The Mules of Mars
1st Lt. Don L. Thrapp, Q.M.C.
The Quartermaster Review
MOST people think a Quartermaster has about; as much business in a combat outfit as a steer in a breeding corral, but the QMC is a diversified outfit and its members sometimes find themselves dodging articles other than the proverbial bale of hay.
You take mule men, for instance. The Quartermaster officers and men in the pack troops, or those who handle jackasses for Infantry or other branches of the service, occasionally reach the fighting areas. Each arm and service ordinarily trains its own packers, but a man who has a specialist rating as a mule packer usually is received joyously by combat donkey organizations.
Then the 475th Infantry Regiment, veteran of the battle for Myitkyina (GJ pronunciation: Mish-i-naw), went into intensive training at Camp Landis on the upper Irrawaddy late in 1944, it seemed likely that another campaign was brewing. Burma is strictly a mule country. It followed, then, that a Quartermaster pack officer who wanted to see some action should volunteer, be accepted and assigned-officially as third battalion assistant S-4, unofficially as battalion animal transport officer. This because the T/O called for an unneeded supply man, but no pack officer.
The 475th, together with the 124th Cavalry (dismounted), two battalions of pack artillery, the 31st. 33rd, 35th, 37th, 252nd, and 253rd Quartermaster Pack Troops, and a field hospital, became a long range penetration outfit, the so-called Mars Task Force. And there were those two damned elephants someone at Regimental Headquarters picked up and brought along. A mule can get used to almost anything, but he draws the line at an animal that hangs down at both ends. Sensible, not knowing whether an elephant is coming or going, the mule is inclined to play safe and take off, regardless of road, underbrush, leader, column, or common courtesy.
Five weeks were not too long for a plunge into enemy occupied country, especially when many of the replacements were not primarily Infantrymen. It seemed destined to do its fighting with green soldiers. The deplorable situation at the battle of Myitkyina was widely publicized at the time. After that engagement, during preparation for the Mars job, replacements received to bring the regiment to T/O strength were largely Quartermaster remount men, and the 475th again had to start almost from scratch.
It had this advantage however; unlike the situation the previous spring, this time there was a strong nucleus of veterans to salt down its greener elements, and it had a few weeks in which to train it- new men.
The 35th Pack Troop was assigned to the third battalion. Its animals had been taken off a Liberty ship, sent to Ledo by train, and within seven days were hoofing it down the 300-mile road to Myitkyina. There was no time to complete shoeing them, and the result was that they arrived at Camp Landis in very bad condition. An extra week at Ledo putting at least front shoes on the mules would have saved innumerable headaches for us later on.
Every effort was made to get enough animals in shape in time to get the battalion on the road. Saddles must be fitted-an important factor in mule operations, of which more later-and gun and ammunition hangers located, made, stolen, or secured on requisition. Sick mules needed doctoring. and all of them must be shod or re-shod.
A big job was to assign mules to a permanent task. Success of the mission would depend to some degree on how accurately we judged the capacities of each animal and how well each mule was “classified.”
For example, there was no need to assign a stocky. solid, well-gaited mule to hauling grain, when gun and ammunition mules were needed. A pack troop is authorized nearly 300 animals, while the personnel totals about 75. Pack troopers are mounted on mules and herd their loaded animals, normally by platoons. That is the most efficient manner of working pack animals, because the mule can pick his own way and, to some extent, his gait; he can make things easy for himself. That method of operation is best for situations where packers must move supplies a comparatively short distance and do not have to operate with foot troops in the same column.
Naturally, when pack mules become part of a moving column, this system is impractical. The herd of mules, moving some five to six miles an hour, would constantly over-run the foot soldier, and doughs don’t like that. On the other hand, the animals cannot be started out before the foot troops because there is the question of security for the animals, and there is also the quite important factor that the foot troops want their machine guns, ammunition and mortars along with them just in case. The same objections hold regarding advisability of running the mules up to the foot soldiers later in the day. A mule, like a man, is most efficient if he can be worked from dawn to noon or about 1300, rather than from. say, 1000 till 1700.
Mulemen have a great deal to do when camp is made. and their most important task is to take care of their animals and to graze them. Just as man cannot live on bread alone, so a mule won’t go far on just grain. Or very far without it, either. The point ‘s that bivouac should be established early enough in the day so that the animals can get their two hours or more grazing and can be properly rubbed down and picketed for the night.
For these and other reasons it was necessary to take the mules along with the column, and so each animal had to be led by a man on foot. Thus, the pack troop retained about seventy-two mules, one to be led by each man, and the other animals-some 220 of them-were turned over to the battalion, where they were divided, forty-two to each rifle company and the remainder to headquarters company and battalion headquarters.
Rifle companies assigned ten animals to headquarters and weapons sections and divided the rest among the rifle platoons. Headquarters company used about forty-five mules in the heavy weapons platoon, and split the rest among transportation, communication, pioneer and demolition, and intelligence and reconnaissance platoons. The medics needed some animals, and besides, twelve saddle mules were taken along, ten of them for casualty evacuation.
In the heavy weapons platoon, four mules were assigned each heavy machine-gun and four each mortar-one in each instance to carry the weapon, the other three to pack ammunition. Additionally, four mules were to carry piecemeal a short-barreled pack 37-mm., by means of which we hoped to spray Japbearing jungles with canister; other animals carried bazookas with ammunition, and incidentals. The setup in the rifle companies roughly paralleled this, except that they were authorized light for heavy machine-guns, and had but one 81-mm. mortar, filling out with 60-mm. weapons.
The Quartermasters have been using mules since the Corps was first organized. George Washington is rumored to have introduced the long-eared horse-donkey hybrid to this country by the progeny of some jacks he purchased in Spain, and some mules reputedly were used by both armies during the Revolution. As a result of almost two centuries of experience, the QMC has determined a lot of things about the animals.
A mule can carry about one third of his weight. The Army cargo pack saddle, with trappings, weighs in the neighborhood of 100 pounds, and the average mule we worked would weigh from 1,000 to 1,200 pounds. Stouter mules are kept for the artillery, which has the heaviest, most awkward loads.
Thus, you can figure that a mule payload should not go much over 200 pounds. For a long campaign, such as ours, we tried to keep each burden down to 180 pounds, and succeeded pretty well on the whole.
Our heaviest loads normally would be machine-gun ammunition, one animal’s share consisting of ten 21-pound cans, for a total of 210 pounds. The load, however, was evenly balanced-most important factor in animal packing-and so was not too much.
In the weeks of training marches and preparation we worked out these and other problems. Supply was not up to zone of the interior standards in Burma in 1944, and we could not count on receiving what we requisitioned, so we had to make provision to acquire necessary items by means other than orthodox.
We gradually acquired enough of most items, although some of the equipment was not in good repair and there were no facilities at Myitkyina for renovating it. We made some hangers and improvised others, acquired a set of horse-shoeing tools and saddler’s equipment, and cut the customary pack-troop equipment to the bone. For instance we took along no picket lines, because we couldn’t spare the animals to carry them, and successfully employed lash ropes instead; we took no rigging covers; we drastically reduced the number of mantas-canvas used to wrap individual loads-needed. Each animal carried a spare set of pre-fitted horseshoes and we divided up spare halters, shanks, breeching, etc., to avoid making special loads of these things.
Our worst headache was the mules. They had scarcely rested from their 300-mile jaunt down the Ledo Road, and were about to take off on an equally long journey, this time over no road at all. We had no veterinary officer with the battalion at the start, but depended upon the services of a bunch of fine vet technicians who perhaps did more than anyone else to get the show on the road.
At that we took thirty mules out of the sick corral and eight out of the hospital the morning we crossed the IP. We were proud of the fact that until we struck our first combat, one month and 150 miles later at Tonkwa, we had lost but two animals, one through heat exhaustion and the other from an unknown cause. The rest of the animals were in better shape then they were the morning we left Myitkyina.
The first stage of the campaign-the journey to ,Tonkwa-was in the nature of a shakedown cruise.
Brigadier (later Major) General Merrill, leader of the famed Burma Marauders, has been quoted as making the classic definition of the troubles of the leader who handles both men and mules. After the Marauder campaign from Ledo to Myitkyina, Merrill said:
“Next time give me mule skinners instead of doughboys, for it is easier to make doughboys out of mule skinners than mule skinners out of doughboys.”
The general spoke from experience. There are tricks to leading mules, just as there are to anything else, and it sometimes seemed that we might have better luck if the animals had led the men. The average mule is one of the most intelligent, and certainly one of the most sure-footed, animals in the world. He can see a trail where a man can see nothing but rock. If left to his own devices he will never stumble, rarely slip or bog himself down, and almost never hurt himself. When, however, he is led by a man he can perhaps get into more trouble than any other creature on the face of the globe, and although his difficulty is directly attributable to his inexperienced leader, the animal gets the blame. We occasionally lost animals over the sides of mountains, in rivers or bogs, but we would have lost not a single one had they been free to choose their own way.
We crossed the Irrawaddy on an eight-mule ferry the second day of the campaign. Because of the danger that an animal might fall off the ferry, we unpacked them and repacked on the other side of the stream. The Irrawaddy is a swift-flowing river, wide, deep, muddy and cold, but the entire battalion crossed in less than a day. By reaching the other side before noon we had a good opportunity to graze the animals, and since they were on the wrong side of the river, there was no danger that they would suddenly recall the delights of their old Camp Landis stamping ground and take off. We found an enclosed paddy grown to grass and turned the animals loose, herding them on foot. We had no bell-mares, of course, and from this time forward, herded the mules afoot when we grazed them, if the situation permitted. It proved impractical to send leaders out with their individual animals to graze them. The temptation to tie the mule to a tree and catch up on mattress nomenclature proved too strong for some.
On one occasion we tried tethering the animals to individual trees, using 30-foot lair ropes and leaving a couple of men on guard to untangle them, but a couple of serious rope burns convinced even the laziest that that wasn’t a good idea. Rope burns perhaps cause more injuries to horses and mules than any other single thing, and it required constant vigilance to keep picket lines tight and halter shanks tied short enough to prevent the animals’ getting ropes twisted around their feet.
Sometimes when we bivouacked in the jungle or heavy forest it was impossible to find grassy spots for pasture. We cut either banana or bamboo leaves for the animals in that case. They liked the bamboo best and it was better for them, because the banana leaves have more water content than roughage.
We carried three days’-sometimes four days’-rations with us. Each donkey normally carried one day’s grain in addition to his regular pack, and transportation mules in the headquarters sections carried grain in bulk to make up the other two days’ supply.
Each mule was allotted ten pounds of grain a day and the usual mixture included barley, peas or beans, and salt. The men carried three days’ K or C rations, and one day ‘s D ration, or at least they were issued those rations and carried that part of them they wanted or thought they could use.
A major task was to make the men carry their own load and not slip it onto the mules. By some quirk of T/O reasoning, mule leaders were authorized Garands rather than the light, less awkward carbines they should have carried. In addition, each man was required to carry a pack containing his bedding, rations, and other personal paraphernalia, and at times the temptation was considerable to slip the rifle onto the mule and put a few rations into the morning manta of organizational equipment. Some mules gradually developed into poor leaders and habitually hung back on the lead rope. The boys, carrying heavy packs plus heavy rifles plus steel helmets (most of which soon got “lost”), and dragging, all day long, a 1,200-pound mule, were mightily tempted to abandon what religion they possessed, and lurid language developed like a fog around the more obstinate of the animals. Riflemen had it comparatively soft during most of the campaign. When the bivouac area was reached, they had merely to look out for themselves and take the usual security precautions. The mule handlers, on the other hand, had barely begun their day’s work. The argument, of course, was advanced that the riflemen were more exposed to danger from the enemy than the mule skinners, but that point was debatable. In addition, the sweetest tempered mule knows how to kick, and is glad to do it, and for weeks we had more casualties from mules than from Japs.
We were supplied by air-drop every three or four days. C-47’s and C-46’s droned in by the dozen over a previously selected and marked drop field and parachuted rations and ammunition and requisitioned items to us, then free-dropped grain. Occasionally a plane load of grain would get mixed up with parachuted loads and we had some casualties and a couple of deaths from that cause. An 80-pound sack of grain I gathering momentum through a thousand feet of space can hit a man pretty fast and pretty hard.
Once, near a place called Mong Hkok, the only available spot for a drop field was in a narrow valley with surrounding hills so high that planes could not get a good shot at the field. A “stick” of grain sacks thudded across a series of picket lines and wrecked the battalion aid station, killing a Chinese soldier standing nearby. Another time one of the best packers in my platoon was loading a mule while rations were being parachuted down on the field. A grain plane came in unexpectedly and free-dropped a dozen sacks, one of them hitting the packer. He was carrying a carbine across his back and the sack hit him on the shoulder, snapping the weapon into three pieces. The packer was evacuated with what the medics feared was a broken neck, but fortunately they were mistaken and he recovered.
The march south to our first combat was mostly over level country, the greatest difficulty being occasional bogs or river crossings.
The second battalion lost a couple of mules during a moonlight river crossing. Again a ferry had been provided, but the mules were not unpacked and two of them fell off the raft, their loads spinning them belly up and causing them to drown.
No climbing was required during this first stage, nothing but a dogged plodding through dust and heat. Yet this was a difficult period for the animals. The column walked at the pace of infantry. The average rate was just a little over two miles each forty-five minutes, followed by a fifteen-minute break. We took advantage of every halt to let the animals graze, and encouraged the men to turn them loose during this period even if it meant a short search when the column got under way again. After the first few days we ceased taking time out for the noon meal, but nevertheless we marched at the rate of foot soldiery, and the animals, even on a short hike, had to be loaded well into the heat of the day. This cut down on the grazing time we could give them and tired them extravagantly, since they could not be unpacked during the quarter-hour rest periods and thus derived no benefit from them.
On halts of twenty minutes or more we did unpack the mules, but often we did not know how long a halt was to be, since it usually came as a result of someone fouling up ahead somewhere and we had no contact with the head of the column except for urgent matters. We skirted besieged Bhamo close enough to hear Chinese-manned .30-caliber heavies talking to Nambus, and went on south to Sikaw and beyond. It was somewhere along in here that I established the Burma 300-yard foot record. I was attempting to coax a skittish mule past an elephant at the time. Everything would have been okay, had the pachyderm not decided to tickle the mule on the business end with his trunk. The mule took off, and since I was on the other end of his halter shank, I took off, too.
The second battalion was committed at Tonkwa, and I Company from the third battalion, and part of the heavy weapons platoon of headquarters company, were assigned the task of cleaning out a patch of woods. Mule packers from the transportation platoon and others were employed to pack ammunition and supplies to both the second battalion and the elements of the third engaging the Japanese. Most of the work was short hauls, occasionally under inaccurate sniper fire. We suffered no casualties from this fire.
Our bivouac area was some two miles back of the second battalion’s front positions. The Japanese had four field guns we called 77-mm., although they actually were 75-mm., chambered slightly larger than our 75’s so they could use our ammunition and we could not use theirs.
They had excellently camouflaged positions for their guns, and in the morning and again in the evening would loose a salvo or two, then move their pieces. They were zeroed in on our bivouac area at a river crossing, and their fire caused us some casualties in men and animals. One tree burst accounted for seven animals. Another shell cut between two mules tied to a picket line and burst about eight feet behind them, but injured neither.
After a couple of days’ fighting, the Japanese abandoned the Tonkwa sector and our units moved up about four miles across an immense paddy, now grown to grass, and into a wood, where they bivouacked near some abandoned enemy positions. Mules were used once or twice to pack supplies into the advanced positions, but otherwise were kept back well out of possible artillery range. Mules are difficult to replace under Burmese combat conditions. Patrol activity established that the Japanese had at least temporarily given up all the territory north of the Schweli River loop, although their patrols criss-crossed the area, as did ours. They supplied their patrols by means of pack elephants or little pack ponies or diminutive mules, using the typical Chinese wooden pack saddle. Chinese troops captured some of the little ponies, about the size of Shetlands, and did a brisk business trading them to GIs for cigarettes, flashlights, or other items they could later convert to cash in China.
Eventually, however, the brass arrived and, distressed by the unorthodox looking “toy” animals in the outfit, decreed that the ponies were apt to spread disease among our mules and ordered their abandonment. This despite the fact that throughout the campaign our Kachin scouts used the same animals in our column, grazing and feeding and packing them alongside our mules, with no disastrous effects.
Even during a campaign one can get a little time off, and on Christmas Eve we spent the day hunting. Flocks of pea fowl were common, and they tasted just like turkey; a couple of the huge, 40-inch-long Burma black squirrels were good; and one of the boys even shot, cooked, and ate a tremendous hornbill, which looked more like a buzzard than anything I ever before saw in a cooking pot.
The Chinese came back to relieve us shortly after Christmas, and by New Year’s Eve the entire regiment had turned east and plunged into the mountains toward the Burma Road.