THE BURMA BOYS – History Class with Cheta

Today, August 15, is celebrated as VJ Day in the UK, the day Japan surrendered and ended World War II. Today’s #HistoryClass is about a largely ignored group of warriors in that war, who fought in Asia. The Burma Boys. Many thanks to Olly Owen of Oxford University for prompting today’s #HistoryClass which references the work of Barnaby Phillips, Jon Latimer and Shojiro Ida.

African Youths used as Burma Boys by the British to fight Japan in Burma during World War 2
African Youths used as Burma Boys by the British to fight Japan in Burma during World War 2

There are two parts of today’s #HistoryClass, a summary of the Burma campaign, and a biography of a Nigerian soldier, Isaac Fadoyebo, who was involved. Burma became a part of the British Empire in the 19th Century as a part of British India, but was excised in 1935. By that time, the Burmese wanted the Brits out, so when Japan attacked in January 1942, they didn’t have a shortage of Burmese insurgents, led by Aung San to help them. On 16 January 1942 a Japanese battalion occupied Victoria Point, at the southern tip of Burma, giving them their first airfield inside the country. Tavoy fell on 19 January, isolating the garrison of Mergui, which had to be withdrawn by sea. This gave the Japanese control of three airfields, and allowed them to launch the first air raids on Rangoon. On 8 March, as the last British train left Rangoon, the Japanese marched into the undefended city from the west.

Burma Boys under British Army
Burma Boys under British Army

During the rest of March both sides prepared for the inevitable Japanese attack north into the heart of Burma. Serious fighting resumed in late March and on 26 April the British began the retreat to the Indian border. Between December of 1942 and May 1943, the Brits, deployed troops from India, Burma, Gambia, the Gold Coast, Kenya, Nigeria, Rhodesia, Nyasaland and Uganda, with help from China and the US. Their tentative attacks in this period were known as the Arakan Campaign. During the Arakan Campaign, the Allied High Command was overhauled, the new leader was the charismatic Louis Mountbatten, a relative of the King, who’s influence obtained much needed air support for what now became the 14th Army. The Japanese, aware that the Brits had gained strength, tried to end the campaign in early 1944 with an assault into Assam, aimed at capturing the key towns of Imphal, capital of the state of Manipur, and Kohima. Another Japanese attack was made simultaneously in the Arakan.

For the first time the since 1942, the British stood firm.

Burma Boys Training
Burma Boys Training

Early in 1945, 14th Army continued to advance, no longer in the jungle but in the open plains of upper Burma. Mandalay was recaptured in March, and the British crossed the Irrawaddy before heading south. In the Arakan, the Japanese were forced out of strong positions before Rangoon was retaken on 3 May. However much British face was lost in the Far East as a result of the defeats at the hands of the Japanese, African and Indian troops had lived in the mud with their British comrades, and had realised that they were all human, so the stirrings of independence continued even after the was was over. Aung San, who sided with the Japanese earlier, switched sides when it was clear that they were losing. Despite his assassination, possibly aided by the Brits in 1947, Burma gained independence in 1948. He was the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. In a future #HistoryClass we’ll talk about independence from British rule in South-East Asia, an event which was replicated in Africa a decade later, and to which soldiers of the 14th Army contributed great moral strength to.

In Britain itself, the 14th Army became known as The Forgotten Army because of the humiliation earlier by the Japanese. 100,000 African soldiers fought for Britain in Burma.

A Burma Boy
Isaac Fadoyebo

Isaac Fadoyebo joined the Royal West African Frontier Force in 1942 at age 16. In 1943 he was deployed to India, then ordered to in February 1944, join the fighting in the Kaladan Valley in Burma. He was the victim of a Japanese ambush a month later. As his comrades were cut down around him, a bullet struck Fadoyebo’s right leg, shattering the femur, while another round penetrated his side. Soaked in blood, he lay helpless and in agony. Surrounded by corpses, Fadoyebo passed out. When he recovered consciousness, Japanese soldiers with fixed bayonets were standing nearby. A British officer, Capt Richard Brown, was murdered for trying to treat Fadoyebo’s wounds.

Surprisingly, the Japanese did not finish off the Nigerian, probably because they believed he was about to die anyway. Yet Fadoyebo clung to life, encouraged when it became clear that there was another survivor, an injured soldier from Sierra Leone called David Kargbo.

Abandoned Burma Boys
Burma Boys left to die

Then, out of the rainforest, some Burmese villagers, Rohingya Muslims who supported the British against the Japanese, came to their aid. They treated Fadoyebo’s wounds and brought food and water. Later, the two Africans were concealed in a rudimentary jungle shelter. For nine months, Fadoyebo lay in squalor and agony. His leg was so mangled that the white femur was exposed and maggots ate his wounds. One villager, Shuyiman, took pity on the two African soldiers and hid the fugitives in his own home alongside his family. Had the Japanese discovered this, Shuyiman would have been executed together with his wife and children. Japanese patrols passed through the village of Mairong, but the Africans were never found. In December 1944, British soldiers liberated the area and discovered Fadoyebo and Kargbo. They had survived for nine months behind enemy lines.

Fadoyebo wrote his autobiography, but in SAP Nigeria of the 1980s, it wasn’t published. Eventually, it was published by the BBC in 1989. He died in 2012. Fadoyebo, like our first military Head of State, Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, fought for Britain in World War II. May we never forget them. Enjoy this video, courtesy of Olly Owen: