Monday, July 29, 2019

From the Top of the Hill # 25: April 8, 1948

Here’s the next installment of John D MacDonald’s 1947-1947 newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier, "From the Top of the Hill". An article in Life magazine brought back memories of his days in the CBI theater in World War II. I’ll have a postscript after the column.

A few weeks back, Life magazine took a long look at some boys who, four years ago this spring, had a rough time with the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional). That outfit was more popularly known as Merrill's Marauders.

We met Frank Merrill before he received that assignment. We saw him a few times while the assignment was in process.

The Life article made us remember. And we began to think of what North Burma must be like this spring.

Four years ago, it was a busy little place. Engineer outfits, QM truck companies and ordnance groups were grubbing away at the Ledo Road, later to be renamed the Stilwell Road. The Marauders were hammering down through the madly scrambled terrain toward Myitkyina. The Chinese divisions, trained in India, were cluttering up the place. Kachin guerillas, organized and equipped by OSS, faded in and out of the shrubbery. Combat Cargo was airdropping supplies. And, far overhead, the ATC and CNAC ships were shuttling on the hump run to Kunming. And, of course, there were the Japanese.

It must be quiet there, now. Deathly still.

No guns, no planes. The Nagas and the Kachins have it all to themselves.

The road must be pretty well washed out after this past monsoon season. And the leeches will be hungry. Billions of them. Little grey worms, they cling with their back legs to twigs and leaves, waving their front portion in the air. When anything passes underneath, they drop.

Those weird and wonderful names for the little villages in the jungle lived for a short time in history four years ago. They will probably never be heard of again.

Strange names. Tagap Ga. Shingbwiyang. Nsopzup and Sumprabum. Kamjaw Ga and Shaduzup. Tumbuzut and Okkyi.

No decent history of that operation will ever be written. The Marauders restricted their files for the sake of mobility while operating behind Jap lines. A Jap artillery shell scored a direct hit on the mule which carried the few records that were maintained.

On the third mission, the heavy rains and humidity turned all the paper records into pulp. The unit's intelligence officer was killed at Myltkyina and his records were all washed away before they could be located.

But a few things will be remembered. Like Lieutenant Woomer, leader of a weapons platoon who worked himself up within twenty-five yards of a Jap machine gun emplacement, and then, when our mortar fire was a little over, phoned back for them to bring it in about 25 yards, saying, "If you don't hear from me, you'll know you came this way too far. Then shift it back a little and you'll be right on it."

Or Tec. 4 Matsumoto, creeping close enough to his countrymen to overhear the attack orders, and scuttling back in time to warn the battalion.

Yes, it must be quiet in Burma now, up near the Chin hills. The lush, wet, green thickets, once scorched by the flame throwers, raddled by the mortar fragments, have mended their wounds.

The streams are probably still depopulated. The Chinese fished them dry with hand grenades.

But at dusk tonight a thousand billion mosquitoes will be singing shrilly along the Salween. We didn't even make a dent in their multitudes.

* * *

We're all tangled up these days with a pretty strange enemy. In 1940 there was no organized, cellular Fascist Party or Nazi Party in this country. But the phone books of this country list various Communist Party offices.

Naturally, they must have checking accounts and charge accounts, and must prepare tax forms and Social Security forms.

Maybe we're getting too emotional about this thing, but it seems darn strange.

Wonder how many Democratic Party and Republican Party offices there are in Russia. Anybody want to take a quick trip over there and open one up?

* * *

See you next week.

In a letter quoted by Hugh Merrill in his biography The Red Hot Typewriter, MacDonald went into great detail about his dislike of General Joe Stilwell, citing his administrative deficiencies and his total lack of mercy. He mentioned Merrill's Marauders and was much more open about the difficulties they faced.

I read in the papers that someone has asked for a Congressional Investigation of the use this theater made of the long range penetration unit called Galahad, or Merrill's Marauders. They had better hurry and have the investigation because there aren’t so many of those boys left. They were thrown in again and again and again long after any sane field commander [referring to Stilwell] would have removed them for a rest. They were decimated by the Japanese and by disease. They performed unbelievable feats of marching and fighting long after they were thoroughly “browned off” by a commander that apparently had no regard whatsoever for their welfare… The true story of the blood, sweat, tears, madness, dysentery and cruelty of [those troops] will never be written. They were abandoned in the face of the enemy and left to fight over their destiny. There are damn few of them left.

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