Sunday, June 26, 2011

Tin Than Oo's Battles - Episode 2

(Concise translation of Chapter 6 from Late Tin Than Oo’s Autobiographical Novel.)

On the Htawgaw Hills by Chinese border (1977-78)

In late 1977 our battalion’s Forward Command Base was on the Htawgaw Hills by the Chinese borderline. By then our army was successfully pushing back the CPB and KIA insurgents towards the border and the Northern Command’s BOC (Base Operational Command) was at Chibwe the little town at the end of vehicular road from Waingmaw across the Irrawaddy from Myitkyinar.

Only a deep chasm and a rough mountain stream at its bottom separated our mountain range from the CPB-controlled mountain range just by the borderline and the job for my company was to storm the enemy forward camp on their range. The enemy was supposed to be only fifty strong, according to the battalion’s intelligence. Before we marched down into the drop I had a short chat with IO Captain Myo Thein.

“I don’t think our information is correct. It’s impossible the enemy strength is only fifty. That info was from the fleeing villagers about three days ago. They could reinforce with more in that three days!”
“Heavy weapon back-up and also with possible airforce back-up, I can go do it, Myo Thien.”
“I’m just worried about you. You’re already engaged and going to be married soon. I don’t want you to die, yet.”
“Piss off, Myo Thin.”
“Okay, then go, your men are ready and waiting for you!”

It was dark night. The CPB camp was within a 75mm recoilless range but for us to go down the drop, cross the stream, and climb up the enemy range could take more than a night and day even if we went the straight way. But we had to go around the way so that enemy wouldn’t see us approaching.

75 mm Recoilless Gun.
I inspected my three platoons. I had only two officers, Lt. Kyi Lin and Lt. Chit Than as platoon commanders. Since the Third Platoon had no officer-commander I asked Sergeant Myint Hlaing to take charge and kept his platoon with my Company HQ.

That night we came down our range towards south even though the target was at due north. We tried real hard not to make any noise as the enemy scouts might possibly be in the no man land between our range and theirs. But it was a dewy night and the wet climb down the steep slopes caused many of my men to slip on the dew-covered grassy trails. And believe it or not whenever someone slipped and fell the giggles of the rest always came out and I had to keep on yelling quietly at them.

“Shoo, silence. Don’t make too much fucking noise!”

It took us the whole night to reach onto a plateau just before the narrow gully with the stream. At the sunrise we stopped to take a short rest. I read the maps again to find the way to the stream and our local guides also showed me an old track through the thick pine forest.

We marched through the pine forest towards east. Since the sappers at the point had to slowly clear the mines on the trails we didn’t reach that far at all for a half day march. By midday we had a quick lunch of rice cakes and pork jerky. After lunch we descended into the rocky gully to cross the mountain steam which was the main obstacle on our way to the target. Fro the crossing we chose a place where the stream was only waist deep and the torrent was manageable.


A Mountain Stream in Kachin Land.
Everybody was carrying full seven days dried ration in addition to usual weapon and ammunitions. For untrained it would be totally impossible to march on this long journey while carrying such a heavy load. Luckily we were seasoned soldiers and we think we could do anything being thrown at us.

From a distance the mountain stream seemed to be calmly flowing. But if one really looked at it one could see the surface was sliding fast like a large plate of glass without any visible wave or eddy on the surface. It was really scary as the submerged stones and rocks on the stream floor were covered with slippery moss. But we had to cross the bloody stream.

Squad by squad and section by section every man tied his hemp rope around his waist and the waists of the men at the front and back. Then they held together a long bamboo and started walking across the stream. The idea was simple. If one who couldn’t swim got into the trouble the rest could pull him back from the fast flowing current.

We had to be well alert too while crossing the stream as the enemy could have waited at the other bank and attacked us. It was just too dangerous with the enemy forces that close.

The stream crossing took almost the whole day and by dusk we reached on a low hill. I had to allow them a night rest there as we hadn’t slept last night. If I kept on keeping them awake that night they would be too weak next day when we attacked the enemy position. Once they lay down on the ground they all fell asleep. Except the sentries, of course.

But we three officers were not able to sleep as we had a lot of planning to do for tomorrow.

We woke the men up and started out again at 4 in the early morning. Pine forests were getting thinner and thinner as we marched up higher and higher. Enemy could see us from a distance and we had to be really careful. The sappers at the point also had to clear the mines slowly along the route.

Even though we were guided by the natives who had recently escaped from the enemy camp they sometimes forgot or only vaguely remembered the way. Then we had to stop and consult the maps to find the way again.

Chinese-made Anti-personel Landmines.
At one intersection of the trails our sappers detected a fresh landmine and disarmed it. The mine appeared to be recently laid. It might be the mine planted by the enemy chasing the escaping villagers. Before turning back after losing the trails of the escapees the enemy might have laid the mines to get us. The trails ahead too might be heavily mined.

So we decided to avoid the trails and cut through the bush. By doing that we had to clamber up and down the steep rock cliffs. Sometimes the drops were so deep if someone lost grip and fell we wouldn’t find the body again.

Even the going through the tangled bush was not totally safe. The CPB and KIA insurgents had left abundant of landmines planted in the area when they were forced to retreat to the Chinese border. Every clearing could have mines in the ground. So we had to search out the mines underneath every spot of the grassy ground we had to step on.

Quite often the whole column had to wait standstill while the sappers at our point were clearing the mines from the suspected ground. Finally after many hours climbing up and down hill after hill our point had reached the edge of a young forest. Just after a climb out of a deep gully.

“We’ve found the enemy camp!”

The good news from the point was relayed back to me along the long line of suddenly excited men.

“Take positions and hang on, I’m coming!”

I walked past the kneeling men on the track and reached to the point. There Lt. Chit Than’s platoon had taken positions spreading out along the forest edge.

“About a thousand yards away, Captain,” said Lt. Chit Than while pointing at the enemy position.

From behind a small tree I tried to look at the camp. There was a steep rocky outcrop at a thousand yards. Between the huge boulders were two partially covered huts. When I looked carefully through the field binoculars no surrounding fence was found.

Between us and the camp the forest and then the wild grass field beyond was gradually sloping higher. On our left the ground was higher and ended at a deep gully down. On our right was the low ground occupied by now abandoned crop-fields.

“They will see us if we go through the wood…….,” said Lt. Chit Than.

When I looked at my watch the time was two in the afternoon. If we rushed without clearing the mines we could reach there in an hour. With mine clearing I couldn’t say how long it would take.

“We’ll go through the wild grass on our left and your platoon will wait for us at this location,” I pointed out the exact location on the map to him and ordered the column to continue.

My plan was to approach the enemy camp within the firing range. If they didn’t see us I would take the advantage of surprise and charge at them. If I needed to I would call for the heavy weapon support from our Battalion’s Forward Command Base.


The whole column was rushing fast towards the camp and everyone was excited as we were getting closer and closer to the enemy position. To speed up the approach the sappers at the point searched for the mines only at the most obvious places. The enemy camp was getting real close. I was even thinking of how best to spread the company into the battle line formation at the base of rocky outcrop ahead. 

“Jain, ka boom,” the huge explosion came out and then echoed back from the rocky walls of the hills around us. The whole column halted on the track. Someone from my company had stepped on a mine. I rushed past the men now standing still on the track towards the explosion.

Private San Myint from Lt. Chit Than’s Platoon at the point had placed a wrong step on the enemy mine. His left foot was completely gone from the ankle and the bleeding leg wound was disgustingly ugly. Two men were now holding him sitting up on the ground. The sappers were clearing additional mines from the adjacent area. The medic coming along with me started bandaging the leg wound as the wounded moaned with pain.

The enemy position was now very close. I looked up at the top of the rock outcrop and ordered the radioman to switch on the wireless and report the unfortunate event back to the Forward Base. Meanwhile the alerted enemy had started firing at us.

The enemy’s .50 machine gun bullets were now whizzing past all over us. We were in the lower field and we couldn’t retreat back out off their killing field. Thus I had to order my men to advance towards the base of rocky outcrop. There the men had to take cover behind the boulders and small trees.

Enemy had also started firing their heavy weapons down on us and the shells were exploding among us. I positioned the Company HQ at the base of rocky cliff as it was the only blind spot for the enemy firing from the top. Wounded San Myint was brought up there and the medic injected him to stop the bleeding.

Then we got the radio connection with the Forward Command Base. The battalion CO said they would begin the heavy weapon support and asked me if we could capture the enemy camp before dark. I didn’t really want to answer him that it was impossible. So I just told him we would try our best.

By then Private San Myint was bleeding too much and we had to let the Base know by radio. They soon replied that a platoon from the Forward Base was now coming down and they would be waiting after the mountain stream. We were to send the wounded there by quickest way possible.

So I pulled out Corporal Thein Dan and five men to send San Myint there. We didn’t have enough men left to raid the enemy but I had no choice. I jut told Corporal Thein Dan to come back ASAP after sending back the wounded. Since they would be using the direct way instead of the way we came around here they should be much quicker.


I then spread out the Company by placing Lt. Chit Than’s Platoon on the left wing, Lt. Kyi Lin’s Platoon on the right wing, and my company HQ with Third Platoon on the centre. We left all the porters at the safe cliff base and asked them to dig fox holes for us as a defense line if we were to withdraw back and stand the ground there.

Burmese Army Heavy Mortar Team.
Once we started advancing the enemy threw a lot of firing pressure at us. Then we heard the sound of heavy weapon firings from our Forward Base. At first our own shells did not reach the enemy camp. All exploded just outside the camp. But later our shells had found the targets. Once our shells were exploding inside the camp the enemy firing on us was just considerably reduced. So we fired and moved harder towards the camp.

The sun was setting fast and soon the sun had completely disappeared behind the high mountain tops. We stood up and tried to bayonet charge the enemy now at only fifty yards away. But we couldn’t even stand up as the enemy bullets now flying all over us would cut down most of us. We just had to crawl up inch by inch towards them firing heavily at us. Then an enemy bullet found Sergeant Chit Win from Lt. Kyi Lin’s Platoon.

The bullet went through his neck and he couldn’t speak at all. I ordered two men to drag him back to the cliff base. The radio and our medic were there. The Company Sergeant Major and the civilian porters were there too.

I actively pushed the men to charge the enemy. Some of then just stood up and charge the enemy with their guns blazing. They reached almost to the enemy gun barrels but fell back down after a short struggle right on the enemy line. We had to crawl up and drag the fallen back.

Private Hla Htun was found shot through the waist and private Saw Aung was dead. Hla Htun and Saw Aung’s body were sent back to the cliff base. Night was darker and darker as our heavy weapon support tried to suppress the enemy resistance. But it was impossible to charge the enemy on the high ground again.

So I ordered the whole company to dig in at wherever they were then. We still couldn’t capture the enemy camp but we were in a position to be able to charge at them again.

I came back down to the cliff base as the CSM had come up to take charge of the battle line. There Sergeant Chit Win was unconscious and Private Hla Htun was bleeding like hell. Private Aung Win and Private Hla Shwe from Lt. Chit Than’s platoon were there and seriously wounded.

Even in the total darkness enemy was blindly firing in our direction from time to time. I reported our situation back to the Forward Base by the radio. I also got connected with the Platoon waiting by the stream to pick up our wounded. They told me Corporal Thein Dan and his men carrying wounded San Myint were already there and immediately left for our position.

I directed that Platoon to send only one section back with the wounded to the Base and the rest to wait there for more wounded coming down from us. By then the time was ten in the night.


Suddenly I found myself really hungry. So I tried to eat a Kachin rice cake (Khaw-boke). I bit off a small piece and tried to swallow it but I couldn’t and had to spit it off. Enemy from high ground was swearing and shouting obscenities at us and my men were returning their insults. Once they heard our voices they fired at us again but I didn’t give firing orders to the men.

I came back up to the battle line and slowly crawled up to the right where Lt. Kyi Lin’s Platoon was. I told him to approach the camp slowly and silently from the right while my platoon and Lt. Chit Than’s Platoon would fire the camp as a cover.

Burmese Army MG3 GPMG Squad.
At eleven in the night we started shouting and yelling and firing at the enemy camp. I ordered my MG3 machine gunner Win Sein to rapid fire. Immediately they returned fire and we had to move to another position. I also ordered the G4 gunners to fire only one magazine each and then wait for another order as I didn’t really want to waste the slowly depleting ammunitions.

I knew by then Lt. Kyi Lin and his platoon must be near the enemy camp. But without the platoon sergeant his Platoon was considerably weakened. Time was already one in the early morning. In the darkness I followed up to his platoon and reached his position. I ordered him to bayonet charge the enemy camp at five sharp.

When I got back to our position the enemy was pressuring on Lt. Chit Than’s Platoon. Everybody was stuck in his foxhole under enemy heavy fire. I needed to cover the charge with our fire. So I ordered the men to advance. We lay flat on our belly and slowly crawled up.

Suddenly there were small flashes above the enemy camp and soon the whole sky above us was lit up. They were now using the flares to see us. Hanging from the slowly dropping small parachutes the slow burning flares had brightly lit the sky and our ground.

Once they saw us my platoon was soon under their heavy fire. My MG3 machine gunner Win Sein just beside me was killed. After dragging back the MG3 I crawled back down into the foxhole while Private Aye Maung pulled Win Sein’s body back. Our adventure in the darkness had no tangible benefits at all.

But the dawn charge was still on and soon the Forward Base had resumed the heavy weapon support. Since they had sighted their guns well before the darkness the shells were now falling right on top of the enemy positions. One recoilless shell hit an enemy hut and it exploded into flames. The enemy under heavy fire didn’t even attempt to extinguish the fire.

Meanwhile Corporal Thein Dan and his group had arrived back and reported to me. I kept them near me to rest and pulled out Lance Corporal Than Aye and his section to send the wounded back to the waiting platoon at the mountain stream.

Time was almost five in the morning and the heavy weapons from our forward Base had gradually stopped shelling the enemy fortified camp.


I ordered my company to unleash all their firepower at the enemy. Our only rocket launcher was also put into action to destroy the enemy bunkers at point blank.

“Charge, tiger, charge!”

Enemy from the high ground had returned fire as both my platoon and Lt. Chit Than’s platoon charged at them with all our guns blazing. Lt. Kyi Lin’s platoon also shouted and charged from the right. Enemy had rolled down their hand grenades onto us. Som of us stepped on their land mines while they were also triggering their controlled-mines to go off among us. The battleground was now covered with thick clouds of smoke and the balls of dust kicked off by our charge and the mine and shell explosions everywhere.

I couldn’t see anyone near me as I ran up fast towards the enemy. Too many bullets were whizzing past me and I had to hit the dust as a launcher shell landed and exploded right on the ground just ahead of me. Then the grenades started coming down near me and I had to roll back down away from the explosions.

To take the enemy camp was impossible. Our storming charge had failed. Three of my men were killed. Lt. Chit Than was wounded in the face. Six more were also wounded. When we all got back into the foxholes dug yesterday the time was already nine in the morning.


Chinese RPG used by CPB in Burma.
Enemy had fired at us heavily again to force us to retreat further away from them. But we stayed there in the holes and fired back at them. I had to radio the Base for their heavy weapon support again.

We sent the wounded back to the cliff base and brought the reserve ammunitions to the battle line and distributed to everyone. The wounded and killed had seriously depleted our attacking strength. Even with full strength we couldn’t capture the enemy position and the task was more difficult now with depleted strength.

I left the company in Lt. Kyi Lin’s charge and came back down to the cliff base. There among the wounded I found Lt. Chit Than. Half of his face was covered with bandages. The medic had also covered one eye with a plastered bandage. His face was horribly swollen but I could still find a faint smile on his lips.

“After this short rest I want to go back up there. Only after this battle I’ll go to the hospital. Then I can chase pretty nursing cadets there, he he.”

He was still joking but I knew he was really trying to lift the morale of the many wounded there. I had not an idea how to replenish my depleting company and continue the fight against the CPB men now stubbornly digging-in at the high ground.

“Sons of a bitch, CPBs! Their strength is not bloody 50. They have both Township and War-region troops combined up there. Must be at least 150. They have .50 machine guns and also 60 mm recoilless guns. Using plenty of rocket launchers too. That’s right, I couldn’t go back to base yet, you need me here.”

He insisted on staying back here with the company but I shook my head as he was severely wounded now.

Lance Corporal Than Aye and his section had returned from sending the second batch of our wounded back to the stream crossing. Two sections from the Fourth Company came along with them as the reinforcement. Then I ordered Corporal Thein Dan’s section to prepare to send the third batch of seven wounded including Lt. Chit Than back to the waiting platoon at the stream. I sent up the reinforcement sections to the battle line.

“I don’t want to go back yet. The face wound won’t kill me right now. I’ll stay here.”

Lt. Chit Than wouldn’t go back with other wounded and I was annoyed and I swore at him.

“Son of a bitch, I order you to go and you’ll go right now!”

Only then he calmed down and gave up. Once the wounded and the escort section had left I came back up to the company. Up there my men were still facing the enemy and shooting back at them. I went up and jumped down into Lt. Kyi Lin’s foxhole.

“Chit Than’s side is difficult to charge. My side is easier to advance. Mine filed is thinner and the ground is better for the men to spread out.”

Lt. Kyi Lin reported to me immediately and I looked at my watch.  Before noon the Base would be shelling again the enemy position with heavy weapons.

“At noon we’ll charge again!”

He didn’t say back anything. Normally the attackers need at least three times more manpower than the defenders for a frontal charge to be successful. CPB normally used at least ten times manpower to overrun one of our fortified outposts. Only then their attack was guaranteed to win.

So in military science the defenders could resist the attackers three times stronger than them. In the case of our army we could resist the enemy ten times stronger than us. But right now we were the attackers and they were the defenders. And they were three times stronger than us.

Then I saw Private Kyaw Gaung the signal man came up to me.

“Captain, air support is coming!”

I just frowned at him bringing up the good news himself. But he didn’t notice.

“The bombing will start soon at 1100.”

He then handed me the telegraph. I read it and then stared at him again. He seemed to be quite happy and excited, with .30 carbine ready in his hands.

“Wait a minute! You’re the radioman and why don’t you stay with the radio? Why didn’t you send a messenger?”
“No one back there with me, Sir.”
“Okay, go, go back to your position. Send the CSM to me here!”

He rolled back down. Suddenly I heard the explosion of launcher rocket and heard the painful moans. When I raised my head out off the foxhole and looked back there I saw Kyaw Gaung wounded and bloodied. I was so angry and depressed. Without the signalman how could I communicate with my troops both here and back at the Base?

Swiss Pilatus PC-7 Fighter Bomber.
But I couldn’t be depressed for too long as I had the battle to fight and the enemy position to overrun. I moved my Company HQ and the Third Platoon to Lt. Kyi Lin’s position on the right. And I ordered the platoon at the left to fill in the vacant centre. Under the enemy bullets buzzing overhead we slowly took new positions for another charge immediately after the aerial bombardment.

When we heard the airforce planes coming we were really happy. My men cheered aloud and shouted out. But I couldn’t be too happy just by seeing the airforce planes, yet.

“Hold the positions, hold the positions. Little motherfuckers, you all will get bombed together with fucking CPBs!”

Enemy positions were so close to us we could almost touch them. And the wind was blowing erratically from all directions. But, luckily, the airforce planes still bombed directly onto the targets. The whole camp was soon burning with flames roaring high.

Immediately after the devastating aerial bombardment we bayonet charged the enemy and only the most stubborn ones resisted our brutal tiger charge. In this huge drawn-out battle both sides had so many casualties including the important Township Political Commissar on the CPB side.

(Famous movie director and writer Tin Than Oo (a) Lt. Colonel Maung Maung Oo aged 57 died of chronic lever cirrhosis on 5 November 2010 in Rangoon.)