A CIVILIAN IN UNIFORM By Jean Kohn (continued)
Chapter Six - China - Operation Comores
The OSS officer at the Headquarters in Washington was extremely nice and asked me if I wanted a furlough. Of course I wanted a furlough. One month. Perfect. It was the end of March, early April, we felt the War in Europe was going to be over quickly. President Roosevelt died suddenly, Hitler commited suicide. Peace in Europe was around the corner. But I had to go to China, since I had signed for duty there. The War in the Pacific was still raging.
One day I was given my marching papers.
"Ok, you go right away."
I went through the same routine as a year before, being secret about my leaving with the order not to talk to anybody about my travel plans. I was loaded on a DC4 air liner. I made one of the most beautiful trips you can imagine. We left New York, went to the Açores, then Casablanca, Oran, Cairo. There the pilot said there was something wrong with the plane. It had to be fixed. So we stayed a few days in Cairo and it was the occasion for me to see from the back of camel the pyramids and the Sphynx.
Then on to Abadan, Karachi, Dehli, Calcutta. I took a train to go somewhere in what is now northern Bengladesh. That train was going so slowly, people were running alongside faster than we were moving. I believe I ended in Burma. I waited for a seat on a plane to take me to China. I would have liked to drive a truck over the Burma road and see some new countryside. But OSS soldiers had travel priority. I took the plane ride "over the hump" as they used to call this high mountain range and landed in Kunming , China, where I finally joined my outfit and saw all my old friends again. The OG camp was named Paul Swank.
We were training Chinese paratroopers. Poor guys. The Chinese army was rotten to the core. The general was getting a certain amount of money to run his outfit. He would divide it: so much for himself, so much for the others. Then the officers did the same thing, so much for themselves and so much for the others. When it finally got down to the buck privates there was almost nothing left.
Their food was awful. What looked like a violet color soup was brought in a wooden bucket—not really appetizing. There might have been some pieces of meat in there. It looked bad. We American soldiers were eating so well in comparison. Poor Chinese soldiers. I said to myself, one of these days they are going to revolt. I had the same feeling I had had in Algeria where I felt that some day it would blow up—and it did blow up in both places. As a matter of fact I also had the same uneasy feeling in India where I felt they would revolt against the British. It did blow up there also, but in a different way, since the British were smart enough to pull out quickly leaving this huge country at the hands of Hindus against Moslems with the results of mass murders and migrations we witnessed in the late forties. I saw Chinese conscripts being marched to training camps tied to each other by chains. I inquired if by chance they were prisoners. No, just conscripts who did not feel like serving in the Army.
I had seen, as a young man, all these movements of nationalism. People in each country talked freely to us. I had just started university studies and could analyze those kinds of situations.
Some students from the northern part of China were with us to act as translators. They were not much help since we were in the south. Northern Chinese could not understand the spoken language of the people in the south, even though they could understand their written language which was uniform throughout the country. I became friendly with one of these students who started to teach me a few words of Chinese. He showed me how to try to understand the signs. This young student who definitely was not a communist was nontheless violently against the rotten government of Chiang Kai-shek. He told me how everybody was corrupt. He wished for some democratic change. This never happened and Mao replaced Chiang—and poor people stayed poor just the same.
I was getting bored trying to train this derelict group of "future" paratroopers. We were given Chinese Army paratrooper wings. I kept them as a souvenir even though I could not see why and how we earned them.
Then one day I met again a Captain named Lucien Conein. He asked me if I wanted to do something else and more interesting than teaching Chinese paratroopers.
He told me that there was a whole bunch of French soldiers near the Indochinese border who had fled a few months before, the night of March 8th to 9th 1945 when the Japanese brutally took the country over from the French administration, killing whoever resisted them. We would arm these French soldiers again and strike at a Japanese camp near the border. I told him I was "game." I was always game for that sort of thing.
He asked me who I would recommend to go with us. JP White and J. Frickey who were my best friends did not want to go. I offered the name of Robert Bilodeau. He was a good man, I knew him very well, he was a quiet tough guy. A typical New Englander. He spoke good French as he was from Berlin, New Hamshire, from French Canadian origins. He did not want to go since he did not like the idea but after some convincing, he agreed to come along.
We were to fly to Nignming, a small town on the river that flows through Nanning and ends up in Canton, in Southern China.
The Japanese High Command in Indochina was worried that an Allied landing in the Gulf of Tonkin might be in the offing. The War in the Pacific was definitely not going well for them. They probably were scared that the small contingents of French soldiers stationed all over Indochina might start a rear guard action in case the Allied armies would invade the country, take over the port of Haiphong and march on Hanoi. Thus the Japanese decided to take over the French government administration and isolate the army garrisons even though they already occupied and ran the country. The French soldiers had heard of the European defeat of Germany and Italy. They knew that Japan was next to fall. MacArthur was pushing forward. The Philippines had been liberated. The Japanese were scared to be stabbed in the back by French soldiers who by then were mostly pro-Gaullist.
What the Japanese did on that infamous March night was to invite all French officials to parties, dinners or some similar function. They all went. They did not get any advance intelligence of what was going to happen. They were all taken prisoners and killed. In Langson three officers were asked to have their troops surrender. They refused. They had their heads cut off and the little garrison was murdered in cold blood. The Japanese did not have to kill these people in that way. All they had to do was to keep the officers prisoners and take over the garrison which was manned by but a few soldiers.
The Japanese even tied some of these French officials to trees and stabbed them with bayonets.
Both Germans and Japanese were very bad in their horror death machines. Until then I had not seen nor really heard first hand of German atrocities. In the case of Indochina, the French soldiers told us in detail what had happened in March. We were outraged. For a long time I thought the Japanese were worse than the Germans until the history of the extermination camps in Germany was published. Then I considered they all should fry in Hell forever.
If a soldier is taken prisoner—that's it. But why kill him as did the Japanese in such a horrible way.
These French soldiers we joined in Ning Ming were mostly Marines, called "Marsouins." (Dolphins). They were all volunteers, regular army type soldiers, professionals, tough guys, just like the U.S. Marines. Real tough. We on the other hand were conscripts, civilians in uniform. We were soldiers all right, but we did not have the mind of a "soldier." We would have to fight for the country, do our job as well as possible, with a high risk, then go back home to civilian life.
The French Marsouins (Marines) were under the command of Captain Rouquier. A lone Foreign Legion officer happened to be there also: Captain Meisterman. The unit was made up principally by French soldiers along with some Indochinese and a few Eurasians. Some officers had been prisoners of war in Germany, they managed to escape from prison camps. To avoid being claimed by the Germans through the Vichy police, they signed up to go to Indochina where nobody could find them. As luck would have it, they found themselves in another terrible situation obliged to flee at night from their new garrison to avoid being captured by the Japanese.
We found this disparate army dressed in the only uniform they wore the night they fled from the Japanese onslaught.
We travelled from Kunming to Ningming in a B-24 bomber by daylight since we were over friendly territory. In France we had jumped at night over enemy territory without being sure who would be there to receive us.
We jumped from a hole underneath the plane where normally there would have been a machine gun. The machine gun had been taken off and replaced by a plywood cover. When we reached the jump site, one of the crew opened the trap to let us drop through the open and windy hole.
We were three Americans to start with: Captain Conein, Sgt. Bilodeau and myself.
Captain Conein knew the French Army well. He told us that since we were going to be with the French officers and soldiers, he would make us lieutenants. Bilodeau was a Sergeant and I was a corporal.
He gave us second lieutenant bars. All at once we had become U.S. Army officers.
This was important he said because in the French Army they probably would have different kitchens for officers, non coms and soldiers. We also would be respected as U.S. officers.
We jumped and landed accompanied by many containers full of arms, clothes and all the necessities of life. We re-equipped these two hundred soldiers completely from head to foot.
Ningming is on a wide plain without any mountain around. We jumped at exactly the right place. I landed in a rice paddy. And got all wet.
The containers were gathered and taken to the camp which was located in a pagoda.
This small town was under the juridiction of the Chiang Kai-shek Administration. There were a few Chinese soldiers and ourselves.
We got organized. The OSS command gave us operation money, one million Chinese dollars and even more important in China, two kilos of raw opium. We also had some gold pieces called Thaler. These coins are not round but hexagonal. I believe the ones we had were from India. I kept one as souvenir. The paper money was in a box used to carry ammunition.
We trained the soldiers with the American made arms. They were professionals and it did not take them long to know how to use them—81 mm mortars, sub machine guns, rifles, explosives.
France had been badly defeated in 1940. The French army fought back in 1944, but the real effort to liberate Europe was on the shoulders of American and British troops on the western front. As mentioned earlier we had brought some 81 mm mortars. They are large, heavy and clumsy inaccurate guns. I always wondered why the commanding officers who did the planning of this operation loaded us with such cumbersome weapons. One French officer looked at the base of these mortars—it was welded in a rather crude way. He told me "their" mortars were better manufactured than these "American" products. I was fed up with this kind of criticism, like the Doctor I had met in Toulouse criticizing everything that came from America.
Here we were in the middle of nowhere. We had brought these men everything they needed: arms, clothes etc., and they could not help criticizing us. I think I told him off.
"Yes, you had beautiful equipment in 1940, but you lost the War anyway!!!" I could take a little of that kind of impertinence, but there was a limit. They couldn't help criticizing the Americans who had come to help them.
We were told—I do not really know how—that two radio operators were going to join us. I believe they also came from the sky. Dixon and Rinaldi. Pure bred American boys who did not speak a word of French. Their radio worked better than the one we had in France. Then Lt. Bruce Sutherland came in. He was a "real" officer, not like Bilodeau and myself. I do not remember when and how he came. Once a small plane had landed on a strip we had prepared on a dirt road on the outskirt of town. Maybe he came in that way? He was a very nice man, a well educated gentleman.
Finally we received the order to go to Langson, a small town in Indochina, on the road from Hanoi to Kunming. The Japanese had a garrison there. We did not know how many they were. Our mission was to find out what was going on there and take a few prisoners. We were given fishermen nets to carry the prisoners back since as everybody knows Japanese do not want to be taken prisoners. They would die first. Therefore we were supposed to "jump" on them and put them in a net. I do not know who had that bright idea back at headquarters, but we took the nets with us anyway.
In early August we started to go toward Langson. We had two mules to carry the mortars. I still wonder how these mules reached China since they were originally from France. They had "escaped" with the small garrison in March and there they came along with us carrying the mortars.
I even had a camera with me which was on loan from the OSS with Kodachrome film in it. How did I manage to bring the camera and film back to Kunming, then take the film with me to the USA and have it develop is still a mystery to me. But this is how I still have and keep preciously fifteen or sixteen pictures of my Chinese trip. These slides are a testimony to OG "Operation Comores" as it was called. These Kodachrome slides are not bad considering the travel time and heat they suffered before being developed.
Langson is about fifty kilometers from Ningming. We walked since in that part of China there was not any other transportation available. The border between China and Indochina is very clear—it is a mountain range. A "border" line does not have to be drawn. On the North side: China, and on the South side: Indochina—Tonkin for that matter.
We went slowly up the mountain. The French soldiers knew the area. Some of them had been stationed around there. We had maps of the area. At night we lived in huts - dirt floor sheds occupied normally by Indochinese poor peasants. We were about one hundred soldiers, not much more. We had left a group in Ningming to keep an eye on our base camp. We were badly bitten by "blood sucker" insects. These stick to you and start to suck blood. They have some poison that prevents blood to coagulate. That means you keep bleeding where they bite. One morning I got up in one of these small farm houses we had slept in. All my friends still asleep were full of blood. I thought for a while that the Japanese had come at night and murdered everybody. It was just an "attack" by these damned blood sucking insects.
We finally did arrive on the outskirt of Langson at night. I think one Japanese guard shot at us and immediately all of us shot back at him. He must have looked like a sieve, the poor man. We never took anybody prisoner. We never entered the town. The order came to fall back.
We had not found anything of importance since we did not even get into the town.
Later that morning the Japanese ran after us. They were not enthusiastic in their chasing us. They started to shoot at us from a long way on the other side of a river bed. We shot at them. We never saw them. We heard some shots, we returned the fire, all was quiet again. That was it.
I was flabbergasted by the French Foreign Legion Captain, Meisterman who stood up under fire. He was trying to find out where the Japanese were to give us shooting directions. In the Foreign Legion they call this "Beau Geste." Very courageous. I personally think it is silly. There was another French officer next to me who was hiding behind a fallen tree where I was. When you are shot at, you do not stand up, you hit the ground. Why get killed for nothing.
We lost our two mules and the mortars on the return trip. Some hills were too steep for them. I do not know what happened to either the mules or the mortars. Who cared anyway?
When we reached the suburbs of Ningming we saw
a lot of flags all over the place. People started to applaud us. It
seemed strange. Would they already know about our mission to Langson
where we fought or better tried to fight the Japanese? A French captain
said to get some order in the ranks and not look like a half drag outfit.
We should march with our heads high and in steps.
We were being applauded all the way to our pagoda.
What we did not know was that the Atomic bombs had been dropped during the time we had gone and come back from Langson. That meant peace at long last. We arrived at our base camp at the pagoda. We learnt from our two radio operators that Japan had surrendered. The war was over. The war was over. We were going home. Hurrah!
We received a long, very long message over the radio from Kunming in which we were told among other things that should we meet Japanese soldiers who could surrender to us, we should dress up and put our ties on. There were no Japanese soldiers around and frankly we did not feel like trying to look for them, as we were not too trusty of what their attitude might be at this stage of the game, especially after the Langson incident. Who knows, they could have shot at us in a suicide attack ? The best was to stay clear away from them. We would also have had some difficulty to dress up since we only had combat clothes and definitely no ties.
We stayed in Ningming for a while, just as we had done in Carcassonne a year before waiting for some kind of orders.
The French soldiers on the other hand said: "Why don't we go back to Hanoi? This is our home, our Colony. We are not going anywhere else, from here. Let's go to Hanoi."
The OSS command in Kunming told us in reply to our request to also go to Hanoi:
"No, you do not go to Hanoi. You have nothing to do there. This is not for us."
I had wanted to go Hanoi, because I figured that in Hanoi there would be beautiful life, hotels, girls, wine. The works. And all this in a peace time atmosphere. But that was just wishful thinking. I imagined Hanoi to be a little like Algiers.
The French soldiers did try to get into Indochina, but they could not do it.
By that time in late August, the Japanese had given some of their arms to what might be called the Indochinese Revolutionary organization headed by Hô Chi Minh. The Vietnamese War started right there and then. They shot at the French column who started to enter Indochina. They wounded some soldiers and even took two prisoners. The French column came back to Ning Ming to wait for new orders. They would not get shot at for the pleasure of going to Hanoi.
Just about that time we were given our marching orders. We would have to go to Nanning which is a rather large city down stream on the same river Ningming is on. We rented a sampan which is a long flat boat. There were two persons in the front rowing with long oars, and one in the back, steering. In the middle there was a shed under which passengers lived, ate and slept. This sanpan was owned by an old lady who worked with her son and daughter-in-law. We made a beautiful river trip, from Ningming to Nanning - something out of this world. We were at peace, hopefully there would not be any Japanese to worry about. The old woman was an excellent cook. The weather was beautiful. What else could we wish for? We reached Nanning within just a few days. Probably some OSS officer was there waiting for us. We were loaded on a plane and in the matter of less than one hour we were back in Kunming.
Going back a little, I remember how the report on our "mission" to Langson was written There was just a faint light from some candles since there was no electricity in the town. Some of our officers were trying to put together a memorandum which would not look too bad. I was not proud of what we did. It was anything but spectacular. We had gone on a long walk and only shot at a poor Japanese soldier, nothing else. We had purchased some good will on our way with gold and opium. By giving opium, lots of things can be bought. Gold is gold anywhere in the world. A mountain chief put one of the coins between his teeth and tried to break it to make sure it was the real thing.
No, we were not heroes. We had gone to Langson and came back alive. This in itself was an accomplishment, especially after being bitten by these blood sucking insects. We had found some Japanese. We shot at them and they shot at us. And when the French tried to go back into Indochina they were shot at again. That night, by the dim lights of candles I overheard a conversation. I was in my little dark corner, probably half asleep. I heard some officers requesting medals for members of the mission. That is the way I got my second Bronze Star. Let's say I was decorated not for bravery under fire, but maybe for being a volunteer to go where I could have been shot dead.
I received two bronze stars. One in France for being shot at by the Germans and fleeing away from them, and one for Indochina, for going to Langson and doing absolutely nothing. But my two bronze stars citations, beautifully written, tell another story.
Napoleon said, "Give me Medals, I shall conquer the World."
Talking about medals—this reminds me of a humorous incident. Before leaving for Ningming, we were given a "secret agent" badge—which I still have. It looks like those gadgets given in cereal boxes for kids. I pinned it under my collar—alongside a morphine shot placed there to have handy in case of urgency—broken leg on landing or being shot during a fight.
While we were waiting around Ningming, our clothes were washed by some local boy whom we paid from the huge kitty we had brought along. One day I gave my shirt to wash and forgot to take this badge off. The boy came back from the river holding it way high running through the town saying he had found it and was returning it to me. Talk about "secrecy" !!!
The Chinese officials we dealt with were
hard drinkers. On some occasions when we had to have some kind of meetings,
probably to celebrate victory, many toasts were raised to France, China,
the U.S., etc... We could not drink that much. What we used to do was
to let the Chinese drink some so called cognac on their side of the
table, while we had the same types of bottles filled with tea. We stayed
sober. They rolled under the table.