James E.T. Hopkins: WWII Combat Surgeon in Merrill’s Marauders
James E.T Hopkins was a surgical intern before he volunteered with the Army Medical Corps. After serving in Fiji and the Solomon Islands, Hopkins volunteered again for what would eventually be known as Merrill’s Marauders.
Merrill’s Marauders fought primarily in the jungles of Burma, executing deep penetration missions behind enemy lines. The 1962 film Merrill’s Marauders is based on their experiences.
As a combat surgeon, Hopkins was unarmed on the battlefield, and completely exposed as he treated the wounds of fellow Marauders.
To hear more stories about the Marauders, listen to our interview with Col. Logan. E. Weston, nicknamed The Fightin’ Preacher.
To learn more about Hopkins, click here.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today we hear from James E.T. Hopkins M.D., a thoracic surgeon tasked with treating wounds on the battlefield. Hopkins was a member of Merrill’s Marauders, a famous deep penetration unit that served in Burma in WWII. The 1962 film Merrill’s Marauders is based on their experiences.
James E.T. Hopkins:
Well actually, I was on New Georgia Island, having just been through a very severe infantry campaign. I was sitting in a little lean-to, which was the aid station up in the jungle. We got a telephone message over the wire that President Roosevelt wanted volunteers for a dangerous and hazardous mission. I was rather unhappy, because I felt that we had lost many more men than we should have, because of very poor judgments from some of our superiors. We had several aid men killed because they were sent out to pick up a dead man in an area that wasn't safe, and I said, "I'd like to go." They wanted all categories for an infantry battalion, including a physician. Most of my aid men said, "I'd like to go, too." Unfortunately, they only took one and he had trouble getting away, but they were very happy to get rid of me. So it was not until after the campaign was over that I found out why President Roosevelt wanted volunteers.
In August of 1943, which of course was later, he met in Quebec with Lord Mountbatten and Winston Churchill, and a general named Wingate, who had been in Burma the year before and had lost approximately half of his command. But the British realized that they were actually doing something, and could go into Burma and fight the Japanese, hopefully successfully. So out of this, Wingate apparently with the aid of Mountbatten, recommended that the United States send a regiment of Americans to help the British in Burma. Roosevelt and Marshall decided, "Well, that would be a good idea."
Arnold was also there, and Arnold had told Wingate- Wingate was very worried because he had no way to get his casualties out on this previous campaign. So General Arnold, the Air Force general said, "Well, I'll give you a whole Air Force, including bombers, fighters, transport planes, and 100 Piper Cubs. You can use these Piper Cubs to get your casualties out." So orders immediately went out that the Army should seek volunteers for this mission in Burma. That went to all the armed forces throughout the world.
I thought we were going to another island, and we'd have very good commanding officers because Roosevelt would be aware of the program.
About a week after I volunteered I got notice that I should get ready to leave, so I got in a Jeep with two or three other volunteers. They took very few men actually from my battalion. We went down to the beach. We were in the jungle. We went down to the beach. When we got to the beach, we found a whole city there, practically. The Seabees had set up tents and nice homes and everything else, and the Japanese airfield had been greatly extended. From there, we walked onto a tremendous boat. I think it was called the Atlantic Triumph Tank, which I'd never seen before, apparently just arrived in the Pacific. And on that, we went approximately 125 miles to Guadalcanal.
Got to Guadalcanal. We were camped out in the open with the mosquitoes and everything, and not knowing what was going to happen.And we found that we would be going to New Caledonia. Actually, we didn't even know that until we got on the boat. While there I got bit by a scorpion, which was something I hadn't been aware of before but was extremely painful. We were soon embarked on a boat which took us to New Caledonia, which is a French possession about 1,000 miles. Here we found approximately 400 other men, and we were taken into the outskirts of Noumea, the capital, where we rested and got shots, and examined the men for approximately two weeks. This camp had no electricity, running water, telephone, nothing.
And we did very careful examinations and had to get rid of several men who were obviously unfit for combat. These men of course had been in the jungle for months, some of them. They had no chest x-rays. They had all sorts of complaints. They'd never had adequate examinations or treatment. And then one day, some trucks pulled up and we were herded on the trucks and went approximately 15 miles to New Caledonia, where we found this beautiful ship, the Lurline, which had been converted into a troop ship. Leaning over the railings were these pale-faced, healthy-looking young men in nice clean uniforms, looking down to this bunch of yellow-complexioned people from Atabrine we'd been on as a malaria prophylactic.
We were put on barges and taken out to the ship and climbed up rope ladders, which was about the third time I'd ever done that. That is quite an experience, when you're climbing up the side of a tall ship. At any rate, we very quickly fitted in and we found that we were joining two other battalions. One were volunteers from the Caribbean and Trinidad, and the other battalion was a group of men who had volunteered from the armed forces throughout the world.
I think the men were sort of awed, that were on the ship, to see these men who had been in combat. But they were extremely respectful, and obviously were interested in seeking out stories and finding out what it was like and so on. During our brief training episodes on the ship, they were very willing to listen to any information the men could give them.
I think many of the men from the Pacific who volunteered were just unhappy with the way things went. They felt that they weren't very appreciative of some of their officers and whatnot, and they were very upset over the fact that men had been needlessly killed in combat because of poor planning and poor supplies, and so on and so forth.
Our training was laid out to us by an American general who had been in that area and was well-known to Wingate, actually. Wingate's chief contribution was that he took each of our infantry battalions and divided them into two combat teams. That's how we got the combat teams. There were approximately 400 men in each combat team, and each combat team consisted of one or two rifle companies, or one and one half rifle companies plus some other arrangement, and plus a headquarters company, plus a medical detachment, and then a pioneer and demolitions unit, et cetera.
Actually, our officers came with us, so we were very impressed by our officers especially. I was very impressed by those in the 3rd Battalion, which I was in, because they'd been in combat. I was very impressed. They were great guys, and I mean, we had no spit and polish at all. The men were just with the officers, and they looked upon them as brothers and friends and comrades.
One thing about the Marauders was that you know when you're in a platoon, the men that are in that platoon with you are your friends and comrades. I mean, they fought for each other and looked out after each other. I think the men felt that they really were part of the unit. As far as the training goes, actually each battalion had basically its own training. They did not follow the recommendations that were laid down by Wingate's group. The 3rd Battalion concentrated more on learning how to fire every single weapon, and using as much ammunition and whatnot in training as possible. Whereas A Battalion and B Battalion did a lot of marching and so forth and so on, we did not do as much as they did. Ours was more under the control of platoons rather than companies, or the combat team commander.
I think our men in the 3rd Battalion felt that every single man had to know how to handle every single weapon. They had to know how to read maps. They had to do everything. They had to know how to operate radios, and talk over the radios. They had to know that they might have to take over the command of their squad, or the platoon or something, in case of an emergency.
We sort of realized from the very beginning that we were expendable. The word got out that some of the people had been told that we were expendable, and they didn't consider that we would come out of wherever we were going as a unit, that the whole outfit might be destroyed. I mean, that word got out after we began to realize where we were. Of course, we never knew where we were going until we actually got to India, and then we began to realize that we were going into Burma under Wingate. Of course that changed later, when we were turned over to General Stilwell.
When Stilwell heard that American troops were coming to India, he was very excited and said how wonderful it would be. But when he heard that they would be under Wingate, he very definitely implied in his statements (we did not know this) that it was a terrible situation to put American troops under Wingate, who had had such a terrible time in Burma and lost so many of his own men. But what happened was, we stayed under Wingate until just before we would go into Burma. Our training, practically little training, which amounted to maybe a month of actual training- It became aware that Stilwell suddenly realized that his Chinese troops were not advancing the way he wished, and he had to do something.
So as he had on several other occasions, he allegedly approached Mountbatten and urged him to give him the American troops. After January the 1st of 1944, Mountbatten suddenly decided to give the troops to Stilwell. Actually, one of the men who was on the American staff in India recently wrote in and stated that one day, this subject came up and the British general said, "Well, why don't we just give them to Stilwell?" So, that was that. They turned us over to Stilwell. Of course, originally we were supposed to go into Burma with Wingate as a brigade. He had I think six other brigades, which meant we would be going in with approximately 10,000 British troops about 200 miles further south from where we eventually went in.
So at the last minute, all of our supplies and everything had to be transported approximately 1,200 miles by three different gauged railroads, over two rivers where the trains crossed on barges, to Assam, India, which would be north of Burma. The supplies had to be set up in warehouses. Arrangements had to be made with the Air Corps for transportation of our freight and everything, and for our support. They were not prepared for any of this, because the shift was made at the last minute. That brought about severe complications during the campaign.
I think they were happy to reach a point where they were through with their training and so forth, and do whatever they were supposed to do. They were extremely well-disciplined and cooperative, and appeared to be happy. I think marching for 10 days down this dirt path it was, through one mountain range, up and down mountain ranges and whatnot, through dense jungle and magnificent trees and everything, it was really a very interesting walk, except at times it was extremely fatiguing. I think it did them good. It broke them in.
After marching approximately 150 miles, we reached what we considered to be D-Day, where we crossed the Chindwin River into Burma. We marched through the jungle to the left of the Japanese-held road and territory where the Chinese were fighting, far to the left. After approximately 100 miles, we were told that we had to hurry up to hit the Japanese at a village called Walawbum, which was on the main road into north Burma, which was held by Japanese. So we abandoned a drop of food and ammunition and started marching in the late afternoon, and marched all night long and a good bit of the next day, until we hit a village called Lagang Ga.
While passing through Lagang Ga single-file, we suddenly saw six Japanese coming down a trail. They were suddenly obliterated, and after that we were within four miles of where we were to make a block overlooking this road at Walawbum, which was a Japanese headquarters area. They were supporting several thousand Japanese, who were fighting the Chinese 20 miles further to the north. Our colonel decided to send out one of our lieutenants, Lieutenant Logan Weston, who had charged the I&R platoon across the river to protect our right flank. This was late in the afternoon. There'd been several minor skirmishes in the area with dead Japanese, but no dead Americans. Weston crossed the river and bedded down for the night in the swamp.
The next morning, he took his platoon to a little better area but still across the river. They were rapidly encircled by a company of Japanese. They fought there for about four hours, and they were finally pushed right back up against the river and had taken three casualties including two, both of which died. They were ordered to cross the river, to escape across the river.
So that was a very interesting episode, which is really part of Walawbun. Weston had a couple men take off their undershirts and tie them onto bushes on the edge of the river, and then he got most of his platoon across with two wounded men.
During this, then the men who had crossed set up a field of fire on the other side of the river to protect those who crossed. Weston finally got across as the last man, firing as he came across. Why he was not killed, no one knows. But it was a fantastic, heroic thing that he did, and the way he got his men organized and across was a miracle. One of the men, an Indian-American, Janis, was able to knock off seven individuals who were trying to get a machine gun going. At any rate, this I think was a remarkable little battle that did a lot perhaps to get everybody settled and going properly, because they suddenly realized they could easily defeat the Japanese. If those Japanese had knocked out Weston and had gotten across the river, they would have trapped my battalion who was already on the way three or four miles further to Walawbum.
Aafter this was over we got to Walawbum and we dug in on the bend of a river, about 10 feet above the river, with Walawbum on the other side of the river. This was on the fourth of March. We fought there from the third of March to late in the evening of the sixth and seventh of March. During that, there were several banzai attacks. The Japanese were throwing artillery over us into A Battalion and B Battalion, who were in back of us. During this battle, by some miracle we had no one killed. We had several minor wounds. Khaki, our other combat team in my 3rd Battalion, came in to help us later and they had a couple men killed. But during this battle and the other minor battles around Walawbum, we were given credit for killing 800 Japanese. They were piled up at the riverbank, and no Japanese ever crossed the riverbank.
Two machine guns each fired 5,000 rounds on one of these banzai attacks, so you can well imagine what was happening. The men were hollering at the Japs. The Japs were hollering at the Americans, and cursing at each other. It was really a fantastic thing that went on day and night.
Actually, we had run out of food the first night we were there and had nothing to eat for two and a half or three days. Before the battle was finally over, we were out of ammunition. But for some strange reason, no one was able to bring up ammunition to us. However, we sent a man back who did get back with ammunition at the last minute. But fortunately, the Japanese were defeated and they pulled out. This led to the entire Japanese division pulling out. They left the Chinese. They left us and they went south through a pass into the Mogaung Valley, which was another valley, which meant that the Battle of Walawbum was extremely important and final.
I think it should be realized that if the Japanese had known that we were out of ammunition, they might have hung on a little bit longer. I think another very interesting point is that Merrill's Marauders was originally classified as a regiment, 5307 composite regiment provisional. But when General Merrill arrived, he had to command something else so they called it a unit. This led the Japanese to think that since the general was commanding, that they were being faced by an entire division rather than a regiment. This may very well have had something to do with the fact that they retreated out to another valley.
Well, I should have explained to you that all of our food and ammunition was dropped by parachute. We never had any training in this. Our first parachute drop was on D-Day, as we crossed into Japanese territory. We would get food every three or four days, depending upon the situation. Well, occasionally the food was late. Before the Battle of Walawbum, we had had to pull out and leave our supplies laying on the ground because we were ordered by General Stilwell to advance immediately. So when we got to Walawbum, we only had enough food for perhaps a half day, and here we were going four days without food. For some strange reason, one or two drops were scheduled but they were unable to have the drop, so it was a very bad situation.
Toward the end of the Battle of Walawbum, there was no question in the men's minds that the Japanese could easily be defeated. To be perfectly frank with you, I think having been fighting the Japanese in the Pacific, we already realized this. But this very definitely improved our opinion about our ability, and about the ability of our soldiers. These men were brave individuals, that some of them actually enjoyed fighting. There's no question about it. But I'll tell you that some things were rather disturbing.
For instance, we had a young lieutenant named Weingartner, who was sitting on the riverbank during this battle, shooting at the Japanese. He was out of ammunition, except for several bullets in his pistol. He was talking to an enlisted man who was next to him, and they both agreed that they would save two bullets, one for each; one for the lieutenant and one for the private, in case the Japanese did break through. And fortunately, the Japanese did not realize that we were out of ammunition. They pulled out because they had been totally defeated, and they realized that they absolutely could not compete with the Americans at that particular time.
In combat, there's always friendly fire. I learned this in the Pacific, and I could site many instances, but unfortunately that did happen. We had very little of that at Walawbum. We had it later, but after the battle was over and the Chinese finally arrived, we did not know they were coming and they fired on our troops, and two of the Chinese were wounded. We got this thing corrected and we took care of the Chinese, but this is something that happened all too frequently in combat. Actually from a statistical standpoint, I showed by a wound ballistics study that approximately 15% of all of our dead were due to our own fire, and an equivalent number wounded were due to our own fire. Mostly artillery fire would give us friendly fire casualties.
Of course, we also had other casualties at Walawbum from sickness. Maybe dysentery was one, and attacks of malaria and various types of accidents. So after the Walawbum, Marauders had lost approximately 200 men from illness and various other things, mostly not in the 3rd Battalion but in the other two battalions.
The 1st Battalion was to advance in the jungle, left of the main Japanese road. The Japanese, mind you, were now in the Mogaung Valley. They would advance through the jungle, left of the road, and go approximately 50 miles to throw a roadblock at a town called Shaduzup, which was on the road. Now, a town was just a bunch of grass shacks. They were to throw that block on approximately the 24th of March. The 2nd and 3rd Battalions were also to advance to the left of the road, but much further to the east toward China. They were to follow a river which was running from south to north, which ended up as the Chindwin River. The 2nd and 3rd Battalion were to march approximately I would say about 100 miles, compared to A Battalion, which was to march approximately 50 miles. The 2nd and 3rd Battalion were to hit the Japanese road approximately 10 miles south of the 1st Battalion.
So what happened was that A Battalion started out first. But they had such a terrible time moving through the jungle that they were extremely slow, and they had something like 15 or 20 actions with the Japanese on the way to this roadblock. Now part of that roadblock, they actually had to cut their way through dense bamboo and jungle territory in order to advance around Japanese, who were blocking trails. And finally for the last eight or 10 miles of that march toward the potential block at Shaduzup, they had to go down a riverbed which was a very narrow gorge. The going was extremely difficult, so they got to Shaduzup a couple of days later than we got to Inkangahtawng.
But what happened was, they actually got to this river which they had to cross to block the road. The river was east of the road, so they had to cross the river and then hit this Japanese camp at Shaduzup. They spent the night across the river from Shaduzup, most of the night, and they could see Japanese sentries on the other side. They sent several patrols across the river and found they could wade the river. It wasn't too deep. It came up to some people's necks, especially the short men.
So around 4:00 am in the morning, mind you this battalion had two combat teams. They sent one combat team across the river, and they kept the other combat team on the other side of the river where they could give them mortar support and other things. This combat team, divided into platoons at some distance in between each one, rushed the river in the early morning hours. They caught the Japanese when they were getting up to get breakfast and whatnot, and they slaughtered the Japanese. I guess any Japanese that survived disappeared into the jungle. Well then of course, the Americans began digging in in the road, to block any passage and to knock out any Japanese that came down there to try to help their fellow soldiers. They fought there all day, and alleged to have killed perhaps 400 Japanese. Well, when nighttime came, and they had been followed on this mission by a regiment of Chinese who had artillery, Pack 75s. So once they had things under control, they sent the Chinese across the river to take their positions on the road, and they went back onto the other side of the road where they joined the rest of their battalion.
This was a very successful mission, but they had minimal casualties, probably seven or eight dead and 15 or 20 wounded. And then back to the Japanese, it was an American surgical portable unit which took care of their wounded. But many of these wounded did not get out for several days to get definitive care, because they were in such a horrible situation down there. There was no place for any planes to land to take them out.
This was a very decisive battle because it meant that the Japanese, who had been facing the Chinese further north at the pass between the Hukawng Valley and the Mogaung Valley, these Japanese had to pull out to help their members who were fighting south of Shaduzup, and allow the Chinese to enter the Mogaung Valley.
At the Battle of Walawbum, B Battalion had been sent to the west to throw a roadblock about two miles north of where the 3rd Battalion threw a roadblock. And while at that roadblock, which had been reached with great difficulty through dense jungle, one of our nisei, Japanese Americans, was sent up a telephone pole to listen to Japanese messages. He found out the exact location of a Japanese ammunition dump. This message was passed down to his colonel, and a flight of bombers was sent in and they blew up the ammunition dump, which undoubtedly offered great help to the American forces.
While the 1st Battalion was on their mission to Shaduzup, the 2nd and 3rd Battalions' mission, as I've said before, was to go approximately 100 miles and throw a roadblock several miles south of Shaduzup at a place called Inkangahtawng. This was a very difficult march, but we made much better time than the 1st battalion did toward Shaduzup.
Near the end of the battle of Inkangahtawng, a message came through that a large force of Japanese was advancing from the south to trap the Americans at Nhpum Ga. The only thing that prevented this and allowed them to get to Nhpum Ga in time to prevent being trapped, was Logan Weston's platoon which was south of Nhpum Ga. They actually held up the Japanese for several days to allow the 2nd Battalion and what was left of the 3rd Battalion to get to Nhpum Ga.
Before the Japanese actually were able to advance far enough and surround the 2nd Battalion and Nhpum Ga. The 3rd Battalion had gone through Nhpum Ga to approximately four miles downhill, to an elevation of approximately 1,000 feet where they found a rice paddy and they set up a small airfield where supplies could be brought in, wounded could be taken out, and an effort made to keep the trails open leading to the 2nd Battalion. The 2nd Battalion had been ordered to stay there, to block the trail so the Japanese could not go further north and get in back of the Chinese.
Nhpum Ga soon became known as Maggot Hill because of the several hundred dead Japanese surrounded the perimeter, and approximately 100 dead mules and horses, with millions of blue bottle flies. The odor was so great after several days, you could smell it for a mile or more.
Well on Maggot Hill, of course several nisei, Japanese Americans, were available. One of them was Roy Matsumoto, who was called upon on numerous occasions to try to get Japanese information. He would crawl out in the middle of the night, listen to Japanese orders, and then report to his commanding officer, Colonel Beach. On one occasion, it became quite apparent that the Japanese were going to pull a banzai attack in front of McLogan's front.
So everything was set up, and when this attack did come the Japanese were slaughtered. It is said that they counted over 50 dead Japanese shortly after the battle was over. But if this information had not been available, it's quite possible that they could have broken into the perimeter and slaughtered many of B Battalion's men, and perhaps overrun the entire area.
Well, the setup for medical help was terrible, actually. Our medical supplies were carried on in cases on the backs of a couple of mules. We had aspirin, and we had cascara and a little soda bicarb and things of that sort. We also had sulfadiazine, which we occasionally gave men, but our chief medication was sulfanilamide powder, which the first aidmen sprinkled into the wounds before they put dressings on.
The thing that really helped us was blood plasma, which came in two bottles. One was the powder in a bottle. The other one was a liquid to use to reconstitute the stuff so it could be given intravenously. Anyone with a serious wound was immediately given blood plasma as soon as we could get hold of him.
The aid station was usually within rarely any more than 60 yards away from where the fighting was going on. Sometimes it was with the company that was doing most of the fighting. The doctors, at least as far as I was concerned, always operated up there where the men were being hit. As soon as the aidmen or their buddies brought them back to that point, we would start giving them plasma and doing what was necessary.
At Nhpum Ga, all the wounded on Nhpum Ga were trapped up there. Their first maybe 25 or 30 wounded were carried down the trail four miles to Hsamshingyang where they were evacuated. But from then on, they were trapped at Nhpum Ga. The only attention they got was to put them in a foxhole and let them rest there, and try to feed them and take care of them. On some occasions for severe fractures, they were treated by putting plaster casts on the extremities and letting maggots eat up the dead flesh, which undoubtedly prevented a lot of problems. This is a very well-recognized treatment.
We were unable to do any significant operation, other than to stop bleeding, maybe with a clamp sometime. Our chief purpose was to put dressings on the men to stop the bleeding, and encourage them that they didn't have a mortal wound, that they would survive. In combat, most people who are killed die very quickly. The wounded, belly wounds and chest wounds and head wounds, most of them in our case didn't survive long enough to get to any medical facility. The wounds that survived were the extremity wounds.
The thing that really worked out was during the Battle of Walawbum, these little Piper Cubs were coming in, bringing messages and whatnot. We found that we could put one wounded man on each plane. We didn't even know the planes were in India. These were planes that General Arnold had promised General Wingate, and they were being flown by American sergeant pilots. They had to come up to our area to get the British to the hospital, so we started using them. And of course, the American pilots were extremely cooperative so we got the benefit of the 100 Piper Cubs that General Arnold had sent over to help General Wingate.
Men that had malaria would begin to ache all over and develop chills and fever. Depending upon what type of malaria they had, the chills would come every second day or every fourth day, et cetera. One type of malaria, cerebral malaria, was highly fatal. Fortunately, we didn't have too much of that. But we considered malaria a problem that did not require evacuation unless the individual was critically ill and we would keep the men and treat them on their feet.
Scrub typhus is a condition- Actually, the technical name is tsutsugamushi fever. That was brought into Burma by the Japanese troops and had been shown to be present in Burma before we ever got there, and was known to the medical authorities but they never informed anybody in Merrill's Marauders. You got it from fleas that transmitted it from rats or other ground creatures. What happened was the individual, once they were inoculated, would get a violent headache for a couple of days. Then they would get aches and pains, and they'd get a skin rash and sometimes glands would swell up and then they would get a high fever. The temperature would go up as high as 106.
If they weren't evacuated quickly, they would all die. In fact, even with medical treatment quite a few of them died. It's known that we lost 40 dead from scrub typhus in Merrill's Marauders, and perhaps there were more. This of course was due to the fact that records were lost for some reason by the rear base echelon, and this applied to many records. In fact, the theory was that they'd been purposely destroyed by someone. We don't know who or why.
Yes, typhus or tsutsugamushi fever was of course the dangerous one. We never knew about that condition until we were going on our third mission over this 6,500-foot mountain pass, where we got a radio message that we had this condition. Some of the men we'd sent back, who had already started up the mountain when they got sick, had been sent back and were evacuated, and were shown to have scrub typhus. We also had everyone, as far as I'm concerned, had amoebic dysentery, which we picked up from Chinese who were contaminating rivers and streams from which we were getting water. Also, perhaps some of the natives had been contaminating rivers and streams.
Well I’ll tell you, from my standpoint, when I went into Burma I was in excellent physical condition. Actually, I lost 30 pounds. Some of the men lost 30, 40, 50, 60, 70, even 80 pounds. It was just a very trying situation, but there was nothing we could do. I mean, we just had to keep going. Our chief problem was in that last mission, where these poor devils with tsutsugamushi fever or scrub typhus had to march 40 or 50 miles before we could get them out. It was just heartbreaking. I mean, the situation really broke down when we got to Myitkyina.
Actually at that point I had left Burma with most of the 3rd Battalion. I was in a hospital with amoebic dysentery and several other problems. Only I was in what they called a rest area, which was a bunch of mildewed grass shacks with dirt floors, no windows, nothing, and very poor food and very poor running water and so forth. We got a message that they were rounding up men who had been released from the hospitals, and were sending them back to Myitkyina. So Dr. A. Lewis Kolodny and I got very upset, and we actually pulled men off the trucks and we argued with the doctors.
We gave these men emergency medical tags and sent them back to the hospital. Well unfortunately, approximately 200 of these men got sent back to Myitkyina. Some of the officers pulled quite a few of them and sent them back to the hospitals, but this was allegedly due to the orders of one general down there, who's name I won't mention. But the order had originally come from General Stilwell, and they always said, "Well, it was misinterpreted."
The men who were wounded and came out sick during the first two missions mostly went to the 20th General Hospital where they received very wonderful treatment. But for the men who came out during and after the third mission, they had to be sent to hospitals in some cases which were not really qualified to take care of them. They received very poor treatment. Most of the men with scrub typhus that went to the 20th General Hospital survived, whereas a high percentage of those that went to the 14th Evacuation Hospital or the 101st, I think the name of the hospital was, had a higher mortality because they did not have the proper facilities. But that was the sad situation and nothing we could do about it.
And it's just like General Merrill had said, that we would be evacuated. If we went to Myitkyina, as soon as that airfield was captured, we would be sent out on the planes that brought the Chinese in. We would have a fantastic rest area, for which the money had already been set aside to give us adequate recreational facilities and et cetera, et cetera. And of course what happened was, General Merrill had said, "I'll be the first one on the airfield when it's captured." But unfortunately, General Merrill didn't show up for at least two days. He said, "We will have food and ammunition as soon as the airfield is captured." That didn't arrive for a couple of days, which allowed the Japanese to bring in replacements. Otherwise, the town could have been taken as soon as we took the airfield. But the Japanese had perhaps 500 or 600 men there when we took the airfield. By the time we got ammunition and food, they had something like 4,000 in there before it was over, and that meant that approximately 3,500 Chinese were wounded, and over 1,000 were killed, and over 800 Americans were killed and something like 350, I mean, over 850 were wounded and approximately 350 were killed during the Battle of Myitkyina.
I should also say that a bombing raid during the Battle of Myitkyina was ordered by the Air Force, and they came over the wrong direction. They dropped the bombs at the wrong location. They refused to allow the troops on the ground to offer them radio control of the situation and they buried an American platoon of infantry soldiers. There's no record as to how many were killed, but a large number were killed by American bombers coming over.
Colonel Hunter, in his letter, informed General Stilwell that the Marauders had been mistreated in various ways. This began way back in the training period, where the training was taken away from his command and given to someone that had really nothing to do with them. The fact that they never had adequate chaplain's service, they didn't have dental service. The medical headquarters in CBI didn't even know they were there. They never got adequate supplies and equipment and whatnot until General Merrill arrived. In fact, the headquarters paid no attention to them until General Merrill arrived. They were rarely visited by anyone of any consequence in the theater.
Decorations had been ignored. Promotions had been ignored. Well, they really never had a name. They didn't have a band. They didn't have colors. They didn't have flags. They absolutely had nothing, and they'd been promised numerous things such as the fact that ammunition and food would be available as soon as the airport was captured. They had definitely been promised that they would be evacuated en masse as soon as the airfield was taken, and the Chinese would take over and complete the battle.
The reaction was that General Stilwell said very little about it, but a day or two later Colonel Hunter was informed that he was relieved of his command. Orders were given to him that he would return to the United States by boat.
I mean, some of the men came home by boat. Some of them were when they'd just decided it was time to go home, and they just went home without any orders. I mean, there were a few of those.
When I heard about this I thought it was absolutely horrible. The impression I got was that they were trying to hide something. They didn't want Colonel Hunter to give his opinion, exactly what the campaign was all about.
Well as far as I'm concerned, they were a magnificent bunch of men. I mean, I just had no idea that the average American individual, without vast training and so on and so forth, could perform so magnificently, especially those in my battalion. These other men did great too, even though they had no experience, B Battalion and A Battalion. It just showed me that if you give the American GI half a chance, he's going to behave in a fantastic way. I mean, we did have a little problem such as perhaps half of my battalion went AWL at Christmastime in 1943, but they all came back. Some of them got there just before we took off for Burma, but they were dedicated individuals. Their only excuse was that, "We just haven't had leave for a long, long time," and that was that.
But they did a fantastic job. As I said, some of them seemed to like to fight, but they were a bunch of individuals that believed in some human rights. As far as I was concerned, the officers were magnificent, really. We had very few problems, and I liked the way the men and the officers got along. There was no spit and polish. I mean when we trained with the British, we saw little of them but they were all spit and polish, you know? And it was different with the Marauders.
They realized that we had been invaded, and we also knew of course that the Germans were trying to take over the world. We didn't want to be enslaved, and we didn't want the Japanese- The Japanese were trying to gobble up a lot of the world's resources. These men, even though many of them were not high school graduates, they realized all this. But they wanted to get home, and they felt the only way to do it was to go ahead and do what they were supposed to do.
We had very poor communications with anything in the United States. We had very little use of any radios. Mail was very slow. Our mail was held up for weeks and perhaps months. When we went into Burma, our families allegedly were notified that they would not be hearing from us for several months, and indeed some of them didn't because the mail just didn't get out. We didn't have the writing materials while we were in Burma. There was no way to send out messages. One fantastic thing was, during the Battle of Nhpum Ga, Hank Gosho, who was one of our niseis, was informed that he had just had a daughter born. He was on the front line at the time. I thought that was great, the Red Cross was able to get that message through and took the trouble to do it.
That was James E.T. Hopkins M.D.
Next time on Warriors In Their Own Words, we’ll hear from Amy McGrath, a Marine Corps aviator who flew 89 combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2002, as a weapons systems officer, McGrath became the first woman in the Marine Corps to fly a combat mission in the F/A-18.
Warriors In Their Own Words is a production of Evergreen Podcasts, in partnership with The Honor Project.
Our producer is Declan Rohrs. Brigid Coyne is our production director, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our Audio Engineer.
Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Warriors In Their Own Words.