On May 6, 1942, when I was a lad of 10 years, we, some 50 to 60 thousand civilians, women and children: Indians, Anglo-Indians, Anglo-Burmese, English, Jews, some Burmese and a few Chinese, were congregated in quiet groups on the Myitkyina airstrip in Northern Burma, breathlessly waiting to board some of the commercial airliners commandeered by the British to fly us out to Calcutta and freedom from the menacing Japanese Army which was (unknown to us) rapidly closing in on Myitkyina, after their successful pincers closed the Chinese border near-by in the east, and were close to accomplishing that in the somewhat more distant frontier of India in the west.
Earlier, we were informed that only women and children were allowed to be evacuated by air, the men (including my father, Dr. Peter C. Valu of Rangoon who was a public health physician assigned Captain in the British Army of Burma’s medical reserves, his brothers-in-law David and Charles Edward of Maymyo and Victor Tresham, whom we respectfully called "uncle" in Burma kid's fashion, an elderly Anglo-Burmese dredging engineer (who tagged along with us earlier during the evacuation by river steamers on the Irrawaddy) were ordered to trek out of the country.
So close we came to board a plane (or so we were led to believe) that an officer, hoping to take on another passenger or two, asked us to drop the small shoulder-slung Shan bag of clothes we were allowed for the trip. Every woman and child dropped their bags without a qualm. Mother, (holding tightly to an album of family pictures) whispered “We’ll get all the clothes we need in Calcutta!”
Just then we saw a number of large camouflaged British army ambulances drive out of the dense copse of trees lining the strip and race toward the planes which were revving up their engines on the make-shift airfield, and out came the wounded servicemen carried on stretchers. “Gangway!” shouted the guards as they pushed us aside and rushed first the stretcher cases, followed by the lame and the halt, into the planes we thought were assigned to fly us out to India! There were a lot of us protesting “natives”( a term the British haughtily referred to us) when the English families, also waiting in line, were loaded first into the other planes while we were summarily pushed aside. One Anglo-Indian woman next to me swore at a British officer who turned a livid red: “You white-livered bastards!” probably realizing, at last, the tenuous position her ethnicity held in the crumbling British Raj.
In the melee of protesting women, screaming children with the backdrop of crackling, whirling propeller driven airliners we heard a strong voice “Mary! Mary!” and back came Mother’s answer “Peter!” I never heard my parents call out to one another with such longing and pathos as we all ran and hugged Dad who we had supposed was well on his way to the Assam border with his ambulance brigade.
I heard him tell Mother under his breath: “They are shooting themselves in the leg to get on as wounded!” “Who?” asked Mom, who gave him an incredulous look when he whispered: “The bloody ambulance drivers, Mary! They’d shoot themselves in the leg and scream: “Doc, I’m wounded! Bandage me, please!”
And to think that one of my boyish dreams was to be an ambulance driver! A mere child, I heard and saw all of this going around me with a complete detachment which did not seem to demand surprise or explanation as though nothing could ever surprise me again in Life.
I felt alone among the thousands there when I thought I caught a faint sound of an airplane approaching in the distance. Soon others heard the distinct drone and exclaimed aloud that more planes were coming to fly us out of Myitkyina, but I didn’t buy that because I knew what a Japanese Zero sounded like—an old electric coffee- grinder of a sound, which was soon over us, flying very low and without markings. I screamed “Ma, it’s a Zero!” Just then the pilot, whom we all saw quite distinctly, opened his window and waved a red flag. My sister Norma shouted: “He’s warning us! He’s warning us!” A British officer approached the crowd and called on his bull-horn: “One of our planes has lost his wireless connection and is having a problem in landing. All vehicles and people clear the field!”
Without believing him, but not questioning him, every one ran helter-skelter into the low thorny lantana bushes which separated the airstrip from the main highway, half expecting the low bushes to hide us from the enemy intruder, if not protect us from a Japanese air raid.
The plane, instead, climbed steeply, turned a half-circle and disappeared from sight.
After some minutes an All Clear was announced on the bull horn and once again we were herded in quiet lines in front of the airliners which had already filled with the English families and wounded. Nobody questioned why the “ one of our planes” had not landed, sensing that it was in fact an enemy recon sent to warn us of an impending attack.
Soon we heard the heavier drone of approaching aircraft and once again excited voices were heard that they were our planes coming to take us to Calcutta. But when we looked up we saw high flying bombers, which dipped ever so slightly in what seemed a slow, almost frozen, motion of a bird-like dance as they released small egg-like black objects which were seen dropping from them. Mums screamed “Those are bombs!” and others, likewise, shouted in unison.
In one rush Mums had managed to gather us a short distance away from the planes, have us lie face down on the grass, and actually covered me over protectively with her large body, stifling me for air. Soon the bombs fell and seemed to be accurately targeting the parked planes as first one and then the others began to be hit. The explosions were near, sulfurous and scorching with screams of the trapped English passengers heart-meltingly melding with the sputtering , ratcheting propellers.
After a while a semi-conscious pall crept over me. The bombing must have gone on for quite some time and when it stopped we were all in almost a comatose state.
Everything was so eerily quiet during a lull as I pushed myself out from my Mother’s heavy, frozen embrace fearing that her poor heart had given out, and she had expired out of shock. But, thankfully, she moved, raised her head from one side to another looking over her brood, and, in a trice, began screaming: “Where is Helene! My God, what has become of my Helene!”
I barely was aware of the existence of my own family lying around me and, to this date, never understood Mum’s brood hen instinct to detect the loss of one of five offspring in the midst of dozens of people lying there. All sense of numbness left me when I noticed that Helene, who is a year older than I am but who I treated, protectively, as the younger because of her quiet timidity and sweetness, was, indeed, nowhere to be seen.
Dad and Uncle Tresham herded us away from the exploding planes toward the large trees near the highway, promising to go back to look for her, but I kept looking back with an intensity and longing as though I’d spot my missing sister if only I willed her return. But I only saw a contorted sea of faces which my mind’s eye must have automatically glossed over to lessen the pain of their impact on my senses… a trick the mind learns early to protect itself.
We crept under the thorny lantana which kept tearing at our skin and faces and slowly inched away from the murderous attack of the savage airmen who had destroyed all the aircraft and were now deliberately machine-gunning the helpless wounded and dead on that field laid wide open to the cloudless skies. It was as though that cameo scene was laid out for God, Himself, to view again in shock, at the depravities his creature, Man, was capable of inflicting on his fellow beings. If that be the case then I felt that He must have felt an unfathomable remorse as to the depths into which he had witnessed that creature had devolved into…
Just as we reached the trees just beyond the bushes we had crept through, UncleTresham quietly left us to Dad’s care as he turned back toward the airstrip. Nothing was said. There was a lull in the series of air-raids as I quietly slipped out of Mum’s grasp and followed him looking willy-nilly through the scores of wounded people and crumpled bodies, scenes which I, blessedly, must have blacked out as soon as I viewed them … To identify Helene at any distance I kept reminding myself of the clothes she was wearing: a cream organdie-like frock with distinctive small pale blue and pink flowers. I half-expected her, at any moment, to run up to me saying, with her shy, mild stutter: “Thanks for looking for me, Joe!” But, alas, she was nowhere to be seen, and once again the planes were over us machine gunning as they whizzed over at tree top height…
I do not remember how long we looked for Helene before scenes which I hope I shall never recall the details again in my memories: of a group of British Tommies, about a hundred yards in front of me looking skyward at one moment and being raked by machine gun fire the very next, falling like ten pins. The Zero was so low I felt the swoosh of air swept under it as it veered off to the left and gained some height as I and two Tommies lay down flat: one, a few feet on my right at an angle to me , while the other lay parallel , about the same distance, to the left. The next moment that brute, or another, came down in the front of us. It was flying so low that I thought it was going to physically land and crush us. As I looked up hypnotically at it I saw the large fuselage and propellers streaking directly in front of me when it opened fire. As I instinctively moved onto my side to give as little target as possible I distinctly saw the machine gun bullets raking the ground on either side of me and tear the soldier on my right in two. The other British soldier, on the left of me, moaned out: “Get away, kid. Get away!” His arm was shot off and bleeding profusely, and yet the poor man was more concerned for a child’s safety…
I ran to a low structure made of thatched grass, which I thought was the camouflaged entrance of an underground shelter. Just as I had noted that it was, instead, a sun shade made by throwing thatched grass over four high octane gasoline drums, and immediately decided to high tail it out of there, I noticed the slim hem of a young girl’s frock only about three inches in length. It was not torn off a leg folded and bloodied, but it stood out, unstained, to flag me to that precious person of my sister: it was a cream organdie fabric with clusters of small pale blue and pink flowers on it! I didn’t want to delve further because the girl, whether it was Helene or not, was hidden under a British Tommy’s body which had splurged blood all over…
The child in me protested the cold machine this world of immense adult hatred had heaped like so much filth on my tender boyish psyche that I could not cry like a child is supposed to cry when he is inundated with its brutish wretchedness. Helpless, I knelt down and kept moaning deeply under my broken breath, and spilling torrents of tears into my hands: “Please God, P l e a s e God…” but I didn’t know who to call out for help: to Jesus, God of Infinite Mercy of my Catholic upringing Who was clearly not there , or to Kali, Goddess of Destruction of Evil, of my Hindu ancestors, who likewise had clearly absented an Ascendancy here…
Mercy came with Uncle Tresham’s strong arms hugging me and telling me in strong whispers: “We must help Helene! We must help her my boy! Remember, you are now a man!” He didn’t have to say more. For the next few hours I had aged twenty years, and matured a million. To this day I have no recollection if we spoke again for the next hour or two after he carefully picked up the soldier by both arms and gently rolled him away from the prone figure. “Mummy will die if she sees her like this!” he exclaimed under his breath.
The poor man's chest cavity was torn open at an angle from one side to the other by machine gun bullets, and all of his blood and organs were splashed all over the back of her head and back . Thankfully, he must have died instantaneously. Thankfully too, she had gone into shock and into a semi-conscious state. Without a word we turned her over and wiped away the blood from her face with our bare hands, while he kept slapping it lightly until she moved, spluttered and went back into a coma-like trance.
Uncle Tresham, picked her up with his hands and holding her away from his body, ran to the edge of the strip where there was an artesian pump and buckets. He quickly filled one and then another; and as I held Helene up he poured buckets of cold water over her head and body. She began to move and scream a little because of the cold water--- or was she wounded as well? Soon the bloodied water began to clear, and as we squeezed the remaining drops from her hemline I knew what he was trying to accomplish. He was trying to determine if wounds on her body had caused some of the profuse bleeding. Those bleeding wounds would have been clearly seen through the wet transparency of her frock. That was the only way he could tell without having to undress her… Thank God she did not have a nick of a wound on her. But she was in deep shock.
We laid her on her back on a dry spot to dry the clothes on her which were wringing wet, and waited to hear any sounds of planes. There were none and the torrid summer sun beat down with a benediction for the dead and the dying as Uncle Tresham picked her up again, and throwing her over his shoulder, limp and damp like a rag doll, began to run to the place where we had left my family. I do not have the words to describe the joy with which each one greeted her.
Dad was nowhere to be seen, having his hands full caring for the large number of wounded during that long lull. Mom immediately took her aside under some trees and examined her from head to foot. All was clear. Later, she came round, was able to walk but was unable to recognize us or talk to anybody.
It was only then I took myself away from the group and cried my little heart out, wondering why the most innocent had to be singled out by those depraved cowards in their high-flying machines.
But what about the other people’s children I wondered: those whose parents were killed and who as a result were lost in their wanderings, or those who died and were left to the mercy of the carrion vultures which had already begun to circle the airstrip? Only the vultures, but please God, there was not a single RAF or AVG plane in the immense cold blue skies which covered us without a single cloud of pity.
In point of fact : the British Raj in Burma had collapsed on May 6,1942, and we were there to witness it.
Editor’s Note: The extent of that massacre in the numbers of women, children and wounded dead or maimed is not known to me, and I respectfully seek the assistance of historians to provide that information to me. More so, for historical documentation I seek to inquire who the responsible Japanese Air Force commandant was who ordered that massacre at that time; if he was tried by the War Crimes Commission and what was his fate...
Personally, I hope that he was allowed to live out his days with the sure and constant reminder of his monstrous criminality, and abject cowardice.
This experience I described is, of course, my very own. But the memory of that diabolical event--- from the time I set out to look for my missing sister to the time we brought her back to the loving arms of the family-- I had thought had been expunged forever but was in fact interred in my psyche these past sixty-five years. The experience I knew occurred, but its memory my mind carefully avoided even in my most pensive moods, because of the fear of being traumatized anew by reliving it. This then is the first rendering of my remembrance and it has been the most difficult six hours I have spent on this key board. The fact that I finally wrote it in cool clinical terms, with my very own one-finger typing, made it all the more difficult because it took excruciatingly too long to do so.
In Memoriam Mr. Victor Ormsby Tresham, an Irrawaddy Flotilla Company dredging engineer, who became my hero and mentor, was captured along with us by the Japanese Army in Myitkyina and stayed with us, as part of our family, for just over a year in Maymyo, which is located in the mountains about twenty-five miles east of Mandalay. He passed away on his birthday, August 11, 1943, at the age of sixty years. To the very end he was constantly cared for by my Mother, and medically attended by my Father. He received Extreme Unction given by Fr. Clerici of the Roman Catholic faith, but died of a massive heart attack and was buried by David and Charles Edward who personally dug his grave in the cemetery of the Roman Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception. In his short stay with us he continued to help us, and anyone of our neighbors, with vigor, humor and love almost to his last days, and I felt that his heart, severely enlarged as it was found to be just prior to his passing, was not physically large enough for the amount of love and energy he wanted to expend to help those around him .
Some say that he joined us on the paddleboat M.V. 'Shwe Hintha' on theIrrawaddy River in Mandalay on that eventful day of April 13, 1942. But I knew that he did not join us. He was sent.
The Japanese attack on the Myitkyina airstrip on May 6, 1942 was every bit as vicious as their attack on Pearl Harbor exactly five months earlier on December 7, 1941, but with this difference: the Japanese attacked a naval bastion there of the United States, which assuredly would have—had they not been taken by surprise by that sneak attack—given them every bit of a drubbing, and more, as they got. The attack on the Myitkyina strip was clearly a planned orgy of death and destruction against unarmed persons who had no means, whatsoever, to resist that prolonged attack. It was only after the war that we learned that, earlier, what ever remained of elements of the Royal Air Force which had not been destroyed in southern Burma, were pulled back to bases in India; while the small American Volunteer Group, like their RAF counterparts, despite their remarkable bravery, prowess and derring-do against the Japanese air armadas they engaged,were severely depleted in numbers and were, likewise, moved to China, thus leaving the Japanese Air Force the masters of the skies throughout southeast Asia to the Tibetan border. No one knew the actual carnage that transpired but everyone knew that this was not a battle action of enemy forces pitted against an army in retreat. It was a carefully planned action by cowardly generals against the innocent and the wounded,generals who should have fallen on their swords in their much touted ‘bushido’ tradition, if only to save face from many a brave sakutai in the divisions they were leading.
Having said that, a gnawing question remains to haunt us to our dying days: why did that unmarked Jap Zero’s pilot wave a red flag to warn us of the impending massacre?