Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Objective Burma

Yesterday I had the pleasure of having lunch with the dynamic duo of Max Weintraub and Miguel Figueroa. I used the occasion to do a little interview with Max about his World War II experiences. Max is an incredible guy, one of the most vibrant and giving people I know and by coincidence he went to school with my father at Seward Park High. Here's a post from December 2005 with some background on Max. Max's WW2 experiences were quite interesting. He served In the Burma "Theater."
While I take time to edit the interview here's a transcript of an oral history I found of Louis Jimenez on the hbo site constructed for Band Of Brothers:

Louis Jimenez
San Antonio, TX United States
124th Cavalry/Medical Unit/T4
United States Army

I volunteered for the draft on November 21st, 1940, a few months after President Roosevelt ordered registration for military service of all male citizens eighteen years old or older. We were the first volunteers to leave San Antonio, Texas pursuant to the President's order. I was assigned to the medical detachment, veterinary section at Fort Brown, an old cavalry post on the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas. I had volunteered for one year, but due to an error on my discharge certificate I was not discharged on November 21st, 1941. Along came December 7th and the attack on Pearl Harbor and I didn't see that beautiful discharge certificate until FOUR years later. And here I was engaged to be married after my year of service.

For the next 2 years, other than Fort Brown, Brown, I was stationed in Fort Ringold, Rio Grande City and Fort D.A. Russell in Marfa, Texas where we made sixty mile one day horse rides to Presidio, Texas on the Rio Grande. All this time the 124th Cavalry was in manuevers, practicing and studying Cavalry tactics.

In May 1944 we and the horses were sent to Fort Riley Kansas where the horses were to remain, while we were sent to Camp Anza, California.

On July 25th we left the USA from San Pedro, California aboard the USS General Butner. Crossed the International Date Line on August 3rd, 1944. Arrived in Bombay, India on August 26th via Melbourne, Australia after crossing the equator twice. Looking at the Indian coast before arriving, there is something silent and mysterious about the Far East. Left Bombay the same day by train going east across India. The very small boxcars could barely handle twelve GIs and their equipment despite the fact there was a sign above the door of each car that read "Capacity 42".

On September 1st we arrived at Ramgartown, Province of Bihar, India, 281 miles north of Calcutta. This is the place where the Merrill Marauders jungle-trained before their encounter with the Japanese. And this is the place where the 124th Cavalry became the 124th Cavalry Special. "Special" because there were no horses, and all those years of cavalry training and mounted tactics are to be erased from your mind. "You are now jungle fighters. In a month from now you will be experts in the jungle. You will challenge the craftiest jungle fighters in the world, the Japanese. But you will be ready. Remember this is not practice, this is the real McCoy."

On September 26th left Ramgartown by train headed northeast, crossed the Brahamaputra River on a ferry. There had been a flood up river, there were human bodies floating down stream. Boarded a train going east and arrived the following day at an airport near Ledo, India. On November 1st we boarded C-47 (Rice Plane) flew over the battleground of the Burma retreat of General Stillwell and landed in Myitkina, Burma. The town had been bombed considerably, few buildings are standing. We were warned that the enemy was close.

On December 18th, 1944 after more jungle training, we left on what was going to be a 350-mile foot hike south, through the Burma hills. Other than a full pack on our backs, each of us was pulling a loaded pack mule with medical supplies, temporary ammunition and chests of other emergency supplies needed on such an unforeseeable journey. Food and ammunition were air dropped about every three days. There were times, at least once, that the supply plane, due to wind and rain, missed the target and we had to go without food for three days. Also prior to that, to be more accurate, the supply planes had flown at lower altitude, but some of the kickers on the plane had been wounded by ground fire by Japanese soldiers, so they had to fly at a higher altitude. Later we found dead Japanese soldiers with new GI combat boots and other American items. Enemy contact was constant.

On December 25th - Merry Christmas - we washed our clothes. of the 124th Cavalry, the 275th Infantry known as the "Mars Task Force" with the help of the 30th and 38th Chinese Divisions was to take control of the Burma Road. The road was thick with Japanese vehicles and the Japanese artillery was heavy, firing constantly. Casualties were light but constant. By then I was converted from a veterinary technician to a human first aid medic.

On February 2nd, a Japanese observation post on a hill had to be taken. Lt. Jack Knight, from Weatherford, Texas, Commander of F Troop of the second squadron of which I was attached, was leading the attack. while going up the steep hill, with fire coming out of several

On January 31st, 1945 arrived at Nam Packa, Burma confronted the enemy and saw the Burma Road for the first time.

The Burma Road was important because it was the only land link between China and Burma-India. The other link was by air by flying over the "Hump". The Japanese were in control of the "Road". The mission pill boxes on top of the hill, Lt. Knight was wounded several times but kept on going, throwing hand grenades into pill boxes. After disabling several boxes he was fatally shot. His First Sergeant, his brother, Curtis, was seriously wounded. Casualties were heavy. I noticed that among the most seriously wounded or dying soldiers, the word "Mother", "Mama" or among Hispanics "Ama" was murmured more than any other names.

Due to the actions of Lt. Knight, his brothers and the troopers, the hill was taken, but what a heavy price. Vice Admiral Louis Mountbatten, being at the time Viceroy of India, promised to name the hill "Knights Hill" in honor of our Commander. Lt. Knight was later awarded, posthumously, the Congressional Medal of Honor, the only one awarded in the China-Burma-India Theater of Operations. Other battles by the Marsmen that helped end the Central Burma campaign were in Tomkwa and at Hosi Valley. The British coming from the south had taken care of southern Burma - Rangoon and Mandalay. The Burma Road was opened to the Allies.

On March 11th, 1945 we resumed our long walk south to Lashio and arrived on the 15th. On the 7th of April left Lashio, headed north on trucks, arrived in Myitkyina of the 17th. Rumor had it that I and some other troppers from the 124th Cavalry and mule skinners from a Quartermaster pack outfit are to drive or herd all the mules used in the campaign, to Kunming China, a distance of over 800 miles of steep climbs at the foothills of the Himalayas.

On May 28th, 1945 converted back to a veterinary technician. I mounted a scrawny mule, with nine other mounted muleskinners, and our leader, Lt. Johnson. The Lieutenant would ride a beautiful mare with a bell on its neck, leading the pack, and the mules would follow. The rest of us would ride on the sides and rear. It wasn't that easy, mules are stubborn, especially your riding mule. We were trailblazers, the first bunch to take off from Myitkyina. Thereafter, to avoid congestion on the road, fifty mules The rest of us would ride on the sides and rear. It wasn't that easy, mules are stubborn, especially your riding mule. We were trailblazers, the first bunch to take off from Myitkyina. Thereafter, to avoid congestion on the road, fifty mules and ten men would leave Myitkyina every two or three days until the approximate 700 mules are on the road.

We were to ride southeast on the Ledo road, also known as the "Stillwell Road" named after General "Vinegar Joe" Stillwell, which connects with the Burma Road beyond the Burma-China border.

On June 12th arrived at Lung Ling, China on the Burma Road. This is the trail Marco Polo traveled some 700 years before. The trail was steep and the rock paving was as slick as ice and the monsoon rains did not help.

On June 17th we arrived at the Salween River. The Salween Valley was so hot and humid that it made breathing difficult. With all of that, it helped understand the description Marco Polo gave of the valley in 1272 when he said "During the summer season the atmosphere is so gloomy and unwholesome that merchants and other strangers are obliged to leave the district in order to escape death".

On July 6th we arrived at Hsia Kwan and this is what Marco Polo had to say about this place. "Before the time of becoming subject to the dominion of the great Kahn, Kublai Khan, these people were addicted to the following custom: When a stranger of superior quality, who united personal beauty with distinguished valor, happened to take up his abode at the house of one of them, he was surrendered during the night, not for the sake of his money, but in order that the spirit of the deceased endowed with his talents and intelligence, might remain with the family and all their concerns might prosper. Accordingly that native was accounted fortunate, who possessed in this manner the soul fo any noble personage, and many strangers lost their lives in consequence."

Arrived at Tshou Hsiung on July 13th and left the same day. Marco Polo said about this place "In this country there are salt springs, from which all the salt used by the inhabitants is procured."

On July 15th we arrived at Tsu Yung. For some unknown reason, they held us there longer than any other place. We thought perhaps the Chinese were not ready for the mules.

On August 6th, the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and three days later another one was dropped on Nagasaki. It seemed like the War was coming to an end. All of a sudden we were brought back to life from an unending hopelessness. I thought about my parents heir prayers and mine are about to be answered. I had not received a letter from them or from anybody in nine months. I heard that I had a duffel bag full of mail following me but it never caught up with me.

On September 2nd, when General MacArthur and other allied leaders were accepting the Japanese surrender we were ordered to destroy the mules. At times we were impatient with them and cussed them for being stubborn or slow but when we heard that we had to kill them, there was a wave of pity and genuine love for them. During the Burma campaigns they used to shake and tremble with gunfire and artillery fire as we did. They carried hundreds of pounds on their backs for hundreds of miles, climbing and descending steep hills during the rainy season and this will be their reward? To top it off, I was chosen to be one of the executioners. I am and have been against the death penalty for all creatures. This is cruel. After a talk of how they would starve in China if left alive, it made the choice a little easier.

In that part of China there are deep gullies on the ground. We took the mules to the edge of the gully one by one, shot them and rolled them over the edge. When there were enough down there, we moved further down. When through, the banks were blown in.

Left this dreadful place on September 13th on trucks and arrived at Yu Nan Fu, better known as Kunming, China.

Left Kunming, China on September 18th, headed for Calcutta, India. While over Burma one of the engines caught fire and an emergency landing was made in Bhamo. Took a C-54 and landed in Calcutta on September 19th. Left Kamchapara (Calcutta) on October 4th and started to board the USS General Hodges. On the 5th at 15:00 still loading troops including general prisoners. On the 7th we finally left the dock and were in deep water at 21:00. The Bay of Bengal is very calm. Sighted the Island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Passing within sight of Minikoi Island 16:30 October 11th, a leper colony, and on the 14th entered the Gulf of Eden and saw Cape Guardafui on the north-eastern corner of Africa. On the 15th entered the Red Sea and on the 18th entered the Suez Canal which was opened in 1869. On the 19th arrived at Port Said and entered the Mediterranean Sea at 7:00. On October 22nd at 2:00 passed through the Malta Channel between Malta and Sicily. Saw Pantellaria (10:00), Cape Bon (14:00) and Bizerte (17:00). On October 23rd sighted Algiers and passed through the Strait of Gibralter on the 24th at 11:00. Saw the lights of Cape San Vicente Portugal, the last sight of Europe at 21:00.

On October 30th we are in a storm in the Atlantic. The Hodges is thrown 12 miles off course, speed 12.7 knots.

On November 1st, 1945 at 17:29 I saw the blurred outline of the Statue of Liberty. It was blurred by the tears in my eyes.

During my darkest days in the Burma jungle, and there were many, I had some serious doubts that I would see this beautiful scene. I must confess that at times my Catholic faith faltered, when expecting the worse, but when those moments passed, it came back stronger. I felt better with a medical kit to save lives than with a powerful weapon to destroy them.

After leaving California, spending 31 days in the ocean to reach Bombay, and again 26 days from Calcutta to New York completing the trip around the world and be met by the symbol of liberty, the emotion was overwhelming.

I was discharged November 10th, 1945 at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio Texas. I emotionally kissed and embraced my loved ones who had been praying for me.

I had served five years less eleven days.

Awards: 1 Bronze Star Medal, Combat Medal Badge, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign with 2 Bronze Stars, 2 Overseas Service Bars, 1 Service Stripe, American Defense Service Medal, Americn Theater Campaign Medal and a Good Conduct Medal

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