Friday, May 27, 2011

Colonel Thet Oo - Chapter 3-1

(This is a concise translation of Col Thet Oo (a) Thaung Wai Oo’s Autobiography.)

Karen State To Mon State (From IB-19 To IB-61)

My first mother unit was IB-19 in Pharpun. That infantry battalion was originally formed in Mhaw-bee Town near Rangoon and in 1960 the battalion was moved to Pharpun Town. Its earlier COs like Colonel Than Nyunt were singers songwriters and the battalion once had its own big band.

The battalion band was so good their Socialist songs were regularly broadcasted on BBS (Burma Broadcasting Service) during the BSPP (Burma Socialist Program Party) era. But when I was posted there the band was no more as the battalion’s remote location and frequent KNU attacks and the particularly nasty strand of malaria had driven all the soldier-musicians and soldier-singers to quit.

Pharpun strain of malaria was the worst kind of malaria in Burma. Even Mary caught it after we met very first time in Pharpun and it took more than two months to rid of it. If her mother wasn’t an experienced nurse probably I would still be a lonely bachelor without a wife and kids.

No officers or other ranks really wanted to serve in Pharpun. So the Command regularly transferred out the people who had already served in Pahrpun for some years to other favorable battalions. That was also what happened to me on one day in early May 1972.

“Thet Oo, we’ve got all our transfer orders today,” said IO Lt. Maung Maung after he’d shown the CO the important radio message from the Command. The whole battalion then was at the Shwe-kyee-kyaung Village in the West Ka-ma-maung Sector during the field operations against the KNU First Brigade.

“Really, transfers to where, and who?”
“You, me, Khin Maung Yin, Soe Win, everybody. Anyone who’s been here more than five years is transferred.”
“Really! So where am I going?”
“You are to IB-61, Kyauk-ta-lone.”
“That’s great! Kyauk-ta-lone is Moulmein and Mary has whole bunch of relatives there. That’s very good for my son and daughter. Excellent news!”

I was really glad as Mary had so many close cousins in Moulmein and when my son was born they really looked after her and the newborn well. Compared to Pharpun, Moulmein  the state capital  of Mon State was a much better place for Mary and two kids. For me, as an infantry soldier, it didn’t really matter wherever I was sent, but I felt sorry for my young family to be in a remote place like Pharpun.


Mon State Map.
To arrange for the transfers both Columns of our IB-19 had to come back to Pharpun from the field operations. But before four of us, me and my little family of Mary and son Phoe Chun and daughter Poe Mu, could fly out of Pharpun to Moulmein I was asked by the CO to serve temporarily as the battalion Adjutant Captain while Captain Tin Soe the real Adjutant Captain was in the base hospital with ear problems.

Since more than 200 personnel of various ranks were transferred out and the equal number and their families were transferred in as the replacements, I had a hell of time managing the battalion administration as the acting Adjutant Captain.

There were so many arrivals, more than 500 including the families, I had to put them in the battalion movie hall first before the current people left and the quarters were available for the newcomers. I was only 27 and with very little experience in administration the whole thing was a mess. And making the matter worse the bloody KNU guerillas once fired M79s from the west bank of Yunsalin River into our battalion compound.

Out of the mess only good thing was everybody including the wives and children started getting what we called the Unit Ration as a perk for serving at a remote place like Pharpun. One unit was worth about 18 kyats back then and it included rice, cooking-oil, salt, split-pea, chili, fish-paste, sweetened-condensed-milk, sugar, and tea.

It took me two whole months of June and July in 1972 to settle the wholesale transfers of others before I managed to tackle my own transfer. One serious drawback of such a massive transfer was that the receiving battalion like ours IB-19 had to take in all sorts of people from so many other battalions. And the sending battalions never release good personnel but only undesirables from their battalions.

So it took some time for the IB-19 to get things shipshape again with about 300 new personnel. KNU took advantage of that weakness and even managed to kill the battalion officiating CO Major Moe Hein in an ambush on his vehicle convoy near the Village of War-daw.

Our little family of four could leave Pharpun for Moulmein only at the end of July 1972. When I finally reported at IB-61 in Kyauktalone the Adjutant Captain Chit Lwin told me about my field posting.

“Bo Thet Oo, you are posted in the Third Company. Company Commander is Captain Tin Phe and the Company is now operating in Ye area. You are to join them after two three days here and settle your family. At present our First Column is in Ye and the Second Column is in Than-byu-za-yat.”

So in early August I took the train south from Moulmein to Ye with only a backpack and a carbine on me. And I didn’t know what I would be facing in this State of Mons.

My First Battle in IB-61

Moulmein-Thanbyuzayat-Ye Rail Line.
I arrived Ye early evening that day. By rail Ye is about 90 miles from Moulmein but by road it is more than 90 miles. During that period U Nu’s PDP(Parliament Democracy Party) insurgency had started and they (we called them Exiles) were very active in the areas of Moulmein, Mudon, Ye, and Tavoy. Both rail and road were not safe to travel and all the army battalions were extremely busy securing the transportation and communication lines.

“So, Bo Thet Oo, how many days did you get to stay at the battalion?” asked the battalion CO Major Sein Win. Graduated from OTS Intake-7 he was a real soldier with dark complexion and short and stout stature.

“Just two days, Sir. The Adjutant Captain told me to get here ASAP as you are short of officers here on the front line.”
“Aye, that’s right. Your Third Company is very busy engaging the bastards from Exiles Southern Division. Captain Tin Phe and Lieutenant Than Maung Win are there with the Third. They are now at Ninth Miles Camp. In two days the supply convoy is going there and you can join them.”

I had to stay at the Ye HQ of First Column for a couple of days while waiting for the supply convoy.  Our Battalion’s main duties were to secure the Ye-Thanbyuzayat rail and road routes and at the same time to destroy the U Nu’s Exiles and other KNU and NMSP insurgents in the Ye Township. 

The Exiles had three military divisions namely North, South, and Middle Divisions and their overall Commander was Bo Let Yar, one of the famous Thirty Comrades. Their Southern Division Commander was Jimmy (a) Min Naing and he had three battalions actively operating in our territory. One of his battalions the Na-gar-mout Battalion, two hundred strong, had entered the Ye-South Sector when I arrived there in 1972.

When I reached the Third Company at Ninth Miles Camp with the supply convoy it was 5th August 1972 and raining heavily, I still remembered. I met the Company CO Captain Tin Phe there. He was almost 50 years old chubby man with whole head of totally grey hair. He told me he was also just transferred from IB-28 at Hlaing Bwe.

I also met the Platoon Commander Lieutenant Than Maung Win a graduate from DSA Intake 14. He was a very tall man, more than 6 foot tall and the locals called him Bo Doo-shay (Officer Long Knee). Later he was transferred to the Civil Service and he drowned and died in Irrawaddy Delta when the ship Irranadee sunk there.

M72 Single-shot Rocket Launcher.
I was told that the enemy battalion was 200 strong and led by Myo Lwin, Chit Lwin, and Htun Sein. Both Myo Lwin and Chit Lwin were Tavoy natives and Htun Sein was a Ye native. So they knew the area like back of their hands and because of American and other foreign supports their men were armed with latest automatic rifles like HK-33, M-16, and also M-72 single-shot rocket launchers.

“The battalion’s been forcing me to engage that 200 strong Column. How could I do that with a single company?” Captain Tin Phe complained to me. Since I knew nothing of our company, enemy condition, and the local conditions I just had to smile back at him.

“And I’m not well too. I’ve got nasty cists on my back. I have to leave the company with you to go to the hospital soon. So you need to know the area well. Why don’t you take your First Platoon a long range patrol to Hangan Kalawgyi areas,” he kind of ordered me.

HK33 Automatic Rifles.
But next day the First Column HQ at Ye sent us a radio message. Our Battalion CO was now away and Major Hla Myint was our new Column Commander and his instruction was to start a search and destroy operation against the enemy battalion. Captain Tin Phe was also allowed to go to a base hospital. So within a couple of days there I became the acting Company CO.

Once I became the Company Commander I called and had a serious discussion with Lt. Than Maun Win.

“So, what do you think? I have never seen them Exiles before. Can we fight them with one company? What’s your opinion? If we can I would like to fight them now.”
“I think we should. The enemy’s been here for too long now. Captain is an old man and he worries a lot. The numbers are not that important in a war, I think. If we know what we’re doing.”
“Okay, that’s it. We’ll fight them where they are.”

So we two young officers decided to fight and that very night in the heavy rain the whole company marched to Hangan Village where the enemy was reported to be. The koe-mai Village or Ninth Miles Camp was between Ye and Tavoy and Hangan was between Ye and Koe-mai.

From Koe-mai we hit the Kalawgyi Village at north on the Ye-Tavoy Road first. There we got the news that the enemy were still in Hangan. Situated at west of Kalawgyi the Village of Hangan was a large Mon village with more than 100 households. The village was about two three miles west off the Ye-Tavoy Road and it was in the middle of green paddy fields.


We took a short rest in the Kalawgyi Village and marched through the green paddies in a heavy pour of Monsoon rain. The rain and strong wind had covered our daring raid of Hangan Village and only when we were almost inside the villagers saw us and scared of us soldiers and started running all over the place.

“Hey, Than Maung Win, why are the villagers running? Are the insurgents in the village?”
“I don’t think so. People here are always like that. They are easily scared,” replied him but I wasn’t convinced and so I warned my men to be really careful.
“Hey, Myo Swe and Win Maung at the point, watch out, we don’t know what’s going on, Than Maung Win too!” I couldn’t even finish my sentence as the point started shooting.
“Bang, bang, bang, trat-trat-trat-trat.”
“Exiles, they are exiles, shoot, shoot,” I could hear the voice of Corporal Chit Hla the leader of our point Section then.
“Corporal Chit Hla, on your right, on your right, there, there,” Than Maung Win was yelling at his point corporal too.

Yes, we found the large group of Exiles insurgents in the vacant market square right ahead of us only about 300 yards away. They were caught in complete surprise and they fled into the paddy fields south-east of the village as we rapidly fired at them.

“Sergeant Kyaw Khin, Corporal Thaung Phe, fire the mortars, fire the mortars,” I yelled at my HQ NCOs to fire our three 2” mortars and soon the mortar shells were exploding one after another right inside the village.
“Hey, Moe Zaw, fire the machinegun,” I also yelled at my HQ machine-gunner.
“Trat-trat-trat-trat,” the automatic bursts of our MG42 also broke out.
“Hey, they are running, Exiles are running,” very soon every body was yelling and chasing the enemy out of the village.

M16 5.56mm Automatic Rifle.
In the heavy rain we overran the village within half an hour of our surprise attack. But we didn’t get any enemy body as we were to fire at them from a distance. But we found in the houses on the southern end of the village ten backpacks and one M-16 automatic rifle.

“Captain, this is your good luck. Now this company is truly yours. Very first fight and we already got 10 backpacks and one gun. But they were too many and I couldn’t figure out why they didn’t fight us back,” Than Maung Win was really happy and also puzzled by the fleeing Exiles.
“Maybe, they thought we were a large column.”
“Yeah, we hit them hard on very first fight. They’d been boasting they will attack Ye soon and all that shit. Now they flee from Hangan let alone raiding Ye Town.” 

We reported by the radio our battle progress to the Column and Major Hla Myint sent this encouraging message back.

“Satisfied with enemy engagement. Congratulations to Lieutenants Thet Oo and Than Maung Win. Continue chasing the fleeing enemy.”

In the still pouring rain I regrouped the Company in the market square and gave the orders to cook the dinner. Once they all gathered in the village and when they saw me one man raised the captured M-16 and then all of them, seriously muddy and wet, cheered out aloud.

“We are Captain Thet Oo’s Company!”

I myself was deeply affected by their cheers and suddenly I got happy goose bumps all over my wet and muddy body. They were right and this Third Company of IB-61 is now mine.

Brother-in-Law KNU Hla Soe

It was one day in late 1972 when my company was in the Kyaung-ywa Village on the bank of Ye River. We were then chasing the KNU Column led by Bo Hla Soe. He was a dashing and daring KNU officer with shoulder-length long hair. While we were in the Kyaung-ywa we received a radio message from the Column HQ at Ye.

“Three parties coalition forces (combined forces of KNU, NMSP, and PDP) are planning to attack Ye. Come back to YE by 12:00 tomorrow.”

Suddenly the Village Chief whose house we were staying then rushed in and came up to where I and Lt. Than Maung Win were sitting.

“Pha-htee, what’s going on? Why are you rushing?”
“Ha, Captain, it was Bo Hla Soe. He sent someone to me to come see him. I just came back from meeting him.”
“Hla Soe, is it? So where is he now?”
“He is in Phar-gyi Village and telling everyone he will shoot at the troops coming.”
“Troops, which troops?”
“Your troops, of course, Captain! They already knew your company is here.”
“Wait a sec, how many are they?”
“Over a hundred men. So many of them. They have new men and so many new black guns. All in new camouflage uniforms. Their blood boiling to fight you. Hla Soe was drunk and he said to me this Company coming up is heard to be aggressive and real bad. And he said if they are really brave just come by the long-tail boats and he will fire them,” the old Karen Village Chief relayed Hla Soe’s threat to me. Phar-gyi on the Ye River was between Kyaung-ywa and Ye. So if we took the boats back to Ye we had to pass Phar-gyi and Hla Soe would be waiting there to ambush us.

I immediately made a decision to accept his daring challenge without even consulting my Platoon Commander after thinking this Hla Soe guy didn’t know me well and I would show him tonight what sort of man I was.

“Okay, Pha-htee, I know you must be exhausted by now. But I need you to go to Phar-gyi again now. And tell Bo Hla Soe this. Bo Thet Oo is going back to Ye by long-tailed boats. If he wants to shoot me just wait for me at Phar-gyi.”
“Are you sure, Captain? I don’t want you get hurt for no reason at all.”
“Just go Pha-htee. Nothing will happen. Do not worry about me.”
“Wait a sec, Pha-htee. Take this bottle of army-rum as the present from me. Just drink there together with Hla Soe. Okay, take it.”

Our Village Chief then hesitantly took the army-rum bottle and left Kyaung-ywa by a long-tail boat for Phar-gyi Village.

“Captain, are we really taking the boats back to Ye? I don’t think it is alright,” Lt. Than Maung Win protested.
“Aye, aye, I know. I’m just trying to plod that bastard Hla Soe to get excited.”

Just before sun set that day the Village Chief came back drunk from Hla Soe’s village.

“So, Pha-htee, did you meet him?”
“Yes, Captain, we finished your army-rum too. Hla Soe even said he’s gonna take pot shots at the big Yout-pha (brother-in-law) coming down by boats.”

Around here now everyone knew my wife was a Karen and I could speak Karen well. That might be the reason my KNU nemesis Hla Soe was trying to relate me kindly by calling me a brother-in-law. Anyway that night after dinner I told this to Lt. Than Maung Win.

“Lt. Than Maung Win, before you go to bed, could you please check how many long-tailed boats we have? And keep all the boats and boatmen at your platoon too, okay. I saw four or five boats here.”
“What are you going to do, Captain?” my orders apparently had confused my only Platoon Commander.
“Just holding the boats and boatmen, in case we need them.”

I also told the Company HQ sentry private to relay a message (down the chain of sentries) for the 2Am to 4Am sentry to wake me up at two in the early morning. After that I went to bed and fell sleep immediately.


“Captain, wake up, wake up, 2 to 4 sentry is already posted,” 12 to 2 sentry woke me up right on two o’clock in the dark morning.
“Aye, aye, you go wake Lt. Than Maung Win up too, go.”  

On the Ye River the surface was still blanketed by a deep darkness. Monsoon season was   not over yet and the southwesterly wind was calmly blowing on the river.

“Captain, something’s up?” Lt. Than Maung Win came up and asked me.
“Wake the Company! Don’t let them make any noise. How many boats we have now? Are the boatmen also here?”
“Seven boats, Captain,” now he seemed to know my daring plan.
“Okay, we’re gonna ride the boats. Two boats for each platoon and one for the HQ office. We will drift downstream without starting the engines. My boat at the rear and Your boat at the point. The enemy is on the south bank, so stay at the middle and don’t go too close to the left. Only when my boat starts the engine the rest will start the engines. You relay my orders to the NCOs. And, before we leave here bring them to me too. I will explain them again.”

Once my orders were out the whole company prepared and loaded the boats in the dark. I also gathered Sergeants Kyaw Khin,  Ba Chit Aung, and Chit Hla and told them this.

“We are the army, and we shouldn’t be scared of them insurgents. We have to show them we are fearless and daring. You men just follow my orders. Don’t be afraid and nothing bad will happen to us.”

I didn’t see any problem with my men and I believed they would do whatever I asked as they had complete confidence in their Company CO.

When we left Kyaung-ywa Village the time was just after 3 in the morning. In the sky the small crescent of moon was barely visible as the date was more than ten days passed full moon. We silently floated our seven boats down the Ye river. All the men were ordered to take off their jungle boots and their heavy equipment beltings.

In the pale moonlight we might be like the shadowy ghosts for the strangers as we quietly drifted downstream on the Ye River. I sat next to the young boatman and told him to let me know when we were near Phar-gyi Village. On the horizon east the sun rays were out and the time was almost five o’clock.

“Captain, that big black shape ahead is Phar-gyi,” my boatman pointed at the Phar-gyi village covered by the greenish forest of betel trees, coconut palms, and durian trees at about a thousand yards from us. It was a big Karen village and well known for having plenty of food and pretty girls.

The Kyaung-ywa village chief once showed me the photo of Hla Soe having a meal together with pretty Karen girls at that village. He was a handsome devil with shoulder-length hair and he looked like that famous Japanese actor Henry Sanada. He might not even be older than 30 years of age. That’s why he was popular among the local girls.

“Okay, big hero Hla Soe, we’re coming now,” I thought to my self as our boats were slowly and quietly getting nearer the village on the left bank. Soon the boats ahead had gradually passed the village and only my boat was left near the village.

I asked the young boatman to go as close as possible to the left bank and once we were at about 100 yards from the village I ordered, “Okay, start the engine, and drive forward.”

And the loud engine noise basically broke the silence as other boats also started their engines once they heard our engine. The total silence of quiet dawn was suddenly broken by the loud engines of our seven long-tailed boats on the Ye River.

“That’s not enough for you, Hla Soe, yet. Now you’ll know better of me.”
“Okay, Moe Zaw, fire your MG42 in the village’s direction, now!”

MG42 Medium Machine Gun.
My machine gunner from the Company HQ was so eager to unleash his German machine gun I didn’t need to order him twice. He stood up, aimed his MG42 at the village, and started firing the heavy machine gun right from his waste like a big movie star in a war movie.

“Trat-trat-trat-trat,” 7.62 mm machine gun bullets were now flying towards the village.
“Hey, don’t fire directly at the village. Villagers’ll get hit. Aim higher, aim higher, bloody hell,” I had to warn him as I was then worried about accidentally killing the people of the village.

The machine gun had basically disturbed the village and we could see people running all over the village. Four or five KNU men in camouflage came running down to the river bank and some didn’t even had their guns with them. They all were with long hairs and I wasn’t so sure if my Yout-pha Hla Soe was one of them.

But we all were really satisfied at seeing them caught in a complete surprise. Then, without   planning in advance, the men of our boat all yelled out simultaneously at the KNU men.

“Hey, Yout-pha, we’re going riding the boats down to Ye.”

The loud noises of machine gun shots, the boat engines, and our yells had basically covered the whole surface of Ye River.

Colonel Thet Oo – Chapter 3-2