Veteran recalls road to Burma

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Luverne's Leo Williams spent 29 months in Asia fighting the Japanese during World War II and if his country asked the 88-year-old veteran said he'd do it all over again.

"I sure as hell wouldn't want to go back through it, though," said Williams, who served with the 475th Infantry Regiment in the China-Burma-India Campaign.

The 475th consisted of battle-hardened soldiers and mules used to haul the unit's disassembled 75 mm guns through the jungles and mountainous terrain of India and Burma.

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"Using mules was the only way you could travel," said Williams. "When we'd move out we'd have to break the gun down and it would take five mules to haul it."

In 1942, Japanese forces routed a combined force of Indians, British and Chinese out of Burma, subsequently destroying the Burma Road - the lone overland supply route into China. The Chinese army was in dire need of supplies in order to fend off the Japanese invasion of their country. The Americans drew up an invasion plan for Burma.

Following a successful push deep into Burma by the 5307th Composite Unit - nicknamed "Merrill's Marauders" for their commanding officer Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill - the Mars Task Force, of which Williams' unit was a part of, was formed.

Mars mission was to finish what the "Marauders" had started and reopen the Burma Road.

Still facing heavy resistance from Japanese, Williams described the long march of mules and men as simply as possible:

"It was just existing," he said.

Williams said river water at the base of the snow-capped Himalayan Mountains was the coldest he'd ever encountered. He was in India and Burma during the torrential Monsoon season and remembers those countries for the humidity, which he described as worse than Alabama's.

"It would rain for two or three minutes and then stop completely, just like that," he said. "Then the sun would come back out and you'd start to scorch."

Malaria, typhus and dysentery were also common in the tropical conditions where mosquitoes and other insects carrying diseases flourished. Williams said soldiers operating in the Pacific theatre were required to take Atabrine, one of the first synthetic drugs marketed for the prevention of malaria. The pills were yellow and bitter. After frequent dosages a yellowish tinge to the skin was common, said Williams.

"I remember when I came back to the states, I still had yellow around my eyes from taking those pills," he said.

And there was the Japanese to deal with.

Williams, who had attended the University of Alabama prior to enlisting, made a good friend from Texas A&M University while in Officer Candidacy School.

"We had officers from Stanford, Harvard, Alabama and Texas," said Williams, referring to his training at Fort Lee, Virginia. "The Harvard boys always had the highest grades in the classroom, but the ones from Alabama and Texas did better in the field."

Williams' friend from Texas died during the Burma campaign.

"You were just with them one day and then they were gone," he said. "The army, they didn't really want you to get too friendly with each other."

After much fighting and engineer work, the Mars Task Force was able to re-open the Burma Road and help push the Japanese out of mainland China. Months later, the US dropped a pair of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese surrendered on Aug. 15, V-J Day.

"I was so glad," said Williams, who returned home in 1946.