Memories of WWII Run Deep for KIO

 Maj Zau Seng of the Kachin Independence Army holds the dog tag of US airman Cleveland Hargrove. (Photo: Seamus Martov / The Irrawaddy)

Maj Zau Seng of the Kachin Independence Army holds the dog tag of US airman Cleveland Hargrove. (Photo: Seamus Martov / The Irrawaddy)

Maj Zau Seng of the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) knows firsthand that territory controlled by his group still holds the remains of US military personnel who died in northern Burma during the Second World War.

Over tea at his office in the KIO-controlled enclave of Mai Ja Yang, Zau Seng, a local commander for the area, proudly displays the US military identification tag for a Cleveland Hargrove. The tag numbered 342711 T44 0 was discovered in 2006 by local villagers at a World War II-era crash site in a remote mountainous section of western Kachin State near the border with India, an area semi-controlled by the KIO.

The villagers had dug up the partially submerged plane not for the sake of historical preservation but to harvest valuable scrap metal. According to Zau Seng, many World War II crash sites in Kachin State have met similar fates at the hands of impoverished scavengers, but he believes there are many more in remote mountainous areas that have yet to be uncovered.

Hargrove, who presumably died in the crash, appears to be one of the estimated 700 US airmen who perished in northern Burma between 1943 and 1945. It was during this time that the area currently known as Kachin and neighboring Shan states became a key battleground due to the region’s strategic proximity to China because the Allies needed to reopen what became known as the Burma road, a key route for sending supplies to the anti-Japanese resistance in China.

After Myitkyina was liberated in August 1944, the previously sleepy town became the site of what at the time was one of the busiest runways in the world. Kachin State’s mountainous terrain combined with heavy rains and the primitive flying equipment of the era resulted in many US aircraft crashing without any enemy intervention.

In the years that followed the KIO’s 1994 ceasefire with Burma’s central government, efforts were made at forming a joint mission between the Burmese government, the KIO and US authorities to locate and identify the remains of US personnel missing in action. The KIO’s participation in this program abruptly ended after Burmese military authorities changed their minds about allowing the KIO to work with the American officials, according to Zau Seng.

“The KIO has always been open to helping America find the remains of their war dead. It’s the Burmese government that didn’t want this to happen,” said Zau Seng, who was previously stationed in the remote part of Western Kachin State where Hargrove’s ID tag was found.

According to The New York Times, the recent thaw in Burmese-US relations could lead to a renewed effort to recover the remains of US serviceman. Times correspondent Jane Perlez reported that Robert Newberry, a deputy assistant secretary with the Department of Defense, visited Burma in February to begin discussions with his Burmese counterparts to enable US military officials and forensic experts to search potential crash sites and exhume the remains of US airmen.

Despite the apparent new willingness on the part of the Burmese government to cooperate in this area, it remains unclear if there will be any such joint recovery missions in Kachin State as long as the conflict between the KIO and the Burmese military continues.

Zau Seng says he’d like Hargrove’s family reunited with the tag and his remains if they can be found. “This tag is an important piece of Kachin history that connects us to the important World War II friendship made between the Kachin and American people,” he said.

Although the KIO did not begin its armed insurrection against Burma’s government until 1961, more than 16 years after the end of World War II, a good portion of the founding leadership of the KIO, including the group’s first head Zau Seng (no relation to the aforementioned major), were veterans of the Second World War who were trained in guerrilla fighting as part of Detachment 101 operated by the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a predecessor of the CIA, or under a similar group organized by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) called the Kachin levies.

Last October, in a speech made on the Senate floor about the Burmese army’s continued Kachin offensive, Republican Senator Mitch McConnell invoked the role that the Kachin people played in the Allied war effort to drive the Japanese out of Burma. According to McConnell, “the Kachin people deserve particular mention for the commitment, sacrifice and invaluable support they provided Allied forces to reclaim that country [Burma].”

Figures cited by US military historians report that the OSS trained more than 10,000 Kachin guerrillas during the war. With US assistance, the Kachin Rangers from Detachment 101 rescued 425 downed Allied airmen and killed or captured more than 15,000 enemy soldiers, according to US records. The Kachin fighters also spent a considerable amount of effort sabotaging Japanese supply lines and destroying key infrastructure vital to the Japanese army’s grip on Burma—tactics reminiscent of the KIO’s ongoing struggle with the Burmese military today.

It was also during this period that the Naw Seng, the KIO’s early left-wing rival for the leadership of the Kachin struggle, became a famed commander. The guerrilla training Naw Seng undertook during the war undoubtedly came in handy just after Burma’s independence, when Naw Seng led a mutiny among the Burmese military in the north of the country in solidarity with the Karen insurrection taking place in the Irrawaddy Delta.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Kachin, along with the Karen and Chin ethnic groups, comprised the overwhelming majority of local troops who served in Britain’s Burmese colonial army, a force that also consisted of Gurkha from Nepal and Punjabi troops from India. The Kachin and the other groups were all considered trusted “martial races” by the colonial authorities. In contrast, Burma’s colonial army had few if any members of the Burman majority, a deliberate policy of divide and rule whose legacy is still felt in the country today.

A squad of Kachin troops under British command also played a small role during the First World War serving in British-occupied Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq.

11 Responses to Memories of WWII Run Deep for KIO

  1. The big error the international community has made is that, while it has rightly praised increased openness towards pro-democracy change, it has kept quiet or even overlooked continuing ethnic crises which may have encouraged people in authority to think they can also ignore it. If so, it will prove a big mistake. It is long since essential that peace is prioritized for all ethnic areas.

    Allied forces have all long forgotten the Kachins so we do not expect much but to have a more inclusive, broad-based view of how change needs to be brought about will be helpful for all.

    • There is a saying “it is bad to be the enemy of United States. But, it’s worst to be a friend of United states.” After many years of enduring and sharing the dreams the Allied has planted, now they have turned away and shook hands with the same military generals who killed, oppressed and looted its own citizens, monks and students for their wealth and power.

  2. Author S Martov wrote “After Myitkyina was liberated in August 1944, the previously sleepy town became the site of what at the time was one of the busiest runways in the world. Kachin State’s mountainous terrain combined with heavy rains and the primitive flying equipment of the era resulted in many US aircraft crashing without any enemy intervention.”

    The liberation of Myitkyina in 1944 was also the most crucial battle in which the bravery of Chinese Nationalist army was admirable in history with strong evidence from China side although the battle was commanded by Allies. That claim from China side is not still denied by US when US is asked to revise the history regarding the real facts how to win this battle.

    In liberation of Burma from Japanese occupation, the main and crucial role of Kachin ethnic army is luckily recognized by one US Republican senator. I sympathy on and deeply admire the Kachin army and Kachin people for their bravery and sincere hearts. In return, I hope US,UK and EU should strongly express objection and administer effective measures or actions (not lip service only) to the bama military’s invasion to Kachin land. Kachin land is owned by Kachin people so US, UK and EU do not need permission from bama army for their urgent support to Kachin as well as their search for the WW2’s remains.

  3. Speaking of WWII, most Burmese probably don’t know or remember that African soldiers fought on the side of the Allies in Burma, especially in Rakhaing State. In facet, Obama’s grandfather was one of them!
    Here is a very interesting report about an “encounter between a Nigerian soldier and a Rohingya family that saved him from the Japanese:

    • You are right!! what do Rohingya get for saving these sorry Burmese from Japanese brutality? They get the same treatments just like other ethnic minorites; denial citizenship, abusive military dictator, and lastly their denial to basic human rights.

      • It is true that many Burmese do not have an objective historical view of what happened during WWII in Burma. The role of Aung San and his “Thirty Comrades” in the actual fighting is, in my opinion, somewhat “over-glorified”. In any case, the BIA was fighting on the “wrong side” (with the Japanese) at the beginning and Aung San had to switch sides at the end “to join the winning team” as he told General Slim. After the war ended, Aung San did negotiate Burma’s independence from the British (after making “a deal” with the ethnic groups). There are more serious global geopolitical factors that shaped the outcome of WWII and hence Burma’s independence. The Burma Campaign was a major undertaking with a large number of diverse troops on the Allied side: Indians, Chinese, Africans besides the Brits and the Americans (the Kachins, the Karens and the Chins fought on the side of the Allies, and in fact, when Burma became independent, the first C-in-C of the Burmese army, Smith-Dun, was a Karen).
        Anyway, this is all history, which should be recorded truthfully, but not be “overused” or “mis-represented”. Tribalism is not going to solve Burma’s problems!

        • Anti-tribal policy is the root of all problems. How else are you going to achieve peace if you are denying the causes of problem and not
          tackle it directly?

        • I disagree.

          Anti-tribal is the root of all problems in Burma. You are denying and avoiding the truth and causes to the problem just like current government and former military junta has ignored for the last 5 decades.

          88 generations student and UNFC have already stated that without tackling ethnic(tribal) issues directly there won’t be any tangible peace.

  4. Big deal? Come on! Just do your job. You do not look intelligent, my friend.

    • Yes it is a big deal. It’s the same truth and reason why generations of Burmese military dictators have been trying to oppress and eliminate it out of the History book.

      If you learn to appreciate it instead of denying it, it will make the country a better place.

  5. I pray for kachinpeople and kachin land.

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