Remembering the Forgotten Front

A look at the Burma campaign, through the eyes of local veteran Jim Ashworth

Invermere residents may have been particularly aware of lead-up to Remembrance Day this year, with the faces of local veterans gazing down at the town’s main street from the red banners hanging from light posts.

The visages come as part of the community’s first Honour Our Veterans banner project, but astute locals may have already noticed that one of the Valley’s most well-known veterans, Jim Ashworth, is not on the banners. As he told the Pioneer, Mr. Ashworth is content not to be memorialized with a banner while he’s still alive. But that doesn’t mean Remembrance Day is any less meaningful for him.

Every year Mr. Ashworth lays a wreath in honour of comrades and friends lost while serving in the Royal Canadian Air Force as part of Allied efforts in the Burma campaign during the Second World War.

Many Canadians are quite familiar with the history of the war on the Western front, the Eastern front, during the Italian campaign, and in the Asian-Pacific theatre. This is perhaps due in no small part to the extensiveness of Canadian involvement on the Western front and in the Italian campaign, coupled with the considerable amount of literature, movies and documentaries covering the events of the Western and Eastern fronts, and the events of the Asian-Pacific theatre (such as the bombing of Pearl Harbour, and the atomic bombing of Japan).

But the war stretched almost right across the globe and Canadians saw action in a number of other theatres and fronts of the war, many of which are not as deeply ingrained in Canada’s national consciousness as the aforementioned ones, but all of which were important. Many war time history buffs label the Burma campaign (known to some Allied countries as the China Burma India theatre) as perhaps the most significant of these, and it is frequently referred to as the Forgotten Front.

The campaign saw heavy action in areas of the Bay of Bengal in what is present day Burma, Bangladesh and northeastern India (all of which were administered as part of British India at the time), as well as in adjacent areas of China (in present day Yunnan province. Allied forces, British colonial (including many African, as well as Burmese and Indian) forces and Republican Kuomintang forces in China were pitted against the Japanese (who quickly captured Burma and sought to push on the rest of British India and Thailand. The latter two were aided by the Burmese Independence Army (a nationalist military seeking the end of colonial rule in Burma), and the Indian National Army/Azad Hind (a political and military movement opposed to British rule in India, supported by the Japanese, and formed largely of Burmese, Malaysian and Singaporean residents of Indian heritage, along with disaffected British colonial officers of Indian heritage).

Operations in the theatre were further complicated by the alliance in China between the Communist People’s Liberation Army and the Republican Kuomintang having fractured just a couple years prior, reigniting the Chinese civil war even as both Chinese forces simultaneously yet separately fought the Japanese. The Burma campaign involved many figures who would go on to become household names, including Admiral Louis Mountbatten, General Joe ‘Vinegar’ Stilwell (so nicknamed for his caustic personality), Chinese generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, and Aung Sun, often called the father of modern day Burma. Later the theatre expanded to include much of what is now Southeast Asia.

Conditions in the Burma campaign were trying in the extreme, as those involved dealt with rugged, remote hill country draped in impenetrable rainforest, thick-to-the-point-of-impassible mud, swollen and raging rivers, torrid swamps, stifling humidity, and torrential downpours courtesy of the thunderous seasonal monsoons, which sometimes culminated in cyclones (the same meteorologic phenomenon is called a hurricane if it’s in the Atlantic, a typhoon in the Pacific, and a cyclone in the Indian Ocean).

Terrain and climate were only part of the challenge, however, as there were also snakes, spiders, scorpions, wild elephants, hordes of leeches, and untold numbers and varieties of biting insects to contend with. Tropical diseases such as typhoid fever, malaria and dengue were rife. In addition, opium smoking and smuggling were not uncommon in large swaths of the hill country, and many areas were populated by fiercely independent ethnic groups, some of which occasionally practiced headhunting into the mid 1900s.

It was through this inhospitable setting that hundreds of thousands of British and Indian civilians made an epic and brutal weeks-to-months-long retreat on foot, following the fall of Burma to Japan in the spring of 1942 (which essentially marked the start of the Burma campaign), walking hundreds of harrowing kilometres, often with little more than the clothes on their backs, from Burma into Assam on a handful of mud track routes later given epithets such as the Road of Death and the Valley of , with tens of thousands perishing en route.

Sidenote:

(Riveting recounting of the retreat to Assam here:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/dunkirk-of-the-east-how-thousands-of-brits-travelled-the-road-of-death-in-burma-7566790.html )

Forces on both sides of the Burma campaign (and war time campaigns in the Southwest Pacific theatre — encompassing Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines and New Guinea — as well as in the Vietnamese war of independence against the French, the Malay Insurgency, and the Indonesian war of independence against the Dutch, which all sprung up in the war’s immediate aftermath) engaged fiercely in tropical Asian rainforest warfare, a couple decades before the Vietnam war cemented the complex nature of such battles in popular consciousness.

Perhaps the most famous part of the Burma campaign, at least to Westerners, was the Flying Tigers, a unit of air force volunteers from south of the border, who engaged in daring missions, maintaining a lifeline to Kuomintang troops pinned down in the Chinese interior by flying supplies and equipment from British-held India to Yunnan, skirting Japanese-occupied Burma and going over ‘the Hump’. The Hump referred to the ragged mountains and hills, often incorrectly labelled as part of the Himalayas, separating Burma, India and China (the ranges comprising the Hump are geologically distinct from and a few hundred kilometres to the east of the Himalayas, although both ranges derive from the same tectonic action of the Indian subcontinent colliding with the rest of Asia some 40 million to 50 million years ago).

Mr. Ashworth, who participated in the Burma campaign from 1942 through 1944, was not part of the Flying Tigers (“I was on a different operation altogether,” he detailed) but as a pilot, his missions flying single-seater Hawker Hurricane planes as part of the Royal Airforce’s No. 20 Squadron in Burma, Bengal and northeast India, were every bit as demanding and treacherous.

The British 14th Army on the ground would supply the squadron information on prospective targets, which the No. 20 Squadron would try to hit. Coordination between the ground and air units was vital.

“Most of the time we were doing day strikes on objectives on rivers and roads, but you could never really see what you were hitting, because the jungle was so thick,” Mr. Ashworth told the Pioneer. “We were limited to day flights in hurricanes, partly because when you want to land, the backlash from your tail disturbs your approach, which makes night flying really tricky.”

He and his fellow squadron members flew plenty of missions over the Kaladan River (which begins in present day Mizoram state in India and then flows south through the western Chin and Rakhine states of Burma, and is currently the fifth largest river catchment in the world without any sort of dam), which was controlled by the Japanese.

“There was a lot of river traffic. A lot of times our targets were Japanese steamers, but the Japanese would take them to the side of the river and hide under the jungle hanging over the banks,” said Mr. Ashworth. “You had to be careful, because the Japanese would hang steel cables across the river to catch your plane if you were flying low.”

Mr. Ashworth lost four friends on such missions, and it is these friends he honours by laying a wreath at the Invermere cenotaph each Remembrance Day.

“I was lucky, I was never hit. But you never knew. People were always shooting at you,” he said.

The No. 20 Squadron was based on the coast south of Chittagong (in present day Bangladesh).

“It was a nice strip, right on the beach,” recalled Mr. Ashworth. “When the Japanese were bombing Chittagong, we would pull the planes back through the dunes into the jungle to hide them.”

Today the area is part of Cox’s Bazar, which at 150 unbroken kilometres is the world’s longest saltwater beach, and is Bangladesh’s most popular tourist destination.

The situation in the mid 1940s, however, was much different, with squadron members living in simple bamboo huts called bashes.

“It was rough, frugal living. There were no luxuries such as sheets or linens. We bathed outside in a tub. On some missions, you’d be living for seven days on six days worth of rations. But that was wartime,” said Mr. Ashworth. “No matter what though, I always thought the army guys had it really tough compared to us air force guys. They were stuck deep in forests, up to their waists in mud sometimes, constantly on the look out for snakes, spiders and scorpions.

‘We (the Air Force) had scorpions too, down on the beach, and centipedes. But you just shook them out of your sandals in the morning. It was part of living there,” he said. “And termites. If termites get into bamboo, it doesn’t last long. So when you heard them getting into your bash, you knew you had to get ready to move soon.”

He recalled that at one point wild elephants knocked over all the bashes.

In a horrible echo of that incident, wild elephants in almost the exact same region (which has been the focus of media attention this year as the site which Rohingya, an ethnic minority group from Burma, fled across the Bangladesh/Burma border in order to escape persecution at the hands of the Burmese military) made headlines less than a month ago when they trampled several Rohingya refugees to death.

“The climatic conditions were always a factor. You’d get mountainous masses of dark black clouds (and tremendous thunderstorms) with the monsoon. If you were flying you’d see them (the mountains of black clouds) right in front of you. They would be 35,000 feet (10,000 metres), maybe 40,000 feet (12,000 metres) high. There was no way you could go through them. And they were too big to go around, they stretched as far wide east to west as they did high,” said Mr. Ashworth. “When that happened, you’d just have to land and sit tight until it passed and you could go again. It hampered a lot of operations.”

Every now and again a cyclone would hit the beach where No. 20 Squadron was based, and some of them were powerful enough that they created visible spouts of water coming out of the Bay of Bengal, which actually picked fish up out of the sea and deposited them inland.

“When the monsoon came, we often had to hold off on our missions, and go do further training in the interior of India, which wasn’t being hit by the monsoon,” said Mr. Ashworth. At these training camps, it was Mr. Ashworth who was put in charge of entertainment, using a connection with somebody involved in film production in Bombay (now Mumbai, home of Bollywood) to get movies flown in.

“We had to have a bit of fun on our time off,” he said, adding that in the evenings, the crews keep cool by using a punkah, a large rattan mat, hung from the ceiling, and swung back and forth (to create a fan-like breeze) through a system of ropes and pulley stretching out a large open window, and turned by the foot of a person outside.

As the campaign progressed, instead of flying east to the Kaladan and other rivers, Mr. Ashworth and other No. 20 Squadron members flew bombing and resupply missions north to Imphal (the capital of the modern day Indian state of Manipur). Imphal, at the bottom of a valley, was by spring 1944 surrounded on all sides by Japanese forces, who were pressing in aggressively and laid siege to the city from March through July that year. An identical siege was unfolding not too far north near Kohima (capital of the modern day Indian state of Nagaland) on the Kohima Ridge (along which ran the main road connecting Kohima to Imphal). Flights by the No. 20 Squadron and others were possible only because the Allies had the edge in the air, but on the ground the Allies were initially badly outflanked by the Japanese.

“The Imphal airport was pretty busy,” said Mr. Ashworth. “You would be on three-week missions and you’d carry in as many non-perishable rations as you could.”

The Battle of Kohima (which lasted from April to June 1944) was particularly ferocious and bloody, and has been billed by historians as “the forgotten Stalingrad of the East” and was described by none other than Admiral Mountbatten as “probably one of the greatest battles in history… in effect the Battle of Burma… naked unparalleled heroism… the British Indian Thermophylae.” It ended when British and Indian forces, against large odds, repelled the Japanese and Indian National Army/Azad Hind soldiers from the ridge and marched south to meet their counterparts from Imphal, clearing the strategically important road between the towns. Not long after that, the Allies completely subdued the Imphal siege, and these two battles (Kohima and Imphal) are often cited as the turning point in the Burma campaign.

At one point, a grateful member of the 14th Army (the multinational British Commonwealth force stationed in Imphal and Kohima) donated a gunto, a traditional ceremonial Japanese military officer’s sword, taken from an enemy combatant, to Mr. Ashworth’s squadron for the squadron members’ help during the sieges.

The Japanese fell back after their defeats at Kohima and Imphal, having not only taken heavy casualties, but also suffering severely from the ravages of starvation and disease. The much weakened Japanese divisions, not aided at all by the defection of the entire Burmese Independence Army to the Allied side, were hard pressed to effectively resist when the Allies launched their own offensive a few months later, sweeping back into central Burma and then down to recapture Rangoon (now Yangon) in a matter of months, in late 1944 and early 1945, an effort that involved sticking to a rigorous timeline, as the whole operation needed to be complete before the monsoon set in.

But at that point Mr. Ashworth had already finished his involvement with the Burma campaign, having come down with malaria.

“It was right when they started going down to Rangoon, I got malaria,” he said. “When I first got it, I felt like a million dollars. Suddenly I got the shivers. I had to report to the hospital. Eventually I got rid of it, like I’d gotten rid of other tropical diseases, but that effectively was the end of it (the campaign) for me.”

Although the campaign, and indeed the whole war finished not long after, Mr. Ashworth’s air force career, which would eventually cover a full 25 years, was just beginning.

Not too long after his tour of operations on the Bay of Bengal, he ended up in the air force’s radar program, stationed in Tofino, among other places, before moving down south of the border to Colorado Springs as part of NORAD.

“Part of my responsibility was looking after the DEW line, (the Distant Early Warning line, a system of radar stations established during the Cold War far up in Canada’s high Arctic, Alaska, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands, meant to detect, identify and destroy any Soviet missiles, bombers or invasion coming across the Arctic),” he said.

As part of this work, Mr. Ashworth did end up flying through Canada’s extreme north once.

“There’s nothing but rock, ice, tundra and clear water. It was totally different than Burma, almost the exact opposite,” he recalled.

Mr. Ashworth retired from the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1965, and went on to many other endeavours, and admits that these days he doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. But every Remembrance Day, he recalls the friends he lost in Burma as he gently lays a wreath in their memory.

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