Marine from Mandalay

The Marines of the 3rd Commando Brigade returned home from Afghanistan. The members of the Brigade fought with exceptional courage and on their return there was not the sound of a drum nor trumpet and none was needed.
This is a story told to Winston Churchill who needed cheering up.

It is in book form written by James Leasor. We thought it an appropriate story in line with the Brigade bravery.
Before the last war Burma was relatively unknown. From Irrawaddy which begins in Tibet and far south to Rangoon it is covered with jungle and mountain ranges. Within the British Empire it exported rice, oil and petrol and was a country of seemly relative unimportance. Burma was far from the European war and life went on as usual.

Early in 1942 the Japanese recognised the importance of both exports and Burma as a possible spring board to India.

 William Doyle was delivering milk when he heard someone mumble war was declared. From that moment he knew his world had changed. The next day at a recruiting office he was promised on joining the Marines a lot of action and girls. During training he was taught not only basic infantry work but how to build a tripod and rope pulley to lift heavy loads. Skills he would rely on later.
Sailing from Greenock he found himself east bound to Port Suez for a acclimatization course. Some days later he was taken on board the ship  City of Canterbury which was attacked from the air.

The ship was damaged and landed at Ismailia where they came under air attack again. This time, while guarding an airfield. In the morning they found bodies of RAF Crews who had attempted to dig shallow holes to hide from the bomb blasts.

After the Pearl harbour attack they travelled on an armed merchant cruiser to the Maldives. Most of the natives suffer from the terrible infliction of Elephantiasis and William and others were warned not to walk bare foot on the sand. Fortunately they did not contract Elephantiasis, instead they became ill with malaria and were given large doses of quinine. So bad were the complaints a hospital ship was sent for. On the ship they heard the news of the Prince of Wales and Repulse had been sunk by the Japanese.

On a shore rest camp they were given back pay which was naturally spent on alcoholic drinks. The result was the Navy fought the Marines and the Marines fought the Army and the locals joined in the free for all.

The next morning a master at arms addressed the weary mob asking for fighters to fight in the real war.

Picture show HMS ENTERPRISEWilliam and the other volunteers were now part of the Force Viper. They  were marched on board the ship Enterprise. More new arrived of defeat, Rangoon had fallen creating the image Japanese troop were unbeatable.

To their surprise a tannoy announced they would be landing in Rangoon in the morning. As the ship approached Rangoon Japanese Zero planes flew over  head in complete disregard of  the ships fire. With rations and small arms they were ready, but for what?  While scrambling into the small boats a sailor shouted, “better you than me and keep your knees close together.”

As they moved towards the shore the Enterprise left leaving 105 marines to fight the Japanese in Rangoon.

It was then the Major told them the plan was to assist the Burma navy. Three fresh painted launches with old mounted Vickers machine guns lay close by named the Rita, Stella and Doris.

The order was to find the enemy who completely defeated them  the Burma army and surrounding countries. “That won’t be difficult,” a Marine replied. Rangoon appeared empty and they were surprised to find an officer of the Indian navy in white shorts and shoes standing on the Wharf.
Realising he was willing to help, he was immediately put in charge of the three launches. William was onboard the launch Rita awaiting the arrival of the Australians not knowing they were actually on the way home to Australia. The Judicial Secretary of Rangoon due to the unusual situation decided to release the prison murderers, maniacs and hospital lepers. Who began setting fire to all and sundry while waving clubs and chanting drunken songs. Lions, tigers, hyenas and elephants were released from the city zoos and were now mingling with the crazed mob. The Marines escorted the engineers to detonate the millions of gallons of the Burma Oil Company. The blast of the oil released from the storage tanks sent a ball of fire wide and high. The debris of hot metal and shattered concrete amid the deafening roar spoiled Williams dream of home. For a moment he was far from Burma and in his home town market place and wondered where his parents and friends were.

They set fire to the trucks and cars abandoned in the panic of retreat.

Pack mules were about to be consumed with the terrible fire and the Marines were forced to shot them.

With blackened faces they ran past non smoking signs to the waiting launches. The water surrounding the boats was on fire and the men covered their eyes and lay flat. They could hear the paint on the boats sides blistering amid the continuing blasts.

The next task was to deny the Japanese the use of the Irrawaddy. The boats formed line and made their way gingerly up the alluvial river.

Any suspect motor launch or boat that might assist the Japanese was put out of action. One day they came upon three pro Japan Indians. It would have been unwise to let them go free to stir up trouble so they were shot by firing squad. The shots rang out and the enemy dispatched, but the young  officer who gave the order he was sick over the side the boat.

Long inactive periods were spent on listening to Fats Waller singing “My very Good Friend, the Milkman.” One  day the gramophone was thrown overboard.

Fuel was now becoming short and no further orders were received. The  Marines were invited to join Calvert’s Commandos. Which was a mix of Soldiers and hardened criminals glad of the Marines help. With the use of the boats they raided inland blowing up road transport and rail lines. At times they had to fight the Burmese National Army and the Japanese who were now becoming organised. One of Culverts men had been wounded escaping a vicious fight. He told the tale of a Japanese major who entered the hut, the wounded had been placed in explaining he had twenty new men. His men had never been in action and required the wounded for bayonet practice. The wounded died in agony. This served as a warning to the Commandos not to be captured under any circumstances.

The main Japanese camp was just over the tree line from the river and the order was given to open fire with everything at hand. The men felt better hitting the enemy where it hurt in revenge for their cruelty.   

Along the river bank William could see the retreating British and Indian troops tired and despondent shuffling along heads down . They were so tired they took little notice of the launches as they sailed by.

 The Marines had suffered many casualties from the enemy fire and a sudden tidal wave capsized a launch drowning twenty Marines.

For a while they operated on the two remaining boats but fuel and damage began to take its toll.
The Marine Major called the remaining men together. He told them the enemy were advancing through the country and as we have no fuel we must abandon ship. As they were Plymouth Marines, the major emphasised, it was their duty to make their way there by land and sea back to Plymouth.
William Doyle was 5,000 miles from his Middleburgh dreaming of home. He was without a weapon lost and wearing rotting shorts and shirt. He thought the world was at war and he was alone wounded in the foot and ankle from shrapnel. The wounds were now becoming septic preventing him from putting on any footwear. The two army men he had met had deserted him feeling they could not cope with a wounded man. William knew that a fellow Marine would have stuck by him through thick or thin.

He knew he would be killed if captured leaving him only one option. He tore off a piece of wood to use as a walking stick and as a possible weapon. William followed the words of a well known inspiring song “Accentuate the Positive.” Which went-You've got to accentuate the positive. Eliminate the negative. Latch on to the affirmative. Don't mess with Mister In-Between.
 Hunger and thirst began to take effect and he walked drowsed as in a dream. William knew the water wells may have been poisoned so had to be extremely careful. He found some old sacking in a demolished mill  and cut holes with an nail for his arms and head. The dusty sack make an acceptable shirt protecting him from the Burma sun. He immediately began to feel better and wondered how many of his friends had survived. The villages were empty and damaged vehicles lay everywhere.

William took the opportunity to search some food or any thing that would help him survive. In a broken down hut he found a Smith & Wesson Pistol and two rounds. That would make one for the Japanese and the other for himself.

That morning he met a group of Indians who seemed at a loss. One of them had been a shopkeeper, who carried with him a letter from his bank manager telling the amount deposited. William joined them on the march stopping every fifty minutes in military fashion for a rest of ten minutes. He also used the hands of a wrist watch on of the party had to give direction. The others saw the sense in this method of marching and adopted it. He was asked by the shopkeeper what he intended to do. He answered, “to kit out and return to fight.”

The Indian gentleman not wishing to slow him down advised William to go ahead, giving him some food. William felt sad he had nothing to give in return.  The elderly Indian said, “you have taught us how to march and use a watch as a compass.”  William quoted a priest he had met on his journey. “God is your best guide.” The old Indian replied, “In these unhappy circumstances, the only one.”
He missed the companionship of the Indians and began to feel lonely and vulnerable. But he knew no one was safe even if they stayed together and were all hostage of the times.

Determined to report to the nearest Marine Headquarters he had many scrapes and was thought crazy for his optimism. When he found himself able to jump on a train hoping to reach a naval port and avoid the misery of army camps  Unfortunately it was the wrong train and arrived in Calcutta with no military kit. He knew he had to avoid the redcaps who patrolled the railway stations. He was a Marine and wanted to be with his own kind and this meant finding another train.

Fortunately he was helped passed the ticket barrier by some of the men he had recently met who understood his plight.

 He arrived at Victoria station Bombay burned black with the sun scrawny and barely recognisable to himself. By climbing over boarding he escaped the watchful eyes of the Military Police and dropping into a street. William spotted a petty officer and introduced himself as a Marine. “I’ve come all the way from Burma. I was on a landing party from the Enterprise.” The petty officer looked at William and snapped, “You a Marine and dressed like that?” Williams reply was, “Per mare, per terram. By land, by sea and I reckon I have lived it.”

When questioned by and officer he was asked, “Do you mean to say you actually left the fighting in Burma?” William replied, “That’s right, Sir.”

The officer looked at him and continued, “You are a deserter, then.”
“No, Sir William, answered, “ My orders were to return to headquarters, get kitted out, and fight again.” “I couldn’t do that if I were a prisoner or dead.” The officer admitted it was a dammed odd story.

Entering the room was Marine Jack Simms who had been with him in Force Viper and affirmed Williams story. 

On his arrival in Plymouth he once more asked to be returned to Burma to fight. But this was never to be as the wounds he received in Burma were too severe. His remaining war service was to train Marines for D-Day.

Looking back, he thought everyone had twenty- twenty hindsight. The important thing is to do what you think best at the time, no matter what others think of you.
How many refugee lives he saved he would never know during the eight hundred or so miles he walked.
The review of The Marine from Mandalay written by James Leasor,
published by Leo Cooper Ltd. London. 1988. ISBN 0-85052-442-3.

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