Battle of Myitkyina
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
In Mar 1944, Colonel Charles Hunter of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional), more popularly known as the Merrill's Marauders, led a combined force consisted of the 150th Chinese Regiment, the First Marauder Regiment, the 3rd Company Animal Transport Regiment, and part of the 22nd Division artillery against the village of Lazu, 35 miles from Myitkyina, Burma. They arrived at Lazu on 10 Mar, and immediately started to make plans to assault Myitkyina. Hunter was notified that his force, known as H Force, was to be the leading assault group, while Colonel Kinnison was to protect his east flank and Colonel McGee's M Force was to protect the west flank.
On 3 Apr 1944, American General Joseph Stilwell met with his British counterparts to learn their strategic objectives. British leaders Louis Mountbatten and General William Slim affirmed Stilwell that he should not worry about the possibility of a British withdrawal in Burma in order to better defend against the Japanese expedition into India, for that they were confident of the eventual victory at Imphal and Kohima. In a surprising move, Slim turned over the command of the guerrilla Chindits over to Stilwell to better coordinate the combined efforts of the Chindits and Merrill's Marauders. It was a move that Major General Orde Wingate, the former commander of the Chindits, probably would not have approved had he not have perished on 24 Mar in an air crash. In hindsight this move reflected the lack of communications between the top leaders Mountbatten and Stilwell. While Mountbatten's intentions were to give Stilwell the responsibilities of conducting a disruptive campaign and leave the actual liberation of Burma operation to the British troops, it also showed that Stilwell's campaign to take Myitkyina was not communicated to Mountbatten. When queried by Prime Minister Winston Churchill about the recent American movement against the city, Mountbatten could only respond by saying he only incidentally heard about this plan, and noted he would write Stilwell to inform the American general that the British were not prepared to reinforce Myitkyina to hold the city after a successful American campaign while a majority of British troops were held up at Imphal and Kohima. It was rather unclear why Mountbatten appeared to be uninformed of this move in Stilwell's campaign, especially when considerable numbers of British personnel were involved in the actual operation.
Late Apr 1944, Chiang Kaishek held up his end of the bargain with SEAC and launched an attack with 40,000 men from Yunnan under the command of General Huang Weili. Within the next few days, the number grew to 72,000, overpowering the Japanese forces in northern Burma. On 17 May 1944, Merrill's Marauders led the way for a Chinese-American combined force and attacked Myitkyina; however, lack of coordination between Merrill's Marauders and the stronger regulars behind them gave the Japanese an opportunity to reinforce the town, making the attack on Myitkyina a long campaign. While Myitkyina was besieged, the Japanese troops under the command of Mutaguchi on the extended campaign at Imphal and Kohima in India began to withdraw back into India. As the Japanese withdrew, British Lieutenant General Geoffrey Scoones gave chase and destroyed many demoralized Japanese units. Attacks from various directions outflanked the Japanese 15th Division, and territory west of the Chindwin River near the Burma-India border was regained. The siege at Imphal and Kohima were declared broken early in Jul 1944 with the largest defeat in Japanese thus far in the war. 55,000 casualties were suffered by the Japanese forces, with the majority to non-combat causes of starvation, exhaustion, and disease. In comparison, the Allied troops suffered 17,500 casualties. Mutaguchi was relieved of his command after this defeat, succeeded by Hyotaro Kimura.
At Myitkyina, flawed American intelligence seriously underestimated the number of Japanese soldiers at Myitkyina. At peak time during the battle the Japanese forces totaled about 4,600 men, but the American estimate was a quarter of that quantity. The Japanese, similarly, could not estimate the number of the attackers, though they made the opposite mistake of grossly overestimating the size of the Allied forces. The result was a flawed campaign from both sides. While the Americans took on risks by making rapid moves against an enemy that was stronger than they had estimated, the Japanese fought unnecessarily conservatively and had forgone many opportunities of counteroffensives for believing that the Allied forces were much larger.
In May, the 14th Evacuation Hospital was moved forward to the general area with the primary duty of caring for the sick and wounded Marauders. The hospital staff recorded that
The harsh conditions the Marauders fought in were made worse by their constant fighting in the jungles without adequate rest and recuperation. Colonel Hunter made a report of complaint to General Stilwell noting that his men had been overworked even at the face of a lack of promotion and decoration (except for Purple Hearts for those wounded). Even promises that they would not be used as spearheads for Chinese troops were broken, as shown by the current campaign at Myitkyina. Nevertheless, the Marauders stayed in the campaign, and fought on valiantly.
On 3 Jun 1944 the 42nd and the 150th Chinese Regiments made an attack on the town, only to be pushed back by the Japanese after heavy casualties. Though starting to have a sense that the Japanese garrison was stronger than expected, the Allied command still believed that the town was only defended by fewer than 1,000 Japanese troops. Over the next month, a battle of attrition wore down both sides, with exhaustion and disease claiming a significant portion of casualties. The first signs that the Japanese were starting to lose the battle of attrition appeared in the last week of July when Kachin rangers operating in Detachment 101 found Japanese field hospital patients being floated on rafts downstream by hospital staff, in hope that they would be received by Japanese garrisons down the river. Even the natives were reporting that the Japanese were starting to hire them to make rafts and build booby traps. Rumors were also being spread by means of captured Japanese prisoners of war that a small number of key officers at Myitkyina had committed ritual suicide. The suspicions of a upcoming victory began to actually materialize only a couple of days later, on 26 Jul, when the American 3rd Battalion of the Marauders made a significant gain by capturing the northern air field at Myitkyina. Over the next week, Japanese resistance was noticeably weaker. On or about 1 Aug, General Mizukami committed suicide after seeing the main part of his army safely withdrawing from the area. Before he did so, however, he ordered for those wounded that could not be evacuated efficiently to stay behind as rear guard and hold the town as long as they could.
On 3 Aug 1944, Myitkyina was finally captured, restoring use of the key airfields there. At its conclusion, the Allied command totaled its casualties, and the number ran high. 972 Chinese were killed and 3,184 were wounded; after adding the 188 sick who were evacuated earlier, the Chinese suffered a total of 4,344 casualties. The Americans suffered 272 killed, 955 wounded, and 980 evacuated for sickness; the American casualties totaled 2,207. The Japanese suffered 790 killed, 1,180 wounded, and 187 captured; Colonel Maruyama was able to escape.
The capture of Mogaung by the Chindits on 26 Jun in Operation Thursday and the capture of Myitkyina on 3 Aug meant that the Japanese were now driven out of northern Burma. American engineers were immediately sent in to build a new road through the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys through Kamaing to Myitkyina, and plans were start to be put together to repair the road from Myitkyina to Bhamo to the south, where the Allies hoped to pick up the Burma Road.
After a short time to regroup, Allied forces pushed south again. Japanese strategy in Burma from this point forward changed drastically toward the defensive, abandoning the notion of maintaining a northern flank to threaten China's supply situation. The Japanese forces in Burma saw a change in personnel as well. After the failures of 1944, Lieutenant General Renya Mutaguchi was relieved, replaced by Lieutenant General Shibachi Katamura, formerly of the Japanese 54th Infantry Division. The Burma Area Army saw a new commander in Lieutenant General Kimura Hyotaro, formerly of the Ordnance Administration Headquarters in Tokyo.
Frank McLynn, The Burma Campaign
Nathan Prefer, Vinegar Joe's War
Battle of Myitkyina Timeline
|15 Mar 1944||Joseph Stilwell ordered the Chinese 22nd Division to attack the ridge of Jambu Bum in northern Burma.|
|19 Mar 1944||Chinese 66th Regiment captured Jambu Bum ridge in northern Burma, about 140 kilometers northwest of Myitkyina.|
|28 Mar 1944||Japanese troops counterattacked Chinese troops near Jambu Bum ridge, Burma.|
|28 Apr 1944||A force of 4,000 Chinese troops, 1,400 American troops (Merrill's Marauders), and 600 Kachin scouts began marching for Myitkyina, Burma.|
|15 May 1944||The Chinese-American-Kachin force outside of Myitkyina, Burma transmitted the code phrase "strawberry sundae", signifying that it was in position to strike the Japanese-occupied city.|
|17 May 1944||American, Chinese, and Kachin troops began the assault on Myitkyina, Burma. The attack began at 1000 hours, and by 1050 the airfield was captured.|
|18 May 1944||Joseph Stilwell arrived at the Myitkyina airfield in Burma just a day after the airfield was captured, congratulating Frank Merrill in advance for the capture of the rest of the city, which he believed would be achieved within days. Later on the same day, Merrill dispatched a Chinese unit to attack the city; the attack was called off when two Chinese battalions mistakenly engaged each other in a fierce firefight.|
|19 May 1944||Three Chinese battalions attacked each other in confusion while assaulting Myitkyina, Burma.|
|26 Jun 1944||Brigadier-General Theodore F. Weasels took over command of the Myitkyina Task Force from the sick Brigadier-General Boatner following another bout of malaria.|
|3 Aug 1944||A two-month siege by US and Chinese forces at Myitkyina in Burma finally succeeded in capturing it.|
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Winston Churchill, 1935