July 1955 Issue
By Major George B. Kuite, M.C.
An Unusual CBI Outfit
Trained As Ski Troops, The Unit Shipped Out For Service in Burma
The following article has been extracted from a report of Medical Department activities in India-Burma by Major George B. Kuite, M.C., Executive and S-2 Officer of the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion. The story, while not a detailed history of the 13th M.M.B., contains the highlights of an interesting adventure of hardships by the men of an interesting Medical unit. Much of Dr. Kuite's report is still classified, but the following has been released by the Department of the Army for publication in Ex-CBl Roundup.
THE 13th Mountain Medical Battalion was activated at Camp Hale, Colorado, early in 1943. Shortly thereafter the 13th was sent to Camp Carson, Colo., presumably to prepare for overseas shipment. We were given several weeks of mountain-climbing training in addition to the ski training we already had at Camp Hale.
Leaving the United States on Nov. 12, 1943, we landed at Bombay on Dec. 26th. From there the 13th went by train to the Deolali Rest Camp where they remained for three days, then on by train and river-boat to Ledo, Assam. We were taken from Ledo to the 8-mile mark on the Ledo Road where we camped for several weeks, during which time we received some jungle and general instruction.
After completing our initial period of jungle training the 13th was divided temporarily and parts of the collecting company, clearing company and veterinary company were sent to the forward frontline areas on temporary duty with the Seagrave Units and the 25th Field Hospital, which had just arrived at Shingbwiyang.
Colonel Seagrave had divided his unit into three parts, small surgical teams (usually two to four officers and six to 12 men plus a few of his Burmese trained nurses). His was the only unit at that time treating the Chinese casualties of the 22nd and 38th Divisions. Two of these small units (in effect, portable surgical teams) were sent out on the right and left flanks with Chinese regiments. The third remained at Ningham Sakan.
The 13th sent groups of five officers and 20 to 30 enlisted men to each of Sea-grave's units to assist them in caring for casualties and to gain experience. They were on temporary duty and remained with Seagrave two to four weeks.
Our clearing company, less several officers, was sent to the 25th Field Hospital at Shingbwiyang to assist them in constructing bamboo bashas for hospital wards in their initial operation, and later to function as ward officers and attendants.
After this initial period of one to two months of attachment to other units, our officers and men were gradually recalled and sent out on flank and trail missions similar to the Seagrave units. There were no portable surgical hospital units in Burma until later, so our forward clearing company on the road and the flank teams served both as front-line surgical hospitals and clearing hospitals. As example, on Feb. 17, 1944, a team was sent out on the left flank to join Battalion A of Merrill's Marauders and accompanied them for 55 days, marching over mountain and jungle terrain, treating and evacuating casualties. One of the 13th's veterinary officers was with this unit and was in charge of animal treatment and evacuation during the entire march.
OFFICERS OF Co. D, 13th Mountain Medical Battalion, on the old Burma Road.
On Feb. 20th one officer and 12 enlisted men joined the 113th Regiment of the Chinese 38th Division at Brangham Hka and went down the left flank, caring for casualties. This group later joined Merrill's Marauders at Walawbum and continued with them on a road-block mission south of Laban. Casualties were all evacuated by hand-litter carried over very rough jungle terrain, requiring six days of carry to Walawbum. In one contact with the enemy this one officer and 12 enlisted men, working alone, treated 60 American casualties in a 48-hour period. Their march lasted 46 days.
On Feb. 24th three officers and 10 enlisted men were sent down the Tarung Hka by pontoon boat to the Taro Valley on the extreme right flank, with the 65th Regiment, Chinese 22nd Division. This team treated all casualties (both surgical and medical) on a forced march from Taro, through Tasabum and Lonkin, over very rugged mountains and terrain, encountering many 3,000-foot ridges. They met Japanese resistance from time to time, and had a heavy malaria toll in addition. Casualties were treated surgically and evacuated by hand-litter carry to the rear to a boat-head on the river at Taro and thence by boat to Shingbwiyang to the 25th Field Hospital, or by plane to Ledo, to the 20th General Hospital. This group at one time had a 60-mile litter haul for patients to the river boat-head for evacuation.
These three missions are examples of the type of work the flank mission teams performed. There were usually two to four such teams in operation, sometimes consisting of five officers and 32 enlisted men from the 13th's collecting or clearing companies. These teams functioned as portable surgical units which marched and lived with the Chinese infantry. They set up emergency operating rooms under tarpaulins or parachutes, operated on casualties, performed debridements, amputations, abdominal surgery, and applied casts. They were supplied solely by parachute drop, frequently worked under artillery fire, had to improvise and substitute, as supplies frequently were not delivered in accordance with plan, and often found at the end of a day's march 25 to 40 casualties waiting to be treated.
Photos by the author.
CLEARING HOSPITAL of the 13th M.M.B. of Kamaing, Burma.
Supplies needed by flank units were air-dropped at designated locations and at pre-arranged times, by use of panels and a code system. Standardly packaged medical supplies were given a code word, and as needed were requested by radio from the flank to the supply stations at rear installations in India. All Chinese and American liaison personnel units which accompanied them had radio teams with them. Supply requests were radioed in through the chief liaison officer with the Chinese unit. Our medical installations on flank missions took orders from the chief American liaison officer with that unit.
Since the bulk of Jap resistance was on the so-called jeepable-during-the-dry-season road in North Central Burma, the greater portion of our battalion functioned with the Chinese infantry which was working down this road. We at all times were the most forward American medical and surgical installation on the road and usually had a clearing platoon set up three to six miles behind the front lines. This platoon was the first to receive Chinese battle casualties brought to the station either by hand-litter carry, or by ambulance when the road permitted.
Theoretically the Chinese had medical officers with their infantry units who were responsible for initial treatment of casualties at their aid stations. However, we found that their officers and men were very poorly trained and took very little interest in the welfare of their wounded comrades. Consequently about half the casualties reached our forward installations with no treatment whatever: no bandages, no sulfa powder and no splints. At one time we made an attempt to educate the Chinese and to instruct them in the use of the Thomas splint, giving them an ambulance load of splints to use. Thereafter for the next three or four days casualties came back splinted, but their enthusiasm waned and we never did see our splints again.
If a serviceable road was located near, ambulances with Chinese drivers brought casualties to our forward installation. Here the casualties were sorted, given morphine, plasma, shock treatment, and such operative treatment as debridement, removal of foreign bodies, amputations, and application of plaster casts. Early in the campaign these casualties were then evacuated to one of our clearing hospital units, usually located ten to 20 miles to the rear, near an air-evacuation station. From this station patients were either flown by plane or driven by ambulance to the 25th Field Hospital at Shingbwiyang or to the 20th General Hospital at Ledo. Later, when portable surgical teams arrived, our forward installation sorted the casualties, treated shock cases and then sent the more serious cases and those requiring greater surgical skill to the nearest portable surgical unit, which was located nearby (usually within two miles of us).
Our veterinary company also sent small groups with any flank infantry missions which were using animal transportation, treating and caring for animal casualties. The section with the units fighting along the Ledo Road established forward veterinary hospital installations, moving as the infantry progressed.
Normally equipped to handle a maximum of 125 casualties,
the hospital ran a daily census of 500 to 550 Chinese,
British and Americans.
TROOPS OF Merrill's Marauders move toward the front on The Ledo Road
During the North and Central Burma Campaigns, beginning at Shingbwiyang and ending at Lashio with the re-opening of the Burma Road, the 13th Mountain Medical Battalion rendered medical, surgical, clearing and evacuation, and veterinary service to these combat units: Chinese 22nd, 38th, 50th and 30th Divisions; Merrill's Marauders, 5332nd American Brigade, 475th Infantry Regiment, and British 36th Division (between Mo-gaung and Mandalay).
Incidents and experiences over a period of 17 months of operations in dense jungle, during monsoons, in close contact with our Chinese allies, dependent upon airdrop for all supplies, working near the front lines under fire, range from the amusing to near-tragic and tragic type. They include such experiences as being without food or supplies for three weeks, contacts with Jap patrols, groups being lost on flank trails, evacuation by cub planes from airstrips cut out of the jungle, monsoon floods, which on one occasion necessitated the hurried movement of our medical units and six hundred patients across a flooded valley by means of one pontoon boat and bamboo rafts. Then there was the Jap artillery shelling which made direct hits on our installation and destroyed our equipment.
Most of the battle casualties were shell fragment cases, resulting from mortar or artillery fire. Wounds of the buttocks predominated among the Chinese infantrymen.
The Chinese were excellent patients, being able to stand more than American patients; and usually replied that they were "Ding Hao" even though their hands may have been blown off by a grenade or a shell.
On several flank missions the Chinese appropriated all the surgical instruments during the night with the result that pocket-knives had to be used in lieu of instruments. It was impossible to keep the Chinese out; there were too many of them and we were too short-handed to post guards, especially during rush periods.
On one flank mission it was necessary to use a borrowed native daw (long, sword-like knife) which the natives all carried, to perform amputations. The daws were sterilized by boiling in a bucket. This group had only one bucket which served three purposes: sterilizing instruments, boiling drinking water, and cooking food.
Medical diseases predominating were malaria, dysentery (amebic and bacillary) and typhus. Bacillary dysentery was very common; a safe estimate would be that 20 to 40% of the men and officers had some form of dysentery at all times. During a queiscent period at Myitkyina our battalion ran a series of stool examinations for amebic dysentery on all the men and officers and found approximately 20% had amebae in their stools. These were all hospitalized at the 48th Evacuation Hospital at Myitkyina.
The typhus rate ran high at certain times, particularly in units on flank missions in areas where the men slept on the ground in grassy, damp areas or in native villages.
The 13th Mountain Medical Battalion had been trained as ski troops and in clearing hospital functions, and we found this of very little use in the type of work we had to do in Burma. Our officers were recent medical school graduates, and with exception of two who had practically completed a surgical internship, one urol-ogist, the battalion commander and myself, none had had any surgical experience whatever. However, all our officers, including the dental and veterinary, were compelled to do surgery by force of necessity.
in Northern Burma. 13th Medics accompanied the infantrymen. U.S. Army photo.
RIVER JUNCTION at Kamaing, Burma. Supplies were brought up river in boats
It was nothing unusual to see an officer operating with an open textbook alongside the patient. We also had to train our enlisted men to give anesthetics, sterilize instruments, and act as assistants, after we arrived in the combat zone.
Evacuation was accomplished by any and every means available, depending upon the terrain. The longest litter hauls (hand-carry) were 60 miles; when roads were under water as the result of the monsoon, we used the rivers with pontoons and outboard motors. If rivers were not available, temporary landing strips were built for L-l and L-5 planes in fields, rice paddies, or portions of roadbeds. Casualties were evacuated by plane to larger airfields and then to the evacuation or general hospitals by means of C-47 aircraft. When ambulances couldn't get through because of deep mud, 6x6 trucks were used as these were found to be more efficient in deep mud. Jeeps were never used.
Nutrition was poor as a rule. All food was airdropped, usually K-ration, C-ration, and occasionally a 10-in-l ratio to flank units. The chief difficulty was that much of the ration never reached its intended destination, sometimes because it was dropped in the wrong places (in the river, swamp, to the Chinese, once to the Japanese, etc.) or was stolen, or wasn't delivered because of bad flying weather conditions.
The Chinese ration was a British ration but the Chinese preferred American rations; consequently they would appropriate by any and all means any American ration they could get their hands on. I was frequently invited to a meal with Chinese officers of a unit and never failed to see large amounts of canned chicken, canned fruits, sugar, milk, etc., items which my men and officers hadn't seen or tasted in months.
By June 1944 most of the men and officers of our battalion had lost 10 to 40 pounds. I don't know of any who didn't lose weight. We hadn't seen sugar, bread, or fruit for three months!
On flank missions the usual thing was to issue the men a six-day ration and find that the trip or distance to the next designated airdrop location was going to require ten to 14 days, with the result that the men lived on half a ration or less. On one mission from Taro to Lonkin, there was no food or medical supply drop for three weeks and my men had to live on whatever they could beg from the Chinese or buy from the natives they encountered. - THE END
and returned to Warazup with patients evacuated from the 13th Field Hospital.