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.