After recalling, and telling many a story of the campaigns of Imperial Nippon in Burma as a youngster who lived through some of them, (and not imagining, at that time, the wonders of post-MacArthur Japan and it’s wondrous people), and what seemed their final success to achieve the goal of their little disguised economic piracy of the Asian landmass and its various peoples, it must seem to those who escaped that nightmare we were put through that there was no semblance of an underlying humaneness and civility left in the conqueror who thought of themselves (at least the ruling castes did) as superior to the general cadres of lowly mankind they conquered. That would indeed make that nightmare all the more hellish had it not been for an individual Japanese here or there, who, without having to make a case for their civility and humaneness, and thus be viewed with an understandable skepticism, simply acted out their moral lives, as they saw it, and without the artifice of pretense we would have expected of them. Were such individuals few? I have my doubts about that because they kept reappearing , seemingly out of the blue, at times of civil peace as well as actions fraught with violence, or potential violence, remains indisputable in a young boy's life and memory, that is, my own at that time, that I feel a moral obligation to acknowledge in my writings with a certain amount of gratitude, and at times, an affection. It was in the midst of a never ending maelstrom of intense adult wretchedness and mayhem, which is War, that these individuals appeared out of the mists of our captivity and depression, to somehow extend a feeling, as well a hand, that there was, indeed, still a bond of humanity between us which their country's wartime pervasive machinations could not break. Of these better angels of the enemy I speak. After that genocidal massacre at the Myitkyina airstrip on May 6, 1942, our trek back to Myitkyina and our further foray East where somehow we felt China would protect its neighbors from its enemy Nippon, we had to return to the town when groups of refugees ( as noted by my sister Sheila, in her unpublished book At Long Last Liberation, Authorized Edition. Copyright 2006, by Sheila M. Valu and Joseph A. Valu /ed.) who referred to” a Mrs. Haines and family” ahead of us, learned that a Japanese pincer movement, which left Myitkyina unoccupied for the moment, had succeeded in closing the Chinese border. The occupying forces had sent word that all refugees should return to Myitkyina and that they would not be harmed. My parents, fearful of the intense British propaganda that all women folk would be rounded up and raped, were fearful for what might befall their four young girls and their older attractive ward Emily, not to leave out our Mother herself, who was only thirty-five years old and beautiful. We returned without incident to the semi-pukka school building which housed us on our arrival in that northern most Burmese city on the Irrawaddy, Myitkyina, gathered a variety of clothes and blankets from large dumps the refugees had discarded on their hasty departures and for which we were thankful because we only were left with the clothes on our backs. And yes! The cans of “tin provisions” which the departing Brits had stored and left, and which could now be taken by the refugees. The bully beef and mutton were gone in a trice: opened with an attached key to each container they became easily available and served our hungry eyes and stomachs almost instantaneously. That night we slept on a section of the wooden floor demarcated for dozens of other families, on the second storey of that building, well stacked with old dhurries or small carpets and blankets, and slept, unhindered, the sleep of the just. Early the next morning we learned that a Siamese (Thai) unit of the Japanese Army had taken over the compound and had immediately separated the men and the older boys from their women folk which caused considerable fright since everybody was awaiting an attack on the women. I was left with Mom and the girls as I was only ten years old then. I had no idea why grown men with all the guns and ammo in the world would take out their hatred on women and not men who they were supposedly fighting. They had to be sissies I thought in my childish innocence. I, of course, knew nothing of the word “rape” nor of the terrible violence it reaped on its victims. I went around, unhindered, viewing varied scenes in a continuum which no Hollywood movie producer could produce on such a large stage, including those of a hundred or more Indian women lined up and their purse and bags searched for anything of value, watches and rings were high on the list of these scavengers, especially rings as these were not your pretty, but less valuable, costume jewelry many European and Eurasian women favored, but bankable solid bands of gold and silver which they insisted that the Indian women remove themselves or had them removed with a painful thug. Knowing that the onslaught on their necks and faces would follow, the women hastily removed their heavy gold necklaces and delicate nose and ear rings and gave them up with little or no expressions on their faces. Uncle Tresham later remarked that for them to have shown any fear or resistance would immediately invite violence, and even rape. Thankfully, I did not witness that.
The very next morning the Siamese unit moved out with their loot and an Imperial Japanese Army unit moved in to take command of the compound which was now a concentration camp with a list printed in English of the do’s and don’t’s for the internees to follow. A friendly incident, the first I experienced as a prisoner, occurred of which I do not have full remembrance as to how it initially began: with all the women and children looking on in stunned silence, an officer selected me of all the kids there, as a good humored PR ploy I’m sure, by having me put on a smallish military tunic which reached below my knees, placing his military khaki peaked cloth cap on my head, and draping his sheathed samurai sword, with attached belt, on my shoulder which flopped down to the floor. He then indicated that I should hold up the scabbard, and walk down that long dormitory-like room! I remember doing so with my mother’s encouraging glance in support, and the incident provided much attention, but little amusement, among the on-lookers. At the end of the long room the sword with its scabbard was good naturedly taken, and I was ushered into a small office where a group of Japanese men dressed in casual civvies cotton trousers and white shirts with rolled up sleeves, worked at wireless sets and a typewriter. I, of course, did not realize then that they must have been a part of the Intelligence service located amongst refugees as a cover. Surprised that these young men, who greeted and surrounded me, may have been the dentists and photographers we had seen a few months ago in Rangoon, I looked up to find a friendly smiling face looking at me quizzically, “Did you study geography in school, young man?” it asked in perfect English in an American accent which resembled my uncle Philips' when he returned from his studies in the States. “Yes, I did!” I assured him proudly. “Then, would you point out Burma on this map, please.” I looked up at a large map on the wall with Burma and India clearly marked in red color. “That is British India.” I said to gain some points. “Ah yes!” he agreed, “But not for long!” I looked at him impassively as if playing my cards closely, as I would have in pre-war Rangoon, trying to get the best exchange of local Capstan and Woodbine empty cigarette packs for an exotic collectable foreign cigarette pack my uncle Dr. Samuel Paul, a port health physician , had smoked on a cruise ship he had inspected. Then, in childlike fashion, I broke out with: “My Granny lives in Bombay!” “Oh, she does? Don’t worry, we’ll be there soon!” He then removed the tunic, gave me a smart salute and asked me for the cap which I returned with a friendly smile, and quietly left with a surprisingly warm feeling for meeting with those Japanese gentlemen, the first I had met. I assured myself that they could not have been a part of that murderous lot who had massacred hundreds , if not thousands, of us on the airstrip just a couple of days ago. That feeling would recur again and again in equally strange instances in the years of Occupation which followed, only to be negated by the fearful paranoia of the Kempetai, the Army’s Secret Police.
The days that followed were a melange of incidents, underlying them all a tension fed by a an inexplicable reality expanding before our very eyes with cadres of soldiers marching captured men outside of the camp to do hard labor, a couple of sentries outside of a latrine keeping an eye on refugee women and nuns lined up but not accosting them. Violence came later when an Indian man, dying of dysentery, was tied to a pillar in the blazing heat of the day until he collapsed and died. The reason: he did not report to work! This was followed by the same method of torture of a European priest, probably English, as the Japanese were careful not to act out against the Roman Catholic French and Italians at that time, because of the closeness of their post-invasion regimes to the barbarian Nazis and fascists.
A few days later the European and Eurasian families were moved out of the small cottages they were placed in to a more secure location, and were replaced by the Indians. Mother, a Eurasian of Indo-Portuguese extraction, had the presence of mind to exchange her western dress for a sari she acquired somewhere amongst the piles of clothes left behind by the refugees, and so escaped that ordeal.
In the middle of that chaos of living and change I must have contracted some respiratory condition which laid me low with a fever for a day or two and left me as quickly as it hit me. A sickly child, I found myself recuperating in the basement of a small cottage we were moved into, quietly playing with a train set some kid had left there, when a never to be forgotten happening of my life occurred. “That’s my train. Give it to me.” It was said by a small boy with freckles on his nose, with a quiet determination but no anger in his voice. Then she spoke and I never forgot anything she said in the following years in that sweet tone of voice suffused with a giving kindness, “Let him play with it, Mickey.” said this pretty, little European looking girl with tousled blonde hair … Then, “It’s quite OK, really!” , she looked directly into my eyes and soul with her liquid green eyes highlighted with a smile and golden radiance of her hair which fascinated me to no end, especially years later.
Now in my later years I have long concluded that the apparent willy-nilly of Lifes' exigencies leads us into paths we never dreamed we’d follow, only to establish the karma of our life’s journey.
In the midst of all the multi-faceted public, and even more complex personal happenings in our lives in that unknown corner of the world, I noticed a Japanese officer drive up to our cottage. He must have noted a somewhat frightened look on my face when he gave me a friendly smile as he got out of his jeep. I returned his greeting with relief and with a big smile when he gave me a large can of IXL brand jam. Wondering what the gift was for, he explained in his broken English to give it to my eldest sister Sheila! Like WOW, that was enough to get a love sick lad excited! He was much older than her nineteen years, probably in his middle thirties, mature and fairly good-looking. She came to the door and to my wonder invited him to come in, where the rest of the family were. There were greetings all around, and one by one the girls, with amused, teasing queries in their eyes, left and I was motioned by Mother with a stern look to stick around so I stayed, not realizing that I had been elected chaperone to the couple who began to try to converse in English, he with much bows and strange words like “ah so, desika!” and she giggling that she didn’t understand, etc. etc. A very shy girl, and one innocent in the ways of the world as I was, I never saw her so intrigued when he pointed out to Mother, probably to allay her fears, that she looked very Japanese, and in fact reminded him of his sister! As lines go she thought that was sweet, and it appears that they met a couple of more times under Mom’s scrutiny until the lady decided, with some pressure from Dad and his brothers-in-law, that he was a nice friend only, and we had to invent excuses for her not being around when he appeared with more cans of IXL jam. A gentleman, no less, he took the cue in a good natured way, and stopped coming over.
This brought to my mind a matter which transpired just a year before this incident when a relative of our dear friends, the Quinns of Rangoon, was being courted by a nice young man whom she later married. To a query by one of the kids, an older boy, one of Kenny Quinn’s brothers, opined in his boyish wisdom, “Well, that’s what people do. The girl and boy talk, and giiggle a lot about nothing at all, and then they decide to get married. And that’s how babies come …” And I said “Oh?” thankful that that question was settled at last.
Anyway, after that life changing episode of my meeting NiNi, and the cute interlude of IXL Jam of cupid’s other arrow on a stricken samurai in that small cottage, the Japanese Army must have felt secure in their lightning moves in securing both the Chinese and Indian borders as they now allowed the refugees to move into residences in Myitkyina town.
Other stories in this article will include:
Law student conscript/Kiku Butai ("Chrysanthemum Battalion") security guard becomes a dear family friend.
SOLDIER SWIMMERS' MARCHING SALUTE.
LOVELY JAPANESE LADY VISITOR:
She enthrals me, and (possibly) an uncle as well.
Copyright 2008 by Joseph Alwyn Valu. All Rights Reserved.