At the beginning of 1945, less than eight months remained before the final surrender of Japan. Those eight months, however, were to see some of the bitterest fighting of the war. Although the final outcome was no longer in doubt, when and how the conflict would end remained unclear. The American naval blockade of Japan, combined with a growing air offensive, was placing a serious strain on Japan’s economy. Yet any invasion of the Japanese home islands would most likely be drawn out and extremely costly in lives. There was also the danger that even with the capture of the home islands the war might not end, but continue interminably on the Asian mainland, where large numbers of Japanese troops occupied Korea, Manchuria, and the richest and most populous areas of China. While American forces in the Pacific had been making dramatic progress since early 1942, the Allied effort in the China-Burma-India theater had bogged down in a morass of conflicting national objectives. The hope Americans held in the early stages of the war, that Chinese manpower and bases would play a vital role in the defeat of Japan, was unrealized. Americans sought to achieve great aims on the Asian mainland at small cost, looking to the British in India and the Chinese, with their vast reservoirs of manpower, to carry the main burden of the ground conflict. Neither proved capable of exerting the effort the Americans had hoped.
Early in 1942 Lt Gen Joseph W. Stilwell arrived in the Far East to command American forces in what became the China-Burma-India theater and to serve as chief of staff and principal adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the political and military leader of Nationalist China. Stilwell’s mission was to improve the efficiency of Chiang’s army, which had been fighting the Japanese since 1937, and to keep China in the war. But the Japanese conquest of Burma later in 1942 cut the last overland supply route to China and frustrated Stilwell’s plans. The flow of supplies to Chiang’s armies thereafter depended on a long and difficult airlift over the high peaks of the Himalayas from northeast India to the main logistical base at Kunming in southwestern China. Stilwell thought, as did the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the first order of business was to retake Burma and reopen the land supply line to China. To realize that goal, he undertook the equipping and training of Chinese troops in India, the “X Force,” that eventually would grow to five divisions. In the meantime, he sought to concentrate an even larger force in southwest China, the “Y Force” of twenty-five Chinese divisions. If both X and Y Forces could be given offensive capabilities, a joint operation between them could squeeze the Japanese out of northern Burma and reopen the land line to Kunming.
Stilwell’s hopes for the northern Burma offensive were part of a larger Allied plan for the reconquest of Burma. Although the overall design was approved by the US and British Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the limited resources available to the theater discouraged immediate action. Moreover, Maj Gen Claire L. Chennault of “Flying Tigers” fame, then commanding the recently formed US 14-USAAF in China, urged that the “Hump” air line should be used to support his air force, rather than to supply Chinese ground forces. At the Trident Conference in May 1943, US and British leaders approved a new plan that stressed Chennault’s air operations while agreeing to conduct a limited ground offensive in central and northern Burma, which would include the construction of a new road from India to join with the trace of the old Burma Road inside China.
Logistic difficulties in India, however, delayed the opening of any land offensive and kept the Hump airlift well below target figures. The land line ran from the Indian port of Calcutta 400 miles northeast to the British front near Imphal and then extended another 200 miles north to the Chinese X Force near Ledo. Lack of trained manpower and construction supplies delayed completion of the new supply route, the so-called Ledo Road, which extended on into Burma. Until the initial sections of the Ledo Road were completed, both air and ground operations against the Japanese in northern Burma were severely handicapped.
Undaunted, Stilwell pushed two Chinese X Force divisions from Ledo toward Myitkyina, some 175 miles to the southeast, in October 1943. The advance was to be part of a larger offensive planned for early 1944 with the British 14th Army attacking east from Imphal in India and the Chinese Y Force attacking west astride the old Burma Road toward the China-Burma border, all under the overall direction of Vice Adm Lord Louis Mountbatten heading the new Southeast Asia Command.
Anticipating the Allied offensive, the Japanese Burma Area Army commander, Lt Gen Masakazu Kawabe, struck first. In March 1944 he launched a major offensive into India with his 15th Army of about 100,000 veteran troops, while a newly organized 33d Army attempted to check both Stilwell’s advance and that of the Chinese Y Force, which had begun moving forward astride the Burma Road toward the Burmese border. The Japanese attacks initially met with great success, forcing Lt Gen William J. Slim to postpone his own plans in a desperate defense of the Indian frontier. However, by July Kawabe’s forces were severely overextended and generally exhausted, allowing the Allies to retake the initiative on all fronts. Slim’s offensive now began in earnest, and it continued throughout the rainy season, ultimately resulting in the destruction of the Japanese 15th Army and the reconquest of central Burma. But even before his forces had begun driving east, Stilwell’s attack produced results. Spearheading his attack was a recently formed American unit led by Brig Gen Frank A. Merrill and known as Merrill’s Marauders. Moving in advance of the cautious X Force Chinese divisions, Merrill’s Marauders, code-named Galahad, had managed to seize their main objective, the airfield at Myitkyina in northern Burma. However, Japanese troops clung to portions of the town itself, and the American troops, their effectiveness worn away by battle casualties, disease, and fatigue, were unable to root them out until August.
By the time Myitkyina in northern Burma was secured and the British advance through central Burma well advanced, Allied success in the Pacific had greatly diminished the importance of both the Burma and the China theaters of operations. The subsequent successful invasion of the Philippines promised a surer and faster route to Japan than through the Asian mainland. Although American hopes for at least a major air campaign against Japan from the Chinese mainland never completely faded, the continued difficulties in supplying such an effort, and the series of Japanese ground offensives in 1944 that overran most of the newly constructed American airfields in central China, made such projections extremely unlikely. In fact, the last US heavy bombers left China in January 1945, eventually ending up on Saipan, about 1,500 miles south of Tokyo, where the major American strategic bombing offensive against the Japanese home islands was being mounted.
Meanwhile, throughout the summer of 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt had been urging Chiang Kai-shek to place all of his US-supported armies under the command of Gen Stilwell. Chiang, not unexpectedly, refused and asked for Stilwell’s recall, a request that the president honored. In October 1944, Maj Gen Albert C. Wedemeyer replaced Stilwell as chief of staff to Chiang and commander of American forces in the China theater. At the same time, a separate theater in India and Burma was created with Lt Gen Daniel I. Sultan, formerly Stilwell’s deputy, as its commanding general. In China the command issue was dropped, and the American strategy became simply one of trying to realize at least something from previous investments without additional commitments. In Burma, however, the Allied counteroffensive continued, despite the greatly diminished strategic importance of this remote subtheater.
During the second half of 1944, the Japanese retreat in Burma continued unabated, with only rearguard actions punctuating an otherwise steady withdrawal. In October the Japanese Imperial High Command in Tokyo changed the Burma Area Army’s mission from preventing the resumption of Allied land communications from India to China to holding southern Burma. Although concerned that the Allies might move through Burma to attack Thailand and Malaya, Tokyo indicated that the Burma Area Army should not count on receiving additional forces. It would have to make do with its existing strength, which in November 1944 was about 100,000 combat troops with 60,000 more troops in the rear area. To hold southern Burma, Gen Hoyotaro Kimura, who had replaced Kawabe as the commander of the Burma Area Army, chose to make a determined stand along a generally east-west line about 350-430 miles north of Rangoon. The 28th Army held the western part of the line near the coastal town of Akyab. The remnants of the 15th Army covered the center around Mandalay, along the Irrawaddy River, about 250 miles southeast of Imphal. The 33d Army protected the eastern flank near the town of Lashio about 130 miles northeast of Mandalay and 170 miles south of Myitkyina. Kimura decided not to defend farther north, reasoning that the Allies’ supply problems would become more difficult as they advanced southward, while his own logistical difficulties would lessen as he drew nearer his rear bases.
While the Burma Area Army prepared its defenses, Mountbatten again reorganized the Southeast Asia Command for the final campaign to retake Burma. Lt Gen Sir Oliver Leese, who formerly commanded the British Eighth Army in Italy, became the overall commander of Allied land forces. In addition, Leese would exercise direct command of the newly formed 11th Army Group, comprising Slim’s 14th Army and the independent British 15th Corps. He would also coordinate operations conducted by Sultan’s Northern Combat Area Command and all units from the Chinese Y Force, now known as the Chinese Expeditionary Force, that crossed into Burma from China.
The Allied plan to recapture Burma, called Operation Capital, called for the 14th Army to strike southeast to the Irrawaddy River and capture Mandalay, while the 15th Corps contained Japanese forces along the coast in southwest Burma. Meanwhile in northern Burma, the Northern Combat Area Command and the Chinese Expeditionary Force, after reopening the land route between India and China, were to advance through Lashio on to Mandalay by mid February, the peak of the dry season. Were additional troops to be made available, Mountbatten would use them to launch a sea and airborne assault on Rangoon (Operation Dracula). If they were not forthcoming, then the 14th Army would have to continue its attack south to take the Burmese capital before the start of the rainy season in May.
At the beginning of 1945, Sultan’s Northern Combat Area Command, in addition to administrative and supply organizations, contained several large combat units. These included the American trained and equipped 30th, 38th, and 50th Chinese Divisions; the British 36th Division, on loan from the Fourteenth Army; and the recently activated American 5332d Brigade (Provisional), a long-range penetration unit. The 5332d Brigade, also known as the MARS Task Force, had three regiments. One contained the survivors of Merrill’s Marauders, which had been reorganized, brought up to strength with replacements from the United States, and redesignated the 475th Infantry Regiment. Another was the 124th Cavalry Regiment, a dismounted former National Guard unit from Texas functioning as infantry. The third, considered to be an elite unit, was the US trained and US equipped 1st Chinese Regiment (Separate). Against increasing resistance from the Japanese 33d Army, Sultan’s forces moved south from Myitkyina with the British 36th Division to the west, the Chinese 50th Division in the center, and the 30th and 38th Chinese Divisions along with the Mars Task Force on the east. At the same time, the Chinese Expeditionary Force drove west toward the town of Wanting on the China-Burma border. Although the 33d Army’s defensive positions along the border separated the two converging forces, the Japanese were greatly outnumbered and no match for Sultan’s men. By late January the Japanese 33d Army was forced back, Wanting was captured, and the land route to China was restored to Allied control.
5332d Brigade (Prov) Mars Task Force
By Ralph E. Raird
The 5332d Brigade (Prov) was activated on 26 July 1944. It soon came to be known as Mars Task Force. It was designed as a Long Range Penetration Force and training, equipment, and organization were all directed toward this end. The following narrative report is submitted. Staff and unit histories and technical reports are submitted under separate cover.
Mars was able to profit by the experience of Wingate’s Raiders and Merrill’s Marauders in Burma jungle operations. The leaven of veteran jungle fighters was mixed with the freshness of volunteers and the assignment of the 124th Cavalry Regiment. A triangular plan was envisioned and in many ways Mars Task Force was truly a Division, consisting of the 475th Infantry, 124th Cavalry (Sp), and 1st Chinese Regiment, Sep. The latter had been a Mortar Regiment until converted by Mars to an Infantry Regiment. The Cavalry Regiment had a long history of mounted Cavalry and was converted by MARS to Cavalry dismounted, with the functions and employment of an Infantry Regiment. The 475th Infantry was organized by Mars and given official status as a numbered Infantry Regiment by the War Dept. The Brigade itself was organized as a Provisional unit.
At no time was Brigade permitted to employ the 1st Chinese Regiment, Sep. in any tactical operations. To have been able to use this regiment would have increased the striking power of the Brigade considerably. Although the Namhpakka – Hosi Campaign is considered highly successful, another regiment would have permitted the use of either the 475th Infantry or the 124th Cavalry to swing southward or eastward in a Brigade encirclement of the enemy. It was impossible to do so under the circumstances, for to use one or two Battalion Combat Teams for this purpose would have jeopardized not only such a small striking force but also the holding force. The series of commanding terrain features were such that had they been left open by any Battalion Combat Team it would have been an open invitation to the Japs to surround and destroy the Brigade piecemeal. The 1st Chinese Regiment, later attached to the 50th Division, and committed, demonstrated its ability, and climaxed it campaign by securing Kyaukme and linking with the 36th Division (British). This closed an East-West line, Mong Yai-Hsipaw – Kyaukme – Monglong-Mo-Gok. The British were thus placed in a position to turn to the Southwest to join with the forces of the 14th Army, to establish the line, Mong Yai-Hsipaw – Kyaukme – Namyo – Mandalay, to terminate the conquest of Northern and North Central Burma. The Brigade component committed in the Tonkwa-Mo Hlaing sector (475th Infantry) broke Jap opposition in that area and permitted the 50th Division to move in and occupy the area, thence to move southward to play its part in establishing the line mentioned above.
Upon completion of the action at Tonkwa, the Brigade turned to the East and thrust deep into enemy territory to strike the Namhkam – Lashio Burma Road axis, at Namhpakka. The swiftness of movement gained surprise, and the viciousness of attack removed the keystone of the sector. The blow inflicted by MARS at this point caused the enemy to withdraw rapidly below Lashio and allowed the New First Army (Chinese) to move almost unopposed south of Lashio, screening against counter-attack and forcing the enemy a safe distance from the Stilwell Road. Brigade was held in the Namhi’Akka area to be passed through by New First Army. Hence, Mars could not further exploit its own successes. Here contact was broken, and friendly forces belatedly grasped the advantage gained, fulfilling its orders in a virtual road march.
The training period of Mars as a Brigade was unusually short. One year is considered the normal training period for a division. Further, all of the Brigade Infantry units, as noted before, had to be either organized (475th Infantry) or converted (124th Cavalry, 1st Chinese Regiment, Sep). Throughout tactical operations, the 612th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk) and the 613th Field Artillery Battalion (Pk) acquitted themselves with distinction. This was accomplished with the sole aid of 75-MM Pack Artillery, constantly opposed by much heavier and longer range enemy weapons (105-MM and 150-MM). The basic intention of Field Artillery – to displace enemy artillery from hostile fire positions against our forces – could not be accomplished by range and striking power. However, in the long run, this was satisfactorily accomplished by attrition and by slow but effective destruction of enemy armament and materiel, as well as by disorganization and damage to motor parks, fuel dumps, warehouses and CP’s (brought within range by the selection of objective). Inability to force earlier displacement of enemy artillery resulted in numerous Brigade casualties.
To reach Brigade objectives, many difficulties previously believed to be well nigh impossible were overcome. That men, mules, and fighting equipment can be moved during the monsoons over mountainous Burma jungle trails was indicated. Three days of torrential rain, known as the Christmas monsoons came during this movement. Trails became running streams of water; narrow paths lacing the edges of the mountain ranges became slippery deathtraps. Necessarily, some mule loads were thrown and animals plunged headlong off trails, but approximately 3000 mules and 7000 men performed the entire movement with the loss of no more than three mule loads. Often mules were hoisted by rope and the load recovered in the same manner. It is a signal tribute to the mule leaders who so successfully nursed their hardy charges through these difficulties. Although previous training of the mules had been along herding principles, the Brigade system of a mule leader to each mule paid rich dividends. Perimeter defense was securely established each night and wide reconnaissance patrols kept active.
In the movement from Nansin to Namhpakka, topography was unfavorable. Forbidding ranges were traversed. Above the Schweli River these were sometimes so exhausting as to permit only one or two minutes of moving, followed by five minutes of rest. Terrain permitted, for example, one day’s move of only 3-1/2 miles. A reasonable time table was nonetheless maintained. Despite hardships, upon arrival of the objective the Brigade attacked without delay with high combat efficiency. Although the popular picture of Burma warfare is portrayed by steaming jungles, elevations as great as 8000 feet were surmounted. On three successive days of fair weather, water froze in canteens and helmets. These extremes in climate did not result in illness to the troops even though but one blanket and poncho per man constituted the entire bedding. Fires were out of the question for wandering groups of Japs were always a threat. Mules survived almost 100% and arrived in excellent condition. As distance traveled increased, the ratio of soldier march fractures went up. Men who otherwise would have remained effective under shorter overall distance, found their metatarsal arches breaking down and a high percentage of such casualties had to be evacuated.
At times evacuation difficulties were a cause of deep concern to the entire command. Air Liaison could not function. No motor roads were available. Natives had vanished, were unemployable, or were fell untrustworthy for this work. Animals were prime loaded with necessary loads and also unsuitable for evacuation. The line of communications was vulnerable to ambush and blockade by the enemy. It was necessary to withhold a Rifle Company to escort and carry through evacuees for a period of four days. Evacuation at this time was to MONG WI where a Liaison plane strip served evacuation to the rear. Hemmed in as this strip was by rough mountains, the burden of evacuation was heavy. On several occasions, evacuation parties were able to come within one mile of this strip and unable to reach it before night fall. It is considered a benevolent stroke of good fortune that evacuees were brought in without exception. When ordered out for a conference, the CG 5332d Brigade (Prov) covered in a forced mule back ride of one day, the distance traveled by the foot elements in three days marching. Traveling mounted with a single companion reduced the number of obstacles that confronted mass movement.
Although one blanket and poncho provided the only protection against bitterly cold nights, substantial weight was thereby added to the individual pack. No instances of pack paralysis occurred. However, the weight of the pack is considered a contributing factor to march fractures. To accomplish Long Range Penetration, it was necessary for each man to carry essential items. These were stripped to the minimal by such measures as having each individual carry a spoon and the top of the meat can, in some instance only a spoon and canteen cup. Two canteens were necessary for all water had to be boiled or treated before consumption. Rations, jungle kit, machete, jungle knife, individual weapons and ammunition had to be man carried as well as shoes, clothing and toilet articles. Compasses were carried by all. Mule loads, such as guns and signal equipment sometimes amounted to 350 pounds. Green fatigues and combat boots, or GI shoes with leggings proved satisfactory as a jungle uniform. Jungle boots were generally used for relief. Helmets were worn except in certain night patrolling. Throughout the movements, air drop was the only source of rations and other resupply. No more than three days rations could be carried. The country seldom offered fair air drop sites, and frequently a high percentage of the drops was impossible to recover in precipitous wooded areas.
To accomplish the Brigade mission of cutting the Burma Road at Namhpakka, it was necessary to seize extensive battalion objectives. The controlling features were independent broad hills and high ranges. To leave one unoccupied was to leave the enemy in a commanding position. Loi Kang Ridge, for example, extended approximately two miles in length, rising between the long valley on the west and open stretch of the Burma Road on the east. No cover or defiles existed on this sector of the Burma Road. The Japs were well entrenched on Loi kang Ridge and held two villages (Loi Kang and Man Sak) which nestled high in its wooded recesses. Only surprise and a quickly prosecuted attack by the second battalion upon its reaches could have ousted the enemy. The attack had to be made up sheer walls and basic tactics of fire and movement wrenched this ground from enemy hands. Gaining the northern crest it was necessary for this battalion to turn south and fight down the axis of the range, yard by yard driving the enemy back until another battalion (1/475-IR) had seized its objectives and organized the ground. This battalion then executed a limited encirclement of the Loi Kang enemy forces. Thereafter, the 2/475-IR was secure upon the ridge, enemy forces having been killed or forced to decamp. A trail along the only passage down this range had 80 individual pillboxes in a 100-yard area that had to be cleaned out. Continuous enemy counter-attacks were pressed. The 1/475 had to be withdrawn immediately after its participation in this attack to protect the hill features it had secured to the west of Loi Kang Ridge.
During this operation each Battalion Combat Team had its hands full with its respective objective, all being high ground features commanding the road. Continuously, however, ambushes, combat patrols, roadblocks, automatic weapons fire, mines and artillery were used on the road by all battalions and squadrons. Even before the heights were fully taken, the enemy situation had become such that in his withdrawal from the north he had to cease all day movement over the road : soon all night movement. The equipment and troops he was able to extricate from the north had to go over the network of roads previously constructed well east of the Burma Road and out of range of Mars fire power. Many of his wounded, and perhaps many of his dead, were taken southward toward Lashio through the corridors east of the Burma Road. Disregarding enemy numbers not confirmed as killed, a ratio of six and one half Japs to one American was established. During these operations, the only equipment to fall into enemy hands was one small radio set. It is possible, but not confirmed, that one American prisoner was taken. One 75-MM piece suffered a direct hit and three others were damaged, but replacement parts put these guns in action on the succeeding day. Both air drop supply of all classes and Liaison plane evacuation of the wounded were under enemy fire throughout this campaign. Air currents were treacherous and inadequate Liaison strips were all that could be devised. Little malaria existed, except recurrences of earlier contraction. Precautions against typhus and dysentery; as well as malaria, were constantly impressed, but some inevitably was suffered. Only one latent neurosis developed. Mules were controllable in proximity to hostile and friendly fire. Bamboo cutting made nutritious provender when the tactical situation prevented loose grazing.
During the campaign Mars introduced to combat use, the night sighting devices known as Snooperscopes and Sniperscopes. These were received in the midst of operations and hasty acquaintance with the instruments was all that could be had. Tactics were established for the use of these on the ground. At the conclusion of this campaign, Mars was a well-knit and experienced force, all elements having undergone combat, new techniques devised, lessons learned, morale high, leadership seasoned.
Against increasing resistance from the Japanese 33d Army, Sultan’s forces moved south from Myitkyina with the British 36th Division to the west, the Chinese 50th Division in the center, and the 30th and 38th Chinese Divisions along with the Mars Task Force on the east. At the same time, the Chinese Expeditionary Force drove west toward the town of Wanting on the China-Burma border. Although the 33d Army’s defensive positions along the border separated the two converging forces, the Japanese were greatly outnumbered and no match for Sultan’s men. By late January the Japanese 33d Army was forced back, Wanting was captured, and the land route to China was restored to Allied control.
Source : www.cbi-history.com
Accompanied by press and public relations personnel, engineers, and military police, the first convoy pushed off for China from Ledo on 12 January 1945. After being delayed by fighting en route, the vehicles rolled triumphantly into Kunming on 4 February. The opening of the Ledo – Burma Road, soon to be redesignated the Stilwell Road by Chiang Kai-shek, forged the last link in the chain of land communications between Calcutta and Kunming, a distance of more than 2,000 miles. By July, gasoline also would be pumped through a pipeline constructed from Ledo to Kunming, 928 miles away, paralleling the Stilwell Road. Sultan next considered how to deal with the Japanese forces in north central Burma, who were still near enough to disrupt road traffic moving into China, as well as to threaten the flank and rear of British forces now driving into central Burma. Believing that a threat to the Japanese supply line, the old Burma Road which ran from the Chinese border south to Lashio and Mandalay, would result in Japanese withdrawal, Sultan ordered Brig Gen John P. Willey, the Mars Task Force commander, into action. He wanted the Mars force, less the 1st Chinese Regiment, which was held in reserve, to move overland around the Japanese defenses and cut the road near the village of Ho-si, about thirty miles south of Wanting. Willey’s projected route was suitable for resupply by air, long recognized as the key to success while operating behind enemy lines, but the overall plan had disadvantages. In the objective area, the Burma Road was not easily severed, since it was beyond machine gun range from the ridge paralleling the road on the west and secondary roads existed in the hills to the east, providing the enemy with an alternative line of communication. Nevertheless, Willey’s troops executed their part of the operation, reaching the vicinity of the Burma Road on Jan 17.
While Willey’s Mars soldiers took up position, Sultan pushed the battle-hardened Chinese against the Japanese 33d Army’s 56th Division, which was holding defensive positions south of Wanting. The Chinese 38th Division moved southeast, astride the old Burma road, while the Chinese 30th Division struck out across country, swinging south and east toward the road about ten miles north of Ho-si. Farther south and west, the Chinese 50th and the British 36th Divisions continued moving south toward the road between Lashio and Mandalay, an area held by the 33d Army’s 18th Division. The 56th Division’s commander, Lt Gen Yuzo Matsuyama, recognized his perilous situation. Obviously the immediate threat came from the north and northwest. But should Sultan’s command, which Matsuyama placed at 6 divisions, be seconded by the entire Chinese Expeditionary Force of 14 divisions crossing into Burma from the east, his 20,000 men would be vastly outnumbered. When a large air drop of supplies came in for the Mars Force, the Japanese mistakenly thought that an airborne force was being landed. Convinced that he would soon be cut off, Matsuyama informed the 33d Army’s commander, Lt Gen Masaki Honda, that his situation was critical and that he planned to destroy the bulk of his ammunition and abandon his present positions.
Honda, however, viewed Matsuyama’s situation differently. He instructed Matsuyama to defend in place until casualties and ammunition could be evacuated. Then he sent two motor transport companies, about forty vehicles loaded with gasoline, to join the 56th Division and assist in its final withdrawal. Encouraged by additional supplies, Matsuyama evacuated most of his casualties and several tons of ammunition before parts of the Chinese 30th and 38th Divisions blocked passage on the road north of Ho-si on January 29. That night a sudden and violent banzai charge against the roadblock quickly overran the Chinese position. When the Chinese made no move to reestablish the block, Matsuyama began a retreat after dark on January 31, almost in front of Chinese and American forces massed west of that section of the Burma Road. The move was both delicate and risky, but Japanese troops successfully completed their withdrawal by February 4.
At this juncture, Allied inaction was puzzling. Willey had positioned his two largely untried American regiments near Ho-si. There, rather than occupy a blocking position squarely astride the Burma Road and risk taking heavy casualties, he limited his effort mainly to interdicting the road with artillery and mortar fire. His infantrymen had dug in along a ridge about a mile and a half west of the road, with the 124th Cavalry Regiment to the north and the 475th Infantry Regiment to the south. Since arriving in the area on January 17, they had experienced several small engagements with enemy forces and had managed to disrupt traffic on the road to their east, although the Japanese fuel convoy had managed to reach Matsuyama’s troops to the north. In fact, Willey’s men remained unaware that Japanese forces were withdrawing from the area using the trails and roads east of the main highway.
On February 2, the 124th Cavalry attacked what was thought to be a Japanese battalion entrenched on the high ground near the village of Hpa-pen, about a mile and a quarter northeast of the regiment’s foxholes. Willey believed that the capture of this position would make it easier for the 124th to stop Japanese traffic along the Burma Road. Unknown to the Americans, however, the Japanese eastern bypass around the Burma Road in front of the position of the Mars Task Force began near Hpa-pen and was strongly defended. After a twenty minute artillery and mortar preparation, the 2d Squadron of the 124th Cavalry moved out at 0620 toward Hpa-pen with Troops E and F abreast and Troop G in the rear. As Troop F moved up a rough trail, its commander, 1/Lt Jack L. Knight, was well out in front when two Japanese suddenly appeared, Knight killed them both. Crossing the hill to the reverse slope, the troop commander found a cluster of Japanese emplacements. Calling up his men, he led them in a successful grenade attack. When the Japanese, who seemed to have been surprised, steadied and began inflicting heavy casualties, Knight kept his attack organized and under control. Although half blinded by grenade fragments, bleeding heavily, and having seen his brother Curtis shot down while running to his aid, Knight fought on until he was killed leading an attack on a Japanese emplacement. For this action, 1/Lt Knight received the Medal of Honor posthumously, the only Medal of Honor awarded in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II.
With resistance heavy on Troop F’s front and with Troop E fighting off strong counterattacks, the squadron commander committed his reserve, Troop G in mid morning. Advancing through the first line of Japanese bunkers, the reserve troop momentarily paused to direct artillery fire on a second enemy defense line to its front and then charged forward to carry the final Japanese position on the hill. When the fighting ended, the Americans held the high ground close to the road and reported killing over two hundred of the enemy. The 2d Squadron also had incurred many losses. Twenty-two of its soldiers were dead and another eighty-eight had to be evacuated on litters because of wounds.
The next day, the 475-IR, still positioned south of the cavalry regiment, attacked a Japanese position on a ridge near the village of Loi-kang about a mile west of the Burma Road. While the 2d Battalion moved north to fix the Japanese in position, the 1st Battalion, preceded by an extensive artillery and mortar barrage, struck from the south, eventually clearing that portion of the ridge of all enemy defenders at a cost of 2 killed and 15 wounded. But by this time, most of the Japanese had escaped to the south. During the next few days, patrol actions and artillery exchanges with the Japanese rear guard and stragglers grew fewer. By February 10 when Chinese forces arrived in the Mars area in strength, seeking to regain contact with the Japanese 56th Division, the enemy had long since passed through and was fifty miles away regrouping at Lashio.
To the west, General Sultan’s 50th Chinese and 36th British Divisions continued moving south toward the Burma Road between Lashio and Mandalay. In early February, the British came up against strong resistance from the Japanese 33d Army’s 18th Division. Fighting continued until February 25 when the 18th Division was ordered to move south to reinforce the 15th Army defending against General Slim’s 14th Army, which was closing in on Mandalay to the west. By the end of March, both the 50th Chinese and 36th British Divisions had reached the Burma Road east of Mandalay, where the 36th Division came under Slim’s Fourteenth Army control. While Sultan was clearing the Japanese from the northern stretch of the Burma Road, Slim’s 14th Army had continued to push the Japanese back in the center. The British 33rd Corps advanced southeastward until meeting stubborn resistance north of Mandalay in late January. Meanwhile, the British 4th Corps had slipped south undetected, and by February 19 had established a bridgehead on the Irrawaddy River about one hundred miles south of Mandalay. From there an armored column, completely supplied by air, smashed its way sixty miles eastward to capture the critical town of Meiktila and its cluster of eight airstrips. The drive to the east continued another twenty miles to the town of Thazi on the Mandalay – Rangoon railway, thereby cutting off some 30,000 Japanese troops to the north from their supplies and their best route of escape. The fighting around Meiktila and Thazi grew more severe as the Japanese Burma Area Army shifted troops from the Mandalay front southward and also rushed up reinforcements from southern Burma in an effort to reopen the route.
With the battered Japanese 15th Army fully occupied with the threat to its rear, the British 33rd Corps resumed its advance on Mandalay, which it reached late on March 7. However, because of stubborn Japanese resistance, the city was not cleared for two more weeks. The 33rd Corps then continued its push southward until encountering enemy resistance from the hastily summoned Japanese 33rd Army, about eighteen miles north of Thazi. Despite substantial losses, the enemy was able to hold open an escape gap until the end of March. Even so, a considerable number of Japanese troops were trapped when the corridor finally closed.
By the time that Mandalay fell, combat in Burma for the Mars Task Force, the Chinese Expeditionary Army, and the X Force had come to an end. In March the Chinese in Burma began to return to their homeland, and the Mars Task Force soon followed. Gen Wedemeyer, who had replaced Stilwell as the American commander in China, hoped to rebuild the Chinese armies using the Chinese divisions from Burma as a nucleus and the Marsmen as trainers and advisers. Using the revitalized Chinese units, he planned to fight his way to the coast by the fall of 1945. As for Gen Sultan in Burma, with all his regular combat units gone by June, he became concerned primarily with logistical support for the China theater. His only ground combat force available to continue the fight against the Japanese was Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Formed in 1942, Detachment 101 supported Stilwell’s, and later Sultan’s, Northern Combat Area Command as an intelligence-gathering unit and as an organization for assisting in the return of downed Allied airmen to friendly lines. By the spring of 1945, however, Detachment 101, commanded by Col William R. Peers, had organized a large partisan force behind enemy lines in northern and central Burma. Reaching a peak strength of over 10,000 native Burmese Kachin tribesmen and American volunteers, the detachment operated as mobile battalions screening the advance of British and Chinese forces moving on Mandalay and Lashio. Completely supported by air, they employed mainly hit-and-run tactics and avoided pitched battles against better trained troops.
Detachment 101 operations were scheduled to end after regular troops secured the Burma Road south of Lashio. Although the Kachin guerrillas, many hundreds of miles from home, were told that their work would be finished then and that they could return to their homes, when the time actually arrived, the situation had changed. The movement to China of the Chinese and American ground forces in Burma left the guerrillas as the only effective fighting force available to Sultan. Fifteen hundred Kachins volunteered to remain, and Peers was able to recruit an additional 1,500 Karen, Ghurka, Shan, Chinese, and a few Burmese volunteers. Dividing his 3,000-man partisan force into four battalions, he assigned operational sectors that extended from the Burma Road into southeast Burma for roughly 100 miles. Starting in April and extending into July 1945, Peers’ guerrilla units drove about 10,000 Japanese troops from this region. During that period all of the battalions saw heavy fighting. While most of the Japanese encountered were tired and poorly equipped, they habitually fought to the last man when pinned down. The partisans killed over 1,200 of the enemy at a cost of 300 of their own.
Overall, during Detachment 101’s tenure in Burma, its forces eliminated over 5,000 Japanese troops, assisted in rescuing over 300 downed Allied airmen, derailed 9 trains, blew up 56 bridges, destroyed 252 vehicles, and eliminated numerous dumps and other enemy installations. For Detachment 101’s superb performance, it was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. However, it played only a minor supporting role in the final, but decisive battle between the British 14th Army and the bulk of the Japanese Burma Area Army.
The battle for Burma entered its final stage on April 9 1945 when the 14th Army launched a two-pronged drive south down the Irrawaddy River, and the Sittang River, which flows parallel to the Irrawaddy about one hundred miles to the east. Led by armored columns that punched through thin crusts of resistance and bypassed more strongly held areas, the swift advance was convincing evidence that the enemy had spent himself in the Mandalay – Meiktila area and was incapable of defending lower Burma. Allied tanks, trucks, and guns poured south along the highway to Rangoon, covering 124 miles in a week. In the valley of the Irrawaddy River, strong resistance near Prome, about 150 miles north of Rangoon, temporarily delayed the advance as the enemy battled desperately to hold open an escape route for its troops west of the river. The evacuation of Rangoon had already begun, and by the end of April, no appreciable enemy force remained in that city. On May 2, within a few hours after paratroopers had been dropped, amphibious forces of the British 15th Corps landed at the mouth of the Rangoon River. Meeting only a small enemy rear guard, the troops proceeded up the river to Rangoon on the following day. On May 6, the 15th Corps linked up with advance elements of the 14th Army twenty miles north of the city. Heavy rains, precursors of the monsoon, flooded streams and retarded the remainder of Gen Slim’s forces advancing down the Irrawaddy corridor. Nearly another two weeks passed before the bulk of the 14th Army could join with the 15th Corps, northwest of Rangoon.
By then, Japanese forces in Burma were split into three groups : one division from the 28th Army still remained west of the Irrawaddy; the rest of the 28th Army was in the hills between the Irrawaddy and Sittang Rivers; and a third group, composed of remnants of the 15th and 33d Armies, was generally east of the Sittang River. The remaining months of the war saw repeated and violent attacks by the Japanese in the two pockets west of the Sittang to open an escape route to the east. The arrival of the monsoon in Burma and the desperate attempts of the surrounded Japanese forces to break through the British cordons prevented any large-scale British advance east of the Sittang. By June 18, the Japanese pockets had shrunk, and by August, the Japanese 28th Army had ceased to exist. During the fifteen-month period of the Japanese Imphal campaign and the Allied counteroffensive, 97,000 enemy dead had been counted. The fighting on the main front in Burma ended when Japan surrendered to the Allies in August. But for several weeks afterward, isolated groups of the enemy, unaware of the cessation of hostilities, continued to give battle. The formal capitulation of all Japanese armed forces in southeastern Asia, including those in Burma, finally took place at Singapore on September 12 1945.