KUNG SA, BURMA — It's been more than 50 years since a US soldier first appeared to villagers in this northern Burmese jungle. But it is a day recalled with vivid clarity.
"When the Americans came we felt as if a savior had arrived," says Myi Tung Naw, who was 10 years old in 1942 when the Japanese army swept through Burma with all the subtlety of a typhoon.
Japan's occupying forces were known for their ruthless tactics, but they reserved special brutality for anyone they believed to be sympathetic to the recently ousted British colonial administration. That included young Mr. Myi and most other Kachin tribesmen who populated this rugged, heavily forested section of Burma.
That bit of knowledge about Japanese abuse of the Kachins inspired a US-British plan that was so outrageous it was bound to succeed. The idea was to send a handful of American soldiers into the Burmese jungle to organize Kachin tribesmen into a guerrilla force to blow up bridges and conduct hit- and-run operations behind Japanese lines.
The Americans selected for the job were advised that many of them probably would not be coming back.
But they went anyway.
Now, more than a half century later, those American veterans who survived are repaying a debt they say they owe to the Kachin volunteers and their relatives who risked their lives to become covert allies of the US during one of the darkest periods of World War II.
The veterans are sponsoring an experimental crop substitution program aimed at encouraging Kachin farmers to switch away from widely cultivated illegal opium poppies in favor of legitimate crops like corn and buckwheat.
The two-year, $530,000 project began last year and is being directed by Jordan Caldwell, a soils expert from Texas A&M University. Mr. Caldwell and 16 employees are here trying to teach Kachins how to be more productive and prosperous opium-free farmers.
"What we want to do is something good for the Kachins and all the hill people who supported the Americans during the war," says Caldwell.
Spirit of WWII endures
Called Project Old Soldier, it is a memorial to the lasting bond of friendship and trust that developed between young American men in the 1940s and a community of Kachin tribesmen facing a common enemy.
Today the youngest of those American veterans is 74, and many of the Kachins have passed on. But the spirit of their heroic wartime service endures.
"They took a tremendous risk in supporting us," says Peter Lutken, a Dallas businessman who first walked into Burma in 1942 as a 22-year-old US Army 2nd lieutenant. He became a member of a special unit called Detachment 101. It was an arm of the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime intelligence outfit that would become the model for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Their mission was to gather intelligence on Japanese troop movements, to rescue downed airmen flying military supplies over the Himalayas to allied forces in China, and to do whatever they could to disrupt the Japanese occupation of Burma.
Mr. Lutken remembers his orders as being anything but precise: "Just go as far south [into Japanese-occupied Burma] as you can get, send back all the information you can, and raise all the hell you can raise."
In his three years with the Kachins in the jungle, Lutken did raise havoc. But he also learned the Kachin language and discovered something important about loyalty, bravery, and friendship.
In late August 1943, three American officers were ambushed and killed near a village in northwestern Burma called Ningbyen. The Japanese decapitated one of the Americans to make a point. "They stuck his head on a pole and paraded around the village to convince the Kachin that this is what is going to happen to any Americans who come here," Lutken says.
It was Lutken's job to somehow counter the terror the Japanese were trying spread.
Although the village was still held by Japanese soldiers, he and two Kachins snuck into the hamlet at midnight and met the village chiefs. "I just told them that we were relying on the people there to help us, and that I was the first of many to come."
Lutken didn't know whether the chiefs would side with the Japanese, or with him. But he knew the Americans had an edge. Baptist missionaries had been active in the region since the 1870s. Many of the Kachins were Christians.
The stakes were high for the village chiefs.
"If the Japanese had found out about that meeting they would have burned the whole village down and killed them all. That is the way they operated. People forget that," Lutken says. Despite the risks, most Kachins did help the Americans.
The men of Detachment 101 never forgot it. Stories like Lutken's were repeated across the region. And when they left Burma at the end of the war, the American veterans wanted to do something significant to improve the lives of those who had saved their lives many times.
"When the war was over we kind of walked off and left the Kachins. We said 'thank you,' and handed out some medals," he says. Later, riding the troop ship home to the US, they pledged to set up an institute of agriculture in Burma to teach the Kachins modern farming methods in one of the least developed corners of Southeast Asia.
The effort bogged down in Washington. In the late 1940s they tried but failed to get enough support in Congress for a bill authorizing US aid for the Kachins. National priorities were changing. The cold war was heating up. There were new enemies on the horizon.
Decades of obstacles
Detachment 101 veterans formed a veterans group that held occasional reunions. Sometimes they took up a collection and sent small amounts of money to the Kachins. By then, the Kachins and other hill tribes were waging their own insurgent wars against the military government that ruled Burma. As the civil war continued, the Burma government closed its borders, expelled foreigners, and seized the assets of all aid organizations.
It wasn't until the early 1990s, after several hill tribes, including the Kachins, agreed to cease-fires, that the military junta in Rangoon began allowing foreign aid to trickle back into the country.
But a new obstacle to helping the Kachins emerged. The US government cut off all aid to Burma in an effort to punish Burma's ruling generals for widespread human rights abuses in 1988 and for their decision to void the results of national democratic elections in 1990.
Detachment 101 vets were split on whether to proceed with their Kachin aid plan. Some 101 vets worried that the effort might be misinterpreted as assistance to the ruling junta. Lutken says Project Old Soldier has nothing to do with politics. "This is American-Kachin friendship. It is just a reservoir of friendship that dates back all these years," he says.
Other observers say it is a waste of money to attempt to persuade Kachin tribesman to abandon their lucrative and addicting opium crop. Crop substitution programs just don't work, they say.
But the veterans of Detachment 101 aren't deterred by the records of other programs. They have come to expect the impossible in Burma.
Even Mr. Caldwell, the civilian soil expert, has a healthy dose of the former soldier's gung-ho attitude. "If this was easy," he says, "we wouldn't be here."