No. 5 Commando arrived at Silchar station in India on 11 April 1944 after an uncomfortable, 27-hour train journey. Two weeks earlier they had held a memorial service for their 25 comrades killed during heavy fighting on the Arakan coast of Burma.
To the east of Silchar, the Japanese were battling the 14th Army at Imphal putting Assam, with its important communication links, under threat so the commandos had been brought in to patrol the area around the tea gardens of Cachar and safeguard the railway line and the Bishenpur jeep track.
Looking at a contour map of the patrol area is a little like looking at a cross section of the folds of chocolate in a Cadbury’s flake. Hills rose up to heights of between 650 and 4,500 feet – slightly higher than Ben Nevis which had become so familiar to the commandos during their days of training at Achnacarry Castle. There were few other similarities with the Highlands of Scotland though and the area was covered in thick jungle with a tangle of creepers knitting the tall trees together and a network of fast-running streams. It was home to tigers, snakes, gibbons and leeches and the air was clammy with humidity and heavy with the weight of the approaching Monsoon.
Each patrol lasted for between three and five days and when following trackways they expected to average around 12 miles a day. Any forays into the jungle itself significantly reduced the distance they could cover and was a slow hack through dense foliage.
They would rise at dawn and aim to be on the move by six o’clock in the morning, pausing at the hottest part of the day to rest and eat. They supplemented their rations with what the jungle could provide and would shoot monkeys and deer, skin them, cut them into small chunks and stew them with jungle fern and bamboo shoots or they would buy cobs of corn from the villagers and eat them raw.
They carried most of their equipment in packs but there were a number of items they kept within easy reach, including a razor blade for dealing with snake bites; salt for sprinkling on leeches; and a watch which, if carried in the pocket, had to be covered with a condom to prevent moisture seeping in and causing damage. They also took to wearing condoms in the more conventional location after word reached them that a member of 44 (RM) Commando, who were based seven miles south of Silchar, had suffered a leech in his penis.
The U.S. War Department had released an Intelligence Bulletin in September 1943, in which they gave a little more information about leeches, writing that they, “try to reach mucous membranes and frequently enter the rectum or penis without attracting attention until an itching sensation begins. Urination usually removes them immediately from the penis, but medical help may be needed to remove one from the rectum. However, after satisfying their hunger, leeches frequently leave the rectum during defecation. This may produce a certain amount of blood flow, which may be mistaken for the beginning of dysentery or piles, but its short duration will remove all fears on that score.”
How reassuring those words must have been!
Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens
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The Burma Star Association exists to relieve need, hardship or distress among men and women who served in the Burma Campaign of the 1939-45 war and for their widows, widowers or dependants.
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