CITY HALL , RANGOON photo courtesy:Khaing Tun, Yangon
AN AMERICAN KAMIKAZI PILOT? *
JOSEPH ALWYN VALU
*From:Some Poems, Stories & Stuff / Stories I Never Told My Sons.
Copyright 2004 by Joseph A. Valu.
All Rights Reserved.
At the outbreak of World War II with Japan little did we in Burma, and the British, realize that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, would toll the death knell of the British Empire, as well as the Dutch, the French and Portuguese empires in the East, and bring about the entry of American military power as a liberating force in our midst.
That terrible day would also usher in the independence of Burma, of India and a host of other countries throughout the world. God does, indeed, work in mysterious ways.
About six months prior to Imperial Nippon’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Father’s promotion accorded us comfortable quarters on the top floor of Rangoon’s palatial City Hall. We began to see, with a certain fascination, that our environs had become upscale as we now lived on Fytche Square (later called Bandoola Square) flanked on either side by the Sule Pagoda, High Court and other imposing churches, banks and government administrative buildings. Our compatriots we, of course, still connected in school, and our relatives and friends were entertained with a little more panache, but no less warmth, at home. This area was part of a fairly well-off pre-war Asian city with it’s profusion of peoples of many cultures and ethnicities amidst a panoply of dress, and indescribable scenes of tropical color and bon vivre. Among the scenes which stand out in hind-sight and memory: the time my Mother found me glued to the show window of Rowe & Co., an expensive English store, fascinated at the large train set with it’s engine blowing sound and steam, and it’s compartments clip-clippitting as they passed us. Off to one side was a young English boy in suit, tie and cap, and his haughty mother looking on as a man packed his train set in a large box. With a worried look, probably because of the encroaching war clouds and her concern for our future, Mother whispered: "You’ll get one for your birthday next year, my son. I promise!" Funny, but I never gave a thought of belief in her promise then because I could read the fear and uncertainty in her eyes which spoke volumes for the times we were in…
The other scene, a few feet away as we crossed the street alongside the majestic edifice of the City Hall, was that of a lovely little Indian beggar girl (with no legs) of ten years – no older than I –half-naked, sitting on a make-shift platform of planks of deal wood fitted with metal wheels as she pushed it with one bare hand on the pavement, and singing in soulful tones as we added some money to her empty can :
"Yes, we have no bananas!
We have no bananas to-day!"
Strange to say that for several of my boyhood years I would dream of that sweet girl of the haunting refrain and face; but my dreamgirl, bejeweled in a diaphanous white sari, would be found stepping into a golden horse-drawn carriage, and we would race away just before the count of midnight. Could it be that my subconscious psyche replaced her legs in order that I might replace her slipper?
But it was now December 7, 1941, a date that would change our world forever.
With Britain’s entry into the war with Japan, there was a flux of Allied activity most evident (to us kids giggling and hiding in the top most galleries) in the swanky British Royal Air Force officers in their blue woolen uniforms squiring lovely ladies in wispy colorful ankle-length ballroom dresses on the dance floor of the City Hall’s colossal marble Ballroom, and the scrungy Yankee American Volunteer Group "AVG" pilots in their light cotton khaki tunics and shorts, attempting to gate crash the RAF’s exclusive celebrations! We could not understand how the friendly banter of these two groups of Allied airmen could, sometimes, end in a display of small arms fire at one another’s vehicle’s tires at the well-known "Maxim’s" night club down the street.
All these pranks ended with the first Japanese bombing of Rangoon on December 23, 1941, when the small cadres of these brave men joined together to form a very thin, but implacable, line of spunk and fight in defense of our lovely home-town. Fortunately, we fled the City Hall apartment soon after Pearl Harbor, to a friend, Dr. Pillai’s place in the outlying suburbs to escape likely city targets.
I remember the times his son, Lawrence, and I would break off a game of badminton to watch the outgunned, but rarely out-maneuvered, AVG and RAF dog-fights with enemy Zeros.
I shall never forget one particular fight when a Zero, hot on the tail of an AVG shark-nosed P-40, kept firing at it while the Yank kept weaving from one side to the other, all the while gaining height. Suddenly the American dove, and in what seemed like a rapid combination of a tumble and a roll-over got behind the surprised Zero and shot it out of the skies! I was convinced that the zing-zing zinging we heard in the nearby trees were bullet streams and not bees, but we got into the trench so fast we did not care to inquire…
Those fighter pilots in their one-on-one battles were to me like knights and samurai in their aerial jousts. To me, now in my retirement years, I considered them to belong in the same heroic leagues as the American and Japanese carrier-based pilots’ aerial dueling over the vast expanses of the Pacific, as well as the British Spitfires and Hurricane pilots in their single handed defense of their beloved London in the Battle of Britain, and the American Mustangs fighting the German Luftwaffe to a standstill in the skies over Germany. Alas we were soon to learn that the deadly Reaper of modern warfare killed more civilians than servicemen, the former being cynically used as targets by both sides block-busting and carpet bombing to destroy entire cities and towns of their residents.
On December 23, 1941 some 200 or more Japanese war planes were reported approaching the City from Siam (present day Thailand) in the east. It was late morning on a sunny day when a small group of Allied fighters – all they could muster—scrambled. The story went around that an AVG (later called Chennault’s Flying Tigers) pilot fully aware that the Allied defenders of Rangoon were completely outnumbered, also was aware that the Japanese squadron leader (whose plane was protected by scores of Zeros), alone retained the plans and the targets to be bombed. This intrepid American pilot was said to fly as high into the sun as he could before the Japanese air armada swarms got to Rangoon. When the squadron leader was sighted, the Yank cut his engine and silently dove (using the sun as a blistering back-drop to blind the enemy) directly onto that plane, destroying in one fell swoop, it, the entire plan of attack and the morale of the waves of attackers, as well as his own life. Reportedly, both planes fell as fiery balls into the Rangoon River.
Is there any truth to that story? If there is, then who was that individual and was he recognized for his bravery, or as some claimed, for his foolhardiness? I was a young and impressionable lad then, and like many a boy of my age and time, I dreamt of becoming a pilot. I believed that that American’s ultimate sacrifice to defend a foreign city under attack was the bravest act I would ever hear of.
Alas, other personal experiences of planes and pilots in the years to come, including the scorching of Mandalay (April 3, 1942), the slaughter by the Japanese Air Force of hundreds of women, children and wounded as we lay on the open Myitkyina airstrip barely five months later (May 6, 1942), and the cowardly terroristic attack on New York City civilians on September 11, 2001 by air brigands as we watched transfixed to our TV sets – made me think otherwise of some of those cowardly men in their deadly high-flying machines.
But to get back to the American kamikazi, as a result of his desperate self-sacrifice (or so was it said) the attackers were denied knowledge, albeit for a few days, of the military targets to be destroyed. Little did he realize that as a result of his desperate selfless act, the decision for which must have been made on the spur of a moment, the demoralized, leaderless Japanese air armada would simply unload their bombs on the City, killing some two thousand, and wounding thousands of others of its residents. From our relative safety in the suburbs we kept on hearing the most bizarre and frightful reports of the dead, the dying and the wounded. Father, Philip Xavier, a cousin, and every doctor, nurse and volunteer worker were totally bloodied, and emotionally and physically exhausted when they returned home that night.
Father, who was a public health physician assigned captain in the British Army of Burma medical officers reserves, was in charge of the #1 Air Raid Precautions Unit, informed us later that the dead and dying carpeted the floors of the marbled Ballroom, the Banquet Room, and the hallways of the City Hall building, which we had recently vacated. ------------ --------------****--------------------
Editor’s Note: As stated in this narrative it was alleged at that time, that an American Flying Tiger (American Volunteer Group) pilot performed a kamikaze mission against the squadron leader of a Japanese air armada which bombed Rangoon on December 23, 1941.
In the interests of historical accuracy the author invites comments or corrections, if any, from knowledgeable persons concerning this matter. Joseph Valu, Editor WorldWar2Burma Diaries.com