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Post My Father's Military Service: WWII
Created by John Eipper on 09/21/14 4:44 AM

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My Father's Military Service: WWII (John Heelan, UK, 09/21/14 4:44 am)

JE asked me offline to share some WWII memories related to me by my father (same name as me). My recall of his war stories is now more than fifty years old, so it may well be sketchy and incomplete. I believe that he originally joined the Munster Fusiliers in Ireland and then transferred to the Royal Horse Artillery (see photo), galloping around pulling guns on limbers. From that experience he gave me a useful maxim that I have followed through life:  "Feed, water and groom your animals first, then yourself!"

Previously I mentioned his being stationed in Upper Silesia to police the 1921 referendum mandated by the Versailles treaty--unfortunately, I am unable to find the photo to which I referred.  Fast forward to WWII. The Royal Artillery (RA) became part of the WWII British Expeditionary Force (BEF) sent to counter threats from Germany on the French/Belgian border. As history shows, the BEF was completely outgunned and outmanoeuvred by Blitzkrieg tactics and had to beat a rapid retreat to the coast to be rescued by a flotilla of small boats and ships from England. (Many set sail from the Isle of Wight, and one such boat is still used as a houseboat in our local harbour.)

My father used to recount the Dunkirk choice he and his comrades had to make:  join a queue in water--sometimes up to the waist--to get onto a boat or remain on the beach. As there was no Allied air cover, those on the beaches were constantly exposed to dive-bomb and strafing attacks from German fighters (especially the screaming Stukas!). It must have been terrifying!  (The lingering resentment of the troops so exposed for the lack of air cover erupted once in a family argument in the late 1950s, when I was a conscript in RAF blue uniform. My father complained to me, "Where were you in Dunkirk?" meaning the RAF. One of his major memories of the Dunkirk evacuation for him was his long-term respect for the discipline of Guards battalions. He told me that while he and his companions were ragged, exhausted and dirty and just wanted to lie down, Guardsmen were required to wash and shave and form up in squads to march away from the boats as soon as they got back to Blighty.

There were many tales of his time as a Desert Rat in the North African campaign, but his most salient memories in the '50s were of the final campaign--that of Burma as a member of the Fourteenth Army (known the "Forgotten Army"). Initially defending India, the 14th then repulsed the Japanese takeover of Burma. The 14th (commanded by General Bill Slim, whom my father revered long after the war) confused the enemy by deciding to fight through the monsoon seasons, something which the Japanese had not expected. My father was involved in all the major battles--crossing the river Irrawaddy, the taking of Meiktila and pushing towards the capture of Rangoon. Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Viceroy of India, earned the undying hatred of the 14th Army by ordering the 14th to halt their advance so that prize of Rangoon, signifying the end of War in Burma, could be taken by another force. The 14th claimed the decision--made purely for political reasons--deprived them of the victory it had spent two hard years fighting in appalling conditions to achieve. The "Lord Mountbatten of Burma" title was usually accompanied by a pejorative word by my father.

At my father's knee, I learned phonetically Army quasi-Indian songs (such as "Sixteen annals one rupee, 17 annas one buckshee, Hulam dar, Hulam Dar, Mas a pili pili pili hulam dar") and Indian expressions like "Jildi junta hai" (Hurry up!) "Char-wallah" (provider of tea), etc.

The result of his Burma experiences was not only a long-term dislike of Mountbatten but also massive respect for the fighting abilities of Gurkha battalions. He used to relate the tale of an effete Intelligence officer not believing the report of a Gurkha reconnaissance team of Japanese activity in the vicinity, only to faint when the same team deposited ten Japanese heads on his desk a few hours later.

A second result was a long-term hatred of the Japanese for their brutality in warfare, especially the raping and slaughtering of British nurses they had captured. That hatred was widespread in the 14th. My father told me that at one post-war reunion in the late '50s, a member of the ex-servicemen attended dressed in a Japanese military uniform. The sight of the uniform itself caused him to be badly beaten up, forgetting it was one of their comrades inside the uniform.

Fighting through the monsoons for two years had a subsequent effect on his health. His knees became badly arthritic from constantly kneeling on sodden ground in the jungle, his lungs suffered (not helped by his heavy smoking), and for the first few months he was unable to sleep in a bed because it was too soft compared to the hard ground to which he had become used. He suffered and died from a cerebral haemorrhage aged fifty-seven. But not before he passed onto me his love of poetry that has remained with me ever since, and is a suitable epitaph.

JE comments:  A fitting tribute to John Heelan, Sr.  The fighting conditions in Burma must have been hellish.  Can John or any other WAISer recommend a good history of the campaign?  Also, I wonder if John Sr. or his comrades ever referred to Lord Mountbatten by his German birth name--Battenberg?

Lord Mountbatten was murdered by the IRA in 1979.

Here are the photos:

John Heelan, Royal Horse Artillery


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  • Gurkhas, and Silesia (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 09/21/14 2:17 PM)
    I wish to express my deepest respect and honor for the father of John Heelan (21 September) for his excellent military career. Any good soldier deserves this respect, no matter what flag he or she fights for.

    Italy also, from 1920 till 1922, sent about 3000 soldiers to Upper Silesia. After the referendum favourable to Germany on 4 May 1921, Polish rebels attacked the troops and in the ensuing battle the Italians had 25 soldiers killed and 57 injured.

    However I have to make one observation.

    Why if our enemies cut off the heads of our own they are called horrible criminals, but if our men cut off the heads of our enemies it is due to a "massive respect for their fighting abilities"?

    Frankly, the effete intelligence officer, instead of fainting, should have put the Gurkhas under Court Martial.

    JE comments:  We visited Upper Silesia in July, and there is still a keen sense of regional (non-Polish) identity.  I have heard of no active secession movements at the present, but I snapped this photo in Chorzów.  The standard Polish would be "mówimy po slasku" (we speak Silesian).  Chorzów (just north of Katowice) originally voted to remain in Germany, but it was awarded to Poland in 1922, after the Silesian uprisings.

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  • My Father's Military Service: China-Burma-India Campaign (Mike Bonnie, USA 09/23/14 3:24 AM)
    I'm grateful to John Heelan (21 September) for sharing his story and for his father's efforts during the China-Burma-India (CBI) campaign of WWII. Without doubt, his father hastened the end of the war and in the process saved the life of my mother's first husband, Francis E. Sawyer. Francis was among 429 allied POWs force-marched in tattered Japanese uniforms and local clothing from the Rangoon Gaol (jail) to the outskirts of the small village of Waw, 10 miles northwest of Pegu, Burma (now Bago, Mayanmar). Another 167 men, unable to walk, were left in the prison until the Japanese abandoned the city. A short video was produced during repatriation of the men who were force-marched.


    Francis participated in an interview by Tim Grachowski in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, as part of the Veterans' History Project (March 14, 2002). He died May 26, 2008 at age 89.

    http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/vhp/story/loc.natlib.afc2001001.26803/ (60 min.)

    I learned in preparing for the presentation I gave at the 2009 WAIS Conference, "Exploring History through a Family Story of the China-Burma-India Theater of WWII," that CBI was a very lengthy and complex engagement with Japanese fighting forces. Americans, Brits and Australians fought on numerous fronts alongside Chinese, East Indian, Nepalese Gurkhas and Burmese Army forces. The latter switched sides when it became obvious the Japanese would surely lose. CBI operations were variously titled: Operation Dracula, Operation Extended Capital (Operation Capital), Operation Bishop (a wide-sweeping naval backup across SE Asia to support the capture of Rangoon). American started supplying China's defenses through the Lend-Lease Act under the title American Military Mission to China (AMMISCA), begun July 3, 1941.

    The re-capture of Rangoon (now Yangon) was a decisive victory, but hardly what I would call a battle. On April 28-29, 1945 prisoners of the Rangoon Gaol awoke to find a note on the door of the prison (contrary to orders from Tokyo that all POWs be executed), that they'd been freed by their captors. As a point of reference, on May 2 the New York Times reported Hitler was dead.

    According to accounts US and British planes continued to bomb and strafe Rangoon for two days after the Japanese evacuated. Prisoners in the jail painted, "Japs Gone," "Brits Here," and finally, "Extract Digit" on the roofs of the prison before the attacks ended. In reading the diary of Wing Commander Lionel Hudson (RAF), he reports that on April 30 he was approached at the gate of the prison by Major Hia Gyaw, of the Burmese Defense Army. Following tense negotiations, it was agreed that should the Japanese forces who had held the city abandon their retreat they would fall back to the city. There would be no fighting in the city when the British arrived. Major Gyaw armed the prisoners with rifles and grenades.

    From what I've read, Lord Louis Mountbatten, although commander of the Southeast Asia Command (SEAC), was not very well liked in the field. He was charged with negotiating battle plans with Generalissimo Chang Kai-shek of the Chinese Nationals, of whom there was great indication of incompetence and corruption. General Joseph Stllwell ("Uncle Joe" or "Vinegar Joe" depending on the circumstances) refers to Mountbatten in The Stilwell Papers (1948), as the "Supreme Commander" and "Sultan Louis." In a letter to Mrs. Stilwell (p.287) he writes, "Just a line before hopping off to see Louis who, to put it mildly, has his hind leg over his neck." General Stilwell refers to Chang Kai-shek through his papers as "Peanut."

    In John Heelan's post of Sept 21, he makes mention of the abhorrent treatment, rape and slaughter, of British nurses captured during the fighting, atrocious war crimes. The courage and endurance of military nurses has very much gone unrecognized. A great deal of credit must be given to Evelyn M. Monahan and Rosemary Neidel-Greenlee for their book, All This Hell: US Nurses Imprisoned by the Japanese. The University Press of Kentucky, 2 ed., 2003.

    From the inside book cover: "Many of these army nurses were considered too vital to the war effort to be evacuated from the Philippines. Though receiving only half the salary of male officers of the same rank, they helped establish outdoor hospitals and treated thousands of casualties despite rapidly decreasing supplies and rations. After their capture, they continued to care for the sick and wounded throughout their internment in the prison camps. When freedom came, the US military ordered the nurses to sign agreements with the government not to discuss their horrific experiences." http://www.amazon.com/All-This-Hell-Imprisoned-Japanese/dp/0813190614/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1411418646&sr=8-1&keywords=all+is+hell+nurses

    Among members of the Japanese Imperial Army, to die for the emperor was the most esteemed death one could endure. Guarding prisoners was considered shameful; guarding women prisoners the most shameful of all possible positions to hold. The Senjinkun: Instructions for the Battlefield, a military code issued on January 8, 1941, a supplement to the Imperial Rescript to Soldiers and Sailors, was a small book carrier by soldiers.  "The supplement specifically forbade retreat or surrender. The quote 'Never live to experience shame as a prisoner' was repeatedly cited as the cause of numerous suicides committed by soldiers and civilians. Japanese soldiers were instructed to ‘show mercy to those who surrender.' This was written in response to prior misconduct on the battlefield." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senjinkun_military_code


    Boyd, J. (Sgt.) and Garth, G. (1996). Tenko! Rangoon Jail. Turner Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee.

    Hudson, Lionel. Wing Commander Rtr. (RAAF), (1987). The Rats of Rangoon: The Inside Story of the "Fiasco" That Took Place at the End of the War in Burma. Arrow Books, London, Great Britain.

    The Railway Man (film). Set to have taken place at Sonkrai, a POW camp near Kanchanaburi, close to the Thai-Burma border. "In 1942 Kanchanaburi was under Japanese control. It was here that Asian [Japanese] forced labourers and Allied POWs, building the infamous Burma Railway, constructed a bridge; an event immortalised in the film Bridge on the River Kwai and The Railway Man. Almost half of the prisoners working on the project died from disease, maltreatment and accidents." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Railway_Man_(film)

    JE comments:  I remember Mike Bonnie's excellent presentation on Francis E. Sawyer during WAIS '09.  At the time I didn't know that fellow WAISer John Heelan's father had also served in Burma, and might well have been one of Francis's liberators, had Lord Mountbatten not intervened.  (One can only guess what was meant by the "Extract Digit" sign painted on the prison roof.  Perhaps I've just guessed...)
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    • China-Burma-India Campaign (John Heelan, UK 09/23/14 7:52 AM)
      Mike Bonnie's post on WWII Burma (23 September) provoked two more memories related to me by my father. Mike refers to the Imperial order that specifically forbade the Japanese Army from retreat or surrender. "The quote 'Never live to experience shame as a prisonerer' was repeatedly cited as the cause of numerous suicides committed by soldiers and civilians." My father told me of such mass suicides that I found it hard to believe (he said 2000 on the ridge overlooking the Imphal valley) when the Japanese Army was defeated in the battles of Kohima and Imphal, in both of which my father fought.

      The second memory is my father's gratitude to the airmen of the USAAF and RAF who delivered supplies, often flying Dakotas up to 22,000ft over the Himalayas--many died in the attempt--to drop supplies to the forces in the Burmese jungle when the surface supply lines to China had been cut by Japanese forces.

      JE comments:  These stories of mass suicide must have been appalling and intimidating to the other side. Honor is impossible to quantify, but the Japanese should have realized that forcing the enemy to care for prisoners requires resources that otherwise can be used for fighting.

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