Friday, January 14, 2011

Ambushed on Ledo Road (1972)

Winding Ledo Road.
I WAS only 16 and wasn’t even a sworn-soldier yet when our training platoon of army recruits was ambushed by KIA (Kachin Independence Army) on the famous Ledo Road in mid 1972.

As an extension of Burma Road from Lashio in Burma to Kuming in China the Ledo Road was built by the US Army during the Second World War to supply China from India through northern Burma. The whole east coast of China then was under Japanese control and the Chan-kei-sheik’s besieged Government in Yunan survived mainly on the American supplies coming through the Ledo Road. 

We were on the Ledo road at about 20 miles south-west of Myitkyina to collect two truck loads of firewood for our Company’s kitchen. The normal household fuel kerosene was too expensive for the big kitchen of our mess and it had become one of our regular jobs almost every other week since the very week we brand new recruits were taught how to handle the German-designed locally-made G3 rifles.

Since the native Kachins used slash and burn shifting cultivation there were a lot of cleared fields filled with charred and fallen trees by the roadside within few hours drive from Myitkyina where our Infantry Battalion was stationed.

Basically what we had to do in a firewood detail were to arm ourselves to teeth, take a truck or two down the Ledo Road, park them roadside, walk into the hilly bush, locate good-size partly-burnt tree-trunks among the waist-high stumps, saw them into manageable lengths, and carry the logs on our shoulders back to the trucks.

Ledo Road and Burma Road (1942).
Extra meat ration and a can of sweetened-condensed-milk for everyone in the firewood detail was very attractive even for the back breaking job of carrying heavy logs on our shoulders up and down the hillocks back to the trucks waiting on the muddy Ledo Road. And we didn’t know that the local militiamen of KIA were eagerly watching our regular trips into their territory.

Every firewood detail was always led by the sergeant of our recruit Company. A veteran of twenty years our Sarge had an excellent nose for smelling the imminent danger. I was nearly two months in the battalion boot camp when Sarge picked our recruit platoon of twenty for another firewood detail. That was to be the day I would never be able to forget the rest of my life.  

On the Ledo Road

In the early morning well before dawn that day we had a breakfast of boiled-split-pea and sweet tea. We then collected our rifles and ammo from the battalion armoury and left town in two eleven tons Hino TE-11 trucks. All twenty of us led by our sergeant and one corporal were in good mood as we hadn’t been out of the battalion compound for nearly two months then.

The happy mood turned into a stinking fear after we stopped just before the jungle at the local army post which informed us that KIA was hot in the area we were heading. Sarge was noticeably worried but he decided to push ahead with the trip since we were fast running out of firewood. So we kept on driving deep over the hills covered with lush green forest.

Ledo road was a notoriously winding unsealed dirt road snaking through the thick jungle over the rugged hills towards the concentrated land of jade mines down south-west. In some areas the road rises more than two thousand feet from the sea level and winds through tall teak forest. From time to time, the road comes out of the jungle onto the cliff edge and opens to a vast view of distant jungle under the bright sunrays of rising morning sun in the East. From back of the open trucks we could see large stretches of heavily forested land below.

On some stretches of the road Sarge took the precautionary measures and we were forced to dismount. Then we had to walk in single line behind the slowly moving trucks if Sarge thought here was a good ambush spot typically an uphill bend with dense forest covered hill on one side and steep cliff dropping off on the other side. But nothing happened on the way in and we reached the target site.

The team of four men who had prior experience with long two-handled saws started sawing the good-sized tree-trunks on the ground into about 8 to 10 foot long logs. And the rest of us started carrying the logs back to the nearby trucks. We had our G3s slung across our back as the security situation didn’t allow us to leave our guns in the trucks.

Natives on Ledo Road.
We had a lunch break at noon and our lunch was the rice and hard-boiled duck-eggs we brought along. The corporal shot a jungle-chicken and cooked a large pot of delicious chicken stew with plenty of wild chilli in it and made that lunch quite enjoyable. 

We continued working the whole afternoon and by the late afternoon we had both open trucks filled with firewood logs to the roof-frames. At about 4 or 4:30 we headed back to the battalion compound in Myitkyina.

On the way back hungry and exhausted we all sat atop the logs unwilling to climb down and walk at the spots deemed dangerous. But just before the last dangerous stretch of the winding road only about five miles from the army outpost Sarge riding the first truck suddenly stopped his truck right in the middle of the wide road. Our truck also came to a sudden screeching stop just behind the first truck as Sarge jumped out of the cabin.

He was waving his hands hysterically and ordering us to come down onto the ground. “Get down, you lazy sons-of-bitches, get down!” with a worried frown on his face he angrily forced us down from both trucks as we were initially reluctant to come down from atop the logs.

“Your stepfathers are waiting to slaughter us! Get down, get down,” he just kept on yelling angrily at us until we reluctantly obeyed. “Line up behind the trucks, single column, keep a distance, don’t fucking bunch up together,” he barked out orders and we ran and formed single column lines behind each truck.

Another shot of Ledo Road.
He was excitingly yelling that he just saw the silhouette of armed men on one of the hilltops ahead against the backdrop of a clear blue sky. The low sun was well behind us and the tree lines on the crest of distant hills ahead were clearly visible even with the naked eyes. He obviously did see a small group of men silhouetted on the horizon atop the crest of a cleared hill.  

“Didn’t you see them on the hills? Move your fat arse off the truck. Get down,” he even abused the corporal still comfortably sitting in the cabin of second truck. “Cock the guns! I repeat, cock the guns. Keep the Safety Catch on Safe,” yelled Sarge as he cocked his own .30 American carbine. That was the very first time he ordered us to load and lock our G3 automatic rifles outside the battalion shooting-range.

“Do it, you little sons-of-bitches, don’t touch the bloody triggers yet, keep your little fucking fingers away,” he was always very meticulous about safe handling of our automatic weapons. Absolutely no accidental discharge of firearm in my unit, that was his proud motto and we were forced to strictly adhere to it.
Whenever we came back from an armed duty we were to fall in single file, unload our guns, and clear the bullets from the chambers as a standard procedure before returning the weapons to the battalion armoury.

Now in the middle of evergreen jungle the enemy had unknowingly exposed themselves and given our overly-cautious Sarge a strong reason to seriously prepare for the imminent ambush. He’d been alert and alarmed the whole day since the men from the army outpost warned him in the morning.

It was really confusing for us recruits and we were all scared stiff. But as he ordered us I cocked my rifle by pulling the bolt handle on the left side of the rifle all the way back till it was locked in. I then forcefully slapped the locked bolt handle with my left palm to release and chamber a fresh round from the 20 round magazine.

Every recruits from our platoon followed me and the hard cocking sounds of 20 G3s disturbed the silence of the surrounding jungle and forced a few startling birds to fly off from the nearby trees. I made sure the safety catch was on and then slung the gun strap around my neck. With left hand supporting the wooden barrel guard and right hand gripping the pistol grip with finger on the trigger guard I was ready to walk behind the second truck I just jumped down from.

Sarge and half of the platoon followed the first truck. The corporal and the rest including me were behind the second truck which was now slowly moving at a good distance behind the first truck. But once Sarge was out of our sight the stubborn corporal refused to walk and climbed back up into the cabin and sat beside the driver. 

Slow and steady I had to walk at about twenty yards immediately behind the truck with the rest of the recruits behind me in a long single line. We were on a long uphill bend with a high sloping hill on our right and a rather steep drop on the left.


Soon, the first truck and the line of men had disappeared around the long uphill bend. Then without any of us expecting the truck right in front of me drove over a huge mine planted on the road by KIA just before we came along. Sarge later said it could have been an anti-tank mine leftover from the last big War.

“Boom, ka-boom, dang, dang, dang,” simultaneously with the extremely loud boom what I saw of the massive explosion was the huge orangy flash of flame coming out from underneath the truck and forcefully throwing the heavy truck into the air up to my eyes level.

The huge explosion with a deafening noise was blinding and the high-pressure blast wave alone threw me violently into the air and knocked me down unconscious onto the ground. And one of the flying logs dropped on me across my chest as I lay unconscious on the wild grass on the road edge just before the drop. I didn’t even know how long I’d been knocked out. 

But when I came to and quickly regained clear consciousness I found myself lying flat on my back not far from the drop with the gun at my side and its carrying strap still hanging around my neck and a good-size log on my chest. I saw the mingled wreckage of still burning truck lying on its side by the edge of the wide road and scattered logs on the ground all around me. 

Burmese Army Trucks.
Right in front of me just a mere 20 yards away was a huge crater from the mine explosion in the middle of the road. The overwhelming chest pain forced me to stay on my back. But in my head something was telling me to get up and be prepared for the aftermath of the explosion.

I slowly managed to push off the log resting heavily on my chest and then tried to get up but only able to kneel on the grassy ground as I was suddenly overwhelmed by a severe chest pain again. On my knees with the heavy rifle still dangling from my neck by its strap I tried to look around for the others. 

I could partly see the bloodied body of the driver in the crumpled truck cabin amidst the still billowing smoke. It was so eerily quiet I thought everybody was dead. Then I saw a movement across the wide road from the corner of my eyes. I turned my head to right and instantly I was horrified by the most terrifying sight possible for a sixteen-year-old brand new soldier.

Baptism of Fire

The ambushing militiamen had already climbed down the brushy hill and three of them were just coming out of the jungle edge only few yards away from the right shoulder of the road. I could even see the blood-shot whites of the eyes of the front man and his grinning beteljuice-stained black teeth. 

He had an old .303 rifle in his hands but the others were just armed with stubby Kachin swords. They were all young Kachin men. They might have thought that we were all dead and so coming down to strip the arms and ammo off our bodies as their usual guerrilla practice.  
.303 Lee-Enfield Rifle
Just for an instant I immediately froze with unimaginable horror, but my survival sense unexpectedly kicked in after a short moment. I had been in a life-threatening fight once before when a homeless boy tried to stab me in the Rangoon Central Station. The difference this time was that they did have a gun and so did I. 

I unslung the rifle from my neck and held it in both hands. I had even forgotten my chest pain and quickly managed to get up and level the gun at them. That also surprised them as they didn’t expect to see a young Burmese soldier survived and stood up and now pointing a dreadful G3 at them. 

Luck was still on my side as the scattered logs on the road and its wide shoulders had slowed them down. Otherwise they could have quickly reached and slaughtered me while I was painfully trying to get up from the ground. 

The one at the front lifted his rifle while other two with swords stopped on their tracks. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. Just the slight resistant on my trigger finger. Immediately I remembered the gun was cocked but the safety catch was still on as Sarge had ordered us. I panicked and fumbled around the left side of gun and managed only to push the catch down to semi-automatic.

The G3 safety catch had three positions clearly marked in German: S (Sicher) for safe, E (Einzelfeuer) for semi-automatic, and F (FeuerstoB) for fully-automatic. I took aim again and fired a single round. It was so close the bullet went through the chest of the first one who also was trying in vain to take a shot at me. 
BA63 or G3 Rifle
I saw a small piece of dirty shirt on his front torn off and disappeared real fast into the bullet hole on his chest. I also saw the sudden blast of flesh and blood behind him as the 7.62 mm caliber bullet exited and vanished into the tree ferns on the edge of the jungle, cutting down a few small branches and many leaves on its way to oblivion.

He didn’t die instantly like I used to see in some war movies. The penetrating bullet had stopped him but he didn’t fall straight away. Stood there stunned he looked down at the small bullet hole on his chest and then painfully dropped onto his knees. On the ground on his knees, he looked up at me with unbelievable surprise in his blood-shot red eyes. 

Kneeling on the ground he then looked down again at his bullet wound as the dark blood was now slowly seeping out and trickling down onto his chest. He tried to look up at me again, but his awful gaze went right through me as his eyes were now horribly sightless and a trickle of blood started coming out off his mouth. 

I guessed he died at that instant. With his mouth gaping wide his body fell sideways to his right and hit the ground like a fell-down tree trunk and the lifeless body lay there grotesquely on the side. He lay dead there in almost foetal position with the rifle still firmly in his dead hands. Then his bent legs slowly stretched right under my eyes as if the life inside of his body was spent. Dark blood seeping out of his chest onto the ground hardened by the tyre tracks started forming a small pool underneath his body.

Stunned, the other two turned around and tried to run back into the jungle. Gaining enough confidence from getting the upper hand over them, I pushed down my gun catch to fully automatic and fired all the rounds from the magazine. With heavy recoil, the rifle shook in my hands and the bullets flew all over the place. 

But a few of them found the backs of the fleeing men and felled them in a few seconds time. Seemed like I didn’t see anything clearly at that time with the background of deafening loud bangs from my G3. Only visible things coming into my sight were the spent brass cartridges flying out of the rifle one after another and dropping one by one on the ground right in front of me at a short distance from my right foot. 

Both were sprawling dead when the magazine was emptied and the gun had stopped its violent shaking in my hands. Blood and guts were all over the road and the unfamiliar smell of torn flesh and the overpowering stench of cordite almost overcame me. 

I just stood there with the still smoking rifle in both hands, the butt between my right elbow and body and the barrel pointing down with finger still on the trigger, blindly staring at the bloodied sight of three bodies on the road right in front of me. Then the uncontrollable trembling came out of the blue and I wept. I was overcome by a deep sorrow and a strange anger at the same time. 

A Burmese soldier armed with G3.
Sarge and his men from the first truck came back down around the bend and saw what just happened and some recruits started shooting wildly into the bush and the bodies on the road. One stray bullet dangerously swished past my left ear and jolted me out of the terrible state of strange emotional effects. 

“Stop, stop! Stop shootings! Fucking motherfuckers, they are all dead!” Sarge yelled at them and the shooting suddenly stopped. Then he strode up to me and asked, “Are you okay? Did you empty the whole bloody magazine? What exactly happened?”

Trembling from the near death experience and unable to answer him I stood still at the same spot. It took a few minutes for Sarge to calm me down. Amid the billowing smoke and heavy stench of cordite only then I realized how close I came to meeting my maker. 

“The blast, Sarge, knocked me off. When I came to, those three men were almost on top of me. Lucky, I managed to shoot them first. Are they all dead now?” I tried to explain briefly to Sarge. “Yeah, they sure are. No one survives G3 bullets in such a close range.”
Apart from the driver and the corporal killed in the truck by the land mine explosion no one else was hurt. It wasn’t a huge ambush as Sarge’d expected. Only a few opportunistic militiamen armed with a WW2 tank-mine taking an enormous risk and staging a surprise ambush. Probably they knew that we were just a recruit platoon. 

Thanks to Sarge we were walking so far apart from each other the explosion didn’t harm any of us the recruits. I didn’t dare to think of the ugly outcome if we were all riding on the truck when it hit the landmine. Sarge had narrowly avoided the massacre of his whole recruit platoon. And my quick reaction had saved my own life and probably others.

The recruits walking far behind me were so hopelessly scared they just crouched on the ground and pissed in their pants. Some even shat. They didn’t even see immediate aftermath of the explosion. 

Having heard the explosion and gunshots from the distance a section of men from the local army outpost came out later and they pushed the wreckage down the drop, cleared the road, and collected the bodies. 

Their corporal even applied some sensationally hot ointment onto the bruises of my chest and bandaged it. Later we just walked for a while and then all jumped onto the remaining truck and came back. 

That was the last of our firewood details. Two unfortunate deaths and the battalion also lost one valuable truck and at least 8 tons of log as free firewood. We brought back another 8 tons of firewood, enough for our kitchen till our boot camp was over. 

Burial of Our Fallen

Late at that night back in our barracks Sarge called me to the Company Office and surprised me by giving me a half-empty bottle of army rum and asking me to drink right there right out of the bottle. I took a sip direct from the bottle and it burned my throat. 

The rum was too strong and also so bitter since it had anti-malaria medicine Quinine in it. To prevent getting malaria from the infested jungle we recruits were lined up with a tin-mug full of water in our hands and given a couple of quinine pills to take right there under the watchful eyes of the duty corporal once a week on every Friday. 

But regular soldiers were given a weekly ration of at least two bottles of army rum heavily laced with quinine. With a store full of army rum bottles our Sarge and all the corporals were drunk most of the nights. It was the main reason most Burmese soldiers ended up being problem-alcoholics for rest of their natural lives, I reckoned, from the army-supplied free rum. 

Sarge then let me go back to our barracks where I finished the bottle in the dark and fell into a numbing sleep. Next day my platoon was allowed to sleep in as a reward for what we went through.

Myitkyinar Map.
Two days later we had to bury our dead at the town cemetery. For the burial I and a small group of recruits were sent to the Myitkyina Hospital to coffin the dead. The mortuary had no cold-room or body-refrigerators and the bodies of our corporal and the truck driver were on the sticky tiled-floor rotting. 

The doors were wide open to let the smell out and the flies were all over the place and the corpses were covered head to toe with maggots and the horrifying smell was totally unbearable. We tried to cover our noses with small army towels but the middle-aged Captain supervising us had stopped us from doing just that. They were our fallen comrades and we shouldn’t be disgusted by their remains was what he fanatically yelled at us.

We filled the two cheap pinewood coffins with plenty of quicklime and after the bodies were inside we covered them also with generous amount of lime powder filled to the rims. It partly killed the smell for us to carry the coffins and place it on a Dodge-drawn gun-carriage. 

The whole of our battalion and some units of other two battalions from the town followed the cortege from the mortuary to the cemetery and we buried our dead at the town cemetery with a full military honour and that tragic episode was over.

Our arm-patch for Burma Army
northern Command.
But sometimes I still wondered whatever happened to the bodies of the three young Kachin men I killed. One corporal just said that their bodies were simply thrown over the cliff edge and might be rotting on the jungle floor by now. For most of us it was normal to treat our dead with respect but not theirs. 

I seriously believed they might be the natives from that area and their families might be missing them. Maybe they didn’t even know that their loved ones were dead and still looking for them. 

Sarge just simply told me not to think anymore about them. Once on the front line I wouldn’t even remember after a good night sleep how many I’d just killed the day before. That was exactly what he told me when I asked him at the cemetery. 

Only one good thing out of that terrible encounter was that they started treating me with awe like a hero and nobody, not even the Corporals, dared to yell at me or hurl abuse no more. I was already blooded even before finishing the boot camp. In a rifle company a blooded solider is the only soldier!

(That was the horror of never-ending Burmese civil war which has so far killed over a million people since the independence in 1948. Two from the Burmese side and three from the Kachin side killed on that faithful day were just a very small count making eventually that huge death toll over the years.

The Baptism of Fire section from my book "Song for Irrawaddy" was based on this deadly encounter. Please check the book out and read the first chapter as the Preview at this link.)