When writing military history, especially concerning a landmark battle, it’s best to walk the ground whenever possible. For this reason, as research for a piece I’m writing on Merrill’s Marauders in WW II, I felt I had to go to Myitkyina the capital of the Kachin State in north Burma to physically embrace the setting of the Marauders greatest and final achievement, the march on Myitkyina and the seizure of the strategically important airstrip adjacent to the town.
When at the scene however I was overwhelmed with all the historical dimensions I discovered in that small corner of Burma. The ties to the past are numerous as well as the present day issues growing from the past. The Kachin people, whose Kachin Rangers were outstanding fighting allies of the U.S. army in Burma, have been engaged in a war for independence essentially since Burma declared independence in 1948. As a result of Burmese army actions there are over 98,000 displaced persons, primarily Kachin and Shan tribes people, living in 170 refugee camps in the two states today.
There is a group in Myitkyina, called the 101 group, which represents the Kachin people and the families of those who fought with the OSS 101st detachment in Burma. Merrill’s Marauders are well remembered by this group. Also I came across a group representing the soldiers of the Chinese Divisions who fought the Japanese, under the command of General Sun, Li-Jen, some of whom remained behind in Burma when the war ended. Myitkyina, a town of 300,000 population, has a community of 20,000 Chinese primarily derived from those soldiers.
I met with family members of these Chinese soldiers and learned of the Chinese communities’ recent effort to recover the bodies of 347 Chinese soldiers killed during the fighting in May to August 1944 from a mass grave. This war time burial site was located in a residential area of town. The residents in the area didn't know of the grave but some of the old soldiers still alive from that period knew the general area and when interviewed were able to direct members of the Chinese community to find it. That excavation was completed over a year ago. Wikipedia says 972 Chinese were killed during the fighting and 272 Americans.
I spoke with a lady named, Yang, Ling Ling, whose father fought in the battle for Myitkyina and died in 2011 at the age of 91. She helped supervise the operation in the memory of her father. She said of the bones they recovered, "these were my father's friends."
The pics here show the site where the bodies were recovered which has stones and landfill on it plus some trees recently planted. Note the nearby bamboo house. The occupants were surprised to learn of the grave under their front yard. There is a school and soccer pitch across the dirt street and it is believed there may be another mass grave site under the soccer pitch. We went to the cemetery where the bones are being kept in plastic boxes, one body to a box, in a cinder block hut as the plan was to ship them home to China. General Sun promised his soldiers that if they died in the fighting they “would go home” after the war. Yang, Ling Ling in the picture, was in tears as she prayed before the bones.
She said that when she asked her father why he didn't go back to China after the war with the Japanese, he told her that in China it would be "brother fighting brother," and he didn't want to be part of that. A very sad and moving story and one that is still not finished. There are more mass burial sites within the town. I was told that two weeks ago a road repair crew in town found bones under the road they were working on. There is temple and a plaque to the 3,400 Japanese who died in the battle. Note: Wikipedia says 2,400 Japanese died in the battle but the plaque put up by the Japanese government says “3,400 flowers fell” at the site. I feel I should honor the Japanese numbers on this matter.
I came away with a better understanding of the chaos that was the battle for Myitkyina, but also feeling that a return visit is in order. There is much to be learned there.
Author of: Shrapnel Wounds, Bangkok Pool Blues, and the Matt Chance thrillers Viper's Tail and Murder in the Slaughterhouse.