The priority in WW2 was Europe, and regrettably those who fought in the jungles of Burma considered themselves the ‘Forgotten Army’. Their task was tough, not only did they have to fight the Japanese but also the jungle – although the jungle is always neutral, treating opposing sides with equal ruthless challenge.
Most Japanese POW camps had no fences – it was considered that an escape into the jungle equated to a death sentence for any adventurous prisoner. Escapers had to contend with ants, snakes, mosquitoes, leeches, mangrove swamps, the monsoon and many, many other hazards – all considered as ‘enemy’, in addition to the human opponents.
Additional jungle perils included assault by tropical diseases such as cholera, malaria, yellow fever, diarrhoea, skin and fungal infections and leptospirosis. Starvation, due to a lack of knowledge of how to live off the jungle, was another concern. Then there were small streams with the ability to become raging torrents during the monsoon period, and river levels which could drop rapidly to a few inches then return to a violent deluge within an hour. Hills and mountains had to be clambered while simultaneously hacking a pathway through the forested expanses obstructing the route, making onward progress measurable in only yards. The notion of training in jungle survival skills had not yet emerged; everyone – military and civilian – learned the hard way, by demanding experience.
Lucky escapers were able to seek assistance from Burmese hill tribes, tea planters and logging stations along the many routes which led towards India. Some escape routes had to cross the Irrawaddy, Chindwin and Daphna Rivers – often very dangerous feats. Some small groups of soldiers made it to India, although civilians were less successful, and there were numerous deaths, both military and civilian, along the routes.
Many escape routes formed in Burma, most relying on river crossing points, native villages and often the use of elephants. These were possibly the most hazardous escape routes in the world. Both servicemen and civilians [men, women and children] died ‘en route’, from disease, malnutrition and dehydration.
One escape route organiser was Geoff Bostock of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation, who secretly set up an exit for families who worked for the corporation, anticipating that life would become difficult. Geoff had lived in the jungle for many years and had vast experience of surviving in the hostile environment. Assisted by Jim ‘Elephant Bill’ Williams who, during his twenty-plus years of working for the corporation, had accrued expertise in working with elephants, finding water supplies and living off the jungle, Geoff assembled ‘caravans’ of migrants. The first route, starting in Maymyo and finishing in India some 300 miles later, involved 56 elephants and their Burmese drivers, and included 22 women and 15 children.
Gyles Mackerall was a tea planter in Assam who carried out rescue missions into Burma. On one occasion, on learning that military escapers were trapped on the southern bank of the Dapha River which was a raging torrent at the time, Mackerall took his twenty elephants and their Indian handlers and headed into the jungle to reach the men more than 100 miles away. The convoy kept moving during daylight hours and eventually reached the river. The elephants took to the water and edged along defying water levels up to their tusks. After several attempts to cross the river the 68 soldiers were rescued, many suffering from starvation and jungle diseases.
Mackerall knew the area well and was friendly with the hill tribes and villagers who assisted the column with food and water, but still they ran short of food and the fugitives began to suffer from malnutrition. With only a few rations left the convoy was luckily spotted by Allied aircraft who returned to drop supplies to them. Mackerall guided all the soldiers and civilians into India. He was subsequently awarded a George Medal for his leadership.