Was Paul Geren Our First Peace Corps Writer? Part Four

The retreat from Burma started at Shwebo on May 1, 1942. Geren would write in his Diary on May 6, 1942, from near Homalin. “The trudge has begun. The way stretches ahead of us 250 miles, first across the hot plains, then across jungle and mountains, 7,000 feet high, named in a moment of miscalculations or irony the Chin “‘Hills.’ Our small company of 104 Indians, Burmese, Chinese, British, and Americans, has become part of a great and tragic flight: the flight of Indians-perhaps a quarter million of them-from their promised land.”

There party was headed by General Stilwell. For the first six days they drove trucks. They got as far as Mansa. Then they walked. They walked across the mountains and arrived at Imphal on May 20, 1942.

There are many moving accounts noted by Geren and recorded in his Burma Diary. Here is just one, written by Geren on July 25, 1942, after he had arrived safely in Ramgarh.

Today Tom, one of our ambulance drivers of whom I have spoken, went to China. [Paul described him earlier as: “a Welshman with a rich bass voice that often cheers us.”] Tom wanted to go (to China), and yet he did not want to go. The reason he did not want to go was that he found India pleasant, and besides this, he was attached to us as we were to him.

The reason he wanted to go was this:  When we were coming out of Burma, before we had to abandon our trucks and start walking, we came across a company of wounded Chinese soldiers near Katha. There must have been two hundred of them. My guess is that they had been evacuated from the battlefield to the south and had progressed to Katha. Here the railroad was hopelessly blocked with the tangle of fleeing traffic and the soldiers were thrown on their own to get away from the Japanese who were closing in on all of us. In the staggering heat of that day they saw our convoy of trucks rolling toward them on the dusty road. They must have said to themselves, “Here is perhaps a way of escape. We are desperate men.” When our trucks, which had to proceed haltingly for all the traffic, dust, and crowds of evacuees thronging the road, drew opposite them, they hobbled out and swarmed all over the trucks, stopping us.

I cannot find it in me to say a word of blame for what Tom did. I was spared this fearful problem by losing my truck in the muddy bottom of the last river we tried to cross by fording. We were under strict orders not to take on anybody else. To take anybody else would prejudice the hopes we held for getting our already large, weary, half-sick crowd through safely. We had been without enough to eat, without much sleep for forty-eight hours, and the dust was a distressing coat on our eyelids.

With all these things, elemental, physiological, and spiritual in the setting, Tom got out and pushed the wounded Chinese soldiers off his truck as the only means of being able to carry on-More than one night on the walk out and later in Assam he told me, “I owe the Chinese a debt.” When he left today he went to pay it.

End of Part Four

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