Behind Enemy Lines, A WWII Memoir: Lahpai Khun Nawng

(A Deputy Inspector of Schools before the Japanese occupation of British Burma, Lahpai Khun Nawng was evacuated to India when the Japanese became increasingly suspicious that he was spying for the British. After spending months at various training camps in India and made ‘temporary Captain’, he volunteered to be parachuted back into Burma as part of an intelligence gathering unit.)

I had no prior knowledge of who my mission comrades were to be until shortly before departure. They turned out to be 3 fellow Kachins – Subedar Sumlut La, Jemmadar Hka Li, Rifleman N’Dau Kyan – and 2 Chin wireless operators named Swando and Ralmong.

Our drop zone (DZ), Nong Leng, east of Lashio, was a little known, hostile area. Previous batches of Force 136 agents air dropped in the area had all disappeared. We were told to prepare for a blind drop and were given only small, inch-square maps of Nong Leng. But Sumlut La, against orders, took along larger maps that included Mong Yai and surrounding areas. I thank God for Sumlut La’s foresight as the maps later proved to be life savers.

We boarded a big US bomber (Liberator) one dark, moonless night in December 1944, and headed for our destination. As it was so dark, we had no idea where we were at any time during the flight. At one point, the pilot told us that we were flying over the Irrawaddy, but we could see nothing. After some time, he said, “We are nearing the DZ, get yourselves ready.” Still, everything was pitch dark, and we could not make out anything down below.

I had thought the pilot would have studied the area map beforehand, to find out where the drop zone would be. But that evidently was not the case. The plane circled the area time and again without finding any sign of the proposed DZ. The pilot then asked me if I could identify the DZ. I told him I had no idea, as this part of the country was totally unfamiliar to me.

The pilot said that under the circumstances he had better take us back to Calcutta. But we were getting so air sick, just dying to have our feet on the ground, that I asked him to simply drop us any place where there was some jungle cover to hide out. So it was that in the dark of night, without the faintest idea of what lay on the ground below, we slipped through the bomb hole to be dropped one by one onto a cultivated field below. All our equipment was also dropped close by.

Once on the ground, signalling by torch light, the 6 of us slowly managed to find each other. Sumlut La and Hka Li had badly injured their legs, having landed on bamboo stakes the Japanese had set up, and could barely walk. While we were trying to get our bearings and looking around for the all-important wireless equipment, we heard the clip-clop, clopping of wooden sandals approaching us. We saw 2 men coming our way. So we crept up from behind and surrounded them with drawn revolvers. Our orders were to obliterate anyone around the DZ.

The 2 men spoke up saying they were Chinese, come from a nearby village to warn us of a Japanese outpost on a hill nearby. They said the Japanese must have seen the circling bomber during the night dropping parachutes. They told us to hurry, take only essential equipment, and leave any other non-essentials behind. They pointed us in the direction of a Kachin village where we might find refuge.

We offered them gold coins and opium packets to lead us to the Kachin village, but to no avail. They said they would have to hurry back to their village as they could tell from the frenzied barking of the village dogs that the Japanese were already there checking on the villagers. These 2 Chinese villagers turned out to be true God-sends.

We were able to find only one of the 2 wireless sets, but decided not to look for the other one or the rest of the supplies dropped in 12 containers. Removing our army boots so as not to leave any footprints behind, we made a hasty retreat towards the Kachin village that the 2 villagers had pointed out to us. We had to shoulder our own backpacks, support our 2 injured comrades, as well as carry the heavy W/T equipment and 6-volt battery.

When dawn came, we found ourselves on a hillock. We were so tired we could not go on anymore, so decided to take a rest. As we were fortifying ourselves with the chocolate bars that we each had on us, we saw the hillock being surrounded by a search party made up of Japanese soldiers and some Shan villagers. As it was a barren hill with only low, thatch shrubs for cover, we dared not even stand up.

The Japanese however, made no attempt to enter the thatch shrubbery, for they seemed to sense that we were well armed. If they had come up the hill with the help of dogs, we would have been caught easily, for our 2 injured comrades could hardly move anymore.

Towards evening, Rifleman N’Dau Kyan, who was fluent in the 4 languages common to the area (Shan, Kachin, Palaung and Chinese), volunteered to go look for the Kachin village. Changing out of uniform, he slipped away from our hideout. Around dusk, with a wide grin on his face, he came back with 6 Kachin villagers, carrying rice packets and a large bamboo container of water.

The village elders were ready to help us and told us to make our escape to the top of a nearby rocky hill covered with poppy fields. So up the hill we went that night, with the injured men on the back of 2 buffaloes the elders had brought. We waded through thick bushes, guided by a Kachin elder with a bamboo torch.

In the morning, we reached the top of the hill and took shelter inside a cave. Cold and wet as we were from the drizzling rain, we dared not light a fire for fear of giving our position away. In the morning, our wireless operator tried to make contact with Calcutta HQ. It was only after many heartbreaking attempts – even to the point of tears – that he succeeded.

I told HQ that we had lost all our supplies, and that we were on the run from the enemy.  HQ seemingly unable to grasp the situation, offered to drop more supplies. I told them to hold off until we could secure a safe drop zone. The Kachin elders of Manmak and Hpaping villages, at great risk to themselves, kept us supplied daily with rice packets and drinking water.

In the meantime, a group of about 200 strong Shan levies led by Khun Sa, the Myosa, or minor chief, of Mongyaw had arrived to help the Japanese hunt us down. Khun Sa, a swaggering figure in Japanese uniform replete with long sword, was a ruthless collaborator. He intimidated everyone, even the local Shan Sawbwa, or paramount chief.

After about two weeks, the Kachin elders said it was no longer safe for us to stay on that hill. The Japanese were getting increasingly suspicious and sending spies to keep surveillance on the villagers. They said they would help us move farther south to Loiwo, to a Kachin village under the jurisdiction of the Mong Yai Sawbwa. True to their word, they provided us with a guide and a pack mule to carry the essential wireless equipment.

Our two injured comrades sacrificed their safety by offering to remain behind, saying they would only hinder us and jeopardize the operation. So we sadly left them in the jungle, in the care of the kindly Kachin elders.

We made our move under cover of the dark night, taking care to avoid the villages. We thought we had covered a good distance, but in the light of morning, discovered that we were but barely a mile or two from where we had started. Apparently we had been going round and round in circles. It was a case of the blind leading the blind, so we got ourselves a new guide who eventually led us safely to Loiwo Hill.

Upon arrival at the Loiwo hideout, N’Dau Kyan again made successful contact with the local Kachin chief or Duwa, who was most eager to cooperate. We certainly owe a great deal to the intrepid N’Dau Kyan. His command of the languages of the area and remarkable skill at securing local support were invaluable assets. Without him, we would most certainly have met the same fate as our predecessors. Not only was he able to secure needed supplies, he also successfully staked out and identified safe drop zones.

Soon after, to our delight, our two injured comrades rejoined us. We could now communicate with Calcutta on a daily basis, much to the surprise of HQ. Within the month of arrival at Loiwo, we were able to secure the support of the Shan Myosa of Munghtawm and his elders for the allied cause.

Sumlut La, with the help of the Kachin elders, proceeded to make necessary preparations for air drops. Everything went smoothly according to plan. Six Dakota planes made the air drops, accomplishing the mission in a single night. We received all the needed arms and equipment, and were also joined by a team of 4 British officers, wireless operators, and a section of soldiers.

The officers had come fresh from the European Theatre, with little or no knowledge of our part of the world, let alone this remote corner of Burma. They had taken over when the officers who were to command our intelligence and guerilla column withdrew from the mission after hearing how we had been unceremoniously dumped near a Japanese outpost.

In retrospect, I realize we were just pawns, herded blind into the operation by Calcutta, to placate higher-up demands to do something about the Shan State intelligence blackout.

Lahpai Khun Nawng (later Col. Khun Nawng) was awarded the Military Cross, the citation for which read in part: Captain Khun Nawng displayed the greatest coolness and set about his task of organising an intelligence network. This provided information of great value to N.C.A.C. and 10th U.S.A.A.F.