In my attempt to reveal the diversity of those employed by the Special Operations Executive to help fight the war against Japan in Burma, this next post is all about a Kachin leader. While his brothers have the ‘lion’s share’ of attention in the files, Hkun Nawng’s story also provides fascinating glimpses of war as seen through the eyes of what a forthcoming conference will address as ‘Marginalised Histories of the Second World War’. This conference will be held at King’s College on 11 April 2018: see @teachlearnwar
Between 11 September 1942 and 1 June 1944, Hkun Nawng worked for the Japanese as Assistant Superintendent of Sinlum, an area south of Myitkyina and east of Bhamo near the Chinese border. In April 1944, three Japanese columns totalling around 3000 troops converged on the town of Sinlumkaba, and arrested Hkun Nawng. He was tied up and interrogated…
Hkun (also spelt ‘Khun’ in the files) Nawng was a Kachin. He was born on 15 January 1907, and later recorded in SOE files as being 5’5″ and weighing 150lbs. His brothers were Majors Zau June and Shan Lone, men who SOE considered to be essential assets to their work in northern Burma. Hkun Nawng had remained in Japanese occupied territory in 1942, and apparently become a collaborator.
The Japanese freed Hkun Nawng after interrogation, but he realised that he had lost their confidence at a propaganda meeting in Myothit arranged shortly afterwards. Suspecting that ‘he would only be used as a tool in the future’, Hkun Nawng made contact with Subedar Sumlut La, a Kachin who was operating ‘close by’ as part of Operation Dilwyn. Operation Dilwyn was one of the first SOE operations, launched in early 1943.
Hkun Nawng asked the Subedar to contact his brother, Zau June, who was ‘stationed’ in the jungle ‘near BUMKHATAWNG.’ Zau June had been recruited by SOE in late 1943, and was sending intelligence back to India, also as part of Operation Dilwyn. Zau June ‘at once made arrangements to have him [Hkun Nawng] kidnapped by Chinese guerrillas and thus knock out the Kachin administration.’
In connection with their demands made at the Myothit meeting, the Japanese commander summoned Hkun Nawng twice towards the end of May. Deciding it was time to leave, Hkun Nawng left for Bhamo. Once there, his escape was contrived: ‘He arranged with the DUWA of JINGHPAW MOMAWK to fire several rounds of rifle shot in the night, and ran away at the sound, saying that the bandits from China were after him.’ He then joined a band of 100 Chinese guerrillas who conveyed him to the British by 19 June 1944.
Hkun Nawng arrived in Calcutta in July, and by August he was at Chaklala for parachute training. The following month, he was commissioned and on the night of 28 December, now promoted to Captain, was dropped into Burma as leader of team Squirrel of Operation Dilwyn. In six months, Hkun Nawng had gone from Japanese ‘collaborator’ to Captain Hkun Nawng employed on Special Operations.
After an initial briefing which informed the Squirrel team of a drop into southern Kachin territory, the choice of DZ was changed to an area where Kachin and Shan territory met. There was no intelligence about this area since 1942, so the officers objected, but finally it was agreed that a smaller team of just Kachin and Chin personnel led by Captain Hkun Nawng would go in first on a ‘blind’ DZ. This smaller Squirrel team – which included Subedar Sumlut La – missed their drop zone by around twenty miles. They landed in a Chinese village, somehow missing the surrounding paddy which had been covered in Punjies by the Japanese to skewer any airborne infiltration of Allied forces. The villagers were helpful, warning team Squirrel of the proximity of a Japanese post which, they said, must surely have heard the circling aircraft. The team hastily collected what equipment they could recover and carry, removed their boots to avoid leaving an obvious spoor, and left the village. The party had not landed without injury, however, as Subedar Sumlut La and Jemadar Hkali had ‘badly injured their legs in small pits in the village’. The team found a hideout, and decided to lay low while Japanese patrols searched for them:
‘a large hue and cry was raised by the Japs and hundreds of Shans were used to comb the jungle. The Chinese villagers of NAWNGSANG pleaded complete ignorance, and the Japs, seeing all the packages and chutes abandoned in a hurry, believed them. The JAPS, themselves, disguised as SHANS, hunted everywhere to find the party. HKAM LENG, Myosa of MONGYAW, brought a company of his Shan levies to join in the hunt, but without success.’
The team consequently spent ten days in their hideout, on what in modern day Special Force’s language might be called the ‘hard routine’. For security reasons, no fires could be lit, and movement was limited ‘so conditions were far from comfortable.’ Security had to be priority because the party could not trust the Shans, who were ‘still filled with Japanese propaganda’. There was help from Duwa (headman) Nawh Kam and his villagers, without whose assistance Lt.Col. Crosby reported that ‘this operation would have failed within the first week.’
Still in barefoot to avoid leaving tracks, the team moved to the Loiwaw area where concealment was better, and another Duwa was able to help them. By the night of 25 January when Squirrel took a supply drop, they had around 100 Kachin recruits. While preparing the drop zone, a man dressed as a Shan was noticed with suspicion. It was found that he was wearing a Japanese uniform underneath the Shan clothes, ‘he was therefore despatched [sic] with all speed.’ This detail has been redacted from Lt. Col. Crosby’s post operational report, but missed by the censors in another file.
On the night of 27 January, Lt.Col. Crosby and the rest of the Dilwyn parties was successful in landing on this DZ, with large quantities of stores. Over the next 24 hours another 100 recruits arrived, and the stores were moved up into the hills. Crosby was very pleased with this DZ reception, organised by Hkun Nawng. Now they were established, the Dilwyn parties, including Squirrel, were able to start ‘the second phase of the operation.’ The object of the operation was to assist the American and Chinese advance on Lashio and Hsipaw by attacking the Japanese line of communications south of these towns.
Captain Hkun Nawng continued to be an important part of the whole operation in this second phase. With Crosby, he met a Shan Myosa (chief) who promised 300 recruits and the ability to supply food for up to 500 men. Deciding to trust the Myosa, it was Captain Hkun Nawng who went south with the him to set up a forward base and make a recce of the area near Mongyai. By 11 February, Hkun Nawng reported his success and a further 25 men were sent to reinforce his party. Hkun Nawng reported a Japanese company and four tankettes were on the move from Mongyai, so an airstrike was called in. One tankette was abandoned and the force returned to Mongyai.
Due to ‘American encroachment of [Force] 136 area, plans were made to move further south and east of Mongyai, and Hkun Nawng was again at the forefront of this advance towards Monghsu in early March. From Monghsu, Hkun Nawng led a reconnaissance to Mongsang, and sent feelers out towards Kunhing. Plans had to be changed again ‘due to the encroachment of 101’ (Detachment 101 was the OSS unit in Burma), ‘which took some days to reorganise.’
It soon became clear that Dilwyn parties had gone further east than Japanese forces now were, so Hkun Nawng was recalled by Crosby to Mongnawng just as the Japanese prepared to attack the town in strength. Crosby doubted his ability to hold Mongnawng and so withdrew, but he left Captain Hkun Nawng to cover the vicinity with four sections of levies (a section was normally about ten men).
There is then a gap in the timeline of Hkun Nawng’s record until 23 May when he was in action in the Kyusauk area. Under the cover of a thunderstorm, he led four sections to within 100 yards of Japanese positions. When the Japanese realised they were there, the Japanese opened up ‘with everything they had.’ The fire fight lasted 90 minutes, during which time Captain Hkun Nawng’s men fought of three massed counter attacks inflicting heavy casualties on the Japanese. Two levy NCOs (unnamed) are said to have stood ‘firing Brens from the hip in the open at 50 yards range.’ With just two men wounded and a few others with minor scratches, Hkun Nawng successfully withdrew his men. This seems to have been the last major action. On 1 June 1945, Crosby was extracted, but Hkun Nawng stayed in the field until July distributing clothes and food in his area, which had been cleared of Japs.
On this operation, similar to others, the method employed by Force 136 was to drop Burmese officers and other ranks ‘blind’ into an area about which they had limited intelligence, if any. In this case, Burma Country Section relied upon the knowledge and capability of Kachin and Chin personnel to enable them to establish a safe reception into which British officers and other ranks could be deployed. It was clearly a close call for Squirrel in late December 1944, and certainly it took men with some exceptional courage and nerve to turn near disaster into a success for the Special Operations Executive in northern Burma.
In his personnel file, it was written of Hkun Nawng:
‘his conduct could hardly have been bettered by any of our officers’ – this after he had been suspected of being a Japanese agent and described as ‘not very promising in appearance’. Captain Hkun Nawng was awarded the Military Cross in recognition of his work on Operation Dilwyn.