WORLD WAR II : CHINA-BURMA-INDIA (CBI) THEATER , April 1942 – January 1945 , THE SEIGE OF IMPHAL-KOHIMA – By Dr.Pukhrambam Lalit
IMPHAL AND WW-II
On 7 June 1944, I remember taking shelter in a roadside ditch while the air pummeled a bunkered hilltop. We were listening to All-India radio and heard the long-awaited news that our armies had landed in Normandy. Now everybody thought, we can see the eventual end of the war in Europe and better back-up the forgotten 14th Army. Going off-net was against order but at such times the temptation was too great.Captain P.A. Toole entered in his Diary. The only thing that kept him in the ditch was ‘the end of the war would be his not for the world’.
Mankind’s unrest, greed and selfishness in the late 1930′s staged the onset of World War II. Adolf Hitler in Germany and his supporter B. Musoolini of Italy seized Europe. On the other side of the world the Japanese were at war with its neighbors. Then the British and French were drawn in the war. America was still an onlooker supplying war materials to its allies. By September 1941 the Japanese had compiled secret plans to invade Malaya and Phillipines. On 7 December 1941, Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor. Next day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war against Japan. December 11, 1941, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States. Then the world was on War.
Singapore crumpled at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army on 15 February 1942. The defeat of this critical island in Southeast Asia quickly led to the fall of the Netherlands East Indies. A large number of European soldiers and civilians were trapped in Singapore. Many were used as forced laborers to build the infamous Thailand-Burma railway and the much romanticized ‘The Bridge over the River Kwai’. More than 45,000 Indian and Malay soldiers were asked to transfer their loyalties to the Japanese. Many refused and paid the price. Nearly twenty thousand Indians joined the Indian National Army (INA) led by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose in the belief that the Japanese would drive the British out and India would gain Freedom.
The Japanese quickly advanced to Burma, and their progress was unstoppable. General ‘Vinegar Joe’ Stilwell with his troupes including Surgeon G. Seagrave and the missionary hospital Burmese nurses walked 29 days through jungles, crossed strong streams, climbed mountains and finally escaped to Imphal, Manipur, from the closely pursuing Japanese Army. At the same time, the British General William Slim and his group arrived at Imphal from the Arakan section of lower Burma. Another British Brig. Orde Wingate and his force known as the ‘Chindit column’ escaped into Imphal from upper Burma. Thus, the withdrawal from Burma was over. By early April 1942, the Japanese had completely occupied Burma.
At Myitkyina, the largest town in upper Burma, the Japanese had assembled a strong force with air-strips. Their goal was to capture the Imphal plain and move up to upper Assam to cut off air supplies to China over the ‘HIMALAYAN HUMP’. This would give them an advantage and a complete supremacy over China and Asia, a disaster for the Allies. The INA led by Subash Bose and his ally the Japanese also marched to take over Imphal and then to proceed toward India with ‘Delhi Chalo’ slogans. The only way to enter India from Burma was through Imphal. Therefore, the control of Imphal became the ‘DO or DIE’ for all sides. The British army and its Indian forces had strongly fortified the Imphal plain and Manipur valley. Airstrips were constructed at Tulihal, Imphal; at Koirengei, north of Imphal and at Palel/Kakching, 45 km south of Imphal at the Moreh-Tamu road. The Japanese army attacked Imphal continuously, and the British and its Allies resisted fiercely.
The first bombing of Imphal by the Japanese Tojo took place on Sunday, 10 May 1942 at various localities, namely, Khoyathong, Menjorkhul, Thangmeiband, Chingmeirong, Mantripukhri at Koirengei airstrip, etc. In the south, the Palel/Kakching airstrips were also bombarded. However, the British and their Indian engineers did a marvelous job of reparing the damages quickly every time. The bombing of Imphal and Manipur valley continued for almost 2 years. Imphal inhabitants had run away to different villages, which is locally known as ‘Japan lanchenba’ or running away from the Japan war. The Japanese army took only two months to proceed from Singapore to Burma, and then the war had become deadlock at Imphal either side not being able to advance. Both the British and Japanese forces had fortified each side with a large number of soldiers and the best in their ranks. The Imphal situation was critical.
Lord Louis Mountbatten and members of his Southeast Asia Command authorized Wingate, then a major general, to lead an assault into north-central Burma and capture Myitkyina and Mogaung strongholds of the Japanese army. Mountbatten suggested that Americans help Wingate’s expected three-months of campaign by the same unit that operated China over the Hump. The answer from the American Air Transport people was a big NO since they already were involving in China campaign and they did not have extra aircraft and men. Mountbatten requested Gen. H.H. Arnold and President Franklin Roosevelt for help. The matter was given priority in the Quebec conference scheduled for August 1943. In the conference, the British Prime Minister Winston Churchill brought Mr.Wingate as a guest. The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were so impressed with General Wingate that they not only agreed to supply the air transport but also authorized the first American commando force to serve with it. In November 1943, Admiral Lord Mountbatten was named as the Supreme Allied Comander. By then both the British and Japanese forces were formulating new strategies to attack the other side.
Fierce fighting continued at the seige of Imphal. The American Project 90752, code named ‘Bond Project’, was drafted. Personnels were ordered to duty on May 8, 1944 and directed the reciepents to proceed to Morrison field, West Palm Beach, Florida – Destination unknown, Task temporary air transport command. One hundred experienced pilots, 100 co-pilots, 100 new C-47A airplanes were delivered to Morrision field. Thus, the 3rd Combat Cargo Group, the first one to see WW II combat, was created.
Back in Imphal, the Japanese attacked Kohima, 125 km to the north of Imphal with a small garrison of 3500 and without an airstrip, with their 15,000 strong soldiers via ‘Hell’s Gate’ in order to cut off the Dimapur-Imphal road. This would obstruct the supply of ammunition, medicine, food, water, etc. from the upper Assam plains to Imphal. At the begining of the battle, 5 April 1944, the garrision held all the hillocks which were in a commanding position above Kohima. But they were pushed back and the Japanese soldiers dug in the higher grounds. The fighting was so close that the district commissioner’s garden was divided in the middle claiming alternately by the Japanese and the British, which later came to be known as ‘no man’s land’. They were not shooting at each other anymore but hand to hand bayonet charges were exchanged. Over 600 casualties were handled by Colonel Young D.S.O., a British doctor and his Indian staff.
While Kohima was being attacked, Imphal valley was completely surrounded in all directions by the Japanese army at the hill tops with heavy artilleries. However, at that time, the Japanese had directed their aircrafts towards south in the Arakan region where British forces are attacking. The propaganda from the British Government to the local people was that the Japanese were invading Manipur and India. Therefore, Subash Chadra Bose and his INA along with the Japanese army did not receive much help they had expected from the natives. Area war veterans narrated that two Japanese soldiers disguised themselves as local workers (the British employed a large number of local inhabitants as laborers and housekeepers) and stole an aircraft from the Palel airstrip. Subash Chandra Bose used the airplane to drop leaflets narrating that the Japanese and the INA were in fact friends of India and that they were trying to free India from Britain. They had to show the picture of Netaji with Mahatama Gandhi. By that time Manipur already had a large number of followers of Gandhiji’s Indian National Congress and they knew about Subash Bose’s earlier role in the Congress Party. Finally, several locals joined INA, and underground movements started. The British army immediately collected all leaflets by offering large sums of money to those who were loyal and would bring it to them. Several members of the Manipur Mahasava and leaders from the hills and plains were rounded up at the Langthabal military camp. Thus, INA led by Netaji Subash Chandra Bose for the first time on 14 April 1944 hoisted the Indian tricolor flag at Moirang, 45 km south of Imphal at Tiddim road.
In the north, the 14th British Army was advancing to relieve Kohima from Imphal. Captain P.A. Toole of 305 Field Park Company, I.E. and also of 20 field Company, I.E. wrote down the war accounts in his diary. ‘I landed from a Dakota on an Imphal airstrip in early April 1944. There had been an air-raid warning whilst we were in flight from Comilla and we had to turn back to Silchar and wait. When we arrived there was a blazing plane at the end of the runway and gunfire at the distance. I had been through the blitz but this was real war and not like the movies. The Japanese 15th division had surrounded the town and here in the north had dig-in on a number of dominating peaks, including those sitting astride the only road north. This road led to Kohima (itself besieged by the Japanese 30th Division). The country was steap, partly jungle with deeply cut ravines running down from the heights above. We had just got across one of these with difficulty to the other side when the distinctive rattle of an enemy light machine gun opened up and everybody laid flat.’ That was when Captain Toole heard the Allies had landed in Normandy.
On June 11, 1944, 1st Lt. Walter Duch, Commanding Officer of the 10th Cargo Combat Squadron, jumped the gun and sent his aircraft to Imphal from Sylhet (~235 km to the west of Imphal) on their first mission into combat. Those would be the first combat sorties flown by a Combat Cargo Unit. By that time it was clear that the locals were sympathetic towards the Japanese; so any strategic discussions were to be held in the absence of the local people. The fighting in the valley resulted in several loses. The 10th Squadron had one plane and crew listed as missing. Tokyo Rose – the female voice of Japan’s radio propaganda campaign – broadcasted the news the next day and even listed the names of the dead crew members as well as the number of the air plane. The landing at Imphat airstrip was tricky. Although Japanese aircrafts were not a problem since they were fighting in the Arakans, ground firing was continuous from the hill tops. By then the strategies were no longer secret, the Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter aircrafts will circle the valley several times in order to confuse the Japanese artilleries, and the Cargo planes will land quickly on the airstrip below. The air campaign was successful. At last around noon of 22 June 1944 the 14th Army joined the troupe advancing down from Kohima at milestone 109 north of Imphal. By mid-July Ukhrul at the east, a Japanese stronghold between Imphal and Chindwin, was cleared adding to heavy casualties to the Japanese.
Below Imphal at Bishenpur, the Japanese 33rd Division held against the 17th Division (Black Cat) and the fighting was bitter with no side gaining any advantage. To root the Japanese, heaviest artillery was got together and bombarded the Japanese at Ningthoukhong Kha Khunou where the Japanese were at their strongest. It is said that not a single leaf was left on a tree after this action. Imphal seize was as costly for the Japanese as Flanders was for the Germans in World War I for here on the ‘Bloody Plains’ 50,000 of the Japanese best soldiers lost their lives.
By early August 1944, Myitkyina was captured, and the Japanese were loosing at Imphal too. Monsoon was at its peak; heat, mosquito, shortage of food supply and ammunition caused a lack of enthusiasm and will power among the Japanese soldiers to proceed further. They were hungry, sick from malaria, and homesick fell upon them. Netaji Subash Chandra Bose was heart-broken: his dream of capturing India had failed. He flew back to Singapore and was never found. The sick and retreating Japanese soldiers were provided help, food and shelter by local inhabitants of the hills and plains of Manipur. Despite the monsoon British and Allied forces decided to start an advance which could be largely supplied by air since the necessay technique had become highly developed and the RAF had command of the air. One line of progress would be Palel-Moreh/Tamu-Kalemyo and the other would be at Bishenpur-Moirang-Churachandpur-Tiddim.
After six weeks of Japanese seize, the Imphal plain was rescued. On 16 November 1944 the British moved to Moreh near Tamu but the advance was slow towards the Tiddim road because of mine fields led by the retreating Japanese. Victory in Imphal was in fact the turning point of this war. The Japanese army for the first time was fighting a retreating war but not until many more lives were lost in both sides. After the conquest of the Imphal battle, Lord Mountbatten went to Sylhet and thanked the American Combat Cargo Groups personally. In December at Imphal in front of the Scottish, Gurkha and Punjab regiments General Slim was knighted by the viceroy along with three Corps Commanders, Christison, Scones and Stopford.
World War II ended after the atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ was dropped from Enola Gay, the American B-29 Bomber, at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, and another at Nagasaki three days later. In a true sense the rescue of Imphal-Kohima could be described as the ‘NORMANDY OF THE EAST’. Later after the war, World War II Memorial Cemetries were established both at Imphal and Kohima. The Imphal cemetry has 1300 British Burials, 10 Canadians, 5 Australians, 220 Indian, 40 East Africans, 10 West Africans and 10 Burmese. A more or less equal number of burials were also laid at Kohima. However, the most ignored were those innocent local people who died in this war. When two gaint elephants fight, the uprooted are the inculpable grass. The forgotten Imphal-Kohima War will come to life every time you visit these War Cemetries. The burial sites are marked with bronze plaques recording their anguish and sacrifice: ‘WHEN YOU GO HOME TELL THEM OF US AND SAY FOR YOUR TOMORROW WE GAVE OUR TODAY’ depicts the war in an inscription at Kohima. At Bishenpur, south of Imphal, a Japanese War Memorial was also erected and another for the Indian National Army and Netaji Subash Chandra Bose at Moirang, 45 km to the south of Imphal at Tiddim Road.
2. An Approach to the History of Meiteis and Thais – KirtiChand Tensuba (1993).
3. History of Modern Manipur (1826-1946) – edited by Dr. Lal Dena (1990)
4. Several Internet Sources on World War II:
A. http://www.sweetbriar.demon.co.uk/burma2.htm ,
B. http://billwvb.simplenet.com/ComCar/comcarhome.htm ,
C. http://www.cbiinfo.com/stillwel.htm ,
D. http://www.cbiinfo.com/cbichron.htm , etc.