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After the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the Japanese escalated from regional aggression to a sweeping armed conquest of virtually all Asia. With bewildering speed, Japanese forces overran the Philippines, occupied French Indochina and Thailand, fought their way down the Malay Peninsula to overwhelm the British bastion of Singapore, and seized the oil-rich Dutch East Indies.

Japanese armies then thrust into the southern tail of Burma and smashed north. The direct but wide-fronted advance from Thailand was an indirect approach to their major objective on the Asiatic mainland: the reduction of resistance in China by denying it Allied support. Rangoon, the Burmese capital, was the port of entry for Anglo-American supplies to China, by way of the Burma Road.

At the same time, the Japanese move was shrewdly designed to complete the conquest of the western gateway to the Pacific and establish a barrier across the main routes by which any overland British or American offensive might be attempted. On March 8, 1942, Rangoon fell, and within two months British forces were driven out of Burma, over the mountains and back into India. General Joseph Stilwell, chief of staff of Allied forces and Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s right-hand man, put it bluntly: ‘We got a hell of a beating. We got run out of Burma, and it’s humiliating as hell. We’ve got to go back in there and take it back.’

Burma had abundant oil, tungsten and manganese to fuel the Japanese war machine and was the world’s leading exporter of rice. The one remaining effective point of contact between China and the Allied world was Burma.

But in the early months of 1942 orthodox military action in Burma was out of the question. The Americans were reeling from Pearl Harbor and the fall of the Philippines. The British were in disarray throughout Asia. The Chinese were rent with dissension and disunity between Nationalists and Communists, between military commanders and outlaw warlords. Thus it fell to a clandestine operation created by America’s Office of Strategic Services (OSS), code-named Detachment 101, to begin the long struggle to regain Burma.

Forerunner of the modern Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the OSS was a new agency on the scene, having become operational on July 11, 1941, as the Coordinator of Information (COI). COI was empowered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to ‘collect and analyze all information and data which may bear upon national security, and to carry out such supplementary activities as may facilitate the securing of information for national security not now available to the government.’ Shorn of bureaucratese, the agency’s mission was espionage and counterespionage.

COI was a civilian agency in the executive branch reporting directly to Roosevelt. It was modeled after England’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was headed by a World War I hero and genuine rakehell, the irascible, bombastic and charismatic ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan.

By June 1942, COI was placed under the direction of the Joint Chiefs of Staff so its activities could be better coordinated with the war effort, and the agency was renamed the OSS.

Detachment 101 was the brainchild of Millard Preston Goodfellow, a former Brooklyn newspaper publisher and Boy’s Club executive. As part of OSS activities, he prepared staff studies for intelligence and irregular warfare operations in Asia. Strategically located Burma was given special study. The OSS proposed a guerrilla operation to Stilwell and at first was turned down cold by the general. Stilwell, an orthodox officer, was not alone in his rigid opposition to guerrilla activities. General Douglas MacArthur would not permit the OSS to work in any area commanded by him during the war.

After continued entreaties from Goodfellow and Donovan, Stilwell reluctantly approved an OSS operation in Burma, particularly after they agreed to his choice as commander of the unit, Carl Eifler. Eifler was an army major and former border patrol officer who matched Donovan in girth and loudness, if not in fame. Donovan told him that he was to head the first American unit ever assembled to conduct guerrilla warfare, espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. On April 14, 1942, Detachment 101 of the OSS was activated, although Stilwell was still skeptical about Detachment 101. He gave Eifler 90 days to get an intelligence and guerrilla warfare operation started behind the lines in Burma. ‘All I want to hear are booms from the jungle,’ he told Eifler.

The 21 original members of Detachment 101 established their base at Nazira in Assam, India, in May 1942, and began to make initial probes behind Japanese lines. Stilwell gave the unit a multiple assignment — deny the Japanese the use of Myitkyina airport and the roads and railway leading into it from the south, and closely coordinate operations with the British and Chinese.

A few 101 probes went overland into Burma in late 1942 with discouraging results, so it was decided to switch to parachute drops. On January 26, 1943, the first OSS men were dropped into northern Burma, and 10 more went in soon after. By March, Eifler’s men were spreading out over the north, and the first landings had taken place in central Burma.

The Americans soon discovered that they would be fighting in one of the world’s worst climates and on some of its most forbidding terrain. They were obliged to scale jagged mountains, hack their way through almost impenetrable jungles, and cross dusty plains where temperatures reached as high as 130 degrees. It sometimes rained as much as 15 inches in a single day. Clothes and boots rotted off their bodies in the sweltering humidity. Malaria, dengue fever, cholera, scabies, yaws, typhus and dysentery were at epidemic levels.

Clearly, a couple dozen Americans would have little effect in such an atmosphere against a hardened Japanese army. But, unwittingly, the Japanese themselves had sown the seeds for their ultimate defeat in Southeast Asia.

At first, the Japanese were seen as liberators freeing the Burmese from the British colonial yoke. But the Japanese treated the Burmese as they had the Chinese, brutally attacking the people and butchering entire villages. A tribe of hill people called the Kachins bore the brunt of the atrocities. As a result, the Kachins hated the Japanese, and many Kachins joined Detachment 101 in fighting the invaders.

The Kachin tribesmen were short, rugged men and born fighters, equally at home crossing mountain peaks and following virtually invisible tracks through the jungle. They had an uncanny ability to shadow their foes through the jungle for miles without being seen or heard, and in time the Japanese came to fear and dread them. Detachment 101 eventually grew to a force of more than 10,000 guerrillas.

From a string of jungle outposts established along a 600-mile front, Detachment 101 units mounted repeated attacks on Japanese supply lines, blowing up bridges and railroads, disrupting communications, and providing intelligence for the Allies. Detachment 101’s patrols ferreted out Japanese camps and supply installations concealed in the jungle; they provided such exact descriptions of local landmarks for pilots of the U.S. Tenth Air Force that the Americans were able to successfully bomb and strafe targets they could not even see.

The presence of Detachment 101 patrols in the jungle also lifted the morale of American and British aircrews flying supplies over the ‘Hump’ of the Himalayas from India to China. Now, for the first time, the fliers knew that if they crashed and survived, expert trackers would be coming to their aid. Detachment 101 even had its own air force–a ramshackle assortment of light planes used to supply its men in the field and to bring out wounded.

Detachment 101’s support of Maj. Gen. Orde Wingate’s Chindits and Maj. Gen. Frank Merrill’s Marauders was crucial to the Allied success in Burma and to the eventual victory in Southeast Asia. The regular Allied forces came to depend on the support of irregular units perhaps more than in any other theater of the war.

The Americans represented the peaks of industrialization, modernization and education. The Kachins were from the other end of the spectrum — backward, primitive and mostly illiterate. However, mutual respect bound them together. Men from both groups were usually loyal, dependable and courageous. And they were all determined to run the Japanese out of Burma.

During three years of jungle warfare, Detachment 101 claimed to have killed 5,447 Japanese, while another 10,000 Japanese soldiers were wounded or reported missing. But the unit’s importance went beyond its kill rate alone. The constant possibility of ambush, at which the Kachins were expert, made the Japanese edgy and cautious and ate away at their morale. When asked, Japanese prisoners rated each Kachin as equal to 10 Japanese soldiers. The OSS estimated that, in reality, the Kachins were even more effective than that–inflicting 25 casualties on the enemy for every casualty of their own. During its operations, Detachment 101 also destroyed 51 bridges and 277 military vehicles, while suffering the loss of 184 Kachins and 18 Americans killed in action.

Detachment 101 was deactivated on July 12, 1945. Skeptical to the end, General Stilwell was dubious of the Kachin kill rate. ‘How can you be so sure of the numbers?’ he asked a guerrilla leader.

Dropping a bundle on Stilwell’s desk, the diminutive warrior said, ‘Count these ears and divide by two.’

This article was written by Sterling Rock Johnson and originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to World War II magazine today!