*From: “AT LONG LAST LIBERATION” Copyright 1996 by Sheila M. Valu. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish by WorldWar2BurmaDiaries.com
Eventually, about 10:30 am. on May 6, 1942, our long trek from Myitkyina ended when we reached the airstrip located several miles from the town itself and glimpsed a plane through the scattered trees and came upon a large clearing where an emergency runway had been set out in front of a screen of low-lying hills. We hurried on to the clearing. There were two planes already on the ground and a third one was landing. The two planes were quickly filling so we ran up as close to them as possible. We were told to keep away as many more planes were expected. Servicemen and their wives and families were being helped in, and there were more wounded soldiers on stretchers and on crutches waiting to be taken in. Many eyebrows were raised in surprise as we had been told that this was to be a purely civilian evacuation. Filled with chagrin and bitterness, we began to grumble. We were a large crowd of hundreds of families and thousands of dependants:Anglo-Indians and Anglo-Burmans , Indians and a handful of Burmese - with our grips, shan-bags and bundles of various shapes. Being in a state of panic, we were eager to push ourselves into the first available plane and were even willing to bribe the pilot to take us in.
Just as we had been formed into orderly groups, we saw a black plane fly in between two hills and over the runway. We cheered like mad, thinking that it was yet another plane come to take us away. And then, the pilot stood up in his cockpit and waved a red flag . “Ma, it’s a Zero!” shouted Joe, who already could name Japanese aircraft by their shape. But his voice was drowned out by the din of the unmarked plane’s engines. “Look, he's waving to us!”. Someone shouted that he had a red flag and we all waved back. But instead of landing, the plane flew away.
A tall British officer, his face drained of all color, rushed up to the groups and told us that it was a Japanese plane, so could we please hurry and hide in the bushes; a raid was expected. We made our way quickly to he shrub land surrounding the aerodrome. After about fifteen minutes, as there was not even a drone to be heard, we returned to the clearing and to our groups. In a trice, two more planes were on us. Our hopes were raised for a moment and then dashed to the ground as we recognized the Japanese markings. There was no time to rush back to the bushes, so we crouched on the ground. The planes flew to the opposite ends of the runway, dipped their wings and let loose black objects which plummeted down and exploded on the two planes packed with those whom we had envied just a few minutes earlier. “Lie flat!” screamed my mother. “Those are bombs! O God save us!” “O Mother in Heaven, cover us with your mantle and keep us safe!”, we cried. Just then a bomb exploded on the third plane, a few yards away from us. There was a crackling sound, a great burst of fire and a terrific rush of burning hot air mixed with sulphurous fumes, and I passed out. After some time - it might have been a few seconds, it might have been a few minutes, I cannot say exactly how long - I regained consciousness with a weird sense of lightness as though I was a disembodied spirit hovering over our huddled figures. I wondered if the bodies of our family still had life in them and, if not, where were their spirits?
Everything was so still and silent.
Then I heard a moan here and a groan there but I did not dare lift my head. By this time, my spirit seemed to have been reunited with my body and sensation returned. I knew I was unhurt but felt sure that at least one member of our family was injured, if not dead. I just could not even begin to look. At last, picking up courage, I raised myself cautiously. To my amazement and great joy, one dazed head after the other lifted and gazed around, perhaps with the same thoughts. We sprang up speechless and hung on to Mother.
Suddenly, she let out a cry of anguish, “Where's Helene? O my God, where's Helene?” Only then did we realize that Helene, the second youngest, was missing. With one accord we looked at the spot where we all huddled together only a few minutes ago, to see if she were lying there injured or, worse still, dead. But no, there was no sign of her. We searched around, at the same time making haste to get away from the infernal place, asking everyone we met if he or she had seen her.
The aerodrome was like a battlefield strewn with the dead and the dying, and with those who survived weeping over them. There were wounded civilians everywhere, with an arm or a leg in a raw red mass of flesh and blood. Some people had died through shock, without a single scratch on them. There were people crying for help to get medical attention for themselves or their wounded. The evacuee planes were blazing away fiercely with those trapped inside screaming, “Let me out! Let me out! For God's sake let me out!” A sudden explosion from within one of the planes - the fuel tank perhaps - a spurt of flames and the voices were stilled forever. We could not help thinking back to an hour earlier when our hearts were sore with envy because they had been given preference. A little further on was a mass of bodies clad in khaki. The servicemen, taken by surprise, had stood stock still gazing up at the planes and were mowed down like grass with machine-gun fire. We had scarcely reached the fringe of the thicket when a droning sound was heard and there was a general stampede. “They've come again!” cried those of us who were alive, running into the bushes and lying flat. Sure enough, the attackers had returned. This time they concentrated on the shrubs surrounding the clearing. They were, indeed, in a killing mood. "Keep your heads down", whispered my mother hoarsely. I heard the roar of engines above us as two shadows on the ground crossed and criss-crossed; and bullets, like great humming bees flying at terrific velocity, whizzed past our heads and shoulders. The criss-crossing seemed to go on forever and there was no end to the stream of 'humming bees'. Then, after what appeared to be an eternity, the droning died away.
We picked ourselves up and checked to see if anyone of us had been injured. Thank God! Not one of us had so much as a scratch even. Fleeing further into the shrubs and bushes, we made inquiries along the way of people we knew if they had seen Helene. They scarcely stopped to reply in the negative, so intent were they on getting away from that accursed spot. We had come a good distance away from the runway where the shrub land began to merge with a number of scattered trees, and were mentally and physically exhausted. Our throats were parched and dry, so Mr. Tresham and I set out to look for water. Eventually, we came upon a runnel and filled two petrol cans with water, murky and full of blades of grass. Nothing, however, tasted so much like nectar as that filthy liquid we drank that day. We were wondering what could have happened to Helene - we were sure she had been with us on the clearing during the bombing.
Unknown to me, in that melee Mr Tresham made an attempt to look for her, with Joe tagging along in a daze in search of his favorite sister. Much later in life Joe described a very traumatic experience he had had with strafing Zeros during this episode, which he quickly expunged from his mind and memory when they found Helene in a bath of blood!
When the planes began dropping their bombs, Helene had fled from our group and taken refuge among, of all things, some petrol drums covered with a bamboo mat! She had just thrown herself flat on the ground when, she thought, a British soldier also seeking cover, had tripped over her. Actually, they found that he had died of massive machine gun wounds and had bled over her. “Mummy will die if she sees her like this!” exclaimed the ever mindful Mr. Tresham as he doused our shocked , but physically unscathed, sister with buckets of water from an artesian airstrip pump. He then literally carried her all the way to where he and Joe had left us.
There we were benumbed; however, everyone of us whole and alive without a single scratch on us. We had been separated and had gone through the gruesome jaws of Death, but the Hands of Divine Providence had protected us and brought us together again in an inexplicable way, at which we could not help but wonder and bow our heads in humble thanksgiving.
Joe, who became a life-long research scientist in the microbiological sciences, and not one to make claims of being a very religious person, nonetheless believes that Mr. Tresham was “sent” for one purpose only: to save Helene.
With heavy hearts and numbed with the terrible experience we had been through, we set out to walk back to the Evacuee Camp. Actually, in spite of our hopes being dashed to the ground, we considered ourselves fortunate that our family was intact and still alive to tell the story. We did the return journey in stages, taking advantage of a bamboo hut here or a shed there to rest our sore and aching feet. My spectacles had been smashed during the bombing and I was suffering from semi-blindness, so I hung on to my Mother's arm all the way. All that day until late in the evening, the aerodrome and the surrounding areas were bombed and machine-gunned. After each raid, the dead were buried in the bomb craters. At the very next bombing, we were later told, the same spots would be hit and the bodies blasted to pieces would scatter around. In spite of which, some people had the temerity to hang around till dusk when they managed to get away in the last evacuee planes that came, or so we were told.
As for us, one experience was more than enough and each time the raiders came over, we took refuge in the bamboo and sugar cane clumps along the side of the road and trembled from head to foot with fear till the droning died away.
We reached the camp about six o'clock that evening and had our first full meal that day - corned beef and corned mutton on cabin biscuits, and tea sweetened with an extra helping of condensed milk. When we left to set out for the aerodrome that morning, we had seen mounds of silverware and beautiful expensive clothes discarded by the fortunate ones who had been air lifted, but these had disappeared now for the local people had helped themselves bountifully. There were, however, piles of blankets, dhurries or small carpets, and cotton clothes still remaining and we were told to take as many as we wanted. Spreading dhurries on the wooden floor with a liberal supply of blankets we slept the sleep of the exhausted.
Little known by the rest of the world, the Japanese massacre of helpless children, women and wounded at Myitkyina aerodrome on May 6, 1942 will also live in infamy in the annals of World War II.
Editor’s Note: It was a fact, witnessed by our family and hundreds of others on that fateful day of May 6, 1942, that, without notice, British wounded servicemen were surreptitiously transported in a convoy of military ambulances and rushed into waiting civilian air transports, thus denying women and children escape on flights to Calcutta. Further, it was an accepted view, at that time, that the Japanese commanding general had promised his Allied counterpart that the aerodrome would be spared but only if civilians were allowed to depart. The Editor seeks information from knowledgeable persons as to the reason that agreement was broken by the Brits, or if, indeed, there was any such an agreement in the first place. Regardless, the slaughter by the Japanese Air Force which occurred and documented here must, indeed, live in infamy in the annals of any war.
Copyright 2008 by Joseph Alwyn Valu. All Rights Reserved.