Monday, November 20, 2017

Excerpt from "Mizoram, the Land of Dreams" - J. Lalsangzuala

Blogger’s NoteWhen I read Naga writer Easterine Kire’s "Mari", a family biography set during World War II in Nagaland, I felt a rush of envy that our state neighbours had this wonderful documentation of their experiences during the war.  Late last year, I was delighted to come across Pu Sangzuala’s autobiography with detailed descriptions of his involvement in the war, and all of it in English!  I immediately called his daughter and asked if I could blog an extract and she gracefully agreed. My one regret is that it took me so long to get this fascinating piece of history online. I thank Pu Sangzuala for leaving behind this invaluable documentation, as also his family for permission to post a segment here.

During the last part of October, we received orders to join the 11th East African Division, which was operating west of River Chindwin, south of Tamu, with the objective of crossing the river in force, attack the enemy wherever they were found and then destroy them. Men of this Division were drawn from Kenya, Uganda, Tanganiyka, Nyasaland and Rhodesia (all black Africans). All their officers and senior NCOs (sergeants) were whites.  For security reasons, we started on foot and from Moreh at midnight on 1st November 1944. Foolishly I put on a brand new pair of military boots which caused blisters in various parts of my feet. This made marching difficult. Everyone had to carry his own kit (all belongings – bedding, garments etc), arms and ammunition, ground sheet and ration, and had to be self-supporting. The only transport available to us were mules which were used for transporting heavy materials and stores like mortar, bombs, reserve ammunition and rations. 

On the third day of marching on foot through jungles, we contacted the 21st East African Infantry Brigade under which the battalion was to operate. Most of us spent the night in abandoned enemy bunkers. I was in one of them. It was very difficult to sleep because sands were falling off and on from the top cover of the bunkers. We did not take the risk of staying outside for fear of enemy shelling – sporadic shellings by mountain guns were made by the enemy in the area. The enemy had been driven across the river Chindwin. And the nearest enemy post was about 2 kms away east of the river. The following night, a patrol party was sent across the river to locate the enemy.  In the meantime, preparations were on in full swing for large scale crossing of the river. Rafts were constructed with bamboo and tarpaulins. In the evening, the patrol party reported that the enemy had withdrawn towards the east. The following day, the battalion crossed over to the east bank without any hindrance. All types of available river transport were used – sampans, dug-outs, bamboo rafts, tarpaulin with wooden or bamboo frames. I was in one of the dug-outs, along with six others. It was overloading and the level of water was barely 2 to 3 inches  below the edge of the dugout. My boatman was jittery out of fear.  Because of fear, he would make a move off and on, and the dugouts would swerve and would nearly swallow the water. The distance from West to East bank was about 300 metres.  Perhaps this was the longest 300 metres I had ever travelled. We then had the honour of being the first full infantry battalion to re-cross River Chindwin during the re-conquest of Burma. 

The advance party took position in the hillock overlooking a village. No sooner were they in position than a Japanese fighting patrol of about fifteen men appeared. Our patrol party killed six of them without suffering any casualty, and the remaining Japanese disappeared into the jungle. We then slowly advanced towards the south, and ‘B’ Company was detached to the east as a flank protection. We spent three nights on the east flank. On the fourth day, there was heavy firing to our east – both of rifles and automatic weapons interspersed with explosions of grenades and two inch mortar bombs. We, in the HQ thought that the enemy might have launched an attack on our company deployed in the east, and that the enemy might try to drive us out of the east bank. We were worried because there was no means of crossing the river to the west in that area and a large area east of the river was sandy, barren and exposed to the enemy. Even for those who could swim, the river in that area was narrow, the current was extremely strong. There was apprehension in everyone’s mind. To our great relief, a message from Major A.I. Calistan of “B” Company came saying that since they could not locate the enemy, they had discarded part of their ammunition and bombs for practicing river crossing. As the enemy was retreating fast to the east and the south, contact could not be made of their whereabouts. The battalion crossed over to the west bank of the river in piecemeal and concentrated in the area near the river port of Mawlaik.

Near Mawlaik, a paddy field was flattened for use as a landing ground for small planes, and cargo-carrying gliders. We called it “Jeep plane” because it could carry only one passenger apart from the pilot, and the fuselage was made of reinforced canvas. The “Jeep planes” were operated from Yajogyo, about 50 km away to the West, where a makeshift airfield was constructed and operated by the U.S. Air Force. The plane was operated for evacuation of casualties. Very often, cargo-carrying gliders also landed at the landing ground – a Dakota plane would tow the glider, release at the right altitude and direction and then the glider would land, and cargo unloaded. A big iron ring was attached to the head of the glider, and the Dakota would come low, release the two ropes with a big hook attached to the end, which would hook the iron ring, and off they would fly. It was a risky operation which needed perfect skill. Though some items of rations like rice, atta, animal ration were freely dropped by planes, ration and ammunition were mainly dropped by Dakotas. Silk parachutes were used for dropping breakable items liquor; cotton chutes for ammunition and supplies, and Hessian chutes for other items. There was serious shortage of cloths amongst the civil population. Hence there was heavy demand for parachutes among the civilians for making garments. Normally we could have two fowl in exchange for one parachute. At any rate, the parachutes had to be left behind, since there was no means of carrying or sending them back. We, therefore, had plenty of chicken to supplement our ration. Occasionally we received fresh frozen Australian mutton and rum through airdrops. While in Mawlaik, we leant that a pontoon bailey bridge, the longest of its kind in the world, had been constructed across river Chindwin at Kalewa, downstream. This was a big morale booster for the officers and men as they realized that the Allied Forces meant real business. The long awaited operation – the big push into Burma started at last.

Before the battalion marched back to to Moreh on foot, it was decided that the Adjutant (Capt. M.G. Williamson) and I should leave for Shillong to sort out some official matters, so as to be back before the battalion involved itself in the high push into Burma with the 19th Division. We left by ‘jeep’ plane and landed in Yajagyo where we were received by the medical staff thinking we were casualties. We were then transferred to an ambulance plane (a single engine high wing monoplane with fixed under-carriage) with accommodation for 6 stretcher cases and 10 sitting patients. We landed in Tamu where we were received by the medical staff along with casualties who had travelled with us. The dedication of the US pilots and ground crew were commendable. From Tamu, we went by jeep to Moreh and then to Shillong. Capt. Williamson was my Adjutant from mid 1944 till mid 1945. He had since died in Australia in 1981.  But the time we returned to Moreh, the battalion had already moved across River Chindwin. On my leaving Mawlaik for Shillong, I had to leave behind my batman, Rohnuna of Hlimen. During my absence from the battalion, the poor fellow was blasted to pieces by an explosion. An investigation revealed that while cooking in the open, an explosion occurred at the spot. It appeared that during the battle which took place in this area, some bombs and shells must have been embedded and covered by monsoon mud and must have been heated by the fire above. The limbs of Rohnuna were said to have scattered over a wide area and had to be collected for burial.

We proceeded towards Homalin on the banks of River Chindwin, along the route used by the Japanese during their invasion of India. It was not a motorable road but a bridle path which was widened to take motor vehicles. The gradients were very steep at places. The local villagers told us that the Japanese had to use elephants to tow vehicles at places, since the vehicles were unable to negotiate the gradients with their own power. Unfortunately, the brakes of our jeep was out of order. There were no means of repairing them in the jungles. The bulk of the troops with supporting units like the recovery unit and repairing units had all gone ahead. With a skillful driver, we managed to negotiate the jungle roads without any mishaps. Soon we could join the battalion. On Christmas Eve, we spent the night in the jungle and a complete blackout was maintained. There was no Christmas service, no carols, and no feast. Next day, on Christmas day, we went on towards Central Burma.

On New Year’s Eve, we reached the railway station Kawlin in Central Burma. From there we advanced towards the South following the motorable road which ran parallel to the railway lines. Late at night, we came  across a road block set up by the enemy by felling trees on the road. The leading vehicle struck a land mine which resulted in damage to the vehicle. Cautiously we went on but fortunately the road block was not manned. We went on to the South, and on the 4th January 1945, the battalion launched an attack from the right flank of the Division. In the course of the battle, our C.O. (Lt. Col. W.F. Brown) was killed. Sadness overshadowed the officers and men alike. The Second-in-Command, Major Mohd. Ayub Khan had to take over command.  While advancing towards the south, I came across two dead Japanese in a slit trench. They were in a sitting position facing each other The head of one of them appeared as though it had been chopped off cleanly just above the eyebrows. It was the work of the shell of 25-pounder anti-personnel shell. I thought to myself, “These poor boys must have relatives at home longing for their return, like me. How ugly the war is!”

J. Lalsangzuala (1924–2009) was one of Mizoram’s most prominent and respected public leaders. He joined the Indian army in 1941 and had the honour of being the first Mizo and the youngest Indian army personnel to be promoted to the gazetted rank of Viceroy Commissioned Officer, Jemader Head Clerk at the tender age of 19. After military service against the Japanese army during World War II, he retired from the army in 1958. 

He then held the post of Secretary, Soldiers’, Sailors’ & Airmen’s Board and was deeply involved in relief operations during the 1960 Mizoram famine, and the subsequent insurgency movement which followed in 1966.  In 1970, he moved on to a highly successful career in politics with the Indian National Congress.  He died on the 9th June 2009.

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