I Was There! - We Trekked to India Through a Burmese 'Zoo'

The War Illustrated, Volume 6, No. 131, Page 30-31, June 26, 1942.

Among the civilian refugees who made the 250-mile journey to India on foot through the Burmese jungle was Mr. Leonard Pinchbeck, of Lincolnshire, who told the following story of his adventures to the Daily Herald correspondent, Victor Thompson.

On April 22 I was told in Mandalay -or what was left of Mandalay after the Japanese bombs- that the enemy was near, and that I was to join a party of civilians and frontier force men making for India. They were leaving from the railway station a few miles away.

When the train started somebody produced three bottles of beer to celebrate our escape from the bombs. Beer! We hadn't seen it for months!

Eventually we crawled into Shwebo - to find it bombed and burning. By quieter stages we finally came to a point where we had to leave the train and go by road.

Sixty-seven of us set out the next day under the guidance of a forestry official. One other white man and I were his two lieutenants. The rest of the party were Indians, Burmans and people of mixed race. After one day's trek with bullock carts, which we pushed along at a dizzy speed of three miles an hour, our leder was recalled and we had to go on without him. He left me with detailed instructions concerning the route we must follow, but after four days of uneventful travel we lost our way. That is to say, I and an advance guard of four others did.

At length we came to a tiny Chinese village and persuaded the headman to lend us a guide. Off we went with the bamboo torches flaring. The track was still bad and presently we found it blocked by a huge dim shape, a wild bison.

"Don't look at him," said the guide as we skirted the snorting beast. "It makes them charge. Pretend he's not there." It was difficult, particularly when he began to follow us and I was the last in line. Almost as soon as he gave up we heard something padding on dry leaves near us and saw, reflecting in the torchlight, the baleful eyes of a tiger. It too kept up with our party for some time, but eventually padded away.

When we finally reached our destination we found the main party already there. Now the hill trek began, and we discarded all possible kit for it. For two days we clambered along hillsides with precipitous drops below us. Only the Sealyham dog with us was happy about this mountaineering. After the hills there were three days of river wading. That is where our feet got soft and were cut with stones.

One night we found we were camping near a herd of wild elephants. Just as we began to get used to their trumpetings we were startled again by the sound of a low-flying plane. In case it was a Japanese we doused our fires.

But while we waited for the drone of the engine to die away, panthers moved into our camp and we had to relight the fires to frighten them away. All the while a tiger was snarling on the other side of the river. I began to feel I was camping in the Zoo. I certainly wasn't sorry when the misty morning came.

That day we came to a place we could hire canoes. For the next three days we traveled in three large dug-outs, poling, rowing and pushing them over shallows. Leaving the river our caravan trailed 22 hot miles up into the hills. It was the most grueling stretch of all, but nobody fell out.

When we reached camp that night it was alive with rumours spread by other refugees that the Japanese were already ahead of us. As we lay in the open wondering what to do, heavy rains broke out and put out our fires. Wet and miserable, we decided next morning that the Japanese can go to blazes and pushed on. Our clothes were rags, our feet were blistered and bleeding. Mosquitos and sandflies were getting busy on some of us. But we were nearing the frontier. Still climbing, we did a two-days march at heights up to 6,500 feet above sea level, sleeping wet among the clouds. Then on the Indian border we struck a real path. We slept that night on the outskirts of a refugee camp. In the middle of dreaming about that bad night, I was awakened by an alarming din outside. Dacoits were robbing some of our party and were trying to rob them of their poor bundles. My shot-gun scared them off - and that was our last excitement except a hair-raising lorry ride around precipices.

Before long we were smoking real cigarettes instead of dried coconut fronds, and drinking great draughts of water which at least didn't turn brown -the danger signal- when we put permanganate crystals in it. I met my wife and baby in India 23 days after leaving Mandalay. On foot we had covered 250 miles. My weight is nearly two stone less than it was. In fact I totted up the lost weight of the whole party, and it came up to half a ton. Still, we got through it all.

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