Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tin Than Oo's Battles - Episode 3 (Final)

(Concise translation of Chapter 7 from Late Tin Than Oo’s Autobiographical Novel.)

By the Chinese borderline in Kachin State (1979)

Burmese Army Northern Command.
My company had repaired and rebuilt the captured enemy camp and garrisoned as our frontline defensive position by the Chinese border. By then the fleeing enemy also had repositioned on the ranges right on the border line and started shelling us with their heavy weapons. But we couldn’t return their fire as our shells could easily land into the Chinese territory.

Between our outpost at the border and the Battalion Forward Command Base at Htawgaw was at least one full day walking distance. The Battalion Forward Command Base was more than three full day walking distance from the Northern Command’s Tactical Command Base in Chibwe. The vehicular road from Waimaw across the Irrawaddy from Myitkyinar ended at Chibwe and all the supplies mainly food ration and ammunition were to be transported by the civilian porters.

Getting civilian porters was not an easy task in that remote region of Northern Burma. CPB had forcefully relocated many villages into their so-called liberated area and the villagers were forced to grow crops there for the Communist troops. All other villages left couldn’t stay anymore between the two warring sides and fled to Myitkyinar, Waingmaw, and Warshaung areas.

Frequently we had run out of food and supplies. We had to stretch three days ration to last five days and a week ration to ten days. Nothing to cook there. No meat and no vegetables. Once we received chickens from the Tactical Command Base and tried to raise them at our camp. But they all died later as the chickens seemed to have succumbed to the harsh cold weather.

There were absolutely no edible vegetables. All our food rations supplied by the Forward Command Base were canned-meat and canned-fish. We had nothing to smoke and sometimes we received only the tobacco powder in large plastic bags. Men rolled the powder in paper and smoked. When the tobacco ran out they roasted wild banana leaves and used as tobacco substitute in their hand-made cigarettes.

The vehicular road between the Tactical Command Base at Chibwe and Waimaw was not always reliable too. Once Monsoon arrived the Road became unusable river of mud. Even when the road was good there were enemy ambushes too. Only with a heavy escort and tight patrols along the Road a trucks convoy could come up to Chibwe.

When the weather was really bad even the helicopters couldn’t fly there. Communication and transportation were totally cut out. Food supply was extremely poor. And we had to live in the underground bunkers like field rats. We sometimes got letters from the loved ones only when a trucks convoy reached the Tactical Command Base or a helicopter landed at the Forward Command Base.


Communist Party of Burma.
Then one day we received the good news that our battalion would be getting an R&R break back in Myitkyinar. And we all were happy. But our happiness didn’t last long as the news of massive enemy troops approaching our outpost reached us just after the good news.

As their practice CPB troops were approaching to stage a dawn raid on our post. But they stepped on one of our landmines at about 2 in the morning. And the explosion jolted all of us out of bed. And I ordered my men to take their positions. Lt. Kyi Lin’s platoon from the Forward Guard Post also signaled to our main post that they too were ready.

Once the enemy had known we were ready and waiting they unleashed a heavy-weapon barrage on our camp. We could see the flashes from their barrels as one after another the shells fell and exploded among us. Sometimes more than one shell dropped together and exploded together.

The explosions basically damaged the communication trenches linking our heavy-weapon-proof bunkers. Enemy was also trying to destroy our multi-layer bamboo fences with their 90mm Bazookas. In the dark the lights from the gun barrels and the explosions were like the flashes of fireflies as they came and went.

“Don’t bloody shoot yet. Hold your fire. Useless to shoot now. We’ll kill then when they reach the fences!” I had to keep on reminding my men to hold their fire.

At the height of their heavy-weapon bombardment they managed to reach near our fences. They were approaching us while we couldn’t even look out because of the shells falling right on top of us. They were following the test book method by combining their movement with their heavy firepower. Their cover was their heavy weapon barrage.

Suddenly the explosive sounds of their barrage went silence. Then we heard the landmine explosions just beyond the fences.

“They are coming. Ready and don’t hesitate to fire!”

Suddenly the enemy storm troopers stood up, yelled out aloud, and rushed into the fences.

“Fire, fire. Fire at will!” and soon we firing every weapon we had at them.

We were on the high ground and we were also inside the foxholes and the bunkers. They were on the low ground and they were in the open as we had cleared everything so that they had nothing to hide behind.

So they couldn’t even manage to cross the obstacles of mines, punjee sticks, and bamboo fences let alone get inside our main camp.

As the morning approached we could see them clearly. And our firing was getting better. An enemy group was trying to overrun the Lt. Kyi Lin’s forward guard post. So we shelled them with our 2” motors and portable rocket launchers. Our MG3 gunners also fired non stop at them.

And we won the first battle as we repulsed their initial assault on us.

At 9 in the morning they bombarded us again while their front line forces or so-called Storm Troopers dragged their dead and wounded and withdrew. They had failed miserably in their first attempt.


Htawgaw Hills by the China Border.
That day we had to stay in the bunkers as enemy had fired their heavy weapon at us the whole day. The company kitchen cooked lunch and distributed to the men in their bunkers. The morale of our men was high and they all were excited.

During the short breaks between enemy barrages I sent out men to repair the damage fences and lay new landmines.

In the dark that night enemy had approached us again. They kept on shelling us with their heavy-weapons intermittently so that we wouldn’t be able to sleep. I let half of the men sleep. But in reality they couldn’t sleep even as they were ordered to.

At dawn they started again with a heavy-weapon barrage while their infantry advanced with the sounds of their officers’ whistles. But this time they concentrated their full attention on the Guard Post. Even with us cross-firing at them the enemy wouldn’t let up the pressure on Lt. Kyi Lin’s Platoon in the Guard Post.

To get the radio contact with Lt. Kyi Lin I entered our radio room. He told me on the radio that the enemy troops were virtually killing themselves under our heavy fire and he even saw the Communist officers shooting and killing their own men who refused to advance into certain death by our MG3 fire.

Even though he told me not to worry about them I was really worried by then. If their Guard Post fell we wouldn’t be able to hold our Main Post any longer as the Guard Post was on higher ground. So I needed to help them now.

I pulled out a section of men. Called out the launcher group and asked them to carry five rockets. I also called out the MG3 crew. Then we walked out along the communication trench leading to the main gate of the Guard Post.

The Guard Post and our Main Post was only 150 yards apart and between the two posts were the mine fields. A deep communication trench connected two posts. Apparently the enemy didn’t dare to come in between our two posts as they knew they could be fired upon from both posts.

Our group ran along the trench and reached a point where we could directly see the enemy attacking the Guard Post. We then climbed out of the deep trench and took positions behind the big trees there. Enemy still hadn’t seen us.

“Machine gunners, hold your fire! Fire only after the launcher rockets started exploding. These bastards don’t know we are here.”

Right in front of us the enemy troops were clambering up the rock cliff below the Guard Post like ants. Some of them were putting up long bamboo ladders. Many were firing at our men in the post. I ordered to fire.

The rockets rapidly left the launcher leaving behind the massive noises of blowbacks and soon exploded among the enemy troops. The MG3 bullets also flew out and fell the suddenly disturbed enemy.

We had destroyed the enemy offensive against the forward Post by our surprise assault from the side. Enemy withdrew disorderly and ran for their lives.

But their heavy-weapon group wouldn’t let us enjoy our victory for too long. Immediately they fired at us and we had to roll back down into the deep trench we came through. Their shells followed us along the trench as we rushed back inside our Main Camp through the explosions of heavy-weapon shells.

The above-ground company kitchen of our camp was by then burning. All the pots and pans and plates were scattered all over the place. One of the water tanks was also blown off by a enemy heavy-weapon shell.


A Burmese Army MG3 Crew.
That day enemy wouldn’t storm us any more. They just surrounded us and tried to kill us one by one. Their snipers watched us constantly and if one of us raised his head he was immediately shot.

I had to enter the Radio bunker again. Our battalion Forward Command told me on the radio that the Second Column of two companies from our battalion had already left for our besieged camp since yesterday. But they’d been stopped on the way by enemy intercepting forces and since last night that battle was still raging.

As a standard infantry battalion our battalion had two mobile columns of two companies each and the First Column was led by the battalion CO and my company was part of that column. The Second Column of other two companies was now on the way to us as the reinforcement.

Enemy had also been shelling the Battalion Forward Command Base from a distance with their heavy-weapons. I reported to the CO that we were still holding the camp and we had only four wounded. I also promised I would absolutely defend the camp. I also knew that the reinforcement column coming to us had more casualties than us.

Not just our camp was under siege. By then the whole battalion was under the heavy attacks by massive CPB forces. Four rifle companies of our battalion were grouped into two columns of two companies each. Battalion CO led the First Column and my company was part of it. The Second Column was now marching towards our camp to relieve us. But it was now blocked by the enemy forces while the First Column at the Battalion Forward Command Base was besieged by the enemy.

I was told that since 6 in the evening the First Column at Htawgaw Base was under heavy attack. We couldn’t get contact with the Second Column. Enemy strategy clearly was simultaneous attacks on our base camps and the mobile column so that we couldn’t be able to help each other.

Only then I realized we shouldn’t expect help from our forces. At least in the short term. But I wasn’t really worried about us as I worried more about the Battalion Froward Command since that base was much more important than our outpost on the border.


The night was getting darker and darker.

75mm Recoilless Gun.
Enemy began their heavy-weapon shelling on us and kept on the relentless pressure of their firepower. But they unleashed their storm troops only at Lt. Kyi Lin’s Guard Post not on our main camp. It was impossibly difficult for us to help them again like we did during the day. The platoon called us on the radio and we received the bad news that four men were killed and many were wounded.  

Definitely that platoon wouldn’t be able to resist the enemy assault very soon. Their number was just too little compared to the massive enemy strength. We couldn’t reinforce them too. But they would stand their ground till the last one as one after another was killed. Only when all of them were killed the Guard Post would fall.

Finally I decided to abandon the Guard Post and ordered them on the radio to withdraw. I also ordered them to carry the wounded and the weapons and ammunition back to us, and to lay the mines on their way. Then I gave the order to my men to fire all their weapons at the enemy attacking the Guard Post as the cover fire for the retreating men.

I understood how difficult it was to withdraw under enemy’s heavy fire and began to worry as the Guard Platoon didn’t get back to us within an hour. Then we heard the loud yells of enemy’s bayonet charge from the Guard Post Hill. We also heard the mine explosions and immediately knew the enemy chasing our men were now triggering the mines left by them.

After that enemy heavy-weapons were suddenly quiet. They might now be moving some of their heavy guns up the Guard Post hill to fire at our main camp from high ground. Soon Lt. Kyi Lin and his exhausted platoon also came in with all the wounded. They managed to bring all the guns and ammunition and radio equipment. They had to leave the killed though.

“We just withdrew because of the order to withdraw. We could still hold the Guard Post if we had to!”
“No way, what I’m gonna do if you guys got all killed? Right now the Forward Command is being attacked and the reinforcement Column couldn’t go through the enemy. I don’t thing no one is coming soon to help us here!”

I explained our current dire situation to the Lieutenant and entered into the Radio Room bunker again. Lt. Kyi Lin also followed me inside. Radio Room had a light on brightly but they had sealed the room so well the light was invisible from outside. The signal man gave me the telegraphs.

Forward Command Base with the First Column was now basically under siege. The reinforcement column, the Second Column, was now trying to help them by turning back and heading back there. The enemy strategy seemed to be finishing us off soon while holding both our Columns at bay and preventing them from reinforcing us.

The order from the Battalion Forward Command for me was to hold the post at any cost till tomorrow midnight. My company was strictly not allowed to retreat till that time. One infantry battalion from the Tactical Command at Chibwe had already left for our battalion positions.

That battalion was now marching day and night and their First Column would reach our Forward Command by tomorrow afternoon. Air support from our Air Force would be available tomorrow afternoon too.


That night we couldn’t sleep at all. Our whole battalion was under heavy enemy attacks at three different places. Enemy forces around our besieged camp were yelling and swearing aloud at us the whole night while their heavy-weapons regularly shelled us and wouldn’t let up the pressure.

“At dawn we will face their bayonet charge. All the fences are now burning,” I thought aloud knowing our bamboo fences were being destroyed by their relentless shelling at that moment. We had no spare mines left to deter their suicidal charges too. And we had too many wounded and killed. But we still had reserved-ammunition for our mortars and guns.

We could hear more noises from the enemy positions as the dawn was getting closer. Because of darkness the enemy barrages from our old Guard Post were not that effective but that would change once they could see us clearly in the daylight.

As expected they came down heavy on us with their traditional bayonet charge at 5 in the morning. But we withstood their charge as we were stronger both morally and physically as the whole company was now together in the main camp.

Group by group we mowed down enemy infantry charging through the holes in the bamboo fences. By 8 in the morning their casualties was so heavy they had suddenly stopped their advance. But they wouldn’t retreat. They stood their ground by digging in at wherever they were on the open ground. Now they were right inside our camp.

I used all my mortars and rocket launchers in shelling our old Guard Post to prevent enemy from coming down on us from that direction too. I also sent a section of men to block the communication trench linking the Guard Post and our camp. If enemy rolled down along that trench en masse we would be in a serious trouble. But fortunately for us they hadn’t done that yet.

Swiss PC-6 Fighter Planes.
We could hear the sounds of airplanes and bomb explosions but the air support was just for the Battalion Forward Command Base on the Htawgaw Hills. On the radio I could hear that our First and Second Columns with the air support were successful in repelling the enemy. I also knew the alarming fact that since the Second Column was chasing them the enemy was now collapsing towards us.

Our radio then got connected to the Radio from the reinforcement battalion coming up from the Tactical Command at Chibwe. That battalion was watching the rapidly changing Battle situations and now they wanted to talk to me direct on the radio. So I took the handset from the signaler.

“Coconut, butterfly, pumpkin, do you hear me? Roger,” they asked.
“Sound 5, sound 5, roger,” I replied acknowledging that I could hear them well.
“Do you recognize the sound? Do you recognize the sound here? Roger,” I heard the very familiar voice of Captain Than Swe one of my DSA classmates.

The situation had changed again. The Battalion Forward Command was relieved but the retreating enemy like a wounded tiger was now onto us very soon. Instead of going to the Command Base the reinforcement battalion is now heading here to help us. We were also not allowed to retreat. And we were ordered to stand our ground till the time the reinforcement battalion arrives here.


At noon that day the enemy form the old Guard Post started coming down heavy onto us. Many explosions came out as they stepped on the mines we had left in the communication trench between that post and our main camp. Our MG3 fired non-stop on a fixed firing trajectory and killed plenty of them. Once their survivors were inside our camp they tried to storm up onto our positions but we repelled them quickly by triggering our controlled mines on the ground they now stood.

By then enemy had completely surrounded our little company. We had seven killed and more than twenty wounded in our company. Even the wounded were now shooting back at the enemy immediately after their wounds were quickly dressed and bandaged by the medic.

As I was afraid before the enemy from the old Guard Post were soon running into us. The dreaded hand-to-hand combat or the brutal bayonet fight was on.

Lt. Kyi Lin’s platoon was now completely mangling with the attacking enemy. My men were facing enemy bayonet to bayonet. The hand-grenades being thrown from both sides were exploding everywhere. I took the MG3 crew and ran towards Lt. Kyi Lin’s position and ordered the Gunner fire into the thick enemy crowd.

Soon MG3 bullets were flying. My men fought the close-up battle like they were possessed by the demons and soon enemy bayonet charge had collapsed and they retreated leaving   their deaths on the battle ground. My men felt stronger as they had won the first bayonet fight.

Enemy had retreated away from us and taken a short break before the second bayonet charge. At two past noon they charged at us again. Our strength was getting weaker and weaker under their repeated bayonet charges. Even the severely wounded were now standing up and facing them with their drawn bayonets.

But this time enemy didn’t attack too long. Once they lost a few men they immediately withdrew. And within half an hour they charged at us again with their bayonets flashing in the bright sunlight.

Swiss PC 7 Fighter-Bomber Plane.
They occupied one of our bunkers after killing two men inside by hand grenades. But we blew up that bunker with our rocket launchers. By then enemy had already occupied a quarter of our ground. But we were still on the high ground and we kept on shooting at them. But they were still slowly advancing towards us.

Then suddenly we heard the airplanes right on top of us. Our air force fighter planes had appeared and started machine-gunning the enemy crowd on the old Guard Post Hill. The two planes also fired their rockets at the enemy there. After the two fighter planes had attacked the enemy three times the air force bombers appeared and soon dropped clusters and clusters of bombs onto the enemy positions.

Even the enemy already inside our main camp didn’t dare to stay and they fled and ran downhill for their lives. The reinforcement battalion had also arrived and started clearing the enemy around us. Now we could breathe easy but we all were utterly exhausted by then.

The battle was over and I was still alive!

(More than 5,000 men from both Army and CPB were killed in that just-few-days-long Battle of Htawgaw Hills in 1979. Tin Than Oo (a) Lt. Colonel Maung Maung Oo died of chronic lever cirrhosis on 5 November 2010 in Rangoon at aged 57.)