EYES, EARS, DAGGERS FOR STILWELL’S RETURN TO CHINA
Commander of Incredible Detachment 101 Named Director of Our Association
The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 3, No. 5
The two of us were standing looking at photographs in the Presidio Army Museum’s permanent exhibit dedicated to General Joseph W. Stilwell. The tall man with the easy confident smile of a soldier who has had mud on his boots - lots of it - said quietly, “You know, there might not have been an OSS (Office of Strategic Services) if it hadn’t been for General Stilwell.”
My friend ought to know; he is Lieutenant General William R. Peers, USA (Ret.) who as Colonel commanded Detachment 101 in Burma, America’s first and most successful guerrilla force. At our Annual Meeting, April 20, he became a Director of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association.
How 101 Came to Be
After walking out of Burma with the remnants of his army in 1942, General Stilwell called on his old friend, General “Wild Bill” Donovan, to help analyze some of the reasons for the defeat. Foremost among them, they decided, was the work of the Japanese 5th Column; ambushes behind allied lines, jungle night attacks, surprise demolitions and the work of guerrillas, striking and fading away, striking again, creating confusion, spreading fear of the gun our soldiers couldn’t see.
The decision was made - we had to organize a better guerrilla force of our own. It was to do two things. First, furnish vital information about the enemy and his intentions which would guide our forces as they went back to take North Burma and build a road across it (the Stilwell Road). This they had to do if China was to have a secure supply route. The old Burma Road was in enemy hands and the stream of supplies desperately needed was down to the trickle that could be flown over the “Hump”. Second, we must rely on guerrillas to unsettle the enemy; frustrate and wherever possible destroy his isolated units, slip behind his lines and blow his installations, worry and frustrate him in every way possible.
What It Takes
The problem was to find men capable of organizing and leading a guerrilla force in a country that had never had one before. There literally was nobody trained or qualified for the task.
Guerrillas are different from front-line soldiers. They are irregulars; they operate not from their own innate strength, but by striking at the enemy’s weakness. Their first job is to remain anonymous, to live among the enemy so they can discover his weakness. When they find it, they rub it raw; not by overwhelming it, but by dodging in and out, keeping the enemy off balance.
Guerrillas are not gallant fighters; they are ruthless, they respect no battle courtesies. Their actions are sudden, momentary, deadly. They are not concerned with quick, decisive victory. They work to build up an accumulation of surprises that irritate the enemy, hopefully beyond endurance.
Guerrillas must have patience, wiliness and possess a self-sufficient courage that is not disturbed by long periods behind enemy lines.
Stilwell and Donovan wracked their brains to come up with a guerrilla leader. Finally, General Stilwell happened to remember a man he had known in Hawaii named Carl Eifler, who had been Honolulu’s Deputy Collector of Customs.
Ex-Port Collector and Border Patrolman Becomes 1st Guerrilla
Eifler, a captain in the Reserves, had lived for years among the Chinese and Japanese in the Islands and the Far East. He also had spent considerable time with the Border Patrol along the Mexican Border. Already on active duty with the 25th Infantry in Hawaii, he suddenly found himself on orders to Washington to report to General Donovan, Chief, Coordinator of Information (COI) which soon became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS ).
Before leaving the Islands, Captain Eifler recruited Captain John Coughlin of the 25th Infantry, a West Pointer who had been a baseball pitcher and a heavyweight boxer. Next Eifler enlisted Vincent Curl, his 1st Sergeant; a medical officer, Captain Archie Chun Ming, and Robert Aitken, Captain in the Intelligence Section of the Hawaiian Department.
On meeting General Donovan, Eifler was told his organization would be the first American unit ever organized to conduct a wide-range of clandestine operations - espionage, sabotage, guerrilla warfare, propaganda, escape and evasion - the works. The area of operation might be anywhere in the Far East -- in jungles, ports, rice paddies, cities. The assignment--carrying out insurrectionary tasks from killings to bridge blowings.
101, the Only One
On April 14, 1942, Detachment 101, Office of the Coordinator, was officially activated. Its very name was a bit of propaganda. The “101” suggested it was one of many similar units, an established outfit. Actually, it was the Number 1, the only one, and it mustered just 21 men.
About this time Captain Wm. R. Peers heard from Captain Coughlin, whom he had met when he had first come on active duty out of U.C.L.A.
In early 1942, Ray Peers was going through the wartime abbreviated Infantry Officers Advance Course at Fort Benning, Georgia. One cold, rainy Sunday he got the message: “Are you interested in combat assignment in the Southwest Pacific?” Signed: “Captain John Coughlin.” He thought a minute, and as he says, “Suddenly I knew the answer had to be Yes!” So he was on His way to join 101.
Captain Eifler was the right man to lead such a detachment. He was intelligent, imaginative, tough, with a gambler’s instinct as to when to chunk it in and when to pull out. At 6’2” and 250 pounds, he was agile as a cat, and strong! After showing Peers around the Washington office and introducing him to General Donovan, he offered his hand, “and cracked every bone in mine,” recalls Peers, “all the while bathing me in a beatific smile!”
Recruiting went on. Four more Infantry officers, three radio technicians, a watchmaker, a Korean patriot, a court stenographer and an American who had been advisor to Chian Hsueh-liang, a powerful Chinese War Lord of the 20’s, joined on.
Training started in earnest, too. In just two weeks Peers and his outfit had to learn the basics of agent operations, secret writing, resisting an interrogator, searches for downed aircrews, cryptography. They experimented with a variety of high explosives, learned the difference between blowing a stone and a steel bridge, were taught how to use primitive but effective detonators and explored methods of sabotage. Anybody was lucky to get a few hours sleep a night.
On May 20, 1942, Detachment 101 sailed from Charleston, South Carolina.
“Hurry Up and Wait”
This old wartime frustration caught up with 101 when it reached India. Our CBI (China-Burma-India) Command in New Delhi was understaffed and over-worked. In addition, by August 1942, India was seriously threatened by powerful bands of fever-hot nationalists and by the Japanese preparing to invade.
The allies also were suffering from the festering sores of defeat. It was all summed up in General Stilwell’s forthright words, “I claim we got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma and it was as humiliating as hell. I think we ought to find out what caused it, go back, and retake it.”
On 101’s arrival the General was away on urgent duties in China. While waiting for action, Major Eifler developed contacts with the Indian Army and the Burmese Army. The whole detachment learned much more about Burma - its high, jagged mountains, its jungles, its fast-flowing dangerous rivers - the Irrawaddy, Chindwin, Sittang, Salween. 101 also learned about the Burmese people, particularly the Kachins, who were to provide most of the manpower for the detachment as it developed.
The Kachins made up a significant part of the pre-World War II Burmese Army. They were superb jungle fighters, but no match for Japanese mechanized infantry and armor. As the Japanese advanced, the Burmese Army slipped back into the hills.
By the time Detachment 101 came on the scene a great many Burmese including members of the Japanese 5th Column, who called themselves the Burmese Independence Army, were thoroughly disenchanted. The Japanese, preaching “Asia for the Asiatics” and “Co-Prosperity Sphere”, had proven themselves not to be liberators, but conquerors, cruel and contemptuous.
Stilwell Returns and the Torch Moves toward Burma
In September 1942, General Stilwell got back to New Delhi from his mission in China and met with the officers and men of 101. In his fascinating book, “Behind the Burma Road”, Peers wrote of that meeting:
“He said he was anxious to have us get behind the Japanese lines. Information was scarce, and he believed anything we could reveal about the enemy would influence forthcoming operations. What he wanted was a group eager to knock to pieces the myth that a white man could not survive in the jungle. He thought that we should consider ourselves pioneers in blazing a way back to Burma. Whatever doubts had obscured our destination were now gone... We had heard the General say it: he had selected Burma as our target. We readied ourselves for the task, the impotence of waiting forgotten, the sense of mission restored, and the General’s calm our blessing.”
In October, Carl Eifler, John Coughlin, Bob Aitken and Ray Peers located their headquarters on a British tea plantation at Nazira, close to the Naga Hills in upper Assam.
In its recruiting of Kachin jungle guerrillas, 101 relied heavily on the British. They knew where the best men were, the steady ones, the smart ones like Zhing Htau Naw, a Kachin head man with a price on his head.
The Anxious Missions
Early in 1943, the first units of 101 were ready to play for keeps. They had made mistakes and learned lessons. One of the most important lessons was that they must travel to their target areas without being seen, heard or identified. In the Burma jungles this meant parachute landings. But how to get planes?
101’s senior officers got an interview with General Alexander at Air Transport Headquarters. He was bitter over the fate of his lost air crews. “I’d give anything,” he said, “to guarantee my people that they had a chance!”
“That’s why we are here,” Peers said. “Those hills, those mountains are Kachin country. They are on our side and if we could get in and show them that we mean to stay, we should be able to get your men out.”
That’s the way it was left. 101 would act as an underground railroad for downed British and American airmen. And it did. In its three years of operations, it brought back 125 of them, plus 350 other Allied personnel. In exchange, ATC provided 101 with planes and parachutes.
The first mission was a jump into the Koukkwee Valley, Burma, roughly a hundred miles south of Myitkyina. Captain Barnard and Saw Judson were to make the first jump with radio equipment Jan. 26. The next day the rest of their 13-man unit was to follow. A C-87 with fighter escort took them to the target. The jump was perfect, the planes got back to base, and then the long wait for Barnard’s radio signal. This lasted all night and the signal never came.
Next morning, a shaken, but determined group took to the C-87 again to complete the landing. When they reached the target the glum sky turned to rainbow. There, far below, were two tiny figures waving their arms off. Barnard and Saw were all right. It turned out their radio had been smashed on landing. With the sight of them, the rest of 101’s “Mission A” went out whistling.
That first mission wasn’t perfect. The group got separated. A two-man unit was surprised by a Japanese patrol and one man was killed. Some of the party were in the jungle for days before finding the other members. But three railroad bridges were blown and the Japanese knew they had trouble. They responded by tracking 101’s men night and day. But the guerrillas managed to keep ahead of them.
101’s operations in North Burma proceeded apace. Recruitment among the invaluable Kachin warriors was good. Larger, better equipped units were penetrating farther and farther behind enemy lines wreaking havoc as they went. There actually was a 101 man as far down country as Mandalay.
But in the south, 101 had its most heartbreaking failures. The first was a mission to gather information and cut the enemy’s supply road from Prome to the Akyab Front. The group was taken to Ramree Island by Royal Navy Submarine. Its members scrambled through the surf and headed for the jungle. They didn’t look back. They should have. A lone hand battery cell had been dropped and was washed up on the beach. It was picked up next morning by a fisherman and turned over to the Japanese.
The hunt was on. It was learned later the group was captured. Its men were shot standing close together, their faces covered with mud and shouting defiance to the enemy.
Although it had its share of heartbreaks, 101’s successes far outweighed them. But the end of 1943 it was ready to be told: -
“The big job now, Ray, is for you and 101”
General Stilwell said it to Colonel Ray Peers in February 1944 at a command post, North Burma. Colonel Eifler had been invalided home with a severe head injury. Colonel Coughlin had been put in charge of all strategic operations in the CBI theater and he had asked Peers to take command of 101.
What the General was demanding was a major breakthrough before June - the liberation of North Burma. After his retrained and resupplied 22nd and 38th Chinese Divisions had defeated the enemy at Yupbang Ga and advanced into Burma, he knew Chinese troops could slug it out with anyone. But he also knew that all his conventional forces in the end would have to depend on the guerrillas. With their help, his units might stay together, withstand heat and humidity, march where there was no enemy, and fall upon the enemy out of the jungle. Colonel Peers put it this way: “The jungle on your side can spread disaster to the enemy; with the jungle against you, death explodes in your face ... 101 had been saying they owned the jungle; now 101 must prove it.”
General Stilwell’s directive called for quick expansion of 101’s capabilities.
Four area commands were set up to cover Stilwell’s line of attack, southward to Myitkyina. Among them was divided the region from the lrrawaddy River watershed on the east to the Chindwin River Valley on the west. All together they were to raise about 3200 guerrillas whose duties broadly were to harass the Japanese, prevent reinforcement of Myitkyina, extend espionage and intelligence operations farther and farther along the enemy’s lines.
The Typhoon Starts to Blow
Early in February 1944, Merrill’s Marauders arrived from Ledo, their jungle-training base in India. They were to be the envelopment force; to swing around the Japanese flank, set up road blocks in the enemy’s rear and force him to fight past them while Stilwell’s Chinese divisions kept pressure on the front--pushing, always pushing toward Myitkyina.
Their first engagement, together with a composite American-Chinese Task Group was a classic flanker around the Japanese at Walabum. In a futile attempt to break the road block they established, the enemy lost 850 dead to 7 Americans wounded.
As this was going on, the Japanese front was taking a bloody pounding from the hard-fighting Chinese 22nd and 38th Divisions. As the Japanese started withdrawing, the Chinese lashed in, overran their rear guards, and linked up with the Marauders.
Then came the tough one. The Marauders’ 2nd Battalion and a combat team from the 3rd advanced to set up a road block at Inkangahtawng. 101’s Kachin guerrillas were encountering strong enemy patrols and warned the 2nd Battalion. On probing and finding that the enemy was gathering greatly superior forces, the Battalion started withdrawing northward. But the Japanese advanced swiftly, maneuvering troops and artillery into positions threatening the fate of the whole allied force.
By the end of the third day, the 2nd Battalion was surrounded at Nphum Ga. The battle was savage. Time after time, waves of Japanese broke through the Battalion’s outer defenses screaming, “Die, Joe, Die, Joe!” But ‘‘Joe” held on. Food, ammunition, artillery pieces, even water had to be air-dropped. But it got there which was more than the Japanese could accomplish.
The enemy lacked air-drop capacity. And 101’s guerrillas were ambushing their supply columns, cutting telephone lines, seizing radio stations, damaging the fighting capacity of the Japanese front line troops who waited for food and ammunition that never came.
On the seventh day, the Marauders’ 1st and 3rd Battalions forced the Japanese to break contact and withdraw. General Stilwell ordered the whole Marauders unit into bivouac for a short rest.
It was at this time that friction between the General and the Marauders developed. They felt they had been promised that they would be relieved after 90 days in combat, and the time was about up. However, General Stilwell had other ideas. Myitkyina was the key to North Burma and it had to be taken whether it took 90 days or 190 days. As General Peers viewed it: “In this determined decision, he (Stilwell) was to deprive himself of that which was nearly a necessity to him, a bond with the man who stood out in his mind in the front rank of soldiers anywhere - the Infantryman of a rifle company.”
(This may be one reason why to the end of his life General Stilwell wanted the Combat Infantryman’s Badge more than all the other decorations he had received. It was awarded October 11, 1946 and brought to him at Letterman Hospital, San Francisco, a few days before he died by Assistant Secretary of War, Robert Patterson.)
Task Force Galahad Drives for Myitkyina
Stilwell wasted little time organizing the drive south after the Marauders’ heroic stand. He assembled a task force made up of elements of the Chinese 30th and 50th Divisions and the Marauders to be commanded by General Merrill. Its code name was Galahad. 101’s guerrillas were to provide all possible support to the combat forces.
The first, K Force, led off April 28 followed by H Force. 101’s Kachin Rangers led them over the rain-soaked, slippery trails of the high Kumon Range. On crossing it, K Force ran into Japanese Infantry near Ritpong which they wiped out.
H Force by-passed K and pressed on toward Myitkyina with Kachin guerrillas again leading them over abandoned and hidden trails. Naw, a young Kachin guide, was bitten by a poisonous snake and severely weakened, but went on, riding a mountain pony. He led the way to the Myitkyina airstrip. On May 17, H Force hit it with a surprise attack and before the day ended the great Myitkyina airfield had been won.
There was almost hysterical jubilation. The campaign seemed almost over. General Merrill sent a message to Detachment 101: “Thanks for your assistance. We could not have succeeded without the help of 101.”
Horror at the Railroad Station
With bugles sounding two battalions of Chinese entered the town of Myitkyina, one from the south, the other from the west. They advanced with hardly a shot being fired. As they neared the railroad station about dusk, a handful of do-or-die Japanese snipers began picking off men from both units.
Possibly panic-stricken, possibly seized by a mad rage that sometimes grips troops in battle, the Chinese started shooting one another! To this day nobody knows why. Their losses were unbelievable. The two Chinese battalions methodically destroyed each other to the point that they had to be withdrawn.
The Japanese reacted fast and started pouring in reinforcements from every direction. Stilwell brought up his reserves from every part of the CBI theater until he had 12 ,000 men to break the enemy grip.
For the Japanese there was no retreat. The dog-eat-dog fight over Myitkyina went on day after day through June, through July, into August. The allies were able to sustain their forces. The Japanese could not - they were surrounded. Yet not a one surrendered.
The first break came in late July. The Japanese began evacuating their wounded by tying them to rafts and floating them down the Irrawaddy. General Mizukami, the Japanese Commander, committed Hara-kiri. On the night of August 2, Colonel Maruyama led the last 200 Japanese out of Myitkyina, and the battle was over.
During the siege, Colonels Thrailkill and Lattin were given command of a small handpicked force with orders to head east, to contact the Chinese in the Salween River Valley. A detachment of 101 Kachins led the American troops to the Chinese border and a meeting with the Chinese Army. For the first time since early 1942, Stilwell’s dream - a land route to China - was in sight!
The British 14th Army which, under Field Marshal Sir William Slim had knocked out a determined Japanese drive for a breakthrough into India at Imphal in early 1944, joined in the action south of Myitkyina. It later took Mandalay and Rangoon.
Home for the Kachins
By that time the Kachin tribesmen who had contributed so much to victory were eager to get home and their units were inactivated. As they were mustered out, Citations for Military Assistance (CMA) were awarded for feats of outstanding gallantry. 101 also initiated a silver campaign badge for all Kachin Rangers who had served with distinction against the enemy; and a shoulder patch, red, white and blue similar to the CBI patch with “Kachin Ranger” embroidered across the top. The effect was tremendous. Many of the recipients could hardly hold back their tears. They were being treated as equals - as comrades in arms, which they certainly were.
As General Peers says of them: “Always steady, the Kachins were the vital force of 101 in its guerrilla operations. They were the fighters who raised the flag of freedom in the jungles of Burma. As guerrillas, they never lost a battle. It was the Kachins who wrote the splendid accomplishments of 101 ...
After 3-1/2 years, nearly three years of which was actual guerrilla combat, Detachment 101 was inactivated, July 12, 1945. It was cited for “outstanding performance of duty’’ in War Department General Orders, 17 January 1946, signed by General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chief of Staff.
For the fascinating story of Detachment 101, read, -- “Behind the Burma Road” by William R. Peers and Dean Brelis, available at circulating and military libraries. Warning: Once you start reading it, you won’t be able to put it down.