Windgate’s orders for a column of Chindits to cross the Irrawaddy had been a disaster. After a number of skirmishes that accomplished nothing, they were facing a Japanese brigade. They were finally given the order to retreat back across the Chindwin River - British held territory.
The column had been broken into groups of 30 to 35 men. The group led by Second Lieutenant Stanley Carter had crossed the Irrawaddy near Shein Ma Kar. They were only ten miles from the Chindwin River. Of the 35 men that started there were 28 left. Two had drowned in the river crossing and five were killed in a chance encounter with a Japanese patrol two days earlier.
The attack was over in just over a minute. It seemed longer - it always seems longer. Sergeant Taylor hit the ground. The Japanese patrol that just ambushed them had pulled back into the jungle on the opposite side of the small clearing where they had stopped to rest.
“Shit . . . Everyone stay down!” He barked the order knowing it was completely unnecessary.
He had been standing talking with Lieutenant Carter, now he was kneeling next to his body. 'A single shot to the side of the head. Someone’s a good shot’
‘I hold him that revolver would get him killed’. No one wore rank insignias but only officers carried a revolver.
Benjamin (Ben) Taylor had joined the Army in 1940. ‘Not much call for a librarian during a war.’ At 52 he was the oldest man in the unit. During training they all referred to him as ‘Gramps’. He was wrong about there not being much call for librarians. With a Msc in Japanese Studies from Oxford, he was supposed to have been transferred to British Army HQ in Bombay - the orders never arrived.
It was only bad luck that found him in this position.
As he knelt down beside Carter, Taylor’s mind was racing:
‘The attack was just to kill Carter or I would be laying there as well. . . . The Japanese command is even more structured than we are. By killing Carter, they will think we won’t be much of a threat. It must be a small patrol, they didn't press the attack. . . . They are just going to watch until reinforcements arrive.’
‘Where is Jackson? He’s senior to me. He should be next in command - God help us all!’
He didn’t have much faith in Sergeant Jackson. Jackson was a career soldier. His rank was for showing up on time - not ability.
“Dead” - That was Corporal Johnson, JJ, he was the only one with medical training.
‘That solves one problem’ he thought with little remorse.
“How many dead?”
“Four over here” JJ replied.
‘Five including the Lieutenant’
“Three, Minor wounds and Frank”
Frank was suffering from ‘shell shock’. He had just seen his brother blown apart by a grenade. He was just standing in the open, not able to move.
“JJ, Booker, Martin - with me. . . . For Christ’s sake, someone get Frank on the ground.”
They were there within seconds.
Sergeant Taylor, along with Corporals Jack Johnson (JJ), William (Bill) Booker and Fred Martin were all that were left of the command structure. After that it would be every man for himself.
“JJ, bandage the Lieutenant’s head, we’re going to prop him against the tree. Look like you are talking to the Lieutenant - not at me.” They formed a semi circle around the Lieutenant. Taylor had his back towards the Japanese position. Betting his life they would not reveal their position by shooting him.
“You have a plan?”
“Not yet, but I would rather they thought the Lieutenant was still alive. . . . As I see it we have three options: we can surrender, but I doubt if anyone would survive the march back to the POW camp; we could split into small groups, each group making their own way back to the Chindin, the condition we are in, I expect only half would make it; or we can take on this patrol and get back to the Chindin together.”
“You didn’t say how many would survive the fight.”
“Nice of you to point that out Bill.” They all laughed. “If we are very lucky, we could all come out of this alive. If we aren’t, some of us won’t survive the fight, those that do will probably be captured. . . . That attack was to kill the Lieutenant and to let us know that they have our way forward blocked. I am going to assume that they haven’t moved much from that position.”
JJ had finished bandaging the Lieutenant head and was propping him into a sitting position under the tree. “So you do have a plan?” he asked.
Taylor just nodded.
“Any one trapped on the other side of the clearing where the Japs were firing from?”
“Not that I could see. I saw four down over there - probably dead. Everyone else has gone to ground.”
“JJ, How many Mills (aka grenades) do we have?”
“About a dozen.”
Taylor sighed - ‘It will have to do.’
“OK - nothing fancy. Just a simple pincer movement.”
Drawing the positions in the dirt - “This is our position, roughly across from where I think the Japs are lined up.” Drawing a line on either side at thirty degrees to their position. “Fred, Bill take seven men each along these lines about twenty yards either side of the clearing. Take a BREN to anchor the end closest to the clearing.
We will use whistle commands.
Fred, to my left a long and a short, Bill to my right a long and two shorts. Signal once when you have your men ready and again when you are in position. JJ, I want you to get things ready to fire three Mills at the far edge of the clearing.
Once Fred and Bill have their men ready I will signal you with two shorts and a long to fire the Mills.” Turning to Fred and Bill, “The explosions should distract the Japs long enough to get your men into place. Fred, have your men dig in and stay low. Bill, when I order the advance, JJ and I will lead an advance across the opening. Give us suppression fire until we reach the end of your line then start to advance. We want to drive them onto Fred’s position. JJ, when we start to advance, have your men lay two volleys of three Mills as behind the Jap line. I want them to think twice about falling back.
The order to advance will be three shorts.
Before I call the advance I am going to try and draw them out by having the Lieutenant stand up. If they do, just cut them down.
Tell your men to watch their target - I don’t want any fratricide.
If this goes to a ball of chalk, take your men and head for the river.”
Moving the Lieutenant’s body behind the tree where they had him propped up, they lashed his body to two bamboo poles threaded under his shirt.
“JJ, I am going to need someone to help me lift the Lieutenant into place.”
“I’ll send Smith over.”
It took about half an hour to get everyone in place and for Taylor to give the command to fire the grenades. As the Mills rounds exploded, Taylor and Smith lifted the Lieutenant’s body into place.
“OK Smith, you had better get back to your position. Things might get a little hairy here”
Smith gave Taylor a quizzical look and head back.
As the jungle noise subsided Taylor yelled:
“Busu - Mada imasu ka?” (Ugly woman - Are you still there?)
“Oi kisama! Kutabare boke.” (You assholes - drop dead, shit for brains.)
Sergeant Taylor looked around the hospital ward.
“How are you doing Gramps? The doctor said you were awake.”
“JJ - You made it”
“We all made it thanks to you.”
“What happened - I don’t remember a thing.”
“Not too surprised. You took quite a beating. You were unconscious when we found you. You’ve been in and out of it for two weeks now. . . . I don’t know what you said but they came out of there like a swarm of angry bees. . . . They dropped two grenades in front of that tree you were behind before we could take care of them.” Smiling - “I didn’t know you spoke Japanese.”
Taylor chuckled. “I don’t really. You knew I studied Japanese culture.” JJ nodded. “Well, one of the first things any school boy learning a foreign culture seems to pick up is how to swear.”
For any Japanese speaking readers, I just pulled those lines from Google. The syntax may be all wrong.
If you read the first part of this story you may have noticed the numbers of people in the squad has changed, I needed more men to make the plan work. If that bothers you all I can do is quote Emerson, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds“.