Yank Weekly: Burma Hermits - 1945-04-06
By Sgt. Walter Peters YANK Staff Correspondent
Northern Burma—One day during the fall of 1942 a clerk at Services of Supply Headquarters in India was studying a requisition form from a Signal Corps Aircraft Warning outfit. After reading the form again he suspected that someone was trying to pull a gag.
The clerk called a sergeant. Then the sergeant called a lieutenant. “Now, what the hell do they want with that kind of stuff?” asked the sergeant. “Colored beads, rock salt, flashy-colored blankets and—well, and all those other crazy items.” Today SOS Headquarters in this theater is no longer surprised at anything that Aircraft Warning may order. Requests for items that aren’t strictly GI are complied with quickly and without question.
To accomplish their mission, men of the-Aircraft Warning units frequently have to venture into strange and unexplored sections of the They are often forced to call for the help of natives who have never seen white men before, and these natives usually prefer glittering and flashy objects to money.
During its history, Aircraft Warning has constructed hundreds of miles of jungle and foot trails, and many times, because of the nature of the terrain, its men have had to travel far beyond Jap lines to establish their stations.
The first station was established late in 1942 in the Naga Hills of India, on the Burma border. Later, as the Americans and Chinese fought their way through northern Burma, many other stations were set up in the jungles and hills of that country. Now the network is so vast that a Jap plane can rarely sneak over our lines without being detected.
The station I visited is only a few miles from a road on the Burma-India border. Many other stations, however, are so far bapk in the jungles that it takes anywhere from 5 to 18 days’ walking to get to them. The trails are narrow and snake around steep hills, and often you must ford waist-deep streams.
Our guide was T/Sgti Fred Fegley of Pine Grove, Pa., a former lineman for the Pennsylvania Light and Power Company. Fegley has spent more than two years at various stations and during that time he figures he has hiked upward of 1,500 miles of jungle trail. “I’m not kicking, mind you,” Fegley said as we paused for a rest. "But back in the States nobody in our outfit ever dreamed we would go through anything like this.”
Fegley said that the outfit’s greatest danger was not from the Japs, but from nature. During monsoon seasons the men don’t dare sit on the ground for a rest. “You even pick up leeches when you’re walking,” Fegley said. “Frequently you have to stop to pick them from your body so they won’t suck too much blood out of you.
“And during the monsoons, streams become rivers. There are dozens of streams across the paths to many of our stations. So a station that takes a five-day hike in ordinary times is difficult to get to in twice that time when the monsoons are on.”
These quarters were built by Naga natives. At the table is One thing you can
CpI. Dole Calderon, cook, and right is Pvt. Karastamatis. knock off as a myth, according to Fegley, is the danger from wild animals such as tigers and elephants. “Actually our outfit has had little trouble from animals,” Fegley said. “Most people like to exaggerate the number of wild animals they see in the jungle. Of course, you do have to be careful. Once one of our men put up his jungle hammock for the night and his dog crept under it to sleep. Next morning there was a pool of blood but no dog.”
The average station is operated by a 10-man team with a staff sergeant in command. The men are required to spend at least six months in the jungle before returning to a rear area for a rest. But oftener than they like, they have to remain longer. Some teams have served at their posts as long as 11 months without relief.
One of the first acts of an Aircraft Warning team is to call on the village nearest the station. Most natives have been helpful; they’ve shown the men where to find their water supply and helped build bashas—quarters for the men—from bamboo and thatching.
The Army’s system of going through channels is found even among the natives in the jungle. Before hiring anyone the men first contact the headman of the village, who then designates a number of his people to work at the station. The headman usually sends his own' son to act as a sort of straw boss.
“Things have changed from the early days in these jungles,” Fegley lamented. “It used to be we could do a flourishing business with the natives by trading large tin cans. One can would bring you as much as a chicken. Now there are so many tin cans that it’s caused inflation. A guy can’t even get the shell of an egg for one.”
At one station where the men ran out of trinkets, a GI squeezed all the cream from a Williams shaving tube.
“One thing we have been able to accomplish in these jungles is .to teach these people to be cleaner. Many of them suffer from malaria and dysentery. Since we’ve been stressing cleanliness we’ve found fewer of them with dysentery.”
During my stay at Schultz’s station, a native woman came in with a badly infected- foot. Schultz tried for days to persuade her to soak it in hot water and epsom salts. She finally consented after other natives nagged her into it.
“Usually you don’t have to urge them,” Schultz says. “And, brother, once you get them coming to sick call you really get the business. They come whether they’re sick or not. When you give one of them a pill they all demand one. We finally got around it by giving salt tablets to those who weren’t ill. The salt tablets do no harm and they make the natives happier.”
The days at the station are long and boring. Some of the men have taken to writing books and short stories. Occasionally the headman invites one of the GIs to a pig roast in the village, but mostly the men spend their time reading or hunting. Every team is given a 12-gauge gun for hunting purposes. Barking deer, pheasants, quail and several species of grouse are the most common game.
Some of the men have taken to teaching the children to read and write, and many natives around the stations have acquired an elementary knowledge of English. Cpl. Russell Higgerson of Albany, JL Y., was teaching two children at the station I visited. “Don’t kid yourself about their appearance,” Higgerson said. “These kids are as smart as any I’ve seen back home. Ird love to take one to the States and see what a school education could do for him.”
Mail service is the biggest gripe the men have. Mail, delivered with food and supplies, is dropped by C-47s once a month except during the monsoon season, when it’s even slower. The problem of getting mail for the States out to an APO is more difficult. At some stations the men have worked out a runner system with native messengers. But the men at stations 50 miles or deeper in the jungle have to wait many months before they can send a letter home. To keep their families informed, the officers at headquarters write for the men.
The men aren’t paid until they report back to headquarters for a rest, but since there is no place to spend money, they don’t give the pay delay a thought.
Some men in the outfit have had their share of combat. When Col. Philip Cochran and his 1st Airborne Commandos landed 150 miles behind Jap lines in northern Burma in March 1944, an Aircraft Warning unit went along. Most of their equipment was bombed out after the men had landed, and many of the men suffered from malaria. Nevertheless they went on with their work and established a station.
Last April, when the Japs penetrated into Assam in their threat to invade India, the men in the Kohima district remained at their stations until the enemy almost overran them. 1st Sgt. Daniel H. Schroeder of Casnovia, Mich., a communications chief, was one of the last American enlisted men to leave his post when the Japs cut the Manipur Road between Kohima and Dima- pur. And during the Jap drive, Aircraft Warning units were the sole medium of communicating intelligence to the British. Native scouts reported the Jap movements, and the men at the stations relayed the information to the British.
Fegley was team chief at one of those stations. At 2200 one night, a native reported that the enemy had infiltrated the area near the station. -Fegley ordered his men to destroy all equipment.
He also ordered that all food cans be broken with axes and creosote poured into them. This was done so that the Japs, who were known to be short on food, could not benefit from our supplies.
At 0300 next morning, Fegley and his men took their field equipment, tommy guns and hand grenades and began hiking through the jungles to warn another station. The men walked until 2200 that night, covering a distance of 28 miles. After taking a five-hour break, they resumed the trek until they reached the other station, 19 miles farther.
The threat of Jap planes has been eliminated to a great extent in this theater, but the men are still kept busy. These hills are among the most difficult in the world to fly over, and a number of crashes result. When this happens, the stations nearest the crash are called upon, to send out searching parties-. Dozens of flyers have been saved in this manner.
In August 1943, when John B. Davies, secretary to the American Embassy in Chungking, crashed with a number of American civilians and soldiers and Chinese officers, men of Aircraft Warning went to the rescue. The plane crashed in the Ponyo area of the Naga Hills. Some natives in that area are known to be head-hunters and generally unfriendly. Therefore help had to be sent as quickly as possible.
Two Aircraft Warning men—1st Lt. Andrew La Bonte of Lawrence, Mass., and S/Sgt. John L. De Chaine of Oakland, Calif.—together with a British political officer, organized a searching party of natives acquainted with that section. The men tramped over narrow paths and through mud and water few five days and covered 125 miles before they found the crash victims.
When the party prepared to leave with 20 survivors of the crash, some natives started a riot over items that were left behind. Sgt. De Chaine, employing a little Yankee diplomacy, intervened and queHed the riot.
“In this business you’ve got to be a diplomat, a businessman, a hermit and an aircraft observer,” Fegley said. “Mostly, though, you’ve got to be ready for surprises. Anything can happen here, even if we are a bunch of GI jungle orphans.”
Then he very neatly flattened the tube and gave it to one of the natives. The native wore it as an ornament around his neck— free advertising for Williams shaving cream.
Medics are highly respected by the natives. Sgt. Eugene Schultz of Buffalo,-N. Y., is the medic at the station I visited. All the natives there call him Doc. “We’re too far from a village here,” Schultz said, “but at other stations some of our medics make weekly calls on the villages. On visiting day every woman and child groups around Doc, and they all pour out their troubles.