Lest We Forget Continued (page 12)
From this airfield the 42nd Column was taken about 200 miles behind Japanese lines. The transport aircraft had no seats and men had to sit on the floor. There were no toilets and a bucket was placed at the rear of the aircraft. After a while the pilot said they had just flown over the River Chindwin and not long afterwards they landed in a rough field in a valley in Burma. Several aircraft crashed on landing. After jumping out the men made straight for the bush because the aircraft were taking off and landing all the time. This airstrip was named Aberden after Brigadier Wingate’s house in England. The 42nd (Chindit) Column consisted of about 300 men of the Black Watch, Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery, Royal Corps of Signals and Army Medical Corps. There were also RAF personnel for radio communications for air drops which were the only means of getting supplies in. Mules and Bullocks also travelled in the Dakotas.
At first supplies were dropped at night by American pilots, but later the RAF took over. Landing signals were made by lighting fires in the shape of a capital L. Two men tended each fire. Some were killed by falling supplies and at other times the drops were made under enemy fire. The RAF switched to daytime drops, which were more successful. Jack went on jungle raids with the Black Watch. To combat the risk of Malaria the men were taking Mepacrine tablets. At first the dose was two per day, but this was later increased to nine, a level which produced side effects from which some men never recovered. Each man had a water carrier called a “chuggle” which held water if it was kept wet. Chlorine tablets were put in to purify the water. These were supposed to be left for at least half an hour. However the men were often so thirsty that they did not wait. Each man carried 50 rounds of ammunition, four primed hand grenades, a machete and a rifle and bayonet. Personal kit consisted of a blanket, a groundsheet, two mess tins, “small kit” (washing and shaving gear – the Black Watch were one of the few regiments that shaved when in the jungle) and a “housewife” (sewing and mending kit). They were also issued with American “K” rations, and kept a five day supply of the tinned and packet rations. Each day’s ration was in three waxed boxes about nine inches by six inches, designed to be used as fire lighters when empty. The total weight of the pack when fully loaded was about 80 pounds.
Typical “K” rations consisted of:
Breakfast: 4 Biscuits, Instant Coffee, Tinned Ham and Egg, Dried Fruit.
Lunch: 4 biscuits, instant coffee, tinned soft cheese.
Dinner: Tinned meat, Bullion powder, Chocolate.
Each pack also contained Dextrose Tablets, Toilet Paper and Four Cigarettes.
During March 1944 Jack was in the Upper Chindwin area, which was dense jungle. It was very hot and many rivers were dried up and dusty. Much of the time was taken in patrols with the Black Watch. They placed booby traps in the jungle on known Japanese routes and fox holes, and there were occasional skirmishes with the Japanese. The mules carried 4.2 inch mortars and additional supplies were dropped from the air. On one occasion too many supplies were dropped so they were stockpiled and Jack and a section were left behind to guard them. The column was unable to return as planned and arrangements were made for the Leicesters’ column to pick them up. Jack‘s section was attached to the Leicesters’ engineers who were also 54th Field Company men. One of the first things that Jack did with the Leicesters was a long march to Indauggi Lake where a Sunderland flying boat was moored to take out wounded men. This march took about two weeks to complete. They then ferried the wounded out to the flying boat. They returned to a place called “White City” which was manned by the South Staffordshire regiment. During the first night each man had a fox-hole to sleep in as the perimeter was under constant shell and small arms fire. Each man slept on his ground sheet and had a cord tied to his wrist so that any attack could be silently communicated by tugging the cord. There were several false alarms which meant that the men had very little sleep. One Japanese aircraft in particular returned repeatedly to strafe the camp during daylight. On one occasion, Jack was having a wash in the river when the aircraft swept in and dropped a bomb. Luckily he managed to jump into a dugout and avoided being hurt. The dugouts were linked together with slit trenches and each provided shelter for four or five men.
Each Column had Burmese scouts in native dress. Early one evening the Engineers were led out of camp by scouts who instructed them to smoke cigarettes at particular points so that the pickets would know who they were. After about three miles in the dark through the jungle they found that they were being reunited with the Black Watch column. They were told to report to the commanding officer, Major Rose, who welcomed them back, apologised for leaving them behind and told them that they had missed a severe ambush by the Japanese.
For the next few weeks it was very hot and dry, but then the Monsoon came and the men were constantly wet and very tired through moving and lack of sleep. All of the dry tracks, which served as paths through the jungle, became rivers. Leeches were a constant menace, working their way under the puttees and sucking blood until they burst, leaving their fangs in the skin. Every hour the column halted and leeches were removed by touching them with a cigarette. In the constant wet, boots rotted away. Many men walked in rubber daps until the next supply drop and hoped that it would include boots of their size. Two elephants were attached to the column to assist in bridge building. They usually walked at the head of the column and those following behind had to watch out for the two feet deep water filled foot holes. At night the men were plagued with small black flies. The only way to find relief was to build a fire, bank it up with green grass and sleep in the smoke. Rifles were always becoming rusty and every evening a few rounds were fired to try to keep the barrels clean. Ground sheets were sewn together with parachute cord to make tents to keep the rain off. Blankets were always wet. To help mules and men climb the mountains, the engineers made steps from layers of bamboo canes. Sometimes the column was diverted to clearings to prepare airstrips for small aircraft to evacuate the wounded. This was hard work and done by hand with the machete. The Mepacrine tablets were gradually turning the men’s skin yellow and the rough conditions in the monsoon caused considerable illness and discomfort. Many of the villages were occupied by head hunters with war canoes, but as the men of the column were armed there was no trouble.
The news that Brigadier Ord Wingate had died was a great blow and the men did not know from that time who was really in command of them. Jack lost his best friend through illness at this time and all of the men were losing weight through illness and suffering from malaria. Only about half of the original 360 men of the column survived. At one time they met up with “Merrall’s Marauders”, which was the American unit equivalent to the “Chindits.” On operations they always tried to conceal themselves from the enemy, always standing to at first light in positions around the tracks and never sleeping in the villages for fear of mortar attacks.