Ashanti: Come, let us talk of what is rarely spoken of: the War in Burma - now known as Myanmar - and those from the Royal West African Frontier Force. They say there is a time and place for everything under the sun: time to talk of the forgotten.
Try to imagine how it must have been. The monsoon drenching you, the mosquitos biting you. Slashing through the jungle, swimming the river; sweltering, burdened by a pack or headload - or both. Trudging through the green salvo, sleeping in the damp uniform, on a ground sheet labelled waterlogged. Come, let us speak of Burma.
I am Ashanti, from our heartland named Kumasi, in the country called Ghana. Then known as the Gold Coast, many were forced, conscripted by their chiefs, after pressure from the Colonial Office: but I volunteered. I had seen the anti-fascist posters in Kumasi, that the C.O. had put up, but I was eager anyway, to defend my homeland from the Nazis; as I recollected what had happened in Ethiopia - the horror of mustard gas. But there was also the prospect of a regular pay packet, as well as naivety. Naivety, because I didn't appreciate the relative quietude of my city. I was young, restless, just turned sixteen. I became immersed in dream; the prospects of travel, adventure and heroism. Others were going, so I went too. Not informing my parents, I decided to sign up. In my innocence, I willingly swopped peace for war. I know I'm not the first young man to have made that decision: don't think I'll be the last.
I saw them fall from dysentery,
As well as BerI-Beri.
Mitsubishi destroyed so much,
Disease took just as many.
When Malaya, Singapore and Burma fell to the Japanese, India seemed next: so the Allies looked for reinforcements: they looked to Africa, as well as elsewhere. Although most of us came from West Africa – more than half from Nigeria – some came from East Africa, members of the 11th (East Africa) Division. So for the first time in my life, I met Somali, Kamba, Ganda, Chewa, Nyamwezi and Bemba - from Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia. The last three were then known as Nyasaland, Tanganyika and Northern Rhodesia. Being too young, I did not fight in the campaigns against the Italians, in Ethiopia and Somalia; so when my ship landed in Bombay, I had never seen so many Africans from other parts of our continent. After the six week journey down the coast, around the Cape and across the Indian Ocean, we were glad to be on land. But elation soon evaporated, into the mist of the Burmese jungle. I prayed more than I've ever prayed before! To God that the Europeans introduced to us, as well as Nyame, our term for the Creator of all. Against the elements, terrain, disease and the Kawasaki, we didn't have much protection, so I took a little solace in prayer. There was the will to survive, the camaraderie - and there was prayer. I've never seen the crossing of so many chests, the touching and kissing of crosses, held around the neck.
We didn't have much communication, with the Burmese civilian population; we tended to camp a few miles from the nearest village. Obviously, we saw them, but there wasn't much interaction, except on the few occasions when we bought food from them. But one day, when the line took a pause, being at the back, I took the opportunity to sit a few moments with a Burmese man, I saw sitting at a jungle temple. Placing his hands together in front of him, he bowed his head to me; I smiled, returning the gesture of respect.
I sat with a Burmese elder,
Sitting by a Buddha shrine.
Moments of tranquility,
I was not of his faith,
He was not of mine.
We met in a zone of war,
Crying for the dream called peace.
I sat with a Burmese elder,
Sitting by a Bhudda shrine.
Brief moments shared,
He raised my spirit,
Sagging at the frontline.
We met in a zone of war,
Praying for the dream called peace.
I think of the sick and stoical soldiers – the scream and the shudder - desperate for the sound of the friendly plane, bringing the medical supplies. Latest victim from snakebite. Torment of fever, persecution from sores. The mind that is shattering.
The West Africans came from the 81st and 82nd divisions (organised by General Giffard), made of up men from the four countries – Ghana, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Gambia – in West Africa, that the British colonised. I was in the 81st. I met Yoruba and Ibo from Nigeria, Mandinka from Gambia, Mende and Temne from Sierra Leone. Obviously, living in Kumasi, I had met many Hausa, who come from northern Nigeria and Niger. They are Muslim: scholars and traders, hailing from the great city states, such as Kano and Katsina. Alongside the Wangara scholar/traders, originally from Mali, they introduced Islam to Ghana. Many people of that faith joined the RWAFF, as did many Christians and those of traditional belief. The Hausa were used by the colonial system to police us – and help train the Gold Coast Regiment. Hausa was the first lingua franca of the RWAFF, followed by pidgin English. Many of the West Africans had fought alongside the aforementioned King's African Rifles - which became the 11th (East African) Division - during the East African campaign, but many were like me: green! I spoke to all, but most of all I spoke with the Yoruba, because after the Hausa, they were the most numerous. But I learnt that the Ibo were amongst the first in sub-Saharan Africa, to have mastered the smelting and use of iron. The Yoruba told me of a great city called Ife, of its founder called Oduduwa. Believe me when I tell you, that I learnt as much about Africa, when I went to Asia, as I did back home. You see, my formal education was basic. But I read whatever I could get my hands on: newspapers, magazines of whatever subject matter, books, pamphlets, dictionaries – and of course the Bible, which was always available. I have retained a love of reading throughout my life. When they taught of history, it was British history, not of my continent. So it was good to hear of Oduduwa, as I treasure the story of Osei Tutu, founder of the Ashanti Union.
But it wasn't just Africans there, although we were in the majority, alongside the Asian contingents. There was Americans, many of them black, as well as Burmese, Indians, Chinese, New Zealanders, Australians, Canadians, British - and from Nepal, the Gurkhas. And there was the Chindits. They were a special force, put together by a truly pioneering figure who became a general, Charles Wingate. One brigade of the 8Ist Division - 3rd (West African) Brigade - was assigned to work alongside the Chindits. This special force of long range penetration, had been trailblazed by Wingate, in the East African Campaign, using Ethiopian and Sudanese troops: under the name Gideon Force. Many Africans, including myself, respected his reputation, knowing of his contribution to the liberation of Ethiopia. I did not hear that he treated the 3rd West African brigade, different from any other assigned to him. We heard that he was more popular with the rank and file of the army, that many of the top brass. I sad a prayer for him, when I heard of the plane crash in the mountains, that resulted in his death.
From whatever continent we were from, we were all part of what was called the 14th Army, under the command of General Slim.
But the officer that meant the most to us, that we looked up to, especially us Ghanaians, was Major Seth Anthony, who was sent to Burma on his first overseas mission: the first African soldier, commissioned as an officer in the British army. Born and educated in Ghana - a teacher - he was trained as a soldier at Sandhurst. Many of the guys knew him from before, as he had helped train them for the East African campaign. They spoke well of him, glowingly. He was a welcome and warm change, from what we received from some of the officers. I wonder how he managed the attitude of those under him, when it came to given orders? Or those of equal rank or above him, uncomfortable with his presence. How did he manage the subtleties of prejudice? With dignity. He held his head high and left it in that position: he was our hero. My government gave him the Order of the Star of Ghana, the highest civilian award in the country; the British gave him an MBE. Viscount Slim, son of the commander of the 14th Army, presented him with the Burma Star. The barracks in Akyem Achiase, Eastern Ghana, are named after him. He became a diplomat, serving Ghana, in countries such as America, England, India, Canada, France and Switzerland.
I would have liked to have interviewed the soldiers, after their encounters with Major Anthony. To have documented the feelings of pride, of brand new aspirations. He knew what we were going through; sent down colonisation cul-de sac, then forced out on the frontline. I wonder if like us, he received less in his packet, than his fellow officers of equal rank. I wonder how he felt, knowing himself to be a role model to the thousands of African soldiers: their lighthouse. I would have liked to have interviewed him too.
In my imagination, I had always thought hell to be a red place, but we saw that it was coloured green – my favourite colour. Hot with the rays of sun, rather than the flames of fire. Waist deep in malarial water, stretchering the injured across. Another victim of typhus. Exhaustion, torturing each and every body. What were we going to, on yonder bank? To ambush, to the firing range of the sniper? Back to the struggle through the swamps of mud, caused by the monsoon rain. To the onslaught of landslides and battles with the wind.
My comrade needs something,
Yearning for Vitamin B.
Looks as if he's going to faint,
Craving Vitamin B.
I try to prop him up,
Wilting from deficiency.
But with the constant hardship, I felt a sense of pride in wearing our badge, which depicted a black spider on a yellow background. Although originating in the Akan culture, of which the Ashanti are a part, there is an important figure in the folklore, known to all of Ghana: a spider called Anansi. He is a being of ingenuity, problem solving and ultimate triumph. Many of the Ghanaian diaspora, many of whom ended up in countries like Jamaica and Surinam, share an appreciation and affection for this figure. The 81st became known as the ''Black Tarantulas.'' Proud, because I saw my fellow Africans coping with the rigours of war, where many had thought us incapable of surmounting them. They had shoved us on the incompetent pile, without the opportunity to prove otherwise. But here we were, standing our ground, as well as any other soldier. Proud to be doing my bit to defeat Hitler. We were there in the thick of the Arakan offensive, which led to the overthrow of the Japanese. The contribution we made, resulted in the men of the 81st and 82 West African Divisions receiving Distinguished Combat Medals, Military Medals, Despatch Mentions and Certificates of Gallantry. I committed to memory the words of our divisional commander Major General Woolner, who said of us '' It is impossible to express in words my gratitude to them for thier irrepressible cheerfulness under all circumsatnces, or for their unfailing and enthusiastic support whatever I asked of them.''
We were eternally thankful for the reporting of journalists, such as George Padmore, who wrote of our contribution. Our input was largely dismissed by the white press, so it was truly heartening to hear that we'd been mentioned in such leading Black newspapers, as the Chicago Defender. We were there in print! It gave us a real boost - and a reputation to live up to.
Looking back, I think again of the 'Auxiliary Groups'. Almost unbelievable now, when I think back to what they carried on their heads, through the tough terrain, up and down the hills: monumental. Penetration of the jungle was easier with them around: human mules extraordinaire. They went where motor vehicles could not. These men – soldier/porters – also helped fight off the ambushes and build the airfields. They should build mementos to them, in recognition of what they done.
As well as infantry and porters, we were also medics, engineers and clerks.
We welcomed the use of Mecaprine ( to fight malaria) and the chlorination of water. There were a few days when we munched on emergency rations, waiting for the air drop of food: bless the RAF and the United States Army Air Engineers. The dropping of medical supplies, ammunition, letters and much more, including steak and kidney pie, corned beef, biscuits and tea. We waited for the sound of the Dakota or Liberator, bringing what we needed. Like in the creation of the Ashanti Union, when the co-founder, the priest Akomfe Anoyke, brought the Golden Stool from the sky, I wished he'd bring down a plate of jollof rice with peanut sauce and yam - plus a drink of cold ginger!
In the meantime, we continued the mission, blazing away when needed, with howitzers and mortar. The sudden nightmare of hand to hand fighting: machete, bayonet, knife and rifle butt.
Some Africans came out of a sense of loyalty to the British Empire. It was these soldiers who felt the most disappointment, when returning home after the war, they did not receive what was promised: such as war bonus, pension, free education for their children or British Empire Medals. How could they know, that the Empire they went to defend, was coming to its end? There I was in Burma, which I'd read about, in those great short stories by Somerset Maugham. No empire lasts for ever: they come, but eventually they will go. Look at Ghana. For about two hundred years, my people ruled most of present day Ghana, as well as parts of neighbouring Togo and the Ivory Coast. What became the Ashanti Empire, was co-founded by the aforementioned Osei Tutu and Akomfe Anokye, in the late 19th century, suffered great losses in 1874, coming to its final end in 1901, with defeat in the last Ashanti War, lead by Yaa Asantewaa.
We marched on, members of the khaki clan; most of us topless, topped by a bush hat. Our shirts, never dry, almost disintegrated on our backs! We took the opportunity to wash, at the first safe river or stream we came across. We laid aside our Enfield rifles, Bren machine guns, grenades, packs and loads; happy in the water, removing the accumulation of sweat, stench and mud.
I'm not one for creepy crawlies at the best of times, but in the Burmese jungle, they were an omnipresent force, a neutral army, bombarding who they wished. The ticks that carry typhus; mosquitos; the lung fly that causes septic lumps: the leeches. We went to fight the Japanese - and fought the force of nature also. As if nature said, ''we never asked you to bring your mayhem here, so have this!''
We learnt the machinations of war and observed the results. We won at Paletwa, lost at Medaung; the retreat from Kyauktaw, the capture of Mowdok: victory at Myohaung.
We fought alongside the Indian troops,
Fighting as one man.
We removed the menace,
In the valley called Kaladan.
Under Major General Tottenham,
We followed the Allied plan.
Taking on the enemy,
We freed the Arakan.
With our sister division, the 82nd West African - commanded by Major General Bruce, then Major General Stockwell - we won the crucial battle at Myohaung. We were jubilant, as we knew that containing the Japanese forces in the Arakan, had made it much easier for the other Allied forces, to move on to Mandalay. Our jubilation reached its crescendo, when we heard of the falling of Rangoon. I felt happy for the Burmese, as I had felt happy for the Ethiopians, at the re-taking of Addis Ababa. The Supreme Allied Commander Louis Mountbatten, was filmed saluting our sister division, during the victory parade in Rangoon.
Every year, the Ghana Armed Forces, through the VAG - Veterans Administration of Ghana - commemorates on January 23rd, the victory at Myohaung. It is held at the Myohaung Barracks in Takoradi. There is also a Myohaung Barracks in Lagos, Nigeria. I attend these ceremonies, because so many cannot.
We were the first African division, to know war outside of the continent: to know jungle warfare. During the CIB - China India Burma - campaign, the only division completely supplied by air support. It was the only segment of the 14th Army, that relied on human porterage. In going to war, we became practitioners of innovation - and the epitome of fortitude. The British and American generals, praised the soldering of the African divisions. Although forgotten, we were there.
In another time, I would have loved to have sat by the Kaladan river, as I love to sit by Lake Bosomtwi, here in Ghana.
Sometimes, we have to learn the hard way. I learnt the reality of the need of two things - endurance and faith. Endurance to pursue the pact with myself, that says I will face whatever comes my way, mental, as well as physical. Faith in the actions of my fellow soldier, faith in the decisions of the commanding officers. I learnt about myself. Although I fought under the red, white and blue, as I did then, I will continue to consider myself a citizen of Africa - and nothing else. An African born in Ghana. I'm ninety years old now, so I know I'm closer to those that are waiting. Soon, I will say farewell to my wife and our family - children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren - and go and greet the ancestors. I give thanks for survival in the jungle and the joy of life that came after. Yes, I'm a veteran; Yes, I am Ashanti.
Burma Star Association
An Overlooked Division of the Forgotten Army? - Kaushik Roy
Operations in Assam and Northeast India from 16th November to 22nd June, 1944 - General Giffard.