The story of Major Hugh Paul Seagrim continues to attract attention, from the first book about him published by The Times correspondent Ian Morrison in 1947, to the more recent book by Philip Davies seventy years later. Even more recently, in February 2020, Jon Wort published a ‘Concise Biography‘ of Seagrim for British Military History
In January 1942, (then) Captain Seagrim drove to a town called Papun in Karenni as part of the Special Operations Executive’s Oriental Mission. He was tasked with raising Karen guerrillas to fight the Japanese when they invaded Burma. He was quickly able to recruit hundreds of Karen people, who were largely supportive of the British in Burma, and establish hideouts in the jungle from which to conduct raids on the Japanese lines of communication. After the Japanese successfully pushed British and Commonwealth forces across the Indo-Burmese border, taking control of most of Burma, Seagrim remained in the Karen Hills. He remained in the hills until March 1944, when he gave himself up to prevent further Japanese atrocities being committed against the Karen in their search for him. In September 1944, the Japanese executed Seagrim and seven Karen comrades, by firing squad, in Rangoon. He was awarded the George Cross for sacrificing his life to save the people he had grown to love during his time in Burma.
In a post entitled ‘No Betrayal‘, I forefronted Lieutenant Saw Po Hla’s part in the Seagrim story. The purpose of this post is to forefront another Karen, a Burma Rifles Jemadar named Maung Wah.
Jemadar Maung Wah wrote a ‘Report on Major Seagrim’ in October 1945. It is tucked away as ‘Appendix XI’ to the report of Hyena Red by Major Turrall. Turrall was part of Operation Character, launched in February1945, to raise the Karen that Major Seagrim had lived with for over two years in support of the Army’s drive for Rangoon. The operation was divided into four main operational areas of which Hyena was one. While the specific Special Groups deployed in these areas were designated animal codenames, all had sub-areas which were colours, hence Turrall was Operation Character, team Hyena, sub-area Red. On 1 March 1945, a little over a week after deployment, Jemadar Maung Wah joined Major Turrall’s team at a town called Pyagawpu.
In 1942, Maung Wah had joined the guerrillas in the Karen Hills. On 15 March 1942 he collected 410 rifles from Lieutenant McCrindle, and later on 1 April was issued with six shotguns and 300 rounds. With these weapons, he hid in the forest east of Kyaukkyi (pronounced Chowk–Chee) until May 1942. He does not indicate that he was involved in any action against the enemy during this time, or the number of men that he may have had with him. He left this area in May ‘when the Japanese come to search for all soldiers and volunteers’, going to Pyagawpu where he recieved instructions from another Karen, Saw Di Gay. Sent to watch the roads at the junction from Kedo and Kyaukkyi, he remained in the field until September 1942. Again, there is no indication of numbers of guerrillas or action against the enemy during this time. Presumably he did send information about Japanese troop movements, as instructed.
From September, Maung Wah ‘sent information to the hills’ from Kyaukkyi, until in December 1942 he went with another Karen, a Burma Policeman called Arthur Ta Bi, to Lawkawlo and met Seagrim for the first time. From Maung Wah’s account of the conversation, it is clear that Maung Wah had not been part of Seagrim’s stay behind group in the beginning. Maung Wah says he had been recruited and made a levy commander by ‘Col RYAN’. Colonel Ryan was General Bruce Scott’s Intelligence Officer, Scott being the commander of 1 Burma Division in 1942. Scott had made Ryan officer commanding levies in the Toungoo area, to SOE’s irritation.
In their conversation, Maung Wah told Seagrim he wanted to help him and that he had men in Kyaukkyi, to which Seagrim said he would call on him ‘when the opportunity arose’. In the meantime, Seagrim asked Maung Wah to get hold of a radio for him so he could listen to the news. Maung Wah managed to get a radio, but after fourteen days the battery went flat, and he could not source any more batteries, so he hid the radio.
Maung Wah’s account then jumps to October 1943 without any commentary other than the quest for the radio filling the time from December 1942. October 1943 is significant for it is when the first British officer of Operation Harlington finally dropped in to the Karen Hills in an effort to discover if Seagrim was alive. Following Captain Jimmy Nimmo, Captain McCrindle arrived in December. Maung Wah states that from the time of Nimmo’s arrival until January 1944, he sent ‘food and information to the hills regularly.’ On 3 February, the Japanese arrested Maung Wah.
Maung Wah was questioned by ‘W.O. Takeda J.M.P.’ about Seagrim, parachutists, ex-soldiers and volunteers. Takeda ‘beat and illtreated me but I refused to give any suitable reply.’ He was then moved, and questioned further by two more Japanese MIlitary Police, named as Karashia and Takaka, as well as two Burmans ’employed as J.M.P.’, Maung Tik Maung and Maung Sun Maung. With hands bound behind his back, he was beaten some more, but still refused to give anything away, even though they said he should know the answers as he was ‘always helping the British.’ Maung Wah wrote that they told him they had been investigating him for five months and three days, and knew all about his activities.
The Japanese released Maung Wah with instructions to go to Seagrim and to return by 8 February with Seagrim’s location, his strength and sentry positions. Maung Wah went, and was taken to Seagrim by Saw Maung Kyaw. Seagrim ‘asked me if my news was good or bad. I showed him my hand’ so Seagrim knew he had been arrested. He told Seagrim what information the Japanese wanted him to return with, but that he was ‘ready to live and die’ with Seagrim. Seagrim apparently sent a message to India (Nimmo and McCrindle had arrived with W/T equipment) asking for advice on a Karen uprising, but the reply was ‘that the Army did not want the KARENS to fight yet’ so ‘we would still have to put up with the suffering.’
Maung Wah then asked Seagrim ‘what he could do about me and told him to kill me. He told me to return and tell the Japanese everything. I said if he did not want me he could kill me. He told me to return and GOD would guard me. We could not do anything but Pray. Next morning I went to PYAGAWPU. On the way I thought of hiding in the forests.’
Deciding not to hide, Maung Wah met Saw Nya Hloo on the road:
‘I asked him about KYAUKKYI. He said that all my weapons had been taken away by Japanese, because TIN GYAW had been arrested, tortured and had given us away. I could not think of anything so returned to KYAUKKYI. When I reached home my friends told me that everyone had got in trouble owing to me. I thought that when I Prayed God guided me to help my country my people and my King, so if I ran away now every one would get into trouble, therefore, I must stay and meet the worst. If I died, my friends would not suffer. I had always Prayed to God from the beginning for my people to be relieved.’
Maung Wah proceeded to report to the Japanese by 8 February, as he had been instructed. When asked if he had met Seagrim, he said that he had, and that Seagrim was near KAWMUPWEDO. Questioned further, Maung Wah gave answers that the Japanese were not satisfied with, but they let him go so he could bring in Po Hla for questioning. On 12 February, the Japanese got Maung Wah from his home and took him with them to Kawmupwedo, but Seagrim had left. Early on the morning of 17 February, a Karen called Saw Yeh was captured and forced to tell them where Seagrim now was.
The Japanese numbered around 300. They attacked Seagrim’s camp, killing McCrindle and bagging some weapons and money, but Seagrim escaped. The Japanese then started a campaign of terror so the ‘villagers were too afraid to hide him as they could not bear the punishments meted by the Japanese.’ Seagrim surrendered on 14 March 1944 at 9am at Mewado. On 7 May, Maung Wah was taken to Rangoon where he was imprisoned until 13 July when he was sent home with instructions to look out for parachutists and pamphlets. He did this job, which he liked, until February 1945 when ‘My time had now come to escape and I joined Major TURRALL at PYAGAWPU on 1st March 1945.’
Jemadar Maung Wah evidently served with some distinction with Hyena as he gets a special mention by Turrall at the end of his report, but unfortunately an appendix that is referred to is missing from the file. The award that Turrall recommended him for in that appendix may or may not be the Military Cross for which he was Gazetted in 1947.
Jemadar Maung Wa survived arrest and torture, imprisonment in Rangoon, and then the rest of the war, but here are the gravestones of some of his Karen comrades who also helped Seagrim but paid with their lives: