The exploits of Major Hugh ‘Stooky’ Seagrim in Burma were first shared with the world in Ian Morrison’s book, ‘Grandfather Longlegs’, published in 1946. More recently, in August 2017, Philip Davies published ‘Lost Warriors’ which tells the story of Seagrim as well as Corporal Roy Pagani. This was followed up with the dedication of a memorial stone in Rangoon Cathedral in November 2017, organised by Davies, commemorating the bravery of Seagrim and his Karen friends.
Briefly, Seagrim opted to remain in Burma in 1942, hiding in the jungle with the Karen fighters he had recruited, after the British Army retreated to India. In February 1943, SOE managed to successfully deploy a Karen team by parachute to contact Seagrim, but they were without W/T for communication. For various reasons, it was not until October that a radio and a British officer were able to join the Karen team led by Lt. Ba Gyaw. It was not long before Captain Nimmo found Ba Gyaw and Seagrim, and contact with Calcutta was established. In December, Captain Eric McCrindle parachuted into the Karen Hills and joined the other officers. An SOE network deep behind the lines in Burma was thus established by Christmas 1943, but in February 1944 W/T traffic ceased, and SOE’s Burma Country Section anxiously waited for news of their personnel. It turned out that both Nimmo and McCrindle had been killed in Japanese attacks on their camps, and Seagrim and Ba Gyaw had been arrested, with numerous others, and taken to Rangoon for trial. Seagrim and Ba Gyaw plus six others were executed in September 1944, and buried in Kemmadine cemetery, now CWGC Rangoon Cemetery.
Amongst the Karen who were arrested and sentenced to eight years hard labour rather than execution was Second Lieutenant Saw Po Hla. It is Po Hla who is the focus of this blog post.
According to his SOE record, Saw Po Hla was born on 21 December 1921, in the Irrawaddy delta region of southern Burma. His home town was Myaungmya, where the Burma Independence Army committed atrocities in 1942. Po Hla studied Philosophy at Rangoon University, graduating in 1939, which indicates (not unusually) that his date of birth is incorrect. After university, he worked for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company as a Provincial Assistant until he joined 11 Burma Rifles in Mandalay in January 1941. He was commissioned in February, and was the Quartermaster for 11 Burif during the first Burma campaign. As the British Army retreated north, Po Hla ended up in Indaw where his commanding officer, Lt.Col. Tudor Craig told him to remain in Burma and await the return of the British.
The Japanese reached Indaw towards the end of May 1942, but Lt. Po Hla managed to evade capture sailing down the Irrawaddy on a Sampan to Mandalay. In Mandalay he ‘went sick for 2 months.’ By September, he had reached his home in Myaungmya, but he was informed on as being a British officer, forcing him to go on the run. The Japanese Military Police followed him to Rangoon, so he continued on the run up to Pegu ‘where he stayed for 4 months.’ The Kempetai caught up with him in Pegu, so, forced north, he found Major Seagrim. His record has him as noted as ‘Recruited by Major Seagrim in the field June 43.’
Major Seagrim used Lt. Po Hla as his intelligence officer, sending him to Papun, Pegu and Rangoon to meet other Karen networks and bring back information. By this point, Nimmo had arrived with radio equipment. Seagrim’s W/T was known as Station 6; Nimmo was Station 7 and McCrindle appears to have been Station 8. Po Hla’s record has six excerpts of W/T messages sent back to Calcutta between November 1943 and January 1944, providing insight into what Po Hla was up to as Seagrim’s agent. Here are four of them:
23.11.43 45 Stn 6 From Seagrim. Most important contact Lieut Po HLA just returned from 2 mos RANGOON DELTA tour. Has had talks both with Karen and BURMESE leaders.
23.11.43 47 From Seagrim: Karen leaders in Delta have so far received no guidance. PO HLA in direct personal touch with men of our No. 46. Do you want us to guide them through PO HLA.
28.11.43 51 From Seagrim: PO HLA visited Burmese Col AUNG THAN known as BO SET KYA of BDA…
7.1.44 65 Stn 8 For Stn 7. Po Hla has been trailed to KYAUGYI by Japs who want him. To draw suspicion away from PAPUN, he has gone North to the road whence he will give himself up.
From this, it can be concluded that Lt. Po Hla was taking significant risks returning to where the Kempetai had chased him a few months before. Once there, he was meeting not just Karen but Burmese officers who were now willing to turn on their erstwhile Japanese allies. Being from Myaungmya and having returned there since the Burma Independence Army had murdered numerous Karens, this is perhaps extraordinary. It also provides further evidence to support the idea of a sub-elite of Burman officers in the Burma Defence Army who were putting pressure on their leaders to turn against the Japanese well before they actually did in March 1945.
By January, the message from Station 8 indicates that Po Hla was on the run from the Kempetai again. A redacted record titled ‘Interrogation of Po Hla cont’d’ indicates that Po Hla’s family and girlfriend had all been arrested, and that Seagrim told Po Hla to give himself up to protect his family: ‘Under Major Seagrim’s instructions he surrendered to the Japs KPT at Nyaunglebin on 25 January 1944.’
Meanwhile, the Japanese had flooded the area around Papun with troops after ‘more Karen parachutists were dropped without the knowledge of Seagrim in Thaton District in an unfriendly area.’ This is most likely another reference to an ISLD (SIS) team that missed its intended drop zone, thereby inadvertently intensifying the Japanese drive to find and destroy British parachutists they knew were hiding in the hills:
‘In the hills the tortures went from bad to worse as the days passed and the Karens had to disclose their secret, i.e. the presence of Seagrim and his friends.’
This record gives dates for the attacks in which Nimmo and McCrindle were killed (14 & 15 February 1944), and the date on which Seagrim subsequently gave himself up (16 March 1944). Seventeen Karens and Seagrim were then taken to Rangoon, Po Hla amongst them. From February 1945, Po Hla was taken from prison for work, and during a train journey in April he managed to escape by jumping from the train. He reported to Captain George Mackie of the Burma Intelligence Corps on 6 May and was then passed on to No.3 Advance Field Interrogation Centre (FIC) in Pegu. Here, he was interrogated, as the British were suspicious about Po Hla’s part in the drive against SOE’s teams in the Karen Hills. According to Davies:
As Seagrim’s right-hand man and most enterprising agent, questions were raised as to why he had not been executed along with Seagrim.
Apparently ‘very fit and fat’, it did not appear that the Japs had treated him like the other prisoners, so Po Hla spent another six months in detention until released without charge in January 1946. Davies concludes that Po Hla was ‘certainly not guilty’, which is difficult to disagree with. What Po Hla’s story is, however, is another extraordinary tale of survival in wartime Burma.
See also my entry for Saw Po Hla on ‘The Men of SOE Burma’