Memorial Day: Taking the Burma Road

Final installment of a four-part series. Read the other installments: Part 1: Remembering Burma and Merrill's Marauders | Part 2: Merrill's Marauders Take Myitkyina | Part 3: Mars Task Force Is Formed

From Ray Mitchell's memoirs…

We now had commanding view on the Old Burma Road that ran from Kunming, China into Burma. From our position we were able to direct artillery and mortar fire on the Road. This was done day and night to make it difficult for the enemy to supply troops fighting the Chinese further up the Burma Road leading into China. Patrols were sent to the road, land mines were planted, and truck convoys were ambushed as they attempted to run the blockade. In cutting the supply line to the enemy, they were forced to withdraw from the engagement with the Chinese.

The Japanese tried to dislodge us from our positions using heavy artillery, 105mm and 155mm, trying to overrun our positions, almost succeeding at times.

Third Battalion was on a lower hill several miles from us with artillery because we did not have a place for artillery on the ridge. Our losses were beginning to increase due to the 155 artillery shells–we were too crowded.

In the battle for the Burma Road, our air support was by the P-47, called 'the Jug'. A very powerful, effective fighter bomber equipped with eight 50 caliber machine guns, plus carrying many 250 pound bombs. The P-47 planes were so close to us we could see the expressions on the faces of the pilots. One of the planes came in very low to strafe the ridge in front of us, but he still had a 250 pound bomb that had hung up without his knowledge. When he hit the trigger for the machine guns, the bomb was released just above six of us standing and watching the power show by the fly boys.

It all happened so fast we could not hit the ground. The bomb landed in the middle of our group. As the bomb hit the ground, probably traveling between 250 and 300 miles per hour, the sound emitted was similar to a speeding car putting on brakes and tires burning rubber on a paved road. The bomb did not explode, which is obvious because I'm here, but ricocheted off the hard ground, going another 75 to 100 yards and exploded on contact on the enemy position!

We took a deep breath, let it out very slowly and went about our business. Later in life, I was told by a pilot of the same type bomber plane that the bomb did not explode because a small propeller in the nose of the bomb had a pin on it and was pulled from the propeller, allowing it to rotate. After turning about six times, the bomb was activated and would detonate on impact.

The Mars Task Force for this battle had brought the entire Brigade into action. I understand that this was the only Brigade in the Army. Our make up was the 475th Infantry Regiment which had 3 Battalions of about 1,000 men in each Unit with a portable surgical unit attached — Not a MASH unit like on TV.

One night I was in the bunker with the Commanding Officer, Colonel Thrailkil. I was the Sgt. Major and he wanted to go to the observation post that overlooked the road. It was a very bright moon that night and you could see anything that moved. He and I moved along the ridge in a trench to the observation post. When we reached the opening, I told the Colonel that I needed to go to my foxhole for some cigarettes. I was a heavy smoker, and I had been out for several hours not being able to smoke. The Colonel did not smoke. I left the observation post and went to my foxhole for a pack of cigarettes.

I lit one before heading back to the observation post which was only about 10, maybe 15 yards away. The artillery started up before I made it back, the 155mm were coming in. I started to try to make it back between shells, but decided to wait until it was over. The observation post received a direct hit. I was the first to arrive and began moving logs and then the wounded. There were six men in the post, three were killed, including the Colonel who was blown in half, the other three were wounded.

Sgt. Milton Kornfeld of Brooklyn, NY had a leg blown off, all but a small ligament. The medic just pulled a trench knife and cut the ligament to free him from the logs that pinned him down. Kornfeld did not lose consciousness, and on the stretcher he kept talking. I went to him and told him not to talk so loudly because he was drawing small arms fire.

He called me by name and said, “Mitch, you have always heard that the fastest thing in the world was a Jew passing Hitler's house on a bicycle. I heard that big shell coming and I moved out of the way faster…all but one leg!” Kornfeld survived to go home.

At this point I would be remiss if I did not give praise to our medical people. From the aide in the foxhole who never hesitate when the cry “Medic!” was heard to those in the aid station. It took courage to crawl out to a wounded man during the battle. They did! And the aide station with the two surgeons working under the poorest of conditions did an outstanding job.

I understand that if a wounded man could be reached by the aide man, his chances on surviving was about 60 percent. If the wounded man could reach the Battalion aide station, his chances increased to about 75 percent. If his luck held and he could make it to the portable surgical unit, usually about five miles behind combat zone, the chances go up in to 80 percent. Next came the evacuation by small planes to a field hospital, there his luck goes into the 90 percent range. The last would be a general hospital, then his chances could be as high as 98 percent. The medical personnel did more with less than any group could.

I was told to take Colonel Thrailkil's effects to the Regimental Commanders and tell him what had happened. The Regimental Commanding Officer was Colonel Easterbrook, the finest of men, an officer and a gentleman. In fact, he was General Stilwell's son-in-law. After talking with Colonel Easterbrook, I explained that I needed to hurry and leave in order to get back to the 2nd Battalion before dark. It was about five miles and I was walking. The Colonel, in his gentle way, told me to stay the night in the portable surgical unit, have a good meal and a night's sleep and to see him the next morning before returning to my unit. The next morning, I returned to the Colonel's headquarters and he met me with a towel, a bar of soap and a razor. Smiling he told me to go to the nearby stream and clean up. I protested, telling him I need to hurry back to my unit. With that smile he said, “Sergeant, that war will be there when you get back.” I took the bath and shaved, I surely felt guilty when I returned to my unit all clean.

(After the mission in Burma was successfully completed by Mars Task Force, the unit was deactivated. The men were dispersed mostly into China. Sgt Major Mitchell was sent to Kumming China where he and his men protected American installations, officers, hotels, Red Cross buildings and USO buildings. The Civil War between the Communists and Nationalists had begun. There was a fight for control. He was then processed and flown to India and from there he boarded a ship bound for Tacoma, Washington.)

Mitchell remembered what it felt like to return home after being so long away, “The ship home was much more pleasant than the trip over. We were allowed to stay top side on the deck, day and night. The weather was great for November, 1945. Most of us slept on deck at night. It would be most difficult to relate our feelings as the ship docked in Tacoma, and to see large signs on the warehouses and other buildings that said, WELCOME HOME! JOB WELL DONE! The band began to play and people on the docks were cheering, smiling and waving. Yes, most of us had a lump in our throat and a tear in our eye.

“We were home.

“Older now, with a knowledge of how important life really is. A tremendous price had been paid by many men that gave me the privilege to walk down the gang plank to a… FREE NATION.”

These memoirs are courtesy of Sgt. Major Ray Mitchell. I spent several hours with him and cherish that time. His accounts of what happened in Burma gave me chills. I am proud to be able to share this with you.

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