I have a friend who served in the 82nd (West Africa) Division of the British Infantry during the Burma (now, Myanmar) campaign of 1945 and has a Burma Star to show for it. Earlier in the War, he served in West Africa as well as in London during the Battle of Britain. You will not be surprised to learn he is 101.
The other day, I went to visit him and we started talking about my recent trip to Myanmar. Naturally, our conversation drifted to his time there. This piece is not about my friend’s story; maybe I will get to that one day. It is about one of the clippings he showed me, a copy of a dispatch from the field by an American journalist from Chicago. I did a bit of research – I know … you’re surprised – and gathered that the author was an African American journalist, Deton Jackson Brooks Jr. I am almost certain that the dispatch was sent to the Chicago Defender, known then as simply The Defender. I am uncertain whether his dispatch made it into The Defender because its archives are not available online (I intend to confirm this in due course and will update this blog entry once I do). The Defender was one the most important newspapers for black Americans from its founding in 1905 until sometime after segregation “ended” in the US. The paper is still in operation and I highly recommend reading about its history.
He was an educator, journalist, administrator, and Chicago public servant. Brooks received his Bachelor of Science from the University of Chicago in 1935 and worked as an elementary and high school teacher in Chicago for 14 years (1930-1944). In 1944, Brooks joined the staff of the Chicago Defender newspaper, serving as a war correspondent in China, Burma, and India, and later as an administrator. Brooks spent time in New York City, where he worked in the areas of education, health, housing, and welfare, and earned his Master of Arts degree and Doctor of Education degree (1958) from Columbia University. Upon returning to Chicago, Brooks served as director of research and statistics at the Cook County Department of Public Aid (1958-1964), research associate at Loyola University’s Chicago School of Social Work (1961-1964), and executive director of the Chicago Committee on Urban Opportunity (1964-1969). In 1969, Mayor Richard J. Daley appointed Brooks commissioner of the City of Chicago Department of Human Resources.
I am struck by Brooks’ piece for so many reasons and particularly because this is Black history being reported by an African American man, filtered through the prism of deep segregation. He seems to be giving readers at home a view of how things could be different. I sense hope and pride in this piece and why not. I wish I could ask him about it and his experiences. He died in 1975. The piece also makes me reflect on our past, and current, omissions of the sacrifices by people of colour in so many of our conflicts and wars (let alone so many other parts of history) – blanked out and forgotten from huge and world-changing events. We must change that and we must actively ask questions whenever we only see white faces associated with historical events.
Let’s get to the dispatch. I have copied it from the original copy. The photographs of the dispatch are below and I have included a few other photographs from another publication. Warning: there is language in the dispatch that is, or may be, offensive today. Please remember this was written in 1945.
STORY BY J. BROOKS, Jnr. “CHICAGO INDEPENDENT” War Correspondent, FEB 15, 1945
RU-YWA BURMA. This dispatch is being written from a bamboo covered hillside near the Bay of Bengal along the coast of central Burma.
The ridges above bristle with guns where WEST AFRICAN blacks are dug in poised for a possible JAP attack. From nearby hills comes the sporadic staccato of machine gun fire. An occasional shell explodes a few hundred yards away. Big guns from INDIAN naval sloops on the river and artillery pieces from nearby islands answer three to one. You can distinctly hear their whine as the shells sail overhead.
Where we are located is a brigade headquarters of the 82nd(WEST AFRICAN) Division, an outfit that rates as one of the best fighting machines of the British Empire. I’ve spent the last week with them to see first hand how the dusky boys from the distant dark continent handle themselves when they meet the tough little brown man from the Tokioland.
Their first encounter came when they landed at the beach at RU-YWA. According to battle plan an INDIAN brigade had established the bridgehead by commanding the ridges approximately 1000 yards from the beach. Another force was to pass through their lines at a designated point and carry the advance from there inland.
But as the first contingent landed and with more bargeloads coming slowly up the river, the JAPS opened with a furious artillery barrage. Crouched in a slit trench with an Artillery Captain we counted 56 rounds in less than 10 minutes. Yet the AFRICANS were amazingly cool. Not until crisp orders were barked did they drop their loads and take cover in the mangrove swamps and behind shallow gulches in rice paddies. And so soon as the firing subsided they continued up the road as if nothing had happened.
All during the afternoon and night as contingent after contingent arrived, the JAPS greeted them with the same salvo of hot lead. If they expected that their fire would cause panic and confusion however they were sadly mistaken. The Africans kept coming. The battle plan was carried through with precision.
In view of the intensity of the attack it is remarkable how few were wounded and those that were displayed unbelievably good courage. One tall black whose leg had been blown off for instance tried to wave the doctor away when he ran across the shell torn field to administer to him, shouting that the risk was too great.
It was an inspiring sight to watch them leave the beachhead for their trek inland. In single file they came a steady rhythmic stream of sturdy blacks the infrantrymen with trusty [Enec] rifles, automatic riflemen with bren guns, signalmen with “Walkie talkies”, and over two thousand auxiliaries balancing heavy loads on their head containing all the brigades’ supplies.
These auxiliaries alone set the African off from any of the British fighting units. No animals are used when the brigade is travelling over terrain where trucks and jeeps can’t travel. The auxiliaries carry the loads. Through the steaming jungles they go carrying an average of 45 lbs on their heads, plus pack and rifle. Exceptionally strong ones have been known to carry upwards of 80lbs.
One hundred local villagers were hired the other day to help them get supplies up to a battalion headquarters. The size of the loads they carried offered quite a contrast. The distance was about seven miles across numerous streams and up narrow trails. But the puny ARAKANESE (tribe from the ARAKAN territory of BURMA) were staggering under one fifth the weight carried by the Africans. And yet they were fresh enough to make it difficult for me to keep up with them on the seven miles trek back.
As an officer pointed out “by using this system of auxiliaries AFRICAN troops are the most mobile fighting unit in the world. Instead of having to deplete our fighting strength when a sudden attack comes by sending a sizeable guard to protect pack animals, the auxiliaries are an additional source of firepower. They just drop their loads and fight along with the rest of the infantrymen. And the beauty of it is when we reach an area where mechanical equipment can be used, we are organised for that too.”
Because of the use of these carriers an AFRICAN division is considerably larger than the ordinary BRITISH or INDIAN one, containing approximately 15000 men.
These boys perform all the highly skilled tasks which are necessary in the modern combat machine. They are signalmen, medical technicians, clerks and drivers.
In commenting on their ability as signalmen an officer said “those that have some education have a natural rhythm which makes it easy for them to become expert transmitters of the morse code.”
Throughout the BRITISH forces they rate as the best male nurses in the Army (medical technicians in the AMERICAN Army). In spite of their size and natural strength they are extremely gentle and in the words of a medical officer “immaculately clean.” And their ready infectious smile helps the morale of the sickest.
One of the toughest recent cases the field ambulance unit of a brigade had to contend with was that of a JAP prisoner. A big hole had been nicked under his armpit and he had been shot in the calf of the leg. He pulled himself into the bush just outside a village where the BURMESE had let him lay for seven days. When an African scout got him to the dressing station maggots were swarming over the wound. Capt. CRAIG operated and under the careful ministrations of the AFRICAN nurses, the JAP is due to recover.
Judging from AMERICAN standards, most of these men would never be in the army. They would be classed as illiterates 4’Fs whom the AMERICAN military would claim it would be impossible to teach the use of modern mechanical weapons. Certainly they would not be used as combat troops, but relegated to duty as menial laborers. Yet the BRITISH have welded them into a mighty fighting force which the enemy has learned to fear.
This has been accomplished by careful training and the use of approximately 66 EUROPEANS per battalion, half of which are officers, and the other half NCOs, all specialists who are used for supervision. Technical jobs such as clerks and NCO assignments requiring specialised knowledge are drawn from the AFRICANS who have had some education. All brigade and battalion commanders are men who have spent considerable time with WEST AFRICAN troops. A tall and energetic brigadier commander of one of the brigades has been with WEST AFRICAN troops, for instance, for 11 years.
As nearly as possible, men of the same Colony are kept in the same brigade. One brigade is composed of GOLD COASTERS while the two others are composed of NIGERIANS.
If there are any troops the JAPS fear it’s the blacks from AFRICA. As an indication a radio broadcast described them as “AFRICAN CANNIBALS LED BY EUROPEAN FANATICS.” They are neither cannibals nor are the officers fanatics, of course. In fact, they rate amongst the best natured troops I have yet encountered. But what the JAPS don’t like [if] (sic) the ferociousness with which they fight.
In a recent engagement a part of the division had advanced to a place called KYANKDANDU, on the WEST coast of CENTRAL BURMA. In front of them were three or four 800ft bamboo covered hills with JAPS entrenched commanding the rice paddies, the place where the AFRICANS had arrived. While they were digging in the NIPS launched a series of attacks which lasted from eight pm ‘til six thirty the next morning. And yet at 11 o’clock they started their own attack.
Up the hill they went on a two pronged flanking drive getting within three yards of the JAP lines before they were forced back. They withdrew for approximately 40 yards and held their position for two and a half hours until the reserve company came up in support. [They] (sic) many of them threw their rifles aside and rushed in with their machete singing “MUNCHI” battle songs. Frantic to get away, the JAPS fled leaving one medium machine gun and plenty of rifles and ammunition.
Prior to coming to BURMA a number of men saw service in the ETHIOPIAN campaign. But as Sjt. Major TULETAS KANJARGA, winner of the MILITARY MEDAL for gallantry in action in that campaign, said “The ITALIANS were not nearly as good fighters as the JAPANESE. They didn’t have the courage to fight.” It was Sjt. KANJAGA who charged a single tank singlehanded with only his rifle, and shot up with crew during that campaign. Incidentally it was the first tank he had ever seen in action.
Tall, young looking, wiry built, MAJ GEN STOCKWELL, considered one of the best jungle fighters in the business, has only recently been appointed commander of the 82nd. As the retreating NIP slinks backward in BURMA during the coming monsoons, he can expect to feel an increasingly bitter sting from the boys from far away AFRICA.