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15 October 2014
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Burma before the Japanese Invasion

by jomajohnson

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Jose Johnson, Daphne Johnson, Norman (Johnnie) Johnson, Joy Curtis (nee Hobbs), Mary Mustill, Jack Mustill
Location of story: 
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Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
28 November 2004

Example of my father's (Johnnie Johnson) private travelling carriage.

I had spent the years from 1929 to 1939 at boarding school including the many holiday times when both parents were overseas in India/ Burma and unable to get home. Therefore I had led a very sheltered existence and had no experience of the social life of that era i.e. dinner parties and balls and dances. In any case no one took too much notice of teenagers in those days in fact there was no such thing as a teenager that came from the USA after the war!! Consequently I found the social life of Rangoon intimidating to begin with despite the fact it was on a reduced scale because of the war. However I was fortunate to meet Joy Curtis (nee Hobbs), who became a life time friend. Joy had been in Rangoon for two or three years and very kindly introduced me to many young people, inviting me to tennis parties and dinner parties which were often followed by dancing at the Gymkhana Club. The “Gym”, also provided all kinds of sports facilities, but as we lived some fifteen to twenty miles outside Rangoon at a place called Insein, I did not go there very often, particularly as we had a tennis court and a nine hole golf course nearby and were close to the beautiful Golf Club at Mingladon.

This very pleasant way of life continued until the fateful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on the 8th December 1941 and their invasion of North Malaya. This of course caused much concern to us, we had always been led to believe that the Jungle area between N. Malaya and Burma was impenetrable, but rumours soon spread that this was not so and certainly proved to be the case all too soon, particularly after the devastating loss of the two Royal navy ships HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales.

I had taught myself to type after a fashion and, through my father’s efforts, was given a little job in the Cypher Office at Army Headquarters I probably only added to the general confusion, but it was an interesting introduction to codes etc. However this did not last very long as on 23rd and 25th December 1941 the Japanese, made two daylight air raids on Rangoon concentrating on the dock area. I was at Army H.Q. on both occasions and all we had as protection were some very shallow slit trenches and our solar Topees, whilst the military at least had tin hats!

From then on the Japs turned to night raids and air alerts became more and more frequent and bombs dropped on the airfield at Mingladon which was quite near us. Dad had had a deepish slit trench dug in the garden with a steel sheet roof on top and night after night we went down there to share the shelter with a large toad who had taken up residence! We kept a Flit Gun down there as there were hundreds of Mosquito too! Mum and I were often there alone as Dad had to go into the Railway Works when raids were on to see that all was well there and to encourage the staff.

This went on for a few weeks until Dad attended a high level meeting in Rangoon one day and came home to tell us that what he had heard made him lose all confidence in our ability to hold Rangoon and he would be happier if Mum and I and other ladies in Insein left Rangoon for upper Burma i.e. Mandalay area.

So on 31st January 1942 our rather super Railway Saloon was hitched on to the train to Mandalay, little realising that we would not return to our home again and would lose all our household goods, furniture and possessions.
The Railway Works and residential area was just outside Mandalay at a place called Myitnge and so the saloon was parked in a special siding and Mum and I lived there not knowing quite what to do next. The war news was getting worse and worse and communications which were not brilliant at the best of times, were very difficult. However, we did receive a letter from a great friend, Mary Mustill, whose husband Jack was a Forest Officer temporarily in the army as he understood wireless communications!! Mary said she had moved from Maymyo with her two children up the Chindwin River to Mawlaik and was staying in the Forest Officers house there until such a time as the situation clarified and why didn’t we come and join her? We ought to see the beautiful River Chindwin anyway and if by any chance we did have to go to India we would be well on the way.

We also heard rumours of a possible air flight from Lashio by Chinese National Airways but no really firm information. We were so undecided as to what to do that Mum took a silver rupee coin from her purse and said, “Heads” we go to Lashio and “tails” we go up the Chindwin, it came down “tails.”

So we had the saloon hitched to a train going to a place called Monywa which was the boarding point for the River Steamer going to Mawlaik. The saloon plus servants and our little dog “Smokey” went back to Dad in Rangoon (I think). One servant, a young Indian lad called Burramia however, stayed with us throughout the journey until we reached India. He was on our staff in Rangoon — mostly employed on light duties such as kitchen cleaning.

When we got to the Steamer it was clear that several other people had the same idea and as a result the first class accommodation was very overcrowded with people sleeping all over the deck. The river steamers were not fast movers and it took three or four days to reach Mawlaik as they called at the many riverside villages delivering and taking on goods and passengers The river being the main highway in those parts, and always tying up for the night at one of the bigger places. But we did manage to get fed and watered. All went reasonably well until we were close to Mawlaik when the steamer stuck on a sandbank for several hours which meant that we did not disembark until after dark!

Mawlaik was also a settlement of some three or four houses occupied by staff of the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation (“BBTC”) who were engaged in Teak extraction from the jungle, The Company had already evacuated the families of most of its staff from other areas of Burma and assembled them in Mawlaik. I think the following quote from J.H. Williams book “Elephant Bill” is relevant “A few of the more far-sighted government officials had privately made the same arrangements for their wives” (page 144 of my copy of the book) Mr. Williams at the bottom of the same page refers to Geoff Bostock who was in charge of things from the BBTC group point of view and he had come down to meet our steamer to gather one or two late arrivals for his group.

Mum knew him quite well from stays in Maymyo and he very kindly escorted us to the Forest Officer’s house as we, of course , had no idea where it was or where we were! A day or so later he came to see Mum and offered to include Mum and I with his party for the trip to India, but said he could not take any more small children. As this would have meant leaving Mary Mustill, Jenny and John, we declined and stayed with them and other Forest Dept. people. As it turned out we got away first and probably fared better!

I cannot recall quite how long we remained in Mawlaik but the Sutherlands (he was the Forest Officer in whose house we were staying) were recalled from their jungle tour so that he could help to deal with the refugee problem. Small numbers of people were making their way up the river and amongst these were two American Baptist Mission Padres who were escorting an American family, a Mrs. Young and her three children aged six, four and six weeks respectively. Virtually no plans had been made to deal with the problems which began to arise. And it gradually became clear that those already in Mawlaik would have to move on and the plan was that our little group in the charge of the two Padres (see list at the end of my diary) would travel by the Commissioners launch further up the Chindwin to the mouth of the River Yu (Yuwa) from where we would transfer on to Loondwins (country dugout boats) for the journey up river to Hlesaik (four to five days). We all boarded the beautiful launch for what was to have been a few hours journey to Yuwa but again we were caught by a sandbank! (NB the river was at its lowest at this time of year) When the launch was freed we had to go back to Mawlaik as it was required elsewhere and we had to wait for the Loondwins to come down from Yuwa to collect us, it took them two days, some contrast to the few hours by launch!!

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