tail and run before the Ghurka's knife. And even when he remains, he is soon overcome if the kukri ever comes within swinging distance. I recently read of a Ghurka V.C. who attacked a machine-gun nest on the Arakan front. With several bullets lodged deep in his chest, Johnny Ghurka decapitated some four or five men. Then rallying his fellows to another fresh charge, he repeated the performance on a second pillbox. I think he finally gave up the ghost when a Bren gun hit him full in the face.
Our convoy brought in a Ghurka today, the victim of an argument with one of his buddies. This fellow is one of the few living proofs that you should never dispute with a determined Ghurka. It seems the two were rivals for the affection of some little Naga who had been dividing her favors. To the consternation of all save one, the loser was blown up in the middle of the night. Investigation by suspicious officers, who were unaccustomed to explosions in the barracks, revealed that a hand grenade had somehow been slipped beneath the fellow's pillow while he was asleep. The pin was removed and the lever held down by the simple weight of the head above. The assassin was safely back in his bed by the time his victim decided to roll over. Fortunately, the pillow was stuffed with sawdust, and immediate death was thereby prevented. But from the looks of Johnny Ghurka's splattered countenance, he won't be competing with his rival for a while.
A number of stories are told about these fighters, most of them bespeaking great admiration. The average tommy is quite willing to say of them, "They're poor benighted heathen, but first-class fighting men." One story in particular sticks in my mind; I heard it first from a broad-burred Scotsman. The effect was heightened by his attempts at dialect, which I could never reproduce in black and white.
The Ghurka battalion was lined up on the airstrip, ready for an air transport mission in Burma. Their officer, prior to issuing parachutes, felt called upon to prepare his men for their first jump. "Now, men," he addressed them in serious tones, "you've never jumped from a plane before. But I know that the Ghurka is a man of courage and that none of you will have the slightest fear." A few of the troops began to fidget as their subedar translated the words for them. But the officer continued without hesitation. "Now, we are going to jump from two thousand feet . . ." Here he was met by a roar of protest. "Why, men," he gasped, "I have never seen a Ghurka show fear at something that a sahib would do."
The subedar advanced and clicked his heels. He was recognized at once by the British officer. "Sahib, my men insist that they will not jump unless you fly at one thousand feet."
The officer replied, "But look here, my man. The higher the jump the safer it is." After another few minutes of double translation the subedar still shook his head and said that his men objected. "Now, listen, Subedar," the Britisher shouted, "I myself have jumped from ten thousand feet."
The subedar translated, then returned to the lieutenant and said, pointing, "Yes, but sahib has a parachute!"
There is an airfield just a few miles north of here---or, more accurately described, a fighter strip. There hasn't been much activity lately, but the Hurricanes go up for occasional routine sweeps. I've got to know a few of the pilots and I spent last evening in their unit canteen. I think that of all the troops I've met so far, I like this bunch the best of all. Most RAF pilots are "officers and gentlemen," but lately a few sergeants have had to be trained. Apparently we have all but run out of gentlemen and of course we will make officers of no one else. These flying WO's are a selected group; they would have to be to handle their planes. They have a better background than most enlisted men and their education has been good so far as it went. They are the first good compromise between whining dependence and delusions of grandeur that I've seen in quantity in the Indian Army. As a matter of fact, they are an excellent combination of the virtues that, dispersed, made England great.
These men are really in an excellent position to discuss and criticize British politics, since they are representative of the scarce middle class. With vested interests and yet room for improvement, they are in love with neither the past nor the future. Fortunately, too, they are willing to talk, anxious to exchange views with an American like myself. They are polite and sensitive, hard to anger, yet frank and critical of social injustice. I believe that I have learned much about my country and theirs from the talks we've had in odd off hours. I feel that I have something in common with these men, in outlook, in attitude, in approach, and in certain objectives.
Even these stable, sensible fellows bitterly resent the caste system of the Army. I was glad to learn that they feel as they do, since it bolsters-my own convictions on the subject. But their resentment is really double-edged, cutting at the injustice both forward and backward. As tommies they hate it on personal grounds; as members of the middle class they fear its results. As one of them told me the other evening, "If Rommel had been British, he'd have remained an enlisted man. He was just a guttersnipe with a genius for strategy, but that genius would never have been recognized by our army."
"And the tommy is getting sick of this," added another, "treating blundering fools as if they were tin gods. He's beginning to demand a little efficiency as well as blue blood in the veins of his officers."
In other areas the situation is better, but in India the old guard is still in the saddle. A well-born incompetent is invariably given preference over an earnest and capable man from the ranks. And my friend was right when he voiced the belief that the tommy is getting tired of this. Witness the criticism of Wingate by his men, criticism so general and strong that it broaches on mutiny. Witness again, as I only recently have, the dissension surrounding the retreat through Burma. Right or wrong, almost everyone believes that it was a needless slaughter permitted by senile leadership. And here again I am forcefully struck by the unreliability of news dispatches.
"It was a bloody rout," said one of the sergeants, talking about that "prepared withdrawal"... There was no blamed reason for losing the ground except that our officers didn't know what they were doing." Once again the tommy was apparently called upon to cover up for high-echelon blunders. And once again he did it admirably, but he made a mental note at the time. I know for a fact that officers were shot by their own subordinates during the retreat. I know for a fact that the great majority took off their "pips" and stuffed them in their pockets. If ever the Indian armies came near a revolt, it was during that bloody second retreat. Native troops deserted and joined with the enemy and Englishmen proclaimed states of battalion anarchy. I am not just speculating or relying on rumors. I am not trusting the veracity of one or two men. All of these facts are common knowledge to the fellows here, who fought their way out.
But I am not concerned with the isolated facts, with their total, partial, or questionable truth. I am rather concerned with the implication of their ready acceptance by the men who are in a position to know. If the retreat from Burma was not avoidable, if it was not the result of stupidity and senility, at least it was coupled with a general policy of choosing officers which is open to question. Perhaps the retreat was not inefficient, perhaps it was truly a "prepared withdrawal." Even so, morale was seriously lowered by the obvious practice of tolerating inefficiency.
The revolt in Burma is painfully suggestive of a revolt that might have, and still could, become general. That is another unsettling fact which worries the warrant officers here. I talked with a corporal just the other day who was embittered to the point of incipient psychosis. He had just received a letter from home and he allowed me to read and quote one page. "Dear Ian," it began, "I don't know how to say it so I guess I will just say it now straight out. I just got word from the government that Phillip has been killed when his plane crashed. Dear boy, it must hurt you as much as me, for you and your brother were always so close. I can't say much now for I am very, very sad, as I know you will be when you read what I wrote." Below, penned probably in wonder and shock, was a postscript that told an amazing story. "Ian," it said, "in this very same post, I received a billing against Phillip's outstanding pay, covering the cost of his burial blanket." Yes, tommy is getting sick of this sort of thing. I wonder why?
There is a rumor going the rounds that we are due for an attack to be launched by the Japanese within the next few weeks. The latrine strategists have even plotted the course that this supposed thrust into Assam will take. I have become quite immune to these unofficial communiqués, but this one differs from the usual pattern. In the first place, everyone agrees on the time, the route, the force, and the disposition of our enemy. The Japs, says the silverware that is pushed around at lunch, will come up the bed of this river valley. They will move between this fork and spoon, cutting straight through the jungles with pack elephants. The main force will by-pass Imphal for Kohima, whence they will fight northward to cut the railway. Tiddim and Tamu will be isolated from the outset and the forces there will be cut to ribbons. But if only our officers were aware of this step, we could circle and flank the moving enemy. I have suggested, with just a touch of sarcasm, that my informant take these plans to the General Staff.
I suppose that the front will remain inactive, for all our deployments are based on that assumption. We are woefully unprepared for any sudden thrust, and I doubt that the tommies know more than their brigadiers. And yet there is always a kernel of doubt, for the tommies are in actual contact with the enemy. The officers, drinking afternoon tea in their bashas, are quite capable of isolating themselves from firsthand knowledge. Some of our patrol leaders are veteran jungle fighters, and they can normally tell an attacking line from a defensive. Hence I am not as sure as I might be that there may not be some truth to this persistent rumor.
Yesterday one of our drivers brought in a mortar casualty who was suffering from severe wounds of the chest and head. By rights, he should never have been carried so far before his wounds had been dressed and attended. But with only a preliminary first-aid attention, he was brought all the way back to this advance base hospital. He has lost a dangerous amount of blood and I doubt that he will live through another day. The Colonel, noting an irregularity, called in the fellow who had driven him here. He reported while I was in the Medical Office and I freely confess eavesdropping on the conversation.
"Private," said the Colonel, "this man is badly hurt. Why was he not left at the forward post? You are aware, I'm sure, that in a case such as this, the element of time is extremely important."
The private agreed that he was aware of this, but added, "Sir, I could get no action at a forward post."
The Colonel asked, "What do you mean, you could get no action? I'm sure that no doctor would let this man travel."
The driver replied, "Well, sir, the lieutenant at Tiddim insisted that he had no chance of survival. He was busy giving typhoid boosters to the officers, and after just a glance he told me to drive on."
The Colonel was furious, but he dismissed the driver; then he noticed for the first time that I was in the room. He started to walk past me, out of the office, but he stopped and clamped one hand to his forehead. "Booster shots to the officers," he groaned. "Of course that couldn't wait for an hour or two." I suspected that I had better hold my tongue, for the Colonel was letting his hair down more than he should have. "Booster shots for the officers," he repeated in a tone of genuine growing disbelief. "All right; suppose this fellow didn't have a chance. Why in God's name didn't they keep him there anyway? It would be different if they were glutted with other casualties that demanded the immediate attention of the staff. But booster shots for the officers----well, really... He broke off with an angry wave of the hand.
"Of course you know that this sort of thing is general practice," I said, yielding to an irresponsible impulse of the moment. The Colonel looked at me, apparently undecided whether to be angry or surprised by what I had said. "Yes," I went on, "I've seen this before and I've heard the tommies talking about it. I really have quite an advantage over you when it comes to associating with the men in the ranks." The Colonel was still a bit suspicious, but he waved me on with the stem of his pipe. I continued, "You're an exception from the general rule, and I suspect that you tend to judge others by yourself. But there is nothing especially unusual about this case. I've known of a lot more unfortunate incidents. I've seen men lying unattended in their stretchers while a doctor was having his afternoon tea."
I was reluctant to add that I had seen it here, but the fact of the matter is that such was the case. "I'll be right along," had been the doctor's answer, but it was twenty minutes before he appeared. In the meantime a tommy was writhing on his blanket, biting on his fingers, looking scared and white. If a brigadier were suffering from an ingrown toenail, there would be no such delay, no "I'll be right along."
It is a general practice of the ambulance drivers to "lose" the paybooks of the seriously injured. Unidentified, their rank cannot be determined and they will be quickly treated, just in case! But it is literally true that officers come first, regardless of the relative seriousness of their injuries. Often a lieutenant will step aside for the stretcher cases, but if he does not, they will simply wait their "turns."
I have resolved not to dwell on the subject of atrocities, but there is one which I must record before trying to forget it. Four Japanese were brought into this hospital, skinned alive by a British patrol. They had been suspended by their wrists from overhanging limbs and peeled, from their arms down across the chests. They couldn't lie down and they couldn't remain conscious. I tried to pick the dirt and lint out of their flesh.
It seems as if every Chin and Naga in the area is somehow in the pay of the British government. The men are sent forward for the heavier work while the women and children are busy on the road. Their progress is so slow as to be hardly discernible, and its cost in man hours is more than staggering. They run back and forth like black ants building a hill, but with considerably less success than the insect. The most tragic and at the same time the most ludicrous sight of all are the fellows who break rocks to form gravel for the road. They actually sit down with metal hammers and beat feebly on the monstrous boulders before them. After twenty minutes or so the things may crack, then they alternately work on the resulting halves. These in turn are reduced to quarters, and the boulders eventually by this process to fine, even gravel. At the end of each day a checker comes around to measure the amount that each has broken. I should judge that spread evenly over the surface of the road, a day's work would constitute about three square feet. I am glad that I wasn't forced to repeat my thesis; the Colonel paraphrased it satisfactorily. "You know, Muehl," he said, "if this army were more efficient, it would bring in a rock-crusher or a few sticks of dynamite."
We have in the hospital a powerful radio which will pick up the Japanese propaganda broadcasts. The programs are beamed to Burma and India and are addressed primarily to the natives of these countries. Occasionally some remarks are made for our benefit, but they are sandwiched in with the regular patter. The chief desire of the enemy now is to foment native trouble in the British-held areas. I am usually amused by the line they take, for most often they are based on the most monstrous lies. But the enemy is just clever enough to prepare the way with stories of injustices which we know exist.
"Men of the Indian Army," they will say, "why are you fighting for the white oppressor? He has beaten you and exploited you, jailed your leaders, denied you the liberties which he claims to defend. Where is liberty of the press in India? And where is your vaunted freedom of speech? Where the self-determination of peoples and where the economic opportunity? This is primarily a racial war. Japan is speaking for the dark races in Asia. We are your friends, not the British. What have you gained in two hundred years under them? What do the next two hundred hold? They say that you are not ready for independence.
"But it is they who are unready for your independence, they and their system that thrives on your blood. You are ready enough to fight their wars, ready enough to grow their cotton, ready enough to feed their people, but they say you are not ready to support yourselves. Do not be blind. Lay down your arms. Desert to our forces as did the Burmese Rifles. Already a third of our troops are Indians and they are fighting against you for their independence. Stop killing men of your own color and continent. Stop defending the strange masters of your land. Stop killing your friends, your sons and brothers. Fight with us for a free and united Asia."
For all the lies apparent in this plea, there are a few embarrassing and seductive truths. It would be all too easy for the Indian masses to miss the former in the glitter of the last. We have denied liberty of speech and press, we have throttled economic opportunity. We have jailed the leaders of the Indian people and we have refused self-determination. Thank God, the soldiers of the Indian Army are aware of the injustices that the enemy has committed. Thank God that they are aware that things could be worse, unsatisfactory as they are today. But how long will this perspective of theirs remain? How long will they be sensible and conscious of half truths? How long will they resist the pleas of an aggressor that is more brutal, but less a stranger than the master they now have? I pray that their patience will not be exhausted before the end of this terrible war. And then I pray that things will change here! No prayer could make them remain loyal forever.
I recall a conversation I had with a major in the Chinese army in Bombay. Something which he said seemed strange to me at the time, but now it fits into this general picture. We had all been drinking, perhaps more than we should; everyone was talking very loosely for some reason. By, chance we were left alone for a few minutes and, even in my cups, I reverted to politics.
"You know," said the major, "it is with mixed emotions that I watch the retreat of the British armies. I know that they are my allies and that they are defending my country, but my memory is just a little too good. I can remember the days when they abused my people, when they exercised an absentee ownership in China. I can remember their exclusive clubs in Shanghai and Hong Kong, and the signs saying, 'Chinamen and dogs not allowed.' Is it strange that I get a certain thrill out of seeing the little 'yellow men' rising from their inferiority? Is it strange that I should enjoy the spectacle of the British being beaten at their own nasty game? Perhaps it is treason to speak as I do, but I enjoy seeing them knocked from their lofty perch."
These were not the words of a Japanese prisoner, an officer in the imperial guard or the army. These were the words of a Chinese, an ally of mine, but an ally with a memory "just a little too good."
Several of our orderlies have been stricken blind after drinking homemade native whisky. They were out on a binge in one of the bazaars and either bought in the wrong place or drank too much. These Naga spirits are a potent concoction, quite useful, they say, in burning carbon out of a motor. But however many safe uses the stuff has, consumption as a beverage is surely not one of them. There are two chief brands that vie for the trade, Bull-Fighter brand and Fighter-Plane brand. We choose between the two according to whether we want to be gored in the belly or thrown into a tailspin.
The whisky comes in an amazing assortment of bottles, ranging from milk to perfume castoffs. As often as not the bottles are not corked but are sealed with a twist of straw in the neck. I have always avoided direct contact with the stuff, but I have often observed its effects on others. Even the natives, with their amazing digestive tracts, get far more sick than they ever get drunk. Selling for five or six dollars a bottle is a more gentle if considerably less palatable liquor. It is a wine imported from Yün-nan, China, brewed from the juices of a little green lizard. In order to prove that the wine is genuine, the lizard is often left in the bottle. The producers might well advertise their product as providing "a portable case of d.t.'s with every bottle."
We had a bit of excitement this afternoon when a convoy was caught in a well-laid ambush. Our ambulances and lorries were behind the line of fire, but our drivers rushed forward to give first aid to the wounded. I had tagged along, against the Colonel's advice (advice being the name of an unpleasant order), and though for awhile I was wishing I had stayed at the hospital, I wouldn't have missed the activity for anything. Several ammunition trucks were hit and exploded and a bridge was dynamited out of existence. The road was only held for two or three hours, but the debris and repairing delayed us two more.
Three British officers were among the first hit, since they were riding cycles abreast at the head of the column. Another was blown into scattered pieces when a hand grenade exploded prematurely in his belt. But the two who were leading were only wounded, though they might better have been killed painlessly and alone in the beginning. As it was, a dozen Indian lives were spent in mad attempts to retrieve their bodies.
A Ghurka subedar was the first to dash into the face of a withering point-blank cross fire. Another, then a third crawled to the edge of the road, only to be hit before rising to their feet. Finally, and now at a pistol-point command, a Punjabi charged out to the same futile death. Then the men were ordered out in twos, only to be cut down with double rapidity. Before the hopeless plan was abandoned, Indian soldiers were crawling from body to body, advancing the line of protecting dead men as the line is advanced in Chinese checkers. Finally, with what seemed to be a mercy trust, the Japanese machine guns were trained on the officers. Their bodies twitched, then rolled backward, and many Indians were spared a senseless death. Otherwise, how long would the slaughter have continued? How many Indians equal one British officer? I wonder if there is any official ratio or whether it depends on the officers and men involved.
The tommies were right; an attack is being launched. Even the officers admit that now. Colonel Briggs recommends that I return to South India and offers to send me there unless I oblige. All chronic cases are being sent out of the area to clear the hospitals for the battle casualties. Already our forward positions are being flanked and the patrols have a turnover of about 90 per cent. The very plan that our men have predicted is being put into effect, and we are unprepared for it. The Japanese are marching up the bed of the river and are crashing through roadless jungles with elephants.
We are hopelessly unprepared to cope with the attack, although we have more than sufficient forces in the area. They are poorly deployed and insufficiently provisioned to withstand a flanking, besieging action. "The whole thing is due to poor liaison," Colonel Briggs agreed in my last talk with him. "If there had been adequate contact anywhere along the line, we would have been amply prepared for this." Certainly we would have been prepared for it if there had been adequate contact between men and officers, for every private and every corporal seemed to know a great deal that the brigadiers did not. Briggs himself was aware of the plan, and should have communicated his knowledge to the H.Q. But since he is in the Medical Corps and is not in a strategic position, he would never have been allowed to suggest the danger.
The full weight of the attack will not fall for weeks, so we should have sufficient time for some defense. But I'm just as glad that I'm leaving now. My faith in this command has been considerably shaken.
Our plane has just landed at an emergency field about a third of the way from Imphal to Calcutta. This is our second stop and probably the last, so I'm anxious to get out and limber my legs. The flight so far has been exciting for me, though I suppose it is routine from the standpoint of the pilots. We took off originally so overloaded that we have barely been getting off the shortened runways. Till now all my flying has been done in the States, where everything was calculated to put me at ease. But the fellows who traverse this route twice a day are only concerned with the mechanics of their job.
At Imphal the plane was held back by a cable while the motor was opened almost to full throttle. When the plane was about ready to tear itself apart, the cable was cut and our plane lurched forward. For a moment we all thought it was going to nose over, but it skidded, then careened down the narrow strip. As the wheels rose slowly off the ground, the end of the runway, with its deep bumps and ruts, flashed under us. We skimmed at ground level for several miles before the pilots could ease up the nose. Landing has been almost as tricky and dangerous and we've avoided ground-looping by an uncomfortable margin.
The air has been full of pockets and crosscurrents and sometimes the plane has behaved like an elevator. The ground beneath us is folded and wrinkled like a parlor rug that has been bunched together. Both of our landings have agitated me, since the fields were so well camouflaged I could hardly see them. I would have sworn that we were circling for a landing over endless stretches of unbroken rice paddies.
For some strange reason, prior to each of our descents, the starboard engine has been cut and feathered. This didn't add to my sense of security as I watched the ground lying ridged and waiting. By now I've resigned myself to what fate awaits and my soul is in the hands of the RAF. Johnny Brennan, my old hospital mate, is aboard the ship and he seems to be very used to this.
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